[sic] Magazine

Interview: Austin Brown, Parquet Courts

Austin Brown, guitarist and vocalist with New York punk-rock band Parquet Courts, spoke to [sic] Magazine about the band’s new album, Human Performance, revealing the title’s significance and his feelings of displacement and identity.

“I really love the new record. I think it’s, like, the most enriching as far as a Parquet Courts record goes – much more depth and much more earnest songwriting, where our previous records are urgent and immediate, and I think lyrically sometimes obtuse or obscure. I think Human Performance is the existential Parquet Courts record,” continues Brown, “where we become self-realised and have some perspective on who we are, and so in that way the record is really personal.” Brown suggests the honesty on the record’s songs also adds more to their live performances: “To be able to go around and play the songs to people, I think has been a really great exorcism of emotion every night. To perform these songs that we have really put a lot of ourselves into, really communicating more with our audience.”

Parquet Courts are heading to the UK in the Summer 2016, and then again in the Autumn. The American leg of the touring schedule has so far gone well, Brown confirms: “Everything is going really well. We’ve done the West Coast – Vancouver down to LA. In the North-East last week, we’re in Texas now, then the East Coast next week, and we’ll be over in June doing festivals in Europe. It’s going really well.” Although there has been a slight setback – this interview takes place on the day the band are scheduled to play the Levitation festival in Texas, which has since been unexpectedly cancelled: “It’s crazy,” confirms Brown. “The weather has been genuinely pretty good, but last night there was a crazy storm that took out the entire festival grounds and blew over all the tents and stuff. It would have been really bad if people were staying there. I guess they called it off. A lot of bands have been doing club shows and trying to make up shows. We played on the radio today, a few hours ago.”

The disappointment of the show being cancelled is not the only thing that has gone against Brown recently: “I’m injured. We played a show in Dallas and I had to sit on a stool, and on crutches. It’s very painful and really hard to perform. Funnily enough it was a karaoke injury,” Brown clarifies. “I was doing “This Charming Man” by The Smiths and a friend of mine grabbed me and was trying to do, like, a show of solidarity, kinda grabbed me and hugged me and tried to sing along. But we were in this bar in kinda tight quarters, and he lost his balance and me and him went way down, like really hard. You heard this, like ‘oh god’. It was the closest thing I’ve had to a sports injury. That’s the worst part, this time it wasn’t my fault at all! I was actually doing what I normally do, performing and singing.”

The band’s busy touring schedule is nothing new, and [sic] Magazine detects a lot of references to locations, cities and changing environments on the record. Brown explains: “”Berlin Got Blurry” is a song Andrew (Savage, vocals and guitar) wrote in Berlin. It was about something bigger that he was going through, kind of like dealing with a crisis in a foreign place. I think the song deals with what it’s like to be in a foreign place, and to be in another country across the world and have that feeling of being foreign. And then there’s a song, “I Was Just Here”, which Sean (Yeaton, bass) wrote. I think it’s written from the perspective of coming home from being on tour, but also just feeling a bit displaced, of not quite fitting in. Almost having like a double life where you have, like, a character that you put on every day when you leave the house, and then there’s, like, a ‘human performance’ that you do every day, then you come home and ‘this feels a little bit different. Where’s the guy that was just here?’ And there’s the song “Captive of the Sun”, Brown continues, “which is about being in New York but also feeling kind of strange from the rhythm of the city and feeling a bit oppressed by it. Feeling like something that once was an inspiration is now your captor. Being overwhelmed by a place that is fast moving, that was previously inspiring, but is kinda shows the other side, darker side if you don’t quite keep up.”

Is life in New York also the inspiration for the track “One Man No City”? “It’s kind of a response to “Captive of the Sun”,’ responds Brown. “‘This is overwhelming or doesn’t feel like your home, then where is your home? Who are you and where are your friends?’ I think it is something that is hard to deal with, being a person who travels so much, but also it’s not unrelatable to someone who has a regular 9-to-5 throughout the week because I think that sometimes it is a bit easy to let life fall into you as a routine, where sometimes it becomes unrecognisable as your own, and it becomes kind of ‘how did I get here?’ (laughs). There is a Talking Heads song that is a great reference point for that… ‘Who are these people? I made all these choices that I’m glad I made, but now I’m in a place where I don’t quite feel comfortable’.”

Brown explains the approach to writing with such personal subject matter: “It’s a hard thing. I think the record is made with a lot of heart and emotions, but it was something that we were ready to deal with, or couldn’t help but deal with, because of what was going on with stuff at the moment. The record was really important in that way for us, because it felt like to deny the serious subject matter would be denying ourselves to experience those emotions, so all of that went into the songs. Yeh – we kinda laid it all out there.”

As well as embracing new ideas lyrically, Parquet Courts also introducing new sounds to this LP, including a new instrument: “It’s a keyboard called a Mellotron,” explains Brown, “the sound you hear at the start of “Strawberry Fields”. We used it on the song “Captive of the Sun”. It’s a tape loop. Whenever you play the note it plays like a sample of the keyboard or the flute or whatever that is on the tape, and it loops. On “Captive of the Sun” you can hear the loop coming back around. It’s got, like, a warp in it where it sounds almost like someone’s slowing the record down or something. If you hold the note down for too long it has a warp in it, I thought that was kinda cool. I’m a huge Beatles fan,” Brown continues. “That instrument – the Mellotron – existed before. They made it into something that it wasn’t necessarily meant to be. There’s a great video of Paul McCartney at Abbey Road saying what he thinks it’s made for, and there’s these kind of tape loops that are the rhythm section of the band, and the other half of the keyboard is, like, the lead part. You could have people over to your house and play, like, a full band karaoke kind of thing. But “Strawberry Fields” was what made it into an instrument that rock bands would use. Before that nobody really knew what it was even meant for.”

Whilst incorporating new instrumentation and themes, Brown explains that Parquet Courts were keen to retain their sound: “There’s a few things we did to try and maintain our sound. There’s different producers we could have chosen to work with, or different people who I think would have put a different spin on the record than we really wanted. I think part of what makes Parquet Courts who we are, and what our sound is, is because I’ve mixed a few of the records. Or because we recorded them in our practice space really quickly, which by the nature of it gives an immediate sound.” Brown details how the band balanced adopting both new and trusted techniques: “There was this crossroads we came to where we wanted to spend more time making the record because we wanted to evolve our sound, and we wanted to take some time to get some perspective on our sound. Some perspective on our lives, and what’s going on, and ‘Who are we? What kind of music do we make? And what’s the next step for us?’ So part of that was taking, like, a year to make the record,” continues Brown, “and part of it was working in different studios across the country we just kind of picked for different reasons. We worked with Jeff Tweedy from Wilco for a couple of songs at his studio in Chicago. And I mixed the record myself at Jim Eno‘s studio, the drummer from Spoon, in Austin. Even though we recorded it quite high fidelity and the sounds we got were amazing working in nice studios, we didn’t want to lose the feeling of a Parquet Courts record, so we decided that I would again mix the record so that there’s still that edge to it. There’s definitely a lot of decisions… I think you’re able to hear the band more clearly in that a band member was making the final decisions on the mix and the way it was presented, certainly a well-known engineer or producer could have made it sound a lot more commercial or radio friendly. It’s not really what we were after with this one. It sounds just like our band still. We made a couple of key decisions on that, because it was something really important going into the process.”

Brown has been reassured that these artistic decisions have been correct, and there is no pressure for a more commercial record: “Rough Trade have been very supportive from the very beginning. Before Human Performance came out, they put out the Monastic Living EP, which has not got the most favourable reviews, but for us it was a really important statement to show people what we considered could be a Parquet Courts record. I love that record. I think it’s great, and it doesn’t sound like anything we put out before. I don’t consider it anything outside of the band. It’s the kind of music that has always been kicking around. I think in time people will appreciate it in a different way. They never were afraid to release that record. They fully supported us. They fully supported me mixing the record. They have been brilliant from the get-go. They have allowed us to work as artists in a space that we hadn’t really experienced before, full of support and no questions asked really.”

~[sic] Magazine would like to thank Austin Brown for taking the time out of his busy touring schedule to talk with us.~