Anton Corbijn Funeral was released in 2004, Neon Bible was released in 2007…
- Posted on Mar 25th 2011 1:00PM by Jonathan Dekel
Blocks Recording Club
Owen Pallett has been a part of some of the most interesting, complex and influential popular music this side of the millennium, and yet few Duran Duran fans will know that their favourite band's new album's grandeur was created by the Toronto-based ingénue. As an arranger, he's created sweeping string arrangements for Pet Shop Boys, Grizzly Bear, Mika, Last Shadow Puppets and, most famously, his old friends Arcade Fire. As a performer, the former Final Fantasy has expanded upon his Polaris Award-winning sophomore album 'He Poos Clouds' to create the complex, daring and Polaris- and Juno-nominated 'Heartland,' a lush concept album bathed in Pallett's signature wall of strings that dares the listener to question the motives of the music and its creator.
Spinner sits down with the musical virtuoso to discuss his disdain for artistic sexual labelling, flirting with Arcade Fire's success, how the Strokes inspired his album and why Morrissey should just come out of the closet already.
Why have 'Heartland' focus on the interplay between creator and the art they create?
As a songwriter I'm interested in examining how people talk about other songwriters. Let's say Sufjan Stevens, the way people talk about him and make assumptions about his music -- because he's not a homosexual but he sounds like a homosexual, and he is a Christian but his music doesn't sound Christian. It got me interested in the difference between what the art is and who the artist is that's making it. So that's been occupying my brain.
How much of your concept albums is about you trying to manipulate public persona?
I don't. I've always had a real hard time engaging with songwriters who do put on a persona. Morrissey being the best example of someone I really admire but align myself in opposition to.
What about Morrissey turns you off?
Just that he's allowed himself to stay in the closet, or at least be ambiguous, for so long as if it's not a big deal. I could talk about Morrissey but basically I decided early on that I was always going to be candid in interviews, that I was always gonna set up my own gear onstage, that I was going to keep costuming down to a minimum, that I was going to be off-the-cuff and relaxed around the audience because, growing up, that's the kind of music that inspired me.
As part of the D.I.Y. ideal?
Not even D.I.Y., I'm not saying this is the only way of doing things. In fact, I'm constantly thinking that this is totally wrong. The best example was seeing Radiohead during their sound-check at Molson Amphitheatre [in Toronto]. They were playing these great songs but without the light show, without the dancing and without the rocking out, it was so boring. But as soon as they got the lights going it was like, 'yeah, this is amazing!' So it's something that I'm not making an argument for, it's just something I wanted to do.
Getting back to the creator concept, you are 'the creator' on the album, both as Owen the character and the recording artist. Are you religious in any capacity?
I'm deeply anti-theist, but I'm also deeply interested in religion. I grew up with a fanatical interest in religious text. Except for Mormons, I love Mormons!
What inspired you to tackle that subject matter now?
Religion is just the codification of a belief in something infinite. 'Heartland' is not specifically religious. Even if I was -- and I am -- deeply anti-theistic, that brain grappling with the infinite thing will continue to exist even if everyone burns all the Korans.
You made a very distinct choice to have both the album's main character, Lewis, and his creator be obviously flawed, be it either in their vengeful zealotism or through the use of violence.
In a way Lewis is meant to be a proxy for the things that I'm attracted to and those things are often flawed things that I disagree with. On a fundamental level, the fact that he's violent and works fields, has this intense belief in a higher power to the point of dogma, all these things that I would never do myself -- except for working fields, which I love but I don't do -- I think there's something weird and strange about it. Even the title of the album, 'Heartland,' it's something that we as city dwellers always talk about but really know nothing about.
It's been this kind of reoccurring theme in homosexual literature and homosexual art is the attraction to the opposite in the context of homosexual relationships...Which isn't to say it's a gay album. It's an album that's born out of all this stuff that I was reading and felt a desire to comment on and examine. But I've really tried to make an effort not to go so far up my own ass when I'm talking about it. I feel like I tried to present it in this way that I wouldn't have to provide the discourse on it. I was hoping to have other people talk about it for me.
What did you think about how the media perceived the album?
I read all the reviews, I read everything, and I'm a little disappointed. I only felt two times where I thought people got it and they were both with gay papers. Maybe it's because they weren't coming from a musical perspective so they dived into it and got all the references.
You said earlier that it wasn't a gay album, but doesn't this prove that it kind of is?
It's not a gay album in the way that the Scissor Sisters album is a gay album. That's a really gay album. I always have a hard time ascribing sexuality to an inanimate object, but you can't deny that there are certain triggers that make people associate a piece of art with a brand of sexuality.
But this record I was hoping would appeal across the board. I'm not gonna censor myself or change the things I'm singing about -- I'm not going to tone down the man love – but at the same time I'm quite conscious that a lot of gay artists working in this scene have the same type of relationship as female artists do working in the 'indie' scene. In that they are seen as not-heterosexual men and when they don't say things the way people are used to hearing them women are referred to as a 'bitch' or even worse and if you're a guy they're describe you as 'fey' or 'precious,' even though I don't think my music is particularly fey or precious.
Could it be your delivery?
I sing like [Zombies' vocalist] Colin Blunstone. He in my mind is the most perfect singer. I saw him live and he did a couple Alan Rickman like poses but nothing as showtune as Jarvis Cocker. I'm not a f---ing showtunes singer and f-- you. Compared to a Sufjan Stevens or an Iron and Wine or a Jose Gonzalez -- three straight men, I'm not fey -- But what can I say? You're still gonna say I'm fey.
It's my understanding that most journalistic complaints about it have been that it's too 'high concept' to be a great album, if that makes any sense.
I have a very unique relationship with my record so the things that I like about it you might not like about it. For example I think it's one of the best produced records of the year -- with the exception of Caribou's 'Swim.' Aside from that, when people complain about it being 'high concept,' well, people like bandying about that word. Joanna Newsom's albums is constantly described as high concept but it's just a collection of songs. Essentially what i tried to do with 'Heartland' was maintain a narrative that's strong but not as heavy handed as 'The Wall.'
Make it feel as loose and easy as the Strokes' 'Is This It.'
I wouldn't have imagined The Strokes as a major influence on you.
When I was writing the string parts for the album I tried to completely empty out of my brain any influence of the classical album and listen only to synth-pop and the Strokes, constantly. And think about how the Strokes work and the way their different frequencies interweave and see if I could get the orchestra to do the same thing; get that same aural payoff.
Would you say that Radiohead would be your contemporaries?
Radiohead are another world, another continent. I see it all the time when I have bands who are friends of mine -- Grizzly Bear, Arcade Fire and Dirty Projectors -- who go from tours in tiny little cars supporting a band I might be in to having a crew of 50 people setting up their stage and with their own lightening rig and in ear monitors and I'm like 'you guys have left North America and now inhabit a different world, the one with Radiohead.'
But certainly you're no stranger to that world
I get to go to the same parties as that world.
As a member of the Arcade Fire certainly you've flirted with it
If people ever stopped buying my own records I would immediately ask to rejoin that band because they're awesome friends and I love their music, but I do not find that aspect of that life appealing at all.
But isn't the access intriguing to you?
There are some pretty funny moments when you play to 5000 people and at the end of the show you say, 'bye' and then five minutes later you're back onstage unplugging cables. Can you imagine how funny that would be if Gaga came offstage, took off her costume then came back and unplugged cables?
Finally, you've made a name by inserting grand sweeping movements into three minute pop tunes. Is that something you like doing or something you happen to be good at?
I think people have this image of me as this guy who sits at home and listens to Van Dyke Parks or the Beach Boys all day and it's just not true. I really try to be at the service of whoever is hiring me as an arranger. I try to figure out what records they're listening to and create something in that vein and it's true, I generally like that style of music, but I hope don't people think I don't have ears for other things.
When people think of an orchestra they think of this grandiose thing, which is regrettable. I'm really working my hardest to make the orchestra available to everybody. I work for extremely cheap and, if you don't have the money, I'll go home and dub all the strings myself. I want to use my abilities to achieve what these people want. As an arranger, its mostly an act of subservience, I guess.