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An Interview with Zac Pennington of Parenthetical Girls

25 April 2011

Few musicians are as innovative and interesting to talk to as Zac Pennington of Parenthetical Girls. His music is often a strange and wondrous dance where the listener swoons between genres of pop experiments. One imagines Pennington making the studio his ballroom suite where he creates fascinating music that is both challenging and vital. Pennington recently talked to The Big Takeover within his hometown of Portland about the local music scene, the challenges of the creative process, the genres involved within his music, and the fictionalized realism in his pieces. Pennington has been creating music since 2004 and has released three full length albums. Most recently, he has begun issuing a series of EPs as part of the Privilege series.

BIG TAKEOVER Can you talk a little bit about the music community in Portland? Do you feel they are more supportive and open to music that is a little different or experimental?

ZAC PENNINGTON Yeah, I do. This community is very particular and different. My experience with cities is limited because I’ve pretty much grown up in the same region all of my life, but I feel like Portland, more than Seattle, is somewhat self-contained. The way that this community works is that the bands that are most beloved aren’t necessarily loved elsewhere (outside of Portland). There’s still kind of a distrust of success here in a way. When I hear about a new band here that everyone is excited about, it’s usually a band that has no potential for success outside of the city. I feel like in Seattle or Chicago or bigger places where they’ve had a previous explosion of music, there’s an economy based around music that isn’t necessarily present in Portland. There’s a real infrastructure built around the music economy in Seattle, with labels and managers and people explicitly employed to harvest new talent.

BT Do you feel like your music is embraced here in Portland?

We don’t really play a lot of shows here. For a long time, I didn’t like the notion of being a local band… I’ve always had this weirdly self-destructive relationship with having an audience in my hometown. We’re in a place where we’re way more comfortable being a Portland band and would like to play more shows here.

BT What is it like to create a series of EPs with the Privilege series vs. a full length album in terms of mindset and a possible different goal in mind?

ZC The last few records we set to out to make were full lengths with cohesive qualities, where the ends were greater than the sum of its parts. That meant that we would rely on the notion of this cohesion so that some of the material doesn’t stand on its own. I feel like at this point in short term music history we’re at a place where it’s harder to convey and communicate in these larger statements a lot of the time; the individual parts would maybe not communicate to people the same way. People don’t really listen to records the way they used to. To some extent, there was a more pragmatic approach to trying to challenge ourselves to write music that is more self contained instead of sprawling so that each individual piece could speak for itself. The idea of forcing ourselves to make smaller statements has been exciting. We’ve been able to take a lot of chances and commit to experiments that we wouldn’t have normally, and that has been very rewarding.

_BT_You always create an interesting balance between what is accessible and what is experimental. There is a sort of dance made between the pop music and the visceral challenging elements of the music. Does this dance come easy to you or is it a difficult experience to create music like this?

ZP I don’t consider myself a “proper” musician. I end up starting with these very rough, rudimentary, vague sketches of things. I’ve kind of relied in the past on this Eno-like notion of the novice musician being able to do things that the trained musician is not comfortable doing. I feel like I’ve really romanticized this in the past in a way that I don’t as much now. I’ve always been interested in pop music. I like the idea of making pop music that is challenging. I feel like there is a lot of potential in pop music that isn’t explored and exploited. My collaborators have all been more experimental musicians, experimental pop musicians but experimental musicians. I always work with Jherek Bischoff who has produced everything we’ve released, as well as Sam Mickens of The Dead Science, Matt Carlson, others. Essentially, we take core pop ideas coming from a place of not really knowing how to make “proper” pop music, and filter them through these people who are more experimental musicians. At this point it does come more naturally, but it used to be a real compartmentalizing piecemeal process.

BT If you had to choose, do you feel like it would be easier for you to be a completely outsider experimental musician or an accessible pop musician?

ZP Probably an accessible pop musician. While I like a lot of experimental music, I really like the specific ways you can communicate through pop music that you can’t communicate with any other medium. I really like pure pop music. I feel most attracted to pop music made by experimental musicians just dabbling in pop music. My notion of pop music is very broad, I think—as much as I’d like to believe we’re doing something more progressive, I know that essentially we (Parenthetical Girls) just make pop music. Some people have a hard time accepting that because I feel like people’s notion of pop music is fairly specific. If someone were to pressure me, I would maybe use the word experimental but very begrudgingly. It’s similar to the way that people referred to Entanglements as “Baroque pop,” which is of course not really accurate, because that word has a very specific meaning just like experimental music has a specific meaning. Because I know people who create real experimental music, I always hesitate to describe what we’re doing as anything other than pure pop music—it seems insulting to proper experimental musicians to call it anything else. Things seep in that are a little weirder and less direct, but we write choruses, and there’s a clearly recognizable pop structure to our songs. It’s easier to say “pop” or “indie pop”

BT What is the most experimental band that you listen to currently?

ZP I listen primarily to pop music these days. Lately, I’ve also been listening to a lot of late 70s roots of electronic music like Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. I’ve been on a real deep early experimental electronic music kick with early electronic composers, people like “David Behrman”:, which have been informing what we’ve been doing lately.

BT I’m curious as to what you’d term or think of as pop music.

_ZP_I’ve always been fascinated by Bacharach, the Brill Building, and other pop composers, but I also listen to the Ramones. I feel like there’s a sort of wide net of 20th century pop music. I think Deerhoof and Xiu Xiu are pop bands. For as often as people might call them experimental music groups, there’s not much genuine “experimenting” going on. It’s just weird pop music. The term “experimental” is used very liberally in ways that it shouldn’t be sometimes. I don’t think that people should think of the word “pop” with such disparaging connotations.

When we made the Entanglements record, we were trying to actively chart basically all pre-rock pop music. From Cole Porter through Big Band music through those Sinatra records from the 50s and 60s… they’re wide bookends of where 20th Century pop music starts for me, and a lot fits inside that bracket. I really love radio Hip Hop and R&B, and I think that most contemporary R&B—even when it’s designed to be disposable—is actually doing something aesthetically more interesting than most indie rock (though that’s probably more a comment on the state of indie rock than anything else.)

BT In terms of development of your identity and yourself as a human being, I’m just curious as if you’ve always thought of yourself as a creator or music or a musical being? It’s difficult to imagine you doing anything else than being a musician.

ZP I feel like my relationship with music is very particular in that I don’t really have a lot of patience for craft in some ways. I haven’t worked on making things in the same ways other people do. I’ve figured out ways to make music that works for me, and a lot of that is collaborative. I’ve first and foremost been a music fan more than a musician. For a long time, I was very worried about the idea of making music because I felt like it was an unattainable thing for me. Music has always been integral to my life, but from a lot of different avenues—such as writing about music and booking shows. I worked in many different ways to try to have music be the most important thing in my life without simply creating it, and it was just never satisfying. Parenthetical Girls is the first and only group I’ve ever been in, and I guess at this point it’s the only thing that fully satisfies me. I don’t know what else I’d do now or I would have quit a long time ago. But, I’m not the kind of person who is just constantly creating, or that has things flowing out of me all the time. I feel like my process is very laborious. I don’t have a Dylan relationship with making things. I have the impulse of a creative person but I don’t have the sort of inherent means of creating music that other musicians do.

_BT_Your lyrics suggest to me that you’re the type of person that experiences life events very richly in a way that other people might toss them aside. I’m not sure if you have the same type of memory and processing of past, present, and future the way many others have. Your lyrics are very visceral and honest to me and don’t seem like fiction.

ZP_It’s grey. I like to think of it as creating mythology out of fact. When I started being more active as a songwriter, a lot of things changed—especially during the _Safe as Houses record. That record was really about documenting certain memories from my life, and at the same time struggling with absence of memory and perceived memory. I have a lot of holes in my memory so a lot of my memories are not based so much on recollection but on what I’ve been told. It’s like when your parents tell you that you did this really funny thing when you were five and you re-tell it like you remember it, but the memory doesn’t really belong to you. I have a lot of questionable pieces of memory, and that record (Safe as Houses) was a way of putting the pieces together to help me understand them. I like the idea of making this narrative based in reality, but much grander—or a fictionalized reality.

BT Do you ever feel a grand catharsis at the end of creating music?

ZP I’m never fully satisfied with anything but I feel like every time we create something we overcome some hurdle. I always see the flaws more than the successes, and because it’s a weird backward struggle to make things, every time we do make something I learn a new way to make music. Because there’s still this hole in my understanding of how music is made, every time we make something, I develop more synapses to wrap my brain around the process—to get from point A to B.