Music

Safe as Parentheses

An Interview with Zac Pennington

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FORMER MERCURY music editor Zac Pennington is set to release Safe as Houses, the sophomore album from his band Parenthetical Girls, a lo-fi Spector pop outfit spiced with glockenspiel and androgyny. For the follow-up to 2004's (((GRRRLS))), Zac (AKA Empress Preenington), was joined in the studio by Jherek Bischoff and Sam Mickens of Dead Science, and has since put together a new line-up to include Brenna Murphy, Matt Carlson, and Rachael Jensen. Here Zac dishes on the new album and the journalist-to-artist crossover.

Following from the (((GRRRLS))) release, it seems that Safe as Houses is a continuation in theme and narrative, albeit somewhat different in terms of tone and atmosphere. Had you had it in mind to write and record a companion album?

I wouldn't exactly say that Safe as Houses is a direct extension of the (((GRRRLS))) record. There are definitely thematic links—most transparently the fact that our last record ends with "Love Connection" and Safe as Houses begins with its sequel. More than anything I guess, "Love Connection, Pt. II" is meant as a sort of final punctuation on the (((GRRRLS))) record—mining the same subject matter, but in a way that I guess sort of recalibrates for the change in tone that the band has undergone.

In your role as a music journalist, you often come across as notoriously acerbic. Removed from any kind of cultivated persona in this regard, I think it makes perfect sense that someone exposed to so much music would grow increasingly discerning in his or her tastes. With this in mind, how harshly do you judge your own music, and how self-aware are you when it comes to your influences?

I know it's my own stupid fault that most anyone who's read what I've written for the Mercury probably thinks I'm a curmudgeonly prick—and rightly so, I suppose—but ultimately, I find that I'm able to enjoy music a lot more when I allow myself to be hyper-critical of it. As for my own music, I'm in the strangely fortunate position of not actually being able to play any instrument proficiently enough to even begin to emulate anyone when I'm writing a song. Which isn't to say that there's not a shit-ton of personally embarrassing plagiarism throughout our songs, but it's usually in the words—and nobody listens to words anymore anyway.

Pop music tends to prioritize its own accessibility much more so than other genres. While Safe as Houses is certainly a pop album, it seems to have a lot more ambition than a lot of other pop being produced in the current musical climate.

I've always tried to work with people who are considerably less pop-focused than me, in the hopes of creating something with a little more depth and subtlety than what generally passes for a pop song. With Safe as Houses, I was fortunate enough to work with Jherek and Sam, who both have extensive backgrounds in jazz and improvised music. Because I generally write the basic structures of the songs, they'll always be inherently poppy—but it sort of comes down to whatever seems best for the songs.

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