“Blissfully Nerdy”: An Interview with Owen Pallett

[3 February 2010]

By C.L. Chafin

Talking Video Games, Sci Fi, and the Strokes with Owen Pallett

Owen Pallett is biting his lip and staring at his looping pedals.

It’s a dreary Fall day in New York, where he’s playing his last show on tour with the Mountain Goats. He’s near the end of his set, and on his third try playing a particularly complicated piano line, which will then repeat, ad-infinitum via his looping apparatus. This is how Pallett performs live: largely by himself, and using a special device to record and replay his work. If this reminds you of another performer, well, it reminds Pallett of another performer, too.

“This is turning into an Andrew Bird show!” he exclaims just a bit nervously, as he starts his piano line over, yet again. In fact, he usually performs with a violin (heightening that comparison), but is trying out a few new things on this tour. Like exclusively playing the piano for this concert. By the fourth time, he’s had enough, and clears his head by singing a totally different song (not one of his), straight through in one emotional try. Everyone cheers, he sighs, and nails that tricky piano loop on the very next try.

The whole thing is, well, just a bit nerdy, and a bit fantastic, much like Pallett’s work. A Toronto native, he made his name recording lush records of baroque pop under the Final Fantasy moniker – the most recent being 2006’s He Poos Clouds. He’s also toured, arranged, and otherwise worked with a whole array of indie luminati: everyone from Grizzly Bear to Arcade Fire to the Hidden Cameras. His work tends to be musically dense, lyrically allusive, and just a bit silly—something of a musical fantasy novel, an immersive other world for listeners to lose themselves in.

His new record, Heartland, is no exception, literally taking place in an alternate world, Spectrum. According to the album’s press notes, the album’s songs “Are one-sided dialogues with Lewis, a young, ultra-violent farmer, speaking to his creator.” But the concept, as Pallett explains below, is largely incidental. What’s important is the complex, emotional, and literally orchestral (the album features the Czech Symphony) quality of the music. It’s simply a breathtaking record, certainly the band’s most complex and ambitious.

PopMatters spoke with Pallett a few weeks before that concert about the record, sci-fi stories, and why his former moniker was based off of one of the more successful and melodramatic series in video game history.

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Your new album, Heartland, has been a long time coming, and is very conceptually and lyrically dense. Would you like to tell me a little bit about the concept and the process of getting it together?
It seems conceptually dense, but I really just wanted it to be less of a concept and more of a like a closet. Or like a world. I wanted it to exist as an album and also as sort of a basin of warm water that you could stick your head into.

It seems that you enjoy creating these other worlds for your albums, for your characters to exist within. Is that more interesting for you than just talking about yourself?
I don’t think so. I’ve just never really had a desire to get back at someone who fucked me over via a song. Every project that I’ve really approached, even if it’s just a total love song, I come at with a concept in mind. It’s layer upon layer of concepts: Final Fantasy the band is a concept, each album has a concept, and every song within the album has its own concept.

I just don’t personally feel like there’s any real difference between a song set in Spectrum [the fictional world of Heartland] and a song set in Canada. Like, “The Last Days of Hattie”, that Bob Dylan song, like could be fiction or it could be non-fiction. It’s just meant to represent some ideas. It holds true regardless of whether it takes place in a fictional or non-fictional environment.

You’ve written operas, film, and video game scores for a long time, and while your other albums show the influence of having done that kind of work, this record seems a lot more of a piece with it. It’s a lot more musically mature, beyond your other works. Is that just how this record worked out, or did you set out to make something that was much more transportive and engrossing?
Up until last year, when I started working on the record, I didn’t feel as if I was really in a position to make an album like this, which is really one of the reasons why I recorded a whole bunch of singles and EPs, and worked on other people’s records, as well. Even though I’ve made music all my life, and been in bands all my life, and been recording all my life, I felt as if the last two years were just an incredible learning experience, working with other musicians.

There’s just all these different ways of recording music. Grizzly Bear, for example, where the lyrics are written in minutes, and the song just emerges fully-formed. Arcade Fire, on the other hand, will often record the same song like 30 times. So, it’s just kind of like, seeing the way other people other people work in the studio, and trying to figure it out.

The first two Final Fantasy records were both made in a position, like I’d been in my whole life, where I was making music for my family and my friends and a small group of people in Toronto. And I’d even made two EPs that I put out which were massively well-received in Toronto, but I don’t feel like they’re something I could give to, you know, a cab driver in Rio, and say “This is a great thing, listen to it.” And this album, Heartland, there were two overarching goals I had for it: A) I wanted it to be an orchestral record, and B) I wanted it to be something I could play for strangers.

You gave the example just there of playing your album for a cab driver in Rio. Do you feel like great music should appeal to everyone, no matter where they are in life, or where they are in the world?
Well, no, I don’t listen to music quantitatively. I think all music is equal. Actual music writing itself can be measured, but music itself just exists. There are certain things you can say about a record, like a Strokes record is going to sound good in any context, and Scott Walker, there’s no context in which that record will sound like anything else than exactly what it is meant to sound like. And those are my two favorite records from the past decade. The Strokes record is like salt and butter: put it on your steak, put it on everything, it makes everything taste great.

Some of my favorite records are records made from a very personal sort of standpoint, and aren’t really meant to be appreciated in a mass context. Xiu Xiu is the perfect example of a band that’s not ready meant for mass consumption, and yet are so indelibly awesome that no one can really turn away. Even the content of his lyrics is stuff that you wouldn’t even tell your loved one, let alone sing on a record and allow everyone in the world to hear. The fact that he’s made that his main creative thrust is so impressive to me.

I don’t think about it as being about “a great album” versus “a not great album.” I don’t think Heartland is any better or worse than He Poos Clouds or Has A Good Home, I just think they were made via different processes, with different goals in mind.

What is the role of fantasy in your work?

What is the role of fantasy in your work? Your music conjures its own world, both lyrically and musically ... is that something you’re conscious of maintaining?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, all music does that, in a way. That Strokes record makes you think you’re clubbing in New York. With this record, I was kind of thinking about a lot fantasy films, and fantasy books that I’ve read ...

Anything in particular?
Well, one thing I was really into while I was working on this record was Ted Chaing, who’s a science fiction author who’s only written like 10 short stories, but every one of them has won some massive Hugo or Nebula prize or something. And he’s an extremely conceptual writer, like Twilight Zone episodes, where the story is really just a vehicle for some concept he has.

He has this one incredible story which takes place in a sort of an alternate version of our universe, where the tower of Babel still stands, and people have been building it higher and higher to try and reach God. And there’s a moment where a mining team is called to go up the tower, and they have no idea why, but they climb up the tower, and it’s so high that it takes them six months to reach the top. And as they’re going they pass the moon, and they pass planets, and they’re still going up. And they realize that the reason they’ve been called to the top of the tower is that they’ve hit rock, and they need miners to mine upwards. So they start working, and they work for like a year, and when they break through to the other side, water starts rushing through. And so one of the miners swims up, and when gets to the surface, he sees the base of the tower. It’s a really beautiful short story. It’s an inspiration to me.

How is the record working out live? How are you performing it? With an ensemble, or doing it solo with looped violins?
Just the loops, yeah. I wrote a lot of songs for this record, and a lot of them didn’t make it on, but they were all written in such a way that I was thinking specifically about how I was going to play it live; it was written with the looping apparatus specifically in mind, as well as with the orchestral arrangement, so that it could function both ways.

That reminds me of the press release, where you said you see the record to exist “simultaneously as an album, a 45-minute piece of orchestral music and a set of songs for looped violin and voice.”
Yeah, I just compiled all the orchestral scores so it could exist as an orchestral work. I mean, it sounds pretty vain, like a vanity project or something. It was just something I wanted to do.

I had to decide, not too long ago, after I’d been touring with the loop station for a while, and getting endless comparisons to more famous loopers who use the same apparatus, including the violin. I had to kind of make a decision: if I’m going to continue pursuing my artistic impulse, I might want to kind of change it up, and not do this violin looping thing that other people are doing, far more successfully than I am. I toyed with a bunch of different ideas about what I could do. I played a show with harpsichord and string quartet, which was ... not a disaster, but certainly not nearly as compelling. I toyed with other ideas, and eventually I took a look at my skill set and realized that what I’m good at is looping.

So, with the help of my friends, I built a new looping rig that allows for extreme polyphony. And I can really easily and quickly choose the sound I want my violin to take on and send it wherever I want in the room. So I can create the sound of my violin being played behind me on stage, and one in the audience, and one right up front, and a bassist that’s coming from over there. I can create a massive, synchronized, polyphonic, thing.

I just decided that this is going to be at least what I was going to try and do for a while, is doing this hyper-polyphonic looping process, and this record is just meant to reflect that a little bit.

One last question: it says on your Wikipedia that your band is named after the game Final Fantasy. Is that true?  Is your band name a tribute to the video game series?
That’s kind of like saying the band Japan is named after the country. Yeah, obviously it’s named after a video game series, but it’s meant to signify this part of my creative impulse that was blissfully nerdy, and unaware of how the real world works. I feel sometimes when I walk on stage in front of a thousand people with just a violin and a loop pedal and I’m supposed to entertain them for twenty minutes, it’s preposterous, in the same way that fighting a one-armed, one-winged angel-giant named Sephiroth in the clouds on another planet is.

It also comes out a desire to do something that was a little more rooted in emotional response, as opposed to intellectual pursuit. I always feel like in those Final Fantasy games that the emotions are so extreme.

It’s interesting, though, because I get asked that a lot, you know, like it was a fuckup, like some kind of big mistake that I named my band after a really popular video game franchise. In the same way that He Poos Clouds got a lot of people being like, “I’m not going to listen to this because it has a stupid title.” And I’m just like, “really?”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/118185-blissfully-nerdy-interview-with-owen-pallett/