Album review: Waterparks – INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY
Waterparks follow-up 2021’s sprawling Greatest Hits with more concise – but no less genre-defying – fifth LP.
Awsten Knight recently told Kerrang! something of a little white lie. “I don’t want to jump into album territory yet,” he shrugged casually back in September as Texan trio Waterparks unveiled their sweet, poppy gem of a then-standalone single, Lowkey As Hell. “I definitely don’t want to give anything too big right now…”
Skip forward to January 13, 2021. It is 11am in Los Angeles, and the 29-year-old cheerfully pulls off a light pink face mask as he greets K! on Zoom, taking a break from work to recline on a grey sofa. It is here, in a sleek, wood-panelled studio surrounded by instruments and recording equipment, that Awsten reveals album number four is all but finished. Hang on a second…
“Let me explain!” he laughs, digging himself out of a misdirection-shaped hole. “I need to go into things without expectations like that. If I’m writing and I’m like, ‘It’s for the album…’ then I get tripped up. But if I’m like, ‘I’m just writing songs,’ or, ‘I’m writing a song for somebody else,’ then that takes that pressure off – and it’ll all come out better that way. When I say, ‘No, I’m not really writing for an album,’ it’s also me convincing myself.”
Such is the conviction of Awsten’s cunning self-brainwashing technique, it has been a spectacularly prolific time for Waterparks – completed, as ever, by guitarist Geoff Wigington and drummer Otto Wood – of late. As photoshoots and music video treatments beckon, the follow-up to 2019’s superbly ambitious 4K-rated third full-length FANDOM also gradually and painstakingly inches across the finish line.
“I think it will be done today,” the frontman grins of the record, crossing his legs and leaning into the camera, “I’m just in the studio at the moment doing the sequencing. When you’re making a tracklist there are certain songs where it’s like, ‘Okay, I know how this transition needs to go; I want it to warp into this one,’ or, ‘I want this noise to kinda speckle out and be at the start of the one after…’ That’s what’s going on today.”
Though he rubs his eyes while admitting more coffee is currently required, Awsten’s boundless enthusiasm for creativity is palpable – even via an internet connection that is occasionally interrupted as people try to get in touch with Waterparks’ whiz. New material has been in progress for just over a year now and, ever the perfectionist, the frontman is still listening out for tiny tweaks to make. To most, these between-song moments would seem totally insignificant. But to Awsten? Every millisecond counts.
“It would be naive to act like albums are the centre of music and how it’s consumed, but I still feel like it’s such an important thing,” he says. “I mean, honestly, as long as it still matters to me, I’m gonna do it – even if everyone that listened to us was just skipping the songs after the last chorus! But for everybody that doesn’t do that, they will be so rewarded, because it’s so seamless, and that’s such a big part of a cohesive piece.”
In any given year, Waterparks would typically have 30 to 40 songs and ideas to sift through before approaching this kind of “piece” – taking into account the usual tours and other band duties. This time, though, Awsten amassed “a hundred-something songs” in the living room of his LA apartment while hunkering down and abiding by pandemic rules. That’s not to mention his meticulous involvement with the excellent 2020 concert movie FANDOM: Live In The UK, and a recently-released limited-edition ‘Anti-Tour’ merch collection, too.
“My brain is fucking killing me, but it’s also like a secret weapon,” he chuckles, having just trailed off after trying to explain how he juggles this self-prescribed workload. “I’ve been so scattered in general, but I think this is how I’m able to work on so many different things at once because I honestly get lost. I’ll be working on a song and then I’m like, ‘Oh, but for the DVD! And then, also, what if we had this shirt?!’”
This ability to perpetually multi-task birthed several new album songs early last year before Waterparks left for a sold-out UK tour in January/February, while everything else came to life in quarantine. An otherwise creatively uninspiring time for most artists motivated Awsten to find new ways to spark something: be it simply swapping his typical iced coffee for a hot one, wearing a different shade of T-shirt to inspire a new mood, or quite literally changing his surroundings by buying fake plants and multicoloured lights (and yes, sometimes said bulbs matched his new red, yellow and blue hair). Anything to keep it all fresh.
“If you can’t change what’s going on outside of your fucking place, then change your place,” he explains of this inventive strategy to stay productive through such unsettling times. “I would make a cool instrumental, I would throw on purple and blue lights, and turn off everything else, and it’d be night-time so it was all dark except for that, and just loop an instrumental and fucking sing a bunch of stuff over it. It would just create new things.”
As we’re about to find out, “new” in more ways than one…
Waterparks’ latest album is one of firsts. It’s how Awsten Knight approaches every record, after all. From 2016’s pop-punk infused debut Double Dare through to the sprawling, genre-defying ideas that marked them as leaders rather than followers on 2018’s Entertainment and 2019’s FANDOM, few phrases sum up the band more aptly than ‘expect the unexpected’.
“I always want to make something different than before,” Awsten begins. “If I tried to make FANDOM again, it wouldn’t work, and people wouldn’t like it as much. You’re not gonna beat what you’ve already done for somebody – you’re not going to be able to recreate the same thing and have it have the same effect. It’s like when you see bands who do a lot of the 10-year tours: it feels like they’re trying to recapture that first album all the time, and you’re never gonna get that. One, it’s a cultural moment, so that’s totally out of your hands. And two, everybody that loves it found it at a certain time – when they’re more susceptible to new things. The strongest thing that you will almost never beat is their nostalgia for it. It’s such a powerful and poisonous thing for art.”
His willingness to not only better previous work but to explore and experiment like never before has culminated in an album that provokes a wide range of reactions. This is no bad thing.
“It’s different,” Awsten teases of the music contained within Waterparks’ fourth LP. “A couple of people have been like, ‘Man, I’m nervous… some of this stuff’s really weird…’ But other people are like, ‘Holy fuck, this is by far the best!’
“It’s for sure the most experimental so far,” he continues, carefully holding back from divulging too much. “Actually, my friend Travis was like, ‘You know what I like about these songs? You’re constantly like, ‘Wooo, arghhh!’ It seems like you’re having a lot of fun!’ And I was like, ‘I was having fun, but also, like, breaking down…’ (laughs). It’s a lot of craziness.”
A genuinely smart cookie when it comes to Big Band Business, Awsten knows that a polarising and provocative album is much more desirable than one that might simply leave a listener feeling ‘fine’. It doesn’t, however, mean he can wrap his head around that notion just yet…
“My lizard brain can’t handle anything at all lately,” he jokes. “With quarantine, I feel like I’ve got these songs in a box right here with me and I’m like, ‘They’re mine!’ If someone says it’s weird, I’m like, ‘Is that good?! What are you saying?!’ The thing is, no-one’s just like, ‘Okay.’ They’re like, ‘What the fuck?!’ or, ‘This is my favourite!’ It’s definitely gonna divide people, for sure. But if you’re making art that’s not poking a little bit, or at least making people think, ‘Oh my god, what do I think about this?!’ then you’re kind of fucking boring.”
As well as recruiting a select number of pals to provide feedback, Awsten also sought out his peers to bolster Waterparks’ new studio effort in a way the band have never attempted before: he dextrously weaved new layers and textures into songs using pieces of these artists’ vocals or instruments. Don’t hold your breath if you think he’s going to instantly reveal who’s involved, though.
“I don’t like when I go to somebody’s Spotify and all of their top songs are other people’s songs that are features,” he says, “but I did get a handful of friends on the album that are very, very good. It’ll be a really cool thing for people to listen and be like, ‘Wait – is that them?!’ Also, because I don’t get to see anyone, it’s like another collaborative thing you get to do. Where instead of going and getting dinner, you’re like, ‘Hey, do you wanna do this, and I can send it to you?’ It’s a way to feel a human connection in this time.”
As well as furthering his “natural progression” on a songwriting front this past year, Awsten has also stepped up in a technical way: he proudly reveals that he has his first co-producing credit – alongside FANDOM producer Zakk Cervini (“Fucking bow down!” he gushes of his studio partner). Moreover, the frontman also reconnected with his musical roots when it came time to construct the material that makes up FANDOM’s eclectic follow-up. The son of a Van Halen-worshipping father who would print off guitar tabs and have a young Awsten learn the rock’n’roll heroes’ material “constantly”, the Waterparks frontman let his six-string side shine through more on album number four, shredding through scuzzy riffs and infectious solos. In fact, this year Awsten learned a whole bunch of songs from Avenged Sevenfold’s 2005 breakthrough album City Of Evil just to sharpen up. He had reservations, however, when it came to using these skills within his own music.
“I’ll see people shit on [A7X guitarist] Synyster Gates, and I’m like, ‘Shut up!’” Awsten sighs. “He’s impossibly good – it’s superhuman. And I’m like, ‘If people are shitting on him, I don’t wanna be seen as a ‘guitarist’, because I will never be able to live up to their bullshit.’ I feel like guitarist culture is so fucking whack online – nobody can just appreciate that people can play guitar. So that’s one reason why I’ve kind of avoided it [in the past]. Another one is: I wanna have more fun live and not think that much. But this album I’ve broken it out a little more. Because why not?”
Much, then, has changed on Waterparks’ next album. What remains the same, though, are Awsten Knight’s always on-point lyrical musings. Across the six genuinely brilliant sneak previews Kerrang! have been afforded in advance (not including Lowkey As Hell, which, after a three-to-four month deliberation period, has also made the final tracklist), the frontman is on sharp, smart, and often darkly entertaining form. Unsurprisingly, the Texan chatterbox has plenty to say about it.
“There’s definitely a lot of paranoid and angry songs,” he admits. “It’s hard to not feel those things. I mean, I just already feel a lot of that anyway. But at the same time, with everything else externally going on in the world, it’s hard to not feel angry and fucking paranoid. You feel constricted, almost, when you can’t fucking do anything, or leave. It strains your relationships with everyone you know.”
As ever, though, this is a body of work that captures “a variety of moods”. And if Awsten did feel the need to address the same theme more than once, you might not even notice at first.
“Even if a song is coming from kind of a negative place, it needs to be packaged differently, sonically,” he elaborates. “There are certain songs where, it’s just the fucking weirdest blend of almost like The Hives, but also some fucking bad-ass festival EDM dude, but that’s also kind of Childish Gambino, but also kinda Maroon 5 a little bit… It’s still indie but then fucking big. I could make a song like that, and then make an R&B-sounding song. There’s, like, the ugliest fucking punk songs on it, but even that will be mixed with something else.”
One subject that album four doesn’t touch on as closely is the key concept that dominated FANDOM: living up to unrealistic fan expectations and grappling with those enormous pressures. Awsten has, he says, moved on from that particular topic for now.
“I don’t wanna just keep hitting them,” he laughs affectionately of the loyal devotees he wrote about last time. “The thing is, I do appreciate our fans very, very much. I just felt overwhelmed at that time by it. It’s something that I’m glad I wrote songs about, and I just wanted to plant that idea with some of them – whoever would listen – because it might just help a little, and alleviate that fucking craziness.”
Awsten’s online life still involves navigating the stresses of a fervent following. “Insane amounts of meditating and reflecting” has helped him cope, as has simply not logging on to social media as frequently.
“I try not to look at my phone very much; I’ll go on, make a post and then go back to my normal life – I’ll eat some food, work on some guitar…” he explains. “And then I open my phone an hour later and I see people being like, ‘Wow! Not the fucking time, haven’t you looked at the ‘explore’ tab?!’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, there’s shit going on, my bad!’ Or if I don’t ‘say something’ about every fucking thing ever, they’re like, ‘We fucking see you!’ It’s just wild because you don’t see that with all types of musicians – or even people in our world. And I’m not trying to be like, ‘I’m a victim!’ But I don’t see it with a lot of musicians where they’re being fucking yelled at, or getting real angry DMs about all kinds of shit. I kinda envy that, sometimes.”
Has getting those feelings out in album form helped you make peace with it?
“I feel like all I can do is just remind myself that I’m a good person,” Awsten shrugs. “As long as you make peace with yourself and you know that you’re not as bad as people come at you for then it’s all you can do. You can only take in so much, and you have to recognise what you’re able to absorb. But as far as writing about them, I feel like I already did everything I could. And if it plants the seed, great. It ultimately doesn’t change it, but there’s no point in me constantly going in and being like, ‘(Starts yelling) Remember that you suck!’ (laughs).”
Far from struggling for new stories to tell, in fact, album four is – brace yourselves – Waterparks’ longest release so far.
“I was going through other albums the other day, just other people’s stuff, and writing down the lengths next to it,” the frontman smiles. “It’s got the longest tracklist and longest run time that we’ve ever done, although it’s still pretty average in the grand scheme of things. Some of the songs are two minutes!”
Very soon, Awsten will be able to finally hear this laboriously pieced-together recording – transitions and all – in full. Until then, though, he acknowledges that he’s “too close” to the project for any kind of reflecting on it just yet. “I’m still too in it,” he says, “and I’m too tunnel-vision that I can’t really mentally see the bigger picture or look around too much.”
Hopping off the sofa and starting to pace around the studio, he ponders what fans will make of Waterparks’ upcoming full-length.
“I’m glad we’ve set the bar and the expectation of, ‘Hey, we’re going to make all kinds of weird shit, and shit that you’re not going to expect,’” he grins. “We’ve opened the door to be able to do anything, and my only hope is that people don’t go into it expecting too much of one thing, because they will never, ever, ever be right. Here’s the thing: I know it’s great, and I hope they’re willing to just take it in as music and not, ‘This is what I want from Waterparks.’
“As long as the approach is to appreciate it and hear it for what it is,” Awsten concludes, “then I think they’re gonna fucking love it.”
Waterparks’ fourth album is due for release… soon. Catch the band on tour in the UK and Europe this summer.
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