New York City's Parquet Courts is a great rock band graced by great reviews — and a band that perhaps feels pigeon-holed by the press that jumps to laud them by comparing their sound to bands that came before them. So when I called guitarist/vocalist Austin Brown before the band's date in Bloomington tonight, I had to ask about what the latest round of great press for the (also great) Human Performance — out April 8 on Rough Trade — means to them.
...We rather quickly dispensed with the topic though, diving in to the actual process of the record, plus a long chat about two Texan towns that provide both influence and isolation.
They play at the Bishop tonight.
NUVO: You're about a week out from the release of your album. How are you feeling? It's been very well-received and well-reviewed, and I don't know if you guys give a shit about any of that.
Austin Brown: Yeah, well, of course! [laughs] With this record, I definitely put a lot of myself into it. We worked really hard for the better part of a year, and in a way that we wanted to expand the definition in our band. [We wanted] to break down some creative barriers that had been built partly by us, and also partly by the niche-givers of music journalism. It's a hard thing to do.
We don't think about reviews when we're doing that; we're thinking a lot about our creative process. But good reviews are nice. It's good to feel loved and cared about.
NUVO: I spent the better part of the morning reading lots of writing about this album. What you mentioned –- that you spent the better part of a year making this –- is brought up several times: This is an album long in the making; this is different than other albums you've put together in faster sessions. Can you tell me the timeline of recording and some significant moments in that process?
Austin Brown: We started the sessions in April of last year, I believe. We did maybe five days in Western Massachusetts, and then a month later we went back and did another five days at the same studio. Out of those sessions, plus another one that we did in our practice space, we got the Monastic Living EP, but also a few songs that ended up on the Human Performance record. That period was us really shaking off some of the dust and the dirt, trying to do some more experimenting with our group and with our sound, and with our process. [We were] trying to go about things in a different way, recording a lot of improvised sessions, leaving a lot of songs open to interpretation by other band members. Before, when a song was written, it would be nearly complete when it was brought to the table, and everyone just learned it, and we recorded it really immediately. A lot of these songs, we recorded what we knew we wanted, and everyone else would experiment with it. The focus was on building up a different process rather than doing things the way we had done them before.
In July we went to the Wilco loft and recorded with Jeff Tweedy. The kind of way he writes and records is a process that's much different than the way we do ours. He'll build up a song from a very simple core, like a guitar and a drum machine. He'll just add things as he feels inspired, and get things to the point where he's taking stuff away rather than adding more things. Add as much as you can then take away stuff that is unnecessary. That was helpful to learn that process, because that helped us create music in a different way. [A way] that is much more like how I do at home, when I'm alone making demos and playing all the instruments. We'd never really done that as a full band. I think that was a really invaluable lesson that we were all able to learn together. We were there for about a week or so.
Then, in October, we were at this studio in Upstate New York called Dreamland, which is this church that was converted into a recording studio in the '70s. We lived and worked in the studio almost around the clock, just really fully immersed in the record. By the time we were leaving the studio I was able to hear really what the record sounded like and what we had made. I think being there and being fully immersed was massively important to the results we were able to get. We were able to live inside the record and make decisions that I don't know if we would have arrived at had we just been thinking about it for eight or ten hours a day while we were in the studio, in between going there and going home, [and] were able to kind of leave it alone. When we were at Dreamland for those final weeks, I hardly slept at all. Everything was just focused on solving this puzzle of how to make this thing.
NUVO: I would love if you would take me through the entire creation of one song, “One Man, No City.” How did it come together from seed of an idea to final product?
Brown: Sure. That song I initially wrote in my apartment. I had it as a demo. It was something that I never particularly liked very much. It started with the guitar line, kind of like the way you hear on the record with a rhythm guitar intro. Then you have a second guitar part to it that was added on top, a guitar solo or something.
I had these two parts of this song, and I had the congas rhythm on there. I never really liked it. It definitely didn't sound like a Parquet Courts song. I thought, maybe there could be something there. And I threw together a structure that felt like I had some lyrics that I could develop and place in there. It just has the two parts to it. Whenever I recorded the song, I didn't really know how I wanted to end it. [Sean Yeaton, bass, said], “Well, we don't really have a jam on this record. Why don't we just do that for the ending? Extend this part and we can have fun with it. Maybe don't think about it so hard, and this will be a song that can be anything.”
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I didn't expect it to end up on the record. I didn't expect to finish it. I didn't really like it so much when I made it, like it said. But whenever we did it in the studio, Max [Savage, drums] deemed it a Sunglass Song. We all wore our sunglasses when we recorded it, to try and get it in this vibe, I guess. This song is more about the feeling of it than it is about the technical difficulty to record.
What actually was the key to being excited about it for me was when we recorded it, we started with guitars and the bass. But instead of the drums, we started with the bongos and the bongo rhythm. What I didn't realize until we started playing it, was that the bongos were on a syncopated rhythm. They weren't on the straight 4/4 rhythm that the kick drum and the snare drum create in the song. When we were playing along with the syncopated rhythm of the congas, it gave it a much different feel. It was like we were playing in half time, and I had never heard the song that way. I always heard it more similar to how it is on the record – more straightforward and kind of driving.
But whenever we played along with the bongos, it was almost like a dub feel to it where it was in half time. I was really able to hear what the song was, and how important that rhythmic element was. When we got to the end of the song where there is that jam, it totally changed the entire way the song flows, and felt in that moment. Especially in an improvisational jam, feeling the rhythm of the song is so important. It really allowed the guitars to open up and be more free. Even though they're not playing some ripping' Clapton-style solo, it allowed them to feel much more free in the moment, to where the jam really becomes a free-flowing texture. [That's] what I really wanted to have anyway, but I wouldn't have been able to accomplish it if it was just a straight drum beat that we were playing along to. It was an interesting decision. It was a decision that I felt the bongos provided a better vibe; what I didn't realize was that there was an important element of the different rhythm there. It changed the whole feel of the song and it allowed me to be excited about it and inspired to complete it.
That was one really interesting moment. I think every song on the record has an interesting moment like that. Just by the way we were working, we were able to figure out and were more excited about what made the songs different, or maybe a bit riskier for the group, as compared to songs that were on previous records. It became really important for us not to repeat ourselves in a way. If a song sounded like it could have ended up on any one of our other records, then it became less important. We were more drawn to and inspired by songs that saw the evolution in the band, saw us doing something that was new for us. If it was a bit riskier, or a bit on the outlying end of what would be considered a Parquet Courts song, those were the ones that really became important and felt central and integral to the record as we were learning about what it was and what it sounded like.
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NUVO: I want to ask you about two Texas cities that I've never been to but thought a lot about. You played the Marfa Myths Festival, which is a fest I've wanted to go to, but haven't made it down yet. I know that Andrew is a visual artist, and that visual art and connections in art is something that you as a band think a lot about. What was your experience at that festival? I know that one of the goals of that fest is to engage with the artist community there, and probably more than other festivals, have more thoughtful engagement with other forms of art [beyond music]. As a Texan, what does Marfa mean to you as an artistic spot?
Brown: It's a super interesting place. You'd be hard-pressed to find a city in American that is more isolated than Marfa. I think there's a really interesting feeling that you get just from knowing and just visually by looking around and realizing that you're in the most literal middle of nowhere that you can find.
The festival was really cool because there was a few hundred people there, and a lot of them were artists and musicians, people that were living in the town and also people that came from Austin and lot of people that came from New York. It was a real interesting community atmosphere that was developed over the weekend. You saw the same people at every event. It was almost like a summer camp kind of feel. I think that's one of the things about Marfa that's really inspiring to artists – it is so isolated and you can meet and see everyone there and do everything that you experience there in a day. I think it leaves people a lot of time to focus on their work. If they're an artist living in residence, you're surrounded by people who are influential and inspiring, because they're also there to work on their craft and focus on things in a place void of distractions.
As far as the festival goes, it was a really good time. It was funny to see who ended up there, and what friends made it in from Austin and New York, what everyone was up to. It was cool to have all the bands partying together in a way that you don't normally get a chance to at other music festivals, and watching all the other groups. Getting to see an artist like William Basinski, and getting to hang out with him and to have a conversation with someone who plays a different kind of music, who you normally wouldn't be on the same bill with, or be at the same festival with. [We learned] we lived in the same dorm in college in Denton, Texas, the [dorm] that Andrew and I met in. William Basinski lived there maybe ten years prior to that, or however long. That festival leads to a lot of unique experiences like that.
Brown: It's funny, because I have a much different relationship with Denton than Andrew does. Where he really has a great affinity for it, and has a really easy time finding all the positive things about Denton, whether it's a longtime running venue there called Rubber Gloves that I played at whenever I lived there in college. The band has made it a point to go back there and play there a couple of times since then. Andrew had a house venue that he ran there that had all sorts of shows going on there with local groups and also bands that toured all over the country. That's actually where he met Sean, the bass player of our band. Whenever his band was coming through from Boston, they played at Andrew's house. I think he has a lot of really positive memories from living there.
I had a not-great experience in college, and associate Denton with a lot of the harder moments of growing up for me, and learning a lot of hard lessons. I think the most influential thing that happened for me there was when I realized that I had to leave. I went to school there and lived there for about four years, and then when I dropped out … I actually decided I was going to drop out when I was on a drive to Bloomington, Indiana, to see a girl I was in love with at the time.
NUVO: Oh no!
Brown: Yeah [laughs] Like I said, a lot of hard lessons that I learned. It was a time that I was really trying to figure out what was going on. I shouldn't have been living there in the first place; I shouldn't have gone to college. I never really cared about it. I learned a lot of stuff that didn't have to do with education, and I don't really like it there. Even beyond all of those things, I have a hard time really enjoying Denton. It's a very small town, and it deals with a lot of conflict that a lot of small towns deal with. I think there's a lot of people that are really happy there and really like it and really like that sort of thing. But I'm not really built for living in a place like that.
I think there are a lot of benefits, and there is a really tight-knit community, especially in the music community. There's a lot of people there that really care about doing the right thing to promote the arts there, to make sure that there is a viable arts community there, that it can be a place where bands can stop off on tour and have a good show. There's a lot of young people there that are interested in doing those sorts of things, seeing bands and supporting groups, being interested in arts and music. There are a lot of arty things there. I think there's kids that maybe don't want to live in Austin or couldn't afford to live in Austin go to Denton, or are attracted to Denton for different reasons than they would be wanting to go to Austin.
It has all the same symptoms and conflicts of a small town, where it's rife with potential but could be self-defeating sometimes. But that's the opinion of someone who moved to New York, has been living in New York for eight years now, and really loves living in New York. I think you're going to have a hard time getting me to really appreciate what a town like Denton has to offer whenever I'm attracted to and have been living in a city that's essentially the opposite of that.
… I feel that way a lot about not only different places of my past, but different experiences of my past. I'm really glad to have them done with. I don't look back with a lot of nostalgia at really anything. I tend to be inspired about what's happening next and what I'm going towards, and tend to think about the reasons why I left a place or don't do a certain thing anymore, rather than what I appreciate about it.