When it comes to finding pop stars, we at Dork reckon that we can spot one a mile off. The style, personality, having something IMPORTANT to say, but most of all the wide selection of bangers, are all vital elements to being a bona fide star in this, the year of Our Lord Matty of Healy. So it should come as no surprise to know that our Spidey-senses have been a-tingling about one Awsten Knight for some time now, the Waterparks frontman slowly but surely becoming a true Dork hero in the making.
Now, the Texan band’s third album ‘FANDOM’ is about to propel them even further into the spotlight. A depiction of a breakdown as much as a break-up, it is a peek inside the tangled mind of someone dealing with the end of a relationship, as well as negotiating a toxic social media landscape. Most importantly, though, it is unrelentingly packed with pop-punk gold from beginning to end.
Cruising and drinking fresh coffee in the bright sunshine of his Burbank, California home, Awsten is in a good mood as our chat begins. Dork meanwhile is parked up in torrential rain in a Premier Inn car-park clutching a lukewarm sausage roll and some tepid tea. Oh to be a pop star, or so you’d think.
‘FANDOM’ is a record born out of pain and angst, but the reality is that it could have been feeling even sorrier for itself. With a title and merchandising leaked online, Waterparks’ third album (set to be called ‘Friendly Reminder’) promised to deal purely with the aftermath of a painful break-up. But suddenly, all bets were off as he revealed on Twitter that he had deleted the entire record, original files and all.
With a bit more distance today, Awsten brings us up to speed in his trademark rapid machine-gun delivery that, just like his online presence, is QUITE OFTEN SPOKEN AS IF IN CAPITAL LETTERS and with an unmistakable hint of a side-eye, as if he wants you to know that nothing can be taken TOO seriously. Equally, though, he still has a lot of important subjects that he wants to get off his chest as he begins.
“It was fully ready to go, but it just felt like a very one-dimensional record. And I had way more shit to say than just ‘yeah, I dealt with a really bad break-up in 2017’. Like, that’s so boring… Blah, blah, blah.”
Admitting that the feeling of deleting ‘Friendly Reminder’ was “freeing”, Awsten continues. “It wasn’t mastered, but it was all there. There were mixes of all the songs, but it felt good to delete it. Because you’re not supposed to do that, you know? But also, there was this pressure of, ‘well, I better not fuck this up then’.”
Able to giggle about it now, he admits that the warning signs had been there from the start. “When I showed Geoff and Otto the songs, they were like ‘oh, cool’ [Awsten mimics a totally flat and unimpressed voice]. And I was like, fuck! That’s the response?? It didn’t feel good. For them to not have any kind of response whatsoever? That’s not cool.”
So, with the big red DELETE button pressed, attention turned swiftly instead to ‘FANDOM’. A brutally honest record, it pinballs in mood just like the mind of someone with a broken heart. Romantic, angry, poignant, bitter, it dips and peaks in a manner that is genuinely surprising on first listen. Always shifting in tone and texture as it refuses to sit still, it is the perfect pop record for 2019 in many ways.
From the savage ‘I’d unfuck you if I could’ message of the aptly-named ‘Turbulent’, to the shiny, polished ‘Dream Boy’, it is a playful and wide-reaching collection of tracks that fully leans into the pop mentality that the band have always toyed with. Using the emotionally raw ‘TANTRUM’ from last year’s ‘Entertainment’ as a jumping-off point, it sees Awsten fully drop any use of metaphor and deals only in painful truth.
“That song [‘TANTRUM’] made me feel jittery, and kind of nervous. Like, okay, this is good, this is what I need to do now. I just have to say this shit, less hiding behind pretty metaphors and just be blunt.”
That carries through into our chat, his lack of any ‘filter’ making for a funny and endearingly honest conversation that is far from the norm with a lot of pop stars. Totally self-aware and quick to laugh at himself, it still brings its own risks however and Awsten knows he is potentially diving into tricky waters.
“With this album, I’m talking about everything that I’ve been experiencing for the last year and a half or whatever,” he explains. “It’s like being suffocated or clouded, surrounded by the ‘fandom’.” Aware of the risks of alienating his fanbase, he is careful with his choice of words. “I don’t just mean our fans, but also just people on the internet generally. It’s like a heavy feeling around everything for me. And when I pinpoint it, it’s coming from… them.”
For the only time in our chat, the laughter stops as the pain and frustration in his voice shines clear as he continues, at points his voice trailing away into silence. “I had my worst break-up ever, and it’s like… The fans made it so much worse, like way worse. So if I’m trying to be creative, or if I’m having a bad day, there were people just coming at me online. It’s like living while you feel that you’re being watched by a ton of people waiting for you to slip up. It’s insane, and it’s overwhelming.”
A prolific tweeter, it’s clear that Awsten is struggling to balance being as open as he would like with the anxiety that follows. “I get like a million thoughts a day or whatever, and they get to read maybe three of them? Like I’ll say a joke or whatever, and then people who are mad at me are like ‘oh, he’s such a fucking asshole’. And even people who like me are calling me stupid or a crackhead or whatever, and I’m just like, ‘dude, I don’t like to be any of those!'”
Those sentiments of claustrophobia and battling fan entitlement slot in with the remnants of ‘Friendly Reminder’, making a strong thread of emotional turmoil that runs through all of ‘FANDOM’. Aware of how an album of self-misery would come across, Awsten made sure that a balance of light remained amongst the dark.
“I feel like a lot of the bands that I grew up listening to, they approached break-up songs with this sort of self-pitying ‘woe is me’ standpoint. Like in high school, I would be the saddest ever. I’d be listening to Taking Back Sunday and be like, god this all fucking sucks so bad. With this, I wanted to make something that’s more like self-empowering than self-pity, you know what I mean? Because if I had had music like that when I was young, I probably wouldn’t have been a whiny little emo bitch.”
Laughing as he recalls this, he continues. “Obviously I’m not this ANGRY BROODING DUDE who’s like ‘man, my shit sucks’, so there’s gonna be nicer moments in there too. I wanted there to be the option there.”
Those options are like a pinball machine rolling through every genre and mood that pop, punk and rock can create. “I am sooo grateful for The 1975,” he says at one point in open admiration for another band who don’t feel restrained by genre. “Because I feel like what puts a bad taste in peoples’ mouths is when they feel like a band is trying to go pop because they think it’ll make them bigger. And The 1975 do it so well.”
Warming to his theme after rumblings and murmurs online about Waterparks’ shift towards pop, his speech quickens even more. “I’m like, dude, just because you go pop doesn’t mean you’re gonna get big, you still have to have the right song. I feel like a lot of times, bands still aren’t making interesting or creative songs, they’re just trying to balance being more commercial because they think it’ll make them more successful! It’s like, even if a producer makes it sound good, that’s just icing on the cake. But, but… but the cake can’t fucking suck! Yeah. Someone can only polish it up so much.”
While the SERIOUS ROCK WORLD has grumbled away about which pigeon-hole they want Waterparks to stay in for some time, it’s obviously something that bores Awsten these days.
“There’s definitely a pressure to keep doing the same things because it’s the safe way. ‘Oh, they already heard you do this, and they liked it’. So you can keep doing it, and they’ll probably keep liking it. But the thing is, that won’t even work forever because people grow out of shit. And like, what if I made a thing that was pandering to whatever that I didn’t love, just because people are expecting it. What if they fucking hated that? Then all of us hate it, and that’s trash.”
In recent single ‘Watch What Happens Next’, he speaks of hip-hop’s ability to shift and become something different, referencing, in particular, Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’.
“People think I’m shading that, and I’m like no bitch, I’m shading you! I’m shading people that restrict dance and rock culture, that basically scare them into doing the exact same boring fucking thing over and over again. That, in turn, holds down the entire genre and holds everyone back creatively. Like these very artistic rap and pop albums, they’re very much rewarded for being creative. But if a rock band does it? People just flip out. I mean, it’s CRAZY!”
Calming down slightly, he finishes his point simply. “I think there’s a way, and a space, for a band like us to be able to do everything, and it’s a very exciting feeling, you know what I mean? I wanted to make a record that was just very unique, a very unexpected thing where all the songs feel totally different from each other. I wanted it to feel like it’s some weird kind of fucked-up sugar rush.”
Talk turns to the future, with a UK and Europe tour on the horizon in 2020 leaving plenty for Awsten, Geoff and Otto to still achieve this time round – along with a strange ambition. “I was hoping that we’d get bottled at Reading last year,” he laughs, “Because everyone that’s cool has been bottled. My Chemical Romance, Good Charlotte, uh… even Panic! At The Disco got bottled. They didn’t do it to us, which means we still SUCK!”
Dissolving into laughter, it is only when our time comes to an end that he finally stumbles on the perfect description of ‘FANDOM’. “It’s like me talking to myself basically. I’m losing my shit, but I’m reaping all the benefits.” That, and giving us all the perfect sugar rush from a cake that doesn’t suck. Rock star, pop star, superstar, it doesn’t matter what you want to call him. Awsten Knight is all of them.
Taken from the November issue of Dork. Waterparks’ album ‘FANDOM’ is out now.
Words: Jamie MacMillan