Friday, February 07, 2020

Owen Pallet on Les Mouches reunion

ˆThis week, Wavelength Music celebrates its anniversary with a weekend festival. They do this every year. This year, however, being the 20th anniversary—along with current pillars (Haviah Mighty, Kaia Kater), some Montreal imports (Yves Jarvis, Little Scream, Lou Phelps) and plenty of largely unknown local talent that has always been their focus—they’ve pulled in some ringers from their earliest years. 

Electro duo LAL are performing their 2000 album Corners. Sandro Perri, a consistent presence in Wavelength circles from the beginning, put out two of his most acclaimed records in the last two years. Hidden Cameras, a band who arguably helped launched the so-called Torontopia scene of the early 2000s, makes an extremely rare local appearance; bandleader Joel Gibb decamped to Berlin years ago.

The most interesting Wavelength act of the weekend, however, might be Les Mouches. This band only lasted a year, 2003-04, before Owen Pallett became better known to the world as Final Fantasy and as a contributor to Arcade Fire’s Funeral. Drummer Rob Gordon also played with From Fiction, who recorded an album with Steve Albini and were signed to Last Gang. Guitarist Matt Smith went on to perform as Prince Nifty. Together, they were a combustible unit whose songs shifted between delicate beauty and jarring explosions, with lyrics filled with longing, sexual confusion and crude jokes. 

There was nothing remotely commercial about Les Mouches, even though they covered a Carpenters song on 2003’s Blood Orgy EP. It’s often uncomfortable listening. But it’s undeniably unique. And it left enough of an impression that the sole full-length, 2004’s You’re Worth More to Me Than 1,000 Christians, was reissued on vinyl in 2015. 

I talked to Owen Pallett this week about many things, for another project; this excerpt is just about Les Mouches, then and now.


What was the genesis of Les Mouches?

After I graduated [from University of Toronto's music program], I wanted to record some songs I had written. I was involved with Hidden Cameras, I was dating Gentleman Reg, and I was friends with a lot of Three Gut people, so I decided to record with Andy Magoffin in London [who made albums for all those people]. I wrote brass arrangements and recorded what I called The Polite Album. Nobody heard it. I think I burned five copies, but [Blocks Recording Club’s] Steve Kado somehow had one. He came into the Free Times Café where I was working, and said, ‘Dude, your album is awesome!’ He was so excited. I was playing some solo shows but it wasn’t doing anything for me. I wanted to start a band. I had seen Matt Smith play a set at the Free Times, doing improv, with a guy name Dane who has since passed away, and Owen Marchildon, who would later be in From Fiction with Rob Gordon. I had known Rob in second year. I don’t remember the early rehearsals that well. [Matt and Rob and I] had long discussions about how we wanted the music to be focused on epiphanies. There would be these moments where it would all make sense. We were all really into Xiu Xiu, especially me, and it was changing the way I wrote lyrics.

You had said you wanted Les Mouches to sound like U.S. Maple meets the Carpenters.

Exactly. That was basically it. We were trying to have that free, Storm and Stress aesthetic, but have it married to—not necessarily conventional songwriting, but really pretty songs. Our first show as a trio was April 21, 2003. It was in Guelph. Our second show was in Toronto with Lungbutter. We started playing a bunch. I didn’t have a concept of what our fan base was, but by the time 1,000 Christians came out we filled the Music Gallery until it was beyond packed. We asked everyone to wear white clothing—and they all did! Matt Smith said, ‘Thank you all for wearing white. Congratulations! You’re all racist!’ (laughs)

And Bell Orchestre opened?

Yes, and Wooly Leaves.

How did you know Bell Orchestre? Had you even met Arcade Fire by that point?

I had met Arcade Fire through Jim Guthrie. [Jim’s band opened for them at the El Mocambo in January 2003.] I remember Regine saying, ‘Bell Orchestre is my favourite band on the planet.’ I didn’t know Sarah [Neufeld] very well at all. Richie [Parry] I kind of knew. But I mostly was just friends with Win and Regine, and not close friends at that point.

Richie wasn’t even really part of the band yet. He wasn’t until spring 03.

It was Bell Orchestre’s first show in Toronto. Then we put out Blood Orgy around Xmas 2003. Those songs were done in the same session as the songs for 1,000 Christians; there was one other session where I did the songs with brass on them. There’s one Matt Smith song we left out because it just didn’t fit on either release, which is too bad because it’s an amazing song. Then we wanted to tour, but I didn’t know anything about touring or how it worked.

Did you tour much with the Cameras, or just around southern Ontario?

I toured Europe with the Cameras in 2003, after Smell of Our Own came out. I didn’t know how DIY touring worked. With the Cameras, we had a van, a tour manager, hotels, it was all set up. But I wanted to book shows for Les Mouches. I was also playing with Liz Hysen in Picastro and she was always talking about how she booked her own tours. Reg was always talking about how he booked his own tours. So we booked five dates. But we never played anywhere other than Guelph, Toronto and Montreal. We opened a few Montreal shows for Arcade Fire in the spring of 04, in the lead-up to Funeral’s release, at the Corona Theatre. But our last show was [in September 04] at a Pop Montreal showcase for Blocks, at Casa del Popolo. That was with Hank, maybe Barcelona Pavilion. The band had a second recording session for a pile of new songs we’d written. Not enough for an album, but I thought we could make things work with four songs that were in our set. We thought we could do more writing in the studio, but it went really bad.

Do you think the creative partnership had just run its course?

No, not at all. We just went into the studio with four or five songs, and afterwards we were just feeling an ennui. We did it at Tantramar Farm [outside Guelph], where they used to have Track and Field. While I was up there, I was wearing this fanny pack that had my birth certificate and my passport and everything. This was a week before we were supposed to go on tour. I lost the fanny pack, and I had no ID and no way of getting anywhere, so we scuttled the tour. I was pretty depressed about it. This was also the summer I had no money. I was also playing more Final Fantasy shows, which had started that spring. In August, or late July, that I played CineCycle and Stuart McLean [of the Vinyl Café] was there. He said, ‘What do you do for a living?’ I said, ‘I actually need a job. If you know of any, let me know.’ He hired me on the spot as a music programmer. I did a really fucking good job.

No job interview, nothing?

I think he just said, ‘What would you program on this show?’ I sent him some stuff, and he said I was hired. I was now working at the CBC and loving it, making money for the first time in my life. Not a ton of money, but certainly more than I’d ever made. From Fiction were doing their thing. Rob was mad at me for a reason I still don’t know. It was hard to book rehearsals and play shows. After that Pop Montreal show, Rob was so focused on From Fiction [who had recorded with Steve Albini and signed to Last Gang]. By the end of the year, Arcade Fire said they were going to do their heroic, life-changing US tour, and asked if Les Mouches were interested in opening. I said, ‘You know what? I want to bring my solo project instead—which you guys haven’t heard, but trust me.’ I showed up at the Great American Music Hall and hadn’t told them that I’d broken my ankle at an AIDS Wolf show. I show up with a cane and a walking cast, got up and played my set with my looping pedal on a stool, and I brought the house down. It was great. After that, Les Mouches really drifted apart. I didn’t really understand the resonance that band had. It was a surprise to me that [Deep Dark United's] Alex Lukashevsky liked it, [Rockets Red Glare's] Evan Clarke liked it, these people I thought were way cooler than I was, and fantastic musicians. I don’t think I got it at the time.

One of the best things about that band was the tension in the music.

Oddly enough, we never felt at odds with each other on a musical level. Rob and Matt always played exactly what was necessary. Robbie tried to explain it to me once. He told me his parents preferred the music he made with From Fiction, only because they could understand it.

Because it’s more linear?

It’s aggressive and complicated. But when they were confronted with Les Mouches music, they were like, ‘We don’t get this.’ After Blood Orgy came out, his dad used to make fun of him by quoting Les Mouches lyrics at the dinner table. He’s say, ‘Well, Robbie, you know, I never had a woman inside my dick.’

That’s an interesting parental dynamic.

I think they were like, ‘You’re in a gay band, Robbie!’ But it’s fine. I love his parents. My parents definitely didn’t get Les Mouches.

It’s not music for parents!

My stepfather had a very negative reaction to it. I think my mom told me that after hearing it he had to lie down or something. He went to my mom and said, ‘I think Owen may be seriously disturbed.’ My mom was like, ‘Oh, really!’ Then she listened to the record and said, ‘Nick, he’s joking! These are fucking jokes!’ Which was true. I was making fun of this shit.

What were you making fun of?

Depends, on song to song. ‘Daddy Needs a Daddy’ is making fun of tropes of gay male desire, while at the same time being very emotional. ‘I want to hold him in my arms and cradle him until his hair turns grey.’ That was pretty much how I felt about who I was falling in love with. ‘Carload of Whatever’ was satirizing bugchasers, which I didn’t know was a thing until I met one.

One of my favourite musical moments is the string arrangement on “Divorce the Ones You Love.”

Oh, really? I think it’s annoying. I don’t have a wide breadth of knowledge of classical music, compared to most classical music heads, but certain works really resonate with me. One of those is Charles Ives’s ‘The Unanswered Question.’ The backdrop of plaintive string chords, with these increasingly aberrant woodwind gestures, really had a profound effect on me. The beginning of ‘Divorce the Ones You Love’ is meant to recall that a bit, this very bucolic guitar thing with increasingly violent string gestures that try to interrupt this stillness.

How do you feel about playing this music now?

There are certain songs I’m not going to play, because I don’t think there’s much to commend them. A song like ‘Luci on Her Birthday’ I’m kind of amazed exists. That may be the fifth song I ever wrote. It’s on The Polite Album. It’s exquisitely sad now, when I listen to it. Other songs, I’m really into and really proud of. ‘Love Song to an Empty Room’ in particular I think is great. ‘Requiem to the Victims of Frankfurt’ I’m going to be playing at the Wavelength show—we haven’t played it since 2004—I’m really excited about. It’s so fun to sing this shit, like ‘My dream has a title: cunt marries asshole.’ It’s like—I don’t know. Maybe they’re just bad jokes, like Tim Kinsella in Joan of Arc. But I have a lot of affection for it.

For me, that music is very much situated in that time, which held great possibility. It was either you or Kado who once told me that it was a time of ideas: some projects were better ideas than they were bands, but they were great ideas so it worked. And of course there were also great ideas that were also great bands. There was an audacity to try things, musically or lyrically.

The environment was perfect. Rent in Toronto was so reasonable—

Okay, let's talk about that magical time in real terms. What were you paying?

At 19 Major, I was paying $350 for one room of five. I then moved into a larger room there and paid $400. Then $400 on Queen Street ... Later, [then-boyfriend] Patrick and I moved into a place at Dupont and Ossington, the building Will Munro lived in. Team Macho was based there. We were paying somewhere around $1,200. So rent was reasonable. We had also had the best form of social media back then, which was message boards. People were getting involved in local discourse. Twitter is too broad and international. Message boards were magical. I still post on message boards. It’s how my brain wants to interact with the outside world. I was there very early on in the Toronto message board thing: Anti Antenna.

That was before StillePost.

Anti Antenna was before Secret Arcade, which was before 20hz, which then became StillePost.

Anti Antenna was also a label, wasn’t it?

Yes. Post-rock stuff. The only people I knew posting there were [Feuermusik's] Jeremy Strachan and Shaw-Han Liem [I Am Robot and Proud]. And Jonny [Dovercourt], but I didn’t really know him then. StillePost became a hotbed of discussion. Everybody was on it. Just like Facebook would be today, but this was a much more interesting place because everything was compartmentalized.  It was not designed to be addictive, but meant to accessorize real-life social experiences. Facebook is designed to addict the consumer, to keep you at your computer. Message boards were not. On top of that, there was this new influx of attention. And people were still making money. If you put out a shitty CD and folded it together yourself, you could easily make $2,000 by selling 200 of them. It was a reliable source of instant gratification and income. Blocks made sense at the time. In 2004, we were having discussions about if we should put our stuff up on iTunes, and I was a vociferous ‘no’! I believed the packaging was part of it. I couldn’t foresee that 10 years down the line there would be no CD drives on laptops. I mean, I just recently took my CDs to a store, got money for the ones they wanted, and threw the rest out. Thousands of dollars worth! I kept the ones I play on, and my friends’ CDs, but I threw out my deluxe edition of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. It had a really nice booklet! But I don’t have anywhere to store it anymore.

Les Mouches’ two CD releases on Blocks Recording Club are out of print, although 1,000 Christians received a 500-copy limited-edition vinyl reissue on Orchid Tapes in 2015. Bandcamp link here.

Full lineup and details for Wavelength's 20th anniversary weekend festival, Feb 13-16, can be found here