Part two of my 90-minute conversation with Owen Pallett today, celebrating the release of his astounding new album Heartland. Part one is here.
There’s a line in “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt:” “The sculptress is praised for all the ways the marble leaves the man, and feels overrated as a result.” Do you struggle with this as a musician, the way any artist might feel in part not responsible for their own art by claiming they are but a channel for it to pass through?
I have a lengthy answer to this question. When I was 15, I was really into Tori Amos. A large speaking point about Tori Amos in the ’90s was her tendency to lay her own life bare. She had a song about the time she was almost raped, and she had a song about her miscarriage. She has all these songs that are specifically about her life. As a teenager, it’s very excited to have this red-headed minx—and I mean that in the nicest way possible—singing to you about masturbating during a funeral. It’s really titillating. I grew out of it, and looked back and thought that was not something I want to do with my life.
Secondly, my life: I’m pretty happy! I’ve never been almost raped and I’ve never had a miscarriage. If I was going to write an autobiographical song, I’d probably be writing about red wine reduction and all the different ways you can spoon with somebody. I’ve always shied away from autobiographical songs about a cathartic experience.
Another aspect of my creative process—which I only realized last month when I was on tour with John Darnielle [of the Mountain Goats]—is that I’m really drawn to things that are unattainable. The whole concept behind He Poos Clouds—making a record that is just string quartet doesn’t make any sense, and in fact I failed because I had to add all these other things. And the whole record was a failure because when you make an album and you don’t compress anything, it doesn’t fit into people’s iTunes collection. If you consider that a failure.
Which I don’t. And neither should you, because that’s ridiculous.
But I set these goals that I don’t think I can meet. Consider that Heartland is so preposterous: that I want to have this contained narrative that has the breadth of a Paul Auster short story. Yet it is an album. It’s not going to work! But I was interested in what parts of it would work, and what new things can be generated. Being on tour with John Darnielle made me realize that I’m all about doing these things that are unattainable and seeing myself fail as a result. Whereas John is all about success (laughs). He says, “I’m going to take my guitar and these events in my life that I want documented, and I’m going to successfully write a song that is going to move a room of 400 people to the point of spiritual transcendence.”
Isn’t autobiography relatively new to him? Like, only two or three records ago in a discography of 20?
He’s now put out six records on 4AD, the first of which is Tallahassee, and I’ve heard him talk about “No Children” and it was inspired by real-life experiences. We Shall All Be Healed was four albums ago, which is specifically about his meth addiction and after that was The Sunset Tree about his stepfather.
I keep forgetting that there’s one every year. And you put out one every four years.
That’s not true! I did put out 45 minutes of music in 2008, let us not forget. (laughs) [The Heartland precursor EP, Spectrum, and the Plays to Please EP] Forgive my moment of indignance!
Success, Owen, success!
There was a moment when I realized that I was getting into watching myself fail and not thinking about the impact a song or a performance can have on the people in a room.
But do you think you’re not successful if you’re not on the level of a Joanna Newsom record? Or if it doesn’t move a room of 400 people? Is it somehow not successful if it doesn’t do either of those things?
I’ve never thought about that before, until I was on tour with John Darnielle. It was an extremely successful tour: his fans are awesome and sweet and complimentary and a unique breed of people. And often they hadn’t heard of me, so there was an impact there. I was ashamed when Final Fantasy fans came and would then leave. That made me kind of upset (laughs), although I understand that John can be hard to understand on first listen. It took myself about three running starts to get into his music.
I’ve had those three already, but that’s a whole other discussion.
Are you not a fan of his?
For musical reasons entirely. I recognize the quality of the writing, but I once had a discussion with Carl Wilson where I demanded that someone defend the Mountain Goats musically, because every single piece I read about them talks only about the lyrics, and that’s well and good and I understand that, but I want someone to explain why Mountain Goats music is the best vessel for John Darnielle’s lyrics. And Carl wrote a spirited defense which was great and real and from the heart and he responded the way I’d always hoped someone would—even though it ultimately didn’t change my own feelings.
I recognize that John has invented something musically, which is in the service of his lyrics. It’s something that no other strong lyricist has ever come up with, until John. And that is: in the moment when he’s not singing, rather than someone take a solo or have backing singers go “da-doo-ron-ron or whatever,” nothing else happens. Instead, you listen to the same chord progression played on his guitar. So the line will end, he’ll step away from the microphone and play with some added intensity on the guitar, make facial gesticulations, and go through the chord progression once more before the song stops.
Doesn’t Bob Dylan do that?
I don’t know, I’m not a fan of Bob Dylan.
Neither am I, but I feel that the space between his verses is always a lot of nothingness anticipating the next line.
I’ll have to check that out. Maybe John’s not original in this thing—but Dylan would always fill it up with a harmonica solo, wouldn’t he?
That’s true. That’s more annoying.
John doesn’t do anything, and what he does is he creates an absence of lyrics. I can’t think of any other musician who does that, with this absence of verbal stimulation having this profound effect on you. That to me was the biggest realization. I could never understand why he always did that: I thought, is he just filling up tape time now? No, he’s creating an absence of lyrics, and you’re hearing invisible guitar solos, you’re hearing the next page of the story that is left untold, you’re hearing…
Your own reflection.
Exactly! It was an interesting experience for me, who never writes about experiences in my own life except in very slanted, passing ways. To actually have John, who even if he is not pillaging his own journal entries, he makes it sound like all these songs are autobiographical. It has such an incredible effect on his crowd; I felt really drawn to it. I’m going to try to get away from writing about these unattainable things and writing something more personal. Which is convenient—because I’ve just changed to using my own name.
The Pooka will be satisfied. Back to my earlier interpretation of the album—which turns out to be entirely wrong—Lewis is constantly rallying against “the indifferences of the storyteller.” Is this not the fate of every questioning believer in the face of catastrophe? Is Lewis not unlike the Portugese Catholic earthquake victim of the 18th century? The faithful Muslim in the tsunami of 2006? Is all this really about your relationship with god?
There are a lot of things that inspire specific songs. “The Great Elsewhere” is liberally inspired by Ferdinand Magellan landing in the Philippines and being killed by a Filipino chieftain. The story of Magellan fascinated me as a kid. There were three people who survived when they got back to Spain. Even though 14 men made it back alive, only three of them lived for more than two weeks after. One of those people was the guy who was the clerk, the one keeping journal entries, which were eventually published. He described Magellan as “our light and our mirror,” and seeing him being penetrated by a spear. It’s such a beautiful and sad and incredible thing, thinking about how five ships and 250 men could be reduced to one ship and three people.
That event and the more Aztec influences on the “Keep the Dog Quiet” song—there is a lot of interaction with not so much a belief but the practices of a belief. “Lewis Takes Action” and “Keep the Dog Quiet” are both about sacrifice. “The Great Elsewhere” is about being a missionary, evangelization.
So “The Great Elsewhere” is much more about an actual historic incident than it is about your 14th century farmer.
It’s inspired by Magellan, but you wouldn’t even catch that reference unless I named the ship Victoria. Which I did because I didn’t want to lie. (Laughs)
Why the 14th century? Why a farmer? Where is Spectrum and Heartland in relation to each other, geographically or politically? Is this all just a blank canvas?
It’s really just a blank canvas. I wanted all the fictional elements of this story to be completely incidental. It’s simply meant to imply otherness or emptiness. In my mind I had this idea that Spectrum would have an actual map for the place names, but it’s really just meant to signify something that I am not and you are not; a place we will never see. It’s implied that this isn’t even our world, but some bizarre place. Lewis himself is meant to be a composite of otherness. The fact that he’s a farmer and a religious believer and muscular and rides horses across fields and has a whip—it’s all the stuff that I’m not.
Except in your 2006 press photos.
Oh, well, yeah. Those are fantasy photos! (laughs) A lot of this fascination with otherness comes from two sources. One is Yukio Mishima; the second is Roland Barthes.
Mishima, in his books, is obsessed with all of these things that he is not. (detailed analysis of various characters). He acknowledges this obsession with otherness in the book Details of a Mask, where the metaphor for himself is looking out the window and seeing a guy carrying sewage in barrels; they actually call it ‘night earth.’ And he has this sexual fascination with him. He says, “Here I am in my room studying and seeing this guy carrying shit and it’s giving me an erection.”
When you consider Barthes and his whole notion of self vs. other (more detailed analysis). The whole book is about the barrier between one’s self and the object of one’s affection. That’s what Lewis is meant to signify: all the things I am not and that I’m fascinated by. And instead of being told from my perspective, it’s being told from his perspective, and what it’s like to be put inside this album, which doubles as this glass jar or panopticon and being poked at and experienced in that way. Does that make any sense?
There’s a part of you in “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt,” however.
Really? What are you talking about?
There are things that people expect you to do or have a perception of who you are or what a musician in your position should do, and you’ve often flipped that on its head. “I don’t do that kind of string arrangement”; “I’m not that kind of performer”; “I’m not about easy answers.” “I’m not going to give it to you.”
I see what you’re saying. The song did begin with that refrain. That stayed a constant while the rest of the lyrics changed. I love contrarian things that you can shout in the middle of a song, like “maybe not, maybe not.” Or “I’m never going to give it to you.” To me, that’s entertainment.
It’s particularly entertaining during my favourite YouTube clip of last year, from the Hillside Festival. Tell me what you remember about performing that song.
I don’t remember that much. That song is very physically demanding. Typically I just have to stand there with my eyes closed and focus on keeping the bow on the right part of the string. I was in that state a bit while it was going, even though I’ve seen the clip and it doesn’t look like I’m concentrating that much. I didn’t even notice that the rain started bucketing down.
Were you getting wet on stage?
The rain was not getting directly on me or my pedals, but the wind was blowing and yeah, I was getting wet. It wasn’t really until the breaks in the song when I’d look around and see everyone covering everything in plastic. There’s a bit of me being a little self-involved, but the cheering in the crowd was syncing up so perfectly when I’d introduce new parts that I thought, “Wow, they really are into this song!” When really, it was just that buckets of water were being poured onto these people.
Watching it, it’s enthralling because the song naturally builds and becomes more intense and propulsive, and as the weather increases and the stage crew starts freaking out—there are points in the clip when we think we’re going to see you be electrocuted on stage. That the song is going to climax in an explosion like Beef in Phantom of the Paradise or something [jump to the two-minute mark in the video above]. It’s a thrilling performance, and of course the defiant chorus of the song is “I’m never going to give it to you,” sung by a man facing down the elements.
Thanks! The joke was that we wanted to get the rain to come on tour with us.
Tomorrow: the final installment, discussing John Cameron Mitchell, Jim O'Rourke, the CBC National Radio Orchestra, Alex Lukachevsky, and Brokencyde.