Artist and Musician
Conducted by Bridget Bartal on March 26, 2021 at Brooklyn, New York
At the time of this interview, Savage was wrapping up the art for the 2021 Parquet Courts album, Sympathy for Life. The interview took place in his art studio in Brooklyn, New York during the Covid-19 pandemic. Because he is often asked about his music career, this oral history interview deliberately centered his equally prolific career in art and design. He discussed the intersections and entanglements of these aspects of his artistic output. Though respected as a designer, he spoke of his self-identification as an artist and more specifically a painter; design is a way he pays his bills. Surrounded by the nearly complete art for his band’s new album, Savage talked through his past, present, and future work.
Interview duration: 47 minutes
A. Savage (AS): I don’t know. It’s just always kind of been there. [pause.] There’s no kind of year zero or origin point for me, it’s just something that I always remember sort of being there, and I always remember liking to draw and make visual art. I guess eventually I went to University of North Texas, with not a whole lot of ambition in my head, and I ended up studying painting. I went in on a music scholarship actually, but it’s an extremely competitive music school so I dropped that after the first semester. And I ended up switching to a painting major, chiefly, to be honest, because it was twelve less class hours to graduate. So I guess that was kind of the beginning of my formal education, but I think my real education in art really started when I moved here in 2009. I worked for a company that sold museum and gallery posters, as well as small print runs and art on paper. And that was probably the best art education that I got. Just kind of being in the city, seeing other people work and being around other creative people was a pretty good thing. But by and large, the idea of being an artist was something I’ve identified with for as long as I can recall.
BB: So you said 2009 is when you moved.
BB: What was the biggest reason for the move, or why have you stayed?
AS: Well I’ve stayed because it’s a really exciting city to be in and it’s home now. When I talk about home, I’m not talking about the place I’m from. I’ve been here and I have no ties to anywhere else. I’ve been here for over a decade, so it’s home. I guess I wanted to be in a place that was very different from where I was living, which was Denton, Texas, and this seemed like the most exciting place. My life then needed a leap of faith, so that leap of faith came in the form of moving to New York.
BB: Do you want to talk a little about your studio environment. What you looked for in a studio? How long have you been in this studio?
BB: So, could you talk a little about what the process of designing a commission for a specific location looks like? I saw on your website the Canal Street Market Mural or the paintings for the Gold Diggers Hotel. What does that look like when you know you have a set environment?
AS: Yeah, sure. I can speak to those separately, because y’know a mural is a bit different from what I did at Gold Diggers, which was twenty individual canvases. I mean, really, for doing those paintings for Gold Diggers, they wanted my art all around the hotel. So based on the number of rooms and the space, we came to twenty pieces. I spent a year making the twenty canvases, and it was pretty crazy. But I think when you’re making a body of work like that, it’s important to know—well with any body of work really, be it a painting show or a record, or whatever—it’s important to know first what your message is and what you’re talking about vaguely, and have an idea of what you want to say. In the vaguest sense, because you also want there to be some part of the process that guides you to a more articulate thing that you’re going for. That’s where any piece starts. And then you go from there. That’s the hardest part. For the Gold Diggers paintings, I zeroed in on what more or less the story I was telling was, and I came up here everyday. First I sketched. With anything I take on, the planning is a big part of it, and that’s kind of evident with what you see around you right now. I’m working on stuff for a Parquet Courts album right now. The space was kind of like this, but on steroids. It was a whole operation. I actually rented out another studio for myself. There’s three other spaces here, and so it was just a whole operation. I hired my studio assistant around then, too. And I’ve never done anything else quite like that project, a large mass of work. It was like building a massive show, but it was pieces I was selling to a hotel. For murals, I think the same approach is important, but also seeing the space from all angles, imagining someone who is going to be using that space, who is going to be seeing it on a daily basis. Typically they’re semi-permanent things, and so you want to make sure that it ages well, especially with the environment that it’s in, the context of where it is, the people that are in it, what kind of space it is. You take all of that into consideration. And then, the actual painting of it, once that’s all figured out, that’s the fun part. In general, whether it’s the Gold Diggers thing or murals or paintings, when you’ve got the concept figured out, and what you want to say and execute, the rest is the fun part.
BB: So thinking about space, I guess I’m curious if you think of either your studio or your living space as a designed environment that’s an extension of your art, or whether those spaces are done in your style, if that makes sense.
AS: I’m not sure.
BB: Hm. I was wondering if you think about design consciously as far as your environment, how you pick your studio or decoration.
AS: Well of course I have my own sense of taste, right. I guess it’d have to be up to somebody else, an outsider. If you didn’t see my work, I don’t think this room would be immediately identifiable to me, or my apartment for that matter. I’m sure, just to use one example, if you saw Yayoi Kusama’s apartment, you’d be like that’s definitely her fucking apartment. But me, I don’t know if that would be the case. But, I mean, it’s got my work in it, for me this is a very intimate space, the place where my mind lives at.
BB: Okay. A question in a similar vein to the one about commissions for Gold Diggers and similar projects: do you find that your approach to something like an individual commission is different than design for mass-production, like an album cover? Do those approaches look more different or more similar?
A. Savage, painted masks for Parquet Courts’ “Freebird II” music video, 2018. Photo: Bridget Bartal.
BB: Which I guess is maybe different than other graphic designers, well, maybe not.
AS: And well I don’t really consider myself a designer.
BB: Okay, yeah.
AS: People come to me for design, and I’m someone who needs to live in the city and make money. So I do it, because it’s a way that a lot of artists I admire, Stuart Davis for example, make money. Because painting doesn’t, frankly. And for the most part, neither does music. So it’s a skill that I do have, and I do enjoy it, but at the end of the day if you asked me if I’m a designer or an artist, I’d pick artist, and musician. I have friends who are designers, and I think I’m, to a certain degree, admired by designers. People write me and say, I’m a design student, and I admire your work. Which is great, and there are a lot of designers that I look up to, but I do view it more as something to help pay my rent, and I don’t know if I would just be doing it independently of that.
BB: Could you talk a little about how Dull Tools got started? Or talk about what doing album art for a band that’s not your own looks like? I think I read in an interview that there was one instance where you thought that a record cover for another band looked a little too Parquet Courts-ish or something?
AS: Right, yeah. Well I’ll just talk about Dull Tools first. Chris Pickering and I started it in 2010. The first release was our old band, Teenage Cool Kids, the second release was Parquet Courts’ Light Up Gold. Him and I have played in bands together, and we’ve been a part of DIY music scenes in Texas and in New York, so it’s been important to stay active in those scenes. The label is starting to get really busy again, which I’m very happy about. I do most of the layouts for the bands, cause it’s just a skill that I have, doing print layout for a record. A lot of times, people don’t have that skill in the groups we work with, so it’s just kind of a service that comes with the label I guess. I have done a few designs for artists on the label, but I do have to be cognizant, since what’s on the Parquet Courts covers is a very distilled version of me and what I do. And it has become part of the band’s identity, so I do have to figure out how to work that out. It’s still going to be me, and still very evidently me, but I have to make it me, but not Parquet Courts.
BB: Yeah, that sounds like a difficult thing to juggle.
AS: It’s a confusing thing to navigate, so for the most part when people ask me, I decline. Unless it’s a good friend, or I have a really good idea, or it’s an opportunity that I need to take. I typically will politely decline because I already am so busy with other stuff, and it can be kind of mind-numbing to navigate. What does it look like to make something that is me, but not this other side of me.
BB: To kind of shift directions, you have had exhibitions in Japan, correct?
BB: Can you speak a little about your time in Japan, or any influence that you’ve drawn from Japanese prints or things of that nature?
AS: Sure. Yeah I’m an admirer of Japanese printmaking for sure, and I guess also by and large, the style of composition and line that you see in Japanese work. This sense of neatness and order appeals to me. I’ve been over there three times. Last time was when I had the show. I was there for a few weeks, it was great. I find the culture really interesting. Before I went there, I wasn’t someone that was largely fascinated with Japanese culture. Y’know there are people who that’s kind of a subculture of their identity. That wasn’t really me. But after going there, I do find the culture really interesting. The modes of behavior are quite different, and I felt like it was one of the most different places I’ve been. Parts of it were very familiar to me; there is a global culture after all. There are still things which are very much them. That was a lot of what my show there was about. [construction sounds.] What the fuck is that. [inaudible.] This is the loudest intersection in New York. It all just comes up at once. [pause.] Especially in urban environments. I’m someone who’s traveled in a lot of major cities in the world. Globalization has rendered cultures less distinct. The example I typically use is that you can go to the same coffee shop in New York, Berlin, Rome, Rio de Janeiro, and it’ll be the same kind of aesthetic. But Japan still has something that is very Japanese.
BB: Do you have any advice to share on how to draw inspiration from a culture that’s not your own in a respectful manner?
AS: Not really, everything is appropriation. There’s a tasteful version of appropriation, and a non-tasteful one.
BB: Well I guess that’s what I meant by respectful.
AS: Sure, yeah. I guess what I’d say is questioning your motives and being clear about what your goal and intentions are. If you do think that you are taking, borrowing, something from another culture, be very focused about it. If you know someone from that culture, talk to them about it. I also think that it’s just part of culture. It’s what makes culture change and move; we are all constantly appropriating. Appropriation is a part of culture.
BB: Another random turn, but where do you source your materials from, and how deliberate is that choice?
AS: Like, art supplies?
AS: I mean, it’s very deliberate in that there is an art supply store, there’s three, a short distance from here. Two of them are independent, so I try to go to those. But there’s Blick, which tends to usually have the thing I’m looking for. They’re all local, I get them from the neighborhood. Pratt [Institute] is right down the road, so there’s art supply stores around.
BB: Earlier you were talking about that at some points, design has been a necessity, a financial necessity. I’m curious how you’ve selected your projects. Was it hard to switch to something like clothing design for the Nike Artist in Residence?
A. Savage, Monastic Living sweater. Merchandise for his band, Parquet Courts, 2018. Photo: Bridget Bartal.
BB: I know I’ve seen the draft pictures from the Nike Artist in Residence thing, but I don’t know if I saw the final product. How involved were you in that?
AS: I think a lot of people didn’t, actually. It was not the best experience, to be honest. I was involved in that they hit me up and expressed interest. I needed some money, they said this is how much we’ll pay you. They needed it in a month, and so I was kind of at their mercy, really. I turned it around in a month, and they paid me, and that was pretty much that. I wasn’t involved past that point. It was like, you submit us these assets and you’re paid, and then fuck off, kind of. And so I did. Eventually, the shoes came out. I did say I wanted to be involved in the release of it, and that ended up not being the case. They just kind of came out, and there was very little that was said about it. I can’t say I’d recommend working with them to be honest.
BB: It seems like most of these projects have been individual work, but have you done collaboration, or is that something you’d think about taking on in the future?
AS: Well, being in a band is a collaboration in and of itself. But with visual stuff, not a whole lot, no. Collaboration requires a degree of patience, but it is very rewarding too. I think I sort of get that from the band, and maybe to another extent, the label. Maybe I use visual art as an opportunity to exercise a more individualistic type of expression. But I mean, I’m not opposed to it. To a degree, I am a bit of a control freak. Maybe I’m resistant to it a little bit, in a way, but not opposed to it.
BB: Yeah. So, I think I have one more question for the “present” part of the interview, and then we can get into your “future” work. I guess I’m just curious about how intentional your choice was, either yourself or the band as a whole, to not use social media? And if you feel that you still are able to connect with your audiences for either your music or art, or both?
AS: Yeah, for sure it’s intentional. It hasn’t been a problem. I get as much work as I do already. Maybe I’d get more work if I had social media, but I don’t know if I’d want more—I’m already really busy. So I don’t know if I necessarily need it. The band definitely doesn’t need it. There’s not much to say about it really.
BB: This is the obligatory question. You’ve talked about how busy the last few years have been, I guess if you want to talk a little about this pandemic year, and what your output has looked like?
AS: Yeah sure. Well. It has slowed down in 2020 for sure, it kind of had to.
BB: In almost a necessary way?
AS: Yeah. I was fighting cancer a lot of 2020. And so I wasn’t physically able to be here a lot of the time. So, I was very weak and couldn’t even make the walk up here. My output slowed down when I was in treatment, which was basically April until the end of the summer. And y’know, I snapped back pretty good after that, and kind of started where I left off. Typically, the pattern of my life is that I tour, and then I come back here to the studio, sometimes straight from the airport. Yeah. Obviously there was no touring happening this year, so when I was fit enough to come back up here and work again, I spent a lot of my time up here. More than ever, because this is the longest stretch of time that I’ve been in New York. Typically I’ll be here for two to three months and then go out on tour, sometimes it’s just a month and then we head back out. So I’m always kind of in and out of the city, but not in the last year, no. I’ve just been here, so over the winter I was in the studio every day, I have a ton of stuff to work on. It’s something that’s gotten me through the whole social-distance thing. I’m not really seeing a lot of my friends right now, so I’m just kind of focused on being here and doing work really.
BB: Is there a medium that you haven’t worked with yet that you’d like to take on in the future?
AS: Hm. [pause.] A physical medium. [pause.] I’m sure there is. I don’t know why I can’t think of something. Well, as far as painting goes, I think I’ve pretty much done most of it. I haven’t really worked with resins or enamel. I would like to do enamel; I haven’t done that. I mean, in a broader sense, I don’t know. There’s all this digital stuff that’s happening, like NFTs, have you heard about these?
BB: Not really.
AS: I can’t really wrap my head around it other than that it’s like a digital proof of ownership. I’m curious about it; I wouldn’t say I’m actively interested in it. I’m curious about it and how it’s going to change art. From what I can grasp, it’s a unique code that proves that you own something, a lot of times a digital piece of art. Grimes, I guess, has sold one for five million dollars, and it was a silly looking JPEG basically. But someone paid millions of dollars for this thing that says they own that JPEG. That’s a new medium. I think new mediums are interesting. I don’t know if I’m at a rush to get involved with a lot of the new mediums. For me, a lot of what art is is the practice of being away from that, being in a quiet place and painting. I messed around with the app Procreate, it’s for a tablet, like a painting app.
AS: It’s kind of interesting to use that for drafting, but as you can see I do most of my drafting in pencil still. I find that stuff interesting from afar, but I’m in no rush to jump into it. It kind of goes against the reason I’m attracted to art, which is just being away from that world. I’m still just as indoctrinated in it than anybody else, but I do try to keep a distance between myself and it in order to live the life I want. And that kind of speaks to the social media question too.
AS: And I view social media as a medium by the way. I think that can be an artistic medium. A lot of people are really clever at it. At this point, it’s a vernacular that I don’t exactly speak just because I haven’t engaged in it, and because it does change and move so fast. So one example might be memes, which I think could be potentially considered an art form, but is a very specific and constantly changing vernacular of humor. Unless you’re immersed in it, like any language, it’s hard to just like jump into the world of digital art or digital media. There’s a big learning curve to it if you’re not in it. And at this point, I realize that I’m not in it, and I just kind of focus on the thing that I do well, which is what I do.
BB: So you were talking about some of those inherent differences between media, and for you, making is entering a quiet place. I’m curious if you think that making is as much about the process than the product?
AS: No, okay, well it is about the process. There are some artists whose process is their art, and that’s not me. It’s definitely the final product, though the process is very important to me. Planning is very important. Being very deliberate in what I want to say is very important, and there’s a whole process behind that. But ultimately that’s mine, and not my audiences, so I would say that the final product is more important for me.
BB: Do you want to talk about upcoming work, or the work around us right now?
A. Savage, artwork for the 2021 Parquet Courts album Sympathy for Life, including painting, drawings, and plans. Photo: Bridget Bartal.
AS: Yeah, yeah. So all the stuff that you see behind you is stuff that’s for the next Parquet Courts record. That painting, which I just finished a couple weeks ago, I’ve been working on since about October. Our record got delayed by a year, so it allowed me a lot more time to work on it. I’ve done a lot of commissions, and I’ve sent a bunch of them out. I’ve been painting a lot, but there’s only one painting in the room right now because a lot of it has been sent out. Oddly enough, this year has been a pretty active year for commissioned paintings. Right now, this is the focus. I’ve got about another week on it. Like any of the band’s records, it’s something I’ve put a lot into and am very proud of. Very deliberate, because it’s going to represent the band and the sounds on this record for a lot of people. And a lot of people will see the record before they hear it, so it’ll be the point of entry for a lot of people, and that’s very important. I’m definitely a perfectionist in that mindset, because I really want it to be just so. I do that with my own art, but it’s not just representing me as an artist, it’s representing the band too, so I’m very cognizant of that. I want to make something that is special for someone who buys the record, or really engages with it in any way. I like record covers that immediately spark a curiosity in you, and make you think, “What is that? What does that sound like?” A lot of records, for me, were bought that way; the covers were engaging. That’s always the goal. I’ve been working on a typeface that you can see on the lightbox up there. That’s what I’m working on now. Behind you, right there on the desk, is all the lettering. The better part of the last week and a half was that stack of papers that you see right there, just making sure every letter is perfect. That’s kind of all that’s been being done in this room, which is this record that’s called Sympathy for Life.
BB: We’re at around forty minutes which is alright. I was shooting for more towards an hour. I’ve gone through most of my questions, but I can regroup for a second.
AS: Sure, yeah, no rush.
BB: I guess maybe a more self-interested question is that, I know a lot of people talk about wanting more prints from you.
AS: I have been trying to create a print series for a long time now. I was very actively trying to do it toward the end of last year. I just couldn’t come up with something that I liked, y’know. It’s gotta be exciting for me if I’m going to put it out there and sell it to people, and that just didn’t happen. And so I spent about a month trying to put something together, and I just kept hitting walls with it. And then I had to get back to work on this, because this was a real deadline. It’s a balance of having these deadlines and things that I have to do, jobs that come up, and then things that I do for me. Though I sell those things, there isn’t a deadline on them. But it is something that I get asked about constantly, because there are people that wanna buy art that can’t afford a canvas. So prints are kind of a good way of doing that. And I also love prints as well. I don’t really consider myself a print artist, but I love prints and I do get a lot of inspiration from it. So I am working on something, I do have an idea, but I just gotta find the time to do it. That time gets filled up with other things that get pushed to the top of the stack. It’s coming. I need to finish it up for sure.
BB: To wrap things up, do you want to talk through anything from color choice to technique for the new painting? Where it started? How it developed?
AS: Sure. I want it to be a visual distillation of the record, and a lot of the themes and visions that I have about making it are in there. When I look at it, being something who’s very well acquainted with the album at this point, it makes perfect sense to me. This is what it looks like. This is what those sounds look like to me. And that’s a hard thing to speak in very specific language on, other than that to me it makes perfect sense.
BB: And you’ve talked about synesthesia in the past, right?
AS: I have, yeah. It’s definitely like firing the synesthesia thing too. Basically, when I do art for a record, I listen to it a lot, and I try to reproduce what I see. When I write music too, there’s a visual element, and I try to pull the bits from that that feel the most potent. When a lot of people see my work reproduced, maybe digitally as a thumbnail on a screen, or in a book or on a record cover, it may seem kind of flat and quick. And I think when you see it in person, it’s evident that there’s a lot of layers on it.
BB: Do you wish that wasn’t lost in reproduction?
AS: I wish I wasn’t. There’s a reason that this is a painting and not a piece of digital art, or a print. It’s important to me that this is a painting. That’s a choice. But when you see it in person, it’s evident that there are layers to it, there are brushstrokes in it, and it’s very much a painting. I mentioned Stuart Davis before. He’s another painter that appears very flat when you see him in a book or a catalog, but when you see his work in person, there’s no doubt as to what it is and what his intentions were. He wanted to make a painting, and that’s definitely what it is. I think prints are different in that there’s still process evident, but with prints you don’t actually see the labor evident in it. I think that’s important when you see a painting up close. You’re seeing the labor in it; you’re seeing the brushstroke. The painting is telling a story. And that’s not to say that prints don’t have labor in them, they definitely do, for sure. But it’s not as evident as a painting. Another analogy you could make is between painted or drawn animation, the kind that used to be the most prevalent, and then Pixar animation. Not to say that there’s not a ton of hours that go into making like, Toy Story or whatever, but the labor isn’t as evident. For that reason, it seems more disposable or something.
BB: Questions of authenticity maybe too, I don’t know.
AS: Right, yeah sure. I definitely want that to be clear in anything I do, that there is hours of care, and intention, and me pulling my hair out, and frustration. So that’s the story that I think should be in a painting. That’s why I would really like to show this one. So that flower pot, that might’ve been the third one of those that I’ve done. You maybe can see little traces of other ones underneath it. This thing in particular is kind of an arrival stylistically, a style that I’ve been going toward for a while now, but this seems to be like a new thing. It seems to be a new language of making art that I’ve been kind of slowly getting at, but haven’t arrived at until this. And so for that reason, I’m also really proud of it and excited for people to see it.
BB: Well if you don’t have anything else you want to add, I think we could wrap up.
AS: Great, I think that’ll be it.
[End of interview.]