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Owen Pallett: "Every idea needs a sense of immediate closure"

04 June 2014, 14:00

“I’ve had to defend myself quite a bit already.”

Press releases, by their nature, are usually pretty benign affairs; specifically, the obligatory quotes from the artist in question don’t often amount to much more than a feeble offering of how excited they are to share some new music with the world. Though when Owen Pallett’s new record, In Conflict, landed in my inbox, the accompanying blurb featured some typically sophisticated articulation from the Canadian. Most striking was his claim that the aim of his fourth studio album is to “approach insanity in a positive way.”

“That’s only the first half of the sentence, though,” he tells me down the phone from Montreal, “and the second half elucidates what I was trying to say. The idea was that all these different forms of liminal states would be presented as equal states of being, rather than preferable. There wasn’t supposed to be any judgement there. I’ve been having people saying to me, “oh, you think insanity’s something positive? Well, let me tell you about my uncle and his alcoholism”, and I’m just like, if you’d finished the sentence, you’d know that it’s more about exploring these states from a neutral perspective. It’s the approach that’s meant to be positive, not the states themselves.”

Pallett is enjoying a few days off from his current day job; “well, not really days off - I’ve got my band here and we’re rehearsing these new songs.” Not that he’d usually be punching the clock; his primary occupation, at present, is as live violinist with Arcade Fire. His long-standing association with his compatriots is well-documented - he’s been playing with them, on and off, for a decade now - but his move from his adopted hometown of Toronto to their native Montreal eighteen months ago saw him take on string arrangement duties on Reflektor, as well as re-enter the live fold proper. He still managed to squeeze some late-night shows of his own into the most recent run of U.S. dates, though, presenting him with the opportunity to gradually ease the onus of his live setup away from what has historically been the crux of it - looping.

“It’s been kind of interesting figuring out how to present all of this new material. There’s one or two songs with no looping whatsoever, where it’s just us as a trio playing instruments, and then most of the rest of it is me building loops and Matt (Smith, bass) and Rob (Gordon, drums) acting as the support system. The whole idea of blending live stuff with looping seems to be working well, so far. Sometimes, when all you’re concerned with is having an effect that’s just getting bigger and bigger, it becomes really tedious, but as soon as you introduce somebody playing even the simplest, straightest thing, the potential for human error that goes along with that really makes it feel like much more of a performance. And, of course, most of they’re time, we’re not playing anything particularly simple.”

It’s a statement also true of In Conflict in general; as with Pallett’s previous records, it’s a compositionally complex piece of work from a musician with a far more accomplished background in music as a classical discipline than many of his peers. Accordingly, the process of producing it was a drawn-out one, with early sessions in Iceland having to be scrapped altogether. “We recorded Heartland out there, so it made sense to go back and try to put this one down,” Pallett relates. “It ended up not working out, for a number of reasons. Chief among them was that we just weren’t ready, from a production standpoint or a performance standpoint. I actually kind of anticipated that; I knew from the start there was a good chance that the first run of recording might end with no usable tracks, and that ended up being the case. We changed our process and did the second sessions in Montreal, in a room that was better suited to live drum sounds, and a studio that was equipped to record to tape.”

Besides the trappings of the recording space, though, Pallett maintains that his move to Montreal had little thematic bearing on In Conflict; instead, it was the practicalities of his new surroundings that proved an influence. “I guess ‘On a Path’ is about a general feeling of odd displacement, which is certainly something I experienced after being in the city for so long, but other than that, Montreal really just had more of a functional influence. Just living on a quieter street in a quieter town, with fewer distractions; as soon as I got out here, the productivity just started blasting through the roof. That was obviously a major positive, because I started getting so much done so quickly.”

He’s similarly keen to play down suggestions that In Conflict is his most personal album yet; to me, though, it clearly is. I does seem like a lazy conclusion to draw - that Pallett’s work has become less abstract, less fantastical, since he dropped the Final Fantasy moniker that he used for his first two albums. There probably isn’t any direct causation there, given that he only decided to forgo his stage name because the Final Fantasy video game series is so deeply woven into the cultural fabric of Japan that to release a record by that name over there would be akin calling your band Real Madrid and then expecting to tour Spain with no confusion. It genuinely appears to be the case, though, that In Conflict continues Heartland’s move into more intimate territory; right from opener “I Am Not Afraid”, there’s an obvious emotional fragility: “they told me to take a deep breath / maybe what is better is to punch a wall / to bin the boxes of your old love letters”.

He’s evasive, though, when I put this to him. “I’m not really sure. I mean, the biggest change on this record is that we mixed the vocals higher. It sounds like such a banal detail, but I feel like that’s the thing that’s going to effect the audience’s feelings. I typically mix my vocals low, like Michael Jackson and Van Dyke Parks; two pretty disparate examples, but they’ve both done that and made it sound awesome. On this one, I let my mixing engineers kind of persuade me into making them more prominent, and I think that’s going to colour people’s experiences of the songs far more than whether the lyrics are rooted in fiction or non-fiction.”


The sheer intricacy of the record’s compositions is only one reason for its protracted gestation; there’s also the small matter of Pallett’s prodigious work rate on other projects. His Wikipedia page provides a delightfully eccentric list of albums he’s contributed to in the four years since Heartland; there’s everything from The National and R.E.M. to Robbie Williams, Duran Duran and Taylor Swift. That’s not to mention his work on the score for Spike Jonze’s Her with Arcade Fire’s Will Butler, which earned the pair an Oscar nomination and has seen Pallett have to turn down a clutch of similar offers since. All things considered, it’s really a wonder that’s he managed to work on his own material at all.

“The first songs I wrote for the record were “Infernal Fantasy” and “Soldier’s Rock”, back in the summer of 2011,” he recalls. “The main reason that this one took longer was really that I needed to integrate Matt and Rob into the writing process; it was like having to invent a new language, because I don’t want my band to be jammy at all. I never want to have a moment of sitting and grooving on something; I always want ideas to be expressed succinctly. It took a lot of work and a lot of figuring out, because I feel like every idea needs to have a sense of immediate closure to it. So, even just from a tactical perspective, figuring out how everything was going to work live took time.”

“I didn’t want to fall into the easy trap with live looping, which is that layer upon layer, maximalist approach. I always try to have maybe one or two songs that go that way on each album, but no more. On this one, it’s “Song for Five & Six”. If you were to line up all of the songs I’ve done that way, they’d get really tiresome, really fast. Being involved in other projects obviously was one factor in the album taking a while, but the primary reason, for me, was that every year you stick to the script of being a live looping musician, you have to work harder and harder to keep the language fresh.”

There’s another consideration, of course; given Pallett’s primarily classical grounding, his approach was never likely to fit neatly within the parameters of any standard songwriting model. “It always makes me feel intensely envious when I see somebody like Alex Turner, who can disappear into a room with a guitar and come back with a song, like, two hours later. You just think, “ugh, asshole! Why can’t I do that?” It typically takes me two or three stages of writing; first of all just figuring out ideas on a piano, and then, secondly, forming them into loop-based compositions that I can actually play live with just a violin. Then there’s the lyrics, which sometimes can take a week and other times, a few months. On “Soldier’s Rock”, the lyrics weren’t finished until a year and a half after I’d started playing it.”

“Soldier’s Rock” is the song on the album on which themes of violence are most prominent, but they’re implied, in one way or another, pretty much all the way through In Conflict; even the title hints at them. “I think I started to observe, in myself and other people, that fine line between being able to keep a grip on everything, and losing it. You know, how quickly people are able to have this capacity for violence - not to mention just the fundamental violence that’s implied by economic models, that we’ve come to see as invisible. It’s pretty explicit on “Soldier’s Rock”, but I hope that people are able to follow my line of logic on it throughout the record.”

It’s interesting that the song that grabbed me the most on In Conflict isn’t the most sonically adventurous; nor, indeed, does it feature backing vocals from Brian Eno, like “On a Path” (“I wish I had some amazing story about eating tofu with him in Osaka, or something, but it was just a basic exchange of emails.”) “The Passions” is probably the album’s barest track, instrumentally, but it’s also an exercise in longing and poignancy. A specific line in the song, about not wanting to listen to The Queen Is Dead, particularly intrigued me; is Pallett losing touch with the personal songwriters he’s always admired just as he’s beginning to become one himself?

“Actually, no. That whole Queen Is Dead thing was just meant to show, on a very fundamental level, the difference between the lovemaking practice of a nineteen-year-old and a twenty-eight-year-old. It seemed like an absurd, humourous idea, to be thinking about a gay kid putting on The Smiths to have sex to, but it’s probably something that many people have experienced. It’s less of a commentary on what The Smiths and Morrissey mean to me personally, and more of an interpretation of where that particular record fits into people’s personal development.”

Pallett has spoken in the past of the dichotomous nature of his musical life, as entailed by his involvement with Arcade Fire, and how it’s actually provided a stabilising influence; it likely means that his promotional schedule for In Conflict will be unusually light, although being able to cite obligations with one of the biggest bands in the world as his reasoning probably constitutes one of the most spectacular excuses in history.

“We’ve been filling the gaps in the Arcade Fire timetable with as many dates as we can, but the truth is, I just don’t have a lot of time. Arcade Fire is dominating the foreseeable future for me, and I’m having to either put off or completely miss a ton of the stuff I’d normally do.” He pauses. “But, honestly? It really is my pleasure to do so.”

In Conflict is available via Domino now. Owen Pallett plays London’s Earl’s Court with Arcade Fire this Friday, and returns for further UK dates in July.

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