Q&A: Owen Pallett On Getting Personal With In Conflict, The Uselessness Of Music Theory, And How Jordan Catalano Relates To Sun Kil Moon
When Owen Pallett met me poolside at Arcade Fire’s Palm Springs hotel during Coachella’s first weekend, he politely offered me some of his organic sunblock. (Incidentally, the stuff was all over my fingers when Win Butler was suddenly looming over our beach chairs a few moments later, so we bumped elbows rather than shook hands.) A pale-skinned Mississauga native in the California desert needs that kind of defense against the elements, but Pallett’s latest album, In Conflict, finds him letting down his guard. It’s his most personal release and his most aggressive, one in which he trades oblique, fantastical imagery for heartfelt outpourings, and his trademark orchestral arrangements are infused with the kinetic power of a live rock band. The album is as gorgeous and carefully constructed as anything he’s done, yet Pallett has never sounded rawer.
In Conflict arrives at one of the busiest times in Pallett’s career, but also one of the most stable. The original score he and Will Butler composed for Her was nominated for an Academy Award, which yielded lots more movie offers. He recently contributed a popular series of essays to Slate dissecting the music theory behind pop hits, continues to contribute string arrangements to projects like the upcoming Caribou album and a recent collaborative single with Dan Snaith’s dance project, Daphni. But his main gig these days is playing as part of Arcade Fire on the Reflektor tour, which has provided the calming regularity of a day job even as it significantly limits the amount of time he can spend promoting his solo work. Regardless of whether he’s in the background or front and center, he seems to be nailing everything he attempts. His already accomplished career is only growing more distinguished.
Pallett’s responses to interview questions are like his music — measured and thoughtful, but with tumultuous emotion boiling beneath the surface. He spoke at length about subjects such as the nonexistent lines between academic music and pop, the platonic ideal that is Jordan Catalano, the jarring stream-of-consciousness transparency of Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, taking inspiration from the It Gets Better project, and more.
STEREOGUM: What struck me the most about In Conflict was the directness of the lyrics — the first couple songs especially, when you sing lines like “I’ll never have any children” and “Let me see that ass.” How did you approach the lyrics to this album?
OWEN PALLETT: This was the first record that I was really trying to aim for some direct communication. Most of my other records have been more interested in examining, or writing a social satire in the form of fantasy or utopian sort of stuff. So I think that’s a really easy way to make commentary, the most effective way to make commentary on the societal stuff is through fantasy and dystopia or whatever. For this one I just felt, there was a desire that I wanted to create a real direct link between the listener and myself. I pay attention to a lot of lyricists when they change their voice and things develop — the way that Lisa Germano’s voice changed over time and Tori Amos’ voice changed over time, and Smog, his voice changed over time. And there’s this moment when you’re listening to a Smog song and it’s like you’re reading a Jimmy Corrigan comic, that he’s kind of tapped into something secret that you didn’t even know about. And then there is Smog the comedian when he’s saying, “Dress Sexy At My Funeral.” So, yeah I was kinda aiming to have a lot more of a two-way street of communication with the listener on this record. Although all the interviews I’ve done so far suggest that people still find my lyrics impenetrable, which is kind of crazy because I don’t feel like I can get anymore direct than I got.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I guess it’s not quite like Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, like “I’m going to read off all the names of my dead relatives,” but it’s close.
PALLETT: I have to have a moment with that guy. That’s Mark Kozelek, right? We haven’t connected, but I’m working on it. I’m gonna crack that guy.
STEREOGUM: Are you a fan?
PALLETT: I’m a big Red House Painters fan, but this new direction, it’s gonna take me a moment. I’ve listened to that record a bunch, but it hasn’t broken me yet. It’s just trying to find that right balance between what is honesty and what is poetry.
STEREOGUM: One of my editors is a huge Red House Painters fan, and he had a similar take on that record, as opposed to the instant rave reviews from some people who weren’t as into his previous work.
PALLETT: A long-running metaphor that I’ve been keeping in my head is that of Jordan Catalano from My So Called Life. You’ve got Angela Chase who has this fixation on this guy who essentially has very little personality and doesn’t put a lot of himself out there, it creates the ideal, where you have that thing that you project onto, it’s like the backdrop. It’s the ideal backdrop for her own version of her own life, this kid of stoic, impassive sort of person. And this is kind of what I think about when you get these kind of bands that are like Jesus And Mary Chain, Red House Painters, or Cocteau Twins. It just allows you this beautiful canvas to project your life onto. When you get Sun Kil Moon and it starts to get more explicit about his life, you start to lose that ability, which is not a good or bad thing, it’s just a different experience.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned the change in approach lyrically, did you kind of change up the way you work musically at all for this project?
PALLETT: Yeah, the biggest thing is that I hooked up with a band. I was kind of verging on it with Heartland, but most of the work that Jeremy (Gara) was doing drum-wise in Heartland was in overdubs. We would build the song and then overdub drums over the top. One of the things that happened in the wake of Heartland coming out was that we got requested to play concerts where we would play the album in its entirety, as a piece. In order to do that I had to figure out a way to play “Tryst With Mephistopheles” because that song, even though it was very vaguely loosely built around the idea that it could be looped, it wasn’t going to be a song without drums, without a rhythm section, because it was a rhythm-section-oriented song. So when I hooked up with Matt (Smith) and Rob (Gordon) again and started putting these songs together, I was just noticing what an incredible sound and feeling it was to have this sort of performative feeling. Because I just play, I’m like a computer on stage. But to have Matt and Rob and these expressive performers, to have them challenged by the loops, rushing ahead and pulling back, it felt like a Dr. Octopus kind of situation where they’re trying to contain the singularity. It had this really powerful feeling. And that was kind of the genesis of what I wanted this record to sound like. I wanted to have, from a rhythmic perspective, a much more performative feel. We did this record all live with the tape machine, no clips to try to capture that performative element. We did overdubs afterwards, but the basic synths and violin elements were all done in a room.
STEREOGUM: That makes sense. You feel that live presence to it.
PALLETT: Yeah, if you put on a metronome it’s kind of hilarious our time is on some tracks. (laughs) But it feels good. I love that feeling, like in the end of “Riverbed” and “Sky Behind The Flag” where Rob feels like he’s falling off his drums for a little bit.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of “The Riverbed,” I wanted to ask you about the video for that. Is that something the director (Eva Michon) came up with or was that your concept? How did that come to be?
PALLETT: It was kind of a vague concept that I proposed. It was a bigger concept that I wanted to involve my uncle in because he’s such an interesting individual and an interesting actor. So I had proposed this idea that was going to involve him. It was one of many, many video ideas I suggested for the song and that was the one they picked.
STEREOGUM: Did you feel like what happens in the narrative of the video correlates to what the song is about at all?
PALLETT: Yeah, in a way, absolutely. I just think that the standard currency of give and take that is expressed in a lot people’s day-to-day lives is concealing a deeper social currency, that people often can’t really get in touch with. In that song, too, I’m hoping that it can realistically talk about my personal experience with alcoholism and kind of being childless in my thirties, find some correlations between that and the sort of mental state and thoughts a person my uncle’s age is going through. The video is not at all autobiographical, but it is a little reflective of some of the things that come out of my uncle Jimmy’s mouth or mind.
STEREOGUM: Oh yeah?
PALLETT: (laughs) Yeah. But yeah, the hidden veneer of rage. The thin veneer that people have towards that beta-male rage.
STEREOGUM: One other specific musical question I had about the record was on the song “Soldiers Rock,” there’s an effect that sounds almost like a phone dialing. Was that intentional? Is it supposed to evoke that sound?
PALLETT: Nope. It’s just the sound. It was actually a Minimoog. It was the only sound we kept from the Iceland sessions. They had a Minimoog that I used a lot in Heartland. I loved it, but the rest of the session wasn’t working so well.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned earlier that you wanted to make a more personal connection with this album. That seems to make sense in terms of categorizing your work. When it was Final Fantasy it would be more fantastical, and under your own name it has evolved to be more personal.
PALLETT: You know, you’re not the first person to say that. A lot of people have said that there was some sort of shift. But to be honest, the shift is not within me. Although it could be perceived and be an interesting framing device, it’s not anything that I consciously decided that I was aiming for. Just with this record, I think a lot of it had to do with the It Gets Better project. You know, a one-way layer of communication of someone talking about their own life and hoping that them talking about their own life can be beneficial to other people. I wanted to try something that was similar to that, talking about how my life is kind of shitty and trying to find connecting bits in my own experiences with mental illness and with my secondhand experiences with friends with mental illness. I’ve kind of tried to focus on it in that way, as opposed to it being commentary, trying to think of it as communication. I don’t have an English degree. Maybe everything I’m talking about is entry level bullshit, but to me it’s a very different experience commenting on a situation and directly speaking to somebody to try to communicate with them.
STEREOGUM: As far promoting the record goes, I know you have a few dates coming up, but I’m assuming the Arcade Fire stuff is taking up a big chunk of time?
PALLETT: Taking up most of my time, yeah. I’ve got May to do some stuff. I have a couple dates in July, but mostly I’m still going to be doing stuff with Arcade Fire in Japan. And in September I’m going to be pretty booked up pretty solid for my stuff. But yeah, it’s mostly my primary gig right now, working with them. It’s been good. A large part of it is a psychological exercise for me, getting away from feeling so self-obsessed and reliant on all my money coming from my own freelance-y sort of stuff and having a salary job. Having that kind of dichotomy in one’s life is really important to me. It instills a sort of discipline to have an occupation, to be able to have it as a kind of magnetic pull from your creative activity. When all I had to do in the morning was wake up and make money by writing songs or writing for other people or filling commissions, it made me a little nuts. It made me crave a day job, to work in a kitchen or something. After years of trying to discipline myself with regular exercise and diet and all that stuff in addition to freelance thing going, once they made me this offer to work with them it seemed to me like a really appropriate method of kind of providing a foil for my own career. Certainly during the time in 2005 and 2006 when I was touring with Arcade Fire and working on my own stuff simultaneously I felt like my head was on really straight during that time. So far it’s been really good. I have my gear with me. Every other day they kind of take off or a take a loose day, so I have a lot of time to work on my own stuff, so it’s been really good so far.
STEREOGUM: I suppose in some sense, getting out a few months after the record comes out is an extra jolt to remind people that it’s out there. Maybe that’s another positive side of not touring much behind the record when it first comes out.
PALLETT: You can’t be everywhere at once. It’s nice. We’re focusing on major markets. When you only have a limited time, you make sure every gig is really, really good. So that’s good.
STEREOGUM: You had some success with the Her score. Were you expecting for it to be nominated for an Oscar? Was that a shock to you?
PALLETT: It wasn’t a shock but was also kind of a non-thing. What happened was I went, “Oh that’s interesting,” and even when we heard about it I was kind of like, “Oh that’s fun.” But what kind of surprised me was the incredible outpouring of support and interest that was coming from friends, sources, co-workers, and colleagues and stuff. So many people were really excited and supportive. One of those things that you have to remember that even if you yourself as an artist are not that moved by award ceremonies, it’s really good for your parents and friends. It’s good for your C.V.
STEREOGUM: Well, speaking of your C.V., do you have more movie people coming to your now because of that?
PALLETT: I’ve had to turn down a couple of scores because I just don’t have any time this year. But what I’ve been focusing on this year is what I can do while I’m on the road. So I’ve been taking a lot of home arrangement work, like tracking strings in the hotel room. I’ve done three records already this year. I did a a 12-inch with Daphni that I’m really excited about. It’s played heavily by Errol Aiken and the Hessle Audio guys, so that’s pretty fun. It’s not the world I’m into. I love the music, but I have no idea how the mechanisms work. Dan is of course an old hand at it, so it’s been really cool and see how it goes. The new Caribou record, too. So that’s what I’ve been doing on the road. Mostly arrangement stuff.
STEREOGUM: And writing about the music theory behind pop songs.
PALLETT: Yeah, I don’t even know where that came from. I got off a flight. I had just had the craziest day. I played this show with Arcade Fire in Connecticut and then took an overnight bus to Montreal. Basically just went home to change the clothes in my suitcase and then flew overnight to Berlin and had 12 interviews all back-to-back, right off the plane. So I was in a really weird state by the end of the day. I was kind of giving answers like “I don’t give a shit” or “I feel empty.” (laughs) It was a pretty dark day. But I had one hour in the middle of the day where I could sleep, but instead of sleeping I went on Facebook and saw people were offering me a challenge at the time, like “Why don’t you write about this?” So I said OK and just typed up that thing about Katy Perry and posted it to Facebook. Then the next day there were these Slate guys talking to me and saying they wanted to repost it because I’m friends with a couple of them on Facebook. So that’s what happened.
STEREOGUM: From the tone of the first article, it seemed like your expectation was that people would still find it pretty boring. Were you surprised by how intrigued people were by it?
PALLETT: To me, with music theory, whenever I’m reading anybody else writing about it, it makes me want to kill myself. People pointed it out: Here’s another music theory blog, here’s another music theory blog. I have a very specific and unique attitude towards music theory, that it is a beautiful and amazing thing that has absolutely no function whatsoever. I mean, it’s very useful to learn as a compositional tool, and if you’re a composer it’s good to know this kind of stuff for certain reasons. I have no training in jazz, and I’m sure that it has a lot application. I know that it is the basis of a lot of jazz education, so forgive me about that. But just the way people will break down Beatles songs and talk about how the flat third came from Buddy Holly or the flat sixth came from this other song, it just is too reminiscent of these old and dated notions that I grew up that were separating serious music from pop music, kind of equating these things on different levels. Even before poptimism became a thing in 2000, even when I was a teenager, I was having a hard time with the composition teachers who were not interested in listening to Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine, which was what I was listening to a lot during the time. Though I had open ears for Stockhausen and for the Messiaen and Paul Dolden that they were playing, I felt like there was a two-way street. There was this feeling of distinction between the academic approach and the pop music approach. I think that that leads to a lot of popular assumptions about classical musicians, that they bring this level of mysticism that, to some people’s ears, is really important and to other people’s ears is incredibly insufferable. Every week or so I have to an interview where people ask me about distinctions between art music and pop music. It’s something that has always turned my stomach. It’s something I’ve never been into. In regards to these articles, it was meant to be an absurd exercise to say that music theory is useful for this somewhat boring explanation for why this song works. Because yeah, I do believe this is, on a mechanical level, why the song works. Just break down this chaise and how we can find out the angles in how this is supporting these so adequately. You can break this stuff down but it doesn’t really mean the designer of anything has to know about these facts. I don’t know. It’s a very slippery slope, and it’s not anything I feel invested enough to do anything more than write a few articles about it. (laughs)
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I know you said it was a trilogy and nothing more.
PALLETT: I was happy with the Gaga one, though. I thought that was pretty cool, you know? People were debating me on the way I communicate about keys, which is an arbitrary thing. Everyone thinks about these this stuff differently. But I wanted to make this one about Gaga’s choice of pitch centers and pitch class and talk about that, but it kind of turned into something else. I was really happy with that one, even if it was a little denser.
STEREOGUM: I think you’re right to not extend it into an ongoing franchise or something. I feel like part of the way they were entertaining was like, if this is what every article about a hit song was like, it would be insufferable. It would be a shame to just reduce everything to mechanics.
PALLETT: I mean the funny thing is, too, that one of the loudest and most recurring responses is “How can you use music theory to explain these songs’ success when these songs are successful because of marketing, because of this, because of that, and all these superficial, non-musical elements,” which is exactly lifestyle reporting. It’s all the stuff that would be quote-unquote reported as lifestyle. You cannot dispute the ineffability of her work. “Bad Romance” is going to be around for long after we’re dead. It’s a really, really powerful song. It’s going to stick around just as long as the Beatles have stuck around or whatever sort of chart-topping, much-maligned-by-purists sort of band has stuck around. Of course there has to be a balance. I just think it’s personal taste. I don’t think it’s necessarily all that good telling people the way they should be writing something. It seems really stressful to me. Some of my favorite music writers are ones with whom I have no idea how their brain works. Someone I’ll always keep coming back to is Alex Macpherson who writes for The Guardian. His taste in music is 50 percent similar to mine and 50 percent completely different. He’ll talk about songs that I hear absolutely no redeeming qualities to, and he’ll get so passionate about them. To me, that is where music writing really succeeds, when it’s challenging me and forcing me to recognize that there are things that I can’t understand.
In Conflict is out 5/27 on Domino.