Owen Pallett has worked with artists as diverse as Arcade Fire, Beirut and Fucked Up, but it’s his own music where he really shines.
After two albums under the pseudonym “Final Fantasy”, he has decided to ditch the video game inspired name for his birth name for the release of ‘Heartland’.
The virtuoso violinist has shattered convention and managed to produce a sound difficult to conceive as coming from one man. Despite his sonic wizardry, the humble and at times charmingly and awkwardly self-aware Owen Pallett called in from a Tokyo hotel room to chat to Undercover’s Tim Cashmere.
Tim Cashmere: You’re in Tokyo? That’s a good place to start. I read an interview with you earlier today where you said that you wanted to tour Japan, but you were worried that they would “cut your dick off” if you went there under the name Final Fantasy.
Owen Pallett: Yeah, we just did the shows here and they were really really awesome, but I think there were one or two in the audience, like some real tacky types who had some Japanime figures on chains and they wanted to have their picture taken with me like that, and I’m like, “dude, no!” Like sure I’ll take the picture, but don’t do that! Don’t do the Japanime!
TC: Well you kind of brought it on yourself calling yourself “Final Fantasy”, didn’t you?
OP: I don’t know man. I’ve taken a lot of shit for that band name and I’ve taken a lot of shit for the second album ‘He Poos Clouds’ and stuff, but I think people, journalists especially, when they’re going to write about a band they want to be able to talk about stuff in no uncertain terms. “Best album of the year, unquestionably” and all that. For that to happen I think that people, well you have to have a lot of bullet proof shit. You have to have a name that rhymes or an album title that’s just ambiguous enough, or you have to have photos where you look like a badass or you have to seem like you might be fun to hang out with when you do an interview and shit, you know what I mean? So I don’t know, on one hand there is a part of me that is just like “Yeah, if I’d just gone and did this and had some kick-ass band name like Sleigh Bells or something, then maybe I wouldn’t have to deal with that kind of stuff, but if I brought it on myself, sure, but give me something that’s interesting.
TC: Well I certainly don’t mean to hang shit on you, especially not for a first question.
OP: Oh no I didn’t mean to suggest that you were. I guess maybe I’m having my perennial end of year bout of cynicism.
TC: So anyway, you have a new album, or at least your latest album ‘Heartland’. The thing that really baffles me, is how do you manage to make such intricate music on your own?
OP: Well, ‘Heartland’ really is the first record that kind of captures what the live show does. The live show is really polyphonic. There’s the whole range of 200 - 800 hertz, which is the frequency range of the violin, so a lot of that just builds up over time until there’s like 16 tracks. There’s not a lot of kick drum, there’s not a lot of snare or hi-hat. In a way, ‘Heartland’ is supposed to be an illustration of what happens in the live show. If anything I think that it’s a little too slow, that’s the only issue. I feel like I tracked everything maybe 10 b.p.m. too slow.
TC: But you can always fix that in the live show, right?
OP: Yeah. It’s true though, if I hear ‘Heartland’ in a public place or whatever I’ll be like “Oh, this shit’s so slow!”
TC: I had a look at some live footage of you and you do play it faster, but does that come from the energy of the crowd and the spontaneity of doing it live?
OP: Maybe. It’s interesting because I used to play in a lot of bands and sometimes I’d go and guest with bands and I’m amazed at how much brain power I have left over when I’m standing on stage and playing. I’m like “Oh shit, I can dance and I can think about looking good!” because usually when I’m having to do the looping thing and singing and playing all the time, my brain is going a mile a minute and I think the reason why I play all these songs fast is because my pulse is racing.
TC: You do seem to have a lot of brain power when you’re creating the music too. It’s not just a case of you going into the studio and overdubbing violin over and over again. These are real songs with a theme. It’s a concept album in a way.
OP: It’s not really a concept album. It’s been labelled as such and I told myself that I would stop negating people in interviews and I would just say “Yes, you are correct” to everything, but this year I’ve been saying it’s not really a concept record, you got that off Pitchfork website and not my press release, but that’s fine. It’s just meant to be a series of songs. And regarding brain power, I like a lot of different kinds of music and I’ve noticed that most people’s musical tastes maybe steer more towards the subtle shift of words and subtle turns of phrasing and stuff like this. What I’m trying to say is that music that is over-thought or music that has a lot of content is generally not seen as being all that sexy.
TC: Content being lyrical content or musical content or what?
OP: Just a lot of shit going on. I recognised when I was going to ‘Heartland’, I knew the taste of the general public favoured music that had some sort of pastoral qualities. Music that you could put on and do the dishes and your uncle wouldn’t ask you to put on something a little more soothing. Music that soothes, soothing music! A real good example was that Max Tundra record, who was a friend and a label mate now, but that record didn’t really catapault him into the upper echelon of electronic acts that nobody could get enough of, and it wasn’t from his fucking lack of trying you know? That record was filled with so much effort and so much creativity and so much genius. I don’t think people’s ears are all that interested in content, you know? So I knew that when I was walking into ‘Heartland’, you know, when you said that was like “brain power” and shit like that I just started thinking about it a little bit. I had to make a decision with ‘Heartland’. Was I going to make a soothing record or was I going to stay true to what I was interested in.
TC: Are you saying that when you were making the album, you listened to what you thought people wanted to hear from the record or are you saying you ignored it?
OP: It’s difficult for me to talk about because I don’t want to have this sound negative or anything, also I’m not trying to shoot down any other bands. I love music, I just love it, period. I went into this thing and I was thinking with ‘He Poos Clouds’ that people pay so much attention to the conceptual elements, the Dungeons and Dragons thing, and so what should I do? Should I make a record that tries to make itself more approachable or should I make something that’s really dense. In the end, regardless of what current trends in popular music are happening, I have to make the record that I want to make.
TC: It does sound to me, listening to ‘Heartland’, that it is a record that you can have on in the background, but if you so choose to delve into it, there are more layers that you can find. Particularly I notice that in the lyrics, they’re quite heavy. What comes first, are you writing the lyrics or the music first? Also, earlier you said you were just going to start agreeing with journalists, so if you disagree, please say so.
OP: No, I’m fine with everything you said. I’m fine with everything you’ve said this entire interview! It’s just difficult for me to talk about this stuff in depth without sounding comparatively defensive to the way I know a lot of interviews are conducted. The lyrics and the music kind of develop separately. I go on these writing vacations, which sounds like a lot of fun but I actually just hole myself up in some room somewhere, sometimes even at home, and just write for two weeks. Not songs in particular, just pages and pages and pages of nonsense, jokes, lyrics or whatever I can think of and that becomes the fodder for the record. It’s like having a pool of information that I can slot into whatever vocal melodies are developing on the instrumental side.
TC: You actually had a formal music education, right?
OP: Yeah, but if there is anything that I would love to just excise from my biography it’s that fucking shit. It’s tricky to talk about because I don’t want to sound petulant and bratty about going to school for music, because obviously it works really well for a lot of people and even I had a positive experience with it, but I don’t think that it influences my music at all. In fact, I’ve spent most of my twenties trying to unlearn whatever I could.
TC: So there was never a chance of you becoming a classical violinist in an orchestra?
OP: Well my violin teachers never thought so! But they were completely correct. I had a sideways vibrato and a really bad bow-arm, but the positive effect of having a sideways vibrato is that I’m able to sing when I play, which is not possible with a normal vibrato, or at least very difficult.
TC: I have to admit I have no idea what a “sideways vibrato” is.
OP: Well if you watch a violinist on YouTube, you’ll see that they’ve got their violins pressed right up against their neck and their vibrato is done from moving their fingers, shaking them up and down the string, but with me, what I actually do is I twist my wrist torsionally and vibrate that way, which is actually more of a shaking of the violin effect. The thing is that it doesn’t actually create a really beautiful singing sound that is typically associated with beautiful violin playing, but the good thing is that you don’t need to have a violin pressed all the way up against your neck when you do it, so I can sing and play at the same time.
TC: So it’s almost like a guitar?
OP: Exactly... except... it isn’t. It’s more like a wooden goiter or something!
TC: Aside from doing your own work you’ve done strings for a lot of artists including The Last Shadow Puppets, Fucked Up, Beirut and probably the biggest being Arcade Fire. Is it a different experience for you to walk into the studio with other artists and have their songs and you create this string arrangement for them?
OP: Well with every band it’s different because every band has a different process and every band has different desires you know? But in terms of differences between working with others and working with myself, it’s really nice to have a balance between the two. I love travelling, but touring is really hard and I like being able to work with other bands because it often means that I can relax in one place as opposed to stepping out of tour busses and setting up gear every night.
Owen Pallett returns to Australia in the new year. Be sure to catch him at:
15 - Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne, VIC
16 - The Toff In Town, Melbourne, VIC
19 - The Famous Spiegeltent, Sydney Festival, Sydney, NSW
21 - The Famous Spiegeltent, Sydney Festival, Sydney, NSW
22 - Fly By Night, Perth, WA
25 - Old Museum (Studio), Brisbane, QLD
Follow the author Tim Cashmere on Twitter.
Like Owen Pallett? Check out Georgia Fields performing in the Undercover studio for The U-Sessions: