The Brooklyn-based art punks cloak moral quandaries with experimental, disco-inspired beats on ‘Gentle Grip.’
Saturday Night Fever opens with John Travolta’s Tony strutting around Bay Ridge, eyeing down women and putting shirts he can’t afford on lay-away when he’s meant to be at his dead-end job. While Tony is dancing life away on the weekends, his brother Frank Jr. has dedicated his life to the Church—serving as a constant reminder of where Tony is going wrong. But the line between right and wrong becomes blurred when we find out that Frank Jr. has left the priesthood. Saturday Night Fever isn’t just a tribute to disco and dance—it’s a movie that revolves around the question, “What’s the right way to live in society?” Forty years after the release of Saturday Night Fever, Brooklyn-based art punks Public Practice revisit the heyday of disco and use it to tackle morality on their debut album Gentle Grip.
“The phrase “Gentle Grip” felt really fitting to me with the overall content of the record—talking about the moral gymnastics of existing as a human in modern society,” Singer and lyricist Sam York told AdHoc. “How do you balance what you want with how you want to be perceived?”
Featuring members of the now-defunct punk band WALL—York and guitarist Vince McClelland—with bassist Drew Citron and drummer Scott Rosenthal from dream-pop act Beverly, Public Practice sees the quartet build their various influences into a new sound. The ascending synths, bell chimes, and funky bass on “My Head” reflect the group’s complex heritage the best, and the rest of the album moves easily between new-wave and pop—with a few, more experimental tracks to provide a counterpoint. Gentle Grip opens with a statement of creative clarity as York announces over a spacious industrial beat, “I am the light.” The next eleven tracks feel like a prelude of sorts, the story of all the barriers—temptation (“Each Other”), self-doubt (“See You When I Want To”), and distracting thoughts (“My Head”)—York had to overcome in order to reach that degree of assuredness.
Modern society, with social media and an increased emphasis on consumerism, threatens to test your own resolve and moral values. On “Compromised,” York playfully sings about what happens when what you want to do and what you think is the right thing to do are at odds. The song itself feels split, with York calling out “You don’t want to compromise / You don’t want to live a lie” before she tempts softly, “But it’s easy.” If by the end of Gentle Grip you think Public Practice is offering you a moral handbook, the taut, menacing punk on “How I Like It” is meant to dissuade you from following anyone uncritically. You’ve got to dance to your own beat, and on Gentle Grip Public Practice invite you to try and figure out what that is—all under the glittering light of the disco ball.
AdHoc spoke with York about Public Practice’s debut, morality, and why disco continues to be such an entrancing genre.
Gentle Grip is out now via Wharf Cat Records.
AdHoc: The album title gets name-dropped in the opening lyrics to “Underneath.” What drew you to the title?
Sam York: I mean, “Underneath” was one of the last songs that we recorded. For me, it’s always really hard to name a record until it’s complete. Once I was sitting with the finished record and listening through and thinking about it as a whole, the phrase “Gentle Grip” felt really fitting to me with the overall content of the record—talking about the moral gymnastics of existing as a human in modern society. We’re all trying to hold onto something, but now more than ever you have to do it pretty gingerly.
The song “My Head” deals with self-doubt about whether your work will pay off in the end. Is this a concern when it comes to your own creative pursuits?
With “My Head,” the biggest thing there—which is actually weirdly really relevant now because everyone is trapped inside—is the concept of wanting to use your time wisely and being able to tune out external noise. I feel like for myself, it’s definitely something that I have to actively focus on now, especially being at home all the time. There’s so much information and other people’s lives that we’re bombarded with [by] the internet and social media. I think that is something you have to be very vigilant about to tune that out and to stay focused and attuned to my own inner creative voice.
You mentioned earlier that this album is centered around the moral gymnastics of modern life. Is this more of a social commentary or is it more about your own personal journey with morality?
I think both. It’s easiest to write what you know and that’s something that I feel like I deal with. But I also think that on a whole, I feel like I’m watching the part of society that I’m a part of deal with that all the time. Trying to balance what you want materially and creatively with how you want to interact with the world. How do you balance what you want with how you want to be perceived? To be socially conscious, environmentally conscious, is something that takes focus and intention. Just being a person who lives in a major city, I’m faced with consumerism on all fronts and I’m definitely no perfect example of avoiding it. I want new things, but also at the same time I want to be a citizen of the world and be participating in a way that is conscious.
You said yourself that you are still figuring it out for yourself. Do you think there is a right way to be a moral person?
I can not say that I definitely think there is one right way to do things, but I think that just asking the question is the first step. As a society, we’re starting to head more in that direction and I’d like to encourage people to actually reflect on their actions and how they impact the world around them. That is something that I am constantly still having to learn how to toe that line. There are some things that I think are right or wrong, but in general, I think morality is a constant project.
You said that morality is something you have to consider more as someone who lives in a big city, and the track “Cities” portrays New York as menacing “jagged edges.” Do you think it’s harder to be moral in New York than other cities?
Actually that song isn’t about New York, that song is based on a dream that I had about Berlin. I spent some time in Berlin in my late teens and when we were making this record I went back there in my unconscious state. I think being a morally conscious consumer is challenging wherever you are, but I do feel like especially in major metropolises we are faced with decisions on a more regular basis when you’re walking down the street, we’re surrounded by the ability to consume at all times. I feel like that goes for anywhere else in the world where you have the internet. You can’t even be on Instagram for longer than five minutes without receiving an ad for something that is specifically tailored to your desires.
That song is inspired by a dream just walking through Kreuzberg, but I do think it speaks to broader ideas about cities in general, and the difference between operating in the light and dark. It’s not just about daylight and nighttime but about the way society operates in the open and then also how we operate behind closed doors as individuals and as a society at large.
You said that “Cities” was inspired by a dream, and “See You When I Want To” is based on free-association lyrics. What is your approach to songwriting?
It varies widely. “See You When I Want To” was something Vince and Scott made the basic instrumental while Drew and I were working on a different song in a different studio. Both “See You When I Want To” and “Moon” were created in a headspace where they just sent me the instrumental and I just put it on and did free association lyrics. Sometimes that works and sometimes it’s a total disaster, but in that regard for songwriting I have to be in a mental place where I’m feeling the ability to just be free and create, and that is not always accessible to me. Other times I’m more focused on writing—sitting down with a phrase or a melody and working off that.
Opener “Moon” sees the narrator recognize her inner potential. Is this reflective of your own journey?
I think in some ways it is. I like to keep things open so that people can interpret themselves–I feel like that’s something really special about music–once you release it, it no longer belongs to you. I’m sure you’ve heard songs that were written thirty or forty years ago and been like, “that’s about me!” But for “Moon,” that was actually the very first demo that Vince and I made before Public Practice was fully formed as a band. I definitely think that I am reflected in that song as the narrator. That was something that just came out of my body, the lyrics weren’t premeditated. That happened at a time when we were just developing this new project. I actually think it is a good sister, lyrically, for “My Head” even though sonically those songs are so different. It has a similar intention of just believing in yourself and your own creative force to move forward and make the best work that you can.
“Leave Me Alone” reads like a short rebuke of someone’s unwanted advances. Was that your intention with the song?
That’s not how I wrote it but I’ve written songs with that intention before. Maybe part of it is that, but in the moment I wrote that song, it was more about being socially overwhelmed and ready to leave a party. Some songs that we write are more complicated intention-wise and lyrically, but that is one of the more simple songs in general, but I also feel like it’s quite effective sonically. It’s just like being ready to be alone mentally, as well as physically. As a very, very extroverted person it’s a rare mental state for me to want to be alone, but we all get to that point sometimes where you just want to be left alone.
I like how you follow that with “How I Like It,” which features someone getting stopped and asked questions repeatedly on the street.
Yeah, Vince wrote that one. It’s something that we had been playing in our live set, and that’s one of the ones we recorded at Studio G. We just played it two or three times and then used that take. It felt like a set and complements the album really well. I really like the repetitive bassline, and the song itself is really repetitive but also feels really chaotic.
Have you always been drawn to disco?
In the last three or four years, I’ve definitely gotten more into disco. I think that late 70’s New York, in general, is a time period that I’ve always been drawn to. In some phases in my life I was more drawn to the punk aspects and now I’m more interested in the disco aspects, and I think it’s nice to see that reflected in the work we’re making. I don’t think what we’re doing is straightforward post-punk, and it’s certainly not straightforward disco either. It’s about carving our own little niche where we can make music that is based on all of our influences. I’ve been going to a lot of dance parties in the last several years and listening to a lot of disco and I love the positivity and the inclusivity that disco represents. I love to dance and have fun, and make a show out of it. Public Practice is about having a good time.