Stand and deliver
Final Fantasy may be no more, but if Owen Pallet’s new project – a concept album about a farmer called Lewis and a deity called Owen – is anything to go by, the imagination remains in full flow. He talks to Jim Carroll
OWEN PALLETT is fast asleep on a sofa in the dressing-room. For the last couple of days, the Canadian musician has been racing across Europe on trains and planes and now, backstage at the Union Chapel in London, the travelling has caught up with him. It seems a shame to disturb him, but there is another interview to be done so the tour manager gently shakes him awake.
All jangled limbs and sharp glasses, Pallett has been an ubiquitous presence of late in the Venn diagram connecting indie rock and classical music. If you’ve heard a particular kind of big music, one with plump strings and exuberently trimmed brass, chances are Pallett’s fingerprints can be found near the scene. He’s worked with Arcade Fire, The Last Shadow Puppets, Beirut, Pet Shop Boys, Rumble Strips and Mika, lending each an orchestral splash and dash.
When he last spoke to The Ticket in 2006, Pallett described himself as a “whore” in this regard – he’d basically work with anyone who’d have him. Now, though, he’s acutely aware of spreading himself too thin and becoming a formulaic add-on to a project in need of a credible name.
“I love working on collaborations, but I did begin to get a little disenchanted with stuff,” he admits. “I found myself wishing that there weren’t those strings on that song or that brass on that track.
“I kept saying yes to everyone, though, because so many of the projects were exciting, but I realised it was taking me away from my own work. Eventually, I started saying no. I think I just want to spend a couple of years working on my own stuff. I can go back to other people’s records when I’m 50.”
The fruits of Pallett’s most recent labours can be found on Heartland. Not only is it the orchestral pop album of the season, but it is also the only concept album you will find on the shelf about a farmer called Lewis, a deity called Owen and sundry adventures in the imaginary world of Spectrum.
Regardless of the narrative which stitches the songs together, Heartland has ambition, panache and truly fabulous melodies in its riggings. It’s Pallett’s third solo album, but the first under his own name. Previous releases, such as the He Poos Clouds song cycle about Dungeons and Dragons, were under the name Final Fantasy – until legal eagles representing the videogame series of the same name intervened.
“This record was meant to be a Final Fanta- new album much more than he might have done.
“Because releasing under my own name is so new, I’ve become quite self-obsessed about it. I mean, I’ve been looking at reviews for the album and the English reviewers are shitting all over it. Everywhere else, the reviews are so positive – the Japanese reviews are insane. But that response brings home to me the importance that every record I do has to be contexualised in the right way.”
When Pallett first started making music, it was as a reaction against what he heard around him at the time. “One of the main inspirations that got me into music was those post-rock bands who were around in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I suppose it was a negative inspiration as opposed to a positive one because I was listening to those bands, getting angry and realising I wanted to bring something else to the table.”
Pallett is a little caustic about the pop/classical crossover which has pushed composers such as him and Nico Muhly to the fore. He can’t ignore it – indeed, Muhly has just wandered into the room with fellow support acts Sam Amidon and Beth Orton – but he wondeers if it’s just another fad. “I’ve noticed a lot of people talking more about this pop/classical crossover as if the violin had completely disappeared for a few years.”
But he knows that the current pop/classical bump is a boon for smart musicians like him. “The internet opened everything up because suddenly people could hear you talk about someone and go away and check it out themselves,” he believes. “Who would have imagined that someone like Nico would get to make albums or tour the world?”
That certainly wasn’t the career path presented to Pallett when he enrolled for a music composition degree in the University of Toronto. “On the very first day in college, my compositional teacher told the entire class that there were too many composers in the world and that there needed to be fewer composers and that he was going to fail the class until there were less than 10 of us left.
It took trips beyond Toronto to energise Pallett. “It was so amazing to go to New York and experience something like Bang On A Can where you didn’t hear a single note that wasn’t futurist. It was the first time that I realised music was vitally important. That was not how I was taught and it made me sad because I knew so many people back in Toronto who were discouraged by what they had to do there. “When I look back now, I realise it would have been much more inspirational for me to be in an environment where I was surrounded by good music and which was not so desperate. I wouldn’t have wasted my early 20s.”
He has certainly made up for lost time. Yet for someone who has worked so much and collaborated so often, Pallett admits he could quite happily go away and do something else.
“To be honest, I have no drive. I’m really excited to do more albums, but I quit making music when I was 24 and got a desk job for a year as a programmer at CBC studios and quite enjoyed it. But somehow Final Fantasy became really popular and all of a sudden, I felt I ought to pursue this. And I’ve been pursuing it to the best of my abilities ever since. But I’m just as happy to quit and do something else.”
Lone ranger: Owen Pallett, 2010. Below: in his Final Fantasy days