Parenthetical Girls: Interview
“It’s a weird thing to make your own ‘best-of’ album out of 21 songs.”
This interview includes 48 instances of the word “privilege” and its variations. including the instance I just wrote. It is a strange thing to talk about, but it is one that permeates society distinctly: The notion of being in an advantageous position over others in a social stratum. Thus, the constant use of the word is applicable. When Zac Pennington of the Parenthetical Girls sought to follow up their third album, the lush Entanglements, he took a different route to get their next statement across: Instead of releasing a full-length album, he announced in 2009 the development of a series of five EPs under the umbrella title and theme Privilege, with the intent of examining the concept in many different shapes, though primarily from the perspective of the privileged themselves.
In a way, this makes sense, given the band’s style: A dedication to chamber- and baroque-pop inherent in the compositions, and a lyrical approach that is more rooted in poetic verse than the standard pop formula, with lyrics stretching the last possible second. Even Pennington’s stature gives off a privileged manner, even if it is unintentional: Looming yet aloof, he sings with a certain delicate extravagance, with each emotion carrying an urgent poignancy. When performing live, he takes on the roles of party host and cabaret singer, weaving in and out of the crowd to ensure their stay is welcome before jumping on tables and hanging on banisters to sing.
We sat down with Pennington while on tour in Berkeley — a university town based in the upper-crust Bay Area predisposed to privilege, with its caviar socialists and environmentalists attempting to influence malleable Cal students — to discuss not only the Privilege series, which concluded with the release of Part V: Portrait of a Reputation in 2012, but also its recently released compilation, Privilege (Abridged). Throughout this discussion, we obviously bring up the notion of privilege, but through different lenses: class, generation, and location. We also discuss the future of Parenthetical Girls itself.
Starting out, let’s talk about the Privilege series itself before we go into Privilege (Abridged). What inspired you to create this series of EPs as opposed to a full album?
It was an arbitrary decision. I was stuck for a period of time and a friend of mine suggested the idea that he had gotten from his graduate adviser in art school: Whenever you are stuck, you should just create a series of something. And I really liked the idea of making a series of EPs essentially for pragmatic reasons because I wanted to put out albums more quickly than we tend to. We kind of take a long time. I didn’t want to spend two years working on a record before we released anything else. So the idea of putting things out more efficiently is really attractive to me. Since we aren’t very fast, we just decided to make short things to put out.
What brought you to decide to release an abridged form of the series?
That was always the plan. Going into the project, I really wanted to make these very specifically fetishistic items for the series, and then use that to make a condensed album of what I felt were the best or most cohesive compositions.
That’s a good point. It’s interesting what you chose to keep in and what was cut. For example, EP V, Portrait of a Reputation, had only one song off it, while there were plenty of songs from I, II, and III. Why was there a preference for the first parts of the series over the latter?
The fourth one was probably my favorite of the lot. But, I guess when we were making the EPs, what I really wanted to do was make songs that were standalone songs that worked out of the context of an album, where in previous albums, I look at the series of songs as a cycle. The deficiencies of specific songs I kind of gloss over because they work in the narrative in the way that I want them to. And I thought of that as a crutch, so I really just wanted to make individual songs that were strong in and of themselves. So the songs that ended up on the abridged version were the ones that I felt like functioned the best as individual pieces, which is kind of weird, because ultimately it means that it doesn’t necessarily function as an album in a traditional way. But I feel like, especially with Part V — I’m really fond of the fifth part — it was some sort of tying up of conceptual loose ends that didn’t fit into the condensed idea.
Everybody I know who gets by in Portland is a hustler in some way or another. I don’t know a lot of people in Portland whose parents pay their rent, for example, where in most major cities there’s a lot of people who fall into that category.
So what you were trying to create was a compilation of the general theme.
Right. So, what that ended up meaning is that a lot of the songs that were personally my favorites, we excised because they didn’t stand alone as well as other things. It’s a weird thing to make your own “best-of” album out of 21 songs. But that was the idea: Make an album-style statement out of a singles collection. Certainly, all the songs that we felt like were singles — the ones we made videos for — they all ended up on it. Then there were some other ones that seemed strong… I dunno what that even means. [laughs]
What’s funny is that, when I actually put the timestamps and stuff together for all five EPs, it just barely passed the maximum length of a full CD by about 15 seconds.
Is that true?
Yeah, just a tad bit over 80 minutes.
Really? I never did the math. We could take off an intro and it would be in. Huh. Well, I’m glad I didn’t do that because this makes it feel like that we made that many songs as this body of songs. It’s really like a humbling. Our last album, Entanglements, we took so long on and it was so much work, and ultimately it was 30 minutes of music. So, I really like how long this things feels, at least to me, and I’m glad that it doesn’t fit on a CD, I guess. [laughs]
Discussing the EPs and this record in prior press, your angle suggests that when you discuss the concept of privilege, you take a classist understanding of it. Do you feel that this is how privilege is best defined?
No, I don’t think so. It’s the most tangible way that it’s defined. I think that actually, there are a lot more interesting conversations to be had about a lot of other forms of privilege. But for me, I am privileged in most of those ways. I have white privilege, for example. Viewing privilege from an artificial underdog standpoint, class has always been the biggest burden in my life. But I think it is a really tangible understanding of privilege, and in discussing the idea of privilege, it ends up being about money a lot. The more politically bent songs on the album, they most directly relate to money, or they ostensibly do. I think that it’s the easiest way to talk about privilege, and for me, pop music is about talking about things that are very immediate and tangible.
You have also mentioned, from time to time, your past has been based from a lesser extent of privilege. Would you say that sort of… dammit, forgive me, I’m improvising right now, and I am horrible at that sort of thing.
Just for the sake of reference in our interaction right now, I had one hour of sleep last night, and I drove 11 hours behind the wheel of a car, so I am probably not making much sense right now, and am very patient right now. [laughs] Take your time, take your time.
Okay, thank you. [laughs] Mentioning your past, do you feel a greater sense of anxiety towards the sense of privilege that has pervaded you now?
For me, I have a very difficult time writing about things that are maybe more immediately pressing in my life. And so, it’s much easier for me to reflect on something because I have more perspective about it. It’s hard for me to write about now, it’s easier for me to write about then. In the case of privilege, I think the things that I am writing about are things that I am more resolved in than I was at a certain time, and I don’t feel so black-and-white. But it’s easy to write from a place of black-and-white because I have perspective on me being an adult now, or something. Like, as every year goes on, you feel like you have more perspective on your failings in the past. Then the next year comes, and then you have more perspective on the previous year, which you thought you knew.
What’s interesting about talking about privilege and all that is, the way you take your music, it sort of caters towards that privilege in a way: The use of baroque and chamber pop as the basis of your material; your vocals having this effete, delicate structure; the lyrics just being verse by verse by verse rather than a standard pop structure. Would you say that plays a more significant role into describing the theme of privilege?
… I’m very honest about the fact that I have very certain, specific influences that relate to this kitchen-sink pop from England or whatever. That is a big part of what Parenthetical Girls is. Something I always responded to in bands like, for example, The Smiths, is the disparity of these class ideas and ideals, and how they seem diametrically opposed to this intellectual romanticism of how specifically these working-class northern Englanders relate to these ideas. I guess that’s what’s exciting to me about that music in a lot of ways is… this is going to sound terrible, and I’m going to regret saying this, but this idea of the “sweet and tender hooligan” in the Smiths vernacular. This idea of the intellectual working class.
I grew up in a very, very lower class environment, and had illusions about intellectual or artistic pursuits that seemed outside of the norm within my strata. Of course, a young person very much romanticizes that idea. To answer your question in a very roundabout way, we have made a lot of things that people would look at as elitist pop, and I think that Privilege, in addressing these things in a very specific way, was important to me to talk about repositioning Parenthetical Girls as… I dunno, I feel like it was deliberate in some ways that there is a sense that we have this pretension or elitism in the music that we make, or that it’s inherent in the kind of music that we make. But then, I’ve always identified as a very low, working-class, kind of person.
Do you think that plays off on the generational aspect? I mean, the most common criticism people of our generation receive is that we have this overwhelming sense of entitlement.
Sure. I think that a part of it is a contemporaneous idea. There is a song on the album called “Entitlements,” actually, that is the only one that really addresses the idea of class from the non-privileged perspective. Most of the songs that are class-based narratives are based on a reverse perspective. So the songs are written from the perspective of someone theoretically privileged. “Entitlements” is the only one that is written from the perspective of someone who is criticizing a person in a privileged position. Yeah, I don’t think that we are particularly entitled, but we haven’t transcended the entitlements that other generations had… A whole part of my relationship with privilege is a repulsion and attraction to the idea of what that means, as an alien to it. It’s fascinating, and it’s fascinating to write about things from a position of privilege, just having to make it up as you go along.
In relation to that, speaking to someone based in Portland right now, one thing he noted about the series was some influence of the boutique culture in that city. Do you think that’s true?
I could say that’s certainly true of the physical entity of the box, because it was definitely crafted in that way. While I do say that Portland is an incredibly privileged place to live…
Assuming you have work, of course.
Actually, that’s kind of the privilege: You don’t have to work and can still get by. For me, that is the ultimate privilege of living in Portland: I don’t have a job, and I eke out a really laughable living doing music. I am like a lot of people there. But I don’t actually feel like the privilege that exists in Portland is an entitled privilege, because though Portland is very affordable and there is a tremendous amount of privilege there, the only way that people survive in Portland in the way that people imagine people living there is by actually being scrappy, and figuring things out in a real hustle-y kind of way. Everybody I know who gets by in Portland is a hustler in some way or another. I don’t know a lot of people in Portland whose parents pay their rent, for example, where in most major cities there’s a lot of people who fall into that category. But yeah, in the grander scheme of things, Portland is incredibly privileged and it’s part of the reason why I am happy to live there. [laughs]
Wealth is an easy thing to criticize and be disgusted by, but ultimately it’s a choice that most people would make if they were given that choice.
So you see privilege as a good thing, in other words.
Always. It wouldn’t be attractive if there weren’t positive aspects to it. Like again, speaking from the most obvious place of wealth: Wealth is an easy thing to criticize and be disgusted by, but ultimately it’s a choice that most people would make if they were given that choice. All that surrounds wealth can be disgusting, but I dunno. I was talking to this friend of mine about this idea of what privilege means, and the positive attributes of privilege, and the fact that privilege… I haven’t said the word privilege so many times except for the last month. I’ve said it at least a million times.
You just want to butcher that word.
[laughs] Yeah. I don’t want to say it anymore. I need a thesaurus. But, the idea of elitism and privilege, for all of its shortcomings and disgusting aspects, is certainly what runs our economy. A class system is in place for a reason, and I’m not excited about that reason. But Western society is based on a class system. This is not a conversation I should be having. [laughs] I’m about to go onto some really ill-informed, libertarian political rant or something. Which is not how I want to be perceived! [laughs]
Well, you could always stand for 13 hours and talk about something, like what Rand Paul did yesterday… That was crazy.
I’m not, yeah… the Pauls. They are a funny bunch.
Anyway, once you are done having to say the word “privilege,” where do you wish to go from there, in terms of the Parenthetical Girls?
I don’t know. It’s a question I’m mulling over. I’ve been working on new songs, and the form of what they are and how they relate to one another hasn’t really come to me yet. Honestly, I could very much see Privilege being the final statement of Parenthetical Girls. I’m not saying that it is, but it makes a lot of sense for it to be that, in a lot of ways. In my mind, anyway, conceptually speaking.
On your own level, then, what is the path that you would take from here?
It’s a good question, and it’s one that I think is the ultimate question every time a big project like this is over. I honestly don’t have a good answer yet. This project is still very fresh for me.
Well, the music does cater to that, so I suppose you’re onto something there.
Yeah. The arc of the album is about this group, and it functions as a goodbye in some ways. It was sort of a deliberate move, but I didn’t necessarily think that it was the end. I don’t know where it is right now. We’ve got a tour that we’re doing. So I can’t say it’s done yet.