“The name of the record comes from the title track; Andrew says the inspiration came to him when he saw his cat lying in front of the window, soaking up the rays. He was stuck indoors, but he was still enjoying the light shining through.”
Where Parquet Courts are concerned, you kind of wonder if they’re the sort of band that ever wanted the light to shine through. Pretty much everything about their debut record, Light Up Gold, was unrefined to the point of belligerence; that it would cross over from being an underground hit to an LP that would have the mainstream alternative scene talking was something that was surely never in the script.
That’s precisely what happened, though, when Light Up Gold was reissued, a couple of months after its initial release, on New York label What’s Your Rupture? in January of 2013; ultimately, it’d see the delightfully scratchy four-piece playing to crowds that seemed to expand irrepressibly on both sides of the Atlantic. The record itself met with near-universal acclaim, with a top-spot placing on the finest record store in Britain’s year-end rundown a particular highlight.
Whether it’s because Light Up Gold only came to wider attention about a year ago - or because the band hardly seem to have been away, in touring terms - it seems pretty startling that they’re already prepping a follow-up, Sunbathing Animal. When guitarist Austin Brown joins me for a late-notice chat over Skype, though, it quickly becomes clear that the record’s been in the works pretty much straight form the moment that Light Up Gold went…gold.
“We recorded it over the course of three different sessions throughout last year,” says Brown.” “We had to kind of squeeze them in between long runs of touring; whenever we had a couple of weeks off, we’d try to arrange a few days in the studio. The first session more or less produced the EP that we put out last year, Tally All the Things That You Broke; that was all brand new stuff, that we just laid down and got out right off the bat. We had a few more songs back then that we saved for the record, and we put all of it down later last year. It wasn’t a stretch at all; we were never rushing to get anything finished.”
Given that they’d more or less completely failed to say no to any live engagements, though, Sunbathing Animal’s gestation process necessitated work on the road. “Some of the lyrics had to be written on tour, just kind of on the fly as we were traveling,” Brown recalls. “On reflection, I think the whole thing feels a little bit more minimal this time, a little bit more necessarily shoestring, but I don’t want to give people the impression that we really rushed to come up with new ideas; we recorded Light Up Gold back in February of 2012. I think the fact that it was re-released creates kind of an illusion. The truth is, we’ve been writing new material ever since we wrapped the last one up. If anything, we took our time; Light Up Gold was recorded in three days.”
When that album finally did come to the wider attention of the press, though, it was met with unanimous positivity; certainly in terms of the scores it received, anyway, given that it holds an 84 rating over on Metacritic. Seeing as ‘second album syndrome’ is already a trying enough psychological issue for any band, you have to wonder how badly it was exacerbated by the weight of expectation for Sunbathing Animal.
“To be honest, I found it a little unsettling that all the reviews were so positive,” Brown laughs. “I mean, it’s so rare for something like that to happen. I still feel like we were misinterpreted slightly, throughout all of that. I think some people, even if they really did appreciate what the band was doing, maybe thought we were about something a little bit different to what we think we’re about. We were written about, in some circles, as if we were this really nostalgia-inspired rock band, when in reality that’s kind of unfair. We’ve been doing something new, or at least striving to, from day one. We exist within our own space.”
Brown’s referring to the fact that innumerable comparisons with iconic nineties bands were drawn by critics reviewing Light Up Gold; Pavement is probably the name that cropped up most frequently, but the sheer breadth of equivalence from the press between Parquet Courts and a bygone era is something that, consciously or otherwise, they’ve begun to kick back against on album number two. “I can’t pretend I wasn’t curious to hear who we were being compared to,” Brown admits, “but it ended up being kind of a weird mixed bag. There were bands in there that we really love and admire, and then bands that we don’t listen to at all. I’m not trying to say that anybody was right or wrong, but I really feel like we’re part of something global. We’re probably getting more attention than a lot of our peers, but it’s not like we’re really shooting for the sort of glory that a lot of the greatest bands of all time achieved. We’ve sometimes been compared to those bands - that’s kind of been the go-to thing - but in most cases, there’s no connection to what we set out to do.”
A crucial part of what they aimed for, on Light Up Gold at least, was to eschew the internet; there’s obviously exceptions to the rule - you’re reading this interview, aren’t you? - but the creeping necessity of social media for bands was something that made them sufficiently uncomfortable that they were keen to wriggle free of it from the beginning. “It’s been played up that we were making some sort of statement against modernism on the last record, but it was really more that we didn’t see the point in it. My personal view is that you don’t appreciate a band more by having total access to them, in the way that those platforms often provide. Honestly, I don’t think we felt any pressure to do anything like that, which I guess is unusual in this day and age.”
“I’ve always enjoyed the fact that there hasn’t been a wealth of information available about my favourite bands, or super easy access to them; that’s part of what makes them, for me. I love that mystique, where the band only exists in two places; live, and on record. That’s what we were going for, and I really hope more artists come to realise that they don’t need that stuff, either. The benefit you get from it is irrelevant at best.”
It was probably inevitable that there’d be nothing especially straightforward about the writing process for Sunbathing Animal, given that Brown and Savage share writing duties, and that their packed schedule demanded that they write on the road. “The lyrics always tend to side with whoever the vocalist is; I’ll write them on the songs I sing, and Andrew likewise. It’s the music that’s always the more collaborative side of things. Usually, whoever wrote the lyrics will come in with some kind of melody, and we’ll build around that. The style of writing is the same on this record, I think - it’s still just the two of us - but the themes have kind of drifted into new territory.”
“We didn’t make a conscious effort to do that, but we’ve noticed some pretty obvious recurring ideas popping out, just like we did with Light Up Gold. The songs kind of open themselves up to us more with every listen. Most of them were written within the last twelve months, and sometimes you need to put some distance between yourself and the writing before you can figure out how they represent what was going on in your life at the time.”
As much as the title of the record might seem like a non-sequitur - a bit of silliness born out of a chance observation - Brown reveals that it actually strikes pretty close to the core of Sunbathing Animal’s overriding concept. “There’s a few prevailing themes going on, but the major one kind of involves a duality between freedom and captivity; that balance between the freedom that you find in being in a band - or just being a creative person in the world, that’s trying to leave their mark - and then the captivity that goes along with the constraints that you come up against when you’re trying to make shit work, and a lot of the time having it fail. I think Andrew saw that dichotomy in the story behind the title, and it works well in that respect, because it runs all the way through the record.”
There’s nothing especially unusual about the fact that Brown and Savage moved to New York to start Parquet Courts - Brooklyn, in particular, has never been more of a hotbed for musical activity than it is currently - but it is interesting to balance Light Up Gold’s geographical identity - Texan musicians up north - against Sunbathing Animal’s, given that so much of its conception occurred on tour. “Andrew and I pretty much went straight to New York when we finished school,” says Brown, “and his brother, Max (drums), also ended up out here. We didn’t deliberately move here to start a band; Sean (Yeaton), who plays bass, is from Boston, and we all just kind of fell together. We weren’t aiming for a New York sound; I know I never think of New York when I’m writing. I don’t know; I can recognise the fact that quite a few music writers have heard the city in our music, but personally, I’ve never been able to draw that line.”
Completing the unholy trinity of journalistic opinion on Parquet Courts - alongside nods to the nineties and apparent paeans to the Big Apple - is the idea that they are, in some way, representative of a ‘slacker’ sound. It’s probably strange that a band that received such rapturous acclaim for their one and only album could have quite so many points of dissent with the press, but Brown is eager to set the record straight once again; to be fair, the swiftness of Sunbathing Animal’s turnaround should put paid to any suggestion of idleness.
“I mean, I said it earlier, but I think some of the people who wrote about us were probably a little misinformed,” he explains. “I feel like people will either get us or they won’t, but the whole slacker thing just seemed like totally lazy writing. I guess they’d hear Light Up Gold, and obviously it was recorded in a pretty rudimentary style. There’s mistakes on there, and it’s rough around the edges; it’s certainly not pristine, and a lot of the songs are short and snappy. They hear that, and for some reason - I can only assume because their vocabulary is limited - they call it slacker music.”
“To me, though, I just hear that it’s raw, and full of pure energy. We had three days to do it - we actually wrote a handful of songs in those three days - and it was all recorded live, in our practice space. To me, that’s just stripped-down punk music, done in minimal takes for no other reason than to get the song down in a way that conveyed the energy we had at the time. I’m glad it’s unpolished, and these writers seemed to take it to mean that we didn’t care about what we were doing. I really don’t know how you can hear that record and think that there’s no conviction on it.”
Bearing in mind that they actually managed to squeeze an EP into the already-tight period between these two full-lengths, you have to wonder if there’s already work underway on the next release; it certainly wouldn’t shock you, when you consider how whole-heartedly Parquet Courts seem to have embraced the punk work ethic. “We have a ton of touring coming up, but we always try to plan for a good amount of time off at the end of it, too,” Brown relates. “I think the writing is just something that happens on its own; even if it’s not music, I’m always working on other creative things. We’re already way ahead of where we started. We’re all pretty well-practiced writers now, and yet we set out with hardly any idea of what we wanted to do. It’s a long way to come in such a short space of time.”