Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Final Fantasy: McLean, Parry, Kado

Further reading today from the Final Fantasy article in the June, 2006 issue of Exclaim.

Three short interviews here: Stuart McLean, Richard Reed Parry and Steve Kado.

Stuart McLean is the man behind the Vinyl Cafe, the most popular show on CBC Radio. Most weeks he reads original stories about a family where the father runs a record store, interspersed with folkie Canadiana music, the kind that doesn't dare rock any boats. He often takes his show on the road with musical guests, giving many Canadian artists major exposure and a built-in fanbase merely through the Vinyl Cafe connection. When I heard that Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy, in case you haven't read the article or missed yesterday's post) got a job working there, I was slightly shocked: mostly I associated him with rock/pop/avant-garde artists on Queen St., not rural Ontario folk. And I never expected his band at that time, Les Mouches, to be played on the show. But Stuart McLean clearly fell in love with Owen and invited him to play on the Vinyl Cafe as Final Fantasy, which meant that many middle-brow cardigan-clad Canadians heard Final Fantasy well before the folks at Brave New Waves or CBC Radio 3 did. And, like everyone else, they fell in love with it. Stuart McLean is a big champion of new Canadian talent, but he's not the first guy I think of when I'm looking for a fresh, original sound. He surprises me.

Richard Reed Parry is the dashingly handsome red-haired multi-instrumentalist in Arcade Fire, and the bassist/co-founder of Bell Orchestre. Like Owen, he also possesses an extremely catholic passion for music that embraces pop and the experimental. Little wonder they're kindred spirits. The members of Arcade Fire first knew Owen through his work with Jim Guthrie; Arcade Fire's first Toronto show (January 2003) was opening for Jim's CD release for Now More Than Ever, which featured Owen in the band and responsible for the string arrangements. Richie tells the rest of the story in the interview below, which culminates in Final Fantasy landing the opening slot on the Arcade Fire's breakthrough American tour in the winter of 2005 and joining the band as an auxiliary member. Owen admits that the Arcade Fire gig gave him the money to make He Poos Clouds the way he wanted, as opposed to the six-day rush job that was Has a Good Home.

Steve Kado you've met before from our Torontopia files (scroll down to Oct 25; I can't figure out the direct link). He and Owen were roommates while the Blocks Recording Club started up; at one time they were both bandmates in the Hidden Cameras as well. Like Owen, Kado is a hyper-intelligent, charismatic, motivated and opinionated guy; little wonder they found each other. Here, he gives colourful insight into "the making of" Final Fantasy.

Stuart McLean
May 11, 2006
locale: phone interview from his CBC office
How long did Owen work on the Vinyl Café?
He toured with us a number of times. I first heard him at Cinecycle—no that’s not true. I went to a thing that Harmony Trowbridge organised at C’est What. It may have been the first time he performed as Final Fantasy in public. I just thought, ‘this guy is something else, really special.’ I phoned him up and said we should talk, and he invited me to his next show, which was at Cinecycle. I was so enraptured by his work that I offered him a job on the spot. The only job I had at the time was to answer e-mail. Eventually he was choosing music for us as well, so he was a music producer for about a year, I think. For one season. Then he started coming out on tour with us. He did one in the north of British Columbia, and one in the Maritimes. There was another one through the bigger centres of Western Canada.
Did you notice him having the same effect on people that you had the first time you saw him?
People really liked his work. It’s very arresting. I think Owen is a musical genius. He’s a great talent.
Are you someone who throws around the world genius often?
No, no I’m not. I’m using the word advisedly when I’m talking to someone who’s going to write it down.
What do you think separates him in terms of writing or performance?
He has a sense of melody that is very special. He has a sense of harmony and composition. When he puts these layered pieces together, they’re uplifting. Sometimes when you hear a performer, there are moments of transcendence, when you are moved from where you are and you’re taken up with and over by the performance. It becomes a moment out of time. I stood in the wings watching Owen many nights on my show, and I have watched that happen and been a part of that happening. When the music fills up the space and takes over the space and we’re all whisked away to somewhere else.
Did you ever have a chance to see Les Mouches?
No, I didn’t.
It was a very different animal. It was more melodically abstract, and more abrasive and even confrontational at times.
I think Owen is a true artist. A true artist is restless. A craftsman repeats him or herself over and over, trying to perfect the craft. But an artist shifts and moves and is restless. I think Owen has the restlessness of the true artist.
He told me that he made the first Final Fantasy record to please other people, and he made this one to please himself. How do you think Vinyl Café shaped that first record?
That would be for Owen to say, not for me. Though Owen might not know it as well as others. Sometimes an artist doesn’t recognize where things come from. I do know that I watched his comfort level as a performer grow on tour. That happens to all of us when you’re out there every night in front of audiences from 500 to 2000 people. His singing became stronger, and his sense of comfort, to put himself out there, certainly grew. That came because he received such a warm response that you can’t help but think, ‘Well, I am doing something right.’ Some nights you could just feel the audience erupting with joy; they had never seen anything like that, and it was one big collective ‘wow.’ If you have that, you can’t help but have your confidence and comfort grow when that happens to you again and again. It’s a confirmation. ‘You’re on the right track. We want more of this.’ Which can be both a liberating and a limiting thing at the same time.

Richard Reed Parry
May 12, 2006
locale: phone interview from the Arcade Fire’s church in the Eastern Townships
Have you heard He Poos Clouds?
Heard it? I adore it. It’s the most impressive amalgamation of the modern classical world and an art/pop music that actually reaches far on both sides of the equation. Other bands—ahem—dabble in things classical, but Owen’s new record is a real modern classical record.
In terms of arrangements or writing?
Both, and the recording and the overall realization of the whole thing. It’s not just a pop record that borrows technique and aesthetics from the classical world. It’s as much a modern classical record as it is a pop record. I don’t know anything else like that. Different people throughout pop history have borrowed from the classical traditions to various extents, and people have done elaborate things using orchestral instruments, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard something that is both.
How does it compare to the first one?
It was more of a basement record, I feel. Obviously it was just him and [engineer] Leon [Taheny]. I love the first record, but I didn’t think it was the best representation of everything he was doing. In a way, the new one isn’t either, but it’s an amazing achievement of its own thing. I’m still a giant fan of seeing him with his looping pedal and watching the whole thing unspool from one guy. Even the shows he’s done with a string quartet—I like that stuff fine, but the real magic for me is seeing him create it on the spot, with any little glitches just along for the ride.
Could you describe what happened on the first tour with him?
Oh my god, it was so good. We did it for numerous reasons. We had done a full-scale U.S. tour, and had a hell of a time. I mean, it was a great, but it was a bit insane to have two local opening bands every night, and it was often lousy. We thought we should bring someone on tour with us who would make our lives easier, so we could have the local openers early and then have something exciting that connects with our show, not just some random rock music in a bar. We had played a couple of shows with Les Mouches. That stemmed from Bell Orchestre’s first show in Toronto, which was when he invited us to open for Les Mouches at their ‘white show’ [both band and audience were dressed all in white; plenty of projections were involved]. That was one of my favourite shows I’d ever seen—ever, of any band. Then Arcade Fire needed an opener for two shows in Toronto and Montreal, so we invited Les Mouches. He was talking then about his new solo project, and so we told him to come on tour with us and then he could play in the band as well. It would make our lives easier and make for a more interesting show. So we flew him out to the west coast to start the tour, and it was amazing from the get-go. It was the perfect combo act.
Had you heard the songs before?
I don’t think so. Maybe some mp3s that he played me. But for most of us, the first time we heard it was that night he got on stage.
Where was that?
That started in San Francisco, we did three nights at the Great American Music Hall in January 05. For the first couple of weeks we also had this friend of Win’s who was living out in Santa Fe called Tycho B. He was playing acoustic guitar and singing songs. They’d switch up who went first. His act wasn’t as perfectly suited to what the Arcade Fire was doing and what the crowd wanted, I suppose. Whereas Owen’s solo act was the perfect thing and amazing to watch for so many reasons: so full, dramatic and beautiful with really interesting and unique songs. Watching someone alone up there and get the audience spellbound when nobody knew who he was, just him and his little violin, shrieking. I think I watched his whole set every single night of the tour. Then he would come and play in Arcade Fire, and the whole thing developed that much further, another thinking head in the band.
Does he use any looping stuff when he plays with you?
Not really, not in any significant way. Maybe a couple of times for textural stuff.
He was selling bucketloads of records too, wasn’t he?
Yeah. He’d go out there in Dallas, Texas or something, full of drunken Texas, and skinny, faggoty Owen doing his weird songs would have them eating out of the palm of his hand. Watching him do that every night was a real kick. ‘Oh yeah, there’s Owen out there, slaying ‘em! Now we can do whatever we want.’ I think people who don’t even listen to lyrics loved the beauty of it and virtuosity of it. It makes this kind of impact regardless of what kind of art you like or what the songs are about. A lot of it might be a little tricky to get a handle on for some people.
Did he ever run out of records on that tour?
Yeah, I remember a fiasco in New Orleans, when Steven Kado was supposed to ship a box down to them, and there was a lot of Owen and Leon driving around in a minivan trying to find these records that hadn’t shown up. It was a bit of a nightmare for them. I don’t even know how many they sold, it must have been thousands.
Why did he get hired to write stuff for Funeral?
I guess through Jim [Guthrie] is where we saw him a few times.
The first time I saw the Arcade Fire ever was opening for Jim’s CD release show in Toronto.
I didn’t play that show.
No, it was Tim [Kingsbury] and Dane [Mills] [and Win and Regine].
Yeah, that was the first Toronto show. Then Jim came to Montreal soon after that, so I saw him there. Then the two of us opened for the Constantines’ CD release at the Horseshoe in Toronto. By the time that we’d seen the Hidden Cameras repeatedly he had stopped playing with them. I think I saw them once with him. We’d seen Mike Olsen play repeatedly with the Hidden Camears, so we decided they should come up and do some string stuff on the record. They came up and we had a string quartet weekend. Pretty much all the strings on the record were done in one weekend, with all of us conducting in the living room. Regine had some specific ideas she wanted, Win had some ideas he wanted, and Sarah [Neufeld] and I had some string parts. But Owen really stepped up when we’d say, ‘Okay, what do we need here.’ Owen would usually have a strong idea that would nail it.
What was the band’s reaction to the “Win and Regine” song?
Nobody knew that’s what it was called until a few nights in. We said, ‘That one song is awesome, what’s it called?’ He smirked and said, ‘”This is the Dream of Win and Regine,” it’s about you guys.’ I don’t think there was further probing in the conversation. Win just smiled and said, ‘Huh!’
It was on the record already.
Yeah, but none of us had heard the record. He was playing every night and selling tons of records. He gave us copies once we were already on the road.

Steve Kado
May 12, 2006
locale: phone interview from his house
How far back do you two go?
I got him into the Hidden Cameras. I met Owen in university. He was in 2nd year and I was in 1st. He was roommates with Ian Robertson.
What did you bond over?
James [the band]. He moved to Darcy St. when I was living on Dundas, so we were in the same neighbourhood. We played various strategic board games one summer and I got him into Gastr del Sol. He had pretty typical closet case dude taste in music: Bjork, Kate Bush. He was doing a lot of Irish fiddling type stuff as well.
He credits you with introducing him to pop music with Barcelona Pavilion.
Yeah, that’s him lying. We both liked James, we thought it was hilarious music. They’re kind of the worst band, really bad, yet amazingly good. I didn’t have any classes with Owen ever, it was just social.
So Hidden Cameras was his first pop band?
Yes. Joel asked me if I knew any violin players. That led to his work with Jim Guthrie, and the rest is history.
You’re both interested in aesthetics of pop and starting something with a concept and then executing it.
I think you should always start with an idea. Even if it’s just to make a song with this sound in it or whatever. It’s impossible for me to consider starting from absolute nothing. I can’t even imagine what it takes to do something like that. Owen likes to retroactively fill in his concepts. He has such great facility with the material of music, that he could be dicking around with something for fun and then he’ll say, ‘Look, I’ll make the dicking around be about this.’ When we were roommates, his process was far less directed than he probably lets on.
Is that true of the new record?
Half of the idea of making the songs about magic—it acutally is about the schools of magic, but it’s also about normal people. His analogy for divination is the Freedom 55 ads. He thinks that’s divination right there, meeting yourself in the future. What yourself in the future says is ‘invest.’ That’s the level Owen is doing stuff on. It’s pretty funny. It’s interesting that people don’t find him that ironic a person. Because it’s such lush music and has all the signifiers of being emotional, they assume it’s about him or real human feelings. When actually it’s about really dumb and funny stuff, and perceiving normal things in funny ways. In that respect it’s much less of a serious thing than Barcelona Pavilion or Ninja High School or all these bands that are assumed to be jokes—all of whom sing about real factual things that are either important or at least interesting to the people involved. Owen seems to be more cerebral and removed from all that because it locks down the signifiers necessary for its reading as emotional music, people don’t question whether it is or not. Watching Final Fantasy unfold is a horrendous thought experiment. It’s like, ‘What can happen? How could this be received? Unreal! No way! Who are these people?’
Final Fantasy is much more conventional than Les Mouches, obviously.
It was definitely made with the idea of it being popular. Owen didn’t tell people, but it’s horribly manipulative and understood that way. He’s aiming for it that way, but he later defined it as ‘public service.’ It’s vain-sounding, but he was joking and defining it as ‘give them what they want.’
He told me that he made the first record for other people and that this is the record he wanted to make. Although I don’t think it’s drastically different.
It’s drastically different in some respects. The first record wasn’t very well thought out, and wasn’t written out in advance, and was definitely a seat-of-the-pants effort. This one benefits from him having thought it out. There’s a score for everything.
That doesn’t necessarily like it better. I like it just as much.
It doesn’t make it better that he wrote it out, but it’s better in that he spent time thinking about how they could be done, instead of doing it in whatever way. It was recorded just as efficiently, but with far more sense of direction and less sense of panic. The first one was done in the wake of him finding out he was going to be opening for the Arcade Fire. Suddenly, in six days, he made this record and in 11 days we got it manufactured. It was stupid.
Talking to Stuart Maclean, people were already falling in love with what he was doing and he knew he had to make a record sooner than later.
Yeah, he had about a year when he knew he had to make a record. It’s just that he spent a lot of time NOT making a record. It’s strange because some of the songs on He Poos Clouds are really, really old, first generation Final Fantasy. When he tells you that he wrote it between these dates in these places, he didn’t at all. It’s total lies.
I heard some of those songs at least a year and a half ago.
Totally. One of the songs on that record is the first Final Fantasy song ever. He was working on the divination thing at the time, shelved the whole thing to make an album quickly and left a bunch of awesome gems off of it, a lot of his live hits. He made up all this other stuff, like fake Gentleman Reg songs, and put those on instead. I’m not sure how I feel about some of that stuff. On this new record, I thought, ‘Ah, all Owen songs.’
What has his role been in Blocks since its inception?
When Blocks was based at 19 Major and we were living there, Owen did a lot of stuff. Owen made stuff, planned stuff and organised things. Lately, Owen’s been on tour a lot. When he’s back, he folds a lot of stuff. He can’t do too much day-to-day stuff. He does a lot of talking on behalf of Blocks, which considering that he’s traveling the most I consider to be totally valuable. He does a lot of ambassador work for us, and when he’s back he does a lot of folding, because it doesn’t require any long-term commitment. Owen quite conscientiously always pulls his weight, which is quite admirable, because he could just say, ‘I’m paying the bills. Shut up.’ Because he IS paying the bills—that’s the other thing he does at Blocks!
What has the success of Final Fantasy meant for Blocks?
It’s meant having to deal with a lot of awful stuff sooner than we were ready for. Distribution, manufacturing… I don’t think we were prepared to manufacture records on the scale we needed to when this raised its head. We weren’t prepared to do really successful stuff at all. The standard run at the time was 500 copies of anything. The idea that we would be scaling to 1000 copies of everything, all the time, was alienating and hard for our then-extant model to accommodate.
How many copies did Has a Good Home sell?
We manufactured about 10,000 of them, but how many we’ve actually sold I can’t verify because there is x number in stores. We’ve got at least a couple of thousand of those in the office. In terms of distributed and out-there numbers, probably seven or eight thousand.
It also brought us into contact with a lot of the douchebag elements of the music industry that we were fine with ignoring, and they were fine with ignoring us. Just miscellaneous assholes. Because Tomlab was involved early on, [licensing the record] is not really an issue. They handle it everywhere except Canada. That’s all sewn up—the record’s coming out through these channels, these places, this way. It’s more like guys who want to handle our advertising or PR, guys who say ‘we feed excellently to blogs’ and just horrible crap. The whole point of doing Blocks is to do things differently than the regular music industry does. Instead of whining about disliking the way things are, constructing an alternative. To a certain extent it has to interact with extant capitalism, but I would like to do things as differently as possible.
People who want to do things the worst way possible didn’t really bother with us until Owen became successful. Then they were hanging around aplenty. They’re not interested in anything else. They don’t say, ‘We really like what you guys are doing!’ They have a very single focus. They’re not acting like good guys, saying, ‘Yeah, your other stuff is pretty good too!’ They’re not even trying to gladhand too much. The most negative thing has been an increased amount of music industry douchebag shit to deal with, that really no one should have to deal with ever. These people are redundant, their jobs are useless. They should be removed from the equation entirely.
Could you describe what happened on the Arcade Fire tour?
It was ridiculous. We didn’t get the discs done until after they had played two dates. We had to ship an entire box of them. The initial run was 500, which he got rid of on tour. Then we had to make another 1000 really fast. It was total insanity. It was rushing to make the record done. There was no album art at all, no idea of what the album art would be, and Owen left right away. The album art was made up and sent off. I drew that mushroom duck thing and we just slapped it on there… (long story) It was utter madness.
I love the booklet though.
That was cooked up generations later. If we had started from the booklet, we would have had ample things to put on the CD, hilarious things to put on the cover. It doesn’t make any sense. The booklet was originally photocopied for the next 1000, and he spent a long time making it when he got back from the Arcade Fire tour, so I don’t think they were even ready when we started shipping the second thousand. Things got so insane. Then we had to do a quick fill-in run because we were going to change the entire packaging as a whole to something more like what it became, but in the interim we had to press another 500 CDs with some weird stopgap packaging. Then Owen retraced and redrew the entire album cover… (more long stories).
My brother bought the digipack at the big Toronto shows in April.
That’s another thing that was unsatisfactory to me about the jump in scale. We didn’t have an alternative to these fairly stock and unexciting packaging shapes. That made me upset. I would prefer to make things better, more ourselves. Us not having an idea how to do that on that scale yet is something that bothers me. I’d like to solve it for future huge sellers!
A year and a half ago, Owen had seven or eight things on the go, and you did as well. Now both of you are very focused, and you said you’re down to just Ninja High School.
Yeah, and the Blankett whenever I get around to it.
Has some of the original spirit gone, then? Or is it good that everyone’s focused?
I haven’t thought about it in a good/bad way. On a personal level, I got really sick and unable to do stuff—physically sick. I had to really narrow it down, just to spend more time being myself and taking care of myself. That’s one thing. That’s been really positive for me, because I don’t feel sick anymore. Owen’s involvement in multiple projects—it’s weird, because he did come back from tour and start a new band, played one show, and then went back on tour. I don’t think anything’s really changed other than people are losing the opportunities to do these things. I start a million bands a day, but I have less and less time to follow up on it or to spend on music in general. However, that seems to be changing. Having this new office means we can collaborate more. The goal of being a co-op and sharing work seems to be realising itself more. As opposed to having it in my house, where no matter what it’s still my personal space.
What was the band he started in between tours?
Boymagic. That was him, Sebastien Grainger and Leon. It was two keyboards and drums, and apparently it sounds like Rush. He can do that stuff. He has more spare time in between tours than I do. In between his tours I’m taking care of his stuff. When he’s on tour, I have more time to myself. The only reason I’m still in Ninja High School is because it doesn’t take much of my time. We don’t have band practices. I realised that I hate band practices so much. I felt like I was becoming more of a professional in many respects, but not in the sense that it pays any bills. I felt a bit pissed off about that. I’d rather have fun; if music is going to be a job, I’d like it to pay like a job. And I don’t want to make music into another job. I don’t want to have any jobs, ever. Period. I want no jobs in my life. One should create the best possible scenario and then do it. If I wanted no jobs at all, I should stick to the unjobs that pay the bills.

1 comment:

alieninthestreet said...

heat your eyes for the skies tell tuners fly