Monday, May 26, 2014

Owen Pallett - In Conflict

It’s been Owen Pallett week around here: my article for Maclean’s ran here; previous posts focused on my conversations about Pallett with Carl Wilson and Nico Muhly, and an excerpt of my main conversation where Pallett talks about Toronto and kids. What follows is the rest of our conversation, preceded by my review that ran in the Waterloo Record.

Owen Pallett – In Conflict (Secret City)

Love’s beginning. Love’s end. Infatuation. Divorce. Birth. Death. Taking control. Losing control. Surely there have been thousands of songs written for every one of these situations.

But how many songs have ever been written with a line about “the day that you find your 30s have left you childless”—especially a song that rocks as hard as Owen Pallett’s uncharacteristically Zeppelinesque “The Riverbed”? Who else would dare to set a line like “I’ll never have any children” to a sunny chorus amidst an otherwise mournful chord progression (“I Am Not Afraid”)? Just as becoming a parent is so obviously a life-changing event—there’s no shortage of songs about that, either—realizing that you’re likely never going to be a parent is surely one of the most emotional experiences of one’s life. Yet Pallett is, to my knowledge, the only person—straight or queer—to face that head on in a song.

The 34-year-old songwriter, violinist, Arcade Fire sideman and Academy Award-nominated film composer (in 2013, for Spike Jonze’s Her) has avoided autobiography his entire career. Instead, he wrote concept albums loosely related to Dungeons and Dragons’ schools of magic and a fantastical 14th-century world called Heartland. Having been raised on ’90s female singer-songwriters, he resented the common assumption that their so-called “confessional” writing was thereby devoid of craft. His fourth album finds him, as always, avoiding literal lyrics; even though it is (we’re told) a personal record, it’s still couched in poetry open to interpretation. Without knowing Pallett intimately, there’s nothing here that wouldn’t suggest these are universally resonant narratives. He always gets props for his musical prowess; here, Pallett’s poetry is as evocative as his music has always been.

That’s not the only way the 2006 Polaris Prize-winner has topped himself. Everything about In Conflict marks a maturation. For starters, his voice: Pallett has always been self-conscious about his reedy timbre and somewhat limited range, but his performance here is completely transformative. Not only is he far more commanding as a vocalist, he’s writing melodies that push him to be even better; I’m not sure he’d have been able to sing a song with the melodic reach of “The Sky Behind the Flag” five years ago—at least not as well as he nails it here.

As someone who until recently performed with only a violin and looping pedals, Pallett retreats from the full-blown orchestration that marked 2010’s Heartland. Here, he plays just as much synth as he does violin or viola. The orchestration is employed sparingly, and therefore far more effectively, never more so than the weeping, occasionally dissonance that colours “The Passions,” or the Ligeti-esque strings on the title track, cascading over the second half of an otherwise bouncy pop song.

Key to the album’s success are collaborators old and new. Marquee value goes to Brian Eno, whose work for game-changing artists and stadium rockers with avant-garde ambitions is well known. Pallett is less interested in any of those people; he prefers Eno’s first four solo albums, before he started making largely ambient music and taking big production gigs. Eno doesn’t produce In Conflict; Pallett hired him to sing backing vocals, and Eno added some synth and guitar textures for good measure. You know, just another guy in the band. No big deal.

Here, the real star supporting player is drummer Rob Gordon. Ten years ago, Gordon and Matt Smith were two-thirds of Les Mouches, a band where Pallett played guitar and alternated between intimate whispers and primal screams. Clearly, their chemistry is still intact; they all share writing credits on half the album. Pallett abandoned an early version of the album to re-record with his old band live in a room, which brings out a visceral side of the violinist never before heard on his recordings. Gordon in particular is every bit a virtuoso as Pallett; his drum kit is arguably the lead instrument on “The Riverbed” and “Infernal Fantasy.”

Owen Pallett is no longer the guy who plays looped solo violin. He’s no longer the guy whose lyrics seem sprung from Yukio Mishima and Ursula K. LeGuin books. He’s certainly much more than an Arcade Fire sideman, even if that’s how he’ll have spent 90 per cent of his time in 2014. With In Conflict, Pallett invests a lifetime of experience and creates his definitive work to date.

Download: “The Riverbed,” “On a Path,” “The Passions”

Owen Pallett
March 18, 2014
From a Philadelphia hotel room

How did Brian Eno end up on your record? Was he familiar with your work?

I approached him at this event and asked him to sing. He publicly outed himself as a fan after Heartland came out. He was asked what his favourite record of 2010 was, and he said Anna Calvi’s first record and Heartland. And he had curated me into some festivals.

What was your relationship with his music like?

Oh, a passionate fan, obviously. There are things people celebrate him for, and then there are other things I like him for. I think he’s an amazing singer. He encourages me in almost a spiritual way; hearing him makes me feel more comfortable about singing like that. But c’mon, his first four records are the best four records. And I love the fifth one too, Another Day on Earth, from 2006.

As did I, and I don’t think that album got a lot of play. It was also the first time he’d sung since the 1970s and I don’t think he’s sung since, is that correct?

He always sings backing vocals for everybody.

But then he made that record with David Byrne because he didn’t want to sing it himself.

Man, he’s a good singer, though.

Did he talk to you about playing the AGO or OCAD back in the day?


Or working with Toronto guitarist Michael Brook and producing the Time Twins out of Hamilton?

No, I’ve never heard of that. We talked about Hamilton and Toronto, because he spent a lot of time there with Daniel Lanois. I’ve always wanted to ask him about that weird Russian band who allegedly drank all his booze so Eno sent them home. But you just can’t.

Let’s cover some history. When you began performing as Final Fantasy, you had 10 projects on the go. And Stuart McLean saw Final Fantasy and offered you a job.

I was playing around Toronto from April to August of 2004. Then around September I quit, and I was quitting Final Fantasy as well. It was super fun but I had made a couple of runs at making records and I couldn’t figure out how to do it. I had a day with Justin Small [of Do Make Say Think] where we set up amps all over his house and we ran the violin through everything simultaneously. I didn’t have the technical know-how; I had never used a digital audio workstation. I didn’t know what to do. I was quite literally starving. I had absolute zero dollars. When Stuart McLean came to a show at [tiny Toronto venue] Cinecycle and said, “That was really amazing. What are you up to these days?” I said, “Well, I’m actually looking for work. I have no idea what’s going on in my professional life.” So he hired me to work as musical producer on his show; part of that is that he wanted me as a musical guest for his fall tour. So I did that and wrote songs specifically for those concerts. He kept telling me I needed to make a record. Then it really came together when I hooked up with [producer] Leon Taheny, who I’d known since he was 16 years old.

If looping pedal technology wasn’t available to you, how do you think your music would have evolved?

I probably would have kept with Les Mouches and continued making guitar songs.

In the summer of ’04, you had already arranged Funeral.

Yes. That summer Les Mouches were opening for Arcade Fire as they were getting on that inevitable buildup to their explosion of success. They asked me to come out with them that fall, but because I’d taken the job with Vinyl Café, I’d said no. When they asked me to open for them on the January run, they asked Les Mouches to open. But at the time, the amount of money they had to offer and the thought of hauling three of us around on the road—I mean, I loved Les Mouches, but I thought the band was a bit confrontational and we might gain maybe two new fans in every city. I said, “This is sight unseen, but I’m doing this solo thing you’ll really like.” I broke my ankle around that time, so I showed up in San Francisco on January 4 or whenever the first date of the tour was, on crutches, and they’d never seen the show before.

You’d already recorded your song “This is the Dream of Win and Regine” by that point. Had they heard the song?

I think I sent them an early recording of it. Win and Regine and I were and are pretty close.

What was their reaction?

I don’t actually remember. I don’t know how they feel about it now. When I wrote it I had nothing but positive intentions. But having had a song or two written about me and knowing how it feels, I wouldn’t be surprised if they have mixed feelings about it.

Who’s written songs about you?

Oh, I’m not telling you.

You got the Funeral gig primarily because of the Jim Guthrie record, yes?
Absolutely. Arcade Fire were opening for Jim in 2003 and 2004. [Arcade Fire’s] Tim Kingsbury and Jim were friends and had played in bands together.

What’s your status in Arcade Fire now?

I’m part of the Reflektor band.

Do you have an open invitation to just show up whenever? Obviously, Sarah Neufeld [permanent band member] is always there. You seem to be much more integrated on this tour. You’re not just one extra person on stage.

The real problem with Arcade Fire 2005-07, as far as I’m concerned, was that they liked having me around and what I was bringing to the songs, but they weren’t prepared to include me on the email lists that involved deciding the schedule. So they’d say, “Here’s this tour!” I’d be like, “No, dudes, I’ve got my shit booked!” Then they sat down and said, “We think when you’re playing a show with us, it’s awesome. When you’re not playing shows with us, it sucks. So we need you to either commit or be replaced.” I think they were suggesting I cancel a European tour or something. So I said, “No, but please call me whenever we’re in the same city, because I will always be there for you.” But when Reflektor came out, I wanted to be in a position where I could continue working on my own music. I knew they now did what I call cruise-ship touring. I knew I’d have time to myself and time to go to the gym and eat well, and I’d be able to reposition mentally my own solo music—and I wouldn’t get so bent out of shape if somebody posted a negative YouTube comment because I’d be thinking about how everyone would see that comment and now no one is going to buy tickets to my show and I won’t be able to make rent. You know? People who aren’t pro musicians don’t know how crazy-making it is to write songs for a living, to sell yourself for a living. Maybe freelance writers know, but maybe not, because there’s not that same weird attachment to body and image and self as a writer.

How was your Academy Awards dinner?

It was really amazing. I definitely felt like a bit of a jerk. The score we were nominated for was not orchestral, but that’s the medium I work in. I couldn’t just say to these people, “Oh, you know I’m actually an orchestral scorer.” (laughs) I rode the wave the best I could. All the people from the Academy were super nice, and so were the other composers. Me and Steven Price really hit it off. We’re going to stay in touch. I’m going to see about in the future get some kind of position working with Alexandre [Desplat] on a film, just so I can get a greater understanding of the industrialization process. Most of my stuff is very pen-and-paper, tracking-at-home style.

With Her, was that something Arcade Fire was asked to do and then Will took it over and brought you in?

The whole band is friends with Spike [Jonze]. Spike tapped Win to do the score, but film scoring is awful. There came a point where it became a process where it’s not fun to work on as a band. It became clear that the way forward was for one person to be more of a producer than a musician. Will took that role and then he and the band brought me in for the final six weeks of scoring to make some decisions and bark at Spike about things that were good and not good about his movie, and generally force the issue. I’m good in film score situations because I don’t like to waffle, musically. I’ll just say, “That sucks, let’s do it again.”

That process strikes me as something where you have to be egoless, because you’re in service to not just the director, but a whole committee.

I kind of don’t give a shit about anything, really. If I’m hired to work on a film, I’m just as happy to be fired for when I say what I think it’s best for the movie.

Many years ago I recall you lamenting the typical string arrangements that show up on rock albums and pop songs, and talking about what you would do differently. Now you’re actually getting a lot of those gigs, for artists of wildly different genres. Do you get pushback from artists about what you want to do, or do you just give them what they want?

I’ve never shied away from syrupy. Nor do I really criticize any other arrangers; I can’t think of one I don’t like. But there is a tendency with certain arrangers to really have a style. It’s something I’ve tried to avoid. I want to go into an arrangement situation and act as an extension of the artist.

Do you get that work because you’re a name, or do they want what they hear on your records?

Certain people hire me because of Arcade Fire, certain people hire me because of Last Shadow Puppets, some because of my own records. Many others because I’ve worked for them before, and they want me for their new thing. It all depends. I’m pretty cheap, too, which I think helps.

Has your stock gone up?

No, I’m pay what you can. Always.

Last year you wrote a commission for the TSO, but you hired another violinist to perform it. Why?

That’s actually backwards. The violinist, Pekka [Kuusisto], had asked that I write a concerto for him, and worked on finding the commission. The TSO were co-commissioners, but they came on board after; it was originally commissioned by Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican Centre [in London]. When the TSO’s composer adviser Gary Kulesha heard about this, who’s also my former adviser, he emailed me and told me they wanted to co-commission it so that it could be performed in Toronto. It’s a good thing they did, because the second performance was amazing. The London performance was—well, it was the first performance.

What life do you think that piece will have?

It’s been performed twice since. Once in Winnipeg, independently by another violinist, and Pekka performed it in Berlin with André de Ridder.

What other projects or commissions do you have coming up?

Nothing. I’ve been keeping a nice open schedule. I’ve been working so hard that I realize I’ve had a hard time enjoying myself when I’m not working.

Is it nice, then, to be on this tour where you plug in and can be a small part of something larger?

No, I have to travel with my whole looping rig. I set up in my hotel room. If I have a morning to myself, I’m not getting out of bed; I’m sitting there and watching whatever. So I need stuff to do.

You’re playing a week’s worth of shows around the album’s release, and I know there are holes in Arcade Fire’s tour schedule. What’s your plan?

To plug those holes.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Nico Muhly and the oppositional Owen Pallett

Photo from Bedroom Community

When writing about Owen Pallett, as I do in this week’s issue of Maclean’s (on newsstands now), who better to grill as a secondary source than Nico Muhly? The two men are mirror images: they were each born on either side of 1980; both studied composition academically; both straddle the pop/classical divide with ease; both are queer; both are entertaining essayists; both juggle work for hire with their acclaimed solo work.

If you don’t know Nico Muhly, you should: he apprenticed under Philip Glass, worked with Bjork, Antony and the Johnsons, Grizzly Bear and Jonsi of Sigur Ros, wrote string arrangements for Usher, and had his debut opera, Two Boys, debut at the Met in 2013. Muhly co-runs an Icelandic record label, Bedroom Community, and a studio there, Greenhouse, where Pallett has recorded much of his last two albums.

Among many other things, Muhly has strong opinions on why the death of record stores is not necessarily a bad thing.

Nico Muhly
April 23, 2014
On the phone from his NYC apartment

How and when did you first cross paths with Owen?

I’ve been a huge fan of his music forever, from the beginnings of the Final Fantasy era. In the early Internet days, you’d just find stuff you like. I remember we had mutual friends and I asked for an introduction so I could write him fan mail. Weirdly, he had just done the same thing. We’ve been in touch ever since. Because we travel so much, we literally run into each other in Ireland or London or somewhere. He’s a joy to be around.

Are you the Icelandic connection? Is it your studio where Owen does a lot of recording there?

Yes. On Heartland you can hear me playing prepared piano.

What would you say you two have in common?

We’re both obsessive. We both love language. We’re simultaneously addicted and wary of technology. We’re both interested in pattern music that breaks the pattern, making something that feels like it should obey a set of logical rules, and then smudging it.

Regarding technology, Owen is one of the only creative people I know who admits to reading YouTube comments on his own work, which seems to be a terrible idea, and then he says a bad comment can really throw off his whole day.

And then he writes back to them! Owen was the first person I knew who engaged with the Internet that way. There was a real sense of total immersion.

From knowing Owen personally and from what I’ve read about you, you’re both omnivorous consumers of digital culture. Which is one sense seems to be at odds with music that seems to demand patience and discipline, the opposite of ADD digital culture. How do you think the age of instant accessibility to everything and constant distraction influences this generation of composers?

I’ve never bought into the idea that discipline can’t happen in a state of distraction. The discipline it takes to read the whole Internet about something is serious, to find the bottom of the Internet on a topic. The mistake is to assume that that’s indicative of someone who can’t pay attention—I think it’s the opposite. For me, taking a two-hour detour into some back alley about linguists arguing about some really specific dialect in Canadian French, that can turn into a pearl six years later.

If you read Owen’s lyrics, you can tell they’re a result of not just research, but finding something and fretting over it and working it and really whipping it as you would a dairy product into something else, some biological matrix of connected ideas. I can’t really listen to lyrics [in general]; it took me a while to warm to how good his lyrics are. On the other hand, I know his music well enough to write it all out on a piece of paper.

Both of you studied music academically, but Owen has largely focused on pop music, or his version of it. Whereas your work in the pop realm has mostly been arrangements for other people. Have you ever wanted to move into something more akin to what Owen does?

I feel I wouldn’t be very good at it. I can’t write a tune. I know my limitations.

How do you feel about his orchestral work or his film scores?

What I like about it is that it’s so different from what he does. This is one of the reasons I adore Owen: even if I give him the highest praise, he’ll disagree 180 degrees. He’ll say, “That’s the exact opposite of what I’m trying to do!” I’ll say, “That was really beautiful,” and he’ll counter with, “I didn’t mean for it be beautiful!” He operates in this absolute value of the ability to be loosely offended.

What I like about his instrumental music is that the things that are grace notes in his stage music, the music he performs by himself: the colours, the effects, the textural side interests, those are the things that are foregrounded [in his orchestral work]. Again, he will disagree with this. But what I like about it is that it feels like it’s the butcher’s cuts of meat. It’s the spleen and the liver that the tradesmen take home to their families, as opposed to for the festival crowd.

Owen once told me that you gave him a devastating critique of one of his early orchestral works after a performance in Brooklyn.

I would never tell him I liked something if I didn’t. It’s really important to have people like that in your life. Especially if the majority of your time is on tour with a band, but you’re working on an orchestral piece in your spare time. It can be very difficult to find people in other communities who are critical enough of what you do.

Owen told me he took the Arcade Fire tour this year for a variety of reasons: of course they’re old friends, but he also wanted to have some financial security, and not to have to worry about commercial concerns for In Conflict while he was making it. He’s also done work for huge pop acts. Have you ever been in a position where you felt you needed to do that for the sake of your own work?

I’ve done my share of commercial work. I did some stuff for Jonsi, for Usher. It’s a slightly different situation. The necessities of how one makes money and how much money one needs to make: If the majority of your work is on commission, the economic structure is this crazy thing where everything is happening three years out. The piece I’m writing today was commissioned a year and half ago, is due in two months, and will be premiered next January. That means one gets paid for it in three different installments. It’s a different set of calculations. What he’s doing is what he should be doing: making the kind of complicated music he makes, you can imagine spending two years on it and not making any money. I can’t imagine being on the road as much as he is. It’s hard. But it’s also part of his practice. It’s important for him as a collaborative artist to not be a hermit, to not lock himself up in a cabin somewhere.

I’ll ask you a question I know you’ve been asked a million times, and that I didn’t ask Owen this month because I know he’s so tired of answering it. How do you think so-called classical music—and I say so-called because I’m talking about new composers, not century-old work—fits into the last 10 or 15 years of the poptimism era?

I’m sorry, what? I’ve never heard that word before. What are you talking about?

Poptimism, the post-Pitchfork era where genres have blurred so significantly for audiences and creators, where lovers of so-called serious music equally embrace pop music…

Seriously, are you having a stroke? Did you just say post-Pitchfork?

Okay, an example would be the day and age when Nico Muhly writes an extensive review of the new Beyoncé record, say.

How are you not going to pay attention to Bee-ahnce? C’mon, if you’re gay, they send you that shit from headquarters.

But John Adams didn’t write think pieces about the Beatles.

Maybe not, but he probably listened to them. It’s a function of whether you’re a human being who participates in the world around you or not. To give it a name is to put too much weight on it. If you’re paying attention to the objects around it, you’ll pay attention to a lot of different things. It seems like an affectation to not know about stuff. I’ve always felt you should know about everything. If I have an oblique fascination with something, chances are I’ll read 10 books about it.

That’s you as a creator, though, and I think that’s hopefully always been true for artists. But do you not think there’s been a huge shift in the way audiences consume and understand different music?

I think a lot of this stuff happened with the death of the record store—a really useful thing. It meant that the physical performance of buying music in a store was gone. In the early ’90s there was a Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass album called Passages. Where in the traditional record store would that have been found? Same thing with CocoRosie where they use all these Rajasthani musicians. If you were a fan of the Rajasthani musicians, you couldn't find the CocoRosie album without leaving the aisle you were in. One of the things that was especially true with classical music, if you were in the bigger stores, is that they were kept in a separate room, as if you were buying porn. Inside that there was an extra special holy of holies, which was the opera section. It’s only by association that the Robert Wilson operas were in the opera section, even though they were experimental and electronic.

Now, it doesn’t matter at all. If you are online, all the contributors to an album will be hyperlinked. Anyone who had played on Heartland, you could find what else they had done. In the case of my albums, if you click through them, you end up in a lot of fun places really quickly in ways you wouldn’t be able to do in the store era. It’s the way music has worked for a very long time, but we were limited by the way it was sold, even the way people used to organize their CDs. You know, then some weird German guy would organize his by colour. Now that organization is completely virtual.

A lot of people’s music has always borne the traces of many, many different inputs and outputs. Arcade Fire is a great example. It’s journalist and record-store shorthand that we call it indie rock. But it doesn’t have to be called anything. Remember that early Amazon algorithm that told you if you like this, you’ll like this? It was often literally true.

Owen is one of those artists—let’s call it the sphere of influence both on the input and output side, who is very well curated; specific, but large. It’s not necessarily the case that if it gets wide it gets bigger, the tentacles are reaching for very specific objects. He takes things from Laurie Anderson, from Wagernian string writing, from West African patterns, from his colleagues. It’s a curatorial gesture, not an ADD thing. It’s a generational fallacy that people can’t understand what it means to have access to everything. This discernment and discrimination is a skill.

Have you heard In Conflict?

Oh yeah, I’ve heard it in all its various stages. Every time I make something, I send it to Owen as soon as I can, in any draft form. And he does the same. When I heard the sketches for Heartland, I thought, oh shit! That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard!

What do you think of In Conflict?

“Song for Five and Six” is one of the best things he’s written. 
What I like about it is that it seems his meat-and-potatoes songwriting is in tip-top form, but also the impulse to fuck that up with weirdness is at a minimum. I mean this in the best way: it’s an easy door to walk through. I like the speed of everything. I like all the songs have this propulsion to them. I like that there’s a real landscape of how it’s mixed; it’s really satisfying. It doesn’t feel in any way like it’s antagonizing to me—which he would take enormous offense to, if I told him that.