A. Savage is a busy man. The Parquet Courts co-frontman not only heads up one of the most exciting bands of the last ten years, but he’s also responsible for practically every aspect of the group’s visual side. He’s not the kind of guy you’d expect to see taking a breather; he just keeps going. Parquet Courts’ new album Sympathy of Life (due 22 October) is a sprawling dive into the world of never ending tape reels and jam-based music, complete with eleven unique music videos and fan events around the world. Jack Parker called up Savage to discuss the album’s almost collage-like nature, observations of daily life and his desire to keep going.
Hey Andrew. How are we today?
I’m doing good, not bad.
Whereabouts are you?
In my kitchen.
Right. I gather you’ve been sitting on your new album Sympathy of Life for quite a while, right?
Yeah, we’ve been sitting on it for ages. I’m excited that we’re finally able to share it.
Your new album Sympathy of Life was recorded pre-pandemic. What was for you the turning point where you decided it was finally time for the world to hear it?
I don’t know if there was a turning point. It never really seemed like the right time had come, as it was first supposed to arrive in September 2020. Eventually it just had to come out so we made the difficult decision of delaying it more than a year not knowing what the world was going to look like. It had to happen, and it’s happening now. We played two shows this last month and they were our first since we finished the record. I think we’ll be able to tour too, so it’s coming out at a good time. There wasn’t one significant moment in deciding for it to finally come out though; we delayed it by a year but you can’t wait too long because eventually we have to write another record.
How was the response to the new songs during the first shows back?
Great! The first show we played was in Jersey City last month and it was one of the best shows we’ve ever played. People have really been yearning for the chance to see live music again, and I personally wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be able to do this again. I had to confront the possibility that this decade and this band would be it. Most bands don’t last that long and we’re lucky to have been able to do this. I resigned to the possibility that this may well be it and that I might have to get a regular job after ten years. Luckily it looks like we’ll keep being a band, and we have plans to tour the world next year. I greatly hope it happens, because I love doing what I do and it was amazing to be able to play again. We played five new songs, and it was amazing to share them with people who were super receptive to the new music.
What did Rodhaidh McDonald (producer) bring to the process that made you decide to work with him?
I don’t fully remember the circumstances, but I do know that Roddy was recommended to us. We met him and liked him a lot, and we saw that he was a fan of the band. That’s important with a producer, having someone who knows you and your history very well. It became clear early on that he was going to have a lot to bring to the record, and he ended up being very encouraging in his style of recording. We basically just filled out a tape with forty minutes of improvisation, and one of Rodhaidh’s strengths was helping us edit these jams into three or four minute songs. He was key in that process, and he helped us achieve a lot of the glitchy, slightly industrial qualities that some of the textures on this album have. Not that the music can be described as industrial, but he was good at finding new textures within the band that hadn’t been there before, and he was also just a great energy to have around in the studio. He was always down to work around the clock and he threw himself into it for the five non-consecutive weeks we worked with him.
So with the production aspect in mind, what were the biggest differences between your previous album Wide Awake! and this one?
Roddy would be one of the biggest differences, but alongside him we also worked with John Parrish. He works in a different way to Roddy too. This band has a long history of improv and songs that would come out of jams, but there wasn’t much of that on Wide Awake! – that album was almost entirely made up of songs that we wrote ahead of studio sessions. This time round the approach was entirely different and new from previous times we had improvised. Older albums like White Gold and Sunbathing Animal had a lot of these solos Austin (Brown, guitar & co-vocals) and I wrote on the back of improv moments. They were these long, aggressive anti-solos. On Sympathy of Life it’s different because what we’re doing is splicing up tapes and turning them into songs. We’re writing songs as if they were collages and we’re making the elements which form a collage. It’s forty minutes of tape and on it we’re just collaging these sounds into what resembles a song structure. That’s evident on songs like Black Widow Spider, Plant Life, Application Apparatus and a few more.
Some of the track titles allude to nature and plants. What fuelled the lyrical side to your songwriting this time round?
That’s true I guess. You know, I think I can say this of every record we’ve done in that there’s not really anything in the onset lyrically. We don’t have a particular chosen tone or theme for the lyrics, those kinds of things are all coincidences and they ultimately become what the record is about. You’re not really aware of it when it’s happening and you don’t see it until it’s done; they’re patterns you notice after the work is completed. What an album is about and how the lyrics connect to each other throughout as a thematic concept isn’t articulated at the start for us, it’s more discovered along the way. I keep a notepad with me at all times which I write in. I can talk about my lyrics specifically, but Austin and the others (bassist Sean Yeaton and drummer Max Savage) would say the same in that it’s just a reflection of where we are in our lives. I tend to be an observer, I have the voice of an observer and it’s of those moments in my life at that time.
Wide Awake! was an enormous success. Did you feel under much pressure to do better?
I don’t know. All our albums have been successes in how I’ve been happy with everything. There’s never been a record I haven’t been excited about.
One thing that drives me as an artist – and I would assume most other artists too – is to top your previous work and create the best thing that you’re gonna create. I guess it also depends on success and how you define that word, but to me the last record was mainly a creative success. I don’t really think about replicating any “success” as far as album sales go, which I guess is still important but I don’t really think about it. One of the reasons the band is still the band is because we’re challenging ourselves creatively and we’re still engaged. This is our life, we are artists and we take our art seriously. I think it’s good that we keep going, and at any given time we’re pretty excited about what we’re sharing or releasing. If there’s any key to your word “success” then that would be it.
Right. You didn’t have the looming impact of the pandemic affecting the writing, seeing as the record was completed ahead of the world shutting down. Looking back on those sessions, and considering they were so long ago, would you change anything?
No, no. I wouldn’t. I really believe in moving forward at all times, that’s my personality. I’m always focussed on what’s ahead, so I definitely would not go back and change things. Everything about this album is going to be analysed in the context of the pandemic, but it was made before COVID-19 started. When I think about the period in which we recorded the album I think of the happy “before times”. I mean, they weren’t happy – we were living in Trump’s America and it was a scary time in many ways, but there was a certain innocence to that time right before March 2020. I don’t like thinking about the pandemic, I’m just happy we can share the album the way it is.
Did all the free time already give you a headstart on the next project?
Not at all. I never stopped working on this record. The music has been done for a while but the delay gave me an extra year to work on the album artwork. I think it’s the best artwork I’ve ever done for the band. There’s a lot of visuals that need to be made, and there’s also going to be stuff like tour posters and merchandise which I’ll also make. The album has a lot of big visuals that I’ve created, and this extra year also have us the time to plan out eleven music videos as well as eleven unique events. In fact, after this interview I’m going back to my studio to continue working, which is what I’ve done every day. I’m super engaged, and I’m also a visual artist away from the band. But yeah, the work on this album never stopped and I’m still very much into it a year on which is good.
Do you ever have time to slow down?
Nah, not really. That’s not really my style. I’m a “keep going” kind of guy! I do sometimes go place and leave New York, but I always end up working on stuff and making things. That’s the way I like to live, I like to maintain momentum. There’s more stuff that I want to do than what I actually can do.
Tell me a bit more about the video for Walking At A Downtown Pace, especially the choice to work with Daniel Arnold.
I don’t know if we worked with Daniel so much as we gave him free reign to do whatever he wanted, but he did a great job of interpreting the song. I wasn’t familiar with him before, but I think it may have been Austin who suggested it. Actually, now it’s coming back to me – it was Austin! I had not heard of Daniel before and to be honest I’m still not quite sure what he does besides being an excellent witness to New York City. From what I can tell he makes these insightful little portraits of NYC that are full of life and depth. I think that is a great quality to have when you’re making a music video for Parquet Courts. He communicated the song and the city in a beautiful way: life in New York in 2021.
You briefly mentioned it earlier, but what was behind this Power of Eleven initiative?
The idea was literally that we had to put a record eventually, but not knowing what life would be like and not knowing if a Parquet Courts show could ever happen again we decided to plan events which celebrated the band and brought fans together. People have been craving togetherness. The ideas was to design eleven events – each one loosely based around a song – that could bring fans of different communities together. It was something we were able to apply no matter the social distancing restrictions in a particular location, no matter the social distancing rules. All these events are different, and they all involve groups of different sizes and scales, but the main thing is that we just wanted to bring everyone together.
You’ve also got the Feel Free project. What inspired that?
Feel Free consists of eleven music video, so basically every song on the album gets a video. That was an idea which I got from Sonic Youth, because when I was a kid I had this tape of the LP Goo (1990), and each song had a music video. It was the first Sonic Youth record I heard and I always thought, “man, why does no one do stuff like this?” Now that I’m in a band I know the answer – it’s very expensive. It’s also difficult finding and working with eleven different directors. It’s a huge undertaking, but I’m really proud of it so far. I’ve seen a lot of the videos already, and they’ve been made by a diverse group of great filmmakers.
I guess finding the right one is the toughest part.
Yeah, and that’s also what I mean when I say that we never stopped working on this record. It’s cool because we had that extra year.
The pandemic has shown us that there are plenty of flaws in the music industry. What can we do to improve going forward?
That’s a hard question. I mean, I guess anything that can be called an industry or anything which involves labour and money-making will always have plenty of room to improve. It’s a pretty deep topic and I’m certain there’s a lot of things I can think of, but obviously for the next few years in specific the industry will have to become an environment where there’s extreme caution to be taken over public health. We’re about to play some American shows this fall, and we’re taking every precaution we can, for example proof of vaccination. To go beyond that, there’s a few variations of vaccine passports although none of them have really caught on here. There’s not one national one, but that’s all we can do for the time being. Man, this is a question I could talk about forever. There’s the record industry and streaming, and other stuff like that, but to be honest we would have to have a separate interview just for me to answer this question fully. Sympathy For Life is due 22 October.