An Interview with Radiator Hospital’s Sam Cook-Parrott

(Left to right) Cynthia Schemmer, Jeff Bolt, Jon Rybicki, and Sam Cook-Parrott

Philadelphia’s music scene is one of the most vibrant in the country. Underneath the more higher profile acts War on Drugs and Kurt Vile in a scene in the truest sense of the word. Radiator Hospital play short low-fi power pop songs that run around two minutes. I spoke with frontman Sam Cook-Parrott about his influences, the Philly scene, and his views on the current state of the music industry.

“I’ll give you my copy of Zen Arcade. You give me another chance.”  I’m guessing you’re somewhere in your 20s, which means you were born in the 80s — the time Hüsker Du’s Zen Arcade, which came out in 1984. Can you tell me how you got into bands like Husker Du, and perhaps other American indie punk band from the 80s?

I was actually born in 1991. I’m 24. Basically my dad was a record collector and I grew up hearing music all the time. He liked all different kinds of music — punk, Elvis Costello and the Clash and stuff like that. So that was the kind of punk I maybe first heard, like the first wave of punk because my dad liked it.

And then stuff like Hüsker Dü, and maybe you would say the next generation of punk bands — it was stuff that my dad didn’t listen to because he was busy working, having kids and a life. He wasn’t at the age to be hearing Hüsker Dü, you know?

For me, when I was starting to buy my own records and trying to get into music myself, I was gravitating towards stuff that I hadn’t already heard which in a lot of cases was this chunk of time that maybe my dad had missed. So there was all this other music I was curious about.

I already knew about other stuff and I was forming my own musical identity. I was gravitating towards it. Also you can find that stuff pretty cheap when I was first buying. When I was first getting into records and stuff you could find Hüsker Dü records (not necessarily Hüsker Dü records) and tapes and all sorts of the 80s American underground. A lot of times you can find that stuff pretty cheap at record stores and fairs. So that’s why I gravitated towards it.

Did you read Michael Azerrad’s ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991?’ 

Yeah totally. So good. So cool.

Could you tell me about the Philly scene?

There’s so much going on. Philly’s pretty big. I’m from Grand Rapids MI, which is not even that small — it’s the second biggest city in Michigan.

Comparatively, you don’t get the same kind of culture and underground bands going through there. When I grew up there and saw underground bands come through, people my age — a lot of times it was bands from Philly.

I wanted a change of pace and to live in a new city. I didn’t know people from NYC or anything. Philly seemed to be a place where there was underground shit going on. So that’s why I moved here, because there was cool stuff going on, and it seemed like that was where a lot of bands were coming from.

There’s an incredible history of punk and underground music here. Just music in general. Just a lot of really amazing music is from here. Lots of cool bands are here now, and it seems a lot of people are stoked by the bands here.

Yeah, Waxahatchee  is a headliner at major venues now. It’s quite a big rise.

They’re like doing it man. Doing it hard. Playing big shows all the time.

Your band reminds me of Guided by Voices, Neutral Milk Hotel, and the voice of Rob Schneider from Apples in Stereo.  Are these any of your influences?

Totally. I love all those bands. Those are totally great bands that I definitely feel that Radiator Hospital falls into the lineage of.

It’s cool if other people hear that  — I love that stuff. Certainly those guys’ songwriting styles, and just the way all three of those bands try to capture sounds and try to make a lot with a little.

They were all bands that were making records that at the time — it wasn’t about anything to give a shit about. It also wasn’t about making it the best the record could sound. You can tell that they were discovering and making it themselves for the first time.

Those early Apples in Stereo and Neutral Milk Hotel — all those Elephant Six bands — it’s them just figuring out how to record and how to make songs. I love that kind of stuff. I think it’s cool to just capture stuff. But yeah I love those bands.

How did you get the name Radiator Hospital?

It’s an auto body shop in Grand Rapids. Basically it’s just a cool looking building, and I walked by it one day, and I liked the way it sounded because it seemed like two words that don’t make sense outside of the context.

When you realize what it is, it’s like “you fix radiators.” To me, it sounded like two nonsense words that don’t necessarily fit — they just have a nice ring to it. But at this point it’s just a dumb name — it’s the name that I’m stuck with, I don’t even care about it that much.

When I first read it, I was picturing a radiator in a hospital.

People think of the radiator in their house too. You don’t necessarily think of the one in the car.

This is still my favorite song of yours. I tweeted you about it being your ‘Creep’. Thanks for playing it. Can you tell me more about the popularity of this song?

It’s weird having a song like that. At least at the time when I wrote it, the time of it being recorded and put out, I think it really turned me off because I was uncomfortable by the reaction. I never had this before, where one of my songs over other ones was like, ‘oh, that one’s good,’ as if the other ones weren’t as good. In my head I was like, “Oh, what do you mean?”

To me it’s a cool song, but I don’t necessarily think it’s better than my other songs or at least I didn’t. I get why people like it. I don’t feel as weird about it anymore as I used to, but for a minute I was like yeah, like you said, Creep or something.

The one I say, it’s my Jesse’s Girl. This song that’s what we’re known for but also it’s really not anymore. We did this other song Cut Your Bangs on our next record and people liked that song even more.

I don’t know. I don’t know what people like and I just play the songs that I like. It’s cool that people connect to that song I get why, and I’m glad people like it. I mean I don’t know if I get why. It seems really personal to people.

It’s weird for me because I don’t like the idea of the people thinking that they know something about me when they don’t. Because it’s not necessarily that this song is about me. It’s just a song that I wrote.

Maybe there are little moments that happened to me, but it’s not like this story. In fact, it wouldn’t be a good song if it was exactly something that happened to me. It’s a good song because I made it relatable.

For me, I like the vulnerability of the lyrics and the melody just seems very accessible. I can see it a teen TV show or movie, and it would really fit the mood.

And the choruses are super bouncy and fun but then it’s sad. It’s like a trick song.

Can you remember childhood moment when you knew you’d be spending a lot of your adulthood doing music?

I still don’t think of myself as a person who’s a musician even though I obviously am. Because I always grew up loving music  — just grew up in a musical household.

My dad was in radio and runs record fairs and stuff and is super into music. But my mom is like ‘whistle while you work’ type lady. She’s always singing and having a good time. She just sings along with the radio. She’s not necessarily into music in the same way that I am or my dad is but she’s just a person who loves music.

I always grew up just loving music. It was this thing that was around. It’s weird to think of it as being my job, because it’s always been the thing that wasn’t my job. It’s always been the thing that I could escape into and was separate from school or work or bullshit and other whatevers.

Now we’re definitely in the position where we make money making music sometimes — which is cool. You know it’s like, I have a feeling if I keep doing this band, then I’m probably going to have to figure how to make it a lifestyle choice or something.

I don’t know, I’m just living man. I’m just playing music when I’m playing it.

Talk to me about your day job, and how you balance that with recording and touring?

My day job right now which I worked for a little over a year is a coffeeshop in my neighborhood.

Everybody who works there is in bands and plays music and goes on tours too. They’re super flexible with my schedule. I’ve taken a month and a half off chunks at a time and they let me come back.

They’ve been super awesome working with me and letting me do so much music stuff. So I’ve been super lucky in that regard.

But it’s hard, man. Anybody that I know that’s a musician has at some point in their career had a day job — if not, still has one. Most people have to have a day job.

I mean how many bands are there in the world? Most of them aren’t living off it, and if they are, they’re doing it for a period of time, and it’s going to run out, and you have to figure that out if want to keep playing music.

I’m going to make music for the rest of my life. Maybe I’m going to make money on it which is really cool. I’m really lucky because a lot of people don’t make money off of it. I’ve been able to make it work really well with this job, and if I have to quit this job as I had with many jobs I will. If they stop working with my schedule, then I’ll just figure it out then. It’s a little screwy when I wish I had more of a regular life or job something. Lately I’ve been working most of the summer and not really playing a ton, but we have a bunch of stuff in the fall.

What is being a musician in today’s day and age is like? More specifically that you need to rely more on touring than from selling actual music because of streaming and digital outlets?

It’s really interesting because I feel like I have always had those things. As far as when I started, the internet already existed. There are already bands that had came and went based on the internet. Napster hit in 1999. The internet has always existed for me as a musician.

I’ve never seen being in a band a viable career choice because I lived through what I thought the end of the music industry — which is kind of awesome — because then I’m like “Cool yeah, f__k this shit I don’t need this shit anymore.”

But now, it’s like the new major labels are iTunes, Spotify, these f__king corporations that own all of us. Bandcamp too —  these sites are cool and they’re awesome, but there’s so much access to music. It’s complicated and a little weird.

But I feel super lucky that I had these things my whole life. I can instantly get my music out to people that wouldn’t have heard it.

Also it breeds a laziness in bands. Anybody can just get on the internet and make their band happen, and boom it’s easy. But it still takes work and leaving the world and going and playing shows — being an active member of your music community —  which is the fun part. That’s not the boring part.

The boring part is the internet part. You never want to think of doing Bandcamp. I always try to make our music free or cheap and people keeping buying it which is awesome because it’s out there for free somewhere.

I don’t mind when people download stuff for free. I don’t mind giving people records. We make our LPs $10. We want it to be cheap. I grew up loving cheap music. Buying records at garage sales, used records, CDs, tapes.

That’s what Spotify is to people. It’s cheap music. I can’t get harsh on anyone on Spotify. That shit’s awesome. All the music you want, and it’s super cheap.

I guess my main thing is not trying to make money off of it. At least not trying to make it the way people used to make money on it — the old system of being in a band. The old system seems silly. But also, here I am with a day job. I could probably do a way better job than I do. Sometimes I’m a little too stuck in my ways, which is anti music industry, but also I’m just a f__king asshole. I don’t know. We try and set the bar low and enjoy ourselves.

I’m 41. It was all about buying records, tapes and CDs.

I mean I grew up buying music. I didn’t really know how to use the internet. A lot of kids in high school were downloading records for free. I didn’t know how to do that.

I still went to record stores and bought music. I think a lot of people did and still do. Record stores now are coming back in this weird way — which is complicated too, through Record Store Day, because the major labels are getting back into vinyl.

And there are all these vinyl plants that have been kept alive by small underground labels all through the 90s and now these major labels are printing records again and doing 10,000 copies of the Taylor Swift thing or who knows how many. You know these small underground bands who just want to put out their record can’t do it.

Even Spotify though, someone’s paying for it. I don’t know, it’s just weird. I don’t know how people listen to music. I just know how I listen to music. It’s just any which way. I buy records, I buy other stuff. I have Spotify. I listen on YouTube. Everyone listens in all different ways.

I enjoy the interplay between you and Cynthia Ann Schemmer. It kind of reminds me of the Frank Black/Kim Deal chemistry in the Pixies. Was there any intention?

Maybe it just happened that way. On the recorded version it’s Katie Crutchfield  from  Waxahatchee. Cynthia sings it live. It was intentional that it was a back and forth. I wasn’t necessarily thinking of the Pixies but it does make sense that it’s an influence on that song. I can hear that too, I like the two different voices. Because it throws you off. You don’t expect there to be another singer and all of a sudden there is.

You have Molly Ringwald from Pretty in Pink, Gillian Anderson as Scully (X-Files), and Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from Aliens on three of your covers. What is your fascination with strong female characters?

I don’t know. They’re specific to those records sort of in stupid ways at the time that I thought of, but in a lot of ways I feel inspired by these characters. Maybe I see a little bit of myself in them.

And I’m fascinated by these specific characters. By who they are in those movies. I just love movies and a lot of my songs are inspired by them and are talking about things in them.

A lot of ways I feel like I live through these. So many of us do. We consume culture all the time and our relationships to characters and movies or TV shows sometimes can be more defining to how we feel about human beings than our real life relationships with people. There’s something comforting about these characters that were created. They were written by somebody else and they were embodied by different people and they’re very much those characters that exist in these movies.

But they theoretically also have lives outside of that. Live in the world, date people and have complicated opinions about stuff. Whatever, I don’t want to hang out with all those people.

I’m also excited about the X-Files coming back.

Hell yeah.

Salinas Records  is a high school teacher working out of his apartment. How did you find him?

He’s just a dude from Detroit. He’s been doing punk stuff for years and years. He’s been putting out records for a really long time.

Our drummer Jeff Bolt is like one of his best friends. Marco Reosti is his name. Him and Jeff go way back. Just from being punks in Michigan, you kinda gotta stick together. He’s been putting out our friend’s records for a long time and it’s just a label that I’ve loved for a long time.

He knows all four of us in different ways. So he offered to put out our first LP as this Philly version of Radiator Hospital and we were really excited. And when it came time to do the other one, he said he could do it. Hopefully we’ll do more records with him. He’s a really great dude and does a really good job.

I love the fact that he’s a high school teacher.

He’s like the best dude. All his time and energy outside of his job, he just puts into music and putting out records he believes in —  and records for his friends — records that no one else would put out if it wasn’t for him.

I feel so lucky that people really like our band and more people keep hearing about us. There are so many awesome bands that Marco put out that people haven’t necessarily heard of and wouldn’t have had he not made their record because it was this friend, and they sent it to him, and just loved it and was like “I want to put this out because I think it’s great music.” I feel really lucky that he’s liked our band enough to put out our records.

Seems most of your songs from Torch Song are love songs. Do those kinds lyrics of come naturally to you?

Yeah. I think I just love pop songs. And that’s what a lot of them are. Love songs and breakup songs. I love oldies radio, and just the radio in general.

I guess I’m also like a young person. So matters of the heart often feel bigger than other stuff. I’ve been branching out a little more lately. It’s boring just to be focused on that kind of stuff. Also, a lot of it is loving writing songs and loving songs.

So it’s not necessarily something that’s coming from “I just have to write this love song for someone” it’s more that I love love songs so I want to write love songs. That song in particular is like intentionally an over the top love song. I called it Honeymoon Phase because it’s supposed to be this period where you’re so head over heels in love with this person.

It’s just because you haven’t seen all the bullshit yet. You’re so into them based off of nothing. You think you love them, but it’s just the beginning of the relationship.

I find it easier. The words rhyme.

Because that’s the first kind of songs that usually hit you. That record you put on when you first got dumped. Even through hard times in your life, I feel a lot of times it’s the songs on the radio that you hear that weren’t necessarily meant to be heard in McDonalds at 3:00 PM.

They were written to be rock songs in a rock club. That’s not how songs are written most of the time. People hear music in all different times, and places and ways and it means different things to them.

But I always loved a good simple love song. It’s direct, clear and gets to the point.

Upcoming tour and album?

We’re going on tour mid-October through mid-November. The first couple week we’re doing in the US, and the next two weeks — the first two weeks of November we’re going on tour in the UK with this band Martha who’s from over there who’s this really cool band. We’re doing a split 7 inch with them. That’s the next thing we got coming up.

We got a couple different things brewing, but the next thing is this tour in the fall and the 7 inch. We’re all busy, we all play in different bands.

And you’ll be opening for Hop Along  at the Bowery Ballroom too, right?

Yeah that’s in December. [This event is sold out]

My favorite New York venue.

That’s awesome. I’ve never been there.

You’ll love it.

I’m really excited. and I love Hop Along. We’re excited they asked us to do that.


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