Push/Pull: Sunbathing Animal And The Next Chapter Of Parquet Courts
Within two minutes of sitting down, Andrew Savage leans forward on his elbows and begins to play mock narrator. “So here we are at East Japanese Restaurant in New York City,” he deadpans. “In front of us is an array — an assortment, really — of sushi. Beautiful on the eyes. Slowly rotating before us. Options aplenty.” He’s describing the fact that we — he and myself, as well as his bandmate Austin Brown — are sitting at a rotary sushi bar, having a conversation while staring forth into a middle distance of little plates of sushi topped by glistening plastic covers all drifting listlessly by, waiting to be chosen. At any given moment, if you go upstairs to use the restroom you can hear the echoes of drunken karaoke-goers at this modest hour of 7PM; at one point, a man with a heavy Japanese accent is giving his all to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” Presumably, there is some purpose for us being here. After all, the reason we’re even meeting in this nondescript portion of Manhattan — on 3rd Ave., in the high-20s, more or less a no-man’s land of a neighborhood — is simply because it was the most conveniently located rotary sushi bar that Savage could find. And, as it becomes readily evident, Savage rarely does anything without intent, without premeditation and knowing exactly as he wants to see it come to fruition.
Savage and Brown make up half of Parquet Courts, the rest of the lineup being rounded out by bassist Sean Yeaton and Savage’s younger brother Max on drums. At 22, Max is the youngest of the group, the rest of whom are 28; he’s absent tonight studying for NYU finals, while Yeaton is occupied with visiting family members. Collectively, they’re that band you’ve likely seen referenced as some variation on “slacker Brooklyn punk stoner dudes” in the wave of music media attention they garnered when their second album, Light Up Gold, was re-released by What’s Your Rupture? in early 2013. (Though, for most intents and purposes, it was their first to many people, seeing as 2011’s American Specialties was an extremely limited, cassette-only release initially.) Savage and Brown are aware of how they’ve been portrayed and, clearly having a lot of thoughts on how the media and art interact in 2014, are actively trying to correct the story tonight. Both speak with a measured, occasionally intense manner. Savage — whose hair has grown out into frenetic curls shooting up, out, and then down around his face — has a particularly focused cadence, his eyes dark and focused and staring out into nothingness when expressing a complex idea.
“I want to talk about Sunbathing Animal,” Savage says at one point at the end of a particularly long discussion of where the band have arrived in their career. That’s matter of fact enough, considering the whole reason we’re meeting tonight is because Parquet Courts are about to release the crucial “follow-up to your breakthrough album” of their catalogue. But it’s also something of a mission statement, an alert that Savage and the rest of the band are ready to move past the various baggage they accumulated around Light Up Gold, whether it’s the stoner thing or the New York thing. Accordingly, the album in question is harder and denser than its predecessor. It requires more time to work your way into, and winds up feeling more vital as a result.
That density is exhibited on the album’s title track, whose multi-layered origins double as a rejoinder to the notion that these guys are just tossing off things without thinking them through. The name and the image it conjures go all the way back to when Savage worked for a company that dealt in fine art prints. Recently he stared at his cat sitting in the sun streaming in through his apartment window, and he recalled a Dutch Expressionist painting he’d seen all those years ago. It’s a perfectly Parquet Courts moment, equal parts high-minded and fascinated by the banal. But when it evolved into the song itself, collected ephemera became something else. The entire thing is a furious blur of words, mainly delivered in the first person, until the song reaches its conclusion: “Frying and abiding, I’m in your control like a sunbathing animal.”
“The album has some themes and a lot of recurring motifs,” Savage explains. “A few of the main ones are represented in the song ‘Sunbathing Animal.'” Combined with “Duckin And Dodgin” and “Black And White,” Savage considers it the “conceptual core of the record.” Together, they get at one of the major concerns of Sunbathing Animal: the idea of unbreakable cycles. Given the band has been touring and working steadily since their name came to prominence last year, it feels necessary to at least ask if this rhythm influenced the themes Savage became preoccupied with. “You’re not the first one to want to make those ends meet,” he says, seemingly already a bit wearied by the notion. Quickly dismissing the idea of being in a band and then writing songs complaining about being in a band as bad form, he goes on to explain that the concept is much more abstract and elemental than that. Returning to the image of his cat, Savage relates the mixture of pleasure and captivity to a pattern in his pet’s behavior. “That was the spark of inspiration to explore free will and freedom,” he says. Like the binary of beauty and ugliness that has fascinated him in the past, dualities like this loom large on Sunbathing Animal.
Of course, dualities themselves are the sort of stringent structures that can force you into unbreakable cycles, and Parquet Courts have produced an album that weaves the ideas into the form of the music itself. The song “Sunbathing Animal” rides an unrelenting single-note rhythm, simultaneously making you feel constrained and, as Savage’s rapid-fire bark rides above it, like it absolutely must break free: “the feeling like, ‘How long is this going to last?'” as Savage puts it. And it never does let up. “It’s not a mistake that there are a few blues motifs that recur [on the album],” he continues. From the warped harmonica of “She’s Rollin” to the borrowed blues lyric of “Duckin And Dodgin,” the band looked back to blues forms and incorporated them into their frayed punk sound as both sonic and thematic representations of set patterns. In not quite the same breath but close enough, Savage also name-checks the Second Vienna School (which the Sunbathing Animal track “Vienna II” references), and the 12 Tone movement. “It’s confinement that they put on their own music, and because of that were able to find something new and fine another place to go,” he explains. “When you start thinking about rock music and how self-referential it is and how repetitive it has gotten, if you want to keep doing something new with it you have to decide: ‘What am I going to take away?’ Because once you strip things away from your process, new paths start to illuminate themselves.”
Speaking of new paths, or lack thereof, it all keeps coming back to that sushi belt. For Savage, quoting the blues meant finding “a device to reiterate the power of feeling trapped and being in a cycle, not unlike this sushi belt here.” At another moment, he makes it personal. “I often wonder myself: How long can I work within the medium of rock music before I feel like it gets too tired? I know inevitably that will happen. I hope it doesn’t happen for a while. Sometimes I feel like I am one of these pieces of sushi on this belt wanting to find my way off, or else I’m going to just keep doing this forever,” he says. There’s still that measured delivery, and it’s difficult to tell whether he’s messing with me, making a joke of the sushi-as-metaphor, or whether this is exactly why he chose this place and this is a crucial image to him, or whether he chose this place precisely so he could deadpan about sushi-as-metaphor. “Cycles are an important part of Sunbathing Animal, because we all find ourselves in them,” he finishes. And that, there, he’s serious about.
So, that New York thing. Aside from the fact that Parquet Courts are based in New York, the fixation on them as a New York rock band seems almost entirely rooted in “Stoned And Starving,” the centerpiece of Light Up Gold, probably their most beloved song, and yet more or less an outlier in their work. (It’s also the one that the stoner-rock association can be most directly traced back to, and it’s probably not a coincidence that those two strands emanate from the same place.) In fact, it really comes down to one line: “I was walking through Ridgewood, Queens/ I was flipping through magazines.” It might be one of the great opening lines of the latest installment in the canon of Great New York Songs. And, as it goes when a narrative develops around a band, it may forever remain a reference point, something that may have set Parquet Courts on another of those unbreakable cycles, of having people like me ask them about it.
The roots of the band go further back than their time in New York. Yeaton, a Boston native, is the sole non-Texan in the group. Both the Savages grew up in Denton and Dallas, and Andrew and Brown met when they lived in the same dorm while at college in the former. “We jammed together on guitar and stuff, but we were never in an actual band together,” Brown recalls. The notion of forming a band didn’t come up until they’d both moved to New York. After Savage and Brown began writing music together, Savage brought in his brother Max as well as Yeaton, whom he’d met when one of Yeaton’s old bands had played a house show at the Savages’ home back in Texas, years ago. “The goals were small,” Savage remembers. “I would’ve been psyched to just play a show to nobody in New York.”
Of course, it has progressed beyond those origins, but with all the members remaining in New York, they’ve been able to thus far maintain an ability to do things on their own terms, and a certain dynamic. Though Savage and Brown are often identified as Parquet Courts’ main songwriters and serve as the band’s primary vocalists, there’s a general sense of collaboration in how they go about things. “Usually whoever’s the main writer of the song will bring it to practice and it’ll get the touch of everyone involved, while still remaining the songwriter’s vision,” Savage explains. “I think, for the most part, songs come with lyrics and a melody and everyone pretty much figures out their parts,” Brown adds. “There’s a lot of freedom within that. I don’t know if there’s a song that comes without music and just lyrics, or just music and no lyrics.” For as much as Savage seems to have had the overarching vision of what Sunbathing Animal should be thematically, the reality is perhaps a more organic process than that, once everyone’s pitched in. “Themes become apparent themselves, once you’ve been working on something for so long,” he says. “Your work starts to define itself.”
That process of working intently and seeing what occurs similarly describes how the band seems to look at their rise in popularity and recognition. From modest initial goals, they found themselves talked about on blogs, and then appearing on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and later on Late Night With Seth Meyers. From the outside, they looked like a buzz band, like they’d attained success after a relatively brief period of time. “It seems to other people like it happened overnight or out of nowhere, but for us we’ve gone from where we were to where we are now and checked off every step of the way,” Brown says. “We were touring really hard. We did everything along the way. On the outside, maybe you just see a few certain highlights. Even still, there’s shows we play where there’s less than a hundred people.”
“It was an interesting experience,” Savage adds. “There really is not a moment when any of us realized we were in a different place. It was a very quick succession of small things.” When Savage first released Light Up Gold through his label Dull Tools, he would’ve been happy if they sold out the initial pressing of 500 copies within a year. It sold out in two months, and was followed by another pressing which also sold out, which was when the band started talking to What’s Your Rupture? about a re-release. “In a way, I think we’ve met goals we didn’t know we had,” he says. “The way that the band changed over the course of 2012 and 2013 was sort of hard for us to detect and define because we were in the eye of the hurricane.” Even now, the group has rarely paused to reflect on how their lives might have changed since the attention they received through Light Up Gold. Part of this could be attributed to an aversion to the usual trappings of buzz and the mechanisms of being a band with a growing reputation — when the conversation focuses too long on the notion of career plans, Savage cuts it off by saying, “These are not things anyone in the band thinks about. We think about writing songs, and writing the best ones we can.” The other factor is that Parquet Courts have yet to take much of a break, having started work on Sunbathing Animal as soon as they finished touring. “We’ve had our nose to the grindstone since Light Up Gold started garnering its initial attention,” Savage says. “We just haven’t stopped.”
When Brown and Savage outline the process of the last two years, it’s with an earnestness and a sense of trying to flesh out the story that’s been distilled into nuggets like the relationship between “Stoned And Starving” and their status as a New York band. Still, it’s inescapable — Light Up Gold established the band as another in a long and crowded line of Brooklyn rock bands produced by the 21st century. The difference, perhaps, is that they were raw and visceral enough to be appreciated by those who’ve grown queasy at the phrase “Brooklyn indie,” yet wrote enough indelible hooks that they could attain a wider appeal, too. The other difference would be that Parquet Courts could be explicitly placed in a specific lineage of iconic New York rock — from the Velvet Underground through the Ramones, or Television, or Talking Heads. These are all bands Savage identifies as those he respects, and ones that make up a tradition he’d be honored to be considered a part of, but he also seems at pains to delineate what qualifying Parquet Courts as a “New York band” should mean. “We started the band in New York, yeah, and it influences us a lot,” he says. “But it’s not something I make a deal about, you know?”
As much as their being a New York band has been used as a potentially reductive force in Parquet Courts’ young life as a band, the reason I return to the idea is that it seems a crucial element of their music. “The things I find interesting are in the margins of life, more in the minutiae,” Savage says at another point in the conversation. That sensibility is what ranks Light Up Gold, and potentially the rest of their music, amongst the best New York music produced in recent years. Parquet Courts don’t write sweeping anthems or odes to the mythic greatness of the city. They write about the stupid little things you do on the weekend, or they don’t write about it at all — they craft music that is frenetic and caged-in as much as it is wandering and at times delirious. It welcomes the banality that comes with being a young person in New York these days.
While Light Up Gold was a great album to wander around the city listlessly to, Sunbathing Animal takes it somewhere else — and, as it goes with many of the ways in which Sunbathing Animal differs from Light Up Gold, it’s somewhere more challenging. There are recurring bodily images on the album, from the opener “Bodies” (“Bodies made of/ slugs and guts”), to “What Color Is Blood,” to “Sunbathing Animal” (“I now can hear my pulse alone/ This manic pace I cannot slow”), to standout “Instant Disassembly” (“I feel a pain so acute/ Like I’m being impaled/ And I can’t breath/ it’s hard to inhale”). If you read this through the lens of how their music reflects and interacts with New York, it’s a darker take than the sardonic wanderings of “Stoned And Starving.” It’s a reckoning with the disassociation from yourself and your physical existence when you live in a large city. Fundamental to life in New York — or, let’s call it any city — is that same sensation that underlies “Sunbathing Animal”: that you’re stuck in an unbreakable cycle of something you find pleasurable, but that also controls you. That duality of freedom and free will. That’s not “Empire State Of Mind.” It’s worth talking about Parquet Courts as a New York band still. They have something to add to the canon.
After everyone’s had their fill of sushi, we wander downtown and wind up in a bar near Union Square that’s fine, if not memorable. We’ve traded in one mundane locale of Manhattan for another, which feels like Parquet Courts’ particular New York sensibility being put into practice.
Even as the location is happenstance, however, the key word for the rest of the night is “deliberate.” Brown’s been describing their frustration with the various narratives that were applied to the band and, inevitably, we’ve come back around to “Stoned And Starving” and the labels it earned them. “I didn’t anticipate it inviting that sort of [stoner] thing, which may sound silly,” Savage ventures after staring pensively at the glass of whiskey before him while Brown spoke. “I didn’t anticipate it being an anthem.” Brown adds: “Being perceived that way definitely affected the way we wrote the new record. To be much more deliberate.”
To that end, “Sunbathing Animal” occupies the same sequence position on Sunbathing Animal as “Stoned And Starving” did on Light Up Gold, and works as a totally different kind of centerpiece. It’s frothing and unnerving where “Stoned And Starving” unfolded in its ragtag krautrock way. Rather than a down-to-earth story-song, it’s confrontational. “People love that first song on the B-side, so I’m going to give it to them,” Savage says wryly.
The movement away from hooks is intentional. “The whole band thought Light Up Gold was a lyrically forward record, and I think that maybe some people missed that, because there are a lot of catchy tunes on there,” Brown explains. While lyrics are always fundamental to Parquet Courts’ music and often come before the song itself, Sunbathing Animal was crafted in a way that allowed the band to push the words to the forefront. “It’s still music, but if you’re not listening to the lyrics you’re not hearing the whole song,” Brown continues. It goes back to what Savage had said about the tight repetitions intended to represent the theme of cycles. He describes how by making the music more minimal and restrictive, it frees he and Brown up to do more as vocalists and lyricists.
“Aesthetically, I feel like it’s either an evolution or a progression, but the writing is deliberately the next step into showing what the band is,” Brown says. “It’ll be hard for people slap the ‘stoner/slacker’ thing on this record,” Savage adds. So much of the thought behind Sunbathing Animal is a willful rejection of what had been said about Parquet Courts in the last two years that it’s not hard to see how this could terribly backfire, if the band distanced themselves too far from the elements that made their music exciting in the first place in an effort to regain control of their story a bit. Luckily, Sunbathing Animal does sound like a progression — one that pushes deeper, more incisively. And, well, maybe that is indeed a mechanism through which Parquet Courts wants to rewrite their story a bit. Maybe it’s an issue of wanting to break out of some cycle or another. Either way, Parquet Courts aren’t messing around, and they want you to know it.