15 May 2018

Sound and vision: Parquet Courts' A. Savage on life as an artist and musician


15 May 2018


A. Savage is an artist who is always walking the ledge between two creative worlds. The first is a musical one, where he throttles through songs playing in Parquet Courts. But the second is a slower paced painting career, where his enviable talent for building a narrative shifts from songwriting onto canvas. While he has no plans to settle in either camp permanently, his painting studio is “wonderful” the artist tells It’s Nice That. “It’s my favourite place in the world.”

Teetering along between music and art is a route Savage has followed since school. A graduate of the University of North Texas’ painting course, he actually enrolled at the college in Denton as a music major; his instrument was the upright bass and he was practising classical performance. The university is renowned for its musical programme, “it’s a real machine for churning out professional musicians,” he says, “I realised that it might make me fall out of love with music.” A quick switch onto the university’s painting programme was made and a career of constantly jumping between music and art, just as he did as a freshman, is what has followed. “Even though I did major in painting, I think it was before I really started taking art seriously… It probably wasn’t until I moved to New York that I started taking it as seriously as I do now.”

Moving to New York has proved creatively fruitful for Savage. Relocating in 2009, “the main reason was just to get as far away, not just geographically but ideologically, from Denton as I could,” he explains. “It’s a college town. I was 24 and starting to feel old… It became so claustrophobic to me, not that it’s a terrible place to be from, but the anonymity of New York, to be anonymously absorbed into the city, was appealing to me.”

This move in home and lifestyle has worked for the artist in a number of ways. Parquet Courts formed a year later in 2010, starting in New York despite two of its three other members being from Texas too. The community Savage found himself in also elevated his artistic tendencies. When listing creative influences in conversation, he regularly jumps between naming friends of his to high profile artists such as Kerry James Marshall, Hergé or Reid Miles, before returning back to praise the work of a friend again. The city also provided the artist with his studio, situated at the top of a warehouse in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. From the photos, Savage’s love for New York could arguably stem from the view of its skyline from his wall of windows.

Time spent in the studio is sporadic due to touring, but once there Savage’s output is significant. Speaking to the artist in London, it’s obvious the studio is somewhere he misses while away on press trips such as this, or when his diary is filled with live shows. “Oh it’s so nice,” he smiles when I ask what that first day back in his studio is like after a trip away. “Just having a cup of coffee, to look out the window, look around and realise how lucky I am to have this space, this place where I can go,” he says. “I have a great apartment, I really love it, but I think I’d leave that sooner than I would leave the studio.”

When the artist has a period of time to paint, the process begins with planning. “Lots of planning. Conceptual planning. Writing down ideas before any sketching or drawing happens." Obviously as a songwriter, the artist is “really good at thinking on paper, just writing down my thoughts, just streams of consciousness”. This happens on the studio walls, taping up sheets of butcher paper, allowing the process to naturally morph into sketching, “drawing things over and over again”.

Drawing is at the forefront of Savage’s work, his approach is by hand and always has been since childhood. His parents met while working at a newspaper and ran an advertising company for a while. The spare room was filled with helpful layout tools, “all these old school drafting supplies, light boards, tracing paper,” he describes. “Just because that stuff was around I kind of work in a way that is a bit old school, my process is still pretty reliant on drawing a lot.”

While other artists have altered their approach to painting with helpful technological advances, Savage’s canvases, which he also stretches by hand, remain to be mapped out using a grid. Once a colour palette is decided he’ll keep note of pigment formulas in order to make the next batch when he returns. Although the artist possibly makes it more difficult for himself by following this planning ritual, the reward is worth it: “When I’m actually painting that’s the funnest part, putting colour on the canvases. I would say that I think I’m fairly conceptual and I do like that part of the process,” he explains. “It feels a bit like homework you know? Like studying. I do appreciate the planning stage, but it’s really nice when you’re painting.”

Conceptually, Savage’s recent paintings, a series which culminated in three art shows last year, centre around memory and in turn are very personal. He doesn’t use reference photos, basing the context on his own memory, grown from an interest “in the kind of things that our minds remember, the kind of things that they forget, and then the kind of things that are somewhere in between — or the stuff that we invent rather,” he says. “All my recent work has been based on that, and it kind of informs the way I paint." The Past, Too, Is An Intruder, was aptly the title of his exhibition last year, painting recreations of past lovers’ bedrooms. “It’s kind of about how the past comes to you, it intrudes whether you like it or not,” he explains of the work. “It comes to you in moments and ways that you don’t expect, and there’s a part of it that you wilfully cast aside.”

"I was listening to the record non-stop while working on the artwork for it.”

A. Savage

Alongside his independent art practice, Savage creates all of Parquet Courts’ artwork, from concept to the layout design of sleeve notes. It would be easy to assume that the artist lifts from already completed work for these cover designs, but he sees them as separate entities, approaching it like any other designer given a brief.

From the beginning of the band the artist wanted to create a language — or “a visual lexicon” — which translates Parquet Courts’ sound. It’s a style he describes as looser than his larger paintings, one “a little less indebted to line” and fully intentional. Parquet Courts’ artwork has evolved as the band has, a result of the artist experiencing sound and vision as interwoven, considering he has synesthesia, seeing colour as sound and vice versa. “Historically, there’s a colour that I identify with the sounds on the record,” he begins to explain. “The new one is an almost yellow heavy shade of red, and then a very strong green. The way they interact with each other is something that I feel from listening to the music. I was listening to the record non-stop while working on the artwork for it.”

It’s a technique that evidently works. Savage’s artwork for Parquet Courts’ 2016 album Human Performance was nominated for a Grammy award in best recording package following its release. “It is kind of weird yeah!” he laughs when I bring up his nomination. “I felt really happy to be the only nominee in that group that was also the artist as well. That, in and of itself, was a triumph.” The night of the award ceremony itself the artist describes as interesting. A highlight was seeing Beyoncé perform (“that was incredible”), but all in all Savage is humble about the award: “It’s not a world that I’m remotely near musically so it was interesting. Ultimately, it was a nice little trip where I got to wear a tux, dress up and go out for a nice dinner afterwards.”

As A. Savage climbs through separate successes in both music and art, you have to wonder if the balancing act of both is becoming a little too much. Last year he had three shows and put out two records. This year Parquet Courts will release another and the artist is curating and creating all the artwork for a new hotel in Los Angeles. Without forgetting that he has his own record label, Dull Tools, and designs each sleeve of the records he signs too.

Yet, by keeping them separate in context, it appears the artist has an ideal balance. “I’ve got this rhythm where I’m home, working really hard, and then that wanderlust kicks in and I’m travelling. Then, you start to miss your routine and the sense of peace and solitude that I get at my studio. It’s a good rhythm. I’ll go out, I’ll come back, I’ll go out again.” Each lifestyle provides different emotions too. He even describes a moment when speaking on stage about his art to 30 people made him visibly shake, but months before when playing to thousands he’s confident.

It’s clear that A. Savage will always continue to walk along the edge between art and music. If he feels abstracted he can switch from one to the other, and doesn’t ever think he’ll become frustrated with the intwined life he juggles. “I don’t think I could really say that. Music, I guess, introduced me to a lot of people that maybe don’t follow art,” he justifies. Nestling between both has made Savage’s artwork inclusive, for those who outwardly go to galleries or those who sit at home listening to records. “I could never really complain about it because really, that’s the circumstance of me as well,” he says. “My love of art doesn’t come from this great education in fine art, but actually through artwork done for records. At this point I’m still pretty much known as the guy who does work for Parquet Courts, and that’s fine. It would be great to have some sort of gallery behind me, but those things are maybe auxiliary to what the true goal is, just to have more people see my stuff and have an opportunity to impact more people with what I do.”

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.

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