In Conversation: A. Savage of Parquet Courts on Introspection and Words that Rhyme with Eyes
With an art exhibit and a debut solo album to offer, the ever-busy lyricist and visual artist opens up on his creative process with expected verbosity and frankness.
Though the release of his debut solo album, Thawing Dawn, is imminent, Parquet Courts co-frontman Andrew Savage is already focused on his next project: an art show in Brooklyn at the end of October. In between sessions finishing work on those paintings, he’ll be mailing out ordered copies of Thawing Dawn himself. After that? Just a measly, everyday East Coast solo tour for about half of November.
This small glimpse into Savage’s day-to-day flurry perhaps explains why some of his best performances in Parquet Courts sound like a man desperately trying to keep up with the constant chug of the modern world. “Do my thoughts belong to me? Or just some slogan I ingested to save time?” he pondered in the galloping “Content Nausea,” the title track to one of the five albums Parquet Courts released in the last five years.
Thawing Dawn, out October 13 on Savage’s Dull Tools label, trades the musician’s normal clenched-fist intensity for sparse, arresting moments of introspection. With his main band’s breakneck pace and caterwauling guitar removed, Savage’s penchant for literary wordplay takes center stage throughout ten of the most revealing tunes he’s ever recorded.
Since about 2006, it seems like you haven’t stopped releasing material. It’s like you’re always on to the next thing with no break in between.
That’s the way life is for me. I can’t be in a relationship or, like, raise a kid or anything because this is my life. I do the band, I do Thawing Dawn stuff, visual art… They take up a lot of my time. Then the label, too. It doesn’t make sense to slow down for me because I feel like there’s a sort of momentum you gather when you keep yourself occupied. Also, I believe creativity begets creativity. When you’re making something, you’re going to be inspired to make more things.
What made a song more appropriate for Thawing Dawn than Parquet Courts?
I wanted to do a record that was melodic, maybe a little bit tender. Something that explored the conventions of the solo record as I know it. I was thinking about solo records that came out in the ’70s, which was kind of the golden age for the format. I wanted to make a record that was very specifically me, and not me as a collaborator in a band. A side of my personality, or my persona, that perhaps doesn’t get emphasised as much in Parquet Courts. What Parquet Courts does is kind of look outward at the world at large, and a lot of lyrics I write for Parquet Courts are a commentary on that.
Throughout all of your projects, you’ve always been an extremely verbose songwriter. You use very specific, sharp language to attack a subject where other people can get away with maybe using general platitudes about love or about themselves. What role does specificity play in your songwriting?
I consider myself a lyricist primarily, and a songwriter and musician secondarily. When I approach a song, I’m thinking about how to best express myself, not necessarily how to write a hook, or how to make people dance. It usually starts with me having something I want to say, and in order for me to feel fulfilled in saying that, it’s going to take more than just, “Darling, I love you.” I mean, y’know, that’s fine, but I guess I would like to express that sentiment in a way that treats the idea uniquely and also treats it as an idea that’s unique to me.
“I’ve always liked when an arrangement of words or a way of phrasing something lets me see something differently.”
My relationship with words and music goes back to the very beginning. That was one of my favorite things about music [growing up,] a good turn of phrase, or an interesting adjective to describe something that you wouldn’t normally apply to that subject, but in context, really makes you rethink that word or what they’re talking about. I’ve always liked when an arrangement of words or a way of phrasing something lets me see something differently, or reveals something about that writer that I hadn’t considered before.
Did you ever feel a hesitation for putting out songs that contain so much of you, or betray these intimate feelings you portray, especially on this record?
Yeah, sure, I mean, this is a new one, [and] it’s definitely different circumstances because it’s very autobiographical and, in some cases, quite literal. It mentions people’s names.
I’m always up for a creative challenge. [The idea] on this was, don’t worry about coming off as sappy. Don’t worry about coming off as overly romantic. I wanted to make something catchy, too, not as musically aggressive as Parquet Courts tends to be. Some of these songs have been around for a while. I felt like there was a part of me that people weren’t seeing or hearing, and a part of me that I wasn’t showing people that I felt compelled to. Once I realized I had this body of work that for some reason or another hadn’t fit into another band, I started coming up with what the vibe was going to be for a solo record, should I ever make one.
One of the most striking things about this record to me is your voice. It’s so measured and beautiful, even a croon at some moments. Is this the most you’ve ever fussed over your vocals?
Honestly, that’s just the way I sing. In Parquet Courts, I’m not always singing; most of the time I’m shouting. A lot of these songs I’ll sing alone at home, or in the shower, or walking home drunk. Some of them felt so natural to me because I’d been singing them for years. I didn’t fuss over the vocal part because, in my head, I know the songs inside and out. On newer songs, I wanted to make songs that were in a really good range for me. I considered that I didn’t want to write something like in a lot of Parquet Courts songs where I strain my voice. That cultivates something that is central to Parquet Courts, but not essential to this. To this, I thought it would be more appropriate to do something in a range where my voice felt very relaxed and natural.
There’s a lot to unpack in the lyrics of Thawing Dawn. One trope I noticed consistently was the idea of a person’s eyes betraying their true intentions. You mention it most obviously in the chorus of “Eyeballs,” but it also pops up in “Indian Style” and “Phantom Limbo” as well. Is there any special significance to you about using someone’s eyes to cut through the bullshit?
Well, eyes is a great word, because so many things rhyme with it. Y’know, for example, thighs, pies, flies, the list goes on… It’s just one of those songwriter workhorses that you can pull out at anytime and always find a rhyme for.
“In Parquet Courts, I’m not always singing; most of the time I’m shouting. A lot of these songs I’ll sing alone at home, or in the shower, or walking home drunk.”
No, I’m kidding. I mean, it’s a platitude, but the eyes are the windows of the soul… I’ve spent a lot of time looking into people’s eyes. They betray us more than we realize. When I’m writing any record, you’re bound to notice words that reemerge. Part of that’s just because you’re in this headspace when you’re working on a piece of work. I do that with anatomy a lot. It’s something I was thinking about last night, where I see patterns and then say, “OK, well obviously this is on my mind right now.” For example, eyeballs are on my mind. Why is that? How much should I make reference to this, and what does it mean for the record? There’s other things on there, too, that reemerge and unify things in a song. It’s one of those reasons why “Eyeballs” is reprised on the last song. There’s that melody that comes back in during the final part of “Thawing Dawn.”
You recorded this record in Brooklyn, but I hear a lot of Texas in Thawing Dawn, maybe more than I ever have in your songs. What sort of role did your home state play in the songwriting and recording process?
It isn’t as much of a role as most people’s place of origin plays in the art that they make. I had people point out they could hear my accent when I sing. Maybe that’s kind of the place where it has remained, in my singing voice. That’s not something that’s done on purpose. I really didn’t make this record with the intention of making a country record. I guess I am sometimes suspicious of when people have applied Texas to everything I’ve done. It’s never been a cognizant thing for me to talk about. Like, I never really think about it when I’m writing songs now. I’ve lived in New York for eight years, and I consider it home. I’m not really even interested in being buried in Texas.
I grew up listening to country music and that style of singing feels very natural to me. It’s great music for expressing emotion, too. There’s two songs on the record that are very explicitly country songs, if there are any. I was probably listening to more John Cale or Kevin Ayers as a reference point than I was Townes Van Zandt or Willie Nelson or David Allan Coe. I love a lot of that country stuff, but I don’t know if it was particularly on my mind. Because so much of that milieu of Texas is in my subconscious, I can’t really pick apart what’s there intentionally and what is just kind of me. FL