Album review: Waterparks – INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY
Waterparks follow-up 2021’s sprawling Greatest Hits with more concise – but no less genre-defying – fifth LP.
On Waterparks’ fifth album INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY, Awsten Knight – as he always does – threw himself headfirst into the creative process. Now, previewing it for the first time in this exclusive interview, the frontman reveals how the hard work is paying off…
Awsten Knight has been wearing the same grey hoodie for eight days straight. If that sounds a little gross, it’s actually not: such is his all-consuming approach to work, he’s been focussing on nothing else but art for over a week. As a result, Waterparks has taken priority over some far less exciting daily habits…
“I shaved yesterday because [band manager] Miles reminded me,” Awsten chuckles today, on this ninth day of his latest grind, having also graciously decided to put on a fresh black tour hoodie over the top of his well-worn attire for the sake of our interview. “The only breaks have been to get coffee, or last night I did some boxing because I was like, ‘Argh, I’m gonna fucking freak out!’”
If you want a picture of the past week-plus in the life of Awsten, all you really need to know is that he hasn’t much moved from the desk in his apartment. Painstakingly editing music videos, artwork, layouts and all the other components that come with a new album release, the frontman gestures that he’s “crawled out of this chair and onto the couch around 11pm to 1am” every day (well… night).
“I’ve been sat here colouring in pixels like, ‘Oh, my eyes!’” he groans. “It’s hard to stop. And I know what I want, but these things take time. It’ll be worth it.”
On the wall behind him hangs the album board that has been the source of all this effort. This bright red fixture is all marked off, meaning that Waterparks’ fifth full-length, INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY, has officially been turned in. Now, having returned home from many months’ touring – from the band’s See You In The Future headline run in the UK and Europe, to the touring Sad Summer Festival 2022 in the States, to supporting My Chemical Romance and recent K! cover star blackbear at various mega-shows – it’s a case of tying up loose ends and getting everything prepped and ready for launch.
“There’s been a lot of catch-up,” Awsten explains. “For [2019 album] FANDOM I chose to be home during the rollout, and [last year’s] Greatest Hits obviously we were kinda forced to be home [due to the pandemic]. But with this one it was a little more challenging. As soon as we got back it was like, ‘Okay, there’s shit to do now!’
“We took a few days to try and sleep, and then we did the craziest photoshoots that we have ever done,” he continues of Waterparks’ return from the road, with the overwhelming enthusiasm for this next chapter clearly outweighing any lingering exhaustion. “Everything we’ve done [in the past] has been awesome, but literally all of us have grown so much over the years, and I think that everybody around us is so elevated. Where it’s at currently, it’s just so good to see it go to the places that I’ve seen in my head for so long.”
Of course, that all starts with the album itself. Not only does Awsten think that INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY is their best yet (truly, it wouldn’t see the light of day if he felt otherwise), but he also believes it to be the essential Waterparks record.
“I mean, let me pull up the tracklist!” he begins by way of clarifying the use of the word ‘essential’, his eyes animatedly scanning his screen. “I think that it does everything that Waterparks does best, and it expands. There are pieces that feel like they could have been on any other albums, but then there’s elements of it that full-on expand past anywhere we’ve been before. I think there’s a perfect balance between the poetry that you’d find on [2018 album] Entertainment versus the blunt crazy shit that you’d find on FANDOM. It’s a perfect melding of all of it.”
Reflecting on INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY’s ambitious predecessor, the frontman admits that he needed to fulfil an “artistic space” within himself across Greatest Hits’ gloriously chaotic 17 songs, and maybe it wasn’t the most “digestible” for those not already invested in the band. But that’s not the case here.
“Greatest Hits was fucking long, and there’s a lot of experimental shit,” Awsten says without a hint of regret. “I feel like with this album, every one of these songs would have been the best song on our other albums. That’s why it’s essential to me, because it’s the best possible versions of what people have enjoyed about us before – the best versions of us – and then also new and exciting steps forward.”
But what of that title? Waterparks have traditionally taken an alphabetical approach to naming their releases, so… well, we were counting on this next one beginning with ‘H’, to be honest.
“I wanted to start it with ‘I’ because the point behind Greatest Hits was that it’s multiple eras – that’s why it’s called that, and that’s why there was the three colours instead of one, because I wanted it to be multiple eras – and it’s ‘GH’,” Awsten notes. “I wanted that to play into it, because that’s multiple cycles in one thing – that’s conceptually the point of it. Some people are gonna be like, ‘Fuck you!’ moving on to ‘I’. But anyone who cares probably has multiple CDs that say Greatest Hits, so it’ll work on their stacks. What’s funny is we did play with the idea of two discs on Greatest Hits and dividing it up, but ultimately we just thought it would be fucking confusing, and it was 2020 so production was a challenging thing.”
So have any of the band’s eagle-eyed fans worked it all out yet?
“Some of them think it’s ‘H’ and I’ve seen a handful of names and theories, but some think it starts with ‘A’ – they think that we went back around with the musical chords, like A through G, and then it starts over again, which is smart,” Awsten grins of how thoughtfully passionate their listeners are. “But you know what’s crazy? Like two or three people have messaged me saying, ‘I think it’s INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY.’ I don’t say shit! In the video for [lead single] FUNERAL GREY my collar says INTELLECTUAL, and then my name on Twitter has been DANNY PROPERTY for a while. So I think they’re kind of putting that together a little bit. As per usual, there’s been little pieces for them to find!”
This is Waterparks, though. And there will be much, much more to come…
If you hadn’t already figured it out by now, Awsten Knight’s favourite thing in the world is being creative. Be it all this meticulous editing, hitting the studio or conjuring up ideas for his super-successful hii-def clothing brand (speaking of which, their next collection is almost ready and looks “fucking insane”), working on cool shit is pretty much his life fuel.
It’s why, recently, he posted an Instagram story about how he wanted to be more selective when it comes to Waterparks’ touring schedule. Being on the road for many months, he shared, can be draining and not as productive for his impressive output.
“I don’t think what I want [for Waterparks] has changed,” Awsten ponders, “but I think I’m able to dictate a little bit to where I can get what I’ve always wanted out of it. It’s not to say that tours won’t happen, but there’s other creative things that I want to do, and luckily we’re in a position where we don’t have to just be on the road for nine out of 12 months.
“If I want to do five shows for a tour instead of 30, I could check out the venues, and build stuff around the stages, and figure out what can be done – I could basically hone in on making each show a memorable thing,” he continues. “We’re extremely fortunate to be at a point where I could be like, ‘Hey, instead of being gone all fucking year and living in a little coffin on a bus, let’s step back and make bigger-picture things, and not do the constant grind, grind, grind through every little city.’ That’s still an important thing, but it’s not as fulfilling as making an insane music video, or making a new song that a ton of people are going to be able to experience at once.”
Case in point is Waterparks’ recent single with blackbear, FUCK ABOUT IT. Rapidly racking up streams in the millions, the band’s first official collaboration has proven to be wildly popular. Crucially, too, it also shows Awsten’s growth – from working on so much stuff alone, to actually letting others in to his process.
“It’s just a matter of…” he pauses and chuckles, “me getting over myself. When you’re starting out and you don’t have people around to help you, it kind of creates a little bit of a chip on your shoulder – which doesn’t help you artistically at all – and it gives you this attitude of, ‘I did this all myself!’ But you can only go so far alone, and you’re only as good as the people around you. There are songs [on INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY] where nobody wrote it but me, like A NIGHT OUT ON EARTH – I wrote the whole fucking thing. But then there’s a song like FUCK ABOUT IT, where it was handing over the reins to blackbear and being like, ‘Fill it out with whatever you want to do, because I love what you do!’ I’ve listened to him for years, so for him to be like, ‘This is sick and I want to be a part of it,’ I’m like, ‘I trust you – go.’”
Awsten likens this approach to yoga (bear with him on this one). During lockdown, he’d be exercising in his apartment via YouTube videos, and maybe showing “lenience” on himself. But in a group setting, he’d want to up his game. It’s the same thing with songwriting.
“You push yourself harder than if you’re doing stuff alone,” he explains. “If I’m in a hot yoga room with a bunch of people, I’m like, ‘I’m not fucking going down, dude! I’m staying up!’ If you do something around people then you kind of force yourself to go harder and do cooler shit.”
One such example on INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY is second single SELF-SABOTAGE. Working with songwriter Andrew Goldstein (Pale Waves, 5 Seconds Of Summer), the pair were coming up with the dizzyingly massive chorus. Awsten excitedly jumps out of his chair and grabs his guitar to demonstrate how it went.
“We were putting together the chorus and Andrew was singing it, and I was like, ‘Switch those [notes]!’” he recalls, riffing along. “One thing that I love is listening to people’s demos where they’re just ad-libbing shit, and sometimes there’s certain parts that sound so wild when they’re not real words, and it makes it so much crazier. I don’t think I would have done the ‘Crash into your garage’ bit if I was here alone, because I was trying to show off (laughs).”
Elsewhere, Patent Pending’s Joe Ragosta helped out as Awsten’s “spiritual consultant” for the wild heaviness of REAL SUPER DARK – which feels like you “got smacked by a car” following enchanting opener ST*RFUCKER.
“Joe is able to bring out a playful element,” he says. “I think a lot of people look at what we do and they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s silly because Awsten makes jokes sometimes!’ but if they could just put that to the side for a second and pay attention, they’d see that a lot of it gets very deep and very dark. Sometimes it’s harder for me to access that goofy and playful inner-child aspect. Joe was like, ‘Dude, you need to bring that out – this song is so crazy that you need to juxtapose the dark stuff with this stuff that feels like early Eminem – but not hateful!’ (Laughs) And that’s what gave me the idea for the start being so animated and crazy. The verses feel hard but very animated, and that was the missing ingredient to it.”
The song opens with a reference to Good Charlotte’s Benji Madden (Waterparks are partnered with Benji and twin brother/GC frontman Joel’s management company MDDN), with Awsten noting how his uniquely detailed lyrics have served him surprisingly well in the past. ‘Can I speak to your manager? / Oh, you mean Benji? / He’s fucking busy…’ it begins.
“That’s not the most relatable thing… like, Benji’s probably not your manager,” he laughs. “There are a ton of songs that I don’t relate to at all that I love. You don’t have to relate to somebody in a movie to like the movie – it’s still a fucking great movie! I’ve realised that being hyper-specific is just as effective, if not more, than universal ideas.”
On the flip-side, there’s the stripped-back poignance of CLOSER.
“I’m trying to think how I want to explain it…” Awsten begins, attempting to sum up his headspace. “It’s about, I guess, one’s relationship with love. It evolves so much – from your first partner, and everybody thinks their first is like, ‘Oh, that’s it! This is the one!’ And then maybe you have a softball here and there. Then in your early 20s it’s like, ‘This is the one! I didn’t know before, but this is the one!’ And then it’s that much more catastrophic when it doesn’t work. And then you start getting a more mature relationship with the concept of love.
“I don’t wanna give away too much about it,” he adds, “but it’s the way that you look at love, and how it evolves as you mature. It means different things every time throughout the years.”
Do you ever have reservations about being that vulnerable on a song?
“I’ve kind of found that people appreciate it more,” he shrugs. “I was worried about that in the past. [2016 love song] 21 Questions was the first acoustic song that I ever wrote, and that worked out pretty well! That’s so many people’s favourites from that album. Literally about two weeks ago I was getting coffee and some people came up to me, and one of them was like, ‘I’ve listened to 21 Questions, like, 30 times in the last week!’ and I was like, ‘I’m so sorry to hear that!’ (Laughs) That’s still a song that people come up to me and reference, even though there’s a million they could reference that are bigger. And the same with [2017’s] Lucky People, too. I’m sure if I went on Spotify right now… fuck it, we’ll go on Spotify right now! I bet you those are two of the highest-up ones.”
Consider CLOSER soon to be added to that pile…
Future Awsten Knight has some ideas about how he wants to create more new music. One goal is heading back to his childhood home in Houston, Texas with producer Zakk Cervini. Another is going to New Orleans and finding somewhere haunted to write for a week or two, to explore how a change in environment might affect what he comes up with. This time around, though, he enjoyed the ease of working with Zakk in Los Angeles, just as they did for Greatest Hits.
“I feel comfortable working in familiar spaces,” he explains. “I can walk in [to my apartment], sit down right here and be like, ‘I know what all these fucking buttons do!’ There’s something to that efficiency of being able to get your ideas out quicker, because the worst is when you have an idea and technology is failing you and you’re like, ‘Why won’t this do that?’ and then you just get mad and don’t make it! There is something to the comfort of being familiar with your environment.”
That doesn’t mean these two somewhat similar processes have formed remotely similar records, though.
“I think you can kind of tell that Greatest Hits was very introverted,” Awsten says, “and this album is the exact opposite of that – it’s like a major reintroduction to the world. It’s very bright – not necessarily happy, because there’s still dark, moody, hard shit. But overall this album is like the inverse of Greatest Hits, to me.”
It’s much shorter, too. In an age where albums often aren’t listened to in full (a problem that is absolutely not unique to Waterparks), the 11 songs on INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY will surely be devoured in their entirety.
“I wanted this album to be shorter because I like mixing things up, but at the same time, I felt like some of my favourite things on Greatest Hits wound up not getting the attention that I felt like they should,” Awsten admits. “You can’t make art for this kind of reason, but it’s almost like there’s that little ego part of me where Crying Over It All [the 15th track on Greatest Hits] is one of my favourite songs that we’ve ever done, and FUCK ABOUT IT passed that [for streams] in like a week.
“I don’t want to sound like an asshole here but you have to make music for art – well, I guess you don’t have to, but I feel like you probably should,” he continues. “I’m not here to be like an old-man boomer ‘blame TikTok’ blah blah blah, but things are so meme-centric now. The problem isn’t music making its way into memes, it’s when people make it for the meme. It almost undermines art in general.”
Still, Awsten wouldn’t change a thing about Greatest Hits.
“If I could look into the future and see that Crying Over It All wasn’t gonna be some viral-whatever, I would still go back and make that song,” he nods. “But I think we’re lucky for that, too, because we can afford to make songs that we just love. Early on we were able to establish, ‘We are going to do this, and this, and this!’ and that’s caused friction before, but the thing is it’s allowed us to do so much, and it’s set the expectation to not expect shit. Even if I felt like certain songs from Greatest Hits were under-appreciated, I don’t think that anyone who heard them was able to say, ‘This is weird, this doesn’t make any fucking sense…’ because the groundwork has been laid for all of it.”
He’s also learned over time that as long as he’s happy with what he’s doing, that’s pretty much all that really matters. A very recent tweet from a stranger on the hellhole that is Twitter reaffirmed this healthy mindset.
“This has taken a while to grasp, but nothing from the outside is gonna make you feel good,” Awsten says. “I can take the time to post jokes and whatever, but yesterday I saw a quote tweet that was like, ‘This is the first funny thing that Awsten’s ever done.’ Imagine if my goal was to be funny online and I saw that. I’d be like, ‘Wow, okay, dick!’ It hurt. That’s why I’m grateful to the people who accept this project for what it is, and go forward with it. And I think those people are going to feel rewarded by it.”
First, though, Awsten’s got more microscopic pixel-colouring to be getting on with. Before we sign off and let him get back to it, he stands up and lifts both hands up in the air, as if he’s carrying a significant weight. It represents everything he’s been doing for the last nine days.
“I feel like I’m holding this album and it’s heavy as shit, and I’m like, ‘I’m going to make sure that the rest of this gets built correctly,’” he explains, continuing to support this imaginary mass. “It’s like the structure and the bones and everything are there, and I’m trying to steer this heavy-ass ship. But the thing is, it’s right there and I see where it needs to go, and I only have to do a few more things to tie the fucking thing and make sure it stays against the dock, and put the anchor down. It’s so close, and I’m not gonna start dropping the ball now in any area – there’s not gonna be any compromise.”
Awsten’s desk beckons once more. Clean clothes be damned.
“I don’t want to look back in a year or two or whatever and be like, ‘Ah, this is what I would change…’” he concludes. “I wanna be like, ‘Man, we fucking killed this!’”
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