Parenthetical Girls Interview
Now, Joe Nockles isn’t one for hyperbole, but he won’t stop banging on about how Parenthetical Girls are the best band in the world right now. We sent him to catch up with the band at the tail end of their UK tour.
How have you found your week in the UK?
Zac Pennington - It’s been kind of harrowing in a strange way. The circumstances of it have been kind of bad. We got to Brighton, our first show, and Freddy [Rupert] had to go to the emergency room. That was pretty scary. We were driving him here from Cologne and his stomach issue acted up, so we took him to the hospital. He’s felt a lot better since, but the day after that show I got pretty sick. We played in Cardiff and I played a fairly miserable show. The show itself was quite fun, but I kind of made it miserable unintentionally. It kind of threw the show.
But you managed to catch up with Los Campesinos! there?
Zac - Yes, which was nice and then Gareth [Campesinos!] came with us to Manchester, which was our next show. He played our roadie and tour manager which he’s done a couple of times.
Jherek Bischoff – He’s very good at it.
Zac – He’s very good at it. In fact, last time we were here he was talking about, once the children stop listening to his band, he’s gonna become a road manager, because he’s so good at it…He didn’t say children. He said something else. I’m not gonna put words in his mouth.
What has been the highlight of the whole European tour?
Zac - Wow, erm, I think our trip to Venice was the best. We’ve played pretty extensively in Italy, but that’s the first time we’ve ever been to Venice. It was amazing. I’ve never seen anything as beautiful as Venice. From the minute we arrived it was like, it was pretty evident that we would never be invited back. Not because it was bad or that we performed poorly, but it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for us, because there’s only one venue in Venice and they don’t really book rock bands very often.
Would you call yourself a rock band?
Zac - Ah, no. Certainly not. We call ourselves a pop band as a rule. Yeah, we play pop music.
Yeah, I’d go with that. Definitely. Do you get a similar sized audience in Italy as you do in the UK?
Zac - Yeah, yeah. Italy has been really amazing for us. We got some weird, really weird, out of nowhere really early press in Italy and so we’ve kind of tours in Europe.
It’s interesting how English language music translates to Europe. They really go for it.
Zac – Yeah, well it’s strange. It seems like, especially in Italy, you go to record stores and they have every Freddy Mercury solo album or whatever. They’re really into super-dramatic pop music there. So we sneak in pretty well there.
Portland’s got quite a community of musicians at the moment, hasn’t it?
Zac - Yeah.
What is it about Portland that facilitates that?
Zac - Erm, it’s mainly a financial circumstance more than anything. It’s incredibly cheap to live in Portland. And also like, it has a weirdly self-contained community. It’s very affordable to live in Portland and it’s very comfortable. There’s no jobs there either and so there’s a really thriving community of unemployed people.
It sounds like Brighton.
Rachel Jensen – Actually, Zac and I have both compared Brighton to Portland.
Zac – Yeah, Brighton feels a lot like Portland. I feel strangely comfortable in Brighton in the same way that I feel strangely comfortable in Portland.
Rachel – They could be sister cities.
Zac - Yeah, I feel like they could be. I feel like I’ve never been super in love with Portland, but it’s the only place in the United States that I would live.
We’re getting quite a wave coming over; Parenthetical Girls, Xiu Xiu, Former Ghosts, Perfume Genius is just making his tracks here, Yacht. Is there anything else we should be looking out for?
Zac - My favourite band at the moment is Exploded into Colors, but I think that they’ve recently disbanded.
Rachel – Well, you know, we’ve got Pavement.
Zac - Yeah, we’ve got Pavement. [laughs] Ah, and there’s this really great band in Portland right now called Assss, A-S-S-S-S. They’re really great.
Rachel – I mean there’s the band called White Fang that people are crazy about, but I don’t really think it’s awesome.
Zac – They’re great. Yeah. I mean, Perfume Genius is incredible.
Rachel – He’s from Seattle though.
Zac – He’s an old, old friend of mine actually. I’ve known Mike [Hadreas] for years and years and years. He’s one of those people who’s frustratingly great at everything. He just kind of stumbled into doing Perfume Genius as a lark and is now making the most beautiful music.
Ok, on a sort of wider scale, who do admire in the music industry at the moment?
Rachel – You like Wild Beasts.
Zac – Yeah, I’m pretty enamoured with Wild Beasts and have been for a while. I saw them play at SXSW this last year and they were the only band that I actually cared about seeing at the festival. Yeah, I like that band a lot.
How do you go about writing a song, where do you start?
Zac - Generally speaking, I have these sections of songs and then Jherek and I knock out the rest of the arrangements together. I mean, I’m really terrible at arranging songs and so I basically just come up with very, very kind of simplistic sketches for songs and then write words around the sketches. Then I’ll work with Jherrek to flesh out the arrangements. I have a weird system where I type phrases on typewriter and use them, I learned this from Billy Corgan, so I have a recipe box full of fragments and then I piece it together.
You’ve got some pretty abject lyrics, lyrics that could cause offence. Have they ever?
Zac – Erm…
Rachel – My grandmother.
Zac – Your grandmother. Rachel’s grandmother doesn’t care for the lyrics.
Rachel – She’s extremely opposed to the lyrics.
Zac – I’ve been accused of having misogynistic leanings at times but generally…
What? I would completely disagree with that.
Rachel – Yeah, it’s surprising.
While singing from the perspective of a woman?
Zac - Especially on Safe As Houses. At that point, I was trying to write a record that was completely absent of romanticism. I’d grown really wary of men who were writing about women from this incredibly romantic perspective. I didn’t wanna write love songs that were about these weird bloated romanticised notions of how women are, but I think that in the process there were times when the pendulum swung a little too far for some people. I was trying to write about how a women might feel in some of these circumstances.
You seem to explore similar ideas to Shelagh Delaney (Playwright: A Taste of Honey etc) and Morrissey.
Zac - I am an absurd anglophile. I feel like most of the things that I write are anchored in this weird kitchen sink notion of the world.
With ‘Evelyn McHale’ as well, you seem quite interested in people’s stories.
Zac - Yeah, Evelyn McHale is kind of arbitrary, weirdly.
Rachel – I think people just think it’s autobiographical, because you use the word “car” in the song.
Zac - Yeah, but it’s not really about Evelyn McHale at all, but I just decided there were a lot of weird connections.
So what is it about?
Zac - It’s kind of an inverted anthem for Parenthetical Girls. The third E.P has a reprise of ‘Evelyn McHale’ that we haven’t recorded yet. I mean, I find Evelyn McHale really fascinating as a figure, but I just didn’t have a name for the song.
Where does the name, Parenthetical Girls come from?
Zac - Well it’s a pretty direct and unapologetic rip off of Theoretical Girls, which is a Glenn Branca band. I really like Glenn Branca’s work though I’m not really crazy about Theoretical Girls as a band. I really like his orchestral stuff. But I was always super-jealous of that band name so we just ripped it off.
You said in an interview a while ago that you attract “an inordinately large queer audience amongst your fairly modest audience”. Why do you think you do?
Zac - Well because of our relationship with Jamie [Stewart], we’ve drawn a lot of our audience from a similar pool of people that have been drawn to Xiu Xiu, the same way that Freddy has with Former Ghosts. So I feel like there’s a crossover there. I feel like I have had…I don’t know, this seems like a really ignorant thing to say maybe, but I feel like I’ve always identified with queer culture and queer icons without actually being a homosexual personally. Wait that sounds ignorant.
Well you had the Judy Garland art work at one point, didn’t you?
Rachel – Yeah, but she’s universal. I know that she’s a real icon for the homosexual community, but she’s just fantastic in general.
She’s pretty good, isn’t she?
Zac – Yeah, I mean I grew up in a small mill town in Washington so I feel like, in spite of my heterosexuality, I was kind of chastised in the same way I may have been if I…and I guess that’s kind of arrogant.
Rachel – But you really did live through the treatment of…
Zac – Yeah, I may as well have been a homosexual. I certainly was not well received in my home town.
Rachel – He also looks…like a woman. [laughs]. He’s beautiful like a woman.
You did a cover of Tori Amos’ ‘Jackie’s Strength’ and I saw on Facebook that it had been used as the soundtrack for someone’s thinspiration video. How did you feel about that?
Zac - Yeah! It was very bizarre. I don’t know…I certainly understand dyspmorphia.
Was there a part of you that wanted to intervene?
Zac - Not really. I mean, I suppose maybe there is a part of me that should have, but I don’t know. It’s real strange misreading of that song. Especially to use our version of it is very strange. That was, I don’t know, another weird Youtube link.
Rachel – You have to just ignore Youtube. It’s like a vast unknown. You can’t save or confront Youtube.
What do you see as Rachel’s role in the band? Maybe not musically, but the band as a social unit?
Zac - Rachel’s essentially the reason that the band exists anymore at all. There was a point where Jherrek and Sam Mickens, who used to be a bigger part of the band, couldn’t continue and I was just gonna quit doing it, but Rachel saved the band by volunteering herself to be a part of it.
Rachel – Basically, Zac was on the brink of…
Zac - Yeah, no. I was done.
Rachel – And I had already been a fan of his and I just offered myself…
Zac – Rachel intervened. She’s the heart of Parenthetical Girls, I would say.
Rachel – [Moved] That’s really sweet.
Talk me through the Privilege project. It’s a series of EP’s that together make an album, but it’s not definite that it will be released as an album?
Zac - Yes. The idea conceptually is that eventually it will be released as an album in an abridged version. Ultimately, we started working on it because we had just released the Entanglements album which took us a really, really long time to record and release. The whole process took like two years which was really, really insane for us. It was really frustrating to sit on something, so the notion of working on these individual pieces and focusing on the idea of making each song self contained was exciting for us.
When Privilege is one complete whole, will it feel like an album or will it be series of separate pockets?
Zac - Well the idea is that it will be kind of cohesive, but we’re recording it in these bricks of time that are separate from each other. There are these conceptual threads that are leading through, but I think it’s a lot looser than the threads that have existed in previous albums. This time, they are self contained, but conceptually they do connect. It will be more like, it sounds arrogant to say this maybe, but maybe more like a collection of short stories rather than a novel...If that makes sense?
The Dubliners rather than Ulysses?
Zac - Yes, exactly. [laughs] I’ve never read James Joyce in my life, but I know what you’re talking about.
Is the whole of Privilege planned? Is there a template or is it just happening as it happens?
Zac - We’re kind of trying to make it happen as it happens. We’ve recorded the first two and we have material in flux for the third one, but it’s not ready, we haven’t recorded it at all.
But you’d like to get the second one out as soon as possible?
Zac - Yeah. We recorded it at the end of 2009, but we’ve been so busy that we haven’t been able to mix it yet. When we get back to Seattle after the end of this trip, we’ll mix it. Hopefully, after a couple of months it’ll be out.