Thursday, June 13, 2024

“Your job as an artist is to show people what they want before they know they want it.” – Brown Interviews Awsten Knight

Awsten Knight is the lead singer and guitarist behind pop rock band Waterparks. In 2016, Waterparks played the Vans Warped Tour, where they pulled approximately thirty-five people to the tour’s smallest stage per day. Today they have released three EPs and four albums and average approximately 2.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify. They have been featured on Billboard’s Global arising Artists Indie and signed to 300 Entertainment. However, their rise to the top has been anything but simple. Awsten Knight’s loud, hyperactive personality won the band a rabidly dedicated group of super fans (“stans”). This prompted Waterparks’ third album, Fandom, which tackled issues related to the dangers of fan culture and the toxic nature of the music industry. On May 21, Waterparks dropped their fourth album, Greatest Hits, which has received acclaim from NME, Guitar World, and Rock Sound among others. Greatest Hits is currently charting in the top twenty in the UK. 

Evan Stein: Something I find so interesting about Waterparks is how much I can trust you guys. When the singles were dropping for Fandom, I remember being caught off guard a little by more rap-based tracks like “Turbulent” and “[Reboot]”. They weren’t what I expected. I had to think “Hold on. Let’s just be patient until I hear the context of the album.” And I’m glad I did! I get it now!

Awsten Knight: Exactly! It fits in the context with everything else a lot more. That’s kind of the reaction I want. You didn’t hear it and quit. You heard it and went, “Interesting. Let’s see where this goes.” If you as an artist just consistently do the same thing, it’s just so expected and boring. You’ve been to Warped Tour so you know that there are some bands from that scene who put out an album and you know exactly what that shit is gonna sound like before you even listen to it. That’s what a band does but that’s not what an artist does in my opinion. I want to be— I mean if we’re trying to manifest things, I AM an artist. I spend every day doing this. Your job as an artist is to show people what they want before they know they want it. People didn’t start wearing tight-ass pants and youth large t-shirts until Fall Out Boy and all those other bands started doing that in the early 2000s. No one knew that any innovative sound was what they wanted until they first heard it. A lot of the singles for this new album have been pretty left of center but there’s still so much remaining on this album that I’m excited for people to go in on. I think I’m gonna drop another single this week that sounds like if Waterparks and Usher made a song but Usher was having a terrible day. (Both laugh.)

When you make weird shit, you run the risk of making stuff that’s too weird, so it’s possible something Waterparks does won’t land with me at some point. But if that does happen, I know I’ll be able to look at it objectively and say I respect the hell out of you guys for even trying something like that. 

Exactly! When I first heard Yeezus, I was confused. I loved it but there were a couple songs where I was like “What the fuck?” I’m not against people having that reaction to our stuff. Underneath the genre and the production quality, the songs still have to be great songs. You make a great song and then you decide how you want to wrap that up. The packaging comes second. The reason I’m not worried about people not liking it stylistically is because I genuinely think this album is all great songs. No matter what weird packaging they’re in, I can guarantee you’ll be thinking about those songs later. 

I remember the days in Waterparks history when you would get in big trouble for leaking songs on live streams. What is your ideal relationship your music could have with the fans and the industry when it comes to drops?

It really varies. I think because my brain is so ADHD. I’m always thinking, “Next thing. Go! Go!” I know that’s not how things should work when you’re trying to market something but it’s how my brain works. The label will be like “This song has only been out for two weeks!” And I’ll be like, “Fuck it! Drop another!” I get sick of waiting! It’s very much just intuition. Depending on what’s going on in the world or what’s going on in my life or maybe Mercury is in Gatorade or some shit, it’ll feel right. I’ll know when something needs to be heard right at that moment. 

What’s funny about being a band in the pandemic is that everyone in the industry is so scared that they’re kinda willing to let you do whatever you want. Everyone is just like, “There are no rules right now!” and I’m like, “Perfect” (said with an evil smirk).

I feel like for a label, it may be hard to work with a band like Waterparks because you’re such a wildcard, but I think it pays off.

It totally does! That’s the thing. If we moved at the pace that most band oriented labels like to work at, we’d still be at the end of the Entertainment album cycle. My brain would die!

So in my research for this interview, I found a YouTube playlist titled “Every Waterparks Interview in Chronological Order.” Going through that and contrasting 2016 interviews and Alternative Press with some of your most recent interviews with people like The Zach Sang Show was really cool. The guest right before you on the Zach Sang Show was Ariana Grande!

It’s crazy. In 2012, the videos were of us standing outside of venues with the interviewer being like, “So how’d you get your band name?” Now I go in and do Zach’s show and I’m like “Holy shit. BTS is in here next week. What?”

I feel like “the scene” generally has good press because it’s a passion project for them. There’s not as much money involved and they’re really working with artists they like and care about. On the other side of things, although Zach Sang is a phenomenal  interviewer, he isn’t as knowledgeable about Waterparks as those smaller magazines can be. What do you think about the different styles of press Waterparks has received over time? Do you have a preference?

That’s a good question! I’ve never been asked that before. Let me think It’s good to have a variety like that. People that read a magazine like Rock Sound probably read Kerrang and Alternative Press. There’s a lot of overlap. Being able to answer more broad questions for a different type of audience, like the Zach Sang crowd, is definitely important. People having different backgrounds with our music provides some variety in our press and I like that. It would suck to always be answering the same shit all the time. For as long as we’ve been making albums, I’ve tried to make sure the music can live in any part of the music world. “Dizzy” had the trap shit. “Take Her to the Moon” was a pop banger. On Entertainment, we have “Crybaby,” “Tantrum,” and “Sleep Alone” all covering very different bases. It can all live everywhere. It happens to fit into the whole “emo-alternative-pop punk-whatever” scene. I think my hair doesn’t help. 

To quote you in an interview I saw, “As long as we’re a bunch of white dudes with dyed hair, people are gonna call us a pop-punk band.”

I don’t remember saying that but past me was right! It’s true! If we all had short brown hair and dressed like Mormon dudes from Salt Lake City, we would hit the indie world more. When we did “Crave,” I wanted it to sound like if Jack White and Diplo made a song together. I wanted an electronic arena rock song but then people saw my blue hair and called it pop-punk. I’m not over here pretending I don’t see why people think that about us. I am just trying to fight it now.

I think that fans want to label bands because it makes things more organized in their mind. It makes it easier for them to recommend songs and gives them a sense of genre identity. Artists, on the other hand, don’t like genre labels because they’re limiting.

They are! It’s like someone makes an imaginary perimeter around you. When you do things that don’t fit in that box that other people made for you, people get upset. They’re like, “Wait. They’re not doing that thing that I decided they’re doing.” I’m like, “No shit stupid! That’s not what we’re trying to do.

People listen to a song like “Turbulent” and they’re like, “This isn’t a very good pop-punk song.” No shit. That’s because it’s not a pop-punk song.

I compare it to restaurants. If people go to a Chinese restaurant and complain that they didn’t like the pizza, it’s probably because they’re not eating pizza! 

Waterparks was never something that was meant to be the biggest band in the scene. It was meant to be the biggest band period. There’s a reason you’re on the same talk show as BTS. BTS fans can like Waterparks just as much as the fans of a “scene” band like With Confidence.

It’s a cool spot that we get to be in because we’ll always have that alternative core. It’s great. At a certain point, if people start falling off and stop giving a shit, it’ll be okay. We did those years on Warped Tour. We did all that promoting outside of bigger bands’ shows. Having that core in alternative music is such a valuable thing. Let’s say hypothetically in a year we have five million monthly listeners and a bunch of K-pop and hip-hop fans that love us. If for some reason things fall off from there, we’d still always have those alternative fans. We met them! They know us and we know them. I see people at shows in cities we’ve been touring to since 2015 and recognize people who’ve been coming around every time we’ve been there.

You guys have retained the DIY aspect of the band throughout ten years and three labels. Have you had to fight tooth and nail to keep that?

In a way, Waterparks is even more DIY now, because there’s so much more stuff to do now. It’s my own fault because I micromanage like a motherfucker. You care about your project more than anybody else ever will. You delegate where you can but no one can get the Waterparks vision better than Waterparks. To be like Donald Glover is the fucking goal. He’s the blueprint of the level of productivity I want to be at. I actually met Donald Glover a while ago! It was on the Camp Tour. I was on crutches at the time and his tour was coming to the House of Blues in Houston. I was like “We have to go!” We went to the restaurant that was in the building and we asked around if Donald had been in there. They told us we had just missed him and we were all bummed out. Five minutes later we were sitting there eating and he came down and was like “I heard some kid on crutches wanted to see me.” It was awesome. 

Does it ever hit you that you might have that effect for some people too?

Objectively, I can see it happen, but the reality of it doesn’t fully set in. You kind of have to turn off that part of your brain. If someone brings you a lot of emotion, it’s a lot to hold on to. If you really were to take on all the weight of the emotion fans throw at you, it’d be unhealthy. It’s not good for you to have people coming at you angrily all the time but it also isn’t great to have people coming at you with nothing but praise all the time. It’s not good to have anything that extreme in either direction. 

Does social media amplify that?

Yeah. Honestly, I’ve been reading so many less replies than normal and it’s great. Most times I’ll post and log off right away. Unless we announce something. Then I’m gonna look at Tweets. We made these songs in isolation. Less than a handful of people have heard them. So, after sitting with them for a whole year, I wanna see what people think! “Snow Globe” was made in March 2020!

It sucks that fan culture has made it so tough for you to enjoy such a key part of being a musician. 

That’s the thing. It’s just about finding the balance. You have to check in on yourself and see how you feel that day. I can tell that some days I’m a little anxious. On those days I have to say to myself, “Hey. I probably can’t take on a thousand opinions right now. Maybe no Twitter today.” I wasn’t in therapy at the start of the band. I would talk to Benji and Joel [of Good Charlotte] about everything. They’re still better than any therapist I’ve ever had. They’re like, “Oh, I remember that” and give me a million helpful tips. Therapists are sometimes like, “Why don’t you just take a break?” They don’t get it like Benji and Joel do. 

I’m sure you wouldn’t trade it for anything but with the rate that Waterparks has grown, you definitely got caught off guard with a lot of the aspects of being a bigger artist. Is there anything outside the content of Fandom that you can kind of speak to with this?

If you know our songs, you kinda know how I feel a lot of the time. It’s a weird balance as an artist because for the sake of your career, you’re like, “I NEED EVERYONE IN THE WORLD TO LOOK AT ME RIGHT FUCKING NOW,” but for the sake of your personal life, you’re like “DON”T FUCKING LOOK AT ME.” Have you ever had a Tweet pop off?

Not any more than like eleven likes from my close friends. 

It’s not fun at all. When a Tweet goes off and people outside of your world find it, you gotta delete that shit. At first you’re like, “Oh wild. It got fifteen thousand likes.” Then you read the replies and you immediately want to delete it. When people outside of your world find you, they bring in so many dumb opinions. Whether it’s weird redneck people or teenagers reaching to find why what you said is problematic or whatever, it’s awful. That’s how it feels when people who don’t know us find our songs. It would be so awesome to be able to drop a song to our fans only and have everyone just be like, “Nice!” The singles for the new album have been doing better than almost anything else we’ve done. That’s all fun until you see the comments. Someone might be like, “God, if this is what rock is coming to then fuck this shit!” I’m sitting here like “Oh god. It’s you fucking people? How did you find this?” They’re like, “There’s been nothing good since I was young and impressionable and into newer music and there will never be anything as good. Reality is centered around me! I’m the protagonist of existence.”

A friend of mine plays in a hardcore band. There was a video of one of their sets that got crazy that got reposted by Barstool Sports and-

(Gasps.) Barstool is the worst! What’d their fans say? 

I swear to God, I clicked on every single commenters’ account and it was just white middle school boys whose profile pictures were of them holding fish. 

It’s always that or truck photos. Barstool posted our video for “Blonde” when it dropped. I didn’t know what Barstool was at the time. We were at a laundry-mat in LA and we were blown away by how much they hated us. There was one comment that stayed with me. I won’t repeat all the homophobic stuff but it was something along the lines of, “I fought for this country. I didn’t almost die so these fucking kids could do this. They would never last in a war!” Yeah, no shit! What the fuck? How did he go from, “I don’t like this music video” to “They would die in a war.”

You’ve managed to reach the BTS and K-pop fandom a little. As someone who has struggled with fan culture in the past, I was wondering how that whole world has treated you.

Here’s the thing: They are very nice and supportive if they wanna be. If they’re on your side, that is amazing. If they don’t like you, oh my god, it’s awful. BTS announced they were dropping a single the same day as our album and I just quote Tweeted it with a photo of me with my head in my hands, since every fucking major artist ever is dropping something the same day as us. But I quote Tweeted it with that picture and even made the caption nice. It said something like, “I hope everyone has a beautiful day. It is lovely out today.” I put my phone down because I was not trying to read replies that day. I checked my phone and saw there were three thousand quote Tweets already. I knew I was about to get ratioed really bad. I clicked on the notification to see the quote Tweets and the very first one was like, “PIECE OF SHIT I HATE YOU.” I closed Twitter right away. It was totally out of respect! It was because they’re the biggest fucking band in the world. I think fans of anything are wild. Even Twenty One Pilots fans were ruthless when I was bummed that they’re dropping their album the same day as ours. They were like, “Fuck off! You don’t stand a chance!” Obviously! That’s why I’m saying this! The only fans who weren’t crazy when I acknowledged their people were Blake Shelton’s fans. I decided to reply to every single one of his fans when he announced his album was coming out on the same day as ours. They were actually really receptive. To be fair, I also lied to all of them. They were all like “You know what? I’ll check your band out.” I was like “Yes! We can tour Iowa!”

(Laughs) Weren’t you tweeting at them, like, “Waterparks: The most American band”? 

I was tweeting shit about horses. I thought it’d win them over. 

That’s so funny to me because it was probably mostly older Twitter users who maybe thought you were just some random kid promoting their music and don’t realize you’re the lead singer of  a band with two million monthly listeners. 

I should do that more. I need more Blake Shelton fans. 

I watched an AP video where you guys go over a running joke you have about your made up, cliché local band called Tomorrow’s Sorrows. I wanted to know if you could tell me about any stories you have of your real life shitty local bands from before Waterparks.

Tomorrow’s Sorrows! I forgot about that! yeah. I’ve been in bands since I was like thirteen. I’ll make sure to tell the ones that you can’t Google. There was one called Death Breakfast. Damn, I’m still not good at naming bands! Waterparks? Are you fucking kidding me? The first time I ever played live with a band, I wasn’t singing. I was too nervous back then. Our singer was singing and just stopped in the middle of the set and left. Then the drummer started leaving. It was right then that I decided…I wanna play in bands forever! (Both laugh.) It was so weird! Whenever I decided to sing for the band was just because I didn’t wanna make any more friends and meet any more singers. I was always nervous just looking at my feet so I didn’t have to look at the crowd. When we were sixteen or seventeen we would just keep getting into shitty situations with studios or promoters where we’d lose all our money. What were we gonna do? They were all bigger than us, smarter than us, and were adults. We had no representation and no clue what we were doing. 

Dude! Selling pay to play tickets to classmates and begging them to come see you. Fucking Gorilla Productions over at Fitzgerald. I did that so many times! It would be like fifty bands and they’d say, “If you win, you get to go record two songs for free.” And you’re just like, “That sounds great!” because you’re fifteen and don’t know better. You do the math and realize there’d be like one hundred bands there and only sixty people. I would sell thirty tickets too so it was just a waste. Those are the fucking worst. I did those forever.

I remember finishing a set for one of those with my high school band. The band after us was just two guitarists who would play all the other instruments as a backing track through their shitty amp. They were like, “This one’s a Pierce the Veil cover! Sing along if you know it!” 

I’ve never heard something more “local band” in my life. There was a point where we had been out touring for a while and I hadn’t been to a local show in a bit. There was one weird one-off small show we did in New Mexico and there was a local band playing who did a cover of Face Down by Red Jumpsuit Apparatus except they were all in different tunings. Horrible! Also, for those who think we’re just being mean assholes, you really don’t know the pain of sitting through some bad local shows.

Probably the worst set I’ve ever seen was a local band. There was a crowd of like ten people and someone shouted from the back “I like your pocket!” to the drummer. 

What a stupid thing to yell.

Yeah, but it’s a compliment for drummers I guess. The drummer didn’t hear him properly and thought the dude was talking shit. So he stood up and started chirping him back. Meanwhile, the guitarist had been chain smoking the whole time before their set and was out of breath. So the drummer is yelling at some dude who complimented him, the guitarist was almost dry heaving over his pedalboard, and I was freaking the fuck out trying to figure out how to leave as discretely as possible. 

We did a show in Austin in around 2012 and only two or three people showed up. There was a band who went on after us. Our band and the two friends we brought were there watching them out of respect and it was the fucking worst. Their music might be the worst thing I’ve heard to date. We still talk about it today. It’s stayed with me over all this time. Otto, our drummer, is the one who always ends up getting stuck in awkward situations. They had one song that had a breakdown and the lyrics were like, “Build it up. Break it down. Spin it all around.” It sounds like a Bop It! We all started backing out and Otto was the only one left still standing there. We were all getting dinner and he came through twenty minutes late like, “You guys left me! I didn’t know you were gone!”

Over time, you’ve always introduced the band in interviews as a variety of untrue statements. Which means more to you: Being the tallest band in the world or the richest?

Tallest for sure. Everyone loves a tall guy, rich or poor. If you’re tall, you’re just so loved and, dare I say, fuckable. You could be a broke weirdo but if you’re tall, you get a chance. Everybody loves a tall guy. If you’re just a weird rich dude, no one likes you. If you’re a little rich dude, the world could hate you but no one hates tall people by default. Otto would also choose tall. 

How tall is Otto?

Otto is the littlest one! Otto is probably like 5’6. But if this gets printed, say 5’5! (Both laugh.) He’s gonna be so mad.

Thanks so much for doing this interview! Do you have any last words or shoutouts?

Let me think. I want to promote some stuff. Everyone go get a little handheld vacuum cleaner. It’s changed my life so much since I’ve gotten one. I’ll see a little dust and it’s gone in seconds. I literally walk around with that thing. If you’re not taking vitamins, get on it. I don’t know what Omega threes are but I feel responsible for promoting them. Everyone, get vaccinated. I wanna crowd surf on your heads but only if you’re germ free. I wanna promote adopting animals. I wanna promote bullying a little bit but only good bullying. (Both laugh.) Sometimes I see people online and think, “Dude if they were just bullied a little more they wouldn’t be so shitty.” I think we should bully all YouTube prank channel owners. We should bully dudes in Yeezys. We should promote getting comfier shoes. I just got insoles so now my feet are gonna last forever. If you drink a lot of energy drinks, which if you listen to our band you probably do, eat some bananas. Also stop having energy drinks. We did a tour back in the day sponsored by Monster and every show I would tell the crowd “Don’t drink this shit. It’s poison” and they never sponsored us again. (Laughs.) So don’t drink energy drinks but if you do, eat a banana. The potassium offsets the effects of the caffeine. Try to stretch in the morning. You guys aren’t gonna listen to me. You’re just gonna get on your fucking phones, but whatever. There’s two people I wanna shout out too. Paul Rudd because obviously. I was watching a movie last night and I decided if there’s anything I can do in this world to make his life a little better, I want to do it. If anyone knows the old lady from the Insidious movies, let her know I love her. I watched Insidious Three the other night and I love her. I think her name is Lin Shaye. If anyone knows her or has a weird connection, tell her I say “What’s up,” and that I’m a fan.

Don’t you have an album coming out that you should be promoting?

Oh yeah! Greatest Hits is an album we have coming out on May 21st. It’s a very good album. It’s not the album of the year. It’s the album of your life. Have you heard it yet?

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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