Waterparks – the most chaotic band on the planet – are back. But what’s the problem with fish and chips, Awsten?
Words: Jamie MacMillan.
A few minutes into our chat with Waterparks and Upset is starting to feel nauseous. It’s nothing that effervescent frontman Awsten Knight has said or done, and those gentle souls of drummer Otto Wood and guitarist Geoff Wigington are incapable of making us feel poorly. It’s more that Awsten has been walking around his home in circles with us tagging along on Zoom for a while now. We’ve already been given a glimpse into his bathroom, which for *reasons* was also doubling up as a home cinema and where he was mid-tidy up when we joined him.
The band, fresh home after their latest tour (this one in support of You Me At Six), are already launching themselves into the next era while also catching up on their chores as Geoff and Otto join us from their respective cars a little later. They promise it’s not because they just miss life on the road, but we’re unsure if we believe them. “Are you guys sitting in the same car?” asks Awsten out of concern. “Have you just tilted the cameras at each other?” They’re not, and they haven’t. Geoff is doing the very rock and roll task of getting his windshield fixed, while Otto is “tidying” and spelling out the letters “S, H, I, T” in case he offends anyone.
‘INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY’, album number five from the Houston trio, as well as admirably keeping up their dedication to naming releases in alphabetical order, sees Awsten dig further into the recesses of his mind to shake out some more colourful (his hair is red this time, colour fans) genre-blurred anthems. As we chat, he is still in tour recovery mode but thriving in his favourite time of any release – the bit before anyone can actually hear it and buy it.
“This is the BEST TIME for it,” he says excitedly. “Honestly, I put out the songs because we have to, and that’s just how creativity and capitalism works and shit. You have to put it out… But honestly, my favourite part is just demoing it and recording it. When I put it out, I kinda feel sad.”
Life since lockdown has been fairly manic. Headline tours here and at home, as well as that huge support tour with YMA6 have followed, the band whirling from zero to full speed in an instant. For a band that bind with their community so well, it’s been everything – even if they do admit to some exhaustion, something that Geoff puts down to just being back on the road after being cooped up for all that time. Awsten confides that it all felt a bit scary, meanwhile.
“Dude, I’m a germaphobe,” he says, “Especially while we’re out, because if I get ill… I’ve heard me sick on YouTube before. I’m like, if you’re out there doing whatever outside the bus until 2am, and you get sick, and then you go check my mic, you’re gonna fuck me up. And no one’s gonna believe that I got sick; it’s just gonna be like, ‘dang, he can’t do that live’.”
“A lot of it is the social anxiety, too,” says Geoff. “You just don’t know if you’re acting correctly. For me, not being around people for so long and then being thrown into the mix of it can be a little bit anxiety driving.”
Awsten just reckons Geoff forgot how to talk, but even for the frontman, one venue, in particular, took him by surprise. “I did NOT know the disparity of how overwhelming Ally Pally could be,” he laughs. “I know it’s fucking crazy, but dude! I didn’t see the room beforehand; we didn’t soundcheck. I didn’t go out there and scope it out. I was like, fuck it… I’m just gonna go in there, and when I step out, I’m gonna feel something.”
Judging from his expression as he details exactly what he did feel when he stepped out in front of about 10,000 fans, that was somewhere in between abject terror and realising he’d probably quite like to visit the bathroom again one more time.
If you imagine Waterparks as a band that come to life on the road, embracing each country’s fans with open arms and diving headfirst into the culinary treats of each nation, then you’re half right – at least when it comes to the UK. Because Awsten’s got some serious (but good-natured) beef when it comes to our food. “What was patient zero?” asks Otto when the subject comes up (because, to be fair, we asked him what his problem was). “Patient zero was fish and chips!” spits Awsten. “Stupidest fucking food ever. And I was mad, because I was just like, ‘they love this, this is their shit, this is their number one’. And I tried it, and I was like, THIS?”
At this point, he wanders into his kitchen and starts to produce various seasonings. One spicy little number is called ‘Slap Yo Mama’. By now, we’re slightly regretting mentioning food, but decide to push it just a little bit further and ask if the band had tried any deep-fried food on their travels through Scotland. “Deep-fried pizza?” Awsten replies. “They only deep fry weird shit here if there’s like a Ferris wheel involved.”
He explains that he left some seasoning on their tour bus for the next artist before the conversation skips on to crowds and his theory that the colder the weather, the better the audience. “It’s strange,” he begins. “Even in the American Northeast, where you are just miserable, it goes hard. Berkeley, California, where the weather’s beautiful? Shitty crowd. And so, in the UK, you know what I’m saying?”
It’s the kind of hot take that the frontman is known for, even if he recently did announce that he’d muted the term on Twitter. We take the chance to ask him for his favourite hot take, and he doesn’t disappoint as the interview derails joyously. “Singers don’t get hit by cars,” he says snappily. Really? “Everybody’s always scared to go, and I’m like, ‘come with me’,” he grins. “You won’t get hit by cars. Singers don’t get hit by cars. Our photographer really hates it, but he’s also just a hater. He doesn’t like me. But if it’s not true, then why haven’t I been hit by a car yet?”
“A much worse track record on planes, though,” muses Otto to general agreement before Awsten turns his attention to the drummer. “Otto is so scared of shit that’s already consumed him,” he says before spiralling off into a rage. “He’s such a bitch about getting Postmates because he’s afraid ‘they’ll’ track him. First off, LET ME REMIND YOU that for the last six years or some shit, it is literally… LOOK AT ME, OTTO… It is literally your job to tell people where you are AT ALL TIMES.”
“You can understand my hesitation when you’re suggesting we put our teeth marks and thumbprints on shit?” argues Otto desperately, while Geoff looks on with a bemused expression that suggests he’s happy to be out of Awsten’s eye line. “They already have everything; they don’t need it!” shouts Awsten, so exasperated at this point that he can barely talk. “What do you think they’ll do with your teeth, Otto? SAY IT OUT LOUD!”
After a long silence, the quiet answer from the drummer is a simple yet strange one as he murmurs, “a tooth bat”.
If that wasn’t odd enough, then Awsten disappearing and immediately reappearing on screen brandishing a baseball bat with teeth sticking out of it sure makes it so. Otto says in reply that his hot take is that his body is his own, while pushing Geoff for his only makes him take aim at the UK for putting power switches on showers – Waterparks once again doubling down on their vendetta against this nation. “Y’all do deserve better plumbing,” agrees Awsten thoughtfully.
We are talking on the brink of ‘INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY’ coming out, so it’s no surprise that spirits are so high in the band. It’s an exciting time – but one that’s usually laced with a sense that the frontman, in particular, is already looking forward to what’s next. This time, unusually for him, there is nothing left in the vault – he counts 99 different edits and demos that somehow got whittled down to a lean 11 tracks on the record, but that’s it. The sprawling explosion of ideas and influences that made up ‘GREATEST HITS’ has been deliberately pared back this time round, Awsten describing it as a conscious decision.
“Normally, I don’t let the idea of doing something differently dictate stuff too much as far as how much is going on a record,” he explains. “But I felt like a lot of ‘GREATEST HITS’ was overlooked. I loved all the songs, but it was all so under-appreciated that I was like, I’m not gonna do that shit again. Now I know what I can expect them to reasonably consume.”
He reels off what some of his favourite tracks were and what he loved about them, it clearly still being a record that he loves – despite saying earlier that the moment a record is out, he’s done with it.
“Making music is just for me,” he says. “It’s not like the songs go away. I can make a fucking album right now that’s 200 songs long, and just give it to myself. So this time, I was just gonna make sure that EVERYTHING on here is appreciated. I’m gonna make sure that the quality is up HERE, the fucking best.”
So, a little nip and tuck was added here and there and ‘INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY’ began to come into shape. “Not to discredit anybody or whatever,” he says at one point. “But for all intents and purposes, I am our A&R. I’ve got a grand vision for it, and I’m very intentional with it.”
Always in full control creatively, Awsten has let a little bit of daylight in as far as control goes, however. “I still make it a point to try and hear people out and trust opinions,” he says. “But at the end of the day, nobody can help you name your kid. And nobody gives a shit about your art as much as you do, so my lizard brain is saying, ‘You don’t fucking care as much as me, GET OUT!’ I’ve had to learn to be very self-critical because, at the end of the day, people get it tattooed and shit. It is REAL. So while you’re sitting on it, you need to be honest with yourself.”
This time around, Patent Pending’s Joe Ragosta was involved in the writing as well as the blackbear collab ‘FUCK ABOUT IT’. “He told me he was a fan of ‘GREATEST HITS’,” explains Awsten. “So I gave him that song. And he hit me on it when we were in Amsterdam on the last day of the tour; I went to sleep at about 3am, and when I woke up, I saw that he’d sent me his first go ten minutes later. He was sending me voice memos, alt versions and different takes while I was flying home. He’s just fucking on it, you know? It was really cool.”
In between albums, Awsten began therapy. Today, we ask him how much of the new record was born from those sessions. “Oh yeah – a lot,” he answers. “A lot of it came from me making realisations about myself that I wouldn’t have made without them. Understanding the way I feel the way I do about certain things, why I think the way or do, or how I fuck up relationships. Even with the songs, I can now step back and look at things from a bird’s eye view and almost see it on a timeline.”
He describes it all as a method of how he can win at life. “If someone wrongs you or you hate someone you work with, then the best thing you can do is not fucking freak out,” he explains. “It’s about asking, what does me winning in this situation look like? Because it’s easy to go, ‘FUCK YOU!’
He draws parallels with how he’s using it in both business and life and says it’s given him a greater sense of calm. One thing he is adamant about, however, is avoiding the rock cliche of saying that therapy has made this latest record his most honest yet. “I think saying that discredits the others, you know what I mean?” he says. “I’ve always been very open, and it’s not necessarily that I’m more honest now. It’s just that I’ve learned more to be honest about. It’s like a more thorough honesty!”
‘RITUALS’ is one track that came directly from therapy, with its lyrics that “They’re killing me when I’m fast asleep / I could kill you all” painting a much darker picture than usual, one of the malignant nightmares out to get him. “That was me just feeling cornered in my life and everybody in it and the expectations on me,” he explains. “I would be talking about it in therapy, and everything kept tracing back to the reason I’m so stressed and hurt by things being because of this inner child shit. It’s all on a subconscious level; if you can’t do something for friends or family, it kind of eats at you a bit? Why am I having nightmares every fucking night?”
Here, he stops himself for a while before continuing quietly and steering away from specifics. “You know, I feel like I give the people that listen to us a lot…” he says.
Elsewhere, ‘A NIGHT OUT ON EARTH’, a close relative of older favourites like ‘TANTRUM’ and ‘JUST KIDDING’, finds him singing about the link between his depression and turning it into a pop song. That topic of where the line is between what the fans expect from Awsten, and what he is willing to give of himself is obviously a subject matter that he has returned to on each record, and this one is no exception. As he sings on ‘REAL SUPER DARK’, a track that channels an unproblematic Slim Shady in its balance between spite, venom and humour, “My fans are the best / They’d love me more dead”. It’s obvious that fandom is still a tangled path that he’s making his way through.
“Oh, I’ve learned that it’s not going anywhere,” he shrugs today, “And, surprise, THERAPY! You can only control yourself, not anybody else. But I kind of knew that.” He draws parallels with online culture. “You’ll never win in a fight online, no matter how right you are,” he says. “The other day, I was like ‘, Dude, this album is so fucking personally mine, it’s not fucking yours’. Because people were bitching about the rollout of the album! I say to them, ‘It’s not your story; it’s not your fucking album. No one’s making you listen to it’. And then they call me an asshole and I’m like… HOW!? Some people are so online and so fragile, and I won’t win. Ever. So when I’m having an irritating day or I’m in a bad fucking mood, I just try not to go on. But I’m not perfect.”
Last time we spoke on the ‘GREATEST HITS’ circuit, Awsten spoke about his issues with guilt that have been with him since childhood, without really elaborating. Here, he has pulled the curtains back a little further. “We switched a few times,” he remembers. “But we definitely did church twice a week, and you just learn a lot of weird stuff. And when you’re older, when you start trying to actually dig into yourself and not just listen to what other people are claiming and instilling in you based on a fuckload of re-translations and some old fucking ideologies, you start seeing it in retrospect and realise all of this is fucking weird.”
Shrugging as he talks, he finishes simply. “There’s good stuff in there, like don’t murder?” he says with a grin. “But you probably shouldn’t need anything to tell you not to do that. Some are just GIVENS.”
Even the frog on the cover is a distillation of that disconnect between old lore and reality, as the band explained on Twitter that “frogs in a biblical sense are seen as dirty, vile and impure” while elsewhere they are considered “signs of prosperity, fertility and luck”. Awsten has always designed artwork for his demos and, with frogs being his favourite animal, dropped in an image for one of the tracks. “I got really curious about what things meant through the lenses of other beliefs, religions and cultures,” he remembers as he describes the ‘direct hit’ moment of realising the dual meaning of frogs when researching further.
Talk eventually turns to what those first listens of the album will be like when it finally arrives in the world and how much importance Awsten, in particular, places on that all-important occasion. “That time when you’ll hear it, and it always sounds different,” he explains. “Certain things hit you differently, or you’ll hear a crazy-ass weird thing, and you go OOOH. And when you hear it again, it’s still cool, but the first time is a fully different experience.”
There’s something intrinsically Waterparks and Awsten-ish about that hunger and excitement for new things, a testament to a band that continually push things forward. “I think by the time it comes out, I can already tell he is ready to put more shit out,” nods Geoff, though life on the road and the frenetic pace of the last couple of years feels like it has left them all in need of a breather. But with that, we take our leave with a firm promise to present them with better fish and chips next time they’re in the UK (something that gets taken as more of a threat than an offer). Waterparks are back open and ready for the next wave of chaos.■
Taken from the April 2023 edition of Upset. Waterparks’ album ‘INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY’ is out 14th April.