Owen Pallett’s albums go deep in exploring themes close to the young, queer, kinda-geeky heart– a demographic not often sought out. It’s still rather surreal for me, as a fan, to have his number stored on my phone (as a professional), although this is less of an exclusive distinction than you might think– his number, after all, appears in the lyrics to a song on his latest album. In Conflict, released this week, is just that kind of album— intensely personal, and a little more grounded in real life than his previous albums (both under his own name and Final Fantasy), though geeky pastimes are still close to his heart– when we have time for them.
Owen Pallett: So, I have a nasty cold, I’m going to be blowing my nose every couple minutes, I hope that’s okay
Sure, I’ll do my best not to transcribe any sniffling. You’re in Kansas City right now?
What brings you there?
The Arcade Fire are playing in a couple days. We have today and tomorrow off, but we’ve all got colds… hopefully we’ll kick them.
Has that happened to you before a big show?
No, usually the band is pretty healthy, though on the Funeral tour in 2005 I was pretty much consistently sick the entire tour. I’d get to the point I was sure I was better and then we’d step up to the mic and *raughaughugh*. This tour is probably the first time we’ve had a full-band meltdown, everybody is sick.
So I wanted to ask about the Academy Awards– were you present when you were nominated for the Her score with Arcade Fire?
What was that like?
Kind of a tricky thing to describe. Certain things kind of penetrate my brain and start to fuck with my ego, make me feel good or make me feel bad. But the things that do are not what you would anticipate. So… let’s say I could see somebody really cute at a show, having a great time, and I can just feel completely elated. And feel that everything I’ve been doing has been worth it. And then that person starts using their cell phone, and I could feel completely down in the dumps. This is all a way of saying that at the Academy Awards, I didn’t really feel like myself. It didn’t really penetrate.
I take it you didn’t get any of the pizza that was getting passed around?
No, but after I had I think I had the best catered food I’ve ever had in my life. It was like everybody who was there, everyone in the band, thought it was miraculous. I’ve never tasted food that good. That was the coolest thing. And also… there was a concert a few days before the ceremony, where a couple of the composers, including myself, conducted orchestral renditions of the score, and that was a lot of fun. The whole music part of the Academy was really nice. The other musicians were really awesome. So that was terrific. The ceremony itself was very very otherworldly. Not at all what you would expect from watching it on TV.
One more question before we get to the album. You recently wrote this really brilliant series of pop music analysis articles for Slate. How did you get tapped to do that?
I had written those first two pieces just as Facebook posts, for my friends. But at least one of my friends writes for Slate, and passed it on, and asked if I’d be interested in having them publish it.
When you do this kind of analysis for your friends, or professionally as part of an article like this– is this kind of analysis something that’s always “on” for you? Do you find it easy enough to just mindlessly listen to music, or are you always analyzing?
My brain is very tied up in theory, and music production. When I listen to a song I could do it in all sort of different ways. Its usually not with my ass, you know? But I was hoping that these pieces would reflect a sort of humorous attitude, that these pop songs were really well written and worthy of this kind of examination. And I wasn’t being ironic when I described those three songs as works of genius, because I do believe that they are. But I was hoping that people would also see that it was sort of absurd to bring that level of analysis to these songs… but maybe I’ve gotten myself into hot water.
Do you think people got what you were going for?
I’d say my friends I had shared it with got it immediately. And maybe 75% of the commenters, based on what they were writing, seem to know where I was coming from. And certainly Ted Gioia, the really great jazz writer, who was calling for music writers to have more of a grounding or a basis in music theory, told me he thought it was very well played. I’m happy with them. I think the Gaga one was my favorite of them. With that one its really clear where the tone is coming from, even if it doesn’t have the same jokes of the first two.
[The new album] In Conflict is much more grounded in reality– set in our world– than your previous albums set in Spectrum, 14th Century, although I did spy some references to sorceresses, shepherds, and soldiers in the lyrics.
Ah, its interesting that people kind of lock in on the fantasy and video game references in my music, I feel like there’s just as many references from all over the place. There are film, and rap, and literary references. You’re right, there is a chorus, “Sorceress Valkerie”. I guess so. I was actually, when I wrote that chorus I was thinking of the moment in Best in Show, with Parker Posey looking for a little squeeze toy for her dog, and someone says “oh, maybe just use this toy” and she says “What are you a wizard?! A genius!?” And that was what inspired that line.
You mentioned literary references, were there any books on your mind in particular when you were writing In Conflict?
Well, In Conflict is really more of a condensed album; in Heartland, “The Great Elsewhere” contains really three books within it, but In Conflict its a little more sparse– “On a Path” is influenced by Ursula Le Guin, and obviously “The Dispossessed.” That’d be the most overt reference I could think of off the top of my head.
You mentioned moving away from video game references as well, though there was a line that stood out to me in “Song for Five & Six”–
Oh, that was a soccer reference
Yeah, the “saved the game” line was a soccer reference, about Andres Escobar
Ah, I’m embarrassed to say that one flew right by me. I suppose I am just more familiar with video games. I did want to ask you if you still have time to play video games
I do, sometimes, though not as often as I used to. I don’t relax like other people? I don’t like massages, and shit… like, I’m really good at say, actual sex, but not good at hanging around afterward? All the ways I relax are tied up in activity, like skiiing or jogging, or yeah, video games, it’s just easier for me to have my brain sit and focus on something. It keeps me in one place, and keeps me very objective. I don’t have the capability to sit in a steam room for two minutes before going “I’m bored!”
In your song “The Secret Seven” you list a phone number. Do you think people will try to call it?
Ah, people already have. Just one or two.
I mean, people will call the phone number in the song “Jenny” to this day. There was a rumor in my high school that if you call the number you’d hear a recording of the song.
“Jenny”– you know, 867-5309?
Oh yeah yeah. I looked that up– it wasn’t a real number, it didn’t belong to a specific person, just some random. I think in my case, the song was so depressing, that when I was writing it I thought “I should put my phone number at the end, in case somebody wants some clarification or if they’re worried about the content of the song.”