The scene outside the University of London Students’ Union has a reassuring timelessness. There are bicycles, students lolling about chatting, a bookshop opposite – and posters everywhere attacking university authorities for cracking down on protests. All right, it’s not quite cobblestones and burning barricades, but still: today’s debt-loaded student hasn’t become an entirely docile creature.
On the first floor of the building, in the Orwellian-named Room 101, a clangorous din rings out. Parquet Courts are doing a late-afternoon soundcheck before playing at the union’s venue in the evening. The New Yorkers’ music also has a certain timeless quality.
It’s jittery, urgent, yet somehow also coolly self-possessed – a punk-like racket with echoes of bands such as Pavement, the Strokes and Velvet Underground, fuelled by a fierceness of purpose that bends the influences into new shapes.
I join two of the foursome, Austin Brown and Andrew Savage, at a white plastic table in the bar adjoining the concert hall. Friends from Texas before moving to New York, both in their late twenties, they play guitar, sing, and write all Parquet Courts’ tracks.
Brown, with a mop of floppy hair and a deep, laid-back voice, is the more relaxed of the pair, closer to the “slacker” label that has been attached to them. Savage, who writes the majority of the songs, is more serious and tight-coiled, sitting with his arms crossed, cropped hair hidden under a white cap with the logo “Daytona Tires”. He does most of the talking.
They’re touring their new album Sunbathing Animal. It’s the follow-up to Light Up Gold, which was greeted last year with grateful acclaim by what remains of the rock press, desperate for a new guitar band to get behind. But Parquet Courts, whose other two members are Sean Yeaton on bass and Savage’s brother Max on drums, don’t fall into the category of rock saviours quite so neatly.
“We get misinterpreted many times as a kind of rock guitar hero band. That’s definitely not the goal,” Savage says. His and Brown’s songs bristle with thwarted desire and black humour, a revival of the grunge-era cult of the loser.
“Stoned and Starving” is about a munchies-afflicted stoner hunting snacks (“I was debating Swedish fish/roasted peanuts or liquorice”). “Careers in Combat” satirises avuncular employment advice in a country in which there are no jobs any more “but there are still careers in combat, my son”.
Sunbathing Animal explores ideas of freedom and captivity. “One of the main themes is that freedom can be a false sense of perception, it can be an illusion. You can be running a victory lap but you’re still running around in a circle,” Savage says. “Something I was working on with the album was my own freedom within the confines of rock’n’roll. I know that rock music is inherently romantic and self-referential, that’s just part of what it is, but you have to keep trying to be innovative in it.”
Loud thumps underscore his words. It’s his brother Max soundchecking the drums in Room 101 next door. “The workhorse,” Savage says drily. His and Brown’s lyrics are snarky and alienated yet they also register something else – a desire for purpose, the search for some meaning. There’s an undercurrent of Christian imagery running through the songs, more so than you might expect from a sardonic Brooklyn garage-rock outfit.
“Well,” says Savage, a little surprised by the line of questioning, “me and Max were altar boys when we were growing up.” But he’s not religious now, in fact he never was. The Savage brothers grew up in the Texas university town of Denton to “leftwing, politically progressive” parents who met working for the local newspaper before starting a “mom-and-pop” advertising business together.
We’ve walked through doors where we can’t go back. In some ways that’s great, in some ways it’s very bittersweet, kind of sad
Brown’s upbringing was more stereotypically Texan. He comes from the small town of Beaumont, where his parents, who split up when he was 16, worshipped at a Southern Baptist church. His father was an accountant, his mother a schoolteacher. A philosophy student, he met Savage – who was studying painting – at the University of North Texas. They started the band seven years later after moving to New York. They come from an underground rock background. “Parquet Courts can’t exist there any more, much as I’d like us to, it’s just impossible,” says Savage, who also runs his own record label, Dull Tools.
“We’ve walked through doors where we can’t go back. In some ways that’s great, in some ways it’s very bittersweet, kind of sad. Sometimes you meet – it’s a hard thing to say – sometimes there are people who are fans of the band whom I would never associate with, or who I would never consider liking my music.”
He frets over this last observation. “That remark is going to come off as snobby. I really didn’t mean it that way. I don’t experience it so much over here as I do in America when you get Joe College in the front row and he’s screaming, ‘Stoned and Starving’ with his white cap on.”
Savage looks at the white cap he has just taken off his own head and laughs. The desire for purity and non-compromise comes from punk and 1980s US hardcore but that culture – the one in which independent labels provided a genuine challenge to the majors – has faded away with the decline in record sales.
“Indie music” now has the travestied meaning of any guitar band with a vaguely alternative outlook. “I don’t consider myself an indie rocker. I never have,” he says.
Last year the band members gave up their day jobs to concentrate on the band on a full-time basis. “It’s a new kind of hustle,” Brown says. “The ways you make money in a band aren’t really related to the music.”
How relevant is the old punk ethos of not selling out? “I feel like it’s a conversation I’d have had with my skater friends in high school,” Brown adds witheringly. “I’d say musicians work a lot harder than they did. There are no million-dollar advances coming to bands like us.”
Parquet Courts have had “band conversations” about the lucrative temptations that may come their way, such as licensing songs for adverts or soundtracks, “but it’s nothing that we’d put out there”, Brown says.
“We haven’t written a manifesto yet,” Savage chips in. Dissent from being treated “like a commodity” is tempered by compromise. “Let’s face it, a lot of ugly corporate money makes art possible,” Savage argues. “Ugliness prevails in art.”
“What’s interesting,” Brown says,” is that where we do exist – where we were, where we are now, where we’ll be next year – is that the voice remains the same.”
‘Sunbathing Animal’ is out now on Rough Trade. Parquet Courts play the Phono Pop Festival in Germany today (July 12) and Latitude Festival in Southwold, Suffolk, on July 20
Photograph: Anna Huix