Owen Pallett interview

INTERVIEW: Owen Pallett on his move to Montreal, sensationalist journalism, and made-up music beefs

Owen Pallett has mixed feelings about music journalism, theory and criticism, and he's not afraid to tell us why.

Chartattack squiggle

- May 8, 2014

It's been four years since Owen Pallett released his last album. That's an eternity in indie rock circles, but you'd never know it from his work schedule. In the years since 2010's Heartland, the formerly Toronto-based violinist has created soundtracks for ballet, written for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, toured extensively with Arcade Fire, was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the score to Spike Jonze's Her, and kept busy otherwise as a string arranger for hire for the likes of The Mountain Goats, The National and Taylor Swift.

Now based in Montreal, Pallett's headlining performance this Saturday, May 10 at the Danforth Music Hall is a homecoming of sorts, but a bit of a bittersweet one: his remarkable new album, In Conflict, which updates his looping violin sound with epic synth soundscapes and guest spots from Brian Eno, should have been right on the horizon, but it's been delayed to the end of the month by the strain created on vinyl pressing plants by Record Store Day. So his performance will be the first peek at some of the material, and at his new live setup: he's reunited with his old band, Les Mouches, whose sound he describes as "all the old songs set on fire."

Owen Pallett - The Riverbed (Official Video)

I caught him on the phone from Atlanta, where he's touring as part of Arcade Fire and playing solo sets at their after parties. You'd think he'd be exhausted, but that didn't stop him from engaging me in a sprawling discussion that spanned between Toronto, Montreal, the United States and Haiti on topics of geographic alienation, the difference between lyrics written from experience and "confession," sensationalist music criticism, cultural appropriation and the classist implications of using Western music theory to dissect pop music.

And he called out a Chart Attack writer by name. It got a little tense.


You started out writing from your own experiences for the lyrics of In Conflict, but I've seen you resist to words like "personal" and "confessional." Why's that?

Owen Pallett: I feel like the world "personal" suggests that there’s somehow an impersonal record, or that people for who make instrumental music that that music might not be personal. That’s weird to me, and suggests that records I’ve made in the past, because they cloud my experiences under the shroud of what is called fictional, that somehow those records don’t come from my lifetime of experience.

My hiccups around the word "confessional" are more related to the way that word is often used to describe '90s female singer/songwriters that I grew up with. I always instinctively had a very strange feeling when Rolling Stone or Spin would describe Alanis or Tori or Lisa Germano as being confessional. I recognize as an adult that the reason I felt weird about it is because it suggested somehow that the writing was automatic as opposed to intentional, and I guess as a teenager I was annoyed that they would Otherize these females.

Ever since you started going by your own name instead of Final Fantasy, the narrative has been “this is now you, this is personal.” But you're actually playing with a band now, whereas you were totally solo when you started.

I never denied that people are going to read some sort of shift toward my music being perceived as personal, now that I go by my own name. Certainly, I’ve observed that there’s a dividing line between songs that Morrissey wrote for The Smiths and songs that Morrissey wrote for Morrissey, even though the narrative voice is just as displaced. I can’t but help work a little harder to associate Morrissey songs being sung by a narrator instead of the actual words of Steven Patrick Morrissey’s own belief. I’m not denying other people that right, I’m simply saying that I’ve perceived no such shift, myself.

You're working with Rob Gordon and Matt Smith again, who played in your pre-Final Fantasy band, Les Mouches. How much input did they have on this album? 

Les Mouches - Carload of Whatever

They were hugely influential. They’re my studio band as well as my live band. They may not have written all the drum or bass parts but they absolutely shaped them. Additionally, they formed an important part of my creative process. They were my confidants as well as my board of directors. Every song was vetted through them. A lot of genre discussions were had with them.

How does it change your live show, playing as a trio rather than just one guy with a looping pedal?

I don’t see In Conflict as a departure from Heartland, as much as it is the next step. I don’t think of it as a lateral move, as much as it is a forward move. The live show, on the other hand, is completely different now. My friend Kevin described it as "hearing all of the old songs set on fire," which I thought was pretty good. We try to play it as a mix of moods. We play some really loud, I do some solo ones, and there’s quieter ones so we’re not alienating the more delicate audience members.

So much of your work. whether it's ballet, Arcade Fire, film scores, that seven inch you did with Daphni, even your Owen Pallett records, so much of it is playing off someone else. How important is collaboration to how you write?

It’s definitely easier for me to work with a collaborator because then you have a one-to-one transaction in regards to ego-fulfillment. Right now, having submitted the master to this record something like 10 months ago now, the feeling of its release and the effect it’s going to have on my psyche is kind of overwhelming. Far better to just throw pieces of music at other people and receive a cheque in the mail and a complimentary email.

How did this Daphni collaboration come together?

I’ve known Dan [Snaith] for more than 10 years, since The Hidden Cameras and Manitoba played shows together back in 2002. In fact, we even may or may not have lived together in '05/'06. I think he was subletting a room that I was paying rent on. At the time I was spending every night at my boyfriend’s house, so it's hard to say. My memory of that period is hazy.


Anyway, I've just known the guy for a long time. One day he booked this studio in Toronto because, even though he lives in London now, he wanted to have a few days where he’d just get a bunch of his Toronto friends to come in and track some stuff for the Caribou record, Daphni collaborations or anything else. People like Colin Fisher, the sax player from Not The Wind, Not The Flag. I was one of the people he called to come in and track some violin.

He sent the finished track, "Julia," about a month after we tracked. I played it for Matt and Rob and we all said "this is really, really good." He contacted me six months later saying that the response he's gotten to "Julia" in DJ sets was so positive that it was overwhelming. It was gaining a reputation as a dance floor killer. He had other DJ’s begging him for the track.

He wanted to make a B-side, so he sent me the rough beat to "Tiberius." I formulated most of the track on top of that in the violin world and he responded to that with some of the noise jam stuff that happens at the end. I wanted to make a track that had no tonal centre, so it didn’t have any sort of pitch, didn’t imply any harmony. That was my goal with that one, especially too because I thought it would be a nice contrast to "Julia," which was so clearly insistent on a single pitch.

A few years ago that would have seemed like such a Toronto-centric collaboration, but Dan's in the U.K., and you’re living now in Montreal, right?

Yes, I moved to Montreal a year and a half ago.

What inspired that move?

Malaise.

That's it?

That's it. It was a very slow and painful falling out of love with Toronto. I was losing my mind a little bit in 2012 and not feeling connected to the city anymore. A large part of it had to do with the fact that my boyfriend’s mother was dying and so he was looking after her and I was alone in the city. Patrick is usually my social catalyst because without him around to make plans, I will, five nights out of seven, end up alone by myself working on music. And then otherwise just getting drunk and watching Netflix. So it was kind of depressing me that year, feeling like I was falling into a workaholic K-hole.

Final Fantasy - This Is The Dream Of Win And Regine

There’s something that happens when you live in a city for 15 years, where every time you walk into a restaurant or into a bar you know maybe 20 people in there, but only on the level of a passing acquaintance. So you kind of have to say hi to everybody, but meanwhile the close rapport you have with friends is gone. Added to this is the feeling of because I was living in Toronto for so long, I had built up a decade of amazing memories of being young and wasted and it had been replaced by friends moving away, establishments closing down, bands breaking up. A lot of people wanted to blame the shift of the city on the death of Will Munro. While I obviously would say it’s a huge factor, in general I was just getting older and needed change.

Since I moved to Montreal, the effect was instant. As soon as I stepped foot in my apartment, I was flying so high. Montreal is a fabulous city, a magnificent place. In the circle of friends that I’ve made in the 22-to-27-year old bracket, there’s the same fertile scene that I experienced in Toronto at that age. So I’m seeing a lot of really exciting music and really exciting art, seeing a lot more participation and a lot more active engagement.

It does seem like the Toronto arts moment you were in has passed.

Owen Pallett - The CN Tower Belongs To The Dead

It moved on in 2005, 2006. There comes a point. I don’t blame myself, really. I did what I needed to do to survive. I think Steve Kado pinpoints the success of [the first Final Fantasy record] Have A Good Home as being death blow for Blocks Recording Club, at least in spirit. I was happy that Have A Good Home at least guaranteed a future for Blocks. Every indie label needs its meal tickets. K Records wouldn’t exist without Beck's One Foot In The Grave. I was happy that at least in some small way, my records were doing well enough that there might create a cash flow. But the extra work just made people want to cut their losses and do other things.

Is that what the line in "On A Path" -  “you stand in  a city you don’t know anymore” - referring to?

Owen Pallett - On A Path (Lyric Video)

I wrote that song before I knew I was leaving the city, but yes, for sure. There’s a kind of interesting truth I’ve had to adjust to: From an income perspective, being a successful musician still puts me very low on the grand scheme of things. As hard as I work as a musician I will never achieve the comfort than any of my brothers and their choices they’ve made with their occupations.

What do your brothers do?

Businessman, lawyer, doctor in training.

So, like job jobs?

Yup. My mom was a single mom. We didn’t eat meat for years out of economic necessity. She really instilled workaholic habits in all of us.

Even though you picked music as a career path, you seem to be treating it in a similar sense, i.e. as an actual career. It’s always interesting seeing your name in the credits for songs by people like Taylor Swift and Linkin Park. Does that throw people for a loop, or is it something you do on the down low?

Linkin Park - I'll Be Gone

I can’t rehearse my looping violin stuff on a plane, but I can do some arrangements for people. So I find myself doing more arrangements because it is something I can take anywhere. Does it surprise people? Yes. The client list even still surprises the guys in Arcade Fire. Like, “oh, you did stuff for Linkin Park? I think those guys just dissed us in an interview.”

Did they?

Not actually. They said they were trying to come up with an original sound, not like all these other bands that are trying to sound like Mumford and Sons and Arcade Fire. So it wasn’t a specific diss. I don't think it matters, anyway. Disses are a creation of music journalists, not musicians. I think Linkin Park are probably totally fine with Arcade Fire and Arcade fire are almost certainly fine with Linkin Park.

You definitely see that a lot now. People will pull a line from an interview and that will become a standalone news story.

Disses are a creation of music journalists, not musicians.

There’s a part of me that gets frustrated by that. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for music writers to see music journalism descend from a reputable and accountable form into something that has to rely on clickbait. Let’s make this as crazy as possible! To me as a reader and a musician, I can’t really say whether or not it’s good or bad, for us, as consumers and producers. Ultimately those are the pieces that I’m reading more and more. The completely bananas stuff, like oh we’re going to take Warpaint down a few notches now, because in this two hour interview one member of Warpaint made some off-the-cuff statement about Beyoncé and we’re going to completely reshape and rethink it into this awful takedown. There’s a part of me that’s like "this is great entertainment." But then it’s like, "is this actually bad for Warpaint?" Are people going to be like "fuck that band?"

Hard to say. Maybe people will be outraged reading what Warpaint has to say who wouldn't otherwise have been listening to Warpaint?

Like I said, I don’t think it matters because like I said I think it’s a creation of journalists, not musicians. Like, all the stuff I've read about Arcade Fire has been entirely fabricated. It’s basically 100% lies. All of the reporting I’ve seen has been 100% lies. You guys are liars. You're a liar, Richard. You and Jordan. Jordan Darville. You guys lie for a living.

Okay... So I guess you read that Chart Attack piece, then?

The Jordan Darville piece on Arcade Fire and Haiti?

That's the one.

Yeah. I mean, it’s tricky. I see the piece and I see the headline and I think "oh, this will be so interesting because I’m totally on Jordan’s side spiritually. I want to have this discussion." And then I read it and go “oh, Jordan is lying, this is entirely lies." He’s completely overlooked the facts. He’s using his skin tone to speak with authority over a country that he’s never been to and probably didn’t even know existed. I love Jordan, but I can’t help but feel like, dude, I was on your side already, and then you had to start lying.

I read the Pitchfork interview where the writer asked you about the criticism of Arcade Fire as "painfully white." I thought your response may have been referring to that piece.

People always react with distaste about "middle class white guy goes to Haiti and finds himself," but dude, it’s a punch in the gut going down there.

Not sure. I don’t really know what’s up with American journalists and why they’re trying to trap musicians into playing race wars. Fundamentally it’s something you can’t really discuss. Haiti is not America. The shit that... I’m 100%... Obviously, we are all on the side of... the good side. I’m always wanting to check everything I’m saying. I’m completely prepared to accept all fault for everything that comes out of my mouth and reform my attitude and opinions. They’re being reformed and reshaped every day with everything I’m reading.

It’s very difficult to come to this context of race discussion in North America, then turn it into a discussion about Haiti, where the trials and oppression experienced by the grandfathers and great grandfathers of North Americans is shit that’s being experienced by the brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, parents of Haitians. This is an ongoing fucked up situation. We're all complicit in this oppression: white/black, rich/poor. As North Americans we are the enemy of Haiti. This isn’t news. Bill Clinton has apologized for it.

It’s difficult for me to take – I feel like I’m trying to be on the side of good of both discussions, but when those discussion start to intersect it makes me feel sort of frustrated. Somewhere along the line a journalist is lying. Or at least not telling the whole truth.

Were you on that trip, when Arcade Fire played in Haiti recently? If so, what was that experience like for you?

Arcade Fire in Haiti

Crazy. It was completely unbelievably sobering and amazing. We had a fairly sunny view of Haiti and Haitians because we were in Jacmel, which is kind of the more-friendly-toward-North-Americans enclave. Port-au-Prince was described by some of the aid workers we were hanging out with as "hell on earth." The other band members have spent quite a bit of time in Port-au-Prince, but this was more focused on the Ciné Institute, which is the audio/visual school in Jacmel, teaching Haitian young adults how to use audio and video equipment and make films and recordings. We spent a lot of time there and at Karnaval. That was a really mind-blowing time. It's something you can’t really wrap your head around. Like, people always react with distaste about "middle class white guy goes to Haiti and finds himself," but dude, it’s a punch in the gut going down there. You just think "oh, no one really gets it, this is so fucked up. This is part of the Americas!”

That’s been a trope for a little while, even beyond Arcade Fire, that exact scenario of "middle class white guy goes to Africa and finds himself and then brings it back to the music." Even Talking Heads did that to an extent.

It’s something we have to be sensitive to, but ultimately Haiti is not America. What’s going on in Haiti has absolutely nothing to do with what’s going on in America. I mean socially, it’s a very different experience. It’s not my place to tell people how to react to the workings of... I can’t tell people how to digest a tUnE-yArDs record.

I mean, you literally could. You put your real phone number in the lyrics of this album.

(Laughs) Yeah, I did.

Are you expecting to get a lot of phone calls?

This interview is a pretty good indication that if you sit down with any musician and get them to talk for two hours it's almost guaranteed they’ll say something stupid.

No, I don’t know. I didn’t really think about it. I have since early on wanted to have an attitude of candour and self-disclosure in my process and I wanted to keep no secrets. When I was writing that song it felt very natural for me to sing the phone number at the end. When the implications of what could come of that dawned on me and my boyfriend, there was some part of me that wanted to motivate myself to change it. But as I played the songs for my friends more and more, people were gravitating toward that as being a really poignant moment. There’s been so many other instances of people singing nonsense phone numbers in songs, like Ciara teasing at giving her phone number in a song but never actually doing it.

My song was specifically written as a kind of response to the It Gets Better project, which was fundamentally a one-sided response to a wave of suicides among LGBT youth. One of the things I was hoping to remedy with this song was the one-way nature of communication by YouTube video, the inability of people to make a proper response. So I thought putting the number at the end would open that up. Of course, I’m not suggesting that I have better answers for anybody than actual teen help lines. In fact, I was hanging with Patrick Wolf in L.A., and I joked that if he ever called my number I’d say "kill yourself" and hang up. (Laughs) Just kidding, don't worry.

That won’t become the headline, I promise.

Thanks.

You’ve always been very available as an artist. You often post on the message board of your fan site, and I remember you were pretty active on Stillepost when that was a thing. You don't have that air of rock star bullshit around you.

I’m not afraid to be wrong. I love discourse and I love discussion. I always have. Part of it has to do with growing up in a bit of an isolated environment. At 10 years old I was logging onto BBS’s and participating in message board discussions because I didn’t have the access physically to play kickball with friends. I’ve always had my entire social life propped up by strong engagement in the digital world.

I noticed on Twitter that you have a few music writers you routinely interact with, and you’ve contributed an essay to the new version of Carl Wilson's book Let's Talk About LoveSo you obviously have a foot in the music writing world, yourself.

I’m always super interested in the way that people write about music, I read about as much music writing as any other genre. I’ve been to the EMP Pop Conference, would buy the Best Music Writing books as they were coming out, actively read 33/3. It’s something that's really interested me for a long time, even up to today. It has a huge effect on my life, so it’s always interesting to see and see where the contemporary dialogue has gone. I’ve learned a lot from music writers.

Owen Pallett - The Power of Love

I feel that music writing has had more of an effect on peoples listening habits than the actual creation of music. I have a theory that if music production were to cease tomorrow, music writing would still have at least two years of catching up to do. Music writers wouldn’t even notice. I didn’t own a computer when the first round of Poptimism made its rounds. When I got a computer in 2005, it was really amazing to catch up on the Tom Ewing essays. I’d interact and see physically the shift that still hadn’t really imprinted itself on so many musicians who don’t pay attention to music writing. There’s still so many people out there that you actually have to convince that Taylor Swift is our generation’s Joni Mitchell. One wouldn’t think that these days, with critical discourse crossing all lines of genre.

Is that what you were doing with those Slate pieces? Or was that more tongue-in-cheek?

It’s 100% tongue-in-cheek. It was a response to that Ted Gioia piece about music criticism becoming lifestyle reporting. I think fundamentally the issue with applying Western music theory to pop music criticism is that there’s a very small audience for it. Most people who listen to pop music and read pop music writing, they don’t have the tools to process the fundamental concepts of Western music theory, nor does it really increase the appreciation of that pop music. Ultimately, any time you write that way - and I felt very conscious of this when I was writing those pieces - you essentially have to be patronizing. You kind of have to be like "oh, I have to explain something to you now." That's really shitty for a reader.

I feel embarrassed often when I'm reading music theory stuff outside of the academic context. In the academic world music theory is awesome. They don’t need to pander or patronize. If you don’t understand something it’s up to you to look it up. It’s a really rich and rewarding field. Applying that to pop music criticism is a tall order. I do sympathize with Ted Gioia because that’s the way I perceive music when I listen to it. Numbers and equations and shit. I do actually, when I listen to "Teenage Dream," I literally do mentally dissect the chords.

Speaking of that, I found the first New York Times piece that Carl Wilson wrote about you in 2005...

The Gay Postmodern Harpsichord Nerd!

...and it was interesting reading about you in that context as a sort of up-and-coming. But the one holy fuck moment is when you mention your next plan is to release an album of pure sheet music. You beat Beck to the punch by nearly a decade!

Ah, I'm so glad you noticed that! Because actually my feeling was when Beck released it, I was like "oh great, I don’t have to do it." For about three years following that interview, I actually had been writing sheet music for these songs but hadn’t accumulated enough. I thought that the project was reinforcing notions of classism as opposed to breaking them down, so I thought that maybe it wasn’t really up to me. I wasn’t ready to make that plunge, so I’m glad that Beck did.

Owen Pallett - Song for Five & Six (Official Video)

Going back to the Ted Goia and Slate thing, one of the reasons I love pop criticism is that more often than not it's actually unsullied by knowledge of Western music theory. Or even how digital audio workstations work. Most writers may not know how to use Ableton or know how it works. And what that does is create a much purer reaction. People are just writing about music based on an emotional response to what they’re hearing. That is so valuable to me, because I am always dealing with score paper and logic and instruments and microphones. To actually just have that uncut emotional reaction to what I’ve been doing is extremely valuable.

...until it starts to get sensationalist.

(Laughs) Ultimately, 10 years ago, when I started to do press cycles, there was a part of me that would get butthurt. Like, what are you guys doing? Aren’t we all in this to sell records? Isn’t the goal of music writing to not be like oh let’s shit on this local band, but to get people off their couches, out of their houses, into the clubs? Aren’t we working toward the same common goal of a more active and vibrant community? But, you know, we were all young once. I understand how it works now. This interview is a pretty good indication that if you sit down with any musician and get them to talk for two hours it's almost guaranteed they’ll say something stupid.

Any person, really.

True.

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