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 CafĂ©, 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 AndrĂ© 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.

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