Parquet Courts

Creature Comforts

Jul 26, 2016 Issue # 57 - M83 Photography by David Studarus Bookmark and Share


Though no one worries about it much in an era when indie rock bands routinely jump to major labels and continue on with their integrity intact, there was a time not too terribly long ago when a band's decision to sign to a label with deeper pockets was greeted with trepidation. Give a band more time, money, and comfort, the theory goes, and you risk fundamentally changing the context in which those artists created their art. For Parquet Courts, that risk came when they left the tiny What's Your Rupture? label and signed with Rough Trade, the venerable British indie label that has released albums by everyone from The Smiths to Arcade Fire. Suddenly, the Brooklyn quartet, whose unpolished art-punk sound had blossomed under tight deadlines in tiny studios, had the luxury of spending weeks on recording and rerecording overdubs and obsessing over the mixes of their new tracks. As students of indie rock history, they knew the risks of drifting too far from the source of their art. They had to learn how to make themselves uncomfortable again.

The good news, then, is that despite being recorded over a year in a variety of studios, Human Performance, the band's fifth full-length release, is not a comfortable record. Opening with the motorik beats and blasts of guitar feedback in "Dust," the album is composed of a series of left turns, shifting through shades of psychedelic hip-hop ("Captive of the Sun"), Western-tinged guitar rock ("Berlin Got Blurry"), and the band's first love ballad ("Steady on My Mind"). If Parquet Courts are their generation's Pavement, this is their Wowee Zowee, a sprawling album with no discernable focal point that nonetheless fits together seamlessly. But their shift to a more sprawling approach occurred even before Human Performance, four months earlier with the release of Monastic Living, a nine-track EP of improvised, drone-inspired instrumental music that puzzled fans and confounded critics.

"For me, Monastic Living was transitioning into a new era of our group, and it allowed us to clean the slate of expectations and break down people's preconceived notions about what kind of band we are and what we're capable of," says guitarist and vocalist Austin Brown from a hotel room in Los Angeles, a day before the band will perform on Conan. "I think Human Performance does the same thing in a different way, because it doesn't really sound like any of our other records. The songs are a departure, obviously in a different way than Monastic Living, but it came from the same spirit of starting the band over and doing things in a different way."

Brown appears to derive no small amount of pleasure from the polarized response to Monastic Living, explaining that he places a priority on surprising rather than pleasing the band's listeners. Those experimental tracks also played a far more essential role in what would become Human Performance, helping them to overcome something known as "red light syndrome"a tendency for artists to freeze up once the tapes start rolling. Those freeform songs freed the band up to focus on the moment and stop worrying about getting perfect recordings, opening them up for every unconventional idea that emerged. Recording every day under the cathedral ceilings in Dreamland Studios in upstate New York, those ideas took many different sonic shapes. The sentiments underlying them, however, were almost uniformly dark.

"I was struggling with some things in my personal life that affected the music that I was making, and I think that's one reason why [Human Performance] is somewhat different," says guitarist/vocalist Andrew Savage. "So I had things that needed to be addressed with myself, and that's something I was drawing on. It was cathartic in that I had this time when we were recording the record that was kind of the thick of the shit that I was in, so I used that time as something therapeutic, which is what a lot of artists do and what a lot of great art is. It's a cathartic release, a purging kind of thing."

No song captures that catharsis better than the title track, a bitterly churning mid-tempo ballad with shimmering clouds of guitar reverb that positions Savage in the middle of a crumbling relationship. Looking back on better days through a mist of self-doubt and disappointment, he is alone in a crowd, heavy with grief and guilt as dirty dishes and cigarette butts pile up around him. More than any song in their catalog, it is a snapshot of despair that feels almost uncomfortably intimate.

"There's a lot of themes of loneliness and isolation on the record, plus a lot of existential questions," Brown agrees. "'Where is my home? Am I comfortable doing this? Am I an honest person? Am I good person? Can I relate to anyone?' This time, there's a little less obtuseness to the lyrics. They're more directly personal. As the music was creatively explorative for us, the themes of the songs were personally explorative."

Such an introspective turn is the natural result of spending years bouncing between the road and the studio, Brown says, and he and Savage (joined by bassist Sean Yeaton and drummer Max Savage) simultaneously gravitated toward the themes of broken relationships throughout the writing process. With over 30 songs to choose from, the guiding principle in winnowing down the set was clear. They avoided the songs that came too easily or sounded too familiar. Whether musically or thematically, they picked the songs that came from a place that made them uncomfortable.

"I definitely think Parquet Courts is a band that makes lemonade out of the lemons that life hands to us, as far as anxiety and tension go," Andrew Savage says. "Most of the art that I likemusic and otherwisedoesn't come from people who are comfortable. I have a friend that has this saying that you can't play rock and roll on a full stomach," he concludes. "I tend to agree with that."  

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's May/June 2016 Issue, which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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