Andrew Savage on Painting, Working with John Parish, and Beating the Slacker Allegations

Andrew Savage on Painting, Working with John Parish, and Beating the Slacker Allegations
Photo by Andrew McClelland

This is a free post from Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter; paid subscribers also receive a Baker's Dozen playlist every Friday with music I've been listening to lately alongside some thoughts around it.

Huge longtime fan of Andrew Savage, I think Parquet Courts continue to be one of the best indie rock bands working and on top of that he delivered an excellent solo record, Several Songs About Fire, just a few months ago. We hopped on a call a few weeks back as he was rolling into New York City near the end of tour; he'd been living in France before going out on the road to support the record, so transience was a big topic on the table.

I first saw you play live back in the days of Fergus & Geronimo. I loved those records at the time. Reflect on the early days of making music and being out there on the road. What felt different then and what hasn't changed?
The early days go back much further than that. I first started touring with Teenage Cool Kids, which I guess some people know about now-ish. But at the time it was a cult band. We could go on these tours where I'd get contacts for a string of people, book these shows, and hope for the best. It was fun. The first time I ever went out touring changed my life. I saw the world a different way. I saw the world period, because I'd only lived in Texas my whole life. There's just something about the combination of meeting people—I've met some of my best friends while touring—and playing music for people, meeting other bands, and discovering new places and scenes. It's so intoxicating.

Sometimes I read about musicians who talk about touring like it's inhumane or something, which I just don't get at all. Everybody has their own experience, but I think it's such a wonderful thing to do. I guess because I started young and in a DIY punk circuit, and because I really never lost how magical that is, it still remains an exciting thing for me. The bonds you have for your fellow musicians—I love being part of a team and building those bonds. Everyone's all in it together. You're loading in, you're loading out, you're getting your meals in where you can, and you're having fun. You're playing music, which is just the best thing to do, really.

It was like that for me until Sunbathing Animal, which is when Parquet Courts started touring with a tour maanger and a booking agent. It's great to have an infrastructure around you, especially if it's employing people—it makes it easier for everybody—but I haven't lost touch with the early days of touring either. I booked the first few Parquet Courts tours, too. The reason I moved to New York is because I toured. I remember there was one Teenage Cool Kids tour where we were on the road for 3 months. We did the whole continental U.S. in two months, and then we did Europe for one month. We got back to Denton, Texas, where I was living and I was born in—I was a townie—and I was like, "There's a world out there. I'm gonna get out of here."

I chose New York because I had the most friends there out of anywhere at that point. It seemed like the cool place to go to around that time, which was 2008. It was intoxicating, it felt genuinely bohemian what was going on in Brooklyn—all the spaces bands were playing in. Walking down the street, you'd run into three bands that you know from touring. It's magical, and it's much less like that now, but it was alluring at the time.

I interviewed Juan Wauters for the newsletter earlier this year, and he was saying that he always likes to travel, so he's purposefully nomadic in that way. When we were chatting earlier, you mentioned being stateless in residence right now. Do you share Juan's impulse?
First of all, I love Juan. When I first moved to New York, I'd see him all the time because the Beets would be playing five times a week. I shared one of my practice spaces with him. I don't see Juan as much as I'd like, and I love it when I run into him.

There's something about the way that I've lived my life in the past 15 years where touring can be so chaotic, and if you're a band that tours as much as Parquet Courts does, you know that. That helps me have a certain type of attitude in terms of not having too many expectations. I like having a home, and a place to come back to, but I'm a person who has a hard time sitting still, and I think that serves my art. It suits me to be moving a lot, and I've gotten quite used to it. I can feel at home pretty easily. I felt at home right away in New York, and at the time, I was looking for a home.

I haven't had my own apartment since May, but I don't feel completely out of sorts because of that. I also think it serves me as an artist to take leaps of faith in life. That's something I'm going through right now in relocating. It's important to have those sort of experiences as an artist, because it fits your story. Your life is your story, and you have to approach life the way an artist does. You have to have an open heart to whatever's going to happen, and know that any sort of thing you can galvanize into whatever it is you do—a song, a film, a painting.

Do you think you're going to live in France for the immediate future?
Yes, although I'd make the distinction that the point isn't living in France—the point is leaving the U.S., which is something I'm quite worried about right now. I'm worried about the United States.

I mean, there's plenty of reasons to feel worried right now, but I'm interested in hearing you talk about why.
I'm sure all the usual suspects are there. I would like to live in a place where I could have healthcare—that's very important to me. I think it's one of the most disgraceful things about this country—that we don't have a system to take care of our own people. Being someone in the line of work that I am, it can be quite difficult financially, so that would be a big reason. I'm also really worried about the tone of the country and the way that it's going—the shift in what people are accepting. There's a bad momentum that's building. It will affect me if, say, Trump wins again. I almost don't even want to say that out loud, but there it is. I will feel safer if I'm not here. That's more or less the idea.

Tell me about the financial realities of your career as a musician.
On the one hand, I never expected to be a career musician. I identified as a musician early in my life, and as an artist. I made a decision when I was young that that was just what I wanted to do, by any means necessary. I really do think that's what having an artistic spirit means—that you're willing to do anything to make your art. That's been something that's really defined my life, so I never really had any sort of dream of doing it professionally—it was always just doing it. I imagined myself having a job like a teacher or something, where I'd have a few months off every year to focus on art. So I never had the expectation of being able to survive off my art.

But I have found myself in that position, and it's not easy by any means. I found myself in this great position of being in this band that's pretty beloved. People love Parquet Courts, and I'm pretty proud to have that role. With that, there's a certain amount of acclaim—people have seen us in magazines and on TV—but a lot of people might be surprised at the economic realities of a lot of the artists they follow. You don't see that part of the story. I do Parquet Courts, but I also do my own music, I do visual art, I sell my paintings, and I do gig stuff too—graphic design, things like that. That's a lot.

I'm pretty much always doing something. Right now, I'm preparing to go paint a mural in Atlanta for the next couple of weeks. I'm always doing something, and I do love doing all these things, but the reason I'm never really taking a break is because it's hard. I don't pay rent here anymore, but it is hard being an artist living in New York City, or any major city really. It's something that you have to love, and something that you have to have the mentality that I was talking about, at a young age. You're just gonna do it by any means necessary, and ultimately I am happier because of it, but it is tough, and that's part of the reason for moving as well. I like this life that I live, and I want to be able to sustain it while having some type of comfort.

How is painting different than music for you, creatively?
For one thing, it's not performative. It's something I do alone in a studio. It's similar to songwriting in that I'm trying to make this thing, and I gotta build time and space in my life to create the thing. But the thing is quite different. The song is something you present. It has a beginning, middle, and end. If people like it, they can replay it. A painting is just there. It's up to the audience to decide when a painting ends—when they walk away from it.

Going a bit deeper, it's different tools and a different language. Color and light are different than melody and lyrics. They're just different ways to express yourself. It's a different headspace. I like switching it up and having that other way to communicate. I was drawing and making art before I played my first instrument, so it's been with me pretty much all my life. I don't remember beginning to draw, it's just something I've always done.

It's something that I'm now quite busy with, too. I do a lot of private commissions, and that's taken up most of my creative life in the past two years. This year's been a bit different because of the record, but that was also done by this time last year as well. It's an extremely important part of my life, and I don't think a lot of people know about it. I think a lot of people know I make art for Parquet Courts, which sometimes involves painting but a lot of the time falls more under design and record layout. I do merch for the band. Pretty much everything I do musically involves a visual representation of it. But I have another life as a painter too, and the medium of painting is very important to me. I like the craft of it. I like mixing paint and stretching canvas. I like being alone, and building a thing. That's what it's really about for me when it comes to music and visual art. I like building things—songs, paintings on canvas, a T-shirt, whatever. I just like making things.

I'd love to hear you talk about your work with John Parish. You've worked with a few notable producers over the years, and John certainly falls in that category. What does he bring to the studio?
The first time I worked with John was recording Sympathy For Life. We worked with him for a week and a half, but otherwise we mostly worked with Rodaigh McDonald. I just loved working with John though, I really did—not that I didn't enjoy working with Rodaigh or Danger Mouse, I did with both of them. But working with John was different for a few reasons. He's quite old-school. He occupies this very specific definition of producer.

It's one of those titles that can mean anything. I've worked with producers where they feel like just being in the damn room is producing. I've worked with producers who don't know what the knobs and faders do. But John is a holistic, old-school producer. He's at the desk, and he's very knowledgable about everything that goes on in the studio. He's very comfortable working on tape, which is how I like to work and how Parquet Courts work. He's got a type of work ethic that disappears with generations younger than him. He's very serious and focused. He's not on his phone, he's not distracted.

Also, what makes him different is he doesn't rely on anything between the microphone and the tape machine—maybe a compressor, maybe some light mixing and EQ'ing. A lot of people these days are using in-the-box studio processing on every single, and John is really good at just putting the microphone where it needs to be placed and hitting "Record." And I know that sounds reductive and simple, but it's actually a lost art in recording sound.

It takes a special kind of musician to work like that, too. You have to have your music down. You don't go to John Parish when all your songs are written. You don't go there to work stuff out in the studio. You go to a guy like John when you have a band who knows the material and can play very well. You have to be a band that can fill a room with sound, because that's what he's doing. He's very good at capturing the space in between musicians—the sound of a room with musicians in it. That's a little bit different than capturing the sound of a guitar or a keyboard. There's not a lot of people these days —because I pay attention to new music the best I can—that can make that sound.

One thing that bums me out about new music these days is that I can hear the process. That's partially because I am a musician who spends time in recording studios, so I know how the sausage is made. But I don't like hearing a band's songs and seeing a ProTools file in my mind. [Laughs] I like being swept up in the magic, and I want that for my audience. That's the way my favorite records were recorded. John made perfect sense as a person to do this record with, because the people who play on this record worked really hard to translate my songs and bring life into them. I knew I wanted someone like John who could really capture that moment. Anybody can record someone's part and drop it in a mix, but John's a special type of guy.

Tell me about misconceptions you've faced as an artist and as part of Parquet Courts.
In the beginning of Parquet Courts—and this isn't something I've dealt with in a while, because I feel like I've overcome this—the word "slacker" was used a lot. That particularly bugged me. Anybody that knows me will tell you that I'm not chill. [Laughs] I'm not a chill dude. I'm kind of a workaholic. It's that part of me that gives Parquet Courts a very different sound than bands that might be described as that.

You can't really get too bogged up in peoples' perception of you, though. It's not your job to clarify that as an artist. It's clarified by the way I work and make music. That disabused that rumor in time. If anything, the only way you can really make yourself understood is continuing to do what you do. It's not my job to chime in when I read things about me and the band that are way off. I'm not trying to be a personality, or even trying to cultivate any sort of myth or legend or anything.

I'm not the most engaged person publicly, I think. That's just because I don't really want to be, but I'm not entirely reclusive, either. I make myself available—my email address is out there, I talk to people after shows. But I really want to be defined by the art that I make. That's how I'm comfortable with being public and public-facing. I don't see it as my job to define myself beyond that, because the fact of the matter is that most people don't know me, and I'm not trying to be known intimately by my fans. My art is what I give my fans.

It's for that reason that I don't do the social media thing. My record label ended up making one for me, I haven't seen it. There are some fans out there that, you could talk about someone like Taylor Swift, whose fans feel like they know her because she's a presence in the public life. People know who she dates and all that stuff, and there are other artists who operate like that on the indie rock level—and that's cool for them. I think about someone like Mac DeMarco, who's a friend of mine. He's stepped back, but I remember hanging around with him in Los Angeles and seeing people just come up to him and talk to him like he's a pal. That's cool, but that's just not me. The thing I want out there is just my art, and that's what I want to be defined by.

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Jamie Larson