Home in Toronto between tours, Owen Pallett talks about his musical practice and career -- which includes string arrangements for Grizzly Bear, Pet Shop Boys, Mountain Goats, Arcade Fire and many others -- in a flood of ideas and asides, punctuated with frequent laughter. He's also willing to discuss the technical aspects of his elegant, orchestral pop: His new release, Heartland (Domino), works as an album, an orchestral score and a solo, loop-based polyphonic performance. (It's also his first release since dropping the performance name Final Fantasy.) But on his works themselves and the "political" meaning of what he's doing, he's careful not to say much, citing Star Wars' "The Force" or H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos as examples of conceptual energies lessened by over-explanation.
Was looping a performance style you arrived at through experimenting with other options?
Kind of. I've played in a lot of different bands, both as a sideperson and as frontman, but never was I in a position where I was both singing and playing the violin, largely because, from a technical perspective, it's very difficult to do so -- having to simultaneously play two instruments you need to tune.
It's interesting to me to see how all these different people are pursuing this performance practice, seeing all the variations in their compositional style, and all the different conclusions we can all arrive at, because I feel as if it is really its own sort of genre.
So, there's a compositional style that's grown out of the looping technology?
Yeah. People can look at it and say that it's incredibly limiting. But at the same time, it's the same compositional problem, or whatever you want to call it, that synth-pop musicians in the '80s were dealing with, with 16-step sequencers, and hip-hop producers were dealing with, with the limitations of what you could do with the MPC. I'm really into it. Especially considering in the last 10 years we've seen the top completely blown off prerecorded tracks. Every band uses prerecorded track, basically.
So ... you're not using prerecorded track?
Oh god, no!
I just wanted to be sure.
Are you kidding? I have one song where I have a drum beat that is prerecorded, but I basically wrote it and recorded it to this [Nord keyboard], and by performing it live, I'm trying to make it as forgivable as possible. [Laughs.] It's a tricky thing, it's like Auto-Tune: If you go onstage and there's something prerecorded, people are just going to assume everything was prerecorded.
In a 2005 New York Times article, you said that "If people tell me they like quiet songs, I'll make quiet songs. I feel a bit like a servant."
There is this stream of thought in music writing that tends to put the musician in a point as the caretaker of this experience, or somebody who has something they need to get off their chest. And you even read, at least in Canada, about "Oh my god, making music totally saved my life, and I don't know what I'd do without it," or "This is a song I wrote to get over my divorce," whatever ...
That's only in Canada, actually.
Really? [Laughs.] You fooled me! I am into musicians who have this spark, this urge to really work. But just personally, when I first started doing this project, I had almost given up on making pop music. I had quit all the other bands I was playing in and was working in an office job.
I just had this really submissive attitude toward myself as a musician. I hate to say it, but it continues to this day. I'm not interested in making money; I'm not interested in expressing any of my own personal emotion. I simply try to gauge the reaction of the audience, read about what's happening in the world and try to think about a record that's going to make people happy!
Does it have to do with the extensive work you've done on other people's records -- seeing yourself as a workman?
I've definitely always thought of myself in that way, for better or for worse. I do have a creative impulse, and I want to satisfy myself -- my desire is, from day to day, just "I want to make my violin sound like this sound that I have in my head, and then I want to write a song around it." But everything that follows that [...] after the songwriting process, being a musician really does become work. It is actually hard work.
Owen Pallett 8 p.m. Wed., April 14. The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side. $15. 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org
- Flesh for fantasy: Owen Pallett