Parenthetical Girls' Zac Pennington on the Privileged Utopia of Portland
Last year, Portland outfit Parenthetical Girls released a video depicting bandleader Zac Pennington singing into the camera as he apparently received a blow-job off-screen. Filmed from the chest up atop white sheets, "The Pornographer" video is an artful exploration of implied sexuality and the exhibitionism of confessional indie rock. Although released over a year ago, "The Pornographer" was a leading single from their current album, Privilege (Abridged), which culls 12 tracks from a series of limited-edition EPs. Departing from the elaborate orchestral pop of their audience-widening Entanglements LP in 2008, Privilege presents sauntering indie rock arrangements lightly adorned in electronics beneath Pennington's fluttering vibrato. We spoke with Pennington about the psychology of wealth, economics of indie rock, and how the unique privileges of Portland's youth informed Parenthetical Girls' new album as the group prepared for a show at Berkeley's Starry Plough tonight, March 7.
Parenthetical Girls' Zac Pennington
(This video is NSFW)
What was the process of culling tracks from the limited EPs to comprise this release of Privilege?
It was fairly pragmatic. Ultimately, it ended up feeling like we made a "best of" that leans more on the songs we used as singles. These tracks were already released, people could access them if they wanted to, but ultimately we were trying to make the most useful and direct sampler of all of the EPs. We ended up cutting a lot of the things that I thought were special parts of the larger series but didn't fit in the context of making a proper album. Because of the nature of the series, it ended up being a challenge to make something that was cohesive.
Are you worried that Privilege being already released across these limited EPs will hinder the album's impact?
I would be dishonest if I said it hadn't crossed my mind. From the very beginning of the process, we knew that we wanted to release a compiled version as an album. It has been a challenge because it was an experiment from the beginning. I think that what we achieved in the experiment justifies the difficulties we might have promoting this record or giving it an immediate impact. Even though a lot has been released, the fact that it was in limited quantities, sold through mail-order and [promoted] through word-of-mouth, I feel like a lot of people haven't heard most of this stuff.
You're partly responsible for promoting the record because it's a co-release with your label, Slender Means Society. In 2013 for a band of your profile, what do you consider the advantage of self-releasing your work?
It didn't seem like there was any other way to do it. Like you're saying, knowing the level that Parenthetical Girls exists on, we're very obscure for most people. To ask someone to invest in such an indulgent project would sort of be a fool's errand. I wanted the record to be released so I did it the only way I knew how. Aside from our last album, we've self-released all of our records. I'm more comfortable with it in a lot of ways. I'm very impatient as the person in charge of things. I feel like it's really difficult to justify putting a record out on a label unless that label has the reputation and wealth to make a big impact with what you're doing. It's not that hard to do it yourself if you have the gumption for it.
It's interesting that self-releasing has been such a crux of how Parenthetical Girls operate. When you self-released the first Parenthetical Girls album and started Slender Means Society, was it because you felt like you could do better than another label because you felt like no one else would release it?
The whole economic climate of music was a lot different. At that time I, like a lot of people, had this vain idea of wanting a record label. There was certainly the fact that I couldn't imagine anyone wanted to put that record out aside from myself. But, I also had illusions about the idea of Slender Means Society being a proper label outside of just a vanity project. We put out our last album on another label and it was more or less a positive experience, but having done it myself for so long I wanted to feel more in control. So, I'm going back to self-releasing. It's incredibly satisfying, although there is a lot of frustration. We've always done things ourselves more out of necessity than because of an ideology. But it comes from just being impatient and feeling like I could do just as good of a job as somebody else, whether that's accurate or not.
Many artists grapple for the right label, booking agency and press services. Outsourcing every facet of being a band like that sometimes seems desperate.
To be honest with you, I would happily let someone do this work. You mentioned Parenthetical Girls' profile. We're in a weird place where we have some recognition from being around a while. People are at least vaguely aware of Parenthetical Girls if not following the music. The economy of how indie music works at this point is a lot of investing in longshots rather than a steady progression. It's easier for a band to get signed to label if they haven't released anything on their own and are relatively new property, because the potential gain for those bands is a lot higher than something that might be middling or not a financially viable product. We could have found a label for Privilege, but we're not a band that's going to break and make a million bucks, so it's challenging to convince a label to invest a lot of money in us because there isn't a clear avenue of return.
Class antagonism strikes me as a theme of Privilege. Is this informed by the culture of Portland specifically, or is it more general?
I've always had embarrassingly built-in class resentment from being raised in relative poverty and feeling frustrated by it. It's very selfish and not with any greater worldly disdain for the way people who are poor get treated. It's more informed by my own poverty. Most people who I dealt with in Seattle had jobs, had to work, and weren't independently wealthy. A lot of it is more personal experience and projection.
On the flip of that, the privilege of Portland's upper-middle class youth and their care-free lifestyles are often criticized. Does that discussion inform the lyrics of Privilege?
I've lived in Portland a long time now, and my perspective is limited since I don't have a lot of experience outside of the Pacific Northwest. Portland is a very privileged place in a lot of ways. The populace that is privileged here signifies the least pronounced aspect of privilege. There is a weird utopianism here. I'm incredibly privileged in this town because I'm able to more or less make a living doing Parenthetical Girls, which would be impossible in any other city. I'm not so engaged in the kind of youth culture where that privilege is prevalent anymore, though. Places like New York and even L.A. are totally unaffordable. In Portland you can be relatively poor and squeeze by as a young person. I feel like I'm not addressing your question very well.
When I first saw the album cover for Privilege, I knew the band was based in Portland and based on the title I assumed that would be a pronounced theme of the record.
Throughout the record there are a handful of different narrative threads. One of them is about class warfare and there are a lot of songs that ended up on this abridged version reflecting that particular narrative. In most of the songs that are based on class issues, I was more interested in exploring the psychology of wealth, at least from my limited point of view, and how that is represented in social politics and sexual politics -- which sounds very heady and over-thought. A lot of the songs we write are about really corporal ideas and for this album, a lot of them are related to how wealth, class, and privilege affects the way people interact with one another socially and sexually.
Musically, Privilege is much less adorned with orchestration and production than Entanglements. Was there a conscious effort in that development?
After we made Entanglements, I never wanted to look like another orchestral instrument again. It's such a laborious project to make that kind of record. Although I don't think that record was wholly successful, I didn't have anything more I wanted to say with explicitly orchestral pop music. That record is the most likely one for someone to have heard of ours. But for us, it was a total detour. With every record we make, we sit down and make a record. It's not like there is an organic songwriting process. So, when we made Entanglements we began with a decision to make an orchestral pop album. With Privilege, it has been more organic because the way we've recorded it has taken more time. It was actually more distinctly about writing individual songs. Our previous albums have been these concept pieces where the sum of their parts was hopefully greater than the parts themselves. With Privilege, we wanted to make each song function on its own.