Zeena Parkins is a quintessential 21st century musician, equally adept as a performer (her custom harp is augmented with a whammy bar), composer, and bandleader. She takes on a remarkably diverse array of roles, including touring with Björk, composing for dance troupes, improvising with electronic artist Ikue Mori in Phantom Orchard, and teaching at Mills College in Oakland.
That job led somewhat indirectly to her current muse The Adorables, a band with percussionist Shayna Dunkelman, electronic musician Preshish Moments (né Michael Carter), and drummer Jordan Glenn, all Mills alums. Parkins describes the band as "Disney Sun Ra," and while it's an apt description, there's quite a bit more going on with their music than any three words can encapsulate. An enchanting mix of exotica, pop, contemporary classical, and electronic beats, The Adorables is at once tranquil in its affect and restless in its construction, an ideal way to soundtrack (or trigger) your most pleasing half-conscious daydreams.
The band, with the exception of drummer Glenn, are based in New York, but will return to their source with a concert at Mills College this Friday, Feb. 1, highlighting selections from their upcoming debut. A few days before their West Coast debut, Parkins spoke with All Shook Down about the genesis of the band, the importance of staying busy, and her work with Björk.
So you're all [the bandmembers] living in New York presently, right?
Yes! In fact, living in the same building. It's turned into a cult.
Tell me how this West Coast excursion came about.
I have been teaching at Mills for four years. I replace Fred Frith['s post] every Spring. I teach one semester a year and just do regular freelance stuff. Mills asked me if I wanted to do a concert this semester and I immediately knew I wanted to do it with The Adorables.
You were working on a more traditional piece when you were invited to perform as The Adorables instead. Can you explain how that worked?
Well, I should say that my whole experience before this band is doing commissions for dance. I'm really connected to that community, and it offers a constant flow of work in different styles. This group came about when a choreographer named Neil Greenberg needed a piece and I decided I wanted a real band onstage with the dancers. I didn't know Mike (Preshish Moments) yet, but I knew Shayna and I knew I wanted that orchestral percussion [that she does]. I also knew I wanted electronics and I wanted beats. So Shayna told me about Mikey and the whole thing kind of fell onto the plate.
I wrote a set of music and we performed it for two weeks with the dance troupe in 2010. By the time it was over, it was clear, 'oh, this is a band.' I knew I wanted to keep writing for this group. And then gigs just kept coming in -- we played Victoriaville [Canadian avant-garde music festival], we did this Undead Festival in New York, and we were getting this great response. It sort of became itself really quickly.
And has this been collaborative or has it been you guiding the material?
So far it's just been me writing all the material, but this kind of psychic communication between me, Mikey, and Shayna has been a big part of how these songs came to be. I'll probably continue to do at least 75 percent of the writing but I'll open it up a bit for the next set we write.
How much of a financial challenge is it to bring a band from one coast to another in this day and age?
Well, it's a near impossibility to have a band. Initially I got enough to pay the other three musicians -- I'm not taking a cut -- and cover the travel. Originally, I wanted to do a West Coast tour, but that wasn't gonna be feasible. You just find ways to make what you have work. It all depends on where you are in your career and how much you're willing to sacrifice. For me, I would like us to get paid for gigs. That's probably going to be more at festival shows than one-off gigs.
Most musicians are defining success right now as not losing money, especially when you're playing music that's hard to categorize. If you're playing something that doesn't fall into a neat category, you're probably doing other things for income.
Right. The thing is I made it doubly harder for myself by insisting on super-lush orchestration. We're not just going out with drums, bass, and guitar. We're going out with not one but two harps, and vibes, and concert bass drums, and glockenspiel, and tams! So even though in some ways it's kind of a rock band, it's more of a mini-orchestra. The inspiration is definitely Disney Sun Ra. Like a big band playing super-lush film music.
Did you say Disney Sun Ra?
Yeah, I did. He did some music for Disney that was super-inspirational. So that orchestral lushness combined with electronics.
You have this 21st century musical career that John Zorn sort of pioneered where you do a little bit of everything: composing, performing, collaborating, and teaching. What else is on your plate right now?
I'm writing for this "Body Photography" choreography and working with Neil Greenberg again. I'm also working on a new solo harp project, for electric harp. I also finished a piece called "Scatterings" for the Eclipse Quartet and [percussionist] William Winant that I'm super excited about. And I just did this commission for a group in New York called Ne(x)tworks based on the Walter Benjamin Archives, using a different method of communicating with players through a moving graphic score, objects, and regular notation.
So you're kinda busy.
Yeah. And my duo with Ikue Mori, Phantom Orchard, just released an orchestral record of our music. So there's no lack of wonderful projects. Oh, and I'm still playing with Björk. It's not 100 percent confirmed but we're supposed to play shows in May and June in SF.
What are your impressions of the Bay Area versus New York.
Well, since I've been here [in California] I've been kind of a hermit. I'm in my beautiful Mills campus bubble.
Are you more social in New York or is that also a time for hermitage?
Definitely more social. The lines between my friends and collaborators are blurrier.
The vibe is so different out here, though. This is the world of running out and taking a hike near a volcano and seeing mountain lions and eating incredible food.
There's definitely a big emphasis corporeal satisfaction out here.
Yeah, and I feel those urges tugging at me when I'm here, challenging my workaholic nature!