This is one of a few recent interviews I’ve conducted for Douban Music. The first batch are mostly artists from one of the Beggars labels, arranged by Beggars China (贝阁中国). Since most of the artists I’ve interviewed so far for Douban don’t have any immediate plans to come to China, it doesn’t make sense to put these on pangbianr. But as some of them are quite interesting, I want the English versions to exist somewhere. Interviews with Holly Herndon and Merrill Garbus will also turn up here eventually.
This interview with Parquet Courts vocalist Andrew Savage was done about a month ago, first published by Douban in Chinese. It points to interesting differences in the mentality of underground rock bands in NYC vs Beijing at a time when bands here are just now beginning to go on long road tours of the type that have been common in the US for decades, and which gave Parquet Courts their hard-earned chops and fanbase. It also touches on some of my pet topics, like science fiction futures and monastic living.
Your first release for Rough Trade was Monastic Living, a 12″ EP of freeform experimental rock. Did you get any pushback from the label or did they expect something along those lines going in?
No, Rough Trade has always been amazing at listening to the band and trusting us. Also, they have a pretty storied history in supporting experimental bands, so it would be contrary to their nature to discourage us in being ourselves. That’s one of the reasons we chose to work with them; there is obviously a commitment on their part to the visions of their artists.
What came out of the process of writing/recording Monastic Living? Did it lead to certain ideas, things you specifically did or didn’t want to do on Human Performance?
Well both of those records were recorded at the same time, which seems odd because they are so different, but it was an interesting time in the band when a massive amount of material was being produced. At a certain point we had accumulated enough improvised material that we were confident in to commit to an LP, so Monastic Living was born. Looking back I think it’s interesting that we were producing material that was improvised and somewhat demanding, and at the same time also material that was very crafted and pop. It wasn’t something we intentionally planned, so I’m left scratching my head on that one!
I read somewhere that you recorded over 30 songs in the sessions leading to Human Performance. How did you whittle those down to the final 14? Will some of the outtakes or b-sides see the light of day in later releases?
Yeah that’s true, we did. More if you include Monastic Living. Definitely the material that didn’t end up on the record will go on to see a proper release, but right now I’m not exactly sure what’s right. It was less of a matter of those songs not being good enough, than a matter of choosing 14 songs that lived together in harmony and served the album as a whole.
Over the last few years you’ve built up your following largely by hardcore, “get in the van”-style touring. How has that affected the band musically? How about physically or psychologically? Is “monastic living” a necessary counterbalance to so much time on the road?
That’s an interesting point, because, yes I do think that monastic solitude, after so much time never having a moment alone and being in loud places is appealing. Touring is not for the faint of heart, it’s a real test of body and spirit, but personally speaking I love it, perhaps because it’s been such a constant cycle in my life for the past decade, that it just seems such a part of who I am. One way it effects your psyche is, in order for a tour even a band to be successful, you have to surrender a considerable amount of your individual need, and adopt a collectivist mindset, and ask yourself about the greater good of your group, and less about your immediate needs. That parallels the spiritual surrender of monastic life, I believe.
As far as how it’s changed the way we play, I think that there is a tendency, especially when you are playing for rowdy crowds in dive bars, to play your songs a bit faster than usual. I’ve had a lot of people comment that some of our songs that are slow on record are faster live, which makes sense because you want to keep the energy up. When people go to a bar to watch a band play, they aren’t going to a concert, they aren’t necessarily going to see a band they know, so you want to keep their attention and keep things moving. Now that we are playing more theatres and larger rooms, some of those songs resemble the way they were performed on the album a bit more.
The end of the road, tour-wise, is always New York City. Does it feel like home? Is it more a place for you to go to ground and recharge, or do you plug in to the local music/art scene when you’re in NY?
Definitely feels like home. Funny you should ask that, because just last night I played a 4 am set at a DIY venue here in Brooklyn called Silent Barn, just the night after we had our last show of tour at Webster Hall. It’s important to me to do things like that to remind myself that I am part of a community, which is a fact that gets obscured living inside the sort of bubble that Parquet Courts can sometimes be. I like the idea of playing Webster Hall one night, and Silent Barn the next. I’d never want to not be able to play to ten people at 4 am. It’s for the same reasons that I do the label Dull Tools; I cannot imagine doing what I do, calling myself an artist, and not being engaged.
As someone who lives in Beijing, I was struck by a quote from Sean Yeaton in a recent interview about the “dichotomy of the Orwellian future versus the Aldous Huxley future”. Where exactly between 1984 and Brave New World does America sit in 2016?
I’d say we are in our Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? moment. Haha, kidding. Well look at it this way, right now we have probably the most vocally right-wing presidential candidate we’ve ever had, as well as one of the most left-wing candidates, a socialist at that, which for America is a very big step. It is the best and worst of times. Gay marriage is legal, Americans have access to state healthcare, yet still we have Guantanamo Bay and a for-profit prison system that systematically incarcerates black men. As somebody in a country that also has a notoriously brutal prison system, I think you’ll find we have a lot of common ground.
Parquet Courts has never been as on-the-nose political as some punk bands, but I feel a certain call to action in your music. Maybe more of a rejection of the irony, ennui, or antipathy that characterizes a lot of rock music being made today in the West. Given the current insane state of US presidential politics, do you anticipate getting more radical or specific in the messages underlying your music?
Growing up listening to explicitly “political” punk and hardcore music, I became somewhat disenchanted with how many bands’ political lyrics were an affectation. So many political bands just use the vernacular of global politics to vent very generalized anger. I don’t think punk, or rock music for that matter, need to default on any sort of political stance. I think that anger and unrest are certainly important, but like any art, being emotionally honest is the most important part. I have political convictions, but they don’t always make it into my lyrics. As a New Yorker I get angry and sad at seeing people suffering on a daily basis, and that has certainly made its way into Parquet Courts lyrics, as do topics such as the daily occurrence of violence at the hands of police that happens in this country, but then again we also have love songs.
If, to quote one of your early mantras, “Music matters more than ever” — why? What social function does rock music serve that distinguishes it from the escapism of the current electronic dance music zeitgeist?
Because life is increasingly becoming an inescapable marketplace, and there are so many opportunities to plug in and be entertained and not use your heart and mind. Your soul, that’s what works the more you use it. I’m not sure I’d even separate rock music and dance music in that statement. Both can be forms of escapism as well as ways to confront reality. No longer are rock and dance music at opposing sides of the spectrum either; it’s not uncommon to go to a show today and see an electronic musician or group playing with a band. It’s certainly not uncommon to see a band that is influenced by both. Those sort of sectarian boundaries are pretty antiquated, especially in a place like New York, which has electronic and rock scenes that intersect more often than they ever have. Both are commodities, yet they can subvert their own material value, which is a contradiction I find interesting.
Along the same lines: how can rock music today be more than nostalgic throwback or pastiche? What makes your music contemporarily relevant?
It’s a tradition, and when you are working within a tradition there is a delicate balance of what to keep and what to discard. I always find it so silly and hyperbolic when people resort to saying things like “rock is dead” or crowning us or any other band as saviors of rock. It’s been going for a long time now, and it keeps getting more interesting. People that think it’s become purely nostalgic just aren’t looking hard enough, or no longer care enough to explore music deeper. One thing that is happening to rock music is that it’s being somewhat pushed back into the margins at the moment, which I don’t see as a bad thing at all.
Do you have any plan to come to China? I think you’d find the contrast between Beijing and New York interesting, sort of an equally relevant inversion of the East-West mashup baked into the cover art for American Specialties…
Yeah I’m sure I would. I’m certainly not entirely against going to China. What I am against is a sort of imperialist mindset that a lot of artists seem to have about traveling and touring; where exotic locations are like conquered territories. There is something a bit icky about a rock band (one could argue something that is inherently Western) playing in a country that has been for so long ideologically opposed to Western capitalism. It seems almost like being a religious missionary. But then I also recognize that this is a global society where taste in art is no longer as regional as it once was, and that there very well could be Parquet Courts fans in China. I have no idea. I’ve heard that digital media is heavily censured there, but when there’s a will there’s a way. To answer your questions, no, there are no plans to tour China yet.