Music

"Blissfully Nerdy": An Interview with Owen Pallett

As Owen Pallett releases his first new full-length in years, Heartland, the maestro himself sits down with PopMatters to talk about his lush new album, what it's like to be a one-man symphony, and how he finally set out to make a record that he can play for anyone, anywhere.

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.

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