Parquet Courts have made a career as the naturally gifted stoners who can ace the semester from the back of the class. The kids with their arms crossed and feet up on the desk, chit-chatting about irrelevant nonsense and then expounding witty, on-point retorts when the professor tries to catch them off-guard.
But their sixth full-length, Wide Awake!, sounds like a version of the band that’s pivoted to the front of the room, fidgeting eagerly with their hands up high, fighting the urge to leap up and take over the lecture. “It is dishonest, nay, a sin to stand for any anthem that attempts to drown out the roar of oppression,” barks Andrew Savage on the album’s uproarious intro “Total Football,” which ends with the line “fuck Tom Brady.”
Previously, the closest they ever got to this type of political directness was their 2014 rumination on technological overstimulation, Content Nausea, which continues to age gracefully. Though unlike any of their past works, Wide Awake! leaves nothing up to interpretation, using the production wisdom of Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) to create their most adventurous and least frivolous record yet.
A month back, co-songwriters Andrew Savage and Austin Brown spoke to Billboard about their first time working with a producer (Burton), the record’s political motifs, and wrangling a group of children together to sing on Brown’s most personal song to date.
In the press release it says you guys were heavily influenced by a lot of ’80s punk bands like the Minutemen, but also by funk music. How did those styles make it onto the record?
Savage: I think specifically with hardcore, especially ’80s hardcore, I think there’s this duality between joy and anger that I find to be really interesting, and that’s something the record kind of deals with at large. I always thought it was really interesting how hardcore could be such an angry music form but could make you feel so positive. There’s a lot of moments on the record when all of us are singing at the same time and I guess that’s something I kind of associate with hardcore, or Funkadelic.
Did Brian Burton have any influence on the direction you took toward funk and punk?
Savage: I can’t really give him that because we had written the record before he came into the mix. We were about to go record the record down in Texas when he came to us with the offer to do the record. He was really enthusiastic. He was coming onto our plans. It established this trust that’s very essential when working with a producer for the first time. There wasn’t this feeling that this guy’s trying to change us. Which was a fear—it honestly was. We hung out with him a lot before getting into the studio with him. To make sure he was cool—and he is. Because of that, he was able to bring something that I think was really important: objective voice. The kind of thing that could only come out of someone who wasn’t in the band. The most important thing he did was see Parquet Courts in a way that we can’t see ourselves.
Brown: I think whenever we’re making a record—or when anyone’s making a record—you get so involved with the details and what the songs are about and the process of writing, and you get kind of lost in that. He helped kind of tie a bow around certain song ideas we were wanting to finish but maybe wouldn’t have otherwise. Certain songs like “Violence.” Encouraging us to write more parts to that song to make it more of a song and less of a jam.
So after making your most out-there project, Monastic Living, then your most melodic, Human Performance, and then that collaborative album, Milano, was there anything you guys knew you wanted to do going into Wide Awake!?
Brown: I felt like we had covered a lot of ground in a lot of different styles and experiments with our previous records. So this one was a bit challenging trying to find new things musically. There’s some anger on the record, political anger and cultural criticism, and then there’s also songs that are about love and kind of the catharsis that comes from joy and happiness. Although the time we wrote the record, culturally, is quite dark, we didn’t want it to necessarily be a dark, angry or brooding record.
What are you trying to say with the phrase Total Football? What does the bridge where you’re merging various influential artists with the phrase ‘Total Football’ mean?
Savage: Total Football is a Dutch theory for association football. The idea is that all players on the field can assume different roles at a moment’s notice and switch roles. Any player can play any position. I guess I’m making a statement about collectivity and autonomy. It’s kind of railing against this idea of cliched, American masculine hyper-individuality. “Fuck Tom Brady,” Tom Brady serving as a sort of avatar for that cliche.
The closer “Tenderness” feels conflicted, but there’s the line about “pollinating your peers” that strikes me as a call to action. What’s the note you were looking to end on?
Savage: It is conflicted because right now I think nihilism is so easy and it’s easy to get caught up in it. We’ve all had those moments when you give into it. Right now nihilism is the thing that led us down the road where we are… it’s conflicting to resist that because in our culture right now it does feel sort of feel natural because total nihilists are running the country.
“Death Will Bring Change” has those children’s voices singing on there that Andrew said was something you worked on after the whole thing had been recorded. Why’d you decide to include that?
Brown: The song is about the death of a child. I thought having the children sing the coda has this dark sensibility to it. The children weren’t with us in Texas when we were [there recording]. I had to go to the School of Rock in the Upper East Side at 9 a.m. and face these precocious 8-12-year-old’s. That was pretty scary. I had a really late night before, I had like two hours of sleep and I come in there and they’re like, “alright, whatever you want us to do.” I’ve never been around that many children, especially in a position of being in charge of anything. I got a good 20 minutes out of them. We got like four takes, maybe, and after that I was like, “that’s a good starting place, okay let’s try it a few different ways.” And they all looked at me like, “are you serious? We’re done.” I couldn’t explain to them and be like, I’m gonna take what you did and go work on it for 8 hours. They just did 20 minutes and they thought they were in there for days. There were a couple parents in there who were really excited, but the kids didn’t seem to really understand what was going on. For them, it was just another cool thing they were doing or something their parents made them go do. A couple of them were having fun, I’m just not really used to being around kids. I wasn’t prepared to be charismatic. They didn’t seem very impressed with me at all. That was a surprise. It was really difficult. I’m really glad that I went through with it but it was very scary. You should never co-star with animals or children and now I understand why.