How Waterparks’ wildly eclectic INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY turns into a love story
Waterparks appear on the cover of Alternative Press' 2023 spring issue. Grab a copy here and head to the AP Shop for exclusive vinyl.
BETWEEN INTERNATIONAL FLIGHTS, jet lag and no days off in between, it is a miracle that Awsten Knight isn’t face down in a pile of pillows. For the past two weeks, Knight and his band Waterparks have been head down in a run of massive shows throughout the U.K. supporting British rockers You Me At Six as well as a series of intimate appearances at record stores with some of the band’s most die-hard fans. It was a landmark run for a group who have hit the road relentlessly the past year-and-a-half, with sold-out North American and European headlining tours, a top slot at the 2022 Sad Summer Festival and even a “bucket list” opening slot for My Chemical Romance. Their latest milestone? They played to 10,000 people — their largest show in the U.K. region — at London’s historic Alexandra Palace. Exhaustion should be Knight’s baseline, but instead, he’s as chipper as ever when he hops on Zoom back home in Los Angeles. There’s only one problem. The bandleader has been on vocal rest for days leading up to this very interview.
“Dude, my voice feels so shot,” Knight confesses from his living room couch. “We did 12 performances back to back, then combined with really short cut-up sleep on the flight, I just feel, ugh.” Sleep deprivation aside, Knight is almost at a loss for words (not from the vocal rest) but because the experimental pop trio he formed 12 years ago have unlocked another level of fandom where new listeners are still flocking by the droves. “It turns out there are a lot of people [in this world],” Knight quips, referring to his newfound fans. But in reality, global domination doesn’t really seem too far off.
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Knight barely has time to slow down. The band are set to release their fifth studio album, INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY (out April 14 via Fueled By Ramen). But the self-professed workaholic has never known any other way. “It’s a really hard mentality to shake,” Knight reveals. “When we were a local band, we didn’t have any family connections in the music industry, and no one cared, so you had to take on every role. Even though we are not local anymore and get to play arenas with our favorite bands, if I’m not actively doing stuff to push the music, then I don’t know if anyone else will.”
[Photo by Jawn Rocha]
In some ways, Knight fears downtime or stillness because that’s when he feels like his brain will start to turn on him. He admittedly functions better when he’s working on something creative, whether that’s writing a new song or simply designing streetwear for his clothing brand hii-def. “It’s not necessarily the most healthy thing in the long run, but people have worse coping mechanisms,” he laughs nervously.
But Waterparks remain his main focus. The trio, which initially formed in 2011, began to truly put the pieces together the following year when Knight enlisted his now-best friends, guitarist Geoff Wigington and drummer Otto Wood, to round out the lineup. “Otto loved classic rock and bands like La Dispute and Touché Amoré, whereas Geoff was all about EDM,” Knight recalls. “We all had different tastes, but at the core of it, it’s guitar and drums.” Their individual musical backgrounds helped craft the genre-less sound they have now cultivated.
It wasn’t until 2016 when Waterparks finally released their debut album, Double Dare — an intentional choice. “I always felt like if no one was looking at us, why put out a large body of work? I wanted to do cool shit as opposed to oversaturating and waiting until enough people [actually] wanted to hear it.” There is a common adage that you have your entire life to write your first record and six months to write your second, to which Knight agrees, and from there, the band began making records like clockwork.
With those albums came carefully curated eras — a moment in time with a clear aesthetic, theme and overall mission statement. While always writing music from a subversive and experimental perspective, it was when the band released both FANDOM (2019) and Greatest Hits (2021) that they began to stray from the confinement of genre and inaccurate labels. Knight himself spoke out vehemently about being boxed in by the term “pop punk. “I learned [during that time that] you can’t control everybody, and you can only frame the narrative so much,” Knight explains. “Obviously, we grew up loving and still loving blink-182, Green Day, Sum 41 and Good Charlotte, so it’s in our DNA to a degree, but I just don’t want that label because it’s so synonymous with the past and what cynical dickheads or mega naysayers say is just for preteens and kids. However, the biggest reason I didn’t want that label is that I know [exactly] what we are capable of and what our output is.”
[Alternative Press spring 2023 issue with cover stars Waterparks, shot by Jawn Rocha]
Take, for example, the breakbeat madness of the FANDOM single “Turbulent” or the distorted experimentation of “Numb” from Greatest Hits. Nothing is off the table for Waterparks. The group join a cohort of other trailblazing acts like Bring Me the Horizon and Paramore, who both successfully pivoted away from the late Warped Tour circuit in favor of mainstream appeal without losing any substance. “There’s a song for everybody, and I once tweeted that anyone who doesn’t like Waterparks just doesn’t like Waterparks yet,” Knight says confidently.
If you have yet to be on board with the band’s music, you’ve at the very least been entertained by — or seen — Knight’s fiery social media presence. It’s undeniable that Waterparks’ meteoric rise has stemmed from the bandleader’s unofficial side hustle as a social media celebrity. And at times, his online presence can feel truly monolithic in scale, something Knight has attempted to analyze over the years in many songs, including the aptly titled “You’d Be Paranoid Too (If Everyone Was Out To Get You).” When asked if his status as an extremely online figure has influenced the band’s latest album, INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY, Knight isn’t entirely sure but reveals that he has had to set boundaries nonetheless, as someone who’s regularly met with constant praise and vicious internet trolls. “I try not to let it influence things too much [lately], and with therapy, I’ve learned that you can only control yourself. However, that doesn’t mean I’m not still vulnerable in the music that I write.”
He tackles the subject on INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY with closer “A NIGHT OUT ON EARTH” and parts of the song “RITUAL,” where he recalls when he felt things were “caving in” around him due to the pressures of constant attention. “There are people who listen to Waterparks who aren’t on Twitter, and then there are those who view the band in this bubble where it’s just them and the people who reply to the tweets,” Knight resigns.
But beyond the topic of social media, Knight gets admittedly “introspective” on the record. When asked to discuss the overall lyrical themes and concepts behind INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY, he takes a deep breath and delivers a warning: Things might get a little turbulent.
[Photo by Jawn Rocha]
“There is a love story throughout the record that is expressive to and for other people, but the album itself has to do with overcoming, unlearning and growing past religious guilt,” Knight explains. “It’s something that I’ve struggled with for a long time.” On “FUNERAL GREY,” he delivers the punchy line “baptized in my spit,” which is a playful twist on a weighted subject. The theme of religious guilt doesn’t just apply to the overall lyrics of the record but also extends to the album’s striking cover art, which at first glance appears to be an image of a blue frog over a red backdrop; in actuality, it possesses a much more poignant meaning.
“Frogs have always been one of my favorite animals,” Knight reflects. “However, when I learned that frogs were seen as dirty and unclean in a biblical context, it was interesting to me that something that I saw as so good, natural and beautiful could also be seen as a bad thing through a biblical lens.” In other words, the concept of shame plagued the charismatic bandleader for as long as he can remember, and INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY was the moment for Knight to finally face his trauma head-on and “come to terms with himself” once and for all. That explains why a majority of the new songs possess “hypersexualized” energy — a conscious rebellion against a conservative past. “Growing up in church, you’re taught that everything is so wrong and bad. I always felt like shit, so [this album] is the breakaway from that specifically.”
By overcoming his religious guilt, Knight was able to tap into an evolved sense of self-worth that he’s since applied to his very own love life, which he details on the album’s stripped-down ballad “CLOSER.” “My concept of love has changed throughout the years, and that song is about [looking at the past] and realizing that when I was younger, it was maybe more of an obsession. Now I’m taking it apart and learning more about love and the way I present the current version of myself to other people.” Inversely, there is the alt-radio-ready anthem “BRAINWASHED,” where Knight admits that he still wrestles with the idea of true love, constantly making sure that he’s not just wrapped up in the “honeymoon phase.” Knight jokes that this track and “FUCK ABOUT IT,” which features a guest vocal spot from blackbear, are “polar opposites,” as the latter couldn’t be further from the “hyperfixation” he details in “BRAINWASHED,” once again proving that he feels the most comfortable when inserting juxtaposition wherever he can.
[Photo by Jawn Rocha]
Beyond the emotional clarity that Knight gained during the creation of INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY, it’s the album’s sonic risks and exploration that he is the most fired up about. Though Knight wanted the band to return to their more guitar-driven and organic roots for certain parts of the LP, much of the record ventures into eclectic territory, with hyperpop, trap, synthwave and even subtle elements of hard rock and nü metal. “‘RITUAL,’ ‘A NIGHT OUT ON EARTH,’ ‘REAL SUPER DARK’ and ‘ST*RFUCKER’ are the craziest instrumentals we have done ever,” Knight exclaims. “I love the idea of taking something like a guitar or my voice and making it sound entirely like something else.” “A NIGHT OUT ON EARTH,” however, is what Knight describes as “the biggest production flex,” and it most definitely shows. “There’s fucking elephant sounds in there and weird Batman villain-sounding horns — it’s evil and heavy, and not to mention, the outro is just game over,” he says.
Beyond production, Knight pushes his voice and stretches the idea of what constitutes a strong hook on INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY. With “END OF THE WATER (FEEL),” Knight is at his most “bombastic,” in a “cartoon-like” state, weaving falsetto melodies that are meant to shock. “I always make a mental note when I hear a song that makes me go...” He pauses, imitating an explosion. “For me, that’s when I hear some high-ass vocals that I’m not expecting.” Even on the first day of demoing “END OF THE WATER (FEEL)” in his home studio, Knight was already so confident in the song that he called longtime producer and collaborator Zakk Cervini and “essentially” forced him to come over to his house right then to help finish it. “I also want the record to show that I had a mustache [during this time], too,” Knight laughs.
With collaboration on the brain, Knight is the first to admit that for many years, he was precious about his art and was hesitant to work with others. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine, Knight changed his mind, which was evident on Waterparks’ previous album, Greatest Hits. This time around, Knight, who’s an outspoken fan of the U.K. boy band One Direction, finally got a chance to live out one of his dreams by working with esteemed songwriter Julian Bunetta, who co-wrote beloved One Direction classics like “Olivia,” “Infinity” and "Best Song Ever,” among others. “I flew to [Julian’s] place in Nashville, and we ended up making five songs together, two of them being ‘FUNERAL GREY’ and ‘BRAINWASHED,’” Knight recalls. And while he still plans to keep the majority of his music close to his chest long term, he won’t rule anything out. Knight would undoubtedly jump at the chance to work with everyone from Post Malone and Damon Albarn to Donald Glover and Toby Keith.
[Photo by Jawn Rocha]
NOW, WITH THE BAND’S NEW LP INCOMING, there raises the question: Does Knight feel a sense of relief after both exorcising his deepest traumas and inviting listeners on his journey to self-discovery? “I still feel pressure with it,” Knight concedes. “It would be a lot easier if only strangers heard this, but everyone in my whole fucking life is going to hear this album, so that’s what makes it strange.” But he’s never let any awkwardness or controversy hinder the artistic output. “I wasn’t not in trouble when I put out a song like [2018’s] ‘TANTRUM’ where I listed a bunch of dudes I wanted to kill, calling out by name,” Knight acknowledges. Though his lyrical choices have sometimes resulted in strong reactions, even within his close circle of friends, Knight can’t help but accept that he is meant to be unapologetic. “At the end of the day, I’d rather make the coolest fucking thing, rather than hold back and make something that wasn’t that good.”
Pressures of lyrical vulnerability and transparency aside, INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY is Knight’s attempt to “normalize” the catharsis he finds within songwriting, which ties into the album title itself. “Intellectual property is the mental space you give to something in your head. The ‘property’ may be the thing that you are struggling with. By materializing it and giving it its own world, it’s actually a great way to express it and then, eventually, expel it,” he explains. “I want this album to go to the fucking moon.”