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Interview: Zac Pennington of Parenthetical Girls

"Generally, musicians are really bad at talking about making music."


Interview: Zac Pennington of Parenthetical Girls
Sarah Meadows
The sole constant across Parenthetical Girls' three albums has been the effeminate, strangely adolescent falsetto of frontman Zac Pennington. He formed the band, under the name Swastika Girls, in Everett, Washington in 2002, as essentially a solo recording-project. After relocating to Portland, Oregon, and rechristening his outfit, Pennington has solicited help from acts like the Dead Science, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, and Xiu Xiu across three albums: 2004's (((GRRRLS))), 2006's Safe as Houses, and 2008's mighty Entanglements. The latter finds Parenthetical Girls debuted anew as jaunty, theatrical, orchestral quartet, and, upon its release, Pennington took time out to talk musical turkey.

Do you think of bands like Xiu Xiu and Dead Science as sister acts?
“The Dead Science have been integral in the composition of a lot of the work that we’ve done. Jamie (Stewart) from Xiu Xiu has been also pretty helpful in the early stages of things, in helping me with the technical aspects of recording and mixing. They’re all definitely friends, but I hesitate to say contemporaries, because I think both of those groups are vastly superior to our own.”

Does it still feel like your band's just beginning?
“To an extent. Entanglements has the feel of a brand new band, to me. There’s a whole new group of voices who are participating, and it’s very much a collaborative band for the first time ever.”

Was the intent with Entanglements to make an entirely orchestral record?
“I had wanted to work in these confines for a long time, being really interested in lots of ’60s orchestral-pop arrangers, but just wasn’t really physically able to do it justice. I'm, still, even at this point, a complete novice musically. I take my motivation from people like Mark E. Smith of The Fall, who’ve been able to have a real strong and felt voice without generally being musicians. I can’t even play chords on a guitar, I don’t know a G from an A. I’ve floundered through, and it’s been a real struggle, but I finally feel like I’ve found my place musically.”

Your initial name was Swastika Girls. Was Brian Eno, the poster-child for non-musicians, a hero of yours, too?
“Definitely. I don’t really buy Eno’s assertion of the non-musician; it’s fairly evident that he knows how to play his instruments. But I do find his ideology really interesting and hugely influential, and I’m a huge fan of his, obviously. I also grew up immersed in the K punk aesthetic, and that was another big influence in proving that complete non-musicians can make things that’re more interesting than people who know what they’re doing.”

Jason Pierce of Spiritualized has described to me his process of singing the orchestral parts that he has in his head to a composer, who scribes them down into notation. Did you have a similar working method with this disc?
“I remember reading that about Jason Pierce, who was another big, big, important person for me for a long time. But, it was a little different to that: I had very vague sketches recorded that were similar in tone to the work we did on Safe as Houses. They were much more melodically-inclined, and I worked with the rest of the group to expand on those pieces to try to make something that had, structurally, more of a pop sensibility. I had a lot of very specific points-of-reference that I was hoping to emulate throughout: Scott Walker, Jack Nitzsche, Gordon Jenkins’ work on mid-period Frank Sinatra records, and, biggest of all, Van Dyke Parks. I don’t think we really quite got there, but that was our general aim.”

And “A Song for Ellie Greenwich” is the ’60s-pop homage manifest?
“That song is most unabashedly Bacharach, with elements of Michael Nyman in the middle-section. I’ve always really envied those Brill Building people who were just pure pop songwriters. It’s not something that I feel like I’ve ever been able to do, and maybe never will be able to do, but it’s something that’s obviously been a huge influence on what we’re trying to do.”

How do you see yourself as songwriter?
“It’s hard to say, because I’m still very much just learning my place in this thing that we’re doing. I feel like my strengths lie in writing words, and designing narratives for what we’re doing on the records. It’s been kind of difficult for me to express the things I want to do by music, because I feel limited in my musical spectrum. Now, it’s a lot easier for me to let everyone else help me in that. On the other records I played at least half of all the instruments by myself, but I didn’t play anything on this record at all. Which is a real relief for me.”

What were you hoping to convey narratively?
“It’s definitely an attempt to move away from the personal to more of a fictional approach. It’s a lengthy narrative about a doomed love affair, and the difference between love and lust, and how that relates to guilt and shame. It’s difficult to really put clearly in words, but there was a lot of consideration from the beginning about using the metaphor of quantum mechanics in this whole grander idea, which sounds really ridiculous staying out loud.”

You’ve dabbled in the dark arts of rock-journalism. Did speaking to other musical humans help you crystallize your own ideas about music?
“Working as a music journalist really allowed me see that, generally, musicians are really bad at talking about making music. There’s this sense that there’s this mystical, spiritual ‘magic’ behind the creation of music. It’s almost a weird elitism, like there’re these certain people who have these inborn tools for creating music. I know it’s really embarrassing to talk about the music you make, but it often comes off that musicians, intentionally or not, are suggesting that there’s this mystical force that separates them from your average music listener. Which is really limiting.”

Parenthetical Girls have released periodic Christmas records in the past. What part of that hyper-capitalist celebration thereof appeals to you?
"It’s less Christmas, and more Christmas music. I’ve spent the last four or five years being obsessed with collecting Christmas records. There’s this weird sense of warmth mixed with the crass commercial cash-in that I find really interesting.”

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