Parquet Courts: ‘Winning is the whole point’

On Human Performance, the Brooklynites have found the lyrical intensity to match their breathless live act. But, with pop – from Beyoncé to Kendrick – as political as ever, do they think rock music can still have something to say?

Punk rock has always prided itself on speaking truth to power. Austin Brown, one of Parquet Courts’ two singer-guitarists is no different. The man was there, and Brown stuck it to him, albeit the man wasn’t a police chief or a corrupt politician. “I think I’m personally responsible for the Houston Texans’ general manager getting off of Twitter,” he says, referring to the NFL team he used to support. “I would constantly be tweeting at him: ‘Fuck you! You’re a fucking idiot.’ But he only had 60 followers. And he was an asshole.”

Brown used to support the Texans. He doesn’t any more. “The more I watched [American] football, and learned how fucked up it was, the less I could responsibly even watch it.” He rails against the pro game, and against college football, a multibillion-dollar industry “where players spend their prime athletic years playing for free, hoping they don’t get injured, so they can get their one deal where they play for five seasons, and hopefully not be so concussed by the time they’re done they can live a functioning life”.

So, he gave up on gridiron and decided it would become his mission to support a team in every other sport. He has been watching Aussie rules, cricket, rugby. In soccer, this man – who has made a decision to give up the sport of his birthright on principle – has chosen to support, wait for it, Manchester United, the Death Star of world football. “Look,” he says, “this is the first time I’ve ever followed a team that is meant to win the league every season they play, and I feel awesome about that. The teams I grew up watching have all been shit. So then I was granted the biggest team in the world, and it was, like, great.”

If it seems odd that Brown supports the world’s biggest sporting brand, it is because his band – even after five albums – remain fiercely committed to the DIY scene they sprang from. Brown’s fellow singer-guitarist, Andrew Savage, still helps run a label; the group still take their friends on tour with them; they mention, enthusiastically, other bands they feel are kindred spirits, such as Detroit post-punks Protomartyr.

Watch the video for Dust by Parquet Courts.

But Parquet Courts have surpassed all those kindred spirits, in the one realm they would likely see as irrelevant – the commercial one. Their second album, 2012’s Light Up Gold, became an indie hit, though that doesn’t mean that much in the great scheme of things. In 2014, their third, Sunbathing Animal, entered the proper US charts, reaching No 55. Their music – sometimes droning, sometimes aggressive, sometimes sardonic, sometimes quizzical – struck a nerve, helped by the fact that, on a good night, Parquet Courts could be a breathlessly exciting live act. If earlier in their career they were often compared (to their chagrin) to the Strokes or Pavement, and (to their even greater chagrin) repeatedly called slackers, then their new album, Human Performance, sees them engaging emotionally, and sounding not unlike Wire’s second album, Chairs Missing. This record is more melodic, more personal and vulnerable than what has come before. “One of the things that people admire about Parquet Courts is the lyricism maybe being cerebral and not necessarily emotional,” Savage says. “This is the moment when the scales are reversed a little bit.”

It is also an angry album. The song Two Dead Cops deals with an incident that happened in the Brooklyn neighbourhood Savage lives in, when two police officers were shot dead. “When shots are heard young lives are lost/ Nobody cries in the ghetto for two dead cops,” Savage sings. He is not being disrespectful, he says; it is completely appropriate that people do mourn the deaths of police officers, “but we don’t spend much time talking about the social sickness and relationship with violence we have, and how violence is so specifically directed at poor people and non-whites; and, living in Brooklyn, it’s something you can’t not notice.”

Bassist Sean Yeaton chips in: “My mom had plans to go to a movie with her boyfriend. I was on the phone with her, and asked how the movie was. She said she didn’t go because she was afraid of getting shot in the movie theatre. Not in a paranoid way; it was as if she was asking for a glass of water. As if the possibility was so great. It was so weird and dark.”

Two Dead Cops is a taut and thrilling song, the kind of burst of anger the underground has always thrived on. The kind of song that, once upon a time, set musical agendas. The thing is, though, we are talking the day after the Super Bowl – the day after Beyoncé angered one part of the US and delighted another by performing Formation at the halftime show in tribute to the Black Panthers, as an indictment of police killings of black youths. Suddenly, an indie band singing about the same things seems a bit less confrontational.

“If you have that much cultural influence, I think it’s almost dishonest to ignore things like that. It’s only right that she did that,” Savage says.

“It’s not easy,” says Brown. “Surely there’s going to be: ‘Why did you sully the sanctity of the Super Bowl by bringing politics into it?’”

He is right: the following days are filled with those kinds of complaints. But what Beyoncé did with Formation – what Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West and other huge mainstream US stars have done – is to transform the landscape of music and politics. The power they wield when they talk about politics burns all the oxygen in the debate. That’s not a bad thing; it’s astounding that Beyoncé was able to make #blacklivesmatter the centre of the biggest TV event in the US. But it casts the power of rock music – the old home of the counterculture – into sharp relief.

Parquet Courts performing in July 2015 in Chicago.
Parquet Courts performing in July 2015 in Chicago. Photograph: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

“Rock music’s no longer the massive cultural institution it was,” Savage says, before reaching for the positives. “That’s fine, because when you don’t have that pressure on you, it allows you to be a little more daring in what you do. I don’t know if you can cite a path for it to go down. It’s better for creativity when things exist in the margins.”

The important thing, they all say, is that music has to be honest, whether it is made by superstars in the mainstream, or by DIY punk groups in the margins. So that can mean Beyoncé and Kendrick singing about the politics of urban America, or it can mean Parquet Courts opening their emotional lives. “You reach a certain point with any emotion, where any fear you might have about projecting it becomes pointless,” Yeaton says. “If you sprain your ankle and you’re a professional basketball player, you can’t pretend you didn’t sprain your ankle and be able to play an amazing game. There are certain emotions that become so overwhelming that it becomes its own entity and you have to talk about it, or you won’t be able to get past it.”

That’s true. But there’s being true to yourself, and there’s choosing to support Manchester Bloody United. Is there an honest explanation for that? “Winning is the whole point of watching a team,” Brown says, unrepentant. “At this point, I don’t need to follow another sports team that loses all the time.”

Well, it’s one way to ensure you don’t get called slacker underdogs all your life.

• Human Performance is released on Rough Trade on 8 April


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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