Still Stoned, A Little Less Starving:
Parquet Courts Have Yet to Taste the Financial Rewards of their Deserved Hype
It’s a question that’s vexed anthropologists for 35 years: what if Jonathan Richman had fronted the “Totally Wired”-era Fall? It took a philosopher like Austin Brown to provide an answer. Brown and his buddies in Parquet Courts offer a compelling hypothesis on their messy, chatty, hummable, bong-fueled and wildly endearing album Light Up Gold. And Brown’s opening salvo, “Master of My Craft,” is not only the best case study, it also propelled this once-micro release into the realm of the surreal.
Light Up Gold launched last August 18th on Dull Tools, the label run by Parquet Courts’ primary songwriter Andrew Savage. “I know the date because I’m looking at a poster right now from our record release show at Death By Audio,” the notable club in their home borough of Brooklyn, says Brown. “We had a great show, all our friends and friends of friends came. We had accumulated a handful of fans by then – maybe ten,” Brown deadpans. “It wasn’t a sellout but that’s OK – we headlined, which was important to us. It was one of my proudest moments.”
For a few months the record remained a well-kept secret. “Then in November we started getting reviewed online,” Brown recalls. “Then Time’s end-of-year list put ‘Master of My Craft’ as the fifth best song of the year, right between Taylor Swift and Skrillex. We beat out Nikki Minaj!” he marvels. “That blew our minds and made my parents really proud. Luckily for us he we had an early adopter who was in a powerful journalistic position.”
Armed with such high-profile press accolades, Light Up Gold got a January 2013 re-launch on one-man indie operation What’s Your Rupture. “We were really into the idea of putting it out ourselves, but (after the publicity) we started getting pursued a bit by labels – not a big deal, but we always kind of had our hearts set on What’s Your Rupture. We relate to the bands on that label, and Kevin’s kind of a tastemaker,” he explains, referring to label owner Kevin Pedersen, who’s also championed bands as diverse as Comet Gain, Iceage and Love Is All. “Plus the record was already done, we had already booked our own tour, so milking a major indie for whatever money we could wasn’t really important to us, and wasn’t the kind of band we wanted to be. This is the only record he’s worked on for a long time, as opposed to one of twenty.”
In an era when the very need for record labels’ existence is under debate, why would a band sign on after its most challenging to-do’s (recording and gaining notoriety) were already checked off the list? “I’ve asked myself that a few times,” Brown paused thoughtfully. “Kevin just knows the industry in a way that we don’t – he knows how things work. I mean, we had the record out and we maybe could have repressed it ourselves. We were pretty broke at that time – we had sold out of the Dull Tools pressing of 500 within a couple months. But it was clear we needed to put in more money – and Kevin knows how to get the proper distribution, stay in stock, and allows us to focus on Parquet Courts the band and lets us get rid of a bit of our anxiety.”
“Master of My Craft” is a handy microcosm for many of the bands’ charms – the bursting-at-the-seams spoken/sung wordplay, rapid-fire guitar lines, simplistic punk-inflected jams, and the universality of its themes. It’s a derisive first-person rant that’s found several interpretations – I hear a businessman berating a young panhandler on the street, others have read it as a caustic blow-off of a Greenpeace activist. “Sometimes I read those interpretations and I can see how someone would get to that point – and I think that’s really cool. If people can figure it’s about something, then determine a meaning, I like that. I know what the song is about – all our songs are about…things. Some of them may be a little obtuse but mostly I think they’re pretty direct. This one’s based on a conversation/scolding I received as a musician in Brooklyn (after asking someone more established for advice), and it kind of stuck with me. It was pulled from their perspective, which has since proved itself irrelevant.”
The song ends with the memorable put-down “Socrates died in the fucking gutter,” a likely nod to Brown’s field of study. Both he and Savage attended college at the University of North Texas in Denton, a school with a strong music program in a town known for its vibrant psychedelic scene. Although both played in their share of bands, neither majored in music – Brown was a philosophy major and Andrew studied – wait for it – watercolors.
“We had never played together in Denton,” explains Brown. Nor was there lineage with Max, Andrew’s brother and Parquet Courts’ drummer. Austin and Andrew were good friends, however, in part through membership in a vinyl listening club, the cleverly named Knights of the Turntable. Austin moved to New York first while Andrew delved deeper into the music scene, releasing albums with both the Teenage Cool Kids and Fergus & Geronimo – for whom Brown briefly toured as bassist and which remains a quasi-going concern, time permitting.
“When Andrew was moving up here he talked about wanting to form another band, and I told him I’d play guitar.” They approached the project with no pre-conceived notions. “I remember him mentioning Sebadoh, but he may have just been talking about what he listened to that day.” The band bristles at questions about their influences, probably because they’re sick of fielding Pavement questions. But they concocted a wonderful deflection by posting a mixtape of some of the band faves. “It was just a fun thing to do for our friends and we happened to put it on our blog, so if people heard it and liked it they’d come to our shows,” Brown shrugs, arguing that too much has been made of its relevance. Still, it’s instructive to see clear antecedents like the Fall, Pavement, the Adolescents and Guided By Voices, alongside head scratchers like Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Dire Straits, Brian Eno and Mike Jones.
Sebadoh’s not on that mixtape and neither are the Adverts, a late ’70s UK punk act that marks one of the more unexpected (and accurate) comparisons I’ve seen. Brown’s never heard them but allows, “Andrew is the punk historian of the group. I love punk music, but his knowledge is massive. My encyclopedic music knowledge is with Southern rap.” (Brown used to DJ a weekly theme night back in Texas.) “I honestly can’t tell you why, but for some reason I just have an easy time memorizing that sort of stuff, just like Andrew can with punk music.”
The name Parquet Courts evokes images of the Boston Garden, a seeming thumb in the eye to the New York City whose flag the quartet proudly waves. “It’s just a set of words that sounds really nice but was ambiguous,” Brown counters. “It might be cooler if we were from Boston and were a jock band.” Bassist Sean Yeaton does hail from Boston, but moved to Brooklyn around the same time as Brown.
Light Up Gold has a nice flow to it, clustering its spiky, compact shout-alongs at the start and finish while wafting a THC haze over its middle. “I’d be lying if I said we planned it out mathematically, but if you think of it that way, I’m OK with that. Some of the songs were two years old when we went into the studio, some were two days old – it wasn’t until after mixing that we put together the track order. The songs are pretty diverse in tempo and style but the aesthetic is coherent – there’s a glue there.” It’s a big help that Brown’s and Savage’s songwriting is so complementary, providing enough variety while still sounding of a piece. “We’re a ‘lyrics forward’ band. The song’s identity is in the lyrics, and the lyrics are almost always written first,” Brown explains, detailing a process that usually involves the band jamming until it lands on a good riff at which point Brown or Savage pull out their notebooks to overlay words that work. “Even if it’s a great riff, it wouldn’t be the same song without the lyrics.”
Some of the more memorable lyrics appear on “Stoned and Starving,” a Savage composition which at five-plus minutes is the only track that breaches the 3:30 mark. It’s hard to tell whether Parquet Courts are embracing or mocking stoner culture. Brown offers an interesting tale even while deflecting the subject. “That song is about a very real thing that anyone can relate to,” he laughs. “Even my dad, who as far as I know isn’t a stoner – he’s an accountant – talked to me about that song. No, I’m certain he’s not a stoner. But I thought he gave the best interpretation I’ve heard of it – that it’s about looking for that perfect thing that you can’t quite find, searching for meaning, purpose, anything, and being bombarded by all these fake choices or advice. Maybe you’re under the influence, but you can’t quite find it.” (Sounds like Austin may have picked up his affinity for philosophy from Dad.) “I think that theme carries thru the record. ‘Light Up Gold was the color of something I was looking for,’” he adds, quoting from the title track’s chorus.
Despite all their clippings, Parquet Courts continue to fill the opening slot on most of its tour stops – they’re paired with Australian miscreants Total Control on their Atlanta stop. “It’s another one of those things where the press gets ahead of itself. Total Control put out one of my favorite new records in a long time. We agreed to this tour a while ago, and we offered to open. The money’s not very good, but they’re gonna be awesome shows. I’d rather play with these bands than play the night after or before and feel like we’re playing for the same fans. We’re opening for Woods later this year too, and agreed to it before all this press coverage. Maybe by that time no one will care about us again – that’s just how it works.”
“When we went to London (our press) was a really confusing thing for a lot of people,” Brown continues. “They just thought we were total rock stars – we got taken out to a fancy restaurant one night and we were like, ‘Eh, I don’t think we can really eat here.’ And they’re like, ‘What do you mean? This magazine said you’re the best band in the world!’ They can say that, but we’re not the richest band. But I guess we all grew up with rock stars, so now when bands get all this press and hype and are the flavor of the week, people think they don’t needs jobs anymore. I’m ready to go back on tour just so I don’t have to stress out about money. We’re now supporting ourselves as a band; Personally I’d still classify myself as broke, and I’d think the other guys would say they’re not too much better.”
By the time they arrive in Atlanta, Parquet Courts will have spent ten days in a studio and should have the foundation laid for their sophomore album. “At shows we often open up with a jam and try out lyrics. Some of those we’ve since structured and turned into songs.” They also did a session including three new songs for NPR’s World Café, an odd match for that normally genteel program. According to Brown it would have been an even stranger fit a year ago. “We sounded way more noisy and confrontational in our early shows. We’d do some seriously long noise jams. I think we grew together as a band from those traumatic experiences of bombing together on stage.”