Fear, Fame And Fandom: Meet The Real Awsten Knight
There are two memo boards on the wall of Awsten Knight’s apartment, which he looks at every single day. Positioned a 20ft walk through the front door of the “big-ass loft” that he recently moved to in Los Angeles, these creative homemade fixtures play a crucial role in how the 28-year-old approaches life.
The first of the two DIY accessories exhibits nine carefully selected and cut-out photos of people that Awsten is inspired by, their static faces unknowingly providing guidance for the Waterparks frontman’s next steps. The second is a more general vision board, with all the things that he wants to achieve mapped out, including reminders and inspirational quotes. There’s even a photo of the band – completed by guitarist Geoff Wigington and drummer Otto Wood – embellished with the logo of legendary U.S. sketch show Saturday Night Live, which Awsten digitally added in himself. Why? Because he wants the trio to play it one day, of course.
“I can’t believe I’m talking about this, but here we go,” he laughs, with a hint of embarrassment – not because he is ashamed of his lofty ambitions, but because it clearly sounds a little odd explaining the whole thing out loud.
“I’m just very visual with everything in general, and I need to be seeing it,” he explains. “You’re a combination of everything that you look up to, and everything that you like, and so when you put all of those things in front of you, you’re putting positive energy out there for it. People can scoff, but that’s how things happen.”
Over the past few years, Awsten has, he says, “beat the shit out of” some of these goals. Relocating from his childhood home in Houston, Texas to LA? Done. Securing a management team? Absolutely – and they’re one of the best, in the form of MDDN, run by Good Charlotte twins Joel and Benji Madden. Awsten also hoped that Waterparks would manage to make it on to the page – emphasis on the singular here – of a magazine. Well, how about a Kerrang! cover, mate.
Laws of attraction, it turns out, play a massive role in the world of rock’s most charismatic young star. Having dashed home from getting his hair “freshly green, trimmed up a bit and good to go” to chat to Kerrang! ahead of the photoshoot that will accompany this piece, Awsten is trying to make sense of his whirlwind life thus far. His breakneck Texan-accented patter is more jittery than usual, thanks to a combination of no food and too much coffee, but as he settles into the flow of our hour-and-a-half-long conversation, the frontman pauses for reflection over his more transformative moments. As a young teen, for example, he remembers how he somehow sensed that music would be where he found his calling – long before Waterparks existed, even.
“There was never an ‘A-ha!’ moment where it clicked,” he shrugs. “But I’ve always hoped for it, and I think just naturally knowing that I was going to do music really helped me.”
Still, it wasn’t a walk in the (water)park to get here. Though Awsten began learning about the marketing and business side of being in bands from the age of 13 (“I was trying to promote the most garbage shit ever!”), he also quickly realised that he was going to have to do a hell of a lot of work himself if his burgeoning career was going to become reality. And so he taught himself Photoshop to create flyers, and drew up maps of the local venues that he needed to go to in order to hand them out. Whenever he was home from school (and not out pestering Houston’s local gig-goers), he figured out how to write songs, edit videos, and design merch.
“I don’t remember where I picked up this ideology, but I have the mentality of, ‘If someone else is working harder than me, then they deserve it more,’” Awsten explains. “And back when you’re a local band, you have to learn to do everything. This is the case even if you become the biggest artist in the world; at the end of the day, nobody cares as much as you do for your project.”
It’s a lesson he learned first-hand once Waterparks became a serious proposition. When recording their debut EP, 2012’s Airplane Conversations, Awsten, Geoff and Otto would be left for hours in the middle of nowhere, waiting for studio staff to turn up, or be held up for days as gig flyers took their sweet time to arrive from the promoters. A proactive approach, then, became key.
“I was like, ‘Dude, they don’t give a shit, and if I keep relying on these people then it’s just not gonna work out,’” Awsten recalls. “I think it’s helped, because it all comes from the same place, and I think that made it more authentic.”
A traumatic twist of fate also afforded Awsten more time to make it all happen. While in college collecting ideas for the EP, the frontman discovered a large tumour under his left kneecap. Though it was thankfully non-cancerous, he nevertheless underwent surgery and six months of physical therapy; if he hadn’t, doctors told him he would never have walked again.
“It was a good thing, and I’ll tell you why,” he chuckles light-heartedly, detailing how it gave him the reason he had been looking for to not have to complete college, and instead focus on the music he was putting so much energy into. “My parents were like, ‘You need to go to school,’ but because I’d just had surgery, I couldn’t – and that’s when I had time to finish all the music. I finished Airplane Conversations because, physically, my body could not go to school. I think it was supposed to happen. Because, who knows if I would have actually gotten to quit and not faced very bad repercussions?”
Awsten’s parents were understandably keen for their young son to return once he had recovered, but instead he made them a promise: if Waterparks didn’t get signed off the back of their next EP – 2014’s Black Light – then he would go back to school. Three guesses what happened next…
While Awsten Knight’s first steps into the world of recorded music boasted a natural flair for songwriting, his live performances could not have been more underwhelming. He was reluctant to even sing initially, knowing that if playing guitar was his only job, it would keep the spotlight away.
“I was super embarrassed by it, and just very shy about singing,” he remembers, looking back at a first year of gigs in which he was essentially forced to take on the role of frontman. The budding musician would ‘perform’ sets that were half original material, and half covers by the likes of Motion City Soundtrack and his future managers Good Charlotte. During one particular rendition of The Used’s Pretty Handsome Awkward, he managed the first verse and chorus before crumbling entirely, and spent the rest of the song staring uncomfortably at the floor.
It’s surprising, given the attention-grabbing, babbling ball of confidence Awsten is today. He’s got a secret, though: simply fake it ’til you make it.
“It’s corny,” he admits, “but when I was that age – 16 or 17 – I’d be like, ‘Fuck it, I’m Kanye West!’ and that was literally how I did it. He just walks into a room and acts like he doesn’t give a fuck – and not in a piece of shit way. He knows he’s not gonna fuck up. Even though he says some wild shit that I do not agree with, I still look up to him in so many other ways. He comes off as the epitome of confidence, so when I was too nervous or shy to do things, I would just pretend I was him.”
It’s only recently that Awsten stopped having to adopt this mind-set. Tours – including a gruelling stint on Warped in 2016 – helped get him to this point; a never-ending schedule of relentlessly hot days and long drives in a leaking van will do that to a person. But, he says, it was in 2018 that he truly found his feet as a performer.
“Before, I would play a show and be like, ‘Oh my God, that was scary!’” Awsten remembers. “It was like I would be playing a song, and the song was flying away – I was holding on to the back of it, trying not to fuck up. But now I’m flying the plane, like the fuckin’ superhero with the cape on (laughs). When you do it that much, and you fake this confidence for that long, it just becomes real.”
Awsten’s Kanye-inspired energy hasn’t always played to his advantage, however. The frontman’s signature blend of neon-green hair, an occasionally OTT wardrobe and, um, a colourful approach to Twitter means that he’s not always taken as seriously as his dedicated work ethic deserves.
“There’s a really weird thing, and it makes no fucking sense, but if you can bring laughter to people, in a way they don’t respect you as much,” he frowns. “When you’re jokey and loud, even if you’re like, ‘Hey, I wrote something that actually means a lot to me,’ people are still like, ‘Hahaha! The fucking clown said something!’ That can be hard sometimes.”
He points to latest album Fandom – a meticulously thought-out and extremely personal body of work – as an example of public perception working against him. “I don’t want this to sound egotistical, but Fandom is a masterpiece,” Awsten asserts. “I know that could come off bad, but if you’re not a fan of your own shit, or if it’s not the best thing to you, then why should it be the best thing to anybody else? And, I don’t know… For how good it is, I don’t feel like it’s fully acknowledged, especially in the songwriting community. And I think a big part of that is because of how certain people – many ‘cool’ people – choose to see what it is.”
Though his obnoxious tweets may suggest otherwise, Awsten has been left hurt and disappointed by how many are quick to disregard him just because of… well, who he is.
“It’s hard not to take it personally when the things you’re writing about are literally the most personal things that you don’t even talk to friends or family about,” he sighs. “It can be hard to not be taken seriously when you’re being that vulnerable and open. But, at the end of the day, people are going to see you how they want to see you, and you can’t stop them. I can look at the lyrics on Fandom, and all its styles and genres, and I can say, ‘This is cool as fuck.’ I don’t think there’s another band that’s doing what we’re doing at the moment – at least in the same way. But Twitter is still gonna be like, ‘They’re the shittiest pop-punk band ever.’ And I’m like, ‘That’s the last category in the world I want to be a part of.’ If you actually listened to the album, it’s not that. But am I gonna put my energy towards explaining that to somebody, or am I just going to keep making tight shit for me and people who actually care what I’m doing?”
Awsten Knight’s biggest fear in the world is failure. The very notion of putting his all into Waterparks – and persevering against the detractors – only for it all to come crashing down is…
“Oh God, I think I’d rather die!” he admits, with only the faintest air of exaggeration. “The idea of everything going to shit, and not being able to make music anymore, or if I had to move back home… I just couldn’t do it. If I put all this out there, all this positive energy, and I work this hard, and I fail? Oh my God…”
It’s a strange duality, when you consider it. How can someone who believes their work is a masterpiece also worry that it might fail?
Awsten pauses. “I guess, because… Like, I am an anxious person, and I have things that I need worked out, so naturally, even if you don’t think it’s going to happen, you can still imagine it. If I thought Fandom was perfect, and I put every part of me into it with a million layers, and it’s extremely real and authentic, it’s creative, it’s super well-written and intricate… If I did all of that and it fucking flopped and nobody cared, I would be lost. If I’m that sure about it, and nothing happened, then my entire perception is just… nothing, you know?”
There are a number of perfectly valid reasons this will never be the case for Awsten. For one, his ambitions simply won’t let it be so. For another, neither will Waterparks’ loyal fanbase.
“The only difference between me and any other dude trying to make music is them,” he smiles. “By the end of our first week sales of Fandom [not including pre-orders], with all the streaming and stuff, 23,000 copies had sold. For somebody on an indie label, that’s fucking nuts. And 100 per cent of the credit goes to all the people that bought copies. That’s the only thing that separates us, and this life, where I get to wake up and make music, and the version of me where I have to go home and go back to school.”
Awsten believes that his honesty with listeners has only strengthened their relationship, too. The fact that several of the songs on Fandom call out the negative aspects of fan culture has somehow made this bond much more real. ‘I’m sick of all this, “How’d you get your band name? / Is that your real first name? / Can you text and can you follow back ’cause it’s my birthday?” / No-one cares what I want / Just what I’ve got…’ he laments on viral TikTok hit I Miss Having Sex But At Least I Don’t Wanna Die Anymore, before ranting, ‘My death will be the fandom / Just keep your fucking hands up / Tell me I look handsome,’ on War Crimes.
“Sometimes it makes me mad – I mean, I made Fandom, so you know that already,” he laughs. “But I think honesty helps any kind of relationship, and so if people can really tell that I’m saying some real shit – whether it’s in songs or on Twitter, even if it comes off as a joke – it’s still coming from an authentic place, and people can recognise that.”
Still, the pressure of their expectations have weighed Awsten down for quite some time (see also: Dream Boy, off the new record). Not only does he struggle with living up to the person fans see him as, but he also can’t remove the memories of having his followers be privy to a distressing break-up in 2017.
“Let’s say you break up with someone, and it was a really bad break-up, and you were outside a movie theatre when it was happening, and a bunch of people were watching – that kinda thing,” he says, explaining how he felt. “If I walked out of that movie theatre and nothing was happening, and I could just walk to my car and leave, people are still looking, but it doesn’t feel as traumatic. If you can keep your personal stuff under wraps, it’s not as traumatic when people are looking at it, because no-one sees anything. [Fans] are still overbearing, but there’s just not as much of a personal spectacle going on to where I feel as strongly about it.”
If you could get rid of the fame aspect of your life, would you?
“No,” Awsten replies instantly. “Because then I don’t get to do what I really want to do, which is music. And, also, even if this has shitty downsides, I still did this on purpose. I worked really hard to get here, and I wouldn’t just be like, ‘Never mind, fuck it!’ I like making music and playing all the time more than I dislike people… (laughs).”
On top of his number one fear, Awsten’s main motivator remains a general dissatisfaction with where he’s at in his career at any given moment. In fact, never feeling content is probably what fuels him the most. It’s why he spends so much time staring at those memo boards in his apartment, after all.
“It’s hard to feel content or satisfied, but I think that’s a good thing, because why else would I then push for everything else that I want?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s not great, because it definitely leads to certain levels of unhappiness and discontent. But, I mean, it’s also what makes everything happen. There’s a million things I want to accomplish. I want to score a movie, for example. And if I was just like, ‘Yeah… I’ll get to that… things are pretty good right now so I’m just gonna chill and take a nap,’ then I might not push as hard. I don’t want to risk finding that out.”
And with big achievements come even bigger goals. It’s a seemingly inescapable cycle for Awsten.
“In this industry, the pay-off moments are not as often as they should be – and I don’t mean that money-wise. When you’re an artist of any kind, you’re going to feel like shit a lot,” he acknowledges. “There are going to be so many people that don’t like you, and so many people saying mean things, or sometimes opportunities don’t work out the way you want them to. It’s not an emotionally fulfilling job. You feel more empty than you do full. So you have to go for these things, and take every step possible, because when you can have those moments of success, that’s a big part of what keeps you going.”
There’s still work to be done, then – both personally and with Waterparks. But, it would seem, that’s just how Awsten likes it.
“I’m never exactly where I want to be, and that’s important. It leads to some bad feelings, but that just makes me work harder,” he smiles. “And then even cooler things can happen…”
Fandom is out now via Hopeless Records.
Join us for a hearty slice of sadness, pop-punk style…
Watch twenty one pilots’ incredibly old-school lyric video for Level Of Concern.