Waterparks’ Awsten Knight: “Having Your Authenticity Questioned Gets Tiring. I’m Not A Fake Piece Of Shit”
It’s time to settle down, folks, for a quick psychology lesson with Awsten Knight. The Waterparks frontman is currently dissecting the notion that the world at large has got him all figured out. His theory? It has a little something to do with the human brain, and a lot to do with his frequent social media use.
“On average, people have 50,000 thoughts a day – it’s something crazy like that,” Awsten explains to Kerrang! on a summery morning in Los Angeles, his voice full of warmth despite our chat being the singer’s first conversation of the day. “I put up, like, three of my thoughts a day on Twitter, but there’s no way you can know somebody from those pieces of information. If I was like, ‘I hate shrimp,’ then you would know that I don’t like shrimp, but that’s not a way to know somebody. Even if I tweeted 50,000 times, that would be just one day of information.”
Indeed, from his unpredictable caps-lock declarations (a recent example: ‘ASK UR GIRL WHAT MY BUTT TASTES LIKE BITCH’) to the fact that he’s brought along an actual goat to our photoshoot (shoutout partygoats.com), the 27-year-old has fast become one of rock’s most fascinating young stars. But Awsten’s growing profile – both online and otherwise – has had a ripple effect on his day-to-day life in Waterparks. And, despite his lyrical honesty throughout the Texan trio’s vibrant discography, he’s learning that not everyone, well… gets him.
Since Waterparks’ formation in 2011, this has been a recurring theme for Awsten – and not just because of his internet habits. In music videos, the frontman has dressed up as a human-sized puppy alongside guitarist Geoff Wigington and drummer Otto Wood (Crave), performed synchronised dance routines as part of a fake boyband (Stupid For You) and even sat petting an alligator in this year’s Watch What Happens Next clip, which saw Awsten make his directorial debut.
Their back catalogue, too, is similarly animated: 2016 debut Double Dare marked them as pop-punk’s brightest newbies, while 2018’s Entertainment and this year’s Fandom boast Awsten’s sky-high aspirations for the band, as well as his remarkable songwriting range beyond the often-limiting genre. At the heart of it all, though, is simply a man who loves embracing the colourful side of life. And it’s a natural disposition that has been called into question on a far-too-frequent basis, from more than one angle. First, via Waterparks’ fiercely loyal fan base – a small portion of whom have accused of him of “changing” too much.
“I’m not trying to call anyone out, but there are literally accounts that are like, ‘This is something Awsten would say,’” he explains with an exhale. “It’s all dumb shit that I would never say. It’s like, ‘Why do y’all have a fantasy of my personality?’”
Worse still are misinformed outsiders who believe it to all be a ruse: that Awsten has conjured an exaggerated form of his personality in a bid to increase his following – the suspicion being that he’s essentially playing a character.
“I’ve dealt with that a lot,” Awsten sighs. “The first time I ever experienced it was on a podcast, and I couldn’t quite articulate why it made me so angry. They were like, ‘Everything that you do: is it a kind of act?’ And I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ I tweet jokes, and I like colour, is that that weird? There are constantly people that are like, ‘But what’s the real thing?’ It’s like being accused of being disingenuous about who you are. Having your authenticity questioned gets tiring. You feel like you have to constantly say, ‘I’m not a fake piece of shit.’ I’m just here.”
If you want to learn more about the ‘real’ Awsten Knight, virtually any song on Fandom should give you the gist of what goes on inside that brightly-coloured head of his (his hair is currently a shade of neon green to match the album’s artwork). On the scathingly honest lead single Watch What Happens Next, he unpacks his feelings about being in a band in the modern era, and how playing guitar for a living means you’re shamed for being openly ambitious: ‘I wanna be a millionaire before I’m 30 / But saying that out loud is probably gonna hurt me,’ he ponders in the song’s opening line, before later ranting that, ‘All the fans that like us need an easy fucking format.’
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“There are bands who have reached out and been like, ‘Yo, this is some real shit. I wish I could have done this,’” Awsten smiles proudly of how his mission statement has resonated within the industry. “It’s validating, because it’s like, ‘Okay, I’m not the only one feeling like this.’ But it’s also really sad for the same reason: everyone feels too trapped in their own artistic shell, or they’re scared of their fan bases to do new shit. They can’t do what they need to feel fulfilled artistically. And making money is not a bad fucking thing (laughs). You can have socialist views, but you still need money or you’re going to fucking die.”
The track also addresses Awsten’s desire for experimentation – something that has always been at the core of Waterparks’ music – and how his vision is only ever pointing forwards. It doesn’t always mean listeners are instantly on board, though.
“I’ve become more comfortable doing new things,” he considers. “But it comes back to reading things on the internet. I see it with other bands all the time where they’ll do something new and they get torn apart. And it’s not cool – it bothers me. People wonder why bands break up, and it’s obvious if you’re expecting them to be doing the exact same shit their whole life. Why would they do that? It’s a selfish way of thinking.”
Elsewhere, on the poppy rush of recent single Dream Boy, Awsten addresses the difficulties of matching fan expectations. The frontman believes he’s being built into someone he isn’t – an unattainable figure that he can never live up to – despite his following only knowing about “five to 10 per cent” of who he really is.
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“Honestly, fan expectation gets to me more than any industry stuff,” he sighs. “One big indicator is when I do something that is very ‘me’ and always has been, and they’re like, ‘He’s fucking changed so much – he’s such a piece of shit.’ It’s because they’re disappointed, because they’ve made expectations around me that I didn’t set.”
There’s a typically intimate side to Fandom, too, with Awsten having to come to terms with the “worst break-up” of his life, with the added burden of doing so in public view. In stark contrast, previous album Entertainment was full to the brim with loved-up odes to his then-girlfriend, although the pair broke up just weeks before its release in January 2018.
“It was in the middle of a tour, which sucked really bad,” Awsten reflects. “I was trying to grieve that while seeing how much worse…”
He trails off while trying to gather the right turn of phrase.
“Some of it was fans and some of it was people on the internet in general, but it all kind of looks the same, because it’s all coming in through comments or tweets,” he shrugs. “Everybody made it so much worse, and so much harder for me. There was just no space… there was no anything.”
His difficult experiences got him thinking about how “suffocating or smothering” being in the limelight can be.
“There’s this heavy presence that feels like they’re always watching or waiting for me to fuck up, or having comments or judgement on everything that I do,” Awsten admits.
This struggle is also reflected musically, with Fandom’s closing track I Felt Younger When We Met ending on the exact same notes as Stranger Things-esque opener Cherry Red. It represents a painful cycle.
“I’m still in therapy, but I learned that grief is a twisty thing,” he explains. “And a lot of times, things move around and start over. And they’re jagged. It’s not like a clear, linear path. And so I wanted the album to do the same kind of thing: everything loops and you have to do it so many times before you’re actually training yourself to be out of it.”
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Awsten cites High Definition – a mellow track with sonic tinges of pop megastars The 1975 – as the Fandom standout that captures “exactly” how he feels in his personal life right now.
“I don’t talk about emotional stuff too much,” he says, “but I let it out in songs, and it’s worded pretty much exactly right. That song probably hurts the worst, because it’s the most up-to-date, as far as lyrics go.”
Though it was written back in April, the musician admits that, even half a year on, he’s “definitely still living in High Definition territory”. But there are also relatable and lifelong themes that could very well exceed the comparatively fleeting sting of a heartbreak: Worst asks even bigger questions of Awsten’s mental state (‘Am I dealing with a break-up / Or a breakdown?’), while War Crimes is plagued with self-doubt (‘I’m scared my songs will turn to static / Your Knight in shining plastic’).
There are, however, brief, bright sparks across Fandom’s 15 tracks that reflect the roller-coaster nature of the frontman’s life over this past year and a half. Notably Telephone, a relentlessly upbeat three-minute “sugar spike”, as Awsten labels it, that sounds like “a ’60s boyband with trap drums”.
“It feels out of place in the context of the album,” he muses. “But it’s about a girl I saw in [U.S. superstore] Target, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, she’s so cute.’ But I was so depressed, so I didn’t talk to her – I just went home and made an obsessive love song about it! And then I went right back into feeling sad and pathetic. That’s how everything feels when you’re going through that. I mean, that’s also how I kind of feel in general (laughs). But I don’t want to get a professional diagnosis because then I have to, like, deal with it. But things feel…”
Awsten pauses again.
“My highs are very high, and the lows are very low,” he says, bluntly. “And they seem to switch kind of rapidly.”
Fandom, then, is an insightful reflection of what it’s like coming to terms with life in one of the scene’s most buzzed-about bands. And although it may not capture each and every one of Awsten’s 50,000 thoughts per day, it’ll certainly bring you closer to understanding the Waterparks frontman than his Twitter feed will.
“Honestly, I probably focused on this album more than anything else I’ve ever done in my whole life,” he grins. “Because I care so much more about it than anything else. There’s a ton of different little pieces in it, and I wanted it to have everything tie together in the best way it possibly could.”
As for what exactly it tells us about Awsten Knight in 2019?
“Man…” he laughs. “A lot!”
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