Fed up of a year of being stuck inside? Fancy a bit of disorganised mayhem? You’re in luck. Waterparks are back, and they’re better than ever.
Words: Jamie MacMillan.
There’s only one place to start with Waterparks, and that’s the hair. “Changing hair colour is like an indication that the seasons are changing, or like when the groundhog sees its shadow,” goes the explanation from the band for the constant colour evolution. Leaning right into the camera, Awsten Knight, he of the famous (and fabulous) hair shouts: “Yeah, THERE’S TWO MORE YEARS OF ‘FANDOM’!!” before the rest of his band dissolve into giggles. Thankfully, this time around, the groundhog has happily sniffed out the good stuff, and a new age is being ushered in. So have Waterparks reached their ‘Greatest Hits’ era already then? Hell yeah. And then some.
It’s safe to say that 2020 was full of some messed-up shit, no matter who you were or where you faced it. For Waterparks, it brought the by-now-familiar stories of tour cancellations and enforced quarantines, though it also gifted the trio some well-earned time off as well as the time and space to pursue new hobbies. For lead guitarist Geoff Wigington, dialling in from his house and bathed in a blinding white light (“Are you doing this interview from heaven?” jests Awsten), it was a chance for the wholesome twin pursuits of buying aquariums and building sandpits, and “just being a dad” to take precedence. For frontman Awsten, a passion for Swiffering is the first in a series of ‘well, I didn’t expect that answer’ moments. Enquiring as to what a Swiffer is on behalf of those of us not fully house-trained, he wanders off, leaving Geoff and drummer Otto Wood to the interview for a while. Clearly an all-action hero in the making, Otto begins to tell tales of his love for baseball and climbing things that are plainly not meant to be climbed, admitting that he’s not always so good at getting down from the aforementioned high things. “It gets sketchy at the top,” he sighs as we talk about poison ivy, tetanus, bees, and his general struggles with the act of actually getting down. It doesn’t exactly sound like a leisure pursuit, to be honest. In the meantime, returning proudly brandishing his Swiffer, Awsten stands statue-still in the corner of his room with his cleaning apparatus aloft for so long that everyone else assumes his wi-fi has frozen and continues to admirably ignore him. “WELL… THIS IS A SWIFFER!” he booms eventually in an exasperated tone. Minutes in, and the interview is already unravelling into a glorious feast of nonsense and fun that entirely suits life as one of the most exciting bands around.
Somehow then, amongst the neurotic cleaning, the chimney-climbing and the fish-watching, Waterparks also managed to find the time to create another killer of a record. But one thing that ‘Greatest Hits’ isn’t is a lockdown album. “Dude, I made one song about lockdown, and I didn’t even finish it because no-one’s gonna want to fucking hear it,” Awsten points out wearily, “And I’m not gonna want to sing about it. You have like a two week period to make a quarantine song, and even when it was fresh, it was still in bad taste. And it’s not like you can sing, ‘I’m glad I’m here in my living room on day four hundred’, everyone will be like, ‘shut the fuck up!'”
That’s not to say that the impact of the last year hasn’t bled through to the writing, of course, something we touch upon later in our chat. In fact, though, the foundations for the band’s fourth album had already been laid a few months earlier. Once again working with ‘FANDOM’ producer Zakk Cervini, key tracks like ‘Secret Life For Me’ and ‘Crying Over It All’ were laid down before they even headed off on the FANDOM tour. “Sometimes it feels like the songs are lifting above you; you just gotta grab them,” explains Awsten. “They’re all different though, ideas can come from anywhere and have different starting points. There’s not a Waterparks formula, though; it’s just sort of like going WAAAAAARGGGH, and then sometimes it’s good.” “Yeah, that’s exactly how it goes,” Geoff nods with a grin and just the slightest bit of sarcasm.
After their return home, the nature of the pandemic made recording a much tougher process than they’d ever been through before – even more so than the entirely scrapped third album that ‘FANDOM’ eventually replaced. “It was definitely the strangest way we’ve done an album,” says Awsten about the stop-start nature of recording. “And I’m just throwing this out there, but I don’t prefer the way this one had to go down. Because while I loved the amount of time, I want to just get in a zone and BLOOP. Two months later, it’s done. This time, it was about doing what you can when you can.” That extended process has come with benefits, however, Geoff admitting his pride at how the songs were transformed even in these weird times. “It’s weirdly been more rewarding, I don’t want to sound hokey, but it’s the journey!” chips in Otto in agreement.
That journey led to 108 songs, a mammoth amount of music that somehow needed to be whittled down to a (still) chunky 17 track record. So how on earth did the band make those decisions? “There’s definitely a moment where we butt heads,” grins Geoff. “And we’re like, honestly, if we could put all 108 on there, we would…” “When Geoff wants to butt heads, and he leans in, I just kiss him on the lips,” laughs Awsten, before Geoff finishes with the tantalising prospect of revisiting some of those that didn’t make the mark this time further down the line. ‘Greatest Hits 2’, then? “Yeah, we’ll just keep releasing it under the same title over and over again,” laughs Otto. “Only ‘Greatest Hits’ from now on! But everything that is on there is just fucking top shelf, and they’re all unique from each other,” promises Awsten. “Like, there’s not two songs where you think, ah yes, this is the same thing. I’m fucking freaking out about ALL of them.”
That freaking out is fully justified, to be fair. ‘Greatest Hits’ is one of those records that lives up to the promise of both its title and his ‘no-repeats’ claim. Endlessly restless and bold in its risk-taking, it manages to spend as much time pushing the band into new territories as it does consolidate and revisiting past glories. It’s a riot of colour in a scene that’s often happiest in moody black and white. Despite all that, Awsten has already felt the need to warn against approaching with any expectations of prior things – a statement that he’s been moved to make before previous releases. “I’m used to it,” he nods. “I can’t micro-manage what other people think. But I’ll probably always give some kind of context because I feel like when you make art, half of it is about the art itself being fucking amazing. But then the other half is about the showing the world that’s around it, offering looks inside that people might not otherwise see?”
But even four albums in, any attempt to try and define the sound and genre of Waterparks will always see the band duck, dodge and dive at the last possible second. It’s a trait that they’ve had since their earliest days, and the band see no reason to change now. Like many of the most interesting bands, in many ways, Waterparks themselves have become the genre. “I just don’t look at it as like a sliding scale of pop and rock,” he explains. “‘Fantastic’ on our first EP, that shit’s just straight up dance-pop with little vocal glitches and stuff like that. So I feel like, instead of moving on this line of pop to rock, where if you go backwards, you’re going back to your roots, and if you go this way, you’re attempting to be different, it’s such an outdated way for bands to think?”
Using his hands to mime ripping that imaginary line in about sixteen different directions at once, he continues. “What I wanna do is to fucking take this line, and stretch it in this direction and pull it like this. I wanna go over here and make a fucking jazz song. And then go down here to make a Euroclubby electro-house thing. And then over fucking HERE, I wanna make a hardcore song.”
It’s like he’s a shark patrolling musical waters (Jawsten, if you will), where staying still will kill him and constantly moving is the only thing he knows to do. “Moving backwards is never, never a good answer for longevity; I want everything we do to be a full progression forward.” Cliche it might be, but it’s easy to see them as a Trojan horse sneaking pop in via rock’s back door (and vice versa) – or, just like Awsten once said on Twitter, it’s about becoming the Goth Coldplay that’s allowed to say the fuck word. “It feels like a flex that if we wanted to, we could go so fucking hard in so many directions,” he says. “We could hold our own on any fucking tour at this point! When we opened for Sum 41, we were watching these dudes walk in wearing Slipknot shirts, and we were like, ‘oh these guys are gonna fucking HATE us!’ But we held our own. And now we could open for anyone in the fucking world and still make sense. Billie Eilish, even fucking Ed Sheeran.”
As well as that genre fluidity, it’s in the writing where things continue to get really interesting, however. If ‘FANDOM’ dealt largely with external events that had happened to Awsten, ‘Greatest Hits’ is most definitely the result of someone who has largely own been able to keep his own company. It comes as no surprise to anyone who listened to early single ‘Lowkey As Hell’ and caught its darker, worrying undertones, but he was finding himself in a less than happy place at times. It is probably the only time in our entire chat that he doesn’t speak at 300 m.p.h in a manner that demands CAPITAL LETTERS. “It’s a lot easier to distract yourself when you’re playing shows every night or seeing friends. When you’re stuck inside with your own brain for over a year, I mean… You’re gonna find some shit in there,” he laughs quietly, before continuing. “When you look at anybody too closely, then you’re gonna find all the things they don’t like about themselves.”
With themes of anxiety, depression, and even several references to suicide, running through much of ‘Greatest Hits’, it seems only fair to ask him if he’s, you know, doing ok? There is a long pause as he chooses his words. “You know, I gather myself so closely, but I also make it so transparent so everybody can see the best and worst I’ve what I’ve got going on.”
Singing “I wish I was dead sometimes so I could spend a day alone” on ‘Just Kidding’, or “I feel like I’m running out of time, real-life never feels like it’s mine” on album highlight ‘The Secret Life Of Me’, it’s clear that being able to escape is another recurring thought. “I think when you’re stuck in the same room for a year, it’s hard not to write about escapism”, he shrugs. ‘Crying Over It All’, a stunning, massively emotional track about his fear of losing everything that he’s built that will resound with pretty much everybody after the last year, still affects him now. “I feel emotional and get that hot feeling right here singing it,” he admits as he points to the top of his nose. “Nothing lasts forever… I always write selfishly, it’s very ‘me’, but it ends up being more relatable than I think it will be. You always feel like you’re a fucking alien, and no-one’s gonna relate to you, but it’s always surprising how much people can.”
The one area of ‘Greatest Hits’ that remains out of bounds is the subject matter behind ‘Violet!’, a dark tale of a stalker looking through the peephole of his apartment. Referencing Misery, the Stephen King story about a crazed fan who ends up holding her favourite writer hostage, it resounds with the air of a real scenario. Promising that the song is based on a real-life event is as far as Awsten wants to take it today as he describes it as “too close to home”.
It leads onto the topic of how the Waterparks fandom reacted to ‘FANDOM’, a record that was in itself a reaction to the suffocation and claustrophobia that the frontman was feeling under the weight of millions of eyes and expectations. Admitting that nothing has changed in that respect, he does at least seem to have found some balance in his life in what to let go of and what to take in. “It’s easier said than done,” he states. “I’m better about it than I was. It’s tough, though, because I’ve always had issues with guilt since I was a kid. So when people are telling me I’ve done something wrong, lots of people, I really ‘feel’ it. It is what it is,” he finishes with a shrug.
In truth, he seems in a good place with it all, his concentration on the art of disconnecting and disassociating, doing him a world of good throughout the last year. One track even contains the bell effect from his transcendental meditation programme as a meta-joke on how he has adapted. Having studiously avoided anything likely to upset him, Netflix and horror movies have been his constant companions throughout the last year. It’s when we start talking about horror movies that things again take another suitably wonderful Awsten-esque diversion as he insists putting on the It Follows movie soundtrack. After trying to get his attention for a little while, we give up and listen along too. Or try to, because he’s listening to it on his laptop and we’re in England. But the thought was there. And it is a good soundtrack, to be fair, as we try to tell him over the intense soundscape emanating from his speakers.
Talk turns to the album’s release and the fact that after all the best-laid plans were set in stone, one of the world’s biggest bands swooped in on the same release schedule. Awsten’s not going to back down, though. “I was already dealing with like five other things that day; I looked at my phone and was just like… FUCK. Twenty One Pilots is like one of the biggest bands on the whole fucking planet, and I’m a huge fan,” he says, placing ‘Blurryface’ in his all-time top ten albums. “But on the flip side of that, I think that our record is just as good, or better, than anything else that could come out that day or this year. With an album called ‘Greatest Hits’, you can’t bitch out. You can’t call it ‘Greatest Hits’ and then tremble and go OOOOOOOH NO. It’s not gonna get Number One. It’s probably not gonna get Number Two because of Olivia Rodrigo. But this can hold its own.”
Regardless of that first-week chart position, it is another moment where you can imagine the venues getting bigger once again for Waterparks. With each new release, from that first bucket of invigorating ice water that their debut ‘Double Dare’ splashed in unsuspecting faces, the progression and ambition has been clear each time, and it shows no sign of abating here. “This one’s taking us TO THE MOON!” shouts Awsten, “You have to always write songs for the fucking rooms you want, dude.” Their UK tour plans might have now been pushed back to summer 2022, but the scenes that will arise when they do come promise to be something not to miss. “I’m going to crowd-surf on some fucking vaccinated kids straight up, I’m gonna front flip onto them before the venue lights are even on,” promises Awsten, as George and Otto begin to plan how they can split the room into different vaccine groups. “Straight on their fucking heads,” concludes Awsten worryingly.
As our time together begins to run out, the faint threads of sensibility that have held our interview together finally begin to fizzle out and fray away. Open threats of physical violence on anyone who doesn’t appreciate One Direction’s farewell album ‘Made In The A.M.’ as much as Awsten does are made, before, for reasons that are hard to fathom now, we discuss in-depth the infamous Hollywood celebrity ‘Imagine’ video that circulated at the start of the pandemic. “That was so dope. I wish they asked me,” boasts Awsten before offering a rendition of the song that is so painfully unaware of the correct words that it may offer some answers as to why he wasn’t asked. “Whatever the fucking words are,” he mutters, Googling furiously. Pointing out that the interview is being recorded and this rendition could be a fortune, he laughs it off. “Do it! Someone needs to be making money off of this; this shit is GOLDEN!” In fits of laughter, as he watches the video, occasionally pausing (“I’m not shitting on Fallon, I wanna play his show,” he says sternly), his incredulity reaches a new level when he spots the YouTube ratio. “9,000 like. 91,000 DISLIKES! I want to either be that hated or that loved. Nothing in-between.”
By now, it’s less of an interview and more like riding a runaway rollercoaster after a day at the pub, Otto taking over the singing duties as Awsten pivots wildly from a song about peace into wild fantasies about finding and getting into a fistfight with the YouTuber JayStation. “Well behaved women rarely make history, except for Marilyn Monroe,” he points out, as Geoff and Otto try to slowly back away out of their own Zoom cameras’ views, the modern equivalent of someone shouting ‘get him’ from a safe distance. “Will you fight him with me?” Awsten implores, as Geoff ignores and Otto reaches new musical heights as he sings something about imagining all the YouTubers. There is just time for one last anecdote about the time Awsten and Otto ate frozen yoghurt in someone’s Bentley, and then that’s it. Silence descends, and reality seeps back into the world. All we know is that we should hope that the groundhog will see a shadow next time round. Anything to keep the ‘Greatest Hits’ era going for a while yet.
Waterparks’ album ‘Greatest Hits’ is out 21st May.