The War of Art: An Interview with Owen Pallett

Posted July 2, 2014 in Music

Owen Pallett is a man who likes to keep himself busy. The morning that I speak to him, he has played four gigs in the last two nights (and attended the afterparty in Berlin), twice as himself doing solo violin and looping performances and twice with Arcade Fire, but he assures me that that he’s already been up for hours, just his throat’s a little raw is all. He keeps so busy, in fact, that his work on a variety of projects, as hired hand arranger (on everything from The Last Shadow Puppets’ record to Linkin Park’s record), as a composer of film scores (including contributing to Spike Jonze’s Her which earned him an Oscar nomination) and as part of the Reflektor band for long-time friends Arcade Fire’s world tour, meant that the gap between the release of his last full-length album Heartland and this May’s In Conlict was over four years.

In conversation, Pallett is erudite and exacting, eager to help me understand the thought processes behind his most recent, and perhaps rawest work. It’s not that Heartland or He Poos Clouds (released in 2006 under his previous nom de guerre Final Fantasy) were lacking in emotion, but these were records guarded by extremely beautiful artifice. In Conflict, though still lyrically oblique at times, presents “depression, addiction, gender trouble and the creative state [as] loveable, empathetic ways of being, not preferable per se, but all as equal valid positions that we experience, which make us human.”

I have the notion that you wanted to normalise positions that are seen as the “bad” parts of our existence. Is the album a defence of those states of mind?

No! Not really a defence. That quote [above] from the press release is written by Alec Bemis. It’s not so much a defence, it’s just songs that were about it, acknowledging that it exists. And it’s very interesting to me to see when musicians are cited as making their “mad” record, y’know? Like Big Star’s Third or Kate Bush’s The Dreaming and hearing what the sound of… well, it’s impossible and incorrect for me to use the word “insanity”, that’s not the right word, but there is no word that describes these things except maybe “liminal states” but even that’s kind of esoteric. They all approach that dual state between sanity and insanity in a different way and this record I was hoping would do the same thing.

I know musicians tend to run a mile from the term ‘concept album’ but there’s a good quote from Nico Muhly that describes the lyrics of In Conflict: “a biological matrix of connected ideas”. Was there a conscious push to write about these same states of mind, or was it something you found yourself going back to over and over again?

Well firstly, concept album… every record is a concept album. Every record is advancing a political agenda and every record has a gender and has a sexuality and has a race and a class. It’s undeniable, every record comes from a position. It’s whether or not you choose to acknowledge that and draw attention to what the politics might be, what the ideas behind the record might be. For me, I can’t deny that my mind makes a record in a way that parses songs. And the way that I do it is exactly as Nico describes. I’ve never said it as eloquently as he has done, but I try to find ways of tying ideas together. Because I really love listening to Schubert songs or Dichterliebe by Schumann and hearing everything wrapped up at the end, even though every individual song could be somewhere else.

One of the things that I’m interested in when I read your interviews is that you have a very clear idea of what the function of your music is. You know when you’re treating it as work. I’m just wondering what lead you to that attitude?

To be honest, I think it kind of was a defence mechanism because there was a certain point –and I even remember the day and where I was and what I was doing– there was a certain point where my income stopped being derived from other places and became derived from strictly creative places. At the time I was working as a music producer for a radio show and there was this moment  when suddenly I’m actually making records and trying to sell records and it was a defence mechanism because for maybe one year, two years, actually maybe still to this date, there’s an awful lot of ego-fulfillment that’s tied up in being a songwriter and you kinda have to start to treat it like a job if you’re going to distance yourself from the reality that there are going to be a lot of people out that who are either ambivalent to what you are doing, or outright hate it. So that’s where it came from. I feel like I’m far better at staying professional at creative activity than I was in 2006 but I don’t think I’ll ever be 100 per cent professional [laughs].

I was just talking with Arcade Fire’s manager and it’s amazing because he is so incredibly professional and he was talking about Alex da Kid and the way that he works, how he has these sort of packages that he puts together and he’ll hire one band and then this other band and make a song between the two of them and he’ll write the hooks and they get Jay-Z to do a verse and the song will be out the next day and that industrialisation of creating culture is almost like the best possible scenario [laughs] but its nothing that I’ve been able to arrive at yet.

It’s sort of a relief that there’s still a balance to be struck – a push and a pull on both sides – that part of it is still this romantic, maybe ego-fulfillment thing but for the most part you seem really concentrated and organised on how you produce the work.

Yeah, it’s really interesting to see when a band is playing music and when it’s a collaborative relationship between everyone you can really see people enjoy playing music they’ve written more than they enjoy playing music that other people have written. You know like, it’s tricky and even now I’m regretting talking about this with you because I’m worried that this isn’t a good way of selling records and selling tickets by talking about how fucked up and pathetic musicians are!

Well how was it to be writing, almost as a band on this record, with the guys [Robbie Gordon and Matt Smith] from Les Mouches again?

It was both amazing and incredibly instructional, for all of us. Like, Matt was playing bass for the first time. I just like him so much and I wanted him in the band and musically, he plays guitar and he makes a lot of electronic music and is a genius singer and songwriter and I just wanted him in the band also, so I wanted him in the band because he’s one of my best friends. So he was just learning the bass and how it was going to sound and how it was going to function. Rob has played drums in many different bands but never this kind of music, you know, what this kind of music I make is already. It did feel like there was a lot of invention going on. I said this after Heartland, I’m so so so excited about writing with them because I just feel like we really figured a lot of stuff out. I knew after touring Heartland I needed to form a band and it seemed at the outset it would be impossible to integrate the live-looping thing with musicians but it just worked out so well. I dunno, if we talk about my band I’m gonna get emotional [laughs] I love them so much!

Owen_Pallet_In_Conflict_Artwork_hires CROP

Is the artwork supposed to be an ink spill on the text?

No it’s actually a phosphorous paint, it’s the same paint that you would have on the side of a matchbox. If you have a physical copy it feels like you could peel it off but you can’t it’s just there. I actually recommended certain shapes to Colin [Bergh] and Alex [Shoukas] who designed it. I didn’t want them to be evocative of anything, of clouds, of frogs, or blots or anything. I wanted it to be a very ambiguous but very loud sort of interruption.

I want to ask you about I Am Not Afraid, this incredible first track on your record. I get the feeling that the character in the song is trying to deny any feeling at all…

Interesting. [Pauses]

Like “No delight at the pain of my enemies/No tears for any friends I have lost.” It almost feels like one of the depressive states you mentioned, like the character is trying to not feel anything at all.

No but what’s interesting is that you said that the character is “trying to” instead of “is unable to”. I don’t think that song has any desire to get one way or another in fact, like the whole premise of that song is meant to be a satisfaction and a comfort towards the current state of affairs, even if that state is something that you may have been told, or made feel inside yourself, is undesireable. Such as a childless state, or a depressive state or a queer state.

So a reaffirmation that what you’re doing is alright.

Not what you’re doing but what you are, the way your brain works. The line “I am not afraid” itself is something that I had written on a piece of paper next to my bed in a period in 2010 when I was depressed. I was physically unable to get myself out of the bed, I couldn’t activate my muscles to arise. And that had been recommended to me as a starter mechanism and you saw that thing and it would just remind you of what fear was and where it was and reminding you that actually that fear didn’t exist. So I started trying to apply that to other life situations.

That line, “I leave my violin unattended/in a cab or a restaurant” – so is that a case of “I’m not going to worry about this thing that is really precious to me, because I’m alright”?

Do you want me to really unpack that line for you? Cause I will…

I have written down in my notes “The violin is a child?”

No I don’t think about my violin that way! The violin in that line, and also cigarettes, later in the second verse are both meant to be representative of two things. Firstly, it’s representative of the queer person – and I’m using queer as a placeholder for any sort of insanity – having an experience where they need to be in a situation where there are problems, that comfort is not comforting. Do you understand what I’m saying? You hear these stories about Brian Eno being in the studio and being uninspired and as soon as gear starts to break that’s when he feels “Oh this is so much more exciting now that things aren’t working!” Like the actual feeling of the creative desire is the feeling that you want to fix something.

As in fixing rather than making from nothing?

Well if you have everything you need there’s no reason to create. If you have an empty stomach it’s much easier to write a song than if you’re well fed. And so there’s a part of me that thrives on adversity, on conflict, that needs that to feel content. And I don’t think that any modern artist has really so perfectly and succintly described it as Lars von Trier did in Melancholia by showing that Kirsten Dunst’s character could only be happy when the world is ending, could only truly find contentment when she had the purpose of comforting her sister.

I’ve been really far off on all my interpretations so far.

It’s fine! Some people are going to get it and some people aren’t. And I don’t like really unpacking and explaining it but this is one line that I feel is maybe a little oblique and it’s my pleasure to describe it to you. So there’s a part of me that feels indentured to my career, even just fundamentally I do a lot of work aside from playing violin but I’m known as a violinist and the violin is also such a precious and beautfiul thing to me… but yeah, every single time that I see that the violin is where I left it, there’s a part of me that feels disappointed, that life will continue to be what it is, rather than have some major change.

And this gets me to the second part, and how the smoking line [“I haven’t had a smoke in years/but I will catch a drag if you are smoking”] related to this. The smoking is actually the classic metaphor, the cigarette, for maleness, in that there’s so many people I know who are men who conisder themselves, and love to talk about how they are feminist, or even go further and describe themselves as gender-queer or rejecting their masculinity or going even further than that and identifying themselves as misandrists but are not actually gender dysmorphic and are not actually going to do anything other than use these words. To me it’s a metaphor, I feel like there’s a lot of similarity between this desire toward negating maleness and negating the shit that men do, but yet actually be unable to give it up. Or with privilege, wanting to effect a more positive socioeconomic situation but at the same time still being a part of the problem, still being unable to let that go. So it’s like yeah, I identify as being a non-smoker but I will still smoke if you’re offering. I feel like there is a very clear link between this queerness and the “creative state” thing that I’ve described with the violin line but ultimately, I’ve been talking about it for the last five minutes and I feel as if it’s still not nearly as transparent as in lyrics right there! [laughs] I hope that people hear it and immediately know what I’m talking about but ultimately, I think it’s probably easier for queer people and people who are creative to get it … but I guess that’s my audience!

You mentioned elsewhere that you used aleatoric notation (where some elements are left to chance) in string arrangements for The Passions. Was that a deliberate relinquishing of control or was it purely a musical experiment?

Well it was kind of an experiment in seeing if I could lose control and it was a failed experiment! Because I went in and overdubbed some very tailored and specific synthesiser parts to match with those ghost-ships [the string arrangements] to really make them pop. You always hear about these people wanting to make these records that are live off the floor, people falling in love with Astral Weeks but ultimately we’re all just too fastidious.

Do you still consider your first port-of-call to be the looping-mechanism and does it inform the writing of the music, or is it more a way to present it that you come around to after you finish the song.

It’s a bit of an integrative process. In Conflict is half and half. Half of the record was written for loops and the other half was just written at the piano. In fact, Heartland was the same way. There are songs on every record that I compose with the vague notion that in the future I might be able to loop this but I have to figure it out, like Tryst With Mephistopheles and The Lamb Sells Condos for example on the previous records. On this one, I Am Not Afraid and On A Path are songs that I have a notion that I might be able to play them at one point but… who knows? I am hoping to get back more into the pure loop-based stuff for the next record because I just rewrote the program [Max/MSP and SooperLooper] that I’m using to loop in performance that allows me a lot more flexibility… and I have some ideas.

You mentioned Brian Eno earlier on, and I’ve been guilty of saying “featuring Brian Eno” to describe records that I don’t know enough about, but I don’t see what’s “Brian Eno” on this record. Maybe that’s a good thing, that his presence is essential but invisible.

If I were to remove the Eno from the record you would hear a far inferior record. There’s no song where he had more of a profound effect than The Riverbed because he played synth on that song, but you can’t actually hear the synth. It’s part of the sonic material, it’s there with the violins but it has this other rhythmic quality that makes the song float, it made the song completely buoyant, whereas before it felt a little bit sluggish. And it’s the sublest thing, just this little trick and he just unlocked the song, like [makes synth noise]… done! So I don’t mind when people say “featuring Brian Eno” because maybe his name will help me sell a few more records or get more people out to my shows. But I put his name in equal size font to the other people who make the record, including myself. We all made this thing together.

One last question: you’re playing Whelans again, you seem to have a special affection for the place.

Yeah it’s the best venue in the world, what are you talking about?! When I die and go to heaven it’s going to be me playing Whelans every night.

Owen Pallett plays with The National in Iveagh Gardens on Saturday 19th July (€42.05) and his own show in Whelans on Sunday 20th July (€20). In Conflict is out now on Domino Records. You can also check out our review of Owen’s In Conflict over here

Words: Ian Lamont

Photo: Peter Juhl


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