Rock Sound presents The Album Story, a new digital cover series delving deep into the process behind making a record, from lyric writing to sound development, choosing the artwork, collaboration and more.
And for this first edition, Waterparks’ Awsten Knight guides us through ‘Intellectual Property’, their incredible fifth studio album which is out right now.
Read ‘Waterparks, ‘Intellectual Property’ | The Album Story’ below:
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Awsten Knight has been keeping a secret. For almost two years, he has been retreating to his home studio, quietly building ideas and demos. Working away from the eyes of the fandom and the wider music industry, he developed a set of songs that push him lyrically into new, more personal territory and allow him to musically reconnect with the sounds that inspired him in the first place.
“Its almost like an inside joke with yourself. I know this thing everybody would want but its mine, nobody even knows it exists. They don’t even know to want it yet.”
These sessions are what would eventually become ‘Intellectual Property’, the fifth full-length record from Waterparks, the band he inhabits alongside drummer Otto Wood and guitarist Geoff Wigington. With its mix of pop punk and emo-infected bangers sitting comfortably next to wide-ranging electronic epics, it is a clever encapsulation of everything the band has been up until this point.
Now that the time has arrived to share it with the wider world, Knight guides us through the album making process, from tackling ideas of religion and fame to working alongside new collaborators.
The secret’s out – ‘Intellectual Property’ is here. Welcome to your night out on earth.
Following up 2021’s ‘Greatest Hits’ was never going to be an easy task. Sprawling across 17 tracks, it took in all manner of genres, intentionally giving the feel of a playlist on shuffle. As Knight reflected on that release, he realised that in order to continue challenging himself, he first had to strip things right back.
“With ‘Greatest Hits’, I was pretty much solely focused on pushing sonic boundaries for us. Making the most ambitious, creative, accomplished collection of music possible. With ‘Intellectual Property’, I wanted to hold physical instruments again. Force myself to write songs like when I was a teenager. Just me and a guitar singing the dumbest shit ever. For most people, including me, we were writing crap when we were 16.”
But how do you hold onto that spirit and still make something worthwhile? How do you capture the style of that 16 year old while elevating it?
“What I mean is, it’s limiting myself on purpose at the base level. Last album, I bought this keyboard that is grossly expensive. It’s the most expensive thing I own. So lets dial it back for a second – what would I do if I didn’t have any of this shit? What would the song be?”
He picks up a dollar-store acoustic guitar and strums through the opening chords of lead single ‘Funeral Grey’.
“If this is all I have in a room, would I still be able to make shit that I love that much?”
The key to the process he says was “simplifying at the start to force you to build a more solid foundation” and that is particularly apparent on the song ‘2 Best Friends’, a fun and innocent singalong that you could see yourself bopping along to around a campfire. It’s effective in it’s straightforward approach, something that appeared to take Knight by surprise.
“I always ask friends when I show them albums for a top 5. And if you don’t like 5 of them, that’s ok, you don’t have to. But almost everybody has said ‘2 Best Friends’…it’s probably just because of how it was conceived – how do you make the most simple thing?”
“I knew I wanted it to be red because the subject matter is so aggressive and in your face, very passionate, hyper-sexual, violent at points, lyrically I mean. The mood for this one was very clear. Even among the other 20 things I had as album art placeholders, during demos, I think 18 of them were red.”
While colour has always played a prominent role in each era of the band, the use of an animal symbol, such as the poison dart frog in the centre of the cover, is a new development. Yet, it remains equally tied into the album’s wider themes.
“I learned that frogs are seen as dirty and impure and foul, unsavoury and dirty things through a biblical lens. I felt like that’s kind of how I was made to feel by religion.”
“It was the perfect visual metaphor. I made it blue as, especially in the early days of Waterparks, I liked using blue as a metaphor for me.”
Early tracks like ‘I’m A Natural Blue’ made this connection clear and now we find this blue creature surrounded by red, as if engulfed in the wider issues and feelings being explored on the record.
“Most poison dart frogs don’t even start off poisonous. What they consume is what creates the poison for them. It wasn’t innate, it was learned stuff that makes you become toxic.”
“During ‘Greatest Hits’, when I was feeling very isolated, I became more open to collaboration or input. I think music was a way I could reach out and connect with people easier…It made me acknowledge that people can do things I can’t. People have different skillsets. I can’t do what they do.”
Having previously rejected the idea of cowriting sessions in Los Angeles with relative strangers, Knight jumped at the chance to collaborate with one of his heroes, Julian Bunetta, who has worked on huge swathes of the One Direction discography. Credited on ‘Funeral Grey’ and ‘Brainwashed’, he helped to bring that catchy pop sensibility even further to the forefront of the Waterparks’ sound with relative ease.
“‘Funeral Grey’ was the last thing. It’s happened before with a lot of my favourite Waterparks songs but it came together very quickly. He’s very good at getting things flowing.”
Producer Zakk Cervini has been a key collaborator since 2019’s ‘FANDOM’, the pair united by similar tastes and a desire to constantly push forward.
“When you demo it, I push it to the point where it can’t ever be better than this. We should just put this out. And then I go do the next part with Zakk and I’m like, ‘oh my god, I was so wrong’. Then our friend Jared Poythress adds on additional production and he’s a genius.”
And in new territory for the band, the album also includes their first featured artist appearance with blackbear lending his talents to ‘Fuck About It’ after being excited by the original demo.
“On the last day of the See You In The Future tour, he texted me while I’m in the bus in a parking lot in Amsterdam, and he goes ‘dude, we gotta do this fucking song. You gotta come on my tour with me.’ I went to sleep at 3am and he sent me the first draft of his verse at 3.10am. I’m glad I fell asleep or I would have been up all night.”
The pair sent a series of voicenotes back and forth over the next 24 hours before the track was more or less complete. And as they hit the road together, they realised the full extent of the common ground they share as artists.
“We are able to have these sets that aren’t so different from each other. He can take his more electronic based songs and we can take our pop songs and both make them with the same ingredients. But we are such different artists that it will still be its own unique thing. But its not weird or off-putting that we are on the same lineup.”
While Knight has certainly allowed himself to become more personal with his lyrics over the last few Waterparks records, the sense of playfulness and fun is still present and correct. This shines through particularly on ‘Funeral Grey’ and, specifically, “I know your dying wish is to be baptized in my spit”.
“When I listen to something in the car and I hear a line that’s so out of pocket. I love putting that kind of thing in there…I want to be able to have parts in the songs that illicit involuntary reactions. Especially when they are alone. If you can make somebody have a reaction when they’re alone, that’s how you know you made a crazy part.”
He likens it to watching a scary movie and the difference of when you are with a group of friends versus when you are viewing it solo. But, on the flip side, these moments need to be used sparingly.
“I know people have a tendency to go ‘Waterparks – it’s funny’. I’ve made it a point to not make the music funny. It’s the most fucking important thing to me. But I also think it’s important to not be too up your own ass.”
So on the more vulnerable side of things, are there are any lyrical moments he is particularly proud of? Knight points to ‘Closer’ and ‘A Night Out On Earth’ as good examples.
“People who get more nostalgic for my older kind of writing – maybe ‘Entertainment’-era. Not even older, just leaning on the more metaphorical, poetic side, I think that starting at the bridge of ‘Closer’, they are just gonna be fucking devastated.”
“People like when it’s shockingly personal, where it would be weird if somebody else put it out. Talking about my birthday and what car I drive, where I’m from. Specific instances. Nobody else could put out ‘A Night Out On Earth’ the way it is. It’s so hyper-specific and personal.”
Fans will be all too familiar with the alphabetical structure of Waterparks releases but outside of this, how would Knight define the term ‘Intellectual Property’?
“The mental real estate you’ll give something in your head. The area that you’ll give it.”
“I wanted to create an environment to explore these themes and concepts and issues in. It’s almost like in therapy, you learn compartmentalisation where you can put things in sections or categories. Explore them one at a time rather than feeling overwhelmed.”
“I can look at this subject that I’ve dealt with for a while and handle it better…close it off one day and move past it.”
As closing track ‘A Night Out On Earth’ moves swiftly between genres, fading out over a recording of the band’s first ever radio interview, it is impossible not to leave with the impression that this is the conclusion to something. An era maybe? Or something more?
“I think it rounds out a lot of things. It concludes certain aspects of me and even the band.”
But why does he feel that way? A new sense of achievement perhaps?
“This album is so accomplished and covers so much and goes so deep that, especially at the end of a song like ‘A Night Out On Earth’, it just feels like that’s the mic drop. That song in particular warrants that moment.”
While this moment will no doubt leaves fans with questions over the future direction of Waterparks, Knight is in no rush to answer them.
“I used to wanna speed run music. People say you have your whole life to make your debut album then you have six months to make the follow up. But I’ve become less in a hurry. Not because I want things less or they feel less urgent, I’m just not in a hurry. I’m cool to let things breathe and live. Let time provide context.”