In November 2015, Parquet Courts released Monastic Living, a nine-song collection of experimental rock that marked a jarring left turn for the Brooklyn-based four piece. On first listen, the 33-minute EP seemed nearly impenetrable, as though the band was aiming to provoke fans drawn in by the catchy punk of their breakout 2012 album, Light Up Gold, and its jammier successor, 2014’s Sunbathing Animal. The half-shouted vocals that had established the tone and personality of the band’s music — straddling the line between numbly disaffected and emotionally overwhelmed — had been all but eradicated in favor of distorted, instrumental drone that mostly sidestepped the band’s gift for melody.
The announcement of Monastic Living’s release came with the assertion that the band would do no interviews to promote it — and by the following April, when the band released the much more accessible Human Performance, most critics seemed prepared to dismiss Monastic Living as a lark, a sort of minor punk-rock tantrum.
And while Human Performance does feature some of the strongest material of the band’s career — the beautiful, bleak title track is as arresting as it is heartbreaking — Monastic Living remains as succinct a statement of identity as the band has ever released, thanks to the minute-long first track, “No, No, No!” — the only song on the EP to feature vocals.
That track features Andrew Savage — the band’s co-frontman, along with guitarist and vocalist Austin Brown — barking out a rejection of the labels he and the band have been given.
“I don’t want to be called a poet,” he shouts. “I don’t want to be cited, tacked onto your cause / No, no, no / I’m just a man.”
That idea, that life is a struggle to retain integrity in the face of a myriad of external forces — “content nausea,” as the band puts it — has been a part of Parquet Courts’ identity throughout their career, both on their records and off.
Weld: Human Performance opens with the song “Dust,” which features the refrain, “Dust is everywhere / Sweep.” Given that a lot of Parquet Courts’ music focuses on dealing with constantly encroaching chaos, what does it mean to “sweep?”
Andrew Savage: Well, Austin wrote that song, so I can only guess. But I would guess that “sweep” has to do with maintenance of the world around you and making sure that you don’t allow too much auxiliary dust in. … To me, that song has to do with the mind, you know? And sometimes you’ve got to put some stuff in the dustbin and empty it out.
Weld: The recording process for Human Performance was much longer than it had been on previous Parquet Courts records. Did extending the creative period have an impact on the way the album is structured, thematically or tonally?
Andrew Savage: Certainly that affected the way the record ended up sounding, there’s no doubt about that. I don’t know if that in particular ended up affecting the theme or tone of the record, and if it did, I can’t exactly say for sure how much. Yeah, definitely the record sounds the way it does, and it sounds different from other Parquet Courts records like, say, Content Nausea or Light Up Gold, that were recorded in about a week or less. …
But I don’t know. I can’t really assess those things, even posthumously, because the recording process of all those records kind of ends up being a blur after a while. It’s a hard thing to put your mind back in. So now, when I hear these songs or when I play these songs, they have so little to do with their point of origin. I’m so bad about talking about recording process and what it was like recording a record, because it’s so rooted in the past to me that it just becomes kind of abstract. I have a hard time talking about it.
Weld: That reluctance to explain yourselves has been a major part of Parquet Courts’ career, cropping up both in your interactions with the press and in some of your songs. Where does that come from?
Savage: I don’t really like having to explain music to people. It’s not something that should be explained. It should be experienced. As a fan of music, I think it’s really pretty dull when people attempt to tell you about process or gear. Aw man, nothing puts me to sleep faster.
There’s this radio show called Song Exploder. I’ve listened to a couple of episodes of it, and it was just sucking the life out of this stuff. Like, don’t tell me what gear you used to record [a song]. I don’t care.
A song should be experienced. It can’t be explained. I could tell you, I could spell it out for you what was going on in my life at a certain time, or like, what guitar I played on something, but a song in its true experience should be ingested and it should overwhelm you. It should take you over. That’s the education that you get from it.
Weld: I think the purest distillation of that philosophy in Parquet Courts’ discography is the Monastic Living EP, which was a big sonic departure that you released with little explanation. Critics’ responses to that record ranged from baffled to hostile. Was that something you expected?
Savage: When you do press, you’re giving people the chance to build their own narrative around something. Sometimes people get intimidated when you’re totally in control of what’s behind your record, and you don’t give them any answers.
I mean, the answers are all there. I do give them answers. The answers are in the first song. The answers are in that record coming out on Black Friday. But people don’t want to think too hard about stuff, so they come up with their own ideas, which is fine, but in this case, most people got that record wrong. But that was to be anticipated, I think. Or, at least, we did.
Weld: You mentioned Black Friday, which dovetails with the fact that Monastic Living wasn’t really an easy record to market. That seems like a concern you’ve had throughout your career, that tension between art and commodification.
Savage: Yeah, and I would say that’s something that would be on the mind of any modern artist, whether it would be in a rock band or a solo artist or outside of music, a visual artist or a writer. It’s so part-and-parcel, isn’t it, commodification? It’s a balance, how much you’re willing to be commodified.
Usually it’s for the sake of getting people to know what you’re doing, because it’s a drag when you’re doing something and nobody knows about it, and you’re putting your blood, sweat, and tears into something — or at least it would be for me. I would be no exception. Anybody who makes art within the confines of capitalism is going to be concerned, or should be concerned with commodification to some extent.
Weld: That can be applied on a personal level as well. Songs like “No, No, No!” and “Paraphrased” are pretty fierce arguments against attempts to shape you, against your will, into some sort of easily digestible character.
Savage: People try to give you a character, but they don’t know you. They try to make you the character, something that’s marketable. But really, that attention should be focused on the music, not trying to build a personality out of a personality. People are always going to try to do that, because especially in rock music, like, for some reason there’s this instinct with a lot of people where they want to know something about the people that are making the music, and they want to have an archetype to attach it to. Parquet Courts, we don’t really have interest in being archetypes, or being characters, or being anything but members of a band.
Parquet Courts will perform at Saturn on Friday, February 10. Mary Lattimore will open. Doors open at 8 p.m.; the show begins at 9 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance and $18 the day of the show. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.