Zac @ Upset The Rhythm, The Dome, London / Photo: Ama Chana
MP3: Love Connection pt. 2
Parenthetical Girls are an elusive conundrum of a band. Their 2006 breakthrough album, "Safe As Houses", is a record packed with dense, emotionally charged passages telling tales of domestic strife and familial horrors over taut, minimal compositions. Their recent long player "Entanglements" is a sharp change of direction; an ornate big-band pop record that can be at times both devastating and absurd.
Live, and at full strength, Parenthetical Girls are an incredible spectacle. Their lynchpin and frontman Zac Pennington thrives in front of a crowd, stamping his feet and smashing cymbals to the ground, or invading the audience. His angelic, elfin features, feminine gait and refined, buttoned-down dress sense make him a thoroughly engaging performer.
I caught up up Zac on the last night of Parenthetical Girls' UK tour to talk about pop stardom, childhood memory loss, Anglophilia, and the female condition.
John Brainlove: I first found Safe As Houses via the thoroughly modern method of an eMusic recommendation - "people who listened to Xiu Xiu also listened to" - way before you'd released anything over here, and described it as an "almost concept album". The themes are very strong on the record, with the songs all linking in terms of subject matter - the twins theme, the alternating male/female perspectives, childbirth, pregnancy, childhood and adolescence, and this pervasive interest in intense passages of life...
Zac Pennington: With the exception of a few songs that are more tangental, it was originally conceived as sort non-linear narrative about individual characters. Ultimately what it was that I was trying to write a record that was related to actual events in my life, and tie them to this idea of this personal, bloated, narcissistic mythology I guess. The idea being that I had no recollection of my childhood hardly at all, so that record was me trying to put the pieces together into a cohesive narrative from these snapshot memories I have. But it's also almost entirely fictionalized. But I definitely think it was interesting to me, and continues to be, the idea of writing from different perspectives and from different characters. We made the pink album and I was generally happy with it, but one thing that I needed to do was make something that seemed like it was necessary to be made, not that it was a grand and important thing, but I was tired of making something that I thought was already represented. The idea of making a record that was in part about trying to challenge the romantic notions that most male songwriters have in writing about women, with the idea that they are idolized in pop songs, or a man is, y'know, left behind... there are these formulas that reoccur in pop love songs and I wanted to do something that was completely unromanticising the female condition. Yeah, so that's kind of an overview of what I was wanting to work on. It's kind of the same way now with the new album, but trying to do things slightly differently. Not as earnestly this time around.
JB: On Safe As Houses, lots of it is written from an autobiographical perspective, but it skips around a lot between characters... but the delivery is so emotive, you wonder whether it contains any actually autobiography... or if it's all fiction.
ZP: It's hard to quantify where it begins and ends. When that album came out I was very hesitant to talk about it being autobiographical but I think that there's quite a good deal, there are touchstones of reality, but through a skewed sense of a person's own lapses in memory, and not having a full memory of things that actually happened.
JB: So, do you have no memory at all of childhood? When do your memories start?
ZP: I remember... blips... there are so many gaps...
JB: Do you think you remember unusually little?
ZP: I really don't remember anything explicit aside from little blips, before the age of 13. I dunno, that sounds like it's one of those really self aggrandizing mythological statements or whatever. I mean, there are bits that I know as reality in retrospect, but not as memory...
JB: So you've had some of your own past told to you like stories?
ZP: I guess so, yeah. But my family doesn't talk about anything, so...
JB: I'm kind of tempted to insensitively grill you on specifics at this point.
ZP: Yeah? I'm not sure if it would be worth anything.
JB: Well, if you spend a bit of time with Safe As Houses, you do get curious about where it's all come from. I guess the big question with the recurring twins motif and the male/female perspectives and the dead kids songs... did you have a twin?
ZP: No, that's fictional. Also, my mother isn't a really dreadful human being, those are things that are projected... I talked to my mother at great length before the album was released to give her the sense that I don't have any contempt for her in any way, I think in a lot of ways there are people in my life, and the characters on the album... I was trying to imagine myself in their circumstances and how I would have reacted to their lives if it was me, and I feel like they handled it a lot better than I would have, and trying to understand their circumstances...
JB: That sounds like a very writerly way to go about lyrics...
ZP: I guess so, yeah. I've never written fiction outside of pop music. I like writing in the form of pop music... I feel like I'm not good at prose.
MP3: A Song For Ellie Greenwich
JB: Are the characters we get on the album the full extent of the character? Or do you work them up outside of that?
ZP: Well, I take a really long time to write, there's definitely concept there. But it's all elementally tied to real people, and imagined realities for real people. It's not like sketching out characters, but that's why I really like writing pop music. To be effective in it you have to write very small. A friend of mine who writes screenplays was saying how they find songs to be the easiest art, because in other art forms you have to flesh out theme and character but in pop songs the main objective is to convey and emotion, and that's all you have to do to have a successful pop song. The best songs are written very small and contained, and you don't have enough room to elaborate. It's hard to do that well, and I still struggle with that. But I think it's not the easy art, it's a real challenge to say something interesting and contain emotion. A lot of people look at pop music as a trifling thing.
JB: The subjects your music touch on is really dark and intense a lot of the time, which isn't something you really find in a lot of contemporary pop. I can't imagine songs about miscarriage being sung by Britney... it seems like difficult subject matter in pop is pretty rare.
ZP: Well, more than pop music, I find pop stardom incredibly interesting. For the most part I feel like I'm drawn to weirdly dark pop music from the past. For example, I'm a huge Scott Walker fan, he's a really iconic figure for me. The idea of that music being made when it was being made incredible, it's so dark, and then he had a TV show here. In the U.S. it wasn't popular at all.
JB: Yeah, I've heard that you're a bit of an Anglophile. Is this your first trip here?
ZP: Yeah, it's my first real trip, the first proper one. It's been bittersweet because it's been fleeting. It's been a massive treat for me, especially Manchester. It was pretty huge for me. I've been wanting to do this trip for a very long time. The vast majority of my musical and cultural interests are based here. It's an easy thing to fetishize living in America I think. I hope to come back really soon.
JB: You self released your first two record on Slender Means Society, but now you're on Tomlab... how has it been letting go of the details of releasing your stuff?
ZP: Not good at all! I'm so nitpicky about all the little things and details. But it's great to be on Tomlab, the association being on the same label as Final Fantasy and people that we love.
JB: So, Entanglements. It's a real departure. You must have made the decision on how it was going to sound really early.
ZP: Before we did Safe As Houses, I had conceived of Entanglements. It was just me and I was working with The Dead Science. They were pretty busy, and Entanglements was a pretty ambitious deal. It wasn't realistic, and I wasn't confident enough to make it. Finally they gave me a tough love moment and wrote me a note saying they couldn't do any more on it, and I don't have skills to do what I needed to do to finish it by myself. So I formed a new band and it's been the same for two years now pretty much. Matt has a degree in composition and went to school for that kind of thing, so it was serendipitous to start working with him. We scrapped everything and started Safe As Houses. But now we've been a stable band for a long time, so we salvaged it and pulled together my vague concepts and phrases. I wanted it to be like a 60s pop record, like Sinatra. I'm not great at music and I rely on other people to make it a reality for me. I'm not proficient at playing anything and it's taxing for me to try. So we were a real band for the first time, and we were able to try not to rush and make this record.
JB: Yeah, it's really ambitious, so many musicians involved...
ZP: Yeah. We weren't able to pay anyone, and we recorded with everybody individually so there was no big orchestra or anything. We went to people's living rooms to record the parts. But musically, we wrote the songs, Matt did the orchestration, and Jerich from the Dead Science helped out.
JB: It's such a grand gesture of a record, to make that decision on the type of sound you wanted. And there's a real dissonance between the bright and cheery 60's pop song sound and the dark, dense subject matter.
ZP: Yeah, Scott Walker's solo albums use some of those ideas, to match those really schmaltzy sonic ideas with occasionally grotesque subject matter. It was like taking what we did with Safe As Houses to the next extreme. But ultimately it's just pop music... we had this notion of making everything bigger and bigger and bigger. And from Entanglements, we can't go bigger. I don't think we'll make a record that sounds like Entanglements ever again. It seems like it's in the same trajectory as the earlier albums.
JB: And the new songs live sound very stripped back, like alternative versions.
ZP: Yeah, it's out of necessity. But we did do one album show where we played with a full orchestra and it was the first time any of us has heard how the songs sounded really. It was really cool, but I doubt it will ever happen again. I feel like I've been surprised by people's reactions to it. People don't know how to approach it, because it's such a different thing in some ways. We're very aware that our albums function as albums, and that playing them out, the songs, while we like them, don't translate as well as the albums. We make albums, and it's a funny time to be doing that.
JB: I guess so with the format as an entity being questioned... are you bringing albums back?
ZP: Ha, I don't want to be charged with that, but I guess so.
Entanglements is out now on Tomlab.