Playing to please

Heartland is the third full length album from Toronto based musician and composer Owen Pallett—but the first to have his own name on the cover. Hitherto, Pallett had released his albums (Has a Good Home, 2005 and He Poos Clouds, 2006 ) and numerous EPs and singles under the bandonym Final Fantasy. But with his audience expanding internationally and the prospect of legal hassles from the company that created and owns the rights to the RPG game Final Fantasy, he now records and perform under his real name.

The album is a finely folded satire of religious obedience presented in a suite of 12 songs. It was recorded over nine months in Reykjavik, Prague and Toronto and is, not surprisingly, a dense listen. It features the Czech Philharmonic but is as modern as the electronics used to execute it. You can even dance to it.

For some of the Canadian dates, he’ll have Alex Lukashevsky playing an opening set. In 2008 Pallett released Plays to Please, a tribute album to the songs of Lukashevsky and his band Deep Dark United where he also worked with an orchestra.

Kevin Hehir reached him on his cell phone while he was running errands during a break from the Heartland tour.

Hello, is this Owen?
Speaking.

This is Kevin Hehir calling from St. John’s.
Hi, how’s it going?

I understand that you just returned from Europe.
Yeah. I played three shows over there. Just London, Paris and Hamburg. They were kind of like little CD release party events.

So how did they go?
They went really well. I mean, the shows were all really wildly different. For the Hamburg show I was opening for Tokotronic, which is kind of the German equivalent of The National, and it was perhaps the worst show I’ve ever played. The audience was not interested and I was not interested in the audience, I guess.

Had you played there before?
Hamburg? Yep, but not since 2005, so it had been a while. But after that, I had some really good shows. In Paris at La Maroquinerie, which is sort of this black box club, and then a really good show in London at Union Chapel, which is the best live venue I’ve ever played at.

Is it actually a chapel?
Yeah, it’s really gigantic and has beautiful, high ceilings. It’s a pretty auspicious venue. Bjork did a concert there with a string quartet for the Post release. Antony [Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons] plays there, lots of people play there.

I noticed that you’re playing three churches on this tour, including here in St. John’s. Do you have any control over the venues you play at?
No. It always changes, and I find that the show is somewhat flexible. When you do a show in a bar, you play things a little quicker and when you do a show in a church, you play things a little slower. It’s more of a sonic consideration than anything, depending on how much reverb is going on in the room.

Because of the high ceilings and the wood?
Yes, exactly. But yeah, it’s nice to have a nice, spiritual show in a church and then contrast that with a raucous, booze-soaked club show.

I was wondering because of the story in Heartland. Lewis rises up to go after his creator. Do you ever worry that you’ll be smote down in a church?
No, I don’t believe in any of that stuff … I think the only good thing to come of that was good architecture. Nice buildings. Good work, believers!

So, about the album itself. Heartland was recorded in at least three places. Were you there for all of the recordings?
Yeah, I was there for all of the recordings. I was executing the whole thing.

How do you keep track of how all the different sounds are going sound together?
It actually drove me crazy a few times, especially after we had tracked the orchestra. I just had so much information, so many takes of strings and winds and percussion and everything to process. It got simpler as it went on because you just have to start small and take care of every placement of all the strings here, and placement of all the winds there, and balance it out. By the end, we just had a nice, 16-channel mixer and we were just sliding the faders up and down and mixing that way. So it was really kind of nice.

So you were learning and getting better at it as went on?
Well, with [2008’s Plays to Please], I had kind of already learned a little bit of what I was getting into, but this one was quite a bit more complicated. Like with the strings themselves, you’re talking about 18 different channels of strings, and there are all these close mics and they’re all over different parts of the room … It was mostly contrasting different micing techniques on different songs when it was appropriate. Because I had so much flexibility with the string ensemble, I really just went for it and took the time to ensure that I was going to get the best sound for every song.

What do you mean by more flexibility?
We had 50 players in a room and 18 mics on them. So there were all sorts of different ways I could mix it, afterwards. On certain songs, I had all the stings panned to one side and then I ran them all through envelope filters to make them sound extremely percussive. With “E is for Estranged” for example, that song goes through about three different mic treatments. It starts off with really distant roomy sound and then gets really quite localized on the first violin. It was both an aesthetic decision and also one just to cut out the shuffling of the people’s feet going on in the cello parts when the violins were taking their solos because I didn’t want to have the spell to be broken. (laughs)

I actually wanted to ask you about your EP Plays to Please, on which you cover six songs by Toronto’s Alex Lukashevsky, who is your opener for a few shows on this tour. How did that record come about?
When we were on tour together [years ago], it was really interesting because he’d be playing all these sets that were totally beautiful, but all these people who didn’t know the songs and didn’t know what he was about, didn’t react all that positively to it. They were like, “who’s this old pervert with a guitar?” When I say old, he’s actually not that old, I think he just turned 39 last week. So, I developed the idea that I was going to cover a whole bunch of his songs in this sort of old Van Dyke Parks-ian style which would almost be both a tribute and a bit of a sabotage (laughs) because I would be presenting his songs in a traditionalist way, which is opposite of how he was typically presenting his own songs.

I don’t know anything about him. Can you tell me who he is?
He’s one of my favourite song writers, if not my favourite songwriter. He’s in this band called Deep Dark United who’ve put out several records on several different labels, one of them being Blocks, the label that put out my Final Fantasy records.

Alex has been on that label for a while, making these amazing records that are kind of like… I don’t know, I can’t really describe him and do him justice. He kind of sounds like an extremely talented poet crossed with a really dirty uncle. But his music never sounds forcedly perverse, it just sounds beautifully … it just sounds beautiful.

It’s the way he presents his songs, too. The songs can be, and sometimes are, performed just by him solo, with a guitar. He kind of half improvises around them in this sort of sloppy, awesome fashion. He just stands up with a nylon string guitar in front of a mic and just plays for rooms of 20 people. And then he has a band which is a whole bunch of heavy, free jazz people, and they will just kind of improvise too, with these really bizarre takes on these songs … So the sensation of listening to any one of his albums, or going to see any one of his shows, is inherently incomplete because you really have to see it five times. Then you realize that you’ve heard five completely different versions of the same beautiful song.

I resisted going online to listen to him before I talked to you.
Well, he’s the sort of person who you really can’t sit down and breeze through. You really have to sit down and absorb what he’s doing and what he’s trying to do and understand that there are going to be a lot of moments where he’s going to piss you off a lot.

Are you happy about how Heartland has been received?
Well, I’ve kind of had no expectations about it. In fact, I feel kind of so far removed from it that any positive or negative response would have been absolutely A-OK.

Do you mean removed time-wise?
No, like emotionally. I don’t feel anything. I’ve been just as entertained by people giving it zero stars and saying, “this guy is a fucking asshole,” as I have been by people who give it ten stars and lavish it with effusive praise. I don’t know. I keep calling it an “it” because that’s what I feel like it is, it’s just an “it”. I don’t think it has actually anything to do with me, it’s just something I spent a year working on, you know? (laughs) The one thing that I’m kind of sad about … (long pause)… I haven’t read a lot of good writing. (laughs again)

About the record?
Yeah. There have been a couple of good zingers I guess, but I haven’t read a lot of good writing about it.

The first thing that came into my head when I first put it on was “bleepy bloopy.”
So you’re guy who wrote that!

No, I haven’t written anything yet.
Oh well, because Thomas Gill (guitarist) was checking his Twitter and someone apparently had said it was “bleepy bloopy”. It must have been somebody else.

I love “bleep bloop.” That’s wonderful.

Have you ever been to Newfoundland before?
No, never.

Any expectations?
None. I’ve seen photos, that’s about it. But, I am really looking forward to coming … I hear there’s a fantastic free jazz scene in St. John’s. My friend Jeremy Strachan (Hylozoists – Feuermusik) was there doing an ethnomusicology degree and he said it was very wonderful.

Do you ever play any fiddle music or folk music or what might be considered traditional music?
A little bit. I did it mostly for money. Which is going to sound really harsh, but it’s kind of how I put myself through university. I was playing mostly Sligo style Irish fiddle but I never really developed a taste for it outside of an occupation. I’m not trying to be belittling, I’m just trying to be honest.

So, I’m going to let you go because it sounds like you’re busy there.
I’m just lining up in a bank…

Owen Pallett plays an all ages show the Cochrane Street United Church on Friday, Febrary 12th. Tickets are 15$, available at Folly and O’Brien’s Music, cash only. Show starts at 8pm.

2 comments

  1. Mightypop Jud · May 27, 2011

    TONIGHT’S SHOW CANCELLED! OR MOVED, which ever way you want to look at it.

    Owen Pallett moved to Tomorrow night (Sat Feb 13) at George St United Church (venue change to note as well). Please help spread the word.

    We regret to inform you that due to fog conditions in St. John’s this afternoon OWEN PALLETT and his crew’s flight could not land and they have been redirected to Halifax. They are not able to get another flight today, but the band REALLY wants to still come to St. John’s, so while tonights show is cancelled. It will now happen tomorrow night – Saturday, February 13th at 8 pm. Please note we’ve also been forced to make a venue change, Saturday’s show will take place at the George St United Church (across from the Delta), not the Cochrane St United Church.

    We understand that not everyone will be able to change their own personal plans at the last minute, so anyone that can not make it to Saturday’s show and would like a refund on their tickets will get one. Please email info@mightypop.ca and let us know how many tickets you need refunded and we’ll make arrangements with you.

    Really sorry for the inconvenience, its been one hectic day. We had the stage and sound gear all moved into the church and sounding perfect. But tomorrow will be great as well – we hope you can come tomorrow night instead.