The positive tension of Parquet Courts

“New York changes so much. Sometimes for better, definitely sometimes for worse.Andrew Savage is at his Bed-Stuy apartment, sun setting on the horizon. He’s lived there for five years, and fronted Parquet Courts for around the same period of time. While “Brooklyn-based” became such an oversaturated prefix for bands in the mid-to-late 2000s to the extent of being pejorative, Parquet Courts emerged after the gold rush, so to speak. Stoic in the face of rent hikes that have pushed away the majority of artists from the area (“I’m fortunate that my place is rent stabilised”), a sense of similar assuredness imbues Parquet Courts’ relatively prolific output, including the just released Human Performance. 

Savage is one for wry observation. “Just speaking of my block, it’s changed as in there’s less trash blowing down the street. It’s got remarkably cleaner this year. There are new bodegas where you can get kale chips and shit like that.” As a songwriter, that scope of awareness is parlayed into narratives both acute and sprawling, at times simultaneously. Through impressionist lyrical strokes, personal and political resonance is achieved. The band, both live and in studio, are relentlessly tight.

Parquet Courts have toured globally, including visits to Australia in 2014 for Laneway Festival (plus a repeat same-year appearance at Splendour) and 2015 for Golden Plains. These momentary dislocations and the rapidly shifting climate in New York factor into the themes on Human Performance, as Savage explains.

Do you think the music you make is distinctly American?
I think so. That’s not to say there aren’t influences that come into Parquet Courts that are international. But I think the end product certainly is. That’s why we chose the name Parquet Courts, because it is such a distinctly American reference and we want to sound like a distinctly American band. 

There’s a strong element of folk storytelling in your music. Does that come easy?
I don’t think songwriting ever comes easy. Maybe natural. It’s natural to have a narrative, a personal narrative, in art – songwriting being no exception. So I guess I just gravitate towards that because it feels right.

‘Berlin Got Blurry’ highlights a slight sense of diaspora as a touring band.
That song is supposed to punctuate the feeling of being out of place and alone in direct proximity to things that are very familiar. I think Berlin made itself for the perfect setting for that, because it is international and cosmopolitan and you do get a diaspora feeling there, but also it’s definitely a place that can make you feel alone and lonely as a foreigner there. It’s the perfect backdrop for the feelings I was having when I wrote that one.

How do you extract the metaphor from signifiers, such as Berlin in that instance?
You look for the signifiers and you look for symbols that can represent bigger emotions and bigger pictures. At least I do – that’s part of the process. It’s always the goal to be able to express something relatively complicated or hard to explain via something a little bit simpler. Part of that is setting. The setting of that song is Berlin, but the true essence of it is a lonely heart.

The title, Human Performance, is that meant to be presented as a tautology? To be human is to perform, to perform is to be human?

“I don’t think tension is ever the goal”

You can feel like you have strings attached to you. It’s the awareness of the instinct to perform, which I had maybe become belatedly aware of in a brutal way that I won’t get into now. There’s a question mark that ends the record, and that’s “what is this performance that we engage in mean and how does it affect other people – for better and for worse”. 

You write songs that build with tension while rarely providing a sense of release. Is that something that comes from meticulous construction?
I don’t know how meticulous it is, but I guess it’s constructed. Look at a song like ‘Sunbathing Animal’ that’s basically 80 percent, or even more, of just the one note. When that note switches, there’s a certain disarming of tension that immediately gets back. I don’t think tension is ever the goal. Feeling something is the goal. Creating a response is the goal. Sometimes that response can be tension. I guess tension is a spectrum, and you could say all of Parquet Courts’ songs exist somewhere on it. There’s a positive type of tension, and I think most of it is. We want to keep challenging ourselves as songwriters and keep it that people are feeling things when they hear us.

There’s a tangible dynamic between songs in terms of emotion in vocals. For instance, ‘Two Dead Cops’ is loaded with despair.
You write subject matters that can compel you to make your feelings for the subject matter apparent in your delivery. That’s just a part of singing. You wanna feel it, right? 

Will you hold onto the Parkay Quarts moniker as an outlet for your more experimental recordings?
I think the group’s most experimental records were released under the conventional Parquet Courts spelling of the name. It’s just bullshit, it doesn’t mean anything. 

Will you bring Human Performance to Australia for a tour?
I reckon we will.

Human Performance is out now via Rough Trade / Remote Control