It's a muggy midweek afternoon in Madison, Wis., and Sean Yeaton is on the phone to talk about Parquet Courts, the prolific indie band he plays bass in. They've just released their sixth album, Wide Awake! (Rough Trade *** 1/2).
It's the best, most musically wide-ranging full-length effort so far by the burgeoning quartet, in part because the band, who had never worked with a producer before, took a leap of faith to successfully team with Danger Mouse.
The noted knob twiddler born Brian Burton, whose resumé includes high-profile collaborations with U2, Norah Jones, and A$AP Rocky, produced Wide Awake! It will bring Parquet Courts to Philadelphia for a tour stop at Union Transfer on Friday.
Wide Awake! is an apt title for a band whose music has always been anxiety-ridden in a good way, going back to "Stoned & Starving" from 2011's Light Up Gold and "Dust," the house-cleaning anthem ("Dust is everywhere — sweep!") on 2016's Human Performance.
From 2014's Content Nausea (recorded under the moniker Parkay Quarts), which includes the introspective travelogue "Uncast Shadow of Southern Myth," and continuing through Milano, an underappreciated 2017 teaming with Italian composer Daniele Luppi, Parquet Courts have steadily built an argument that they are among the best American rock bands of the decade. (Who else is even in the discussion, besides Philadelphia's the War on Drugs?)
Wide Awake! directs the band's caffeinated energy into astutely observant dance-rock that draws from influences such as early 1980s punks the Minutemen, as well as poppier source material.
The songs written by guitarist Andrew Savage in particular have a cutting political edge. In "Total Football," he sings, "It is dishonest, nay, a sin to stand for any anthem that attempts to drown out the roar of oppression," in a way that sounds way better when sung over crisp, abrasive backing than it reads on the page. And Savage finishes the song with words to warm any Philadelphia Eagle fan's heart: "F— Tom Brady."
The band's second songwriter is Austin Brown, whose not-quite-as-aggressive songs on Wide Awake!, like "Mardi Gras Beads," bear the spaghetti Western-influence of the Milano project. Brown and Savage live in Brooklyn, as does the band's drummer, Savage's brother Max. (They're all in their early 30s, except Max Savage, who's 26).
Parquet Courts, however, are only three-quarters a Brooklyn band. For Yeaton, the Union Transfer gig will be a hometown show: He lives with his wife, Meg, son Jack, 3, and daughter Rita, 2, in Glenmoore in Chester County.
All the other members grew up in Texas, and Yeaton was raised outside Boston in Beverly, Mass., before moving to Brooklyn, where he worked for the digital media company Vice. He helped launched the tech blog "Motherboard," whose slogan is "The Future Is Wonderful, the Future Is Terrifying."
The story of how Yeaton ended up in Philadelphia is — as is the frequently the case with musicians who migrate to the 215 — a tale of real estate and living space.
"I met my wife in New York about five years ago," says the affable bassist, talking before a soundcheck in Madison. "That was obviously amazing in every way imaginable. We were living in an apartment in Greenpoint [in Brooklyn], which was the size of about a few milk crates. When our son was born, it was clear it was just not going to work."
The family headed to Philly in part because it was home to Meg, who grew up near Kennett Square and who now works at the Haverford School as an archivist. First, they lived in Northern Liberties, then headed out to less-populated Glenmoore, "which is about as different from Greenpoint as you could get. I've got a lot property, which I have to mow."
Yeaton's excited for the UT show, and to take his children to see Parquet Courts play all-ages gigs in New York. "They've never seen me do this," he says. "For all they know, I'm just some guy who watches Westworld on TV all day. I'm going to prove to them otherwise."
Pre-Parquet Courts, Yeaton was in a Boston post-hardcore band called Daniel Striped Tiger, named after the hamburger-loving puppet in Mister Rogers' neighborhood. The band played a show in 2008 in the Denton, Texas, living room of Savage, who was then writing songs for a band called Teenage Coolkids.
Two years later, Yeaton had given up playing music to launch "Motherboard." "There were a lot of blogs like "Tech Crunch" and "Gizmodo" from the perspective of people who don't really fear technology. I thought there should be a blog with a more Orwellian approach. Like, it's great that we have all these apps, but I can't read another article about how amazing this is without wanting to scream about how terrifying it is!"
"Motherboard" was starting to go great guns when Yeaton began rehearsing with the Savages and Brown. He realized he had found something special.
"I started playing guitar when I was in third grade," the bassist says. "I just really love it so much. It's truly my passion. And I had been in bands that had some success. But something about it didn't really click with other people. We could never fill up a room. But then when I met Andrew, even when he was in the Teenage Coolkids, I just knew he was an amazing songwriter. He had that magic about him, you know?
"The best way I can describe it was, he had something that I always wanted. It was very exciting to be in a band who had that kind of raw talent. On Light Up Gold, it was like, 'Oh my God, I'm so excited to play these songs!' "
Though his journalism career was progressing, "being in a band with two songwriters that were that confident and that good felt more important than anything else. I couldn't deny the chance to get this visceral thing back that I had since I was a kid. I just would never forgive myself if I didn't take this opportunity and see what happened. It was a really hard decision to make at the time, but one that I'm glad I did."
Danger Mouse is close friends with Luppi — with whom he worked on the 2011 Ennio Morricone homage Rome — and through Luppi, they found out that the marquee producer was a fan.
The chance arose to record with Burton, whom Yeaton describes as "super-smart and sonically aware, with this insanely encyclopedic knowledge of music." The quartet leapt at it, and, following their usual strategy of decamping to an isolated locale, they recorded Wide Awake! in El Paso, Texas.
"He was so good with references to music from multiple generations and just how to bring them together from a production viewpoint in a way that we weren't," says the suitably impressed Yeaton. As an example, he cites Wide Awake!'s Brown-penned closing track "Tenderness" as "something that sounds like a Warren Zevon piano riff over a Stranglers guitar-and bass part.
"We were throwing out a lot of different musical references, and he was able to respect each musical piece. It's almost like [the Beastie Boys'] Paul's Boutique, but instead of using samples, we're using our own music."
Parquet Courts are an anomaly in that they maintain no social-media presence. As such, their success offers an instructive object lesson for up-and-comers seeking a magic formula to make it in the music business. Instead of fussing over marketing, focus first on art. Make good music. Don't suck!
"I have have my own Instagram and Twitter, but as a band we don't use it," Yeaton says. "My feeling was that a lot of technology has nefarious implications. But I guess the ultimate reason was we didn't want to have another thing added to our plate to deal with. I feel like our job is to play music and write these songs. Whatever gets people out to our shows, I'd rather have it be our music than something one of us said on Twitter."