On "Stoned and Starving," a standout cut from the Parquet Courts' first proper album, Light Up Gold, singer Andrew Savage wanders around the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens trying to score some munchies. He flips through magazines, scratches lottery tickets, reads ingredients and warning labels. "I was debating Swedish Fish, roasted peanuts, or licorice," he sings in a deadpan. "I was so stoned and starving."
As he visits one bodega after another on his quest for the perfect snack, Savage's narcotized state leaves him both hungry and unable to make a decision on how to spend his crumpled dollar bills. As it crashes into its closing chords, the song remains unresolved — a miniature epic through the outer boroughs, Sisyphus rolling a giant Hostess Ding Dong up a hill, Ahab after the Great White Swedish Fish.
Savage's expertly arch delivery gives "Stoned and Starving" its wry comedy, yet there's a strange sadness just below the surface — the melancholy of a young man in a big city trying to find something he can't quite name. The guitars — courtesy of Savage and fellow singer/songwriter Austin Brown — whiz and stomp, as though both desperate and easily distracted, but the tight rhythm section of bass player Sean Yeaton and drummer Max Savage (Andrew's brother) keeps the band on mission. The song burbles with jittery energy, its gleeful amateurishness recalling Ramones and its deliberate groove reminiscent of Marquee Moon by Television — both, not coincidentally, New York bands.
The Parquet Courts is a New York band, but like all New York-based musicians these days, its members hail from elsewhere. Savage and Brown met at the University of North Texas in Denton, which is home to an indie scene (Will Johnson, Baptist Generals, Midlake) that bears little resemblance to the Courts' indie punk. The two met at a record-listening club called — seriously — Knights of the Round Turntable. Max Savage is another Texan, while Yeaton grew up in Boston. Brown is quick to point out that "the band started in New York, and most of the songs were written in New York. So we've always identified ourselves as a New York band, and I think that comes through on the sound of the record. I think a lot of our influences are New York bands, but that's not something that's new."
Light Up Gold (their second, after a debut, American Specialties, that was essentially just Savage screwing around) conjures visions of young people in New York, non-natives channeling the city's native energy. The quartet generates a frenzy that's equal parts invigorating and intimidating — an energy that sounds like it's being imposed on them, as New York will do. If it's the perfect backdrop for a carefree pot odyssey, just don't call the Parquet Courts stoners — or, worse, slackers.
"It tends to be a common misnomer for us," Brown says, "and it's kind of insulting, really. We all work really hard, and to have someone say they love what you do and in the same breath call it slacker rock, it's like, hey man, I'm probably spending more days on the road than I am at home this year. We play a lot and write a lot of material and work really hard at this. But people relate to it any way they can, and I'm sure bands like Pavement and Sonic Youth were probably called the same sort of thing."
They may sing about smoking pot and scoring Swedish Fish, but they doesn't approach music as a lackadaisical pursuit. Instead, they labor at these songs; they work diligently to achieve that tossed-off complexity. Before recording a single note, the group released a mixtape that showcased their influences, featuring songs from Guided by Voices, Napalm Death, Faust, Butthole Surfers, and Ol' Dirty Bastard. It played less like a mixtape than a manifesto. After touring heavily and working out songs in front of live audiences, the band transformed their small practice space in Brooklyn into a makeshift studio, then recorded Light Up Gold in three days:
"All the instruments the first day, vocals the second day, overdubs the third day," Brown says. "It's a pretty intense pace regardless of how familiar you are with the material. We just didn't try anything that we didn't think we could handle."
Their efforts are paying off: After they self-released Light Up Gold last year, the indie label What's Your Rupture? signed the band and gave them a wider release, and the album has become one of the most hyped debuts of the year. The band doesn't — or can't, or won't — see it that way just yet.
According to Brown, he doesn't pay too much attention to things like album sales or rave reviews: "It doesn't have much to do with anything I can control. It does help our shows attract more people, which is good. But I don't know what to make of it. It was never anything that we sought out or expected."
The Parquet Courts may view this kind of success — modest compared to mainstream expectations, yet gargantuan in the indie realm — as something they stumbled across while stoned and starving, but actually it's something they've been looking for all along, as they enlarge the scope of their quest from Ridgewood to the whole world.
Parquet Courts, with Total Control, UV Race, and Sharp Balloons Murphy's, Tuesday, May 28th 9 p.m., $10