The conclusion of my New Year's Eve-day interview with Owen Pallett, minutes after he woke up. Parts one and two ran earlier this week. Here he discusses ditching the Final Fantasy moniker, scoring films, self-sabotage, Nelson Riddle, and the comparative cultural merits of Joanna Newsom, the Strokes and Brokencyde. And why releasing an album is like watching yourself get knee surgery.
Now that you’re an eponymous confessional singer-songwriter, surely you knew this day was coming, or did you think you could forestall it?
It’s a tricky thing to talk about with the Square Enix people [Final Fantasy game creators]. There have been small events that have suggested that they acknowledge my existence and there’s no interest in pursuing any kind of legal action. In fact, one reading of the law could suggest that Final Fantasy the band and Final Fantasy the game could co-exist without any kind of problem.
Like Apple Records and Apple Computers?
Not exactly. And there are people who work there who are actual fans of the band, including their lawyer. I had completely ignored the fact that it was even an issue. There was a really early stage when He Poos Clouds was going to come out on Tomlab, and I was thinking we should put the name on stickers, not on the physical CD, so that if anything does happen we don’t have to re-lay out anything, we can just remove the sticker. And we were going to do the same thing for Heartland. It was a fairly easy transition.
Wasn’t there a Myspace controversy years ago?
No. People thought it was a controversy but it wasn’t at all. My Myspace site was shut down, but Square Enix wasn’t involved.
Has your attitude about this changed? Will it change the way people see your music or is it entirely cosmetic?
It’s blowing my mind a little bit. I’ve felt that Owen Pallett is someone who folds sheets and goes jogging, and Final Fantasy is this thing that is storytelling and violin-playing. I felt there was a disconnect between the two of them and it made me feel comfortable, being able to say one thing in one song and it was obvious that it was not necessarily the opinion of me as a person. Now to go back and have to retitle an album Owen Pallett: He Poos Clouds, it doesn’t make any sense. I might have to rename the album (laughs). Even Owen Pallett Has a Good Home is so smug sounding.
So why not another stage name? Project name?
It didn’t come at the 11th hour, but it came at the 10th hour. We had to really move on changing the name without pushing back the Heartland release date. Furthermore, Final Fantasy the band name never really existed without my name in brackets beside it, so it seemed like an easy transition. I did have some band names on ice for this eventuality that I collected over the years. I wanted to name a band Sky Lord (laughs). I thought it was a great other band name, but at the moment of truth I just couldn’t do it. I can’t call my band Sky Lord!
Why not Rabbit Hole?
Oh, after the movie? That’s a good band name, actually.
You’ve known [Rabbit Hole director] John Cameron Mitchell [Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus] for a long time, yes?
I’ve known him for ages.
And Rabbit Hole is scheduled to be ready for Cannes?
Yes. I love working with John and it’s kind of alarming because the movie is so good. But the act of scoring a film is degrading—I can’t say it any other way. I thought movie scoring was something it wasn’t. I thought that I watch your movie and I write a score for it and my score is beautiful and your movie is beautiful. But compare Roman Holiday with, I don't know, The Holiday, you know? Compare the different scores, and I don’t think the composer is an artistic force in the creation. So far the only real artistic decision I’ve made on this score, the only war I’ve won is that I wanted it to be played by baroque instruments.
So are you one step up from the propmaster, then?
Yeah, and I’m not trying to speak ill of the experience. It’s like being a painter of paintings and then being asked to paint someone’s apartment. It’s something I wasn’t prepared for. Hopefully I will one day. I think I could create such a great film score for this thing, but I feel like I can’t do anything without every single producer having their say. There’s also the egotistical thing of every producer and the director wanting to impose their will on every cue. Whether that’s egotistical or a function of the creative process is irrelevant: either way, it’s made my job insurmountable.
You can do your own cut of the soundtrack album, can you not?
Yeah, and I think that’s what Belle and Sebastian did with [their soundtrack for Todd Hayes’s] Storytelling. They simplified it by saying, “We made this music, they rejected it.” If that was the situation, it would be better for me. But right now it’s a work in progress.
And this is a big movie, no? With Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart? Is it Mitchell’s biggest movie?
It’s still a low-budget movie, $5 million, I think. But it has some big
name stars in it.
What is this film The Box?
Win and Regine were asked to do a film score for [Donnie Darko writer/director] Richard Kelly. We had been talking about this for years, because they get offers every single day to score films. They asked me if they were ever to do that, would I do that with them? It became pretty clear after working for about two weeks that it wasn’t really up their alley. So I finished the score for them, me and [Arcade Fire/Bjork engineer] Markus Dravs. I took a more active role to the point where 50 per cent or more is entirely my own.
Is the film out?
It came and went. It got good reviews in Europe, but it didn’t really appeal to American audiences. In fact, Yahoo called it the worst movie of the year, maybe even of all time. It’s kind of depressing! I can’t even speak of the movie, because I never saw it. I saw an early cut that we were scoring to, but then it went under massive re-edits. Even though what we were looking at was a “locked picture” we knew that it was likely to be unlocked and reworked. I expanded the score to 80 minutes or more, so they would have a lot of extra music to re-cut it. But I never saw the finished product. When it came to theatres, I was on tour and never had a night off to go see it, and by the time the tour was over it wasn’t in theatres.
How was your CBC Radio National Orchestra commission go?
That was interesting. That closed a chapter of my life.
I’ve always had a very idiosyncratic view of the way I want new music to be written. All the music that I’ve written in the past has been very post-modern and conceptual with these big geek concepts attached to them. When I was a student at U of T, all my exposure to post-modern music was completely uninformed by actual post-modern theory and made me want to try and explore that language.
With this piece that I wrote, called “Welcome to Kelowna,” it was such a failure. And the commission I wrote for Bang on a Can the year before was also in a similar vein, something geeky and conceptual. And it too was a complete failure, and I had a complete falling out with Nico Muhly over it. He would not shut up about how terrible it was. It ended my period of the last 10 years where any new music I wrote was deeply theoretical in that regard, and I’ve stopped doing it. All future new music is not going to be quite so post-modern.
Did the "Kelowna" piece have something to do with jingles?
I took about 40 different jingles from different commercials from Olympic sponsors. Most of them were contemporary, but some were older. The most prominent one was the Air Canada one (sings it). And the Bell one, which was pretty ubiquitous at the time. I combined them all into a mish-mash, and it was meant to be reflective of the fact that this was the final concert of the CBC Radio Orchestra. There was some idea about the viability of the orchestra as a method of sponsorship and advertising. That’s what the piece was about. Then I heard a recording of it, and the orchestra played it so lyrically. I thought, don’t you get it? It’s a collage! I didn’t get a chance to go to the performance, but it made me think that I can’t write this kind of music anymore, and I have to think much more carefully about it.
Would that have been around the same time you were doing Plays to Please [a 2008 Final Fantasy EP consisting of songs by cult hero Alex Lukachevsky of Toronto's Deep Dark United]?
No, after. I think it was after I had spent a month working on the Heartland demos, which would have been August 2008.
What was the reaction to Plays to Please? Did you get much feedback?
No, I only recall four reviews. That record was really made for people who live in Toronto, people who have been able to experience the cult of [Alex] Lukashevsky and the different contexts in which he presents his songs. Eye and Now really loved the album, and so did Rupert Bottenberg [of the Montreal Mirror]. But pretty much every other non-Montreal/Toronto media outlet said something to the effect of: “… and fuck this record.”
Which frustrated me, because I’m happy with Spectrum, but with Plays to Please I thought, “Wow, I can actually make records that sound like this!” If you A/B it with Sinatra records—of course it’s not as good—but it works! It was meant to be influenced by Nelson Riddle arranging. I was so proud of it, and for people to see it as some kind of wet fart really upset me. That was a distilled moment of what I was saying about making music for people abroad and making it for people at home. And that’s part of why I released those on vinyl on Blocks, with a very limited CD release. I felt these were records that I wanted my friends to listen to. [The Silt's] Ryan Driver and Alex both loved it. At my birthday, Alex played the album from start to finish. The Rat Drifting [avant-garde label in Toronto] people really liked it, which was important to me, because I really respect those guys, and have for a long time.
I think it succeeded at two things: one, demonstrating your ability to write those kinds of arrangements, and two, to illuminate Lukashevsky’s songs for people like me, who have heard them on many occasions and contexts before, but gained appreciation for them through this EP.
Alex and I are really in the same boat. We’re both conscious of our appetite for self-sabotage, and the reasons we want to sabotage ourselves is rooted in a kind of egotism, in the frustration that the quality of our product and the quality of the experience that we provide our listeners does not match up with the depth of musical ability that we feel we have (laughs). I’m really speaking for myself here, but I see it in other people, too. It relates back to when I was talking about always aiming for the unattainable. In a way, it’s like a fail-safe.
Alex and I have a tendency to shoot ourselves in the foot a little bit. With Alex, it’s kind of legendary. (details incidents) So this project was like me sabotaging his self-sabotage, by taking these songs and doing my best attempt at defending them in an AM radio format, which is something I know Alex has a deep appreciation for. It was my attempt to present his songs in a light where all their strengths and weaknesses are laid bare and you can hear how this lyrical phrase soars, and this one is a bit weird.
So what about you, the storyteller, the Great White Noise [as Heartland's narrator is referred to in the lyrics], what are your greatest moments of self-sabotage?
It’s harder for me to point them out.
Is that other people’s job?
Yeah, no, yeah, no, I… it’s really that I’ve been consciously trying to separate the commentator from the creator these days, and think about what I’m saying from the voice of the musician and what I’m saying when it comes from the voice of an Internet lurker. I’ve never been anonymous on the Internet, and I've been unwilling to go anonymous when people started baiting me. My unwillingness to shy away from that is an act of self-sabotage.
But the Internet is full of cowards.
I don’t believe that. The Internet itself is a way of boiling down humanity’s cultural desires to its absolute marrow.
Not the base, because that suggests a lowest common denominator and something not culturally relevant. To me it’s a distillation of what people want, and that makes me frightened but it’s also very educational. Somebody said to me, “What is your greatest fear?” or “What do you think will bring down society in the next 10 years?” And I thought, it’s LOLs. That will bring everything down. LOLs are responsible for so much great work people are making being just discounted and ignored. The reason there are so many Internet memes out there is that people want this kind of entertainment that this experience can create. The things that I—and most people—aspire to as musicians don’t really factor into them. Lady Gaga, a little bit.
Or that fake crunk band—I forget their name.
I genuinely enjoy listening to Brokencyde. Damian Abraham [of Fucked Up] was the one who got me into them. It’s really terrible music, but there’s actually something so wonderful about seeing these kids from wherever screaming at girls the way they do. It’s an act of musical creation that’s so intrinsically linked to embarrassing things you see on message boards. When I saw that band I couldn’t deny that this was a really important cultural artifact.
I wouldn’t argue with that, but…
It’s pretty intimidating, because so much of the music I listen to is from an older period of time. Heartland is more inspired by music from the late ’70s and early ’80s and orchestral stuff from the ’60s.
There is a place in this world for Heartland, Owen.
I don’t care either way. I had this experience where I fell off my bike and broke open my knee. I was lying there in so much pain, blood coming out of my knee, squirming on the table where they stitched me up. As soon as they gave me a local anaesthetic and it kicked in, I stopped squirming, sat up, and looked at my knee: this piece of meat. I sat and watched with incredible interest that I never would have expected. That’s how I feel now with this record coming out.
What, that it’s a piece of meat that you’re watching being stitched up? Or that it’s self-examination that you would never attempt in any other context?
It’s really interesting! I feel completely emotional detachment from it. I feel this record could go either way: either critically acclaimed or critically shot to hell. It probably will go both ways in certain circles. I’m really interested to see how people react.
If something inspires people to hate it that much, is it not striking a certain chord in provoking such a reaction?
I don’t necessarily agree with that. People can say they hate Joanna Newsom or they hate the Strokes but you can’t say that Is This It or Ys is a bad record. Nobody can say that.
Some people do.
No. People cannot say that. How could you possibly? You could say those artists are overrated, or you could say, “I don’t like them.” But you can’t say those are bad records.
I like about half of Ys, but I certainly know people who hate it.
To be honest, two of the five songs on it do nothing for me and I don’t think they’re very good. But it’s such an incredible achievement that somebody in 2005 was going to make a fully orchestral record to tape. That’s fucked up!
Why? It’s hardly original. It might be bold…
Because, in 2002, Jim O’Rourke was talking about how he wanted to make an orchestral record to tape and about how he’ll never be able to make it because it will cost him a million dollars. There was this tacit acknowledgment in the indie community that nobody can make orchestral records. I remember reading that interview and sending emails to Jim’s MySpace saying, “Dude, I can make this happen for you: please give me a call! Give me ten grand and it will happen!” There are tons of orchestral records out there, but for one to be so independent and willfully uncommercial, it’s amazing.