Interview: Potty-mouthed Violinist Owen Pallett on "Bro Music," Sexuality and His Career


Owen Pallett, performing live. - DAVID WALDMAN
  • David Waldman
  • Owen Pallett, performing live.

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.

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. "Lewis Takes Off His Shirt" You're coming to St. Louis opening for The National. Do you have expectations about the crowd response? We haven't played together much, but I've known the National guys for years. We've been talking about touring together for a long time and our schedules inhibited us. I don't know what to expect though; I'm always sort of hesitant about touring with people that make bro music. That isn't a dis, because I personally love bro music.

Hold up. Are you saying the National is "bro music?!" If you meet them, they're not bros. They're sweet, sensitive people who are interested in approaching music from unique angles. But they're approaching the status of a mainstream band. Whenever you're this skinny fag opening for some mainstream band there's some feeling that people are thinking, "This is pretty gay." There's just a part of me that gets nervous about that.

I never would have associated that fear with a band like the National. I don't want to get myself in any kind of trouble. I don't want to draw a line in the sand. I have a lot of heterosexual fans, but I am very aware that the music I play could turn heterosexual men off. Take PJ Harvey. Straight men probably just think she's some crazy bitch. They can listen to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, which is the same thing, but he's a dude. Heterosexual men are a hard market to reach if you're not a heterosexual man. I've seen it firsthand opening for Bloc Party. I'd get on stage with just a violin and some shows were great, but others went off like a fart in a sleeping bag. Dudes just listen to music differently.

Most of my headlining shows, the audience are women and fags. Very attractive women and fags. Opening for the National, I know that there are going to be people who don't get it. I'm not trying to defuse actual criticisms of my music as being some sort of cultural war. There are a lot of straight men out there who don't like my music because they think it sucks. But it's hard for homosexual men to appeal to heterosexuals without keeping their orientation in the dark, just like it's hard for women to appeal to straight men without sexualizing themselves and going the Katy Perry route. I don't know how gay women can appeal to straight men. I was listening to Tegan and Sara the other day and thinking, "They're so amazing, but this has to be so hard for them."

It's complicated, because if somebody can't relate culturally they could have difficulty relating musically. It's hard for me to talk about it without coming off like I'm making assumptions about heterosexual men. Sometimes I just feel like I'm some scared kid at a Guided By Voices show surrounded by all these straight dudes who are moshing and scuffing up my blue Pumas. Which, by the way, is exactly what happened to me when I was sixteen.

Do you think people make more assumptions about you personally since you ditched the Final Fantasy moniker and started performing as Owen Pallett? I never really felt -- and still don't really feel -- that what I am doing musically is linked to my own persona. Which isn't to say that I feel like it's an act, but I don't think of it as being me. Take Morrissey for example. You think everything coming out of this person's mouth is a direct Amtrak to his heart. If he performed under a name like the Warmongers, it wouldn't be the same. If the Warmongers sang, "Chinese people are animals," you wouldn't think much of it but if Morrissey sang the same thing you'd think he was a racist.

Do you feel more responsible for your content by directly associating the music with your name? Not really. I'm not trying to say I'm disingenuous, but my music doesn't really come out of self examination. It's more like commentary about what's going on around me masquerading as self examination. Plus I don't think I'm a bad person, but I kind of make myself the bad guy in my songs. You know, like Randy Newman.

Then what inspired the name change? People already referred to Final Fantasy as Owen Pallett, just because of the un-Google-able-ness of the name. I couldn't exactly pick up and change my name from Final Fantasy to Deer Swan or Fly Lord. It just made sense, and it certainly wasn't an aesthetic concern. People said it was a bad band name. I disagree. It wasn't intended to press the nostalgia button. It was supposed to evoke the nerdiness and romantic aspect of what the name implies. I may be talking out of my ass here, but I think the Final Fantasy franchise is the most financially successful cultural endeavor of our time - it's made more money than anything except Harry Potter. And because of the copyright infringement thing, it was supposed to be a little bit of a fuck you, a finger flying in the way of the establishment.

I think some people would be surprised at how potty mouthed you are. They shouldn't be. I don't know why I can't say shit and hell and damn and fart and booger without people thinking I'm a scatological child.

Maybe an album called He Poos Clouds just caught people off guard. It felt very natural. I thought it had a sweet innocence about it, but I think everybody has their own approximation. It kind of comes back to that disconnect I have with hetero males, which I completely understand. If I was a straight dude and I paid 40 bucks to see my favorite band, I wouldn't want some fruit with a violin singing about buttholes and shit. Not that I have any songs about buttholes, but you know what I mean.


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