Owen Pallett on pop criticism, irony, and music media conspiracies

With 'In Conflict,' Owen Pallett wrote his most nuanced album yet.

June 16, 2014

Four years have passed between Owen Pallett’s new album, In Conflict, and the previous, Heartland. In that time, he’s done everything but take a break from music; continuing to arrange strings for hire (add R.E.M., The National, and Taylor Swift to the list of his employers), writing a TSO-commissioned violin concerto, garnering an Oscar nomination for co-writing the score to Spike Jonze’s Her, and upgrading his dream cohabitation with Arcade Fire from studio trump-card to touring band member. He’s also posted a series of essays coming to the defense of pop music and how it’s criticized by the media, using music theory to breakdown why hits by the likes of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry work.

What’s apparent through all of this is that Owen Pallett eats, sleeps, and breathes music. In Conflict is yet another meticulously crafted triumph to add to his catalogue, building on the genre-ignoring experimentation and well-developed concepts he’s pioneered his own sound with, only this time the album is boosted by a confidence supplied by Pallett’s experience and maturity. Some of the themes covered on this record suggest that he’s a complex person, which he might be, but as a musician, he’s as pure as they come.

AUX: I have to say, I was concerned that you weren’t going to do another album. So much time was passing, you were doing the TSO thing and then there was the Her soundtrack. Take me through the last little bit between Heartland and this record, In Conflict.

Owen Pallett: Well, there was a bunch of different stuff that kind of happened. I was getting really, really depressed on the Heartland tour, and by the end of the year, I was pretty much non-functional. I kind of snapped out of it in a big way in 2011 with exercise. I was getting a lot of exercise done, I was doing a lot of work for other people, and playing with my band, and getting the Heartland songs sounding really amazing. But writing the next record was something that took me a little longer to feel like I was going to be able to get back into doing. It wasn’t really until summer 2011 that I was ready to write songs and I started writing with the band. 

Honestly, there’s really nothing that gives me more satisfaction and pleasure than completing a song, but everything that comes after the songwriting process is kind of hell. I mean, that’s where I get my income, so I’ve got to do it, but it can be hard to motivate yourself to do it. That’s why it takes a little while.

How do you deal with the other stuff? When you do arrangements for another artist, in terms of paying the bills, doesn’t that do okay for you?

If I were to break down the amount of income that I’m bringing in a year, it’s by far my own music. Sales, touring, stuff like that. A large part of it is because I have such a large overhead. I was playing solo for so long and even now there’s four of us on the road, it’s pretty easy to come and make bank. 

It’s more dependable.

Classical commissions, they’re not a well paying gig. I’m not going to disclose numbers or anything, but a lot of work for a brief flare of glory. It’s not dependable. There’s no guarantee. You don’t have the same sort of arc you get from returning with promoter after promoter in that world that you do in the pop world. 

Tell me about the writing process, how do you approach a concerto compared to working on a song?

It’s kind of the same from a nuts and bolts perspective, it’s just I’m at the piano with pen and paper. But I’m thinking about different sources and trying to accomplish different goals. When I’m writing a concerto I’m really thinking about how something is going to fit into the history of new music and what’s going to entertain the people with their asses in a seat as opposed to with a drink in their hand. And if the performer’s going to enjoy what they’re playing.

In your music there’s always these concepts, and this record has a lot of stuff beneath the surface, some more obvious than others. Even the album title suggests a concept. How important is it for you to find something and have it tie your thoughts together for whatever you’re working on?

I think it’s just a taste thing, but it also is a crutch. It’s like if you’re drawing a line drawing and then colouring it in, that’s what it feels like to me. I already know the titles of the next three records and I have a list of possible song titles, it’s just easier for me to function within that kind of framework. It’s also my own personal tastes go towards music that is high concept, that does have a lot of thought put into it. 

Let’s talk about the concept to this, can you break it down without selling it out too much?

It’s a trickier one because there’s not a plot line. It’s meant to be a record of personal experiences with insanity, and I use the word insanity in a very, very broad and in some cases it would be an offensive term. Nobody these days uses gender confusion or gender trouble as any form of insanity. So, I use it lovingly. I was going through and documenting different experiences that I’d had in my life in a kind of way that was inspired by The Mountain Goats. I was finding that all of the things that I was documenting were really, really tricky and often shitty scenes, just coupled with the recent readings that I’d been making about the connection between the creative state and bi-polar disorder—almost every songwriter I know is completely batshit. Also having a different attitude towards the recent state of gay teen suicides compared to a lot of other people, I was feeling like this was symptomatic of mental illness than of bullying or hormones. I mean obviously you can’t take one without the other but I kind of wanted this to be a statement of support, almost like a document of it.

There’s so many movies and comic books that I’ve read that have been so inspiring to me where so many other people just don’t get them. Melancholia was a really good example—pretty much anybody who’s ever been depressed and watched that movie immediately got it, whereas people who haven’t suffered from depression had no idea, like “who’s this crazy bitch and why’s she behaving like this?” They didn’t get that the whole ending of the movie is meant to be exactly what a depressed person needs. A depressed person needs problems, actual, real problems, in order for them to feel at home. When things are going good, depressed people don’t know what to do. So, for me to watch that, or Synecdoche, New York, Bergman’s Persona, or even the fucking Jimmy Corrigan comics, any of that stuff requires a sort of level of admission that I was prepared to make with this record. That’s basically the concept. 

Sorry if that went a little long winded. 

No, no, no. I was expecting it. This is something that you would have thought through before you started working on it, and obviously you’d be able to think about it a lot more along the way. How important is it for your listeners to understand the concept? Do you feel like somebody would be missing out if they don’t really get the record?

No, no, no, no. Not at all, in fact it kind of frustrated me a little bit with He Poos Clouds, because I went into it like, “I’m going to do this thing,” and when I went to do the press for it, it ended up being like, ‘”Oh, you play Dungeons & Dragons now,” and I’m like, “Oh, no, that’s not really what the record’s about,” and I felt like there was a lot of back peddling and discussion. When you’re doing pop criticism, the rigour isn’t necessary. It’s prone to any sort of interpretation; people can take it any sort of way.  So, with Heartland and this new record, I hope that the record has people who can turn it on and not need to engage with it. But if people do engage with it, then they might start to pursue it in the correlation not only between the lyrical, the different lyrics put together, but also the lyrical material and the compositional material. That’s just the way the music comes out of me. 

You mentioned pop criticism. You dropped those things at the end of March that were all really interesting. Without you explaining them with the music, I didn’t get them. I didn’t really do any music theory, so I didn’t delve that deep. But I thought it was really cool to see you stand up for pop music. Did you disagree with what that original dude was saying?

It’s complicated, because I agree and disagree. I disagree insofar as I don’t think that there’s any place for music theory in pop criticism. On a fundamental level, when you’re writing pop criticism, it’s being read by a so-called “pop reader” who are locking in with little or no musical knowledge required to appreciate this music and to appreciate the writing about this music. The challenge in writing these pieces with musical theory was finding a way to explain and not sound patronizing. I didn’t want to just be like “CHORDS” and expect people were going to get it, but at the same time I didn’t want it to be so superficial that there was no theory involved.

On one hand, I do love the utopian environment that Gioia’s suggesting, but I don’t think it has any place. In fact, I think that there’s something that’s really valuable for me, as a musician, reading pop criticism and hearing people who don’t know anything about, or don’t necessarily need to know anything about, music theory responding in such an emotional way. Some of the most valuable writers that I’m always reading completely just go out and dance to music. Just hearing how they respond to this Ciara track, that’s interesting to me. You’re hearing it through a consumer’s perspective. 

There’s a lot of conversations about how people are consuming music… there’s this whole irony backlash. Stuff like Spice Girls, that people are actually starting to stick up for. There’s this idea that this culture of irony is taking away from enjoying good music. Bad music is getting pushed through because we all want to make fun of what they’re doing. Do you have any opinions on that?

Yeah, I actually really disagree with you really strongly. Dude, that’s completely crazy. I think that irony, that its whole pretense towards there being one genre of music, or one style of music as being better and the other being trash, I feel like that’s an ironic attitude. That it creates these pretend lines between a band like Parquet Courts and someone like Drake. There are no pretend lines, it’s all the same culture and we’re all building it. Spice Girls and the people behind Spice Girls, even though it’s a totally evil corporation with men in suits writing songs and these women are plucked off the street, you have to approach it the same way. You can’t just dismiss it because the mechanism that’s generating it is more overtly capitalist. Even on the noise rock scene, the drone scene, it still conforms to the same currency: Performing, driving to the gig, it’s still a performative act. You can’t prioritize one thing over another. I feel like people who do, that’s the ironic stance. I don’t think that people appreciate the Spice Girls for any reason of irony. Dude, “2 Become 1” is… 

I actually really like that song, except for that one part where they say “Get it on, get it on,” if that was gone, that song is perfect.

I don’t like the “Be a little bit wiser, baby, put it on, put it on…” What are you trying to say? This is such a multifaceted song already. 

I didn’t even know that’s what they were saying.

I feel like with this attitude, forgive me, but I feel like it can be dangerous. To dismiss Spice Girls, it’s been an attitude that’s been used to dismiss so many genres of music. It was used to dismiss rap in the ‘80s, Eurodance in the ‘90s, and it’s being used to dismiss EDM now. People just love to shit on EDM but it’s the best thing going right now. It’s the most readily accessible and also obviously difficult music. It’s so difficult to make EDM and it seems like the environment for it is so competitive, but people only seeing to from a very superficial way. Like, ‘Oh this doesn’t conform to the methods of performative music that I grew up with, so I’m going to dismiss it.’ People pick on fucking pop still. There’s a lot of stuff that people dismiss.

I was going to get to that EDM thing, actually. Were you at Coachella with Arcade Fire? 

Yeah, I was there.

What was that? The little Daft Punk thing. 

That was reporters at Stereogum lying about what happened. I love using the word lie, because fuck it, I don’t care anymore. They were lying about what happened. All they said was “they shouted out to other bands playing instruments.” That wasn’t a diss to Deadmau5 or whatever. The whole Daft Punk thing? They were saying it was a deliberately poorly performed version of Daft Punk? It was actually just slowed down to 33RPM. There’s nobody in the band who is not a raging, passionate Daft Punk fan.

That’s interesting, because I saw the clip first and thought nothing of it until one of my buddies were like “Why is Arcade Fire sneak dissin’”? 

It wasn’t sneak dissing. It was entirely manufactured by the people at Stereogum.

So, has Kanye given you a call yet?


Are you waiting for it?

I don’t know, man. I don’t know what I would do with Kanye. 

He had a lot of violin on The College Dropout, I don’t know how familiar you are with the first Kanye album.

I’m very familiar, you know, but I think he’s kind of left Jon Brion behind, like seven years ago. The stuff that he’s been doing on his last three records seems to have very little to do with my skill set. 

But you would welcome a call like that.

Well of course I would, for the CV, but I would be kind of a little bit scared. There’s a responsibility as an arranger to do no harm, if that makes sense. I want, if somebody calls me for a gig, to really feel like I’m able to contribute and that myself and the client are going to be happy with the work. So yeah, Kanye would be a tough customer and it would probably stress me out to work with him. I’d probably have to spend a lot of time massaging those parts to make it right. But also, I don’t hear any place for it. As an arranger, I feel a lot more attraction towards music that’s somehow unfinished, if I feel like there’s a role for me to play. But two out of the last three Kanye records I thought were perfect records, the 808s record and Yeezus were perfect records, so I don’t know what I would do. See, I’d much rather work with, like, Omarion or something.

Yes! That’d be awesome. Go get Omarion!

Yeah man, I listen to “Speeding” a lot. “Speeding” is a karaoke standby for me. I would love to work with Omarion. 

He’s good, man.

I feel like I’d be able to work in R&B a little more easily than rap. 

Tell me more. Can you give me five underrated acts that Owen Pallett feels don’t get enough respect?

People that don’t get enough respect? I can’t answer that question because of what it implies. People talk about me as being underrated and I’m like “fuck you,” it’s like, “five fat girls who are actually hot.”

[magazine month=”June” year=”2014″]

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