Andrew Savage, one of the co-songwriters of Parquet Courts, is decidedly "not an engineer," yet he owns tape machines and once built a studio with his friends in Denton, Texas. Savage's top priority when recording is an environment free of distraction - acoustics be damned. Book his band Parquet Courts a week at Electric Lady Studios, or leave them in a musty warehouse with the lights off; whatever grows will still impress the music press and please their fans. Parquet Courts have a new album out this year, produced by Danger Mouse [Brian Burton], called Wide Awake.
You're from Denton, Texas?
I was born there. My parents worked at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My dad was a sports reporter and my mother was the art director of the paper.
How does Denton relate to Dallas?
I lived in Dallas when I was in junior high and high school, but I would always go to Denton for shows. In those times that's where all the bands would come through. I grew up going to different house shows.
Were you studying music at Denton's University of North Texas [UNT]?
Yeah. I started off studying upright bass performance, but it only took me about a semester to learn that it would make me hate music. UNT is a factory. It's a school where you go to be a gigger; where you go to be a session musician. There are, of course, some interesting composers who came out of there, like William Basinski. There's a cool avant-garde and noise scene there with people who are either in, or who have dropped out of, the composition program. But I was watching a lot of my friends really fall out of love with music, so I switched to painting after a semester.
What were your first recording experiences like?
My first recording experience would have been on a Tascam 414 MKII [cassette] 4-track, recording demos on that for bands that I didn't start, and eventually bands I did start. I wasn't on that for long until I got a Roland VS that recorded to Zip drives. They were like floppy discs, but much bigger. Much later on, all of [Parquet Courts'] American Specialties, as well as a lot of demos for [the next album] Light Up Gold,were also recorded on a Tascam 424 Mark III in our practice space.
How old were you when you were doing those early recordings?
I probably got the Tascam when I was 14, and I was maybe 16 years old when I got that Roland VS used through Guitar Center. The guy said that [David] Bowie had recorded his last album on his tour bus with one of them. So, you know, "Good enough for David Bowie..." Fast forward a few years, and I put out a 7-inch that I recorded on that Roland machine. I guess the first proper album was with my old band, Teenage Cool Kids, and we would have recorded that on a Fostex 1/4-inch machine with eight tracks. Later, we all got together and bought a tape machine, a Tascam MSR-16 1/2-inch, 16-track, which I still have and have recorded a lot of records on. I've got the board that came with it too. I used to have a band called Fergus & Geronimo with Jason Kelly, and we recorded both our LPs on that. And we recorded two Teenage Cool Kids LPs on that machine. I'm sad to say that it really has not seen much use since it's been up here [New York]. I haven't been doing a lot of recording in the way that I had been in Denton.
Can you tell us more about those recording sessions?
We had a great recording situation set up in Denton, Texas, where we lived. We had a snake going into the house; Jason [Kelly]'s bedroom was the control room, we had a tracking room in the detached garage, and we had a talkback set up. It was great. That was one of the biggest culture shocks of moving to New York - there's no practicing in your apartment here! Not that I would even want to these days, but it was cool living in a college town with a big backyard and a detached garage. You didn't have to worry about making too much noise. We were active in the music community in Denton, and we were cutting all sorts of records. I was in four or five different bands. We did a Wiccans 7-inch on that machine. Jason is still active in recording. He's a very talented engineer, and he does a lot of live sound in Brooklyn. We moved up here together when I was 23.
Did you build out the house in Texas, or had it been previously used as a recording studio?
No, we all built it out; all of Teenage Cool Kids: Jason, my buddy Payton [Green] who was in Wiccans with me, and myself. We soundproofed it. We did the double wall, double door thing. We didn't float the floors. It was a big group effort, with a bunch of trips to Home Depot. Whereas a lot of my friends here are engineers, I wouldn't call myself an engineer by any description. But I know how gain, EQ, faders, and buses work. From using that Tascam deck, I get how tape machines work. I can record something rudimentary.
How'd you meet Jarvis [Taveniere] from Woods, and how'd you get him involved in mixing Parquet Court's debut album, American Specialties?
I met Jarvis in Denton when his old band, Meneguar, played at my house in 2006. He came back with Woods a year later, and I booked them. Whenever I was on tour in New York, I would see him. We became friends, and when I moved to New York I told him, "I've got this new band, Parquet Courts." A year later I needed the record to be mixed, so he and Jason [Kelly] split mixing duties on that album.
And Jonathan Schenke [Tape Op #122]?
Jonathan recorded [Parquet Court's second album], Light Up Gold, in that same practice space in three days on a 1/4-inch Tascam [tape deck]; [I believe it was] a 388 or something. Then we took him to Seaside Lounge and did Tally All the Things That You Broke [EP] and Sunbathing Animal [album]. It was evident very quickly that Jonny is very talented and knew exactly where we were coming from. He liked Captain Beefheart and The Mothers of Invention, so he got it. We became friends really quickly, ‘cause he's such a great guy. The reason I really wanted to work with him for Light Up Gold was that I knew he's good about being positive and encouraging, and also getting the job done. Being a whip-cracker, while at the same time being your friend. That's a very good talent for an engineer to have. As important as operating a tape machine or Pro Tools.
Did you track Light Up Gold live?
Oh, yeah. We had a room that was 15 by 12 feet. We were living all over each other for those three days. He put Max [Savage, drums] in the corner, and we put some U-Haul moving sheets hanging over this loft that was built-in. Max was semi-isolated, but the amps were out. We also used that as the vocal booth later. We usually cut between 20 and 30 songs whenever we do a record. Light Up Gold was three days; we did 18 songs with vocals and everything.
Was it completely written before?
It was not completely written. What was written we were really rehearsed on, because we were practicing every week and playing a couple shows a month. We were doing 15-hour days, for three days straight - I think that was a Thursday, Friday, and Saturday - and then we mixed it on Sunday. That was my label, Dull Tools', second release.
Your fourth album, Content Nausea [as Parkay Quarts], was recorded to a cassette 4-track?
Yes, I think it was my 4-track, a [Tascam] 424. That was Austin [Brown, guitar, vocals, keys] recording that one. That was the first time Austin stepped in on recording.
Did you feel an affinity for the DIY punk scene that was going on when you were a kid?
Around the age of 13, I got obsessed with punk and hardcore, going to shows, and talking to other bands that were recording themselves. Before that, music was such a mystery to me. "Who did it? And where?" The idea that I could record myself came from seeing the DIY punk scene and going to shows at a young age. It's not gonna sound as good as a David Bowie record, but I had to record somehow. Moving to Denton and meeting a lot of like-minded people was a big step. From the age of 13 to about 20 I was only listening to hardcore and punk. I thought indie rock was for posers. I didn't know about bands like Blonde Redhead, Belle and Sebastian, or Cibo Matto at that time until I got to college and started this record club called Knights of the Round Turntable, which is where I met Austin. I got wind of The Smiths. I already liked New Order and Joy Division, but those were socially acceptable for a punk kid. I'll be the first to admit that I was a little close-minded during that time.
And now you're recording at Dreamland Recording Studios in Woodstock, NY. How do you relate Parquet Courts' present to your DIY beginnings?
Part of the Parquet Courts recording experience is to get out of New York City, because there are so many distractions here. When we would record at Seaside Lounge [in Brooklyn], I'd sleep at the studio in order to stay in the headspace and not get distracted. Going to Outlier Inn [in Woodridge, NY] for [our third album], Sunbathing Animal, was cool, because we were there for eight days and all we did was record. When we got to Dreamland I think we wanted to replicate that experience. We just got back from Sonic Ranch [Tape Op #94] in Texas. The ideal is that a place can board you, without the distractions of New York City, and you're left to focus on the task at hand. I don't approach songwriting from a production standpoint, and it's fairly rare - [our fifth album], Human Performance, being the exception - that our instrumentation gets more complicated than what we do live with four guys. Whether we record at Dreamland or at a budget studio doesn't really matter to me. What matters most is that it's done at a place where we can concentrate. We've gone from expensive studios, to practice spaces, and back. We're on no sort of trajectory.
Monastic Living, the EP before Human Performance, was done in a practice space?
Yes, most of it. That was done with the Tascam 388.
It sounds like there are guitar loops, feedback loops, and such. Is that just the way you tracked it?
Feedback loops? Nothing is looped. But Austin and I used [MXR] Blue Box [octave fuzz] pedals, so that gives it a uniformity. It might give the impression that it's one piece from which we're pulling, because it reduces it to this robotic sound. But there were no overdubs; it was all live. There wasn't any editing outside the mixing phase.
Did you come in with premeditated ideas, or was it mostly jammed in the studio?
We've always improvised together. That's how the band started, more or less. We were doing a lot of that at Sonelab [in Easthampton, Massachusetts]. Maybe a quarter of Monastic Living was done there. Then we decided to see where this improvised music would take us. Whenever I meet someone who says, "That's my favorite Parquet Courts record," I'm like, "Let's be friends forever." A lot of people thought we were deliberately trying to piss people off. I had bands coming up to me that said, "Oh yeah, good one with Monastic Living," and I'm like, "Yeah, it was a good one. It was a good fucking record, if that's what you mean." But they don't.
Like you made it to piss off critics or something. We were imagining people comparing it to Metal Machine Music.
‘Cause that's people's only point of reference.
It's odd that the popularity of, say, Lightning Bolt, or even Fuck Buttons, wouldn't provide a context for Monastic Living.
Yeah. Within the context of Parquet Courts, people looked on it suspiciously. For some reason we've garnered this reputation for being insincere, or as being jokesters, both of which I take issue with. Some people chose not to take Monastic Living seriously, and it's their loss. I thought it was cool that our first record on Rough Trade was Monastic Living,and that it came before what I'd say is our poppiest record to date with Human Performance. I like that there is no one way of doing a band. It doesn't have to be more convenient for everybody with every release.
We're also curious about the transition to Rough Trade. Do the economics of record making change after signing to a larger label?
Well, sure; it was the first time we really had a recording budget by any description. We didn't have to pay out of pocket. That started at Sonelab, the early sessions for the record that would become Human Performance. We were paying for studio time, paying for Justin [Pizzoferrato]; and Sonelab doesn't have lodging, so we paid for a place to stay.
Where else did you record Human Performance?
There were three studios.
And one was The Loft [in Chicago]?
The Loft was kind of by invitation.
From Jeff [Tweedy], yeah. We didn't use much from there. It was mostly hanging out with them and having fun. That was three days at the Loft. I guess we did, non-consecutively, two weeks at Sonelab and then, consecutively, two weeks at Dreamland [Recording, Woodstock, NY]. A month of actual tracking.
Is that longer than you've devoted to other records?
I would say Sunbathing Animal took three weeks. Content Nausea was probably five days total with recording, mixing, and mastering in October, and out by December.
Adjacent to Content Nausea, there's a version of the song "Captive of the Sun" with Houston rapper Bun B.
At that point the original song was recorded, and Bun B did his part on top of it. But we met the Swishahouse [Records] crew when we played in Houston. They came into the green room and were really nice. They gave us a bunch of mixtapes, t-shirts, and some weed. There is a version of "He's Seeing Paths" that Lil' Keke raps on but it's not released. We really need to release that. That's when we got the idea that it would be cool to start doing remixes and try to work with some rappers we like.
We're both fans of the influence hip-hop has had on your songwriting.
I can hear hip-hop influence in The Fall and Sonic Youth. I'm a fan when it's done well, and it's really hard to do well. I like the challenge of it. Austin's a huge fan of Houston hip-hop. I guess for "He's Seeing Paths" there was a Beastie Boys influence; their history as a hardcore band evolving into hip-hop.
So for your first A. Savage solo record, Thawing Dawn, are these songs written specifically for the album?
Yeah, they're not Parquet Courts rejects or anything!
Who engineered Thawing Dawn?
That would've been Jarvis [Taveniere], with back seat driving from me.
We liked the pedal steel. Was the song "Buffalo Calf Road" the first time you used it on a record?
It's definitely not the first time I thought of it, but I had never attempted to use it in the past. I don't know any pedal players besides [Jon] Catfish Delorme, who played on the record. He's Jarvis' buddy. I've known of others in New York, but they're on the experimental side and not really on the "Nashville" side. Catfish studied in Austin and Nashville, so he knew exactly where I was coming from.
We thought, with "Untitled," that there was a Zombies' thing. Like the song "Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914)"?
Well, you guys are very intuitive. I was really into the John Cale record, Music for a New Society. There are some songs that are just strings, guitar, and voice. I liked that idea, because it makes the voice feel like a detached spirit, or like something that's floating out there and doesn't have a rhythm section to anchor it down.
Reading & Writing
I guess in my twenties I was into postmodernist writers like Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis. I view myself as a lyricist before a songwriter these days. Reading fiction and poetry is something I like to do, but I don't know if it's something I really associate with my lyric writing. Bill Knott is one of my favorite poets lately. [James Joyce's] Ulysses is one of my favorite books. I've gotten into a lot of French writers, like Marcel Proust, Michel Houellebecq, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Recently also Karl Ove Knausgård. I was recommended him because I like Proust.
Did you use a real organ?
Yup, it's a Hammond B-3 going through a Leslie [speaker].
What was in your mind when you recorded "What Do I Do"?
I didn't want the record to be purely singer/songwriter. I wanted a song that was more abrasive, and I wanted something that I could do with a tremble in my voice. I like a repetitive cycle of chords that enables an instrument to really go wild on top of it.
How did you build the wall of feedback on that song?
That's me on guitar. I'm playing on the other side of the bridge on an offset guitar, maybe a [Fender] Jaguar, with the amp cranked. I've got a really loud pickup put in, and I'm facing directly at the amp. I'm going on the tremolo pretty hard too.
Do you use that technique for feedback on other records?
No, I started doing that after I finally bought some new guitars: a [Fender] Jazzmaster and a Jaguar.
It's interesting that you bought both.
It's because I got really into offset guitars, and I wanted to have that offset for multiple songs in multiple tunings. I got back into the Boss Metal Zone MT-2 pedal on the record we just recorded down in Texas. People associate it with metal bands, but you can do a lot with it, like get great feedback.
When did you record Thawing Dawn?
I did three different sessions, all of them very short. Like two or three days in my free time, which I don't have much of. December 2016, then a session in February, and a session in April. A total of about a week. It was me, Jack Cooper, and Jarvis. And whatever drummer was available, be it Aaron Neveu - who's going on tour with us, Shannon Sigley from PC Worship, or Mike [Stasiak] from EZTV.
Did you record the album in New York?
Yeah, at Thump Recording in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on a completely residential block. They've taken out the first floor, so the tracking room is in the basement and what would've been the first floor ceiling is 30-feet up above. What would've been the kitchen in this apartment is still on the first floor, so you can look down into the basement from the remaining part of the first floor. Jarvis is on staff there. They've got a 2-inch Studer machine, which is what we used, and a Neve board. I've done sessions at Electric Lady Studios, as well as some other cool New York studios; but for my money, Thump's is one of the coolest studios in New York.
What mics were you using for vocals?
I pretty much do all my vocals on a Neumann U 47. Johnathan [Schenke] told me that one's best for my voice and I've always trusted him since. For the Parquet Courts record we just did in Texas, I ended up doing a lot of the vocals on a handheld Telefunken mic [M80]. I was able to get into the vocal part a bit more just by having something in my hand.
How did Milano, the collaboration between Parquet Courts and Daniele Luppi [Tape Op #40], come about?
One of my favorite records ever is Warren Zevon's Excitable Boy. That was recorded at Sunset Sound in L.A. and so was Milano. So I got to play on the "Werewolves of London" piano, which is this really beautiful, stained Steinway that's not black.
A lot of the record is about 1980s Milan. How did you write the lyrics?
Luppi sat down and told me, "This is the idea. This was the vibe in Milan in the ‘80s." I liked writing about subjects that weren't so personal, and from a third-person point of view that I had nothing to do with. I started researching the history of that region and city. It's such an interesting place, politically. It was a manufacturing capital. A lot of textile industry was there, which gave birth to the fashion industry that dominates it now. It changed a lot in that time, so it became like New York was in the ‘80s; a superficial place of finance, greed, and money, but it also had this interesting political history to it. Like Benito Mussolini was captured in Como, and he was hung upside down in the square in Milano.
So what exactly were Daniele Luppi's contributions to the record?
First of all, he gave us sheet music, which is hilarious because my brother [Max Savage, drums] and I know how to read it. But I don't read treble clef; I read bass clef. His idea was to make these ideas of songs, and then Parquet Courts would help finish writing them. He would give us a very loose idea and say, "Make this into a song." He'd give us an hour, and then we'd record it and move on. The lyrics were done later in a different session. He came to New York and we did vocal overdubs.
It seems like you stay busy.
Thawing Dawn came out October 13th; Milano was out two weeks afterwards.
And you also just got back from a recording session?
In Texas, for the new Parquet Courts record [Wide Awake!].