When we tell you Popular Music is one of the most creative bands out there, you’ll just have to believe us. That’s because you can’t Google the band. Go ahead and try. See? So you’ll just have to accept it when we say they are well worth the trip to Holocene this Friday, May 17. 

“Yeah, yeah, we know that our SEO is really troubled,” says Popular Music’s Zac Pennington. "It's impossible to Google ourselves, but that is probably healthy."

So here’s what Google won’t tell you: Popular Music is the Melborne, Australia-based duo of Prudence Rees-Lee and Pennington, who is formerly of Portland’s own Parenthetical Girls and also a former music editor of this here publication. (You can Google that last one to read his "Complete Idiot's Guide to the Cremaster Cycle," and more.)

It will not surprise you to hear Popular Music "burst out of pandemic times;" Pennington explains he found himself in a bit of a creative rut during COVID lockdown. He was living in Los Angeles, having lowered the curtains on the band for which he was best known, Parenthetical Girls, as he left the Pacific Northwest in 2014.

It was in LA's company-town environment that he found inspiration for his next record, In Darkness, a vaguely high-concept album of cover songs that were written for and featured in films.

Under the new moniker Popular Music, Pennington and Rees-Lee covered tunes from West Side Story, Footloose, and even Philadelphia—giving the soundtrack songs new compositional life on a collection of analogue synthesizers, paired with string quartet flourishes. It’s an incredible album, but not the most commercial endeavor, a fact Pennington is well aware of. “It's a record of covers of songs from the movies from a band no one's ever heard of,” he says, laughing. “No reasonable person would put it out.”

In Darkness was self-released, but the cost was worth it for Pennington, as it became a path back to music. “I had a period of really intense writer's block where I had created a bunch of songs that were 85 percent finished, and I couldn't get them over the line—I kind of lost it,” Pennington explains. “I stopped working on it. And the process of doing Popular Music, and particularly In Darkness, was sort of baby steps, trying to work back into being able to make things again. Physical therapy is the analogy I kind of always use. It's like I'm slowly retraining the muscle of how to do this."

The ersatz music muscle physical therapy worked, because in October the duo released their debut album of original music, Minor Works. It's the first full album that Pennington has written in a decade, and it’s a doozy—made not only with the compositions and contributions from his partner Rees-Lee, but with percussion from Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier, additional compositions by Jherek Bischoff (Angel Olsen, Xiu Xiu, David Byrne), as well as a 17-piece Russian chamber orchestra who Zoomed in from Moscow.

To support the release, the band is shipping out from their home base in Australia for a small West Coast tour with even more original songs in tow.

“For this tour, we're releasing a new mini-album of seven songs that we're bringing with us that is a tour-exclusive cassette called Against Men,” Pennington says, explaining the cassette features work that is a continuation of material that was on the Minor Works, and is a bit of an exorcism of the last ghosts of his writer’s block. “Getting through all of this, these records, has been a real challenge, but finally feeling like I'm back to the place where I am making things that I like—it's been pretty rewarding,” Pennington says, laughing as he adds, “It’s like men will literally pay thousands of dollars to make an indie rock record before they go to therapy.”

Pennington is ready to return to the world of touring, but decamping from Australia for a minivan tour of the West Coast is a challenge (and if you have a spare synth lying around, the band might want to have a word). “We consolidated everything into a very mobile unit,” Pennington says. “We're going to be borrowing a little bit of stuff, but we've got a couple of synthesizers, a box that controls things, and a really long mic cable.”

The tour is a bit of a homecoming for Pennington, who lived and worked in the Pacific Northwest for years before decamping for LA and then Australia. “I haven't properly spent any time in Portland in several years now. When we're coming back for this trip, I've set aside a chunk of time to hang out. I am really curious how it's going to feel,” he says.

He does have a few predictions, though:  “I think it will be slightly more expensive and all of the views will be condo blocked.” He’s probably not wrong, but as they say, you can’t go home again without having the views blocked by luxury condos. 

Going full circle can be dizzying, though, and Pennington is braced for the worse. “I'm absolutely terrified, and it's the lowest possible stakes. I’m going to Holocene where I've played a dozen times, like a decade ago.” he says. “But it feels high stakes, because I feel like I'm just starting. I'm going back exactly to the place I was a decade ago, like literally physically the same place. It feels like everything and nothing has changed.” 

Go give Zac Pennington and Popular Music a hometown welcome by showing up at Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison, Fri May 17, doors open at 5 so you can be in bed by 10 pm, $10, tickets here, 21+