Austin Brown (Parquet Courts) Talks the Stevens’ History of Hygiene

I've got these new jeans, that when you take them off you have to take off your socks first. The denim, it has no stretch in it, and they just...

I’ve got these new jeans, that when you take them off you have to take off your socks first. The denim, it has no stretch in it, and they just barely fit around my heel. Getting them on is no sweat, but getting them off wrinkles my face and gives me a charlie horse.

Adjectives: I’m not so good with them. Is a metaphor an adjective? No one knows. I put on the Stevens’ History of Hygiene tonight, already a fan of their self-titled EP on Guy Blackman’s Chapter Music label, and instantly I’m hearing a full band here. The Stevens are from Melbourne and let me tell you, there is no shame quite like buying cigarettes in Australia. They keep them in a shut metal cabinet behind the counter at convenience stores, where you have to ask for each pack by brand name, which is especially difficult as an American because rarely does a cigarette you may be familiar with make it to the 7-11 across the Pacific, and the cashier can’t really tell you anything about the differences between them, so you just have to choose from a list on a sheet of paper they pass over the counter. The packages are covered in the most awful photos – feet missing toes, open wounds, rotting teeth, and worse. It got to the point where I would just ask for the package with the least horrific photo. It’s similar in Canada.

The first track, “From Puberty to Success,” begs me to mention the Velvet Underground with its off-kilter vocal doubles and the beat driving a la “I’m Waiting for the Man” (the version from the record with Nico, not the live one), but somehow that feels like selling it short — there’s more melody here, so I won’t make that comparison yet. I could update that comparison by a few decades to Pavement when they added some homemade swagger to the style Lou Reed pioneered and then perfected by the time Velvets got to Loaded, but even that seems too modern or passé for something as understated as the Stevens, with one song out of 24 making it past the three-minute mark and nearly half the record sticking around a minute and a half, yet always saving plenty of room for feedback, punctuated by double guitar solos; sometimes even an electric piano makes a guest appearance in the mix, still with just enough time to round off the melody. There’s other American sounds in there as well; a cheeky Guided by Voices tag line could even be thrown in at this point. By the time I get to “Challenger” I’m thinking I couldn’t get away with writing about the Stevens without mentioning the legendary Australian sonic-lineage of the Clean, the Chills, and the Tall Dwarfs, but why, what’s the point? This band is real as hell, and they exist on this planet right now. You’d be remiss not to get caught up in what they’ve got going on.

Do you know Mikey Young? He’s the guitarist who brought you Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Total Control, and Ooga Boogas. He recorded a lot of this record with the Stevens doing the rest of the recording themselves, and the thing plays, start to finish, like one melody lifting or falling into the next. This Stevens record is undeniable, it asks not to be explained, only to go with you.

Recently I was driving with my bandmates from Cleveland to New York City. I wasn’t driving, I was sitting behind the driver, not doing or thinking about much, just listening to some wild jazz, but not really loud. About eight hours into the drive we hit some traffic on I-80. It was pretty annoying at first, but it would be naïve to think I could make it into New York City on a Monday afternoon without some sort of hang-up. Then I saw the pet carrier, strewn from a black SUV that was wrapped around a tree. There were a few police officers rushing over and several cars parked on the side of the road. The SUV was on fire, smoke everywhere, and a lot of people were standing around wondering if they could help, some picking up car parts or random items that had been ejected from one of the shattered windows. Most looked like they were in shock. Then there was the cop resuscitating a large man on the shoulder of the interstate. The accident must have just happened, but the guy had probably passed already.

It’s never easy to see stuff like that, difficult to get it out of your brain, and a greater challenge to feel thankful about continuing down the road. I try to explain it to myself in ways that make it real and not just a bad vision. I wonder about who that guy was, and what was his last pleasant thought. He was probably thinking something like I was before I saw the crash: “I’m going to make it into New York without any traffic today.” I’ll never fully understand why he was the one left on the roadside and I continued to my home. It must just be that things happen, and even if you can explain with logic everything which begat a phenomenon, or postulate and theorize, nothing really matters besides what you’re up to in this moment: continuing down the road, as it were. Carrying your torch.

Really, I’m telling you that story so I can tell you this one. When the record ends with “Lucky Scores a Ride,” it’s just like it began with that same driving beat, the Robert Pollard vocal treatment, and it’s that one moment at the end of the night. I’m ready to go to bed and I have to remember that I can’t take off my jeans until I’ve taken off my socks.


Austin Brown is an artist living in Brooklyn, New York. He is a writer and known member of Parquet Courts.