> Interview: Parquet Courts – Sympathy for Life - SNACK: Music, film, arts and culture magazine for Scotland

Interview: Parquet Courts – Sympathy for Life

When it comes down to it, the only thing that matters is the quality of the song. We like bands that deliver a good song, and when they do it time and time again, like becomes love. However, for that love to burn through to obsession, there needs to be more.

The greatest bands have more than brilliant songs falling from every pocket: they also have an image, an identity, a style, and a way of living that elevates them above the rest. As we get older, it seems like there are fewer bands to give your heart to, but over the past 10 years, Parquet Courts have been one of the most important acts of our time. it’s hard to think of a better American act of this era.

SNACK caught up with Parquet Courts bassist Sean Yeaton to discuss robots, dancing and the famous Glaswegian creative fighting ability! 

Hi Sean, how are you doing?

Good man, great. How’s the weather over there?

Glasgow is dull and grey at the moment.

God, I wish I was there, man. It’s so hot here!

People tell me I have some sort of Scottish lineage; you know how people in America are, nobody is American. I can’t stand the heat. I love it over there. I would do just fine if I could have a Glaswegian climate.

It gets very dark in autumn and winter for you guys, doesn’t it? We’ve been there so many times. We were there for Halloween years ago [the band’s first Scottish show in Mono in 2013, where the group appeared wearing cardboard masks]. I remember it being a lot of fun. I love Glasgow, and we worked with a Scottish guy on this record, producer Rodaidh McDonald.

New album Sympathy For Life is another evolution in the sound of the band. Did you decide on a distinct theme before starting the record?

Yes, we very much wanted to make a record that embodied a live music experience but more like at a club or party level with DJs, not necessarily a live band. As a live band, we wanted to capture DJ music. That sounds crazy, is that the way people say it? You know what I mean!

Many of the songs evolved from jams and have been much edited. Do you think we’ll hear the longer forms, and was that a fun process?

I loved the process. I feel I’ve used the same process in many other parts of my life since, in every Parquet Courts record going back to American Specialities [the band’s debut album, released in 2011], which almost doesn’t count as it was the first piece of evidence the four of us were hanging out. This record sounds more like that; we were willing to accept different avenues for how it might go. We were open to different techniques to get there.

Jamming is still the primary form of communication we’ve maintained over the ten years or so. When we’re hanging out, and it’s really good, there’s no difference to us laughing about God knows what to when we’re all on stage or in the studio.

With jamming, you get people saying [puts on an affected, Jack Black-style voice], ‘alright baby, let’s do it in D’. None of us are doing that. We’re not studio musicians, but we like to pretend we can be! Instead of jamming for a whole day, which we could do easily, we decided to break it up, jamming on parts of songs, and then we put them together.

In that sense, the purpose was not dissimilar to a DJ deciding what song follows the previous track in his set. My favourite memories are [of being] in the studio together. I’ve had a lot of great times playing live, but it’s a different thing. A song that is three minutes long can take months, or a second of music can take hours, but I love it. But we’ve finally got around to playing these songs, so that’s cool.

Whenever we get to this point in playing, it’s the same as it ever was. In an alternative reality without a pandemic, we would have already toured this record. We hunker down for however long and do record after record; it was crazy how much time passed between records, because we pride ourselves on the way ‘our machine’ operates. Every time we play the first show of a new record, we are playing at least five songs that no one has ever heard. We’ll argue beforehand: ‘should we do this, does anyone want to hear this shit?’ And then we’re like, ‘Yeah, why not, who cares, it’ll be great!’ 

It’s always good and this time was no different, but I was really glad we could play the songs. So much time went by between recording and playing live. I was having nightmares every day leading up to it, thinking ‘I have no idea of how to play these songs’. I feel really grateful we have new songs to play as we return, but I love the old songs too. We’ve not gone this long without playing, ever.

Photo credit: Pooneh Ghana

The band comes across as a very tight unit. What is it like working with external producers?

It’s fun, I love it. It’s good for us, we have a lot of ideas, it’s important to have someone who is able to direct traffic! We’ve been very lucky to work with producers who have an excellent work flow, to the point where I can reference what I want to sound like to obscure points, and they’re there.

You can ask Rodaidh or John [Parish, producer] about my reference points for this record, stuff like ‘I want to sound like I’m skateboarding’ and their ability to understand and take that language is great. Dealing with the players and running it through to their universe and getting it back to you in the way you heard it in your head, or better – usually better – it’s great, and we need it.

It gives us the opportunity to have shit that is better than if we did it ourselves, and it provides a different perspective on songs for the moments we can’t agree on what to do.

Photo credit: Pooneh Ghana

A few songs on the album deal with the presence of technology. This is a topic close to your heart: what are your thoughts on where we are now with respect to technology and our everyday life?

I think it’s crazy, but I can answer it in one of two ways. I’m not going to do the crazy guy spiel and say stuff like ‘can you believe there’s a place called Skynet and they do the same shit as in Terminator?’ I’m going to take the more optimistic route. Technology has a job to do. 

My kids were able to go to school for the most part, but on some occasions, they would be at home on Zoom. They didn’t have snow days, even when there was four feet of snow. That’s so evil – a snow day is like a philosophical rite of passage.

We used to do these press trips by flying to Europe, doing these things in real life. It was great to see friends and hang out without having show-day nerves hanging over it. Our record label will be stoked; they’ve now got ways to do this without us having to leave. Hopefully there will be fewer outcomes where events like snow days get cancelled because there is a solution, and more outcomes where we realise things are better when we do them together.

There’s a lot to complain about with technology, and that’s there for everyone. There’s no value in becoming a Luddite, so the best solution that we have is to find ways to use it to bring us together more. I feel optimistic that we’ll do that, but who knows. 

I have high hopes for everything but [American engineering and robotics design company] Boston Dynamics. Those fucking robots have to be stopped.

Before the recording process began, you all took some time apart to come back refreshed with new ideas. What did you do?

Andrew went to Italy, where he took acid and lifted weights. What did I do? I live in the middle of nowhere, and up until the pandemic, I was beginning to resent it. But it’s been a godsend since, as we have all this land.

I’m always trying to put up swings or spiral staircases around trees, but honestly, I was just trying to find the delicate balance of someone who lives their dream playing music, and being a dad.

I tried to be a better dad during that time, that and some other cool shit.

It’s been awesome to see so much of my kids, and they got to come to the soundcheck of our first show back. They’re both old enough, their personalities are developed, they’ve got so many questions. And they’re excited. I’ve been looking to bring them into my life for so long.

It’s been funny at times, taking my daughter to soccer practice. I have a tattoo of a six-fingered hand with an eyeball on it, and no one else is ‘that guy’. I’m not embarrassed by it, but I have felt like ‘an other’ in all arenas I exist in, so having the kids with the band at times is helpful.

I exist somewhere in the middle of Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire and Robin Williams in Hook.

Getting back to the new album: it’s a very danceable record. What artists or songs make you dance?

There’s this one song called ‘Weekend’ by Class Action. It’s insane, the song is ridiculous. It’s a great disco funk pop song. I like to dance in all sorts of different ways – that Fela Kuti song ‘Zombie’ always gets me going.

It all depends on the situation. I’ve been known to dance to ‘Crazy Train’ [by Ozzy Osbourne] or Metallica. I love that song that goes on about blue cheese [‘Whoopty’ by CJ]; a good hook gets me every time. Talking Heads or Devo, that’s always good. There’s some good country stuff, like ‘Dallas’ from Flatlanders.

I like a lot of atonal stuff, like Scott Walker or that band Daughters. They’re not friends of mine, but I’ve known them for years; they were a grindcore band, and now they’re very artistic.

You know what’s a great record to dance to from start to finish? You know the German band Trio, they did ‘Da Da Da’? Dude, their whole record is so sick. The more I looked into this band, the more insane they are. [Sean then plays ‘Out In The Streets’ from the band’s second album, Bye Bye.] I listen to that song a lot.

Photo credit: Pooneh Ghana

Europe won’t see you until next year, but you’re about to tour in the US. Are you all set?

We’ve played two shows so far, and they were both great. We head out on Friday [17th September] for a stretch of shows, so that’ll be a better sense of touring. We’ve a lot of precautions that we’re diligent about.

We’ve never been a band that goes crazy with partying. We’re so excited to play again, and if we have to take baby steps, that’s fine and to be expected. I remember pulling my hair out a year ago thinking ‘we won’t touch our instruments for two years, I can’t believe that!’ So now we’re starting up again, it feels really good.

I think Andrew and Austin have switched sides on stage, and I haven’t got it in me to tell them. They switched sides, why?!

That’ll throw me off when I see you guys again.

Yeah, the crowd needs to figure out a chant to let them know.

Switch it back! Switch it back!

Switch it back, I love that.

Parquet Courts is now more than 10 years old – how would you sum up the first decade?

It feels young compared to 20, and so many things are 20 years old. So much of my time has been spent in this fucking band, but I love it. I’ve loved it from the start, now more than ever, I guess. It just feels even better to get out there and play with my friends.

These two shows we’ve played have felt like the most fun. It’s like a ghost has come up to you and said [exaggerated trembling voice], ‘Cherish every moment, cherish it!’ I feel like I’m doing that now. We toured so much – it was like a machine, it was always on. I know there were moments I took for granted, purely because time didn’t allow for us to do as much as we’d like to.

Now, I’m smiling, jumping around. I broke a string the other night.

Time moves quickly with anniversaries. Primal Scream have just announced 30th anniversary shows for the Screamadelica album, and I was thinking, didn’t I just go to the 20th anniversary tour?

Dude, Screamadelica is a huge inspiration for this album too. I can’t believe that, that’s crazy.

Austin and Andrew are quite feisty on stage, calling out crowd members, do you ever worry you’ll have to step in or get involved?

They’re different and I have their backs. I stick to the lighter side of things and secretly I want people to like me more, so I stay in the middle and say weird shit.

One time, before I knew anything about soccer, not that I know anything about it now, but I’m trying, we were playing a show in Manchester, and there had been a City and United game. I didn’t realise they had two teams in the same city who were rivals, that’s not a thing over here. You get the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, but that’s still a seven-hour drive.

So, I was on stage saying, ‘Hell of a game today, good job to City and United’ and violence is kicking off.

Haha, Glasgow is worse than Manchester in that aspect.

I think you guys are known for your creative fighting ability.

The fact that the phrase ‘a Glasgow kiss’ means a headbutt backs that idea up.

I love being around people who are willing to go down for their friends. I’m always here for you buddy, I’ve got your back, those guys are jerks! I’m just looking forward to seeing you all again in real life.

Sympathy For Life is released 22nd October on Rough Trade Records

Main photo credit: Pooneh Ghana

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