Interview: Potty-mouthed Violinist Owen Pallett on "Bro Music," Sexuality and His Career
In conversation, composer/violinist/songwriter Owen Pallett is outspoken. This might surprise those familiar with his music - from the serene orchestration on his acclaimed 2010 record, Heartland, and his previous work under the Final Fantasy moniker to his string arrangements for the likes of Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear. In advance of his set opening for the National at the Pageant this Thursday, Pallett spoke to A To Z about his career thus far, the death of Final Fantasy -- and his life as a homosexual fish in indie rock's predominately heterosexual pond. Tickets are $25 and are still available.
David Waldman Owen Pallett, performing live.
Ryan Wasoba: Before your solo career, you were more of a behind-the-scenes kind of guy, I first became aware of you after you wrote the string arrangements for Arcade Fire's Funeral.
Owen Pallett: That's pretty much par for the course, unless you were living in Toronto. I'm not trying to deny the comparative success of that album over the albums I'd worked on previously. But I work on a lot of records; however many copies they sell is water under the bridge. With that said, I think everyone who knew Arcade Fire knew they were going to be the biggest band in the world. People have some resentment but it's like, "Didn't you know they were going to be popular?"
Had you already started doing Final Fantasy when you worked on Funeral?
I think i started doing Final Fantasy exactly one month after I recorded Funeral, but it wasn't out yet. I was on tour with Picastro and we had these looper pedals. We were in the Midwest and I was thinking about these objects, "Wouldn't it be cool if I were to plug my violin into one of those?" I was literally sitting at the side of the road by a rest stop playing with the pedals and I started writing the first four Final Fantasy songs.
I think some people consider your career an extension of Arcade Fire, almost like a side project.
People ask me point blank, "How much is Arcade Fire responsible for your success?" People want to chalk up my career to being in the right place at the right time. That's fine, but it's not true. People also try to pigeonhole me as some music school guy. Basically, people think I'm some upper-middle-class fucking douchebag. I had a really hard time in my early 20s.
You were playing in other bands at the time, right?
Yes, the primary focus was Les Mouches. I was still in the Hidden Cameras but I quit due to starvation. I was 23 and I was playing in like 8 bands or something, including Final Fantasy, and I was starving. I had no money. I finished school and I was busking to pay my bills. I spent one year doing nothing but playing in bands and working as a prep cook and a waiter and it was just crazy. I quit that job and had this very lean summer where it was like "Jesus Christ, I need to take a desk job." So I took a desk job.
Really? "I need a desk job" wasn't just an expression?
Nope. In Canada we have a radio host named Stuart McLean, who's very popular here and somewhat popular in the States. He's kind of reminiscent of [Prarie Home Companion host] Garrison Keillor, and he does a show on NPR called The Vinyl Cafe. Stuart showed up at a random Final Fantasy basement show. My shows were doing well, but I wasn't paying the bills. He said, "I want you to play on my show. What else are you doing these days?" They needed someone in the office to pick music for the show, so he hired me as sort of a music producer. I worked for him for the rest of the year, and then Arcade Fire called me after Funeral was blowing up and asked if they could take Les Mouches on tour in the states. I told them I would rather do it with my solo project. They hadn't heard or seen Final Fantasy at the time and I said, "You have to trust me."
Wow, so you just dove in headfirst.
I didn't even want to go on the tour at first - I was really enjoying the desk job! I mean, I quit all these bands for a reason. But The Vinyl Cafe folks egged me on to go, so I went. It was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. The response was amazing, not because of Arcade Fire's popularity, but because I was in a room of people who were on the verge of seeing something they have never seen before. I've never played to such enthusiastic crowds. Well, maybe when people are really wasted.