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Andrew Savage / Parquet Courts

NoMa speaks with Andrew Savage from Parquet Courts about the handmade aesthetic of his record covers, formative LP designs, and the difference between cultural and capitalistic artwork. 

Interview By Matt Putrino, October 15, 2013

The Parquet Courts song "Tooth Ache > Heart Ache" doesn't actually exist. Despite appearing first on the scrawled track list on the cover of the band's new EP (the track list itself is titled "self-evident truths"), the false name is actually a mutation of a line from the EP's first track. Altered song titles aren't the only revisions co-front man and designer Andrew Savage leaves visible on the band's records. On the same EP, he uses an alternate, almost phonetic, spelling of the band's name "Parkay Quarts" to clear up any remaining pronunciation issues caused by an antiquated building material. We spoke with Savage at a cafe near his home base in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn about the role of a band’s visual identity, his work as a visual artist, and his label, Dull Tools.  

Besides music related projects, have you done much visual art?
Yeah, I am a visual artist, too. I do all the art for Parquet Courts. All the record art and all the aesthetic of the band is my vision. I recently had some art published in a newer arts and culture magazine called Tasty. Stuff that I do outside of Parquet Courts is a lot of what I do in Parquet Courts. My poetry and creative writing has a visual element to it. I write everything out with illustrations that are involved in it too.

Pettibon’s a pretty big influence on me as far as [visual poetry] goes. I consider him, maybe even first and foremost, a poet as much as a visual artist.

Using the new EP as an example, when do you start designing the cover? During the writing? Recording?
The jacket art comes after the record is made and the songs are recorded. I like to start tossing around ideas as we do it, but it doesn’t come to full fruition until the songs are done. Light Up Gold, the record art there, with that one and all future stuff, it’s an attempt to create the sound of the record in a visual form. I want to make records that look like the record sounds like. With the EP, Tally All The Things That You Broke, that came after it was done. I usually work on the art when I’m listening to the music. 

For Light Up Gold and Tally All The Things That You Broke, there are a lot of visible revisions and cross outs. Even the track lists have quotes and alternate spellings instead of actual song titles.
I’m just keeping people on their toes. That’s an extension of the way that I work. I like working freely and if something comes into my head, using it, and if I feel like something needs to be crossed out, or something needs to be redefined I like doing that. I like crossing out text because it makes people wonder what was there in the first place. On the back of Light Up Gold, the whole liner notes that I wrote are crossed out. You can still see them if you look closely enough. In a weird way I like crossing out stuff because it makes people want to pay more attention to it. I like for things to have a little more dimension and depth, so sometimes crossing out something and writing something else-- I mean you know what the song is called because maybe it says “North Dakota” on the center label, or maybe you see it on iTunes or something. I can’t remember what I wrote for that one, but it’s almost a short definition of the song I guess. 

Do you work on ideas on the road?
I’m always working on stuff. Ideas are always coming. When I get home from a tour like this one, I tend to collect everything I did and organize it and compartmentalize it. Which is the stage I’m at right now. I’m taking all this raw data and making it more refined.

How about some of the found images? What stage in the process does that usually come in?
I like to use imagery, like I said, that’s indicative of what the music sounds like. On our first record, American Specialties, I wanted to establish ourselves as a New York-based band. New York is one of those cities that’s so iconic in its visual lexicon. There are so many things that you can think of that represent New York. But I wanted to step out of the usual icons of New York, you know, Empire State Building, Lady Liberty…

The subway... 
Shit like that. So I used Chinese take out. Every block has a Chinese take out place, and they all have the same light box menu of those dishes on china plates. That’s the visual side of New York that I’m interested in. The stuff that doesn’t get represented in culture right now, or isn’t represented in TV shows about New York. Stuff that exists on the gritty perimeter of it. That interests me more. There’s a running theme of food take out in my art. On the back of Light Up Gold there’s the tomato pizza guy you see on a lot of pizza boxes of places here. I like using imagery that’s mundane and unassuming. It’s not images that have been thoroughly defined in culture, so you have more room to define them. You can give them your own narrative if you want. I like using stuff that’s on surface level might be a little banal, but if you really want to explore it you have that opportunity, because they’re not images that pop up a lot. 

What do you think about the idea of someone else designing a Parquet Courts cover?
It could happen someday. I don’t see it happening soon because it’s one of my favorite parts about being in the band, and I think it’s important for a band to have control over, and create their own, aesthetic. Their own visual world. Besides that, I don’t know too many artists out there that I would trust in having a hand in that. Not that I think they’re bad artists, but the DIY part of this band, and my personality in general, is maintaining a certain amount of control. It’s got to be our own. It has to be Parquet Courts. I don’t see it beyond the realm of possibility if there’s someone I really thought expressed what the band was about. 

Do you collaborate with every artist on your Dull Tools label for the covers?
No, the Yuppies album, they did their own art. Beth Israel did their own art. They were very insistent upon that. It was very important to them that that image was there. I like for artists to have control over what they do, so it’s their choice. Not everything on Dull Tools has to be done by me. It has to have the Dull Tools logo on it, and all the center labels are the same, but I like bands to be able to create their own narrative just like Parquet Courts does. 

Have there been any changes in your approach to the record covers since your Fergus & Geronimo days?
I guess. That band’s so different than Parquet Courts. My aesthetic influence was different. I was looking more towards classic LP covers with text and photographs that I wanted to emulate. It had a different visual influence than Parquet Courts.

How big are actual artworks you make for record covers?
Not too big. Everything’s mostly done in Moleskines and collaged together. With Parquet Courts all the drawings are done on paper and cut out and collaged together. I don’t have a proper studio. I have a desk in my apartment, and it’s a fairly big desk, but I can’t throw out a big sheet of paper on there. Until I get a studio I have to work small.

Has there been an idea for a cover you’ve had to scrap?
Things definitely do change. Sometimes I’m scared to use certain found images because I worry about authorship and stuff like that. You know, I don’t like to obsess over things too much. Whether it’s songwriting or visual stuff, but when you do that, it can be kind of limiting. Things can’t become too precious if you want to keep working. You have to be able to set things free. And say, “Okay, I’m going to consider this done now, because if I obsess over it I’m not going to move onto the next thing.” I think for the visual part of my music, I like that it has that quality to it. It doesn’t look too labored over. When you labor over something for too long, it loses its freshness. Even if it’s not the exact idea you had in your head, it should convey the process. It should tell the story about how quickly it came together, or it should look that way. Even with music too, I like things to be off the top of the dome. I don’t do a whole lot of severe editing when it comes to lyric writing and songwriting. Most of the solos in Parquet Courts are improvised when we record them. Maybe we’ll say, “Oh I didn’t like it that time, let’s try it another time,” but I like it to feel unrehearsed. 

Do books and non-music influences play into the designs?
Sure. I guess what I mostly get from reading is that I like to emulate the experience that I have when I connect with a book and have a strong emotional, cerebral connection with something. As a member of an artistic audience, which you are when you read a piece of literature and it really affects you and you have a connection with it. That’s inspiring to do to someone. Even though music and fiction, and music and poetry are different. I get really inspired when I have an experience with something. Be it a record or a book or whatever. I want to do that for somebody.

The way you announced the new EP with a physical object seemed like you were looking to make that connection.
That has a lot to do with the way I was introduced to the culture that influenced me the most, the punk, DIY, underground culture. People my age are probably among the last to get into music through fanzines—tangible, printed zines. Which was kind of my foray into the world of DIY culture. Because I started getting into that stuff when I was 13 or 14, and reading zines, buying records, nobody else at my school was doing it, so it was my own. It was precious. It was something I could have to myself. Almost like I was a part of this international secret society of DIY creating culture. I think that that’s important in fandom, to have something you can consider precious to be your own. Something that you feel like was tailored for you. Social networking and sending a big email, obviously I see the logic in that. You can reach a lot of people in no time. I can see the role that it has. It’s not something special. When people have something that comes from Dull Tools, they can see it’s being sent out from us. It creates a connection. It’s something they can say, “Oh there’s not many of these.” It’s mine. It’s something I can have and listen to at my own pace. It’s better at getting people’s attention than something’s that’s in their inbox. 

What do you think about the idea that all album art is a temporary advertisement?
I see album artwork as something so different from advertising. That’s what separates art from advertising. Advertising is supposed to stimulate your impulse to spend money, whereas I don’t think that’s what record jackets do. I think they’re supposed to stimulate your impulse to explore something, just like a book cover. When it’s done well it should create a little more depth to what the music can do. It adds another dimension. It’s just as important because I’m very fond of the ritual of getting a record, holding it, exploring the tactile part of it, reading the lyrics, putting it on. It’s an all-encompassing experience when you’re listening to something, reading something, seeing the art. You’re reading the message and enveloping yourself in this world that this person’s created for you. And they’re making an attempt to relate to you as an audience member, and you’re indulging them in that. That whole process in itself is the art of it. You’re fulfilling the artistic goal by doing that. When you see an advertisement, you’re not fulfilling an artistic goal. You’re fulfilling a capitalistic goal. You’re stimulated to spend money on something.

What were some formative record covers for you?
When I first started getting into music, which was pulling stuff out of my parents’s record collection, I would tend to choose stuff based on the cover. Early examples would be like, Blind Faith’s only record with the prepubescent girl holding the dildo plane. I’ll never forget the first time I saw that. Or the Ohio Players’ Honey record, where the woman’s just pouring honey on her naked body. I guess I had a strong sexual response at a young age. One of the first records I pulled out of my parents’s collection and really got into was Kraftwerk’s Computer World. It’s such a cool cover and when you’re a kid, it’s very retro-futuristic. When I was kid that cover really spoke to me. I had to listen to it, because at that time and at a young age I couldn’t bridge the gap between what it sounded like and the way it looked. 

I just saw Kraftwerk in Norway. In 3D actually. We played this festival, and they were the headliners and we all got 3D glasses. I thought about this while I was experiencing it because they had this big light show, and all these music videos in 3D going on behind them, and I thought about how mysterious that record cover was to me when I was a kid. Just the computer with the four faces on it. The importance of the way things look. There are plenty of records that I love that don’t have great or enticing covers, but there’s a bunch of records that have lured me in by the way they look for sure.

Do you think you’d ever incorporate more visuals for a Parquet Courts show?
I don’t know. I understand why some bands do it, and when a band reaches a certain level it becomes almost required they do it in a weird way. I’ve never been a fan of light shows, for rock bands at least. I don’t like a whole lot of stuff going on because for me the performance is what you’re supposed to be focusing on. And we like to bring a lot of energy live when we play. I almost view that as a kind of distraction. I like to look at videos on YouTube of my favorite performers, the early days of CBGB’s with the Talking Heads, and they grew on to have a really pronounced visual world with the suits and props and everything. But in the early days with the Heads and the Ramones and Blondie, it was very blank and it was all about the performance. They each brought their own thing. You weren’t paying attention to anything but the performers.

That’s fine. If I go see KISS, I expect that sort of thing. I saw this group Major Lazer, I had never heard of them, but they’re like this DJ group. They had this whole show, confetti guns going into the audience with props and stuff. Or maybe a good example would be Quintron and Miss Pussycat in New Orleans who do like a puppet show with a lot of props. For Parquet Courts it would have to be different. 

Parquet Courts new EP, Tally All The Things That You Broke, is out now from What's Your Rupture?.