September 4, 2012
Les Mouches with Brian Eno
Photo by Owen Pallett
The ringtone in Canada is more serious and seems to (believe it or not) inhabit more melancholy than in Norway. The booming foghorn pounds through your ear funnels. After more than thirty seconds Owen Pallett picks up the phone, breathlessly tweeting "hello, this is Owen" into the spitcup mouthpiece.
During this year's Punkt Festival in Kristiansand Owen Pallett – violinist, arranger, video game enthusiast and solo artist – will be playing as part of the Brian Eno curated program, together with acts including beatbox-comedian Reggie Watts, Icelandic Múm and the Australian experimentalist Ben Frost, as well as a variety of other names.
Earlier, Pallett played violin in the Canadian indie spearheads Arcade Fire, at the same time as he performed on his own under the name Final Fantasy – probably a nod to his fascination for Asia's thriving video game culture. In 2010 he released his first album under his own name, Heartland. The album received critical acclaim, including from GAFFA reviewer Erik Barkman, who called the album a "sparkling beautiful concept album from the king of symphonic pop."
Heartland is an incredible epic indie pop album, where Pallett's high, delicate vocals is bravely fighting to be heard in front of a symphony orchestra accompanists. There is also a concept album about the violent farmer Lewis from the fictional country of Spectrum. But most of all, Heartland is a tremendously beautiful album, which Pallett with regards to Scott Walker, Divine Comedy and Magnetic Fields creates his very own universe of classic pop gems with a lot of wonderful melodies to fill it. A small masterpiece that will have a strong voice when the best albums of 2010 is to be summed up, Barkman said, and gave the album five stars out of six possible.
Shortly after the release of Heartland, Pallett played in Norway under the Final Fantasy moniker. The event he performed at was perhaps somewhat unexpected, both for his fans and for Pallett himself. The Canadian recalls the concert at National Jazz Scene during the metal festival Inferno with warmth and suppressed laughter.
"It was fun enough. Well, I'll be honest and admit that I was skeptical beforehand. Not because of purely aesthetic reasons, for I feel an affinity to metal. I listen to some metal, but I'm not a metal head, you know? I like black metal, but I've never been a fan of the whole nekro aesthetics, with poor production and all that. What I love is well produced black metal, such as Neurosis and Ulver. It was the social aspect of playing at Inferno that made me a little nervous. The thought of me – as a thin, short-haired and gay man without tattoos – would go alone on stage with just a violin and play in front of a lot of metal fans… I'm not saying that metal fans are homophobic, but they may have a reputation to be just that. But it went just fine. They were a very sweet and attentive audience. And very intelligent and thoughtful, as I got to talk with several of them after the concert. The organizers of Inferno have asked me back, but I do not know if I'm going to turn to the offer. But if I were to curate a festival myself, there have definitely been a lot of metal bands on the roster, oh yeah."
Pallett suddenly sounds a bit thoughtful. Maybe he thinks of his impending trip to Norway and Kristiansand, and his meeting with this year's festival curator. Brian Eno can not really be called anything other than a legend, still an innovative and inspirational force, a philosopher, a wizard, a true star – over forty years after he made his entry into the music world as the androgynous figurehead of Roxy Music.
"Brian Eno has been one of the biggest inspirations of mine. I am very fond of his electronic music, as well as all the ambient records, too. I highly value his songwriting skills. In an interview he once said that most people sing as if they were painting with a broad brush, or maybe some kind of roll, while he sang as if he used a sharpened pencil. I remember that made an impression on me. I obviously can sing like I was in a musical, with much emotion, but preferably I want to distance myself emotionally from what I sing, and be perceived as cold, just like Brian Eno," says Pallett.
What most people are asking about now, over two years after the release of Heartland, is what Pallett actually is spending his time with in his Toronto residence. In September 2010, he released the EP A Swedish Love Story. Since then, there has been more or less quiet from the other side of the pond, with the exception of the demo EP Export, which was made available online in December.
Photo by Davida Nemeroff
"After the release of Heartland I was on tour for a year more or less, and I really didn't get to do much else than to perform. And then I spent some time arranging songs for others and writing film music. 2011 went well with these two activities, when I think about it. The fact that I'm playing with a band at the Punkt festival, is that I thought at one time or another I would stop playing solo, and also people constantly told me that I should play with a drummer. It is nevertheless nice to be joined on stage by other people. In many ways, I see myself as a gladiator, that is probably the best image. I stand with my violin and fight a thousand drunk audiences," says Pallett.
Again laughter surging across the Atlantic, bubbling through the speaker.
"On Heartland I played with Jeremy Gara of Arcade Fire on drums. Although it worked well and I like Jeremy well, I've never liked the drums as an instrument – and how it has evolved – particularly well. I mean, I like the drums in funk and old soul. Drums in hard rock and metal, however, has never appealed to me. On drums this time I have with Rob Gordon, who I played with when I was younger, and that is an incredibly nice guy I suddenly remembered why I missed playing with," says the Canadian, and adds that he, Gordon and bassist Matt Smith have been rehearsing a set for the Punkt festival the last few days.
"We have put together a tentative set list for the concert in Kristiansand, but I'm not very happy with it, in fact we thought it was pretty crap all together, haha. I have eleven new songs we can play. I'm still not sure if I should play safe and go with tunes from Heartland – tunes that people might recognize – or if I should play new songs that might feel a bit unfinished and raw. We'll see. Maybe it will be a nice mix of new and old songs," says the fresh bandleader.
On the question of how the new album is coming along and when it will hit the store, Pallett is a bit reluctant.
"We're halfway in the process of making the new album. I don't really want to reveal too much about it, but what I can say is that it is long and rather massive – I've made eighteen songs now. It's not like I've made a lot of songs just to have done it, that is. It's not eighteen crappy songs, there are eighteen great songs. It's been over two years since I released Heartland, but sometimes I feel that unreasonably high standards are set for bands and their albums. I really appreciate bands such as Thee Oh Sees, who releases an average of two albums a year, and that manages to combine quantity and quality. Or the band Fucked Up, who's releasing stuff often, but who are also swapping styles often. But I have a job I would like to try to keep as long as I can, it is what provides for me, and then I have to devote time to it, that's just the way it is," the musician explains.
What about the purely lyrical aspects of the new album lyric? Will the main character still be Lewis, and the planet Spectrum still be the place?
"Well, that is actually a good question. I haven't talked much about this with anyone, really. To be honest, it's been a while since I last did an interview, haha. But no, the new album will not take place in Spectrum, and Lewis is not involved in any way. That concept I had originally only planned to apply on a couple of EPs and one album. I don't think it's good to exploit concepts too much. Most fantasy book series I've read are always the best in the beginning, for example. Early on they're focused and subtle, but after a while they become diluted and boring. The new record will be fairly autobiographical, and that's new to me. I've never been particularly interested in writing songs that deal with myself and my life, mostly because I don't think I live a very interesting life," says Pallett, and tells of an incident that caused him to think of himself as a writer in a different way.
"In the period right before I released Heartland, I toured with the Mountain Goats. John Darnielle and I were out walking in Los Angeles, and then he got me to take a picture of him next to Judy Garland's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, an event he later wrote a song about. The fact that one can write songs about something so mundane, I remember doing an impression, and it lit a light in me, I think."
Although Owen Pallett has previously focused on writing lyrics around sometimes lofty themes and concepts – like farmer Lewis on the planet Spectrum, which is in constant dialogue with his creator, appropriately enough named Owen – he's maybe not such a boring person as he portrays himself. Pallett has been open about his mental problems, which include, among other obsessions, OCDs. On the upcoming album the Canadian will – to a much greater extent than before – explore his own mind, but without it becoming too much of an introspective and personal affair, according to the artist.
"The new album will probably address the manic mind. I have struggled with some mental problems, and instead of being scared and instead of seeking professional help, I have let it become a source of inspiration. I have exploited myself in many ways. But even if it lyrically is something new, you will probably hear that it is me who created the music. The songs will probably not break out in salsa parts, to put it that way, but it will probably be both grandiose, dark and at times dissonant. They will not invite a kind of insight into the mind of Owen Pallett, although I may be making it seem that way now," says the North American, laughing once again. He may laugh, but the gravity of the matter seems to be lurking in the shadows.
"I have also been struggling with shame in relation to my mental problems. Particularly in relation to my family, especially my brothers. They are all straight as arrows, and good people. They are businessmen and lawyers and such. Although they are the nicest brothers you can have, and I love them more than anything, it can often be frustrating to visit their homes, visit their girlfriends and wives and children, and hear what they are talking about and what concerns them, topics and activities that quite frankly are pretty bourgeois. The last time I hung out with them, I started to cry. I told them about my problems, which basically are something in the nature of having spent too much money on a synthesizer, not receiving payment for an orchestration job, or having to send my violin in for repair, and I feel shame for struggling with those things as they probably have more serious things to contend with. I often think that if I knew how hard it was to live as an artist, I would've had a stable job and just do this part time. But it's really too late now," Pallett said, adding that in such situations it can be fruitful for one's frayed psyche to seek out like-minded people, if not in the immediate family.
"Earlier on, I lived with a number of friends who were artists. We're all scattered now, but we're still in touch. They were nice to have when the going got tough. While they were busy with art and I was doing music, our lives were pretty much about the same thing. We could start the day by drinking coffee, eating breakfast, and then reading a book or going to the gym, but the we'd always return to our studios and work intensely for many hours, sometimes all day and through the night. We were workaholics. One of my problems, if I should take an example, is that I can never walk out the door during the day. A friend may suggest that we should go to the beach, and even if I say yes and join him out the door, it happens rarely that I can go further than twenty yards before I get a strong feeling that I have to turn around and go home again. It was nice to talk with them about these issues, and get confirmation that it was completely normal. They very often felt the same," says Pallett.
In Kristiansand, Pallett probably will spend some nice days, perhaps a much needed break from rehearsing, arranging, recording albums and songwriting – even though his stay in Southern Norway necessarily will involve a gig. The day before his concert at the Punkt festival's main stage, Pallett is celebrating his 33rd birthday. He doesn't have a lot of wishes for his birthday.
"I'll be sure to have a drink with Ben Frost. And I hope I can have a piña colada with Brian Eno. That would be something."