Interview: Zac Pennington of Parenthetical Girls
Last Tuesday night I went to my first Hi-Dive concert and had the pleasure of seeing Parenthetical Girls. Before the show I interviewed the lead singer, Zac Pennington. I told him that the rainy weather outside felt oddly fitting for a band like his and he said it felt just like their hometown, Portland, Oregon. It was an intimate show and Zac wasn’t afraid to step down from the stage and dance with the audience and at one point he was even walking across the top of the bar. They played through the most of their new record, Privilege, as well as a few songs from their previous work. The band kept the audience in conversation and seemed pleased to get to know their Denver listenership.
I have been a longtime fan of Parenthetical Girls and was very excited and thankful to get to interview Zac Pennington. We chatted in the band’s tour van before the show about the live set, the concept of privilege, and Parenthetical Girls’ possible direction.
This is a condensed transcript of my interview with Zac Pennington.
Matt Sparks: It seems like in Parenthetical Girls’ music there is a lot of intricate arrangements and a variety of instruments. I was wondering, how is the music different from the album when played in a live setting?
Zac Pennington: Over the history of the band it has been difficult to translate the albums in to a live show effectively. We’ve tried a lot of different ways of doing it. Sometimes we reduce the songs to their basic elements. But, at this point we’ve figured out ways to orchestrate it synthetically and more or less maintain the integrity of the recordings, while hopefully not totally mimicking what is on the records. There is a lot of MIDI now, which I was very apprehensive about for a very long time. But, we’ve found ways to make it function quite well.
Matt: I have a question about the title of the new album, Privilege. Talking about privilege often opens up a can of worms. Why did you choose the name and subject of privilege?
Zac: I am innately enthusiastic about language and phonetics. That particular word has a sound that really resonates with me and it also has a lot of different meanings. Depending on the context, it means a lot of significant and polar things. I liked that it was a really versatile word. I like one-word titles a lot. Partly this project that we were working on, the Privilege series, gave birth to the album felt it needed something with weight to it. The Privilege series was a series of songs that I had been working on a lot and were class-based. I didn’t want to make an overtly political record, but I thought there was something to be said about class and how I have come to relate to class in America. It’s interesting to talk about this record because historically we have never had to discuss the concept of a record before, but I feel like the concept for this album was a little bit more overt than the concept for our other records. So when having these conversations I always feel like I’m in a Philosophy 101 class. I don’t have a clearly defined answer for what privilege means to me, but I feel class has been a very substantial part of my life. It’s a substantial part of everybody’s life and it affects everyone. I think the way we address it in pop song form is reductive and not especially nuanced because it’s a pop song. I was interested in exploring the topic in a way that didn’t feel overtly political. I wanted to explore it in a way that had personal politics.
Matt: It seems like class here, in America, is not talked about as much as it is in other countries
Zac: Well, a big part of it for me is that I am a devotee of British pop music and class is such a big aspect of British pop and pop culture. Class isn’t as defined here as it is in other places, certainly. There is this idea that the American dream is supposed to subvert class issues. A big part of it is that it’s hard to talk about privilege as an idea without talking about fiscal privilege and class, but privilege means a lot of different things. I am a very privileged person. I am a straight white man in America and that is an incredible privilege. I live in what is potentially the most privileged city in America. I think this record focuses more on very direct and easily accessible ideas about privilege. It’s a concept in contemporary society that is in some ways is done to death, but not necessarily in a pop music sense. Another interesting thing about it is that as a group Parenthetical Girls is viewed (by anyone who happens to stumble upon our little group) as a weird elitist pop group because of our sonic leadings. The fact of the matter is that we all came from poverty. A lot of the groups that I am fascinated by, foremost the Smiths, comes from a place that is like a refinement amongst the lower classes. I like the idea of trying to project that on to an American idea.
Matt: I read online that the first 500 physical copies were numbered in the blood in the blood of the band. Did the blood belong to all of the members?
Zac: Yeah. Each of the records had an illustration of one of the members of the band. Each member of the band whose face was on the cover would have their blood drawn and then number the records. I just thought it was really cool. The idea behind was about rarifying the objects because the objects were intended to be super rare and fetishistic. We wanted to make them as fetish-y as possible.
Matt: Nowadays everybody is buying digital copies. This is something that you need the physical copy of.
Zac: Yes, that was another thing. We released the 5 EPs of the Privilege series ourselves and pressed them ourselves. So, the expense was completely on our shoulders. It was an absurd undertaking for a band of our caliber to try to do these incredibly limited and expensive pieces. They cost a lot to make and purchase. But when we set out to do it I had this idea for how I ultimately wanted it to be realized. We had to try and figure out a way to make them desirable enough for people who want things digitally. I don’t really buy new records very much anymore either unless there is something very special about them.
Matt: This album seems very planned out and how is it related to the work you’ve done previously?
Zac: The album and series is a direct reaction to the things we done before, especially through the method we put the record out. Our last album Entanglements was a very arduous and cumbersome process. It took forever to make and be released. After we finished it we were all exhausted by the process and wanted to have a more immediate relationship with our music by putting things out more quickly and the way we wanted them out. Also, the concept of Entanglements was so particular that we wanted to try and experiment with as many aesthetics as we could. We had spent so long making an orchestral pop record that the idea of making another album that was one idea was not appealing. So, it was great for us because these things were pretty scarce, we could kind of do whatever we wanted to and not be afraid that it was going to be a failure. We were able to play around with a lot of things that we maybe otherwise wouldn’t have. Those things were the things I like the best about the record. The songs that were the most successful for me were the experiments. There were some failed experiments too, but it allowed us to try a bunch of different things. In retrospect the album is conceptually and thematically about the idea of Parenthetical Girls, which is a really really pretentious idea. There are a lot of relationship issues on the album and I think that relationship is less a romantic relationship and more the relationship I have with this idea of what is Parenthetical Girls.
Matt: It definitely felt more reflective compared to the band’s previous work.
Zac: Mmhmm. Definitely. I think Safe as Houses leaves very immediate emotions and Entanglements was a little more detached. I really wanted to make a record that felt personal. After doing that other work, being personal didn’t mean the same thing to me that it did a long time ago. It meant being a little more navel gaze-y and self-reflexive than it was about being open-wrist sincerity.
Matt: So where do you see Parenthetical Girls heading after this?
Zac: I don’t really know. I have been working on some new songs. I don’t have a clear sense of what that means and where that is going to go. I have said this before, but a part of me feels that Privilege is the definitive statement for Parenthetical Girls. I really need something else to present itself in a way that makes it feel worth doing under the name Parenthetical Girls. I very much could see Privilege being the last thing we do. Though, it‘s not what I want to happen. I’m still very much invested and in love with this project. It has essentially allowed me to do anything that I want to do because it doesn’t have very many rules. I also could see that Privilege, from my point of view, accomplishes a lot of the things I wanted to do with this group in a way that I’m satisfied with. I would love the opportunity to keep doing Parenthetical Girls and have it be something that people care about. We’re in an interesting position because we’ve been around for way too long. We’ve been in a similar place for some time and trying to find a way to progress. I feel we’ve made a lot of strides creatively, but trying to progress in other ways has been a little bit more difficult. It’s hard to say. We have this tour and then a European tour. Following that, I think it will be a little bit more clear.
Matt: I also felt that Privilege was like a definitive statement. That is why I was curious.
Zac: I feel like it’s at the end of an action movie where there is some potential for a sequel. I feel in like every record that we’ve made I’ve given myself an out. Like saying, “if this is the last record and that’s the last song I can live with that.” It’s not that I necessarily want it to be the end. Legacy is a very important thing to me in terms of the way I relate to pop music. The arc of people’s careers is important to me. I want to do justice to this thing in a way that expresses it meant a lot to me. It means a great deal to me, it’s spent the last ten years of my life and I never want it to not feel like that. As an outsider observer, I want people to understand how important this thing was. I’m talking about it as if it is past tense. [laughs] In the event that it is past tense, I want it to go out the right way. If that is the case, I think Privilege is a good way to go out. That sounds so sad!
Matt: Sorry! [laughs]
Zac: No, it’s just that feel I am saying these things more frequently which is not a good sign.