Ryan here. Awhile back we/I released a live-performance short film called The Parmesans: Live on a Rooftop in Chinatown (we also released a music video with them a couple summers ago). I did so without much fanfare, but it’s one of my favorite things I’ve directed and gotten to be a part of, so I wanted to retroactively give it a little bit of that fanfare I feel it’s due. I thought I could do so by trying to explain what I love so much about the titular band, in an effort to convince you to both watch and listen.
Disclaimer: The Parmesans are one of my all time favorite bands, and are hands-down my favorite contemporary band. As I set out to review them, let me start off by admitting I am biased, and probably not too much of an objective musical authority: I am friends with them, and don’t really listen to any other contemporary music. Hopefully that doesn’t make you automatically disregard my opinion… but we all have our own tastes, so I guess I’m allowed to have mine. Please excuse my context-giving, but I love context. And please excuse me if I’m being overly apologetic for having an opinion. Articulating praise doesn’t come naturally to me.
Simply put, The Parmesans are a three-piece, folk-revival band, with an aptitude for catchy songwriting and sweet, sweet harmonies. What makes them great, though (in my humble and admittedly biased opinion), is that you can tell they are driven by a true love for what they do: something that all exceptional art-making (or work of any kind, for that matter) thrives on. That love has wholeheartedly fueled their pursuit of their craft. They play shows non-stop, release a new album or EP on a regular basis, all while being their own best critics and never aiming for anything less than their own high standards. Spencer is the bassist, Brendan provides the high-end on mandolin, and Andrew is primarily on guitar (he occasionally pulls out the trumpet, too). All of them are writers, and take up singing duties on their respective songs.
For the sake of getting beyond just being able to point out their “great harmonies” (which they are), I think I’ve best been able to pinpoint what I love so much about their music when I’ve tried to define what I like about each of their individual songwriting styles. Spencer’s songs beautifully and succinctly capture that feeling I can only think to describe as that “campfire” feel (Vacation Song). They provide a warm reassurance that there’s something inherently correct in the simplest human experiences; a reassurance that says “Hey, we’re all in this together, so lets enjoy it.” Brendan may be the tough cookie of the group image-wise, but his songs communicate a longing for connection that pulls at my heartstrings until they hurt, and hurt bad. They do so with a tone that’s equal parts painfully self-aware and humorously self-deprecating regarding one’s futile romantic plights, usually for a one sided or long gone object-of-affection (Bad Idea). Last but not least, I love Andrew’s songs because they seem to seek what’s different, interesting, or previously unthought, both lyrically and musically. His songs get across that satisfaction that comes from when the unfamiliar sounds familiar, both on a one to two word level with song titles like State B, JuJaJe, or Gimlet Eyes, or with full phrases that make total sense because they make no obvious sense. When the work is left to the listener to interpret the meaning, that meaning becomes more powerful, a truth that can only be communicated through the medium of song.
So, three Parmesans, three predominate feels communicated. But of course this isn’t a hard and fast rule that every single one of their songs blindly follows. I think it’s more just a creative (or I can be bold and use the word “spiritual”) grounding point for each of them as artists and communicators. This grounding point then allows them to try other things they want to do, to blend with and bounce off each other, like all good bands do; pushing each other in interesting new directions, and/or just helping each of their intentions jive especially well. All of this adds up to one, predominate feel which is entirely The Parmesans.
With a name like The Parmesans (“because we’re white and cheesy”), and silly or punny album names like Wolf Eggs, Nature’s Burrito, and Flat Baroque, their sense of humor is clearly and unabashedly on display. Not only is that attitude or style great because it continues the important creative habit of doing whatever tickles them, but leaving that pretension at the door has ironically allowed them to deliver more serious songwriting than most other folk music, or maybe just contemporary music, that I’m at least aware of. Hopefully this isn’t stepping on the toes of their musical intentions, but I think they’ve gotten so good at doing what they do that they can more accurately be described as folk-pop. It’s folk at heart, but at the same time doing something way more than those dudes at the farmer’s market. By starting from a place of homage (yet still staying true to those roots), I think they’ve broken free from any the built-in conceptual boundaries the genre has that exist in the mainstream’s critical eye.
It seems like every single time a filmmaker posts or promotes a film, it’s accompanied by a call-to-action to watch it as big and loud as possible. This case is no different. As filmmakers, like musicians, our job is to communicate a feel, and as humans that can most effectively be done through having as ideal means of visual and auditory consumption as possible. I realize with this rooftop concert of ours, that that impulse might be thought of as less important when compared to something more like a narrative work. I think for this sort of piece it can be even more important to give it the full movie-treatment, because the feel (which can be argued has a sort of narrative flow or arc) is only communicated through sound and image, rather than also having a plotting of story beats building on each other. Commanding your full attention is the most effective way to allow oneself to be transported.
The Parmesans came to me and my DP Terrance with the desire to make something that would capture the feel of their live act. My goal for accomplishing this was to guide all the wide-ranging elements in filmmaking toolkit to best capture “the moment.” True to their spirit of a live act, this video was shot live as one continuous take (then edited down).
If you’ve made it this far then that hopefully means you’re down to set aside 15 minutes (“ugh what? 15 minutes?!”) to take a ride on the feel-wave of our little concert video. Best case scenario, you’ll like them as much as myself and the rest of their dedicated fan base does. Or instead, but ideally in addition to, you should check out their latest and strongest album Flat Baroque. It rocks.