In late August 1973, the BBC debuted a children’s TV series titled Why Don’t You? Broadcast from locations around the country, including Liverpool on numerous occasions, the programme revolved around a group of kids responding to letters from viewers who wrote into the show suggesting games, activities and things for the children to make, with the show’s tagline being “Don’t just sit there watching TV, go out and do something less boring instead”.
For many kids growing up in the early 70s, Why Don’t You? was their first introduction to the nascent DIY culture that was beginning to well up around them in the dark corners of London and which would begin to become associated with the first wave of British punk.
Although it had its roots in punk, DIY culture spread and intensified during the 1990s, spurred on by the dawn of the rave movement, the anti-criminal justice demonstrations and the general anti-capitalist movement. In recent years it’s come full-circle, no doubt rising to prominence and importance again thanks in no small part to the austerities of the past few years, where the thrifty, anti-materialist and alternative living bent of the DIY ethic has reached a wide range of new musicians, artists and free thinkers.
Enter PARQUET COURTS, one of the most hotly-touted punk acts to come out of Brooklyn in recent years. Their breakout LP Light Up Gold was released in 2012 to resounding critical acclaim and received a five-star rating from the Guardian, while NME named it as “one of the best debut albums you’ll hear this year”. Mixing bare-boned, razor-edged song structures with acerbic wit and snappy lyrical tirades, Parquet Courts showed themselves to be brilliantly grubby, aggressively poetic, and 100% New York.
In addition to writing and recording all their own music, the band have a hand in everything else that they do, right down to the creation of their music videos, which unfortunately doesn’t leave much time for respite. It’s 11am in New York on a Monday morning and the band’s guitarist Austin Brown has just woken up. Instead of having a well-deserved lie-in, however, he’s already busy juggling an interview and coming up with the concept for the band’s latest video for new single Black And White. “I’m just trying to get my life together, I guess. I’m working on a music video today, which we haven’t even started shooting yet so who knows, it could all change in an instant. It’s kinda in the fledgling stages but it has to be done pretty quickly so we’re all brainstorming ideas.”
It seems like a lot of work for one band, but Parquet Courts apparently take it all in their stride. After all, according to Austin they’ve been doing everything themselves right from the get-go, including booking their very first US tour all on their own, with mixed results. “Yeah, we booked pretty much the whole US tour and we kinda just knew people in every city,” he says. “We know all the bands who are doing the same things as we are and exist in the same scene that we’re in, so they’re all up for playing shows just like we were and everyone was so helpful with getting us shows.”
Sounds alright so far, but what about the negatives? “A lot of the shows were good but we also played some pretty awful ones. There was this one show we played in a basement in Kansas City that was just so bad: it was kinda like a house party and I don’t know if anybody there knew there was a show happening, so we all played in their freezing basement at sub-zero temperature. Somehow it was colder in the basement than it was outside and there was no heat in the house at all. We played for like three drunk dudes who had no idea what was going on.”
Somewhere along the line somebody must have started paying attention. It can take some bands ages to get off the ground, but in the space of only four years since the band’s inception they’ve had three full-length releases, with the follow-up to Light Up Gold – Sunbathing Animal – due out in early June.
“I would say it’s like a progression, or an evolution of our sound and our songwriting,” Austin says, noting that the attention is once again focused on their lyrics, with the droney instrumental snarl serving as a vessel for singer Andrew Savage’s sharp-tongued yelp. “It [the new album] is much more deliberately forward lyrically, where the music does revolve around what’s being said and the story [being] told. It’s all in there, it’s all in the words and the message is definitely there for people to hear and there’s nothing ubiquitous about it. It still has that raw energy and I think we’ve just gotten better at communicating that style, so it’s a departure in some ways: it’s less making a statement than it is an evolution.”
Exactly how, then, does a band even come to evolve in the first place in a circuit like New York’s, where there’s a fresh, hip band crawling out of the primordial muck every minute? According to Austin, the key to surviving in such a saturated environment is to be relentlessly consistent and to just try and get along with everyone. “There’s always somebody to play with and there’s a big community of bands here, so I don’t really look at it as a competitive thing. That said, if I was looking at it as a competition then yeah I’d think it would be pretty difficult, but really I think it’s good. We always had a show to play starting out, which is pretty helpful, and even if we played first on the line-up for several shows, like we did in our first few years as a band, we made it our thing to never turn down a gig no matter what it was. We’d then become known as the band who would open every show and that’s how we got noticed.”
To the regular Joe in the street, the outwards view of punk music is still that of flailing limbs in circle pits, spit, chains and mohawks. Yeah, they’re punk, but rather than the caricatures perpetuated by the media of ill-mannered and leather clad crotchfruit who just won’t stay off your damned lawn, Parquet Courts represent something vastly different; their howling punk assertions are paired with good-willed, socially-conscious bonhomie, and a can-do approach to everything.
“I guess that kinda speaks to the greater DIY ethic, that everything we do starts with us. We have agents who book our tours now, but we do everything ourselves until we get too much to do,” Austin says. Is perhaps the real secret to DIY culture not so much do-it-all-yourself, but more let’s-all-do-it-together? Austin concludes: “I guess everyone pays for it in some way. You let the bands crash at your place ‘cos eventually you’ll be on tour and will need a place to stay, and if a band you like is asking you how to get a show, the least you can do is point them in the right direction.” Who was it said about getting by with a little help from their friends…?
Parquet Courts play East Village Arts Club on 22nd June. Their new album Sunbathing Animal is out on Rough Trade on 2nd June.