You've already met Zac Pennington. He's the well-dressed kid behind the counter at the record store; the one with the Modest Mouse good looks who intimidates you with his storehouse of music knowledge. He's the one standing outside the venue passing out hand-drawn flyers for some multimedia art-rock show he's putting on. He's the one, of course, you knew it all along, that would either end up as a music writer or writing his own music. Pennington is, at heart, every overly ambitious scene nerd that you've ever encountered -- and his many occupations only validate that further.
He's gone the rock critic route, having worked both for The Portland Mercury and The Stranger in Seattle. Pennington is also the brawns behind Slender Means Society, the Portland-based record label that helped break the Blow and even put out a disc by our own hometown heroes the Love Letter Band. Oh, yes, and then there's the band, the Parenthetical Girls. At first, it was merely a pet project of sorts for Pennington and bandmate/friend Jeremy Cooper, but has since evolved into a full-time touring band.
The Girls are an indulgence in lo-fi electro-pop with sweeping digital orchestration and lilting nervous-boy vocals. And while comparisons to fellow Northwestern acts the Dead Science and Jamie Stewart's Xiu Xiu are profuse, if not expected, there is something inherently different in Pennington's musical delivery. Where Stewart's lyrics are an extravagant display of self-loathing, Pennington's instead is a buoyant revel in such things.
We talked, at length, with Pennington about how he writes music, how to avoid interviews and how to be taken seriously.
Westword: The first Girls album was available only on vinyl for the first couple of years, which seems like that could be a hard sell for most people. What were the reasons for that?
Zac Pennington: It was the first thing that we did for Slender Means Society. The main reason, I guess, was that I would rather have 500 vinyl copies of an album sitting in my closet rather than, like, a thousand CDs. I had a certain amount of money to use and I wasn't going to do both. I figured I would make LPs at the time, which was a pretty ridiculous and financially devastating decision, ultimately, because I wasn't able to put anything out for a really long time after that. It was mainly because I wanted to put out a record and CDs seemed like a really easy thing to do and I wanted to do the more difficult thing, I guess. I'm rambling, I'm sorry.
That's all right. That's kind of what interviews are about.
I actually used to be a music journalist for a number of years and I never did interviews with people. I always really hated doing interviews, which is a really terrible thing when you're a music editor.
Funny that you say that. I kind of hate doing interviews too.
Yeah, totally! I interviewed probably, like, three people during the course of my time as a music journalist and hated every single time. And I was a music editor for a period of time and I could never bring myself to interview anyone.
How did you go from rock critic to rocker?
I had obviously always been very interested in music as a spectator and had kind of gone every conceivable avenue to be involved in music that wasn't actually making music, be that setting up shows or writing about music or doing photography or doing design and other stuff -- poorly, I should add -- and was just never particularly satisfied with anything that was peripheral like that.
Eventually I just decided that I really wanted to make music even though I've always been pretty intimidated by the prospect of making music. I've never really had the patience to learn an instrument and so it always seemed sort of beyond my capability to be a musician. It was something that someone would have to guide me through in order for me to be able to do it. But there was never anyone who was particularly excited about that, I don't think, and so I started doing Swastika Girls with an old friend of mine. We worked together on a whim, he was in another band at the time, and he just wanted an avenue for us to do some recording with and we just sort of stumbled through it. It worked pretty well for a while and then we kind of gave up on it.
I still feel pretty under-qualified to make music, but have found enough people to accommodate my shortcomings and who are able to assist me in sort of fleshing out the vision that I have for things. I feel like I have a pretty well refined aesthetic for what I like but I just have a difficult time actualizing those things.
So you don't just get together and jam with the Girls?
As much as I would really like it to be a real intentional thing to have the aspects of the band skewed in a weird way by trying different avenues of writing songs, it's mainly just a matter of necessity. I just can't play anything proficiently enough to jam anything out. And so the only way that I can apply what I want to anything is by sitting in my house and recording for a really long time until I get the thing right.
I am pretty happy with how it works because I'm able to work with these musicians who are really talented and who really know what they're doing to flesh out these ideas. And then we have to learn how to play the songs live based on the recordings. Which I think that because it's such a backwards way of working on things, it makes not only our recordings more interesting but our live composition a lot more interesting than it would be otherwise.
You definitely don't seem to do things according to the norm, such as re-releasing your vinyl only album later as a double disc with an added MP3 CD.
Right. I feel like that was a total shooting-myself-in-the-foot maneuver. I really wanted to include both versions that are on the LP in a CD. The LP version is both of the versions on side A and side B. As a collector, I have a real aversion to expanded albums. I thought the idea of having an expanded CD with the first seven tracks and then those same seven tracks again just really irritated me. The format of the album was designed with the LP in mind because I knew that we were going to be doing the LP from the beginning. It was kind of an indulgence in that.
I didn't want it to repeat itself, so I was trying to think of another way to do that. And the only other way I could think of to do that was to have a bonus disc, which seemed really, really wasteful and ridiculous too.
A lot of people were really irritated by what we did. There were a lot, a lot, a lot of reviews that basically talked very little about the music and talked mostly about the format of the CD, which was kind of frustrating. It was just mainly a logistical decision but I think a lot of people assumed that it meant that we were taking ourselves way too seriously. I think a lot of people thought that the idea of us re-releasing that album at all was kind of ridiculous. But it wasn't some, like, real arty statement as a lot of people have assumed. It was just more practical, but I guess it's actually more impractical to most people.
Oh, but I wanted to say, back to the live versus record thing: Even though there's a lot to be said for the new media, as far as MP3s and downloading killing music or whatever, the big thing for me that has been very bothersome as far as digital media is concerned is that I think that for most bands at this point the record has been the definitive article of where they were at any given time when they were recording.
The Rolling Stones or whoever would get together and practice for a really long time and just try to record the song as best as humanly possible. But at this point, it's like--and this is of great benefit to a person like me who can't play instruments--I think that digital media has made it a lot easier for people to record really grandiose ridiculous sonic statements in a way that was a lot harder for people historically.
But also because it's such an easy thing, it's also so pervasive. Pro Tools has made it a lot easier for people. So it has made it really difficult for me to go an enjoy live music a lot of the time. I think that sort of weird dichotomy exists with a lot of bands where they record an album and then have to figure out how to go play it. Whereas before you were a really great band and you made a really great record because you played really well and you knew what you were doing.
You have this very particular way of doing things, with regards to the band and the label. Do you think it's a good model for others to follow suit?
I don't know. The way that I work is a really selfish model of working. I feel like I work as an island in a strange way. There's an autonomy to the way that I work on things that is not entirely productive. I certainly am a terrible business person and am really bad at all reasonable business practices.
This is actually kind of an interesting time to talk about this because we just had the Safe As Houses record released on vinyl by a friend of mine who runs a label in Los Angeles called Oedipus Records. I couldn't afford to put it out on vinyl because it costs twice as much to do and you don't make any money back. So I just did the CD version. It's the first time that I haven't had full financial control over something that we put out. And it's really crazy to me to think that this is how bands normally operate. Like you get a certain allotment of CDs or LPs or whatever and then you have to buy the records from the label once you have run out of that allotment. And it makes total sense. You can't fault the label for doing that; they have to make their money back.
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It's really easy to press a record and if you don't know what you're doing, it's really easy to, like, put the nail in your own coffin, in that respect. What I mean is this: if you don't apply yourself to making what you do legitimate or at least have the appearance of legitimacy, then no one else is going to take you seriously either.
Catch Parenthetical Girls at the hi-dive on Friday, April 13.
-- Tuyet Nguyen