Q&A with Owen Pallett of Final Fantasy
April 18th, 2006 by Matt
If he had never formed Final Fantasy, Owen Pallett would still have had a career that should be the envy of most any musician. He’s been a member of Picastro, backed up Jim Guthrie and The Hidden Cameras, and arranged for and played with The Arcade Fire. But Owen Pallett did form Final Fantasy; and that’s where he seems most comfortable. His newest album, He Poos Clouds is an elegantly arranged look at death and atheism through the lense of Dungeons and Dragons. Owen was kind enough to discuss the ideas behind the album, his musical background, and the idea that He Poos Clouds is a ‘concept album.’
Q&A with Owen Pallett:
How did you get involved with music?
I mean, it’s kinda cheesy, but I’ve been really into classical music since I was a kid. I’ve been playing instruments since I was three or four.
Did you always have in mind that you wanted to make classical music?
No, no, no. When I was a kid i was a pretty militant classical music freak; then in my teenage years I got into really experimental music. Conceptual music and pop music were sort of the last ones to come around. For most of my late teens and early 20s i was working on becoming an opera composer.
You studied music in college, correct?
Were you hoping to be a composer, or something more formal like that, or did you know you wanted to be in a band?
It’s kind of an interesting thing, because you always have big, intangible ideas about what you want to do with your formal education, then when you sit down and try to do something “artistic,” it always ends up turning into something different than you intend. But basically what Final Fantasy started out as, and I guess continues to be, is a bit of a joke band or novelty project; which, in my experience has always been the types of bands that people enjoy the most. *laughs*
But you weren’t always in a “joke” band. How was your time spent as a supporting members in bands like with Jim Gutherie or Arcade Fire?
I was about 21 when I started playing with the first band that wasn’t just for money–because I did a lot of pop bands for money while my serious artistic endeavors were mostly confined to classical ones. But the fist time that I started playing in a pop band that I took really seriously was the band Picastro. I listened to pop music a lot, but at the time a lot of the strings that you’d hear in music were in a post rock setting, and I kinda thought post rock was a load of sh*t…and I kinda still feel that way a little bit. So i was reading an interview with Liz Hysen of Picastro, who were from Toronto, and I read that the lead singer was talking about how she thought that the way post rock bands use string instruments was a lot of sh*t too. It was kinda like I was feeling at the time, when everyone loves Godspeed You Black Emperor or Bjork, and you can’t be like ‘well, I think Bjork is sh*t’ or ‘Godspeed is sh*t’–that’s kinda a tall order to serve to a bunch of 21-year-olds in 2001.
But so I read what she was saying and it was totally amazing that she felt the same way about the role of string instruments in pop music; so I joined the band and started playing music with them.
How would you say that your supporting role in Picastro, or even arranging music for Arcade Fire prepared your for your solo work?
It’s really difficult because there are so few–and when I say this word, I mean it holistically–very few “complete” songwriters out there. It’s hard to be this person who just writes songs. More often than not, you’ll wind up being this Damien Rice character who kind of doesn’t really ring true, right? There are very few David Byrnes out there who are able to communicate in this musical language which is at once yourself and at the same time is not part of a larger, conceptual idea. Bands are sort of an idea, right? You have an idea when you form a band. But when you sit down to write a song, it’s like ‘what am I going to write a song about?’ and you look around your room and think ‘maybe I’ll write a song about a table or a lamp!’ So it’s very difficult to start out as a songwriter unless you actually think ‘this song is going to be a deconstruction of English literature!’ or ‘this song is going to be pagan chants repeated over and over again until they lose their meaning!’ or it’s going to be about queer identidy or gender bending–there are a lot of things you could make it about, but it’s kind of hard to make that first step.
For me, it was the band Xiu Xiu that made me totally realize that that was the way. When I heard Jamie Stewart just taking conversations and putting them into music, he would say stuff and I would think ‘that is exactly how that is.’ It’s just a very accurate representation.
But as far as what I learned from my time in Picastro, it was less the actual playing in the band and more sharing ideas with Liz Hysen, who thinks that Smog is the alpha and the omega of songwriting. And in a way, I think she’s right, because I think Smog is the best American songwriter right now.
So, as you just hinted at, it’s difficult to write a song unless you start with an idea. On He Poos Clouds, did you begin by saying ‘let’s see if I can write eights songs all related to Dungeons and Dragons,’ or did you notice the similarities and shift the songs to fit the mold?
Where other people would say ‘concept album,’ I would say ‘a project worth persuing.’ Collections of songs don’t interest me so much. Unless they’re really kind of haphazard or they’re a totally brilliant songwriter, I do not think that ninety percent of people out there can write a bunch of songs and have it come together in a record and make it a worthwhile thing to listening to. Also, working with certain guidelines makes the creative process much easier. Like, if you tell yourself that you’re only going to write songs that begin with the letter “I,” for example, the album will be made in half the time if you were just like ‘I’m writing songs.’ In that respect, and I don’t want this to sound pretentious, it was actually a really rigorously executed project. I was trying to make the songs function as just a vocals and string quartet project, and each song is supposed to be about identifying each of the forms of Dungeons and Dragons in our day to day life. It’s meant to be kind of a truth and an untruth, because all the songs are about these schools of magic, but they seem to each deny the existance of magic at the same time.
I’ve heard you mention themes of athiesm in connection with the idea of Dungeons and Dragons. Are the people in your songs examining athiesm as an outsider or an insider?
Most of the characters in the songs are just versions of myself. Some of them are a little more perverted, and some are more converted, but they’re all basically kind of versions of myself, and athiest versions of myself. Basically, the whole point of the record is kind of a death record in a way, because it’s like when you as an atheiest, or me as an athiest, are confront your own mortality, which athiests don’t often tend to do, it’s a pretty f*cked up thing. Death is far more scary for athiests than followers of any other religion.
Adhering to and applying certain belief systems to one’s life is kind of a natural process for someone who is trying to find meaning. I think that’s why so many people cling to…like, any of these things: music snobs, film buffs. It could be anything, I just happened to pick Dungeons and Dragons because it seems to be more fun. It’s about taking mundane events and talking about how they relate to this system of beliefs which is entirely fabricated and entirely fictional. It’s like reimagining the entire Catholic faith, but without actually beliving it. Looking at Catholicism, but leaving out the whole system of belief, and treating it as if it were a pasttime.
To me, it’s kind of what the world of Dungeons and Dragons is like. It can replace religion for people who are having trouble coping with the idea of the meaning of life and death and other big issues that are answered in religion, but are difficult to answer as an athiest.
Has there been anything that’s happened in your life to make you question how atheists, or people in general, respond when faced with these questions?
I haven’t had any personal experiences, like near-death experiences, or anything like that. Although the other day my intestines kinda shut down, and I was in the hospital from stress related illness and it was pretty scary for me because I was all pumped full of demerol. Also, my brother’s godfather, who is a very close friend of the family, died from his intestines rupturing. And that had just happened kind of recently, so I was worried about being in a similar situation. I was just lying in bed and had a built up reverie of “American Pie” was going through my head, except it was “this’ll be the way that I die.” I kept having a terrible fantasy that I could see my death, and it was going to be from ruptured intestines.
But no, it’s nothing actual. I’m probably more into video games and fantasy novels than most people I know. I allow my disbelief to be suspended so I can experience things. In that respect, it started to make me wonder why that was, and I started to think that it was connected to the fact that I didn’t really have all that much else to believe in.
I take it you’re a Dungeons and Dragons player, then?
Actually, I am not.
I guess that continues on the theme of ‘not a Final Fantasy player’ either.
You’re the second person to say that, which is actually untrue. I play a lot of Final Fantasy, but it’s not in my top twenty games of all time. But I’m very, very familiar with the Final Fantasy games.
Well, that is an untrue rumor that we’ll have to fix.
I mean, it had been written somewhere and I called them up and was like ‘I don’t know how this got started, but it’s being dismissive of the thing that I named the band after.’
But anyway, Dungeons and Dragons, on the other hand, it’s like I’ve read a lot about it and have played a couple games, but I’m kinda unfamiliar with it. My older brother used to play it with me, but it was hard because of the brotherly competitiveness. He would dole out unfair punishments. I haven’t played all that much, but I’m really interested in doing so.
In an attempt to dispel the rumor that classical musicians only listen to bands that sound like them, who’ve you been listened to?
I’ve been touring around with Grizzly Bear and Wyrd Visions, and Wyrd Visions only listens to hip-hop; so all I’ve got in my head right now is hip-hop. *laughs* But I’ve been listening to so much of Grizzly Bear’s music, they’re totally amazing. I’m lucky enough to have a pre-mastered copy of their new album, and I think it’s going to blow everyone’s mind. If people pick up on the fact that they sound a great deal like the Stone Roses, I think they’ll be big in Britain. I like the new Arctic Monkeys. I like the new Destroyer, even though I don’t like it as much as Your Blues. Simon Bookish too, I don’t know if you know him.
Do you know him?
I don’t believe I do.
He’s most famous for taking Franz Ferdinand’s song “Michael” and turning it into a gay anthem and receiving a whole lot of hate mail for it. He also did what I think is the best remix off of the Grizzly Bear remix album. But his own solo project is totally mind-blowing. It’s basically a very, very Protools-y, home recorded electronic type of sound. It’s sounds really, really ghetto in terms of its production. And overtop of that, he’s doing spoken word records. On the surface, hearing about it, you think ‘this is going to be the worst thing I’ve ever heard,’ and it actually winds up being about as good as Laurie Anderson’s Big Science, which I think is fantastic as well. His album Trainwreck/Raincheck really blows my mind.
I have a soft spot for people who, from the get-go, try and go against all the odds and totally succeed. When somebody’s like ‘I’m going to get a rock band, and there’s going to be eight people in it and there’s going to be a violin and a cello and an accordion’ then I’m kinda like, it’s got to be f*cking mind-blowing because I’m not going to have the patience for your process because your process is kind of obvious. But when somebody says ‘I’m going to only use broken instruments to try to arrange a beautiful symphony’ then if there’s even one moment of beautiful clarity then I’m totally satisfied.