Leave it to Parquet Courts, the ever-inventive, erudite indie rock outfit, to make a pandemic record before the pandemic. The Brooklyn band’s seventh album, Sympathy for Life, out October 22nd, is a meditation on technology, alienation, and impersonal relationships; masks are a recurring theme, albeit in a more classic psychological sense, but that doesn’t make it feel any less on the nose. The beacon of hope at the end of this morass is salvation through community, with Parquet Courts finding a new road map on the dance floor.
“These are all feelings that became exacerbated during the pandemic,” says Austin Brown, one of the band’s two frontmen. “These were things that were always there, just maybe not as blatant or obvious. So I think that’s really interesting, that [this album] tells a kind of timeless story that we’re only now realizing since we’ve had so many of the luxuries of our personal and social lives taken away.”
Sympathy for Life, which follows 2018’s Danger Mouse-produced Wide Awake!, was more or less wrapped in March 2020. (One exception is “Marathon of Anger,” which was inspired by last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and finished in the midst of the uprising.) On Wide Awake!, Parquet Courts began to make their move toward a different, dancier groove, but on Sympathy for Life, it’s a full embrace. Andrew Savage, the band’s other frontman, says his guiding trinity of influences comprised Can, Canned Heat, and This Heat, while the album also draws heavily from Talking Heads and Primal Scream’s rave rock classic Screamadelica (which is having a big 30th anniversary year, popping up as an influence on Lorde’s “Solar Power,” too). To help guide them, Parquet Courts largely worked with producer Rodaidh McDonald, who has dabbled in dance, pop, rock and more on albums by the xx, David Byrne, Hot Chip, Savages, and King Krule. The more rock-oriented John Parish produced two additional tracks.
Parquet Courts also returned to a core component of their creative DNA: improvisation. The band’s earliest material was largely born out of jams on the stages of now-defunct Brooklyn DIY spaces, and though they’ve tapped back into that spirit over the years, only 2015’s Monastic Living has made improvisation a key tenet. The difference between that experimental effort and Sympathy for Life is that their new album was heavily edited, the band paring back jams as long as 40 minutes into succinct tunes. As much as this process opened up new sonic frontiers for Parquet Courts — Brown barely plays guitar and Savage quips he looked like Brian Eno in Roxy Music manning his tower of mixers and synths — it also led to a creative process that was distinctly communal.
“That’s the most powerful tool we have — the way we communicate musically and have done for so long,” Brown says, adding later: “Obviously there’s songs, lead singers, lyricists, but the way this album came together, everyone can listen to it and feel like they wrote their own part and guided the song in a certain way.”
He thinks this way of working helped the band break free toward something genuinely new. “Being a band for so long, there’s lots of bands that can write a Parquet Courts song, and I’ve heard some that were not written by us,” Brown notes with a laugh. “That stresses to me how important it is to evolve and move past what might be popularly considered a Parquet Courts sound.”
In separate interviews — which have been edited and combined here for clarity — Brown and Savage went deep on the shortcomings of indie rock, dropping acid and lifting weights in Italy, finding a new love for music on the dance floor, and more.
What have the past 18 months been like for Parquet Courts? Is this the longest you’ve gone without touring and playing together?
Brown: We’ve been a band for over 10 years, and the way we can communicate musically and the expediency that we can come up with creative ideas is really unparalleled with anything else that we can do otherwise. We’ve all played with different bands and musicians since the band started, but it’s so much different. Whenever we all get together, we have a really intuitive way of playing. That was definitely missed, and I’m really happy to have it back
Savage: The band started in 2010, but things really got going when What’s Your Rupture? re-released Light Up Gold in January 2013. That’s when we started touring non-stop until 2019, when we wound down to start working on Sympathy for Life. Touring and being in this band had defined my my life since — I was 27 then, I’m 35 now. It became part of my lifestyle. I’d come home to Brooklyn where I live and keep a studio — I’m a visual artist, too —and as soon as I get tired of being in one place, I go on tour again. I was a huge change of pace, because it’s kind of all I’ve known. All of us, it’s all we’ve known for a while.
You delayed the album for a year because of the pandemic. Were you ever tempted to tinker with it, or do something new?
Savage: You know, one of the saving graces of the whole thing was this record because, truth be told, I’ve worked on it every day since in some form or another. The album art, I had a ton more time to work on that, and it’s the best I’ve done. And we had time to mix it, we had time to work on these 11 different music videos and these 11 different events to promote the record. I’ve been doing merch and tour posters, this, that, and the other. So I really used this project to focus my attention on something. I’ve always got something to do, but this was a really good way to distract from the hellscape that was 2020.
Brown: This album does have a better narrative behind it than some of our previous albums, which are maybe more straightforward because we were in this zone of being constantly productive and didn’t have time to think about what context the album was made. I think the changes in our personal lives, and the growth we’ve experienced over the past three or four years since Wide Awake! is a much different story. It’s nice to take time and think about what the context of this album is before putting it out.
Andrew, you came into these sessions with some songs and lyrics written during a visit to Italy where you also took a bunch of acid and lifted weights. That sounds very idyllic.
Savage: Uh-huh, it was really nice. From time to time, I like to take these solo creative sojourns, I guess you could call them. Get out somewhere remote, get a little freaky, and just focus on my art. I was in southern Italy, it was very remote. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have a bike. I was an hour walk from a town, so every few days I had to walk to this town — which is barely on the map — and go to the farmers market to get food. But that was the point. I didn’t know I would be working on stuff for the Parquet Courts record, but it’s kind of what came out.
How did the weightlifting factor in, especially with all the tripping?
Savage: People might be surprised, but I’m a fairly active guy. I’m a cyclist and backpacker. The whole thing started when I was taking some acid, I was in my living room [in Brooklyn], and I started doing push-ups. I was like, “Wow, I’m really killing these push-ups.” Then I was like, “What if I went to the gym? No, that’s crazy, you can’t go to the gym on acid. But what if I did?” So I pumped myself up, like, “OK, right out the door, take a left at the end of the block, you’ll be there in five minutes. Don’t look anyone in the eye, just scan your card, go to the rowing machine.” So that’s what I did. I ended up having a blast. I did the rowing machine, for, I mean, in real world time, it could have been two hours. I don’t really know. But it was a bit of a performance-enhancing, mind-over-matter kind of thing. So I decided to build this little vacation out of this idea — just pushing my body to the limit under the hot Italian sun while frying my mind on acid! I’m not going to write the “trippy lifting” book — don’t worry — but it ended up being the thing that put me in the right headspace for this record.
You’ve opened the band up to more producers in recent years, how did you settle on Rodaidh McDonald and John Parish for this album?
Brown: For Sympathy for Life, we were working off of the Screamadelica model. Not really because of the sound, but how they were able to navigate being a rock band inspired by their rave experience. I don’t think our record sounds like Screamadelica, but we knew that, to get different results within our own music, we needed to change the process. Part of that was the improvisations, and another part was working with multiple producers, which is what Primal Scream did on Screamadelica with Andrew Weatherall, the Orb, and Hugo Nicolson. We worked with several producers, but the only tracks we picked were with Rodaidh and John.
Savage: One common quality that [McDonald and Parish] have is they’re fans of the band, which I think is important: A producer should genuinely like the band they’re working with. They can see things that we can’t, they can see the band better than they see themselves in some ways, and push them and challenge them in that way… Rodaidh was really encouraging of this process of improvising and editing. He was also good at manipulating the sounds we were making, or guiding us in how to manipulate those sounds. Whereas John, the reason I wanted to work with him was because he has this remarkable talent of sending a mic directly into a tape machine with no interference of components and making it sound amazing. Those are two kind of opposite approaches, but I think it makes for an interesting record with diverse textures to it
What influence did dance music and the New York City club scene have on you and this album?
Brown: After making Wide Awake!, I didn’t really feel like making another rock record. This whole scene of these massive indie rock festivals, seeing the way musicians are treated like faux celebrities, and the way minor indie musicians get worshiped in this unidirectional way — there’s the group on stage, everyone’s looking at them, and thinking they’re the most important people just because they happen to be the loudest. I got really into dance music and realized in those environments, the music is the thing that connects everybody. There’s a DJ selecting tracks, but they’re really there to guide the party, and what grows from that are the feelings you leave with. Everyone’s there to foster and maintain a loving and caring community from night until the morning. That was massively inspiring. The music was inspiring. And the care that was taken to present the music in high fidelity is unparalleled. Rock became silly and frivolous in that situation. Even the drugs are better at dance parties, and the conversations are about taking care of each other and being inclusive. And that’s because of the history where dance music was fostered, especially in New York City, like the Loft and Paradise Garage — these were places where gay and Black people could go and express themselves in a true way without fear of judgment or being outside those doors, where it was subversive just to exist.
Savage: I started going to more techno and industrial stuff in 2017, 2018, and that type of musical experience is very different than the one I was used to. Most pop music — be it rock or hip-hop — is based on a performer and an audience. But techno, it’s almost less like music than a sound environment that gives you a physical sensation. One thing I can compare it to is the La Monte Young “Dream House” installation in TriBeCa, where there are these four sine-wave speakers set up in each corner, and as you circumnavigate the room, your body feels the different ratios of vibrations depending on where you’re standing. That’s a physical experience that’s induced by a controlled sound environment, and I kind of see techno that way. It’s almost like when I’m dancing to techno, I don’t feel like I’m listening to music
Brown: There’s also a New York story I hadn’t embraced yet and became really obsessed with. I’ve always considered Parquet Courts to be a New York band like the Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, the Ramones, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo. But there’s a parallel line that runs with dance music and club culture. That was subversive, something that could really threaten the status quo in a way that rock music never really did. The punk aesthetic just became mainstream, the status quo.
Savage: After looking out in the audience and seeing all these young guys do this ridiculous push-mosh thing that’s been recycled in the rock vernacular for so long to the point where it’s kind of become a parody — I guess Austin and I became interested in creating an environment at a rock show where people can actually dance. I do think the term “dance music” is a misnomer — all music is, could, and should be dance music. You can dance to Elvis, you can dance to Stravinsky, you can dance to Steve Reich if you want. I wanted to make some songs more conducive to that. And maybe I’ll look out and see some new, more unique styles of dancing
I’m interested in that notion of rock being more of a unilateral experience. Having been a prominent indie band for a decade now, was that something that had begun to feeling draining?
Brown: I think it had a lot to do with the angry music we were playing. Wide Awake! has a very angry tone to it, not totally, but it was something I just kind of ceased to relate to. I felt self-conscious about doing so on stage, but it’s also not just about me up there. It’s the orientation of the concert in general — many faces looking at one. And not to get too woo-woo, but that’s a tenet of capitalism [laughs]. It’s envisioning a pyramid and it’s not healthy. I’ve seen some amazing concerts and have certainly faced that direction. I guess that’s to say it’s complicated and there’s emotions wrapped up in there. But there’s sort of an assembly line of indie culture, where you have these festivals that look the same, they have the same bands, and there’s not a lot of thought put into caring for the community. It’s more about taking your money and moving you down the line. Certainly it happens in dance music, I’m not ignorant of that; but that’s not where I’m at, that’s not where I’m going. I’m going to places where no one cares I’m in Parquet Courts because it doesn’t matter. It gives me a glimpse into what things could be like — what things should be like in these scenarios.
This album made me think about the ways tech and other looming, lifeless forms of capital shape and move our individual lives. How do you see those forces at play from the perspective of the band?
Savage: The reality is, this is a pretty working-class job. We’re not making a ton of money. I have tons of debt. I just had someone in my apartment move out, and I’m the one on the lease, so I’m gonna scramble to find someone to fill this space, because I can’t afford to pay someone else’s rent this month. I think people might be surprised that a lot of their favorite artists in the realm of Parquet Courts — the indie realm — are actually kind of living paycheck to paycheck. And that’s the case with me and the band, for sure. If we were a band when people bought CDs, this wouldn’t be the case [laughs]. I’ve met people who were in bands with an indie hit in the Nineties or Aughts, and they’re doing pretty good still. I’m not trying to be like Lars from Metallica here — I’m not here to indict streaming. I also benefit from it. I love that, if someone recommends me a private-press psych record from the 1970s, I can go on YouTube and listen to it. That’s amazing. A kid can know the entire catalog of Norwegian black metal before they’ve heard a lick of Roxy Music. But it does mean that what was once a way that artists made money no longer really is a viable way to make money. Now we just tour our assess off, which, believe me, I’m happy to start doing again. It is a lifestyle for me, and it’s a lifestyle I love, and money’s not everything. I think I live an absurdly cool life, I love it. But there’s a lot of big tech companies that are getting the dividends of a lot of artists’ hard labor.
There is a lot of hope on Sympathy for Life, especially in these rallying cries for community, and that seems very fitting for a record so inspired by dance music. Do you see any link between the two?
Savage: The title-track acts as a sort of manifesto for the record: “Feel free,” “Come one common feeling,” “Notion of community.” These are the mantras of the record. There are songs like “Application Apparatus” or “Homo Sapien” that are about alienation, but I think that only underscores the community message. I guess with the record, we did kind of predict this yearning for community that people were going to inevitably feel.
Brown: The dance music world really was threatened with extinction by the virus, and it got no help, because of the people it affected. I believe this because the message was love, and caring for a community, and inclusion. And it was delivered without anger and with tenderness. Those are concepts that really threaten an oppressive capitalistic society. Like the disco song, “Love is the Message.” Love is the most dangerous message to people that are in power, and I think that’s something I’d like to remind people with this record.