Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Jan '10 reviews

Quick plug: Stuart Berman will be hosting a live performances and interview with Charles Spearin, revolving around one of my favourite albums of 2009, The Happiness Project. It's free at Harbourfront Centre this Thursday night, Jan. 28.

The following reviews ran in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury.

All Tomorrow’s Parties DVD (ATP/ Sonic Unyon)

All Tomorrow’s Parties is not a concert film; nor is it a documentary. Instead, it’s a series of snapshots of the 10-year-old U.K. music festival, interspersing live footage, candid shots of performers, and more than a few infuriating portraits of stoned British music fans goofing around in the seaside holiday resort where the original ATP festival is held (it has since expanded to put on events in London and in the U.S.).

What’s most fascinating about this countercultural celebration is the eclecticism: ATP takes pride in assembling iconoclasts whose only real common thread is a unique approach to their chosen genre of music—if they’re not already inventing new genres themselves.

And so the film opens with the danceable prog rock of Battles and closes with Grizzly Bear singing a cappella on a beach. In between we see visceral performances by stars and legends such as Portishead, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Patti Smith and Iggy Pop with the Stooges, as well as the comparatively unknown like the Balkan folk group A Hawk and a Hacksaw (playing acoustically in an arcade), poet Saul Williams and visceral crowd-pleasers Les Savy Fav. Not everyone is warmly embraced, however; there’s a painful clip of comedian David Cross being booed off the stage.

Cleverly interspersed with the modern doc footage is archival footage of British seaside vacationers from decades past, as well as various psychedelic effects that add to the stream-of-consciousness approach. The whole film functions as a surrealist dreamscape, without any narrative or particular point: just an immersive, ephemeral experience that overloads the senses. Not unlike an ATP weekend itself, no doubt. (K-W Record, January 21)

Boogaloo Pow Pow: Dancefloor Rendez-Vous in Young Nuyorica – Various Artists (Honest Jon’s)

Compared to the comprehensive compilations put out by reissue labels Soundway and Analog Africa, the relatively brief liner notes found inside this collection seem slight, as they attempt to explain the evolution of ’60s and ’70s Hispanic-American (mostly Puerto Rican) music as it morphed from mambo and cha cha cha into boogaloo and shingaling. And the tracks, some of which are licensed from EMI and Universal, are probably not terribly rare.

But who cares? Every track here puts a strut in your step, from the screamin’ hot “Cool Jerk” by Kako, to the insanely tense build-up in Manny Corchado’s “Pow Wow,” to solid tracks by better known artists like Tito Rodriguez, Willie Rosario and Ray Barretto. The horns are blazing, the rhythms are unstoppable, and the whole thing is a party in a can. Other compilations can try and contextualize all they want: on this one, every single track speaks for itself—and it’s commanding you to dance. (K-W Record, January 7)

5 Years of Hyperdub – Various Artists (Hyperdub)

Arguably, the genre that U.K. critics call “dubstep” is just the latest semantic shellgame for the ongoing evolution of electronic music. In this case, it’s dark, often doomy beats that mine everything from Kraftwerk to Jamaican dub reggae to Timbaland’s take on hip-hop, with staggered beats, jittery synthesizers and a sparse, icy sheen best suited to late night chill-outs, no matter the tempo and despite the occasional abrasion.

In what is largely a singles-based scene, Burial and Kode 9 are the two key dubstep artists (actually, the only ones) to have made a mark with full-length albums. And it’s easy to hear why: their tracks here (three from Burial, five from Hyperdub founder Kode 9) leap out from the rest of the pack and display an inventiveness that can easily stretch out to an album’s length. Burial lets snippets of sound slowly sink into the dub mix, building maximum tension as he decides what to reveal from behind the curtain, while subsonic bass and disembodied vocals cast hypnotic spells. Kode 9 constructs soundscapes like the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA raised on reggae instead of dusty soul records.

Outside of the two principals—and the almost-as-well-known (and that’s entirely relative, of course) Zomby—5 Years of Hyperdub offers mostly diminishing returns. Media hyperbole notwithstanding, dubstep is hardly revolutionary enough to the point where even its lesser lights are fascinating. Of the 15 other artists on this 32-track double CD, only Darkstar, Joker and Black Chow leave any kind of impression. L.A.’s Flying Lotus is the only non-Brit invited, and he sounds like he’s on a whole other trip entirely; meanwhile, The Bug, who predates dubstep, sounds like he dusted off something horribly dated from 10 years ago rather than his far superior new material.

Casual observers would be better off sampling Kode 9 or Burial; the rest is recommended as a time capsule for serious explorers only. (K-W Record, January 14)

Legends of Benin: Afro-Funk, Cavacha, Agbadja, Afro-Beat 1969-1981 – Various Artists (Analog Africa)

Every year there is no shortage of African compilations that hit the market, but only in recent years has this niche market taken off: thanks in large part to two record labels, Soundway in the U.K. and Germany’s Analog Africa. You can’t go wrong with anything in their collective catalogues, but of the hundreds of dollars I’ve spent on their albums in the last couple of years, one album stands heads and shoulders above the rest: Legends of Benin.

On the surface, Legends of Benin has what every great African comp has: a mix of Afrobeat, American funk, Latin rhythms and jazz. But the four artists focused on here— Gnonnas Pedro, El Rego, Honoré Avolonto and Antoine Dougbé—share an entrancing aesthetic that sheds busier arrangements and leaves plenty of sonic space for deep bass lines, owing more than a bit to not just James Brown but Jamaican reggae, even if only one track here draws any direct reggae influence (Avolonto’s “Tin Lon Non”). Each man is a compelling vocalist, whether they’re screaming over furious funk or crooning over languid guitar rhythms.

Though this all may appear par for the course, compiler Samy Ben Redjeb has hit the goldmine with these four men, as every single track here is nothing short of mindblowing, from the opening dancefloor killer of “Dadje Von O Von Non” to the haunting closing lament of “La Musica en Verité,” both by Gnonnas Pedro. Sure, these compilations are pricy, but know that a), Redjeb goes to great trouble to track down the artists and compensate them or their families accordingly (as detailed in his fascinating travelogue liner notes), and b), it’s worth every hard-earned cent. (K-W Record, January 7)

Magnetic Fields – Realism (Nonesuch/Warner)

The sincerity of songwriter Stephin Merritt is often questioned; and in return, Merritt questions why we demand sincerity and earnestness from our songwriters—especially those with acoustic guitars. When the Magnetic Fields use synths or hazy waves of distorted guitars, it’s easier for listeners to appreciate the hilarious narratives and rhyme schemes that Merritt employs regularly, even though there is often serious heartbreak and pathos in those same songs.

And so here, on an album where the instrumentation is entirely pre-rock’n’roll era—and which actually features a song called "We’re Having a Hootenanny Now"—Merritt continues to balance what can be dismissed as novelty songs with more serious fare. More often than not he attempts both at the same time, employing witty wordplay to illustrate emotional complexity, which is Merritt’s specialty.

Musically, Merritt defines Realism with ukuleles, mandolins, toy pianos and cello countermelodies colouring all the songs here; synths and drums are verboten, and electric guitars are rare. Shirley Simms and pianist/percussionist Claudia Gonson share vocals with Merritt, recalling the Magnetic Fields’ defining work, 1999’s 69 Love Songs.

Indeed, much of Realism sounds vaguely familiar: several tracks sound like they could have been culled from various other albums in the Merritt discography. Longtime fans might wish Merritt would take his own advice from one of the songs here: “Do something out of character/ anything/ do something true.”

And yet, being the master craftsman that he is, it doesn’t at all sound like he’s stuck in a rut; each song stands with his best, making it an ideal entry point for anyone unfamiliar with his massive body of work.

That said, if you find the idea of a man chorus singing a verse in German on a song called “Everything is One Big Christmas Tree” to be more nauseous than novelty (or, more accurately, a comment on consumerism plastic smiles), then Merritt’s Magnetic Fields are a taste you’re unlikely to acquire. (K-W Record, January 28)

Olatunji! – Drums of Passion (Sony Legacy Edition)

This Nigerian percussionist is credited with bringing African drumming to the American mainstream—influencing John Coltrane, Carlos Santana and the Grateful Dead, and leading to performances at Kennedy’s inauguration and at key Martin Luther King Jr. rallies. This 50th anniversary re-issue offers ample reasons why, with a gorgeous remastering job, informative booklet, bonus tracks and the 1966 follow-up More Drums of Passion as a bonus disc. The latter, recorded by Miles Davis’s producer Teo Macero, is arguably even more fascinating, more frenetic and more accomplished.

Sure, there are more than a few moments that make you feel like you’re trapped at a folk festival drum circle—until you realize that not only is Olatunji a true master, but this is the album that changed the way North Americans thought about music. The percussive onslaught is impeccably arranged and augmented by gorgeous choral chants (think: Gainsbourg’s “Couleur Café”) and, on the bonus tracks, some jazz instrumentation as well, which works perfectly and is a welcome change of scenery.

Sony’s Legacy Edition imprint is one of the only major labels to do loving reissues properly, and though this isn’t likely to be one of their bigger sellers, it’s treated with appropriate reverence. (K-W Record, January 7)

Panama 2: Latin Sounds, Cumbia Tropical & Calypso Funk on the Isthmus 1967-77 – Various Artists (Soundway)

Panama 3: Calypso Panameno, Guajira Jazz & Cumbia Tipica on the Isthmus 1960-1975 – Various Artists (Soundway)

The most fascinating reissues of recent years have focused on cross-cultural clashes: Ethiopiques, Cambodia Rocks, many of the Sublime Frequencies releases, etc.

In a geographical centre like Panama, however, anything and everything goes: there is plenty of American jazz with Latin rhythms—as had already been popular in the U.S. for at least 20 years by the time these recordings were made—but also heavy influences from the Caribbean and Colombia, and similar strains heard in Afro-funk, to say nothing of the subtle influences from the diverse group of international migrant workers that were brought to Panama to finish the canal in the early 20th century.

And so here we have Latin jazz, R&B, calypso, salsa, merengue and even some raw garage rock guitars. Peculiar to these compilations is the Panamanian style of tipica, which is related to the slow Colombian cumbia, though often featuring accordion and sharper percussion. Compiler Roberto Ernesto Gyemant goes to great detail in his engaging lead essay for both compilations, as well as with notes on individual tracks.

Not only does Gyemant know where to find the quality rarities, he knows how to sequence them. Both comps move effortlessly from sparse calypso to raging big band jazz to percussion-heavy tracks like Ceferino Nieto’s “El Pajaro Zum Zum,” which features a monstrous drum break that’s bound to end up in a killer hip-hop track before the year’s end—in fact, nothing else seems to happen in the song, except huge drums, subtle bass, and Nieto screaming in incomprehensible English like James Brown with an itch he can’t scratch.

For a breather, there is the slow, deep funk of Los Silvertones’ “Carmen,” with its Funkadelic guitars and Ethiopian-sounding saxophones, or the slinky groove of the Duncan Brothers’ “Dreams,” or the lilting reggae of Sir Jablonsky’s “Juck Juck.”

Only a few artists appear more than once; it’s not hard to fall in love with the calypso crooner Lord Cobra or the psychedelic sounds of Los Silvertones. But even amidst the wealth of artists heard here, there’s shockingly little repetition stylistically, which means neither of these compilations ever wear out their welcome. (K-W Record, January 21)

Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band – Between My Head and the Sky (Chimera)

It shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s ever heard any of her music that Yoko Ono, at age 66, is still wonderfully weird. Certainly, there are placid moments and musing on mortality on her latest album. But right from the opening track, “Waiting for the D Train,” she’s wailing and cackling over garage rock guitars and post-punk dance grooves—showing the likes of Karen O who’s still the boss.

For all the ridiculing she’s endured over the decades, she’s been largely vindicated by new generations of musicians who try to push the envelope in ways they later discover Ono was doing 35 years ago. And so Between My Head and the Sky is a victory lap for her, as she leads a funky band helmed by her son Sean and Japanese electronic artist Cornelius, and continues to use her voice in ways precious few singers do (for better or worse). The only serious pitfalls are the more maudlin pleas for peace on tracks like “Healing,” which haven’t grown any more complex since the naïve absurdity of the bed-ins.

Ono’s timing is perfect: not because of the much-ballyhooed Beatles reissues of 2009, but because people like the Flaming Lips, Bjork and other freaks have crept closer to the mainstream, and combined with the strength of this album, it’s the perfect time for skeptics to take a second look. (K-W Record, January 28)

RJD2 – The Colosuss (Electrical Connections)

There was a time when a DJ album meant certain things: sampling, scratching, hip-hop beats, techno. These days, however, a DJ is expected to be more eclectic, both in the club and on CD. RJD2 has expanded beyond the cinematic hip-hop that defined his earlier work—the kind that attracted the producers of TV’s Mad Men, who picked one of his tracks as their theme song—and made a diverse pop album that includes everything from harpsichord funk (“Giant Squid”) to spy movie themes (“The Stranger,” “Small Plans”) to ’80s R&B and swinging ’60s pop (“Walk With Me”).

Musically, he pulls it off with aplomb—he’s slowly been moving from an entirely sample-based artist to a multi-instrumentalist. It’s the tracks with vocals that stop The Colossus from greatness: not that the singing is bad, either by RJD2 himself or guest vocalists, but he hasn’t really figured out how to work with a vocal melody yet—because until now, he’s successfully focused on letting the music do all the talking. Ironically, this would be a better pop album if it didn’t have any vocalists on it. (K-W Record, January 28)

Spoon – Transference (Merge)

Few rock bands take minimalism to the max the way Spoon do, stripping away all excess fat and focusing on the bare essentials. It’s an approach that worked to brilliant effect on their 2002 breakthrough Kill the Moonlight, which took an approach almost akin to dub reggae, in terms of what instruments would suddenly drop out of the mix and when.

After two slightly more conventional—and increasingly popular—albums, Spoon have now pulled everything back again to make the sparsest album of their career. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well this time. Far too many songs find the entire band chugging away on the same quarter note, in a fashion more suited to demos than a finished product. It could be that this is their point: leaving so many blank spaces to let the listener project whatever they want between the lines. Or it could be just lazy.

This being Spoon, however, all is not lost. Five of the album’s 11 tracks show signs of former brilliance (“Mystery Zone,” the 2009 single “Got Nuffin”); “Who Makes Your Money” is a trippy take on opiated R&B; closing track “Nobody Gets Me But You” channels early-’80s Prince and the minimalist funk of ESG. “Goodnight Laura” is an uncharacteristically straightforward piano ballad.

Those are the only songs where it sounds like they’re actually trying; too much of Transference sounds like they just gave up. (K-W Record, January 21)

Vampire Weekend – Contra (XL)

For whatever reason, this young band’s debut album proved to be remarkably divisive. For every fan won over by their innocent charm and breezy songwriting, they faced a nasty detractor put off by their preppy ways.

Contra is bound to meet the same fate, as Vampire Weekend unspool some of their arrangements to explore different textures, and use the studio more creatively than merely capturing their live sound and adding a string section. Here, they appear to have been listening to New Order, ska, soca, and surf rock, all of which collide with varying degrees of success. Multi-instrumentalist whiz Rostam Batmanglij has no shortage of inventive ideas, but deciding to let vocalist Ezra Koenig use Autotune on the dreadful “California English” was not one of them.

If Batmanglij is the band’s secret weapon, Koenig is their not-so-secret albatross. His lyrics, which at best are cute and clever, are mostly cloying and clunky on much on Contra—no more so than on the horrific closing track, “I Think UR a Contra,” which may or may not have something to do with a couple comparing their communication with right-wing Nicaraguan rebels of the ’80s. Or whatever. The listener’s first warning is when Koenig leads off the album with the couplet: “In December, drinking horchata/ I look psychotic in a balaclava.”

Maybe the South African township jive they love so much has equally inane lyrics—who knows? For English speakers, Koenig is largely a dippy distraction from an otherwise interesting band, one that shows signs of successfully dodging a sophomore slump. (K-W Record, January 14)

Hawksley Workman – Meat (Isadora)

The last time we heard from this prolific performer, he had released an album with the ridiculous title Los Manlicious, where he tapped into the swagger that has defined his most sublime moments. That swagger is still there, and Workman is indulging some of his wilder urges on tracks like “(We Ain’t No) Vampire Bats,” while still allowing room for intimate moments like the piano ballad “Song for Sarah Jane” and the anthemic R&B slow jam “The Ground We Stand On.”

But if the performances and the production bring out the best in him, aside from the aforementioned standouts Workman’s songwriting doesn’t measure up. The lyrics are as whimsical as always, and you’ll either love or hate his odes to baby mosquitoes, Tokyo bicycles, and French girls in L.A.

The problem is that none of the tunes demand the enthusiasm that he creates in the studio for them; maybe they’ll come across better live. If not, fans won’t have to wait long for his next album, Milk: the single, “We Dance to Yesterday,” is already out and the album is due in the spring. (K-W Record, January 28)

Friday, January 15, 2010

Owen Pallett, pt 3

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.

How so?

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.

Its base?

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.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Owen Pallett, pt 2

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.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Owen Pallett pt1

Owen Pallett himself admits his new album, Heartland, is “preposterous”: a concept album involving a meta-narrative involving a dialogue between a 14th century farmer and the author of his story, that culminates in the farmer defying his fate by rising up and killing the narrator of the story—think Paul Auster meets J.R.R. Tolkien. This is set to symphonic arrangements that combine operatic ambition with pop song brevity and polyphonous electronic embellishment—all of which is meant to be able to be reconstructed live on stage with only two people.

Ridiculous, right? Not one bit. As anyone who has ever witnessed Pallet live will know—until very recently, using the stage name Final Fantasy—the Toronto violinist makes the ridiculously unattainable very tangible and real.

Until now, his studio recordings (2005's Has a Good Home, 2006's He Poos Clouds)—despite their many strengths—haven’t inspired the jaw-dropping wonder that his live set does. But Heartland amazes and astounds with every swelling of the symphony strings and every electronic flutter, because Pallett is not just an arranger who knows how to drape a string section over something simple. He’s a composer first and foremost, who pays precise attention to every tiny detail.

This is why dissonance lingers over the otherwise classically beautiful mournful melody of “E is For Estranged”; it’s why stuttering electronic percussion perfectly punctuates the broad strokes of an orchestra on “The Great Elsewhere”; it’s why “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” (the song that Pallett persisted in performing during last summer’s torrential thunderstorm at Hillside) always threatens to turn into a triumphant techno number, but the tension achieved by restraint makes it all the more powerful as he repeats the chorus: “I’m never going to give it to you!” Heartland never goes for the visceral thrill, but it doesn’t have to. It’s rich and layered and full of dense delights that never overwhelm.

And that’s just the music. The lyrics take a back seat during the listening experience, but on paper they raise all sorts of theological questions about meeting one’s maker, Kafkaesque/Matrix-like musings on being part of someone else’s master plan, and an artist’s fallibility when it comes to control over their work and how it is perceived. He does this, miraculously, without sounding like he’s trying to cram his English lit doctorate into a four-minute pop song—he can even wrap his tongue around a word like “concatenation” (more than once, even) without drawing attention to the vocabulary.

I’ve known Owen for about eight years, when I first saw him playing with the Hidden Cameras, Gentleman Reg and Jim Guthrie. (I wrote this cover story for Exclaim when He Poos Clouds came out; full interview from that time here; I checked his references here). And along with being a charming conversationalist and someone whose talent astounds me regularly, I also know him to be famously neurotic—a trait that comes out in the interview below, where he details how he tortured himself into a twist making Heartland, at times considering abandoning it entirely. Hopefully he’s sleeping better now that he’s made his masterpiece.

This is the first of three parts of our conversation, parts of which will be distilled into a Pallett-for-beginners article in Maclean’s tomorrow.

Owen Pallett
December 31, 2009
Locale: phone conversation from Jessie Stein’s Montreal apartment

Having only listened to the proper running order for the first time yesterday, it sounds much more coherent. Was it composed as a linear work, not to be consumed on shuffle?

It was meant to be linear. The first song, “Midnight Directives,” was supposed to be later in the record, but I was so into the energy of it that I changed the lyrics to it and put it first.

On the last track of your last album, “The Pooka Sings,” from He Poos Clouds, the Pooka posed the lyrical question to you, Owen Pallett, the author: why are all your songs about the things that don't exist? And soon enough that was followed by an EP and an album about a fictional world where you are the creator of all things facing a mutiny by your central character.

That’s right.

Is Heartland a concept album about atheism, creation and destruction of gods? Or is it merely a meta-narrative wank?

(Laughs) It’s probably closer to the meta-narrative wank—just because I get off on that kind of wanking. It isn’t about atheism or god. There are hints of that, and hints of religious zealotry. But it’s meant to be a romance album. Even though it’s in a fictional world, it’s really just all about me (laughs). But who wants to write a record about me? All records are about their singer. I was trying to play with that.

At one point the character of Lewis says he fell in love with Owen after hearing Psalm 21—and all psalms are really about love for the creator and honoring the creator for giving the author life. The whole album, to me, is about the relationship between a character and its narrative creator, or about a real person and their spiritual creator.

After Lewis kills Owen, in the song “What Do You Think Will Happen Now,” he comes off like a spiritual anarchist, lashing out against “overzealous obscurantism” and established rules of hierarchy; in its place, he prefers to toast to the brotherhood of the man, who alone must shape their own destiny:

“I reaffirm my endless devotion to the belief that we’re all of value. We’re all of virtue … and though I listen to the arguments that most divergent systems employ to debilitate, delineate us, repackage our words, demystify us—I unceasingly affirm my love cannot be measured, cannot be altered.”

Yeah, but who’s actually singing that song, right?

What, physically?

No, the entire record has been Lewis’s voice, but who’s singing the last song? I wanted all these songs to be sung by Lewis, but I wanted there to be moments when it was unclear as to whether it was Lewis or me singing.

Or an omniscient narrator, independent of both.

Exactly. That song is meant to be the moment where the two voices come together. The situation that Lewis is put into is a panopticon, especially on “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt.” I was proud of those lyrics, because it’s a successful dialogue between someone who is being pornographed and rejecting it—is pornographed a word?! Anyway, he’s being exploited. Essentially, I was feeling that Lewis becomes implicitly aware of the fact that people are listening to this record and he has no control over it; he is the subject of a story.

There is an acknowledgment in the last song that the situation is identical to my own situation as a musician. You have to understand, Michael, that I’ve been through a lot of psychological changes in the last three years.

What, are you going to distance yourself from your earlier work?

No, I’m going to be very honest. In 2005, when I went on tour with Arcade Fire [mere weeks after completing Has A Good Home], I entered this other stage of my life when I stopped being a musician who was living in Toronto and playing shows with Toronto musicians and making music for my friends. Suddenly my music was being appreciated—or not appreciated—by people I didn’t know in other countries. I went through all these stages of having to deal with this. I’m not going to pretend that I’m Lady Gaga or anything.

Having He Poos Clouds come out and thinking that it was a record that I wrote for Canadian friends and then having it be put out in this broader context and be the subject of Pitchforking and of mainstream music press—it all made me realize that something had changed in my life and I was now making records for strangers. I wasn’t really comfortable with it. It took a while to arrive at a point where I felt that I could really assume the role of producer and make a record that I would feel would be watertight and put it across the ocean and send it to Hungary and have some Hungarian listen to it and appreciate it. And I think part of what people liked about Has a Good Home is that it was such a slapdash affair, it was me responding to my own experiences.

I don’t think anyone liked it because it was slapdash. I don’t think most people know, or care, how it was made. They like the songs, and if they find out later that it was done in a week and recorded just before you went on the Arcade Fire and it was written after your Vinyl Café experiences [Owen worked on the massively popular mainstream CBC radio show]—the story only enhances people’s appreciation of what they already liked about the music.

Right, but I don’t like that record and neither does [boyfriend/manager] Patrick [for whom it was written]—ironically. I feel like every single thing I’ve recorded since then is miles better than anything on that record. I know people are still really drawn to the songs on it, and I am too: I think there are some very nice songs on it. But I find the recording to be not at all interesting in terms of what I want to create—for better or worse. It took a lot of practice and arranging for other people before I could arrive at a point where I felt able to record an album that would be considered by the same evaluative tools as records like Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom. I only bring up those names because those are the comparisons I’m going to get, other than, say, Wolfmother. I’m not claiming alliance to either of those people.

Oddly enough, I didn’t think of Wolfmother once while listening to this record.

Really! Strange, that. But that [Joanna Newsom] Ys album blew open a lot of doors. It was the first massively successful, independently produced orchestral album in a long time, that I can think of. Not only that, but it fully took advantage of the changes in recording technology. Even though it’s entirely analog, it sounds way better than any ’60s or ’70s recording. It sounds amazing! I couldn’t afford to do the Steve Albini/ Jim O’Rourke/ Van Dyke Parks thing [Newsom's collaborators on Ys], and furthermore it’s not in my interest. I like getting my hands on the mics and putting the staccatos in myself. But I wanted to create something that would function in the same universe. This was the worm in my head: that I’m not making a record for my friends, I’m making a record for…

Van Dyke Parks?

Ha! No, not this one. I’ve already made records for Van Dyke Parks. That’s what [2008 EP] Plays to Please was.

Is this your most elaborately arranged album?

Yes and no. It’s just different writing for string quartet and writing for orchestra. Both pose separate problems. With an orchestra you can use broader strokes. With a quartet you have to be very refined. With He Poos Clouds we ran two sessions before we ran the session. It had to be perfect because every note has to be perfect. With an orchestra you can pack 50 people into a room and press play and it’s done. It’s a different beast.

Are there more electronics on this album?

There was not much or any up until now, other than a few Juno [synth] drones.

After He Poos Clouds you started to play keyboards live.

When I went to tour with a synth I went through a bunch of different options. It’s a typical manoeuvre for a classically trained musician to go straight for a weighted keyboard that sounds like a piano. When you’re doing looping, digital piano—and a lot of digital sounds—don’t sound very good. That tour I did with Rollie [Cadence Weapon], I had an electroacoustic piano, a CP-70, which is the kind of thing Peter Gabriel would tour with. It was overzealous on my part. Experimenting with that stuff gave me a new appreciation for analog synthesizers and how electronic music is constructed, culminating in my purchase last year of a R2600, which is considered one of those synths that you just can’t afford. But I was doing a film score, so I could afford it.

"The Great Elsewhere" is the perfect marriage of classical orchestration, in the ornate way one would expect it to be, and the electronics, which don’t sound like a classical music person using electronics to just be another element in their classical orchestration. The electronics are composed in the same way somebody on Warp Records would use electronics. There are white noise bursts—not Great White Noise bursts—that clash alongside traditional orchestration.

Yeah. Well… (Laughs)

Am I wrong?

That song was meant to have the sound of the electronic element and the orchestral element wrestling with each other.

When I saw you do that song live in Washington, D.C., last fall, it was one where, at the beginning, a lot of things appear random when you’re constructing the loops. Whereas with all your earlier material, the build-up is very obvious in terms of where all the parts fall into place. With this song, not knowing where the parts will land is part of the thrill of watching it.

Good, I’m glad I pulled it off, because that song I can only pull off two out of three times. The other time the transition from 11/16 to 4/4 might not work. That song is reflective of the five-channel looping. I moved from mono to five-channel in early 2008. I made an effort to allow myself to move beyond the loop station. One of the byproducts of having a multi-channel looping station is that it leads you toward extreme polyphony. Certain songs like “Keep the Dog Quiet” is a product of combining lots of very different sounds, seeing how far you can take the violin sound. And “The Great Elsewhere” is finding out how densely I can write.

Why did you use the Czech Symphony Strings?

This is something I’m hesitant to talk about, because it’s a contentious issue. First I have to say that I’m a big fan of unions, but then I have to say that the way the musicians’ union is run makes it prohibitive for people to actually produce independent orchestral recordings. Even Disney will find ways around traditional union contracts, where they pay residuals to all the performers. These rules are completely dinosaur-age, applicable to people making orchestral Supertramp records and Hollywood movies. It does not apply now. So in order to get an orchestra recorded, you have to go off-contract. You can go off-contract in Toronto or New York, but it’s difficult. Whereas when you go to the Czech Republic, you just go there and give money to an orchestra and they play for you and then you take your recording home. It’s not a currency thing, it’s union regulation.

Boring answer, huh? You were expecting some kind of Moldau story.

No, that actually raises a whole other set of issues I wasn’t anticipating, like the limitations of classical music crossing over to new composers or smaller ensembles and people writing symphonically.

It’s interesting because there have been articles written by the head of the Toronto Musicians’ Union talking about how they have to do away with residuals. But the musicians’ union is not run by people like me. It’s run by working musicians who work in a totally different context. There are so many different attitudes at different orchestras. You would think that playing with the Brooklyn Philharmonic would be an experience that would be gorgeous and beautiful in terms of musicianship, but they’re just a bunch of union people who don’t care about the music. It was almost a surprise that they might be playing something by a young composer that they might enjoy. Whereas then you go to Halifax, and their people were excited and the performance was 20 times better. Even because they were able to devote a couple more hours of rehearsal time.

How often have you performed with symphonies now?

I’ve done it three times. The first two times was more stress than it was worth. I did the Brooklyn Philharmonic with Grizzly Bear, which was kind of an unmitigated disaster for both bands. Now, with distance, we can both admit that. I had an hour to rehearse a 45-minute set. When I was writing it, I thought it would be amazing. It was a terrible experience, to be honest. And I don’t know if it’s the orchestra or the venue, but they’re going through some financial crises and that might have something to do with it. After that was in Vienna, where I dropped the ball, because we weren’t sure if we could fit it into our schedule, and I did it on three hours sleep—which I got on a bus from Poland the night before—so the performance was kind of shady and I wasn’t paying close enough attention. But when I did it in Halifax it went so well, so I think I’ll do it again.

Tomorrow: Owen discusses John Darnielle, Ferdinand Magellan, Yukio Mishima and setting oneself up for failure.