Parenthetical Girls are an art pop band from Portland, Oregon. Formed in 2002 under the Brian Eno-inspired name “Swastika Girls”, they’ve developed a varied repertoire of albums and singles across a decade-long career, centered on their three previous full-length releases: (((GRRRLS))), Safe As Houses and 2008’s Entanglements. They’ve collaborated with Xiu Xiu and Dead Science, and have accumulated a devoted following.
Composed of Zac Pennington, Jherek Bischoff, Amber W. Smith, Paul Alcott, they’ve produced a new album, due in February, called Privilege. It’s a heady mixture of chamber pop and other pop genres, and possesses the ambitiousness that has become characteristic of the band over their career, in both its conceptual and artistic scope. Some of the songs on the album seem meditative and melancholy, dwelling on musical and thematic patterns in isolation from one another. Others, like “Evelyn McHale”, have a jaunty vibe, featuring principal singer and songwriter Zac Pennington’s recognizable warble and charismatic delivery. Still others, such as “Young Throats”, are fast-paced and frenetic, resulting in an album with a variety of moods.
What’s striking about the album is not only the music, but also the manner in which it is being produced and made available. Privilege is a limited edition box set composed of a series of five 12” EPs released on the band’s own Slender Means Society label. The album can only be ordered from the band themselves through their website and is physically mailed to the purchaser by Pennington himself. It contains live performances, document videos of the making of the album and “assorted ephemera” from the production process. Most immediately attention-grabbing is the fact that each album is numbered in the blood of the band members.
I got in touch with Zac Pennington and discussed the album and the ideas behind its theme and distribution model. His answers were thoughtful and illuminating and helped to explain the enduring loyalty felt by the band’s many devotees. Pennington sees the band as producing a “unified aesthetic front”, which reflects the means now at the disposal of all artists in our increasingly multimedia environment. He was jokingly apologetic for the depth of his answers, but I was personally gratified that he still takes it all so seriously.
The new album is taking a very interesting form, as a series of hand-released albums that can only be ordered directly from you, and can’t be found in stores. What made you want to take up this challenge?
The Privilege series—like basically every harebrained project we undertake—was a product of necessity. Or at least that’s how it felt at the time. A very dear friend of mine once passed on a piece of advice that he got from his graduate advisor at art school: if you’re ever stuck or feeling blocked, a good way out is to start a series. A series of anything. This is that solution taken to an absurd extreme.
Having made a somewhat disillusioning bid toward a more conventional means of releasing music with our previous album, we wanted to experiment with less traditional methods of production and distribution, methods we couldn’t rightly expect anyone else to want to pay for. Parenthetical Girls have been doing these kinds of things for ourselves for quite a long time now—DIY not for any kind of romantic idealism, but because I am extremely impatient, and probably a better administrator than musician.
Do you see the self-released albums as a way to heighten the artistic impact of the product? Does the method of distribution reflect the themes of the album at all?
The reasons seem more pragmatic than conceptual, honestly… it’s tidier to retrofit the project with ideas of advantage and constraint, but it wasn’t really forethought as such. Not consciously anyway. I mean, obviously toying with notions of exclusivity and rarity is interesting to me/us, or we wouldn’t have made the record the way that we did—but it was a more instinctual choice than a conscious one.
I have very mixed feelings about self-released work. As I hinted at earlier, all of my adolescent romanticism about DIY culture in and of itself has long evaporated. It’s hard to be romantic about labor when you’ve actively engaged it for a lot of years. There is still something very remarkable about a person stubbornly ignoring all practical thought and willing an exceptional thing into the world, however.
Beyond that, though—now even more than when we began to make things, the idea of working with some kind of middleman seems increasingly archaic. It is (and at least in my lifetime, has always been) extraordinarily easy to make a thing. That said: were someone willing to fund and manufacture all of my absurd whims on our behalf—and do so to my specific yet infuriatingly ambiguous standards—I would happily let them.
How important do you think it is for ostensibly musical artists to take a multimedia approach to their art? The product you’re putting out is visual, musical, but also tactile and textual.
It’s strange how much I end up talking about objects when people ask questions about Parenthetical Girls. I don’t altogether mind, because it’s much easier to talk about than more ephemeral things—but I also wonder really how interesting it could all be to anyone to hear me prattle on about tangibles. I don’t fancy myself a multimedia artist. I admire visual artists mostly because I’ve never had the patience for it myself. I barely have the patience for music. What I am more than anything is a curator—it’s a role I’ve grown more and more comfortable with in recent years. Though I am ostensibly the leader of this group, my primary contribution to Parenthetical Girls is a sensibility—I work to guide and shape the thing, but I do so only with the aid of a wealth of collaborators. It’s ultimately what makes Parenthetical Girls a fairly unique enterprise—for better or worse.
To answer your question more directly though: I think from a commercial standpoint that it’s increasingly important for musicians to present a unified aesthetic front. From a creative standpoint, I think “band as multimedia art brand” is more often than not just a product of narcissism and ego. It’s a path people tend to follow because they’re handed the platform, not because they feel the innate compulsion to construct the platform to begin with. Privilege isn’t usually the best catalyst for good art.
Do you think this effort-intensive, vertical approach allows the music marketplace to appropriate some of the characteristics of the fine art market, where the added value of an artist’s time and effort turns the work into a collector’s item, rather than a mass-market product?
We literally put our blood on these records. Fetishism is really all that remains for the physical product, so if musicians are going to continue to make things, I can only imagine that things are going to become more fetishistic. I think it’s less about adding value so much as clinging to the idea of these objects having value altogether.
As far as text goes, are there any authors or thinkers that play a role in how you conceive of the characters and images in your songs?
I borrow a lot, but not so much in the ways that the stories are constructed—more in the language that they are constructed with. I’ve always valued language over narrative. For me, the language of song lyric is a very specific one—one that has its own set of rules and principals that function in a very singular way. This sounds more academic than I mean it to sound. Basically what I mean to say is: song words—at least great song words—should have different goals than book words. The routes authors take to navigate their sentences often inspire me, but I think I look more toward other songwriters for ways to tell stories.
What’s going on in the song “Curtains”? The lyrics seem very evocative and almost like they fit into a larger narrative.
“Curtains” is a eulogy for the entirety of the Privilege series, and in some ways, for Parenthetical Girls itself. It’s a tying up of loose ends.
Who are some of the characters in this album/album series?
Privilege isn’t a “concept record” in exactly the same way that some of our previous records might have been—I don’t know that the characters are explicit enough to put a name to. I’m definitely in there a lot. As are a number of straw men for my lingering class contempt and self-doubt. Mostly though, the main character is “Parenthetical Girls”—not the individuals that comprise the group, but the idea of the group as a unique entity unto itself.
By the way – my New Year’s Resolution is: “Don’t apologize for your pretensions.”
Parenthetical Girls’ album Privilege is available February 19th via Marriage Records & Slender Means Society.