“I don’t know if this is going around the rumour mill of the handful of people who’ve had the distinct privilege of talking to me on the phone, but I do tend to ramble.” Sean Yeaton, the bassist for New York’s greatest band of art, punks Parquet Courts, has a lot to ramble about. The band’s seventh studio album, Sympathy for Life, was recently released, with the band embarking on an extended North American and European tour for the rest of the year and well into 2022. Parquet Courts also recently celebrated their 10th anniversary, so Yeaton has plenty to discuss.
I caught up with Sean as he was going to pick his kids up from school to talk about Sympathy for Life, touring, and bass lines. Right away, his distinctive position within the band is apparent – whereas the other three members are often clean-shaven, sharp-featured and punk-looking, Yeaton is often bearded, wide-eyed, more seemingly more affable and approachable. He’s the only member with a family, and while his bandmates talk about still living in New York City apartments with roommates, Yeaton proudly talks about living “in the middle of fucking nowhere” and watching iPad screensaver montages of his young children growing up.
These are the two sides of life that Yeaton balances: being a husband and father at home, being a rock and roller in the studio and on tour. He’s happy to dispel any notion that Parquet Courts, despite their successes, have adopted any stereotypical rock star behaviours. Describing the group as “four guys who mostly sit in the van and listen to songs together,” Yeaton says that the only major change is that “Andrew [Savage] and Austin [Brown] have switched sides of the stage they play on”.
But no matter how similar their personalities remain, Parquet Courts have noticeably changed over the past couple of years. 2018’s Wide Awake! featured a greater emphasis on funk, dance, and electronica that saw the band move away from the raw punk and indie rock of their past. Yeaton acknowledges that Sympathy for Life continues to shift stylistically in that direction, but it comes more from the band’s confidence in their own playing.
“It is the first time I felt that I knew what I wanted going into each song, and then I successfully did the thing that I had hoped to do,” Yeaton says of his own bass lines. “On Wide Awake! I think I may have showed off a little bit too much. This one, I may be more subdued, but I’m more happy. I’m more proud of it.”
“It took me a really long time, honestly an embarrassing, really long amount of time to appreciate the value of the bass, you know?” Yeaton says with a laugh. “When we started the band, I had played guitar in a couple bands. I always sort of thought of myself as a decent guitar player. Even whenever Andrew asked if I wanted to do the band way back when, he was like, ‘You can play bass’ and I was like, ‘Ah, easy guitar!’
“I was listening to a lot of like Serge Gainsbourg and Fela Kuti. And even like Stereolab, so many albums that I have listened to forever but never paid attention to the bass and was like, ‘Oh shit, it’s really adding something that I had never even realised I had the power to do’. Once we started working on Wide Awake! especially, I’d started sneaking stuff in slowly over time. I’d always try to chuck a weird thing in.”
“I think you’ll find that it goes off into different directions, more so than maybe other Parquet Courts records have, but in a way that I believe to be really contained, not like a rant,” Yeaton says. “Instead of improvising for hours at a time, we would improvise sections of songs, almost like DJing ourselves back to ourselves.” Yeaton emphasises that the album isn’t a “punk-o-rama” like some previous Parquet Courts albums but rather represents an ongoing progression that started around the time of Wide Awake!, emphasising that they didn’t want the music to be perfect.
Yeaton explained that he preferred the small scale workmanship of acts like They Might Be Giants as opposed to the polished perfection of acts like Steely Dan. “Steely Dan is like like a Ferrari or something, Like, ‘Oh fuck, that’s sick! Everybody agrees that that is a sick car. It’s fucking perfect. Holy shit!’ But it’s clearly built by robots,” he told me, adding: “There was maybe a couple of geniuses behind the initial document or design, but like, it is just so perfect that it doesn’t register in your mind as like actual perfection. Whereas a They Might Be Giants song is like a ship in a bottle where, just as impressive as the thing itself is, is also the fact that somebody did it.”
Yeaton clearly has a gift for some unexpected comparisons, as seen by how he describes the feeling that comes with releasing a new album. “There’s this very interesting riptide-esque, Christmas Eve-meets-Chernobyl kind of vibe where it’s really stressful because pretty soon it’s a thing that is just going to exist for everybody,” Yeaton explains. “Exactly the moment that it exists for everybody, it no longer becomes our thing.” But the pride Yeaton expresses for the new album outweighs any and all qualms that come along with sharing new music, especially as they begin to take shape on tour.
“More often than not once, you’re playing these songs night after night on tour, they become this whole new thing based on like how the audience interacts with them. And this record, in particular, has been crazy because so much time went by between when we initially finished recording and then started rehearsing. It has just been learning how to play the songs that we used to be able to play with our eyes closed. It’s almost like every song has this new kind of coding on it or something.”
Stream Sympathy for Life, below.