The Black Notes of Owen Pallett

An email exchange with the singer, composer, and multi-instrumentalist about his new album, song sequencing, dysphoria, and moving to Montreal.

September 19, 2014

Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto who has written for The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Comics Journal, Social Text, the Village Voice an...

Image by Peter Juhl

This conversation originally appeared in Hazlitt #2, Summer 2014.

In Conflict, the new Owen Pallett album, contains virtuosic formalist composition, gender-neutral pronouns, Synth Intensity, flaunted dissonance, and lyrics so direct and moving they feel like a conversation full of revelations. It has some of his loveliest, most protean singing, and a lot less of the previous violin-looping than listeners might expect. Although Brian Eno makes appearances, the crucial additions are Rob Gordon on drums and Matt Smith on bass—old friends from the early 2000s trio Les Mouches. They give the album an enticing liveband quality, a sense of continuity even when the music threatens to shake itself apart: as one narrator sardonically describes the “gift” of their depression, another comes to the realization they will never have children, and a third says, “let me see that ass.”

Pallett has spent several years in the role of hired collaborator—scoring Spike Jonze’s Her with longtime comrades Arcade Fire, arranging some strings for Taylor Swift—but In Conflict resumes the singular discography he first began recording as Final Fantasy. He Poos Clouds, released in 2006, won the inaugural Polaris Prize. (In Conflict is on the short list for the 2014 Polaris; the winner will be announced September 22.) The fantasy setting of his third LP, Heartland, evoked Japanese role-playing games, albeit homoerotic on purpose.

Owen is a friend, so when I was asked to interview him, I thought it was an opportunity to try something more intimate and subjective than the typical music Q&A—just exchanging emails to see what would happen. This format seemed encouraged by the album’s themes of dysphoria—alienation from some assigned role, whether a community or a gender. As the title implies, In Conflict brims with anguish, but there’s guarded resolve, too—a conviction that hetero essentialism will finally be shredded in the lustrous pincers of the schismatic. “Clap hands for a city that we don’t know anymore,” the moving-to-Montreal song goes, “see the sun coming out as we walk the last mile of the lakeshore.”

Chris: This album made me cry! While I finish sorting through my feelings about it—you know, placing each emotion neatly in the sock drawer—let me ask something nerdy. I understand you made two separate attempts at what eventually became the track list, right?

Owen: Hey Chris, hope you liked it! It makes me cry a bit too, I don’t know if that’s good or bad or what.

There were dozens and dozens of track lists. Originally it was supposed to be 16 tracks long and “flow,” but I decided to shorten it and re-sequence it so there was no flow, only big contrast from song to song. It was inspired in this regard by Little Earthquakes [the Tori Amos album].

As I might’ve told you, I get pretty emotional while listening to [In Conflict] myself. A year ago when I was rounding the bend on finishing it, I felt like “who the hell is gonna want to listen to this” and I hedged my bets by accepting the gig with Arcade Fire.

Chris: Was intentionally working against any sense of flow or consistency an attempt to represent the anti-essentialist ideas you’ve mentioned shaping this record, a rejection of permanence and normativity?

Owen: There were some specific moves, yes. I added a lot of wrong notes, not like “blue notes” but more like “black notes,” really strongly sung/played most-dissonant-possible moments, like an incongruous tail:

- The ringing upper piano notes on the break on “I Am Not Afraid”
- The dissonant second “cityyyyy” on the bridge of “On a Path”
- The dissonant final notes of the orchestra solo on “The Secret Seven,” not to mention the extended moment of droney silence
- The slid-up “wronnnnng” on “The Riverbed”
- “Rain” on “Infernal Fantasy”
- The orchestra solo on “Soldiers Rock“

There’s a lot of duality represented, too:

- The strings vs. electronic form of “I Am Not Afraid,” the quiet vs. loud form of “Infernal Fantasy”
- The dual tonality and dual time signature of “Song for Five & Six” (the first two chords are minor-5 and major-6 of c-minor, and time-wise the breakdown is both in 6/4 and 5/16)
- The static vs. moving horn 5ths in “Chorale”
- The mirror image “ghost ship” string gestures on “The Passions”
- The dual vocal lines combining on “Soldiers Rock”

The record was originally written to flow together all nice and easy, like Heartland did, lots of segues and easing of mood to a 1-2-3 punch of “Black Bishop,” “Riverbed,” and “Vengeance.” But the mood wasn’t sustainable for that long, and “Black Bishop” and “Vengeance” ended up being weak enough to warrant excision and revision for the future. I pushed the tracks around and then gave up on the “suite” idea. Inspired by Little Earthquakes and seeking to get more into a record that played up contrasts, I cut up the “—>” segues and put them in weird places, left out a couple others, and put the poppiest track and original first single as the last track.

Chris: Sequencing feels like a musical element that people don’t consider nearly often enough despite how integral it is, so I’m happy to see you go into so much detail. Having gone through that intentionally absurd exercise with the musicological analyses of various pop singles you’ve been doing for Slate, did you find yourself thinking differently about In Conflict at all?

Owen: A little bit, yes. A lot of ‘70s Motown and ‘80s indie (R.E.M., The Smiths) buries its complexity in the guitarness of it. The timbre of guitars naturally obscures the harmonic complexity; you wouldn’t realize how complicated those songs are until you sat down to play them. The academic-ness of those bands’ songs feels natural and graceful. I compare that to my own writing, and I think sometimes I get too deliberate—“Song for Five and Six” is itself a punny title, referring to both the double deceptive V-to-VI cadences in the chord progression, and that the breakdown is a 5/16 riff over a 6/4 loop. Also, the song is about soccer, five players on defence and six on offence—and in the album sequence, it’s track four, so you get the pun “Song four, five and six”—alluding to the denseness of the track—followed by “The secret seven.”

It’s fun, to me, to feel those nubbins in my brainspace, and I get them when listening to Charles Ives or whatever, but I don’t think it’s “good.” It just “is.” I kind of hope people don’t get the impression that the music is fussy, unless they want it to be. If that makes sense? I felt that way with Heartland too, I wanted to make a record with superficial first-listen pleasure that could also be unpacked ad infinitum.

Chris: When you mentioned those maximally dissonant “black notes,” one moving example that came to mind was the DJ Sprinkles ambient-house remix of “Seashore.” A semi-ironically comforting dialogue (sampled from NYPD Blue!) is set off by snippets of creepy and spiteful Gil Scott-Heron homophobia toward drag-ball queens, but not as simple counterpoint—there’s a more insidious sense of discordant wrongness, as if giving voice to internalized self-hatred. DJ Sprinkles/Terre Thaemlitz is trans, a theorist of dance music as well as a producer—my friend Ari said that her work could be summarized by its concern for “those who were left out.” I hear something similar here, an understanding of people stranded outside one category or another.

It’s fun, to me, to feel those nubbins in my brainspace, and I get them when listening to Charles Ives or whatever, but I don’t think it’s “good.” It just “is.”

Owen: “Afraid”—and the whole album, really—is about the liminality of goodbad, gendered-genderless, old-young. Not a two-headed wolf but an image superimposed. “Afraid” finds metaphors for gender dysphoria in my own experience that are meant to be honest, sympathetic, and absurd. I find myself wishing away my violin, but at the same time unable to actually abandon/destroy it—see it as the metaphor for my own maleness, cognizant of the fact that my maleness/cisness disgusts me, but I’m (in my greed) unable to abandon the social and capital privileges that it comes with, nor the genitals and/or sex acts.

I define myself as an ex-smoker, but I am just as quick to have a drag of your cigarette—see it as a metaphor for the same symptom, labelling myself as whatever is honourable, but still sucking the tit of convenience. “Punch a wall”: synonymical for the most impotent expression of rage, fist against unmoveable human construct. “Burn the boxes of your old love letters”: dramatic gesture of “redefinition,” as if history is contained within these records. “To need to see the world as ash”: same thing again—all these acts, and the acknowledgement of my “childlessness,” are meant to embrace and celebrate the very fucking thing of which The Straights accuse Us Queers: bringing about The End Of Civilization.

Pursuant to that, there are a lot of transgressive relationships on this album—the implied “cross-generational” relationships in “Passions” and “Flag”—the seductive evil-eyebrow wiggle on “On A Path,” “silver is nothing more than the displacement of water / it’s a trick of the light on the face of your daughters (and/or your sons),” meant to 100 percent imply that there are respectable men here in this world making money for the specific purpose of having sex with your children. This is not a pederastic theme, of course—“children” in this case suggests a filial relationship, not pre-adolescence— but here I’m hoping to address the taboo of “parenthood” or “family”: it’s a 54-year-old leaving his/her spouse for a 23-year-old and a bag of coke. And it’s something I’ve explored in all my songs as well as my day-to-day life, whether or not describing “confusion” as “my only child” (“The Sea,” 2004), the parent-son-lover relationship with Lewis on Heartland, or the reaction I have when people ask me if I have children (I say yes and load up my Grindr and show photos of shirtless teenagers). You’ve heard me joke that the best way to defeat humanity’s tendencies toward greed is to nip it in the bud: to embrace, celebrate, and fulfill the sexual and emotional needs of the older generation. If we repurposed the army to do nothing but “be the lovers of seniors,” we’d see the collapse of capitalism. (This is the platform that’s gonna get me elected, by the way.)

I’ve gotten way off topic but I was up late last night with a bottle so I’m probably still a little tipsy, just letting it all go :)

Chris: What’s it like touring with Arcade Fire again? Has it changed the way you perform under your own name?

Owen: I love playing with Arcade Fire. For me it’s about giving my self-obsession a bit of a vacation. I like the music, I like the people, and they seem to enjoy having me around both socially and musically. But the important thing for me is the feeling of humility, to be not-invisible but definitely-anonymous. It’s good exercise for me, to be working on a project that requires “subservience.”

Chris: I was struck by the sense of social ossification on “On a Path,” this notion that the early-2000s cultural eruption I guess we still call Torontopia might have cooled into suffocating rock. It’s like, augh, these integral experiences have become inescapable, how do I create new ones again? Plus you’re eating better bagels now.

Owen: I am fine with nostalgia—I don’t think of it as decadent or anything—but at the same time, I don’t tend to get caught up in it, so that is my privilege. I did however start to feel this crushing sense of non-progressiveness around my 14th and 15th years of living in Toronto. On a basic level, living in Toronto is untenable, the city has been fucked by developers and there are no low-income class options for tenants. But those developers have to live with their legacy of shit, which is no small load.

On a personal level, I’d been hearing “when did Torontopia die?” since 2006, I’d seen every other band and cultural micro-movement give up the ghost. Kids two-to-five years younger than me were more into doing coke and dancing to mash-ups than playing music. (Then there was a second wave of music-making kids. Then it was coke and mash-ups again.) In a way, what attracted me to Montreal—aside from the dry winters, the French language, the beauty of the city, the cheaper rent—was that there are so many musicians here that still have the same attitude I had and still have. I’m still up for touring and making albums and flyering and postering, I’m game to stay up til 4 a.m. watching noise bands. I don’t have a mortgage or a car or any kids. There are people here in their 50s and 60s still gigging and loving life.

Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto who has written for The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Comics Journal, Social Text, the Village Voice and the Awl. Along with Carl Wilson and Margaux Williamson, he is one-third of the group blog Back to the World.