This crowd is nuts. Really, truly, nuts, and I mean that in the best of ways. I’m standing near the front against the stage. Without even turning around to look, I can tell that San Francisco’s Bottom of the Hill is at, or very close to, its 325-person maximum capacity.
How do I know? Because when given the cue in the chorus of “Places,” the National Parks’s opening song tonight, the audience yells “Places! Places!” with such force, the room literally shakes. For some moments, the crowd is even louder than the band.
And really, I shouldn’t be surprised. When Behind the Setlist spoke to frontman Brady Parks on the phone a few days before their current tour kicked off, he mentioned crowd interaction is a powerful piece of their live performances. But this is different than anything I’ve ever seen.
The “feel-good folk-pop” five-piece from Provo, Utah is on a roll. Their third full-length album, Places, was released on September 15, and they are now making their way across the country on a 19-city tour in support. Though still early, it’s clear the new material is a raging success. Everyone in attendance seems to know the lyrics to every song, even the five-day-old brand new ones, the kind of fan dedication every band strives for but few achieve.
Below, Parks reflects on the history of the band, the thriving Utah music scene, the new album and tour, and the advantages of being independent. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about how you guys got together and got started.
I met Sydney [Macfarlane], who plays keyboards, through a mutual friend. We started jamming together when we were in college. We started playing some little shows in Provo and, through the music scene there, were able to meet everyone else who’s in the band now. It’s been interesting to see it all come together, and to have this group that we have now. It feels like it was meant to be. It’s been almost exactly four years now since we released our first album, Young.
What’s the music scene like in Provo?
It’s actually incredible, and I don’t think a lot of people know about it. It’s one of those places that should be on people’s radars. It’s a college town boiling over with talent and with musicians that have been singing and playing music since they were little. Then they all come to college and form bands. It’s really unique.
The venue owner of Velour, which is the music hub in Provo, is this cultivator of talent, and he gives these young bands a platform to grow. He always says he has the worst business model, because he works to get bands to outgrow his venue. It’s an amazing place, where bands like Imagine Dragons, Neon Trees, Joshua James and Fictionist all got their start. It’s cool to be a part of that scene.
What genres are big out there?
When I first started, there were a lot of indie folk bands. It’s a lot more diverse now than it was even five or six years ago. There are a lot of indie pop bands, electronic bands, some just normal rock bands, and it all plays really well together. That’s the cool thing about Provo. The bands are all friends with each other, so we’re playing shows with each other and there’s good competition to put on a really great show. It’s one of those places that’s a hidden gem. I feel like one of these days it’s going to be uncovered as a new Nashville or Austin.
Honestly, now that you’ve said it, it all makes sense. I had a lot of friends in high school who went out to Provo to attend BYU, and almost all of them were musicians of some kind. They’d all been playing and singing in church since they were born, basically.
That’s actually a very common thing. It’s kind of hilarious when we play at that venue [Velour]. It’s like this choir is singing back to us. People are doing ridiculous harmonies and I’m just like “What the heck?!” It’s pretty awesome.
This tour doesn’t include any festivals, but you have played at a lot of them, including South by Southwest. What’s that experience like?
South by Southwest is crazy and amazing at the same time. What’s so great about playing that festival is you get to switch off from being the performer to being the fan so often. It’s going to see a band I love, then going, “Oh, I need to run because we have a show in an hour.” That’s a unique aspect of those kinds of festivals. You’re surrounded by art all over the place.
They’re a little hectic, so you have to know that going into it. You’re going to be running around and carrying gear through the streets. It’s kind of a mess at times. But then touring individual venues is cool, too. You never know what you’re going to get in a city. You get to see new people and new places. They’re both different worlds, but I love that on a lot of tours we get to do a mix of both. They’re both great.
I know these two things are different, too, but as a general rule, which do you enjoy more—being in the studio or being onstage?
I think they’re so different that it’s hard to compare. Being in the studio is a magical experience. Well, it’s a mix of frustrating experiences and magical experiences, and that’s what makes the magical experiences even better. Sometimes you have to fight through something, but then you get it exactly where you wanted or you get the song to a better place. The studio is fun because you get to see your songs come alive. You get to try out new things and expand the sound.
Then with performing, there are some shows where you’re onstage and you’re like, I can’t believe this is happening right now. I can’t believe I’m playing to this many people or that this many people are singing along. You walk off stage and it’s like, Oh my gosh, did that just happen?
Both are filled with really great experiences. They’re just kind of different ballgames.
How do you approach songwriting? What’s your process like and how much is worked out before setting foot in the studio?
I do all the writing myself. That actually might be one of my favorite parts. I’ve always loved writing songs. It’s kind of a cathartic and exciting thing for me. It’s a little different every time, but one of the most common ways it happens is I’ll sit down on the guitar and start singing over a random chord progression. Usually it’s words that don’t even make sense, but I’ll have an idea in my head of what I want the song to eventually be about. From there, one of the words that I’ll randomly be singing will stick out, and then that forms the rest of the lyrics. The melodies, words and structure kind of all come together at the same time.
Usually I finish writing the song and then produce a pretty fleshed-out demo at my home studio so we can then take it into the studio to record it. But with this album, we tried something different. Most of our magic moments on this album happened with a few songs we decided not to demo out. We took the barebones acoustic guitar and vocals and let it happen organically from there. They turned out to be some of my favorite tracks on the album.
To do that, you have to take a step into the dark. And then everyone gets excited when this one thing happens on the song. You’re like, “Oh man, let’s take that and build that.” It just happens organically and spontaneously. You can’t really plan for it, but it’s fun to see what it can turn into.
This album has a noticeably different vibe than the previous two.
It’s been a definite transition for us. Our first album, Young, is more on the folk side of the spectrum, and then we branched out into the indie pop world with our second album. This new album is a step further into that world. It’s still very much us, but we wanted to expand our musical horizons and keep progressing. For example, there are electronic beats on this album and some dancier songs. We’re excited to play them live.
Those “magic moments” probably happen onstage, too. When it does, what makes the difference?
It’s not [always] magical. A lot of times, we get thrown out of the vibe when we’re having sound issues or things aren’t working technically. But then, at those magic moment shows, everything is just working. Our mixes are good, the sound is good, there’s an energy from the crowd, and you lose yourself in all of that. You’re up there and just part of the show.
The most magical moments happen when I’m looking out in the crowd and people are smiling, or there are tears in their eyes and they’re singing—pretty much yelling—the words to the songs. I’m like, Wow, I can’t believe we’re a part of this right now.
Do you still get nervous?
Only if it’s a really intimate show and it’s just me on my guitar. If it’s an acoustic show in front of 50 or 100 people, that’s more nerve wracking than getting up in front of 10 thousand people. They can hear every flaw and you don’t have the band to put up this wall of sound. You’re just there.
Otherwise, I don’t think so. I just get excited.
Every career has its ups and downs, and in any creative field, there are moments of downtime and feeling stuck. How do you push through those to get to the next moment of greatness?
Those moments do happen, when it seems like things aren’t going the way you’d want them to go. What gets me unstuck and what gets me over those down moments is when we play those magic shows. I swear, every time I have those down moments or feelings, that night we’ll have a show that blows my mind. I’m like, OK, this is why we’re doing this, and I’m rejuvenated.
And we have such great fans, those kinds of shows happen quite a bit. We’ll release a song the day of a show, and then we’ll go play it that night and people are already singing it. That’s another motivator. It’s really fun to see people getting involved and attached and connected to the music.
Do you find there’s a particular strategy to building a setlist that helps create those shows that re-energize you? Or are your setlists more pre-planned for a whole tour?
We have a set setlist that we’ll do in every city. Usually it’s based off of how certain songs work together and what we do with the audience at certain points in the set. But if something’s not working, we’re not afraid to make tweaks or adjust. And then once in a while, depending on the city, we’ll change up the setlist, especially if we’ve been there before and know what to expect. For example, we might know one city might like a particular song.
Right now we’re excited to play the new music, because we’ve been playing the old stuff for a couple years. There’s a new life and energy to the new album that we can’t wait to perform and get out there. It’s a little scary and intimidating, but we’ll hope for the best as the album starts coming out.
Do you do encores?
If we’re lucky enough to get asked [laughs]! We do have it planned, but sometimes we’ll play at clubs where there’s no real way off the stage into a green room. So it would be super weird to just stand there before going back on. At those shows, we tell everyone we’re going to play a couple more songs and then be done, just to avoid all awkwardness.
It seems like you have a lot of forward momentum right now, and the fact you’ve been independent since the beginning doesn’t seem to be a hindrance at all. So many artists and bands are seeking that record contract, but you’re proof you can have a career in music without one.
There are challenges, of course. There’s the whole business side of things that I never thought about growing up as a music fan. Music is just a small part of it, and there are so many other working parts that have to move together. When you are independent and want to be independent, you have to have everything running well. You have to be doing it yourself and not relying on a label or management to get you there.
But for us, being an independent band is great. There are pros and cons like there are with anything, but it’s nice to be able to do things exactly how we want to do them, to have creative control, and to maintain the rights to our music. With social media and Spotify, there are all these new ways to get your music out there.
So what would you say is the best way to support independent bands in general? Other than buying records, obviously.
Right, that’s a given. For us, it’s coming to shows. Seeing us on tours. Coming and saying hi to us and buying a shirt. That kind of stuff. When we show up to a venue in a city we’ve never played and it’s a packed house, that means so much to us. It’s one of the greatest feelings ever. It’s surreal.
Photos by Justin Hackworth.