Catching Up With... Final Fantasy's Owen Pallett

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For the Canadian violin wunderkind Owen Pallett, success hasn’t come without compromises. His third album, Heartland (out this week on Domino), is his first to be released in Japan—but that means he can no longer use his Final Fantasy moniker, for fear of copyright repercussions from the video game that nabbed the title first. Still, as Pallett strips away his stage name, it’s an ideal time to note mostly-unseen roles in producing of some of the best albums of the last half-decade: In addition to releasing his own LPs Has a Good Home and He Poos Clouds, Pallett has done string arrangements for Arcade Fire’s Funeral and Neon Bible, Grizzly Bear’s Yellow House, Beirut’s The Flying Club Cup, and Pet Shop Boys’ Yes, among many, many others. Along with Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, he also scored Richard Kelly’s 2009 thriller The Box.

But Heartland might be his most impressive accomplishment to date. It’s dark song-cycle centering around a violent young man named Lewis, musically ultra-complex but still melodic enough to send certain motifs running on loop in your head for days. Longtime Final Fantasy fans will be glad to know that Pallett’s tenor is as clear, warm, and eerily dramatic as ever—some things never change.

Paste recently spoke with the Toronto native about his name-change, an unlikely rendezvous with Brad Renfo and his beefs with Canada.

Paste: How was your day today?
Owen Pallett: Good! It was actually my first day off since New Year’s, so it was a very relaxing day. All I did today was visit some friends in Brooklyn and have coffee with a couple people in the city, and now I’m just lying in bed with my kitten.

Paste: Aww. Did you do anything special for New Year’s? Did you make any resolutions?
Pallett: No. Actually, I was really angry when somebody asked me about my New Year’s resolutions, because it was the day that—I don’t know if you know about this, probably not, nobody in America cares about what happens in Canada—but Stephen Harper decided that the government was not going to be in session until after the Olympics, so basically, there’s no government until March. And it’s to try and deflect attention from an inquiry into these claims that there was torture going on in Afghanistan. Canada’s really fucked up right now, and there’s so much awful stuff going on, and the Olympics are kind of one of them, and it’s just like—ugh! It just makes me so angry! (Laughs)

Paste: I’m sorry!
Pallett: It makes me angry because whenever you hear people talking about Canada, especially more activist-minded people, they’re talking about really stupid things, like the seal hunts, when actually there’s monstrous things going on in Canada that have nothing to do with seals or indigenous people. Well, they do—some of them have to do with indigenous people. But, so I got really bitchy when someone asked me my New Year’s resolutions. I was like, “I am so fucking much better than the Canadian government right now, so I don’t fucking give a shit.”

Paste: Are you glad to be done with your stage name?
Pallett: No, I’ll be honest—I’m not. I kind of got really attached to it. It started as a lark, but I felt like I kind of grew into it and the music was really informed by it. And I think that, now that I’m working under my own name, it’s going to change the way I’m thinking about the songs. Beforehand, I really felt—not a disconnect from it, but just that it wasn’t a part of me or even an extension of me, but rather that it was something that I did.

Paste: Are you having any phantom-limb syndrome? Do you find yourself reflexively referring to your music as Final Fantasy, still?
Pallett: I actually have. I did today, but I put it in quotations. I was talking about a film score thing I was working on, I was like, “Some parts are poppy, some parts sound like… Owen Pallett?” So I put “Final Fantasy” in quotes. It’s tricky, but I think it’ll be fine. To reissue the old albums, I think it’ll be nice. But I’m gonna probably have to change the titles, because “Owen Pallett’s He Poos Clouds” just doesn’t have, really, the same ring to it.

Paste: Is it going to be a total overhaul? Are you going to change the album art and everything?
Pallett: I haven’t figured that out yet. Has A Good Home, I would maybe like to try remixing, which I know never really works well for anyone, and people don’t like it when people do that. But it means a lot to me, because I don’t like that record. So I think I might try and do that and then repackage it with some other lost songs or obscure tracks. But I still have to work out the logistics for that.

Paste: Remixing works for some people.
Pallett: Yeah, I mean, it’s tricky. More often that not… Like, Kate Bush tried to do this, right? When she released her greatest hits, she re-recorded the vocals on the songs from The Kick Inside, because she was like, “I can sing them better now, I was only 19, it was my first record, give me a break!” You know what I mean? And people are just like, “Oh, yeah!” But it’s so much crazier when she sounds like… (Does a very accurate early Kate Bush impression) And that’s her “Wuthering Heights” thing—her original version where she sounds like an alien is so much better than this more mature performance that she does later. So, I don’t know, but I think it’s a worthy investment. I’ll give it a shot and see what comes up. But I mean, I can’t guarantee that I’m going to do that yet.

Paste: Can you describe the story of Heartland?
Pallett: Well, it’s interesting. I’ve kind of resigned myself to not really talk about it, and in fact, I didn’t really even necessarily want to include any sort of mention that there was a narrative to the album, because it was really meant to kind of exist in the album but not be what the album was. And I’m pretty annoyed, actually, that it’s been branded already as a concept album, because it isn’t a concept album. In fact, I don’t even know what a concept album is. You know, people talk about—like, I think of The Wall as a concept album, you know what I mean? I don’t have skits or characters going on, I don’t have like, “The Trial,” you know? I don’t know. It’s fine, I can’t control what people say about it, but I just, I feel more inclined to answer questions about the record than actually kind of divulging its secrets. (Laughs)

Paste: Well, maybe this will make you mad, then—but there is at least one character in it, right? The Lewis character?
Pallett: Oh, no, it’s fine. It’s just a tricky thing to try and talk about. But Lewis himself is simply meant to be kind of an archetype of the things that I like about other people, in a way. Specifically like, things that I either admire, or am sexually attracted to, or am fascinated by even if I kind of think there’s something disgusting about it. Shit like that. And, in order to get source material for him, I was thinking a lot about former lovers and family members and politicians that I don’t like but I’ve been strangely drawn to. All that kind of stuff. And it’s kind of reflected a little bit in the title, too. I’m a city dweller—the “heartland” means nothing to me. When a person like Stephen Harper or Sarah Palin uses that word, I feel completely alienated by it, but also fascinated by it. It’s this thing, this place that exists that a quarter of the population of Canada—and the U.S. too, I guess. I don’t know statistically what it is, but it’s where people live. And it’s really kind of meant to be an album about otherness.

Paste: I thought it was kind of saucy of you to end the album with the question “What Do You Think Will Happen Now?” Could you speak to how you titled that?
Pallett: It was kind of a play on an earlier song I wrote called “What Do You Think Will Happen Next?” I just thought it was, like, a nice title. (Laughs) But that song specifically was written when I was about, maybe a third or halfway through writing the record, and everything was really falling into place. I was really questioning my motivations for why I was writing this record, and that song kind of recognized that within the narrative, there was a metaphor for the entire artistic process that I was going through.

Paste: Have you thought about doing non-musical writing?
Pallett: Uh, probably not, no. (Laughs) It’s a real struggle for me to write lyrics. I actually have to kind of like, write it in my appointment book, like, “10 a.m. to 11 a.m.: write lyrics.”

Paste: Really? That surprises me. It sounds like it comes easily, so I guess you do a good job of hiding it.
Pallett: I mean, I toured with [The Mountain Goats’] John Darnielle, and I’ve seen the way songs just fly out of his brain and onto the page. With me, it’s not really like that. I kind of need to book myself a train ticket to a cabin somewhere and be like, “I’m gonna come back with ten songs!”

Paste: How was it working with [producer/musician] Rusty Santos on this album?
Pallett: Amazing. He is my favorite. I want to, like, work on laundry with him. (Laughs) I just love him so much. He taught me so much—just a really good process, and we have like minds and very similar tastes. In fact, I went to see his own band, The Present, which is amazing.

Paste: Any good stories from the studio?
Pallett: He’s just so positive. When Rusty and I started mixing, it was a really difficult thing. Because in the record—you can kind of hear, there’s a lot of information. And so we were having to buy gear and assemble it all together, and we were mixing in this studio in Toronto that was brand new that some friends of mine had hooked up, and they got the board in and were assembling it on the first day that we were supposed to be mixing it… But anyway, it was just so stressful for both of us, and when we started mixing, I was just like, “Ahh! This is hard work!” And this was after like eight months of just really being in my own world and not even thinking, maybe, this record was worth making. So one day I was just like, “Rusty, let’s just stop. Let’s get the car, let’s go to the beach or something.” And he just took me by the shoulders and said, “No, the world needs to hear this record.” Which I know sounds really cheesy, but it was the first time that anyone, and this includes my boyfriend, had actually ventured to say something positive about the work I was doing. I mean, people would be like, “Yes, that take is good, yes, this song is okay,” or, “I’m happy with the work we did today.” But for somebody to actually say something that just inspired me with such confidence, it was really kind of the turning point with this record.

Paste: That’s a really awesome story.
Pallett: So, I’ve said it to several people—I tell them that story when they’re getting down about the record that they need to make, and they’re just like, “Oh! I don’t have four thousand dollars to mix this record!” And I’m like, “The world needs to hear this record.” I don’t just dish that out, either. But when it really applies, then I do tell people that.

Paste: So, there’s one thing on your Twitter that I would love to hear more about, which is “Had that Brad Renfro dream again last night.” Can you tell me about that dream?
Pallett: Oh, the Brad Renfro dream? Yeah! It’s funny, like, I did have adolescent crushes, but none of them were on Brad Renfro—I just would see him in movies and think, “This guy’s a good actor, and he’s kinda cute.” I don’t even know where it came from, but I had this dream about him that we were just kind of walking and talking together and just doing this stuff. And I was really surprised, when I woke up, to remember, “Oh, yeah, he died, and it felt like nobody cared.” I remember when he died, I couldn’t believe—I wasn’t surprised he died, I was just like, “Of course Brad Renfro died”—but I couldn’t believe that nobody talked about it, nobody seemed to mention it, and then like a month later Heath Ledger died and that was all people could think about. It was kind of strange to me. I feel like, that poor guy, he was a great actor, he was in so many amazing movies. I mean, even a movie like Apt Pupil, which wasn’t necessarily the best movie ever made—like, he was great in it. He had this chilling performance. So yeah, it was just some random dream about us walking and talking together.

Paste: Well, that’s all I had, so unless you had anything else you want to get out there—if you want to talk more about what’s wrong with Canada, feel free.
Pallett: Oh, no, it’s fine. At first, when the Olympics were happening in Canada, I was kind of bummed out about it. But now that it is happening, I’m really excited, because I hope that it maybe will attract some international attention to the environmental crisis that is going on in Alberta with the tar sands. Because it’s fucking horrifying, and I cannot believe that it is going on. And you’ve got, even, the equivalent of our Democratic party, which is the Liberal party, the leader of it is—even in the face of National Geographic and The Guardian in London, writing these exposés being like, “This is insane what’s happening in Canada”—the leader of the Liberal party’s like, “I don’t need National Geographic telling me how to run my country.” It’s so insane right now, all this Canadian bullshit. (Laughs) What was this for, again?

Paste: Oh, it’s for Paste.
Pallett: I wrote a tweet to Paste Magazine when you guys reviewed my record. It’s because the guy said that Brian Eno made the Tubular Bells record. I was like, “Dude, if you’re gonna be a music writer, you gotta know who made Tubular Bells, because it sure as shit wasn’t Brian Eno!”

Paste: Yeah, that was not me.
Pallett: It’s fine. I don’t read music writing for the writing. I read music writing to know whether a band is going to be called overrated or underrated in four months’ time.

[Editor’s note: Whoops! It was a copyediting blunder, and not our writer’s ignorance, that caused the error. It’s fixed now, and we regret the inadvertant factual misstep.]

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