Imaginary Interview: Zac Pennington - Parenthetical Girls continue their dazzling & dark EP series
First, the Not Safe For Work/School/In front of blushers new video for Parenthetical Girls' "The Pornographer":
And now my lengthy conversation with P. Girls' vocalist/songwriter/instrumentalist Zac Pennington, conducted a couple of weeks ago after the third EP of their spleen-kicking, air-ceasing, head-dizzying Privilege releases came out. A gorgeous combination of synth rock and sin city, noise pop and quasi-classical, when stacked together the EPs form arguably my favorite release of the past few months. And there are still two more releases in the series to go. Hence, the heights and depths Zac and I soar and plunge to below:
TIG: I'm drinking a low priced but tasty Scotch Whiskey as I listen to your Privilege Pts. 1 -3 and prepare these questions. Do you intoxicate to create? Perform?
Zac Pennington: I have a fairly weak constitution all told, and my body has a particularly adverse response to alcohol: it makes me incredibly tired, and I tend to feel hangover effects within an hour of consumption. In more heroical times past, I used to use alcohol as a duller of creative self-doubt and second-guessing, but its effects are too unstable for me—I never get anything done. I enjoy more practical and productive vices these days.
When we’re performing, a certain level of personal transcendence is ultimately ideal for embodying the atmosphere of our music. I can’t decide which is the worst part of that sentence: “Personal transcendence” or “embodying the atmosphere”. Ultimately what I mean to say is that in order to communicate a specific sort of emotion in a pop music context—an emotion that’s probably much bigger, more direct, and more interesting than the messy, vain, and docile human trying to convey it—a person has to sort of become that emotion. (This isn’t to say in the sense of some sort of Dionysian catharsis or whatever—I’m/we’re way too self-conscious for that.) Sometimes this necessitates indulgences. Caffeine is especially important for me. I don’t treat my body very well when we’re on tour, but I don’t imagine that many people do.
I link to all ages shows, so that's why I asked. Do you prefer your listeners to your work soberly -- and if not, what would you personally recommend to accompany your music?
Zac: I’d never really thought about it, honestly. We’re not a group that people tend to gravitate to in order to have a good time—so you would have to assume that any imbibing would be done out of misery more than mirth. I wish we were more of an MDMA group, now that you mention it. I don’t imagine that’s in the cards, unfortunately.
Are there specific reasons you've chosen to follow up your last full length, Entanglements, with three four song EPs? What are they?
Zac: Privilege is an experiment. Until Entanglements, I had released the majority of Parenthetical Girls’ material via my own label, and had done so with the freedom to take liberties wherever I wanted to with format, packaging, promotion, etc. When we released Entanglements, we decided that the time was right to make a more traditional go of it—we did all of the logical things that an independent pop group in our position is supposed to do, save making a particularly accessible record. Besides not being especially fruitful for us, the whole process felt off. If we’re destined to be bridesmaids regardless, we may as well do things exactly the way that we want them to be done.
Beyond that, our pace is just totally glacial. The notion of spending another two years working on another ridiculous concept record seemed deeply unappealing, and with the increasing irrelevance of the traditional album format, it felt like an interesting challenge to devise more creative ways of conceiving and releasing music. The results of this experiment have yet to be fully tabulated.
I think of the EP as the best medium for rock and roll. Singles are too narrow and albums are too much. Do you have an opinion about this, and favorite EPs yourself?
Zac: I whole-heartedly agree. The EP is given such short shrift by most contemporary musicians—it’s usually just a dumping ground for half-thoughts and toss-offs. But the EP is totally ideal for conveying discrete conceptual ideas in a way that’s neither undercooked nor bloated and pretentious. EPs are compact, efficient, and perfectly digestible. Slender Means Society—the boutique label that I run—has a long history of almost exclusively EP releases: Final Fantasy/Owen Pallett, Xiu Xiu, Grouper, The Blow, Lucky Dragons, The Dead Science… they’ve all released EPs on Slender Means Society.
Some of my personal favorite EPs include the self-titled Sonic Youth EP, This Heat’s Health & Efficiency, Come On Pilgrim by The Pixies, Beware by The Misfits, The Bad Seed EP by The Birthday Party, Slates by The Fall, The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, and Green Cosmos by Deerhoof.
Why is Privilege the umbrella title for this series?
Zac: Privilege initially began as a concise concept EP that was meant to fuse 20th-Century Minimalist aesthetics with straightforward Pop music—a series of four songs about class and the personal politics therein. Around the time that we began working on that project, the line-up for the group (as it often does) shifted, and so I decided to lump those songs into a greater work. I had sort of fallen in love with the phonetics of the word by that point, and with its suggestiveness. The theme of privilege is surprisingly elastic. Besides, the idea of putting the word “privilege” across such a plainly narcissistic object was just too good to pass up.
The body. Sort of a beautiful, fucked up thing isn't it?
Zac: It’s a horror that every one has to face on a daily basis. It’s a shell and a cell and a heavy-handed metaphor all in one. The body is the perfect landscape for popular music.
Is anything eternal?
Zac: Hope. Unfortunately.
Are the topics in your lyrics -- about car crashes, bodily functions, deformity, transgressive seduction, and bizarre violence ones you're fascinated with personally, or are you simply making arresting art?
Zac: I guess I don’t really think of the topics in our songs as inherently very transgressive or inflammatory, though I acknowledge that in the realm of pop music they aren’t exactly the norm. I decided a long time ago that I could only devote my life to the practice of pop music if I felt that I had something new to say about it. I’m not interested in writing traditional love songs, or writing from the exhaustively well-worn point of view of the “sensitive masculine identity”. While this has made for a great deal of the music that I think of as totally formative, shit is more often than not boring as fuck.
At the same time, I’ve always been absorbed by with the beauty of somewhat morbid fascinations and ideas—things that rarely find their way into accessible pop music in sincere and thoughtful ways. I felt that the only way I could justify my role as a songwriter was by exploring something that I related to intimately, and that I felt hadn’t been otherwise voiced in a way that I felt entirely satisfied by.
Entanglements had a lot of ornate organic string-led arrangements going on; these twelve songs have an even broader musical scope, with wildly cinematic synth-pop ("Young Throats"), avant noise-rock ("The Common Touch"), torch ballads ("Found Drama l"), and grit-teethed rockers ("The Pornographer") spread over the six sides of vinyl. How on earth did things get so out of hand (in such a good way)? Have there been other such incredibly diverse records that inspired this melee, or is this a unique desire on your part?
Zac: Diversity has been part of the beauty of the Privilege project: we work in vacuums within each session, and work to make each concise recording as distinct as you might a full length record. Truth be told, we are creatures of self-sabotage: just as people seemed to begin to care about our humble home recordings we 180’ed with a dense orchestral record, and just as we began to gain some momentum with Entanglements, we found a myriad of other tangents to explore. Parenthetical Girls have never had much of a “sound” per se, and I think that’s been alienating to a lot people. For us, the disparity feels strangely organic. Everything we’ve ever made sounds like Parenthetical Girls to me.
What role did music journalism play in shaping your own music making? You've been an editor and a critic yourself; are you making the music you wish to hear? Has this changed over the course of PGs, with all the different forms its taken and sounds you've made?
Zac: I think what drew me to music journalism is in many ways the same thing that drew me to music making—I am a fairly particular person by nature, and though I wouldn’t go so far as to say “discerning,” I do perhaps view the world through generally critical (some would say cynical) eyes. I’ve never really pretended to know what is quantifiably “good” or “bad,” nor have I ever really had a sense that my particular taste was in any way superior to anyone else’s—I just simply have a fastidious personal aesthetic that I’m perhaps too quick to communicate.
In music criticism, I found a place to actively define that aesthetic, but it led to a really toxic and parasitic relationship with music—writing so actively about what I thought was wrong with the pursuits of others, rather than trying to create something aesthetically valuable to me. It made me hate music, and loathe myself for what I felt was mostly a destructive urge inside of me. My relationship with music journalism at this point is almost entirely inverted. I’m playing penance for the years of callous, mean-spirited rock critique. I think my dues are nearly paid.
When I call something "record collector rock," I usually mean it as a bit of a backhanded compliment -- there are songwriters who are making pop music for people who get thrilled from cultural "recognition." With Parenthetical Girls, it seems more like a literary device that you lyrically reference so much new wave, post-punk, and other genres and artists. Sort of like a musical approximation of how good writers catch flakes of Nabokov, Chekhov, and others in their work. Why do you do this so much ("the kick inside," et al), and are there inside jokes tying song topics to musical references?
Zac: I’m a sucker for context. For re-context. It’s no secret that I’m an obsessive Morrissey fan, and from very early on I’ve been fascinated by the rampant creative plagiarism exhibited throughout his entire career. I think for Moz, it’s been a way of further aligning himself with the cannon of what he sees as his literary significance—the same kind of self-mythology he used when he turned all of his teen idols into cover stars… endorsement by proxy. He has always been fond of that old “genius steals” adage of Wilde’s. The idea of forming self-mythology by donning the mythology of others has always been a really interesting one to me.
For me—and believe me, I’ll be apologizing for this one—I think of it as more akin to pop dramaturgy. An effective pop song is fairly limited in the information it can convey: it’s brief, it has a generally constrained structure, and its most important objective is to express an emotion. Using words or musical motifs that other people have used in other contexts allows a song to be more multifaceted—to suggest more avenues and extra-textual narratives and ideas—without necessarily detracting from the concise power of the pop song.
I don’t think that there is really anything wrong appropriating other people’s ideas as long as it’s done unabashedly, and with intellectual intent. I’ve never plagiarized a work without being fully convinced that I was contextualizing it in a way that gave it new meaning. There are a lot of jokes. “Ellie Greenwich” perhaps has the most recognizable sonic punchlines. I gather that most people think that we take ourselves very seriously, or just don’t think we’re very funny.
It helps that you subvert the musical forms as you sing about them, too. On Facebook we briefly discussed the song you made which referenced CRASS's satirical take on the love song ("Our Wedding"), which also ended up as a hoax played on readers of the UK bridal Loving magazine. Which song is this of yours and, for example, why did you wish to "work with it"?
Zac: We borrowed elements of the melodic structure of “Our Wedding” for a song called “Young Eucharists.” Perhaps it’s buried enough that it doesn’t read. “Our Wedding” is a philosophical mindfield—the more pendantic/conceptual reasons for borrowing from it are myriad, and fairly straightforward in a comparison between the two songs, I think. But to be honest, in the case of “Our Wedding,” I had always just been struck by how effectively melodic that song is—and how funny. In the context of CRASS’ discography (along with that fabled Crassmas 7”), it’s just very remarkable and inspiring that a band renown for its humorlessness and absence of musicality could pull such a coup so convincingly. Onion layers.
What magazine would you like to sneak a sartirical song on to a sampler of? And what would you like to make fun of?
Zac: Do they still print magazines? I’d love to do a Gary Glitter-style Jock Jam for some knuckle-dragging sub-Maxim.
Also, what are some genres or artists you've sampled (details kept discreet, of course) -- and those you would like to sample that you haven't tried yet, but would like to do more so?
Zac: To clarify semantics: we reappropriate and plagiarize rather than “sample”—we’ve only ever used one actual song sample, and it was a very long time ago. But in terms of borrowing, we touch on more or less anything that finds its way into my record collection. It’s not all that different from most derivative contemporary pop bands, snatching up Buzzcocks and GBV riffs and then reselling them as their own—we just foreground that process, commenting on it directly rather than pretending it’s not there. This inherently changes its meaning in some way, but I/we tend to use elements in ways that subvert their initial meanings to begin with. Either that, or it’s just intellectualized robbery.
What is the line up for the band right now, both for the three EPs and what we expect to see/hear live?
Zac: The only members that have stayed consistent throughout Parenthetical Girls’ convoluted history are Jherek Bischoff and myself. Though it features contributions from a number of other (((GRRRLS))) past and present (Matt Carlson, Rachael Jensen, Sam Mickens, and Jonathan Sielaff all make appearances), the Privilege project is foremost a collaboration between Jherek and I. The live band remains in flux—turn-over is high, and it’s difficult for me to explicitly state what it will look like from one day to the next. I can say that anyone paying attention will probably not recognize most of the people on stage the next time they see us. To paraphrase: If it’s me and your Granny on bongos, it’s a Parenthetical Girls gig.
Can you tell us about a little about the artist for and the phenomenal artwork on these covers for Privilege?
Zac: Jenny Mörtsell is a Swedish illustrator living in Brooklyn. As our discography can attest, I really admire illustrators with a strong and recognizable personal aesthetic, and I decided a couple of years ago—without her knowledge or consent—that Jenny would illustrate the Privilege series. I love her work so much. I begged her to be a part of this basically no-budget project in spite of the fact that we couldn’t quite meet the rates that she regularly (and rightly) pulls for her work, and she kindly agreed. I can’t say enough nice things about her.
Plans now? Combining it all into a full length; look for a label to do so; tour-wise?
The Privilege project won’t be concluding until we’ve finished the fifth EP—the fourth is recorded and waiting to be mixed presently. Beyond that, plans are a little hazy—we plan to compile the best of the five EPs into a proper album, but nothing is totally concrete at present. We will be touring again soon. It has been too long.