ABOVE: PARENTHETICAL GIRLS
An indie band on a gradual rise, getting noticed more with each of its first three albums, and what does it do? Rather than build on that notoriety, it digs in its heels and over two years self-releases a series of five limited-edition, vinyl-only EPs. Self-sabotage? Or laudably true to its DIY nature?
That's the path chosen by Zac Pennington, leader and sole constant member of Portland's arch, wickedly sharp baroque-pop outfit Parenthetical Girls, who following the attention-grabbing Safe As Houses (2006) and Entanglements (2008), retreated to the Pacific Northwest, and in early 2010 began issuing—at approximately six-month intervals—a series of EPs titled Privilege. They are stunning. Working more in tandem than ever with longtime collaborator Jherek Bischoff, Pennington has created P Girls' strongest and most memorable songs to date. Never has the band's signature mix of dark themes and rococo sounds gelled more remarkably, from the series opener, the lilting ode to tragedy "Evelyn McHale," to the driving synth rock of "Young Throats," the sturm und drang of "The Pornographer" (complete with Pennington in the sheets in his own NSFW video) and "The Privilege" from the most recent release, part four in the series, subtitled Sympathy for Spastics. The fifth and final installment in this "narcissistic gambit"—Pennington's words, not ours—will be out this spring, along with, hopefully, a compilation of all the songs into one mega-release that will be heard by as wide an audience as possible. These songs deserve it. Meantime, we sat down recently with the whip-smart Zac Pennington for a wide-ranging chat.
JOHN NORRIS: Zac, it's so nice to see you. And congratulations on this amazing series. It's been almost exactly two years, but the end is in sight.
ZAC PENNINGTON: Yeah, it's taking a lot longer than we expected.
NORRIS: Has it flown by or does it seem like a long time?
PENNINGTON: Doing the math is pretty depressing for us, how long it's taken, but yeah it's really flown by.
NORRIS: So talk about this unconventional decision following Entanglements, to self-release five EPs. Was there something about the way Entanglements was received, which was a more orchestral kind of direction for you guys, that you weren't so happy with?
PENNINGTON: Yeah, I guess that's fair. I guess I was a lot more cynical about things after that came out than I had been before. Entanglements was a very short album, for all that was packed into it, it was like 35 minutes or something. Something really short. But it took us two years to make 35 minutes of music, which was really kind of deflating when it was all finished. And though I was very proud of that album, I felt like a lot of it was kind of labored for the amount of time that we spent on it. And then beyond that, up until that point we had sort of done everything on our own. I'd released all of my records by myself and really liked the process, the physical process of manufacturing things? And I really enjoyed having ridiculously obsessive control of everything.
NORRIS: You're a bit of a control freak, right?
PENNINGTON: Well, I mean as much as someone who can't actually make music by myself can be a control freak, but... so, we sort of made the conscious decision when we made that album to do things we were "supposed" to do, the way a band is supposed to do them. We got a publicist and we got a booking agent and we did all those things. And though I'm glad we did those things, it wasn't nearly as satisfying to me to do them that way. And even though we thought we were doing things the way we were supposed to do them, it didn't really pan out the way that we would have hoped, or would have thought it would. Not that it was a disaster or anything, it just wasn't particularly satisfying in the same way. And so I just decided that with the next release we were just going to try something different. And it was kind of a gambit that has been creatively paying off quite well for us.
NORRIS: And what about the EP approach appealed to you?
PENNINGTON: I think part of me felt like I was leaning too much on the idea of the album, and being able to use that big spread to kind of convey ideas. And I'm not one to lament the death of the album at all. I feel also like it's kind of an antiquated idea to be able to speak to people over that arc in the same way.
NORRIS: You don't feel like you're playing into ADD-world?
PENNINGTON: Well, I don't listen to full albums very often anymore, either, so I can't expect other people to. And I guess with the Privilege records we're trying to find a way that it works both ways.
NORRIS: So do you even see this then as five EPs? Or as a lengthy album that's been split into five parts?
PENNINGTON: It's kind of both. The original idea was doing an album over the course of several pieces. And part of that is crass. Like just give people little bits and spread it out as far as possible, which is like, yeah there are crass, cynical motivations to that. But also like I said it was a real gamble because all of this stuff is gonna already be out, by the time it's done. And so while the original idea was maybe to compile these things as a whole at the end, the way that record labels work now, it's challenging to present them with a bunch of stuff that people already have potentially. But I think that creatively it's really paid off for us personally, because I think that we've grown a lot.
NORRIS: So I think "The Pornographer," when it came out last spring, got plenty of attention, due in no small part to that video: just you and a bed and some convincing acting.
PENNINGTON: Oh, I'm an incredible actor.
NORRIS: [laughs] Where did this idea come about?
PENNINGTON: I don't know, I was a teenager who was obsessed with Andy Warhol, like a lot of teenagers, and I was revisiting some of his work around that time and was watching the movie Blow Job that he did, which I thought was always... powerful. Also, I think people tend to think that we are pretty self-serious, but the idea was, it was kind of a joke, in some ways. I was really amused by the flood of "not safe for work" labels as a means of getting your video around. And the idea of independent rock musicians kind of toeing the line of becoming pornographers, for the sake of like, promoting their bands? So I thought that would be an interesting idea.
NORRIS: And then "Young Throats" is one of my favorite songs of the whole series. I'm an old New Order fan and it reminds me a bit of them. And it's a real departure for you guys.
PENNINGTON: I feel like it was totally way off from what we had been known for doing. It was an experiment that I think was successful. Another thing about these Privilege songs that has been really nice is that Jherek and I have been really closely collaborating on the songs, whereas before I would typically just bring him a mess of things and he would clean it up. We have been really working more as kind of a collaboration in a way that we haven't before. And that was a song that he kind of brought all of the musical aspects of and I just kind of wrote the narrative for. But yeah, very satisfied with how that turned out.
NORRIS: There's a phrase I love in the song "The Privilege"—"the broad-stroke sentimentalists"—and I thought, Zac Pennington is many things, but he doesn't strike me as sentimental.
PENNINGTON: Yeah, not really. I wouldn't say I'm not a sentimental person, but we go to great lengths to not make sentimental music. I try to avoid making work that is overly romantic or earnest.
PENNINGTON: I feel like in working on, or making a band like Parenthetical Girls, that it seemed futile to make something that I felt somebody else could make. Like it was just a waste of time. So what I wanted to do was make something that I didn't think anyone else had done. And not to say we're wholly an original thing, because we're far from it. But I felt like there were certain things that I found increasingly distasteful. And I mean, look certainly all of the music that I listened to as a kid was really really heart-sleeved and romantic. And I'm not trying to rebel against that necessarily, it's just that I feel like the thing that I'm good at is not being romantic. It's the thing that I feel like I can offer is something that's a little bit different. I mean, I think that beauty is really important to what we do, but I think there are ways to get at beauty that are not nostalgic.
NORRIS: Or confessional?
PENNINGTON: Yeah and also, we make music that is big and sometimes grand, and I feel like when people make music like that the tendency is to make these huge overblown romantic statements and often writing about being a teenager, or being sad growing up in your small town, or whatever. And I feel like as much as that resonates with a part of me still, I feel there aren't a lot of people who make big beautiful [music] that is made for people that are my age. I want to write music for people who are adults, or from the perspective of an adult. Because it just seems cloying and fake to write music about being a sentimental teenager when I haven't been one for a long time.
NORRIS: Not only do each of the Privilege EPs feature cover portraits of a different member of the band by artist Jenny Mörtsell, but you've numbered them in that band member's blood! And you guys even documented the taking of the blood in videos online.
PENNINGTON: Yeah, it's part of the whole idea that putting out these EPs is like really narcissistic. I mean spreading out one album over the course of five ultimately useless things, it seemed just like taking it to the ridiculous extreme. And these records, apart from being available digitally, the physical copies are only available from me. Like I put them in a box and mail them to you.
NORRIS: And vinyl only?
PENNINGTON: Yeah vinyl only. So it's all just kind of stuffed in my house. It's an absurd fetish item, so we just wanted to make it as absurd as possible. And that seemed to be the most absurdly fetishistic way we could document the record.
NORRIS: And hopefully some wise label will decide to put them all out as one compilation?
PENNINGTON: We've been talking to people, but nothing is solid at all. Nothing is solid. I don't know. We were listening to this interview with Patrice O'Neal, the comedian who recently passed away. One thing he said really resonated with me. He was talking about having been a comedian for so long and just knowing that some people just really connect with what he does really powerfully and others don't. And the analogy that he used was that he feels like a Brussels sprout, saying that, "You're a Brussels sprout and some people really like Brussels sprouts. And you know you're a really good vegetable and you just know that if everyone would just give Brussels sprouts a chance, you would be the most popular vegetable, and overtake everything else, potatoes or whatever. If everyone would just give Brussels sprouts a shot. But ultimately, what you kind of have to realize is that, you're a Brussels sprout. And sometimes, people just don't like Brussels sprouts." You know, you are what you are. And Parenthetical Girls is what it is.
NORRIS: Well, I like Brussels sprouts.
PENNINGTON: You're too kind. Thanks, John.
PART 5 IN PARENTHETICAL GIRLS' PRIVILEGE SERIES WILL BE OUT IN THE SPRING. YOU CAN SEE JOHN NORRIS' VIDEO INTERVIEW WITH ZAC PENNINGTON THIS WEEK AT NOISEVOX.