The multi-talented musician deconstructs his new album for us, plus talks about pop music and being a traditionalist.
Owen Pallett's a busy man. In the year leading up to his fourth full-length album, In Conflict—released on May 13th through Domino Records—the musician arranged the orchestral pieces for Arcade Fire's Reflektor, contributed his talents to Taylor Swift and Linkin Park, composed the Oscar-nominated score of Spike Jonze's Her with Will Butler, and published a series of articles in which he deconstructed pop songs by Katy Perry and Daft Punk using music theory. His razor-sharp approach to music from a hodgepodge of angles and disciplines has established him as one of the premier maestros of the modern era.
Unlike his past LPs, wherein Pallett created post-modern concept albums (2010's Heartland, for example, focused on the life of an fictional farmer named Lewis, aware of his fictitiousness, and his relationship to a creator named Owen; while past releases were inspired by video games, hence his onetime Final Fantasy moniker), In Conflict includes more personal lyrics and themes that make the artist feel "sort of naked." The first track of the new record, for example, includes the note, "I'll never have children, I'd bear them and eat them."
Though he isn't keen on analyzing his lyrics during interviews—"That’s kind of like talking about the color of my crap," he recently said—Pallett spoke in depth with The Creators Project about his songwriting process in our new documentary on the making of In Conflict. In our interview, he also detailed the development of his live show with a full band, and elaborated his views on pop criticism and waxed poetic on what's actually retro in music today. Though the jack-of-all-music-trades is so articulate we probably coul dhave re-published our whole interview transcript and called it a day, for your convenience, we broke our conversation down into focus points.
On The Making Of In Conflict
When asked about the biggest departure from his last album, Heartland, Pallett explained, (in typical recording expert fashion) that, "We mixed the vocals higher. I know it doesn’t sound like a big deal, but people in other interviews have mentioned things like 'Oh, you sound so confident' or 'The lyrics sound more direct.' And I’m like, 'Well, yeah, we mixed the vocals higher.' These are all symptoms of that."
He noted that his mixing engineers have always pressured him to raise the vocals, and when he finally conceded this time, it resulted in the album being, "More difficult for me to listen to. I feel a little more sort of naked."
Pallett also added that he approached the recording process in a "retro-futuristic" manner, "a very kind of dated method." He and his bandmates, including Robbie Gordon and Matt Smith, recorded it in an analog studio to tape with no click tracks. "We were trying to use older tools to make a record that hopefully will sound very now, and very 2014, but could just as easily have been made in the early '70s," he said.
To enhance the 70s-meets-present feel, legendary experimentalist (and Pallett's sonic forebearer) Brian Eno lent his contributions to In Conflict—an addition Pallett described as "very transformative." They collaborated remotely, but Pallett said Eno's work "really changed the songs in one way or another."
On Playing The Album Live
For those who haven't seen Pallett's live show, it can be a serious tour de force. Though he mostly stands in place on stage, his practice of building multilayered soundscapes from scratch with a loop pedal gives the impression that he's moving all over the venue, performing as every member of an imaginary string section. It only helps that he uses a six-channel looping rig to make it sound like his violin is flying all around the room.
After practicing with Gordon and Smith, Pallett noted the trio was having trouble wrapping their heads around how they'd translate the album live without using Ableton or in-ear monitors. "We were really trying to keep something that felt unhinged and human and alive," he said.
"The goal with the looping show is that I want the process to be transparent to the fans. It’s important to me to not have any pre-recorded material, aside from some samples or whatever I loaded onto my keyboard. It’s important because I really want the audience to feel as if there’s the thrill of creation and that they’re a part of it. So for me to describe it to you is kind of like, it’s a failure."
For the mindful musician, this isn't the only type of failure inherent to his live shows. "The most important part of a good performance is that there's an element of humiliation involved," he added. Even if he has to restart the looping routine mid-song, to Pallett, making mistakes is its "own form of a reward."
On Pop Music Analysis
If you haven't read either of Pallett's critical breakdowns of Katy Perry or Daft Punk, you need to bookmark those tabs right now. The brainy-but-accessible analyzes (which we once compared to Chilly Gonzalez's own "Get Lucky" deconstructions) prove that more musicians should actually write music criticism. Or at least Pallett should on a regular basis. Whether he's describing a chorus as "a climax of ecstatic melodic copulation" or comparing an ambiguous key center to the Kinsey Scale, Pallett is both informed and hilarious. In our interview he continued to talk pop for us.
When asked about the dichotomy between mainstream radio hits and classical music, he said, "For many years, I used to say that there was no division. I would even scream it, you know: There’s no difference between pop music and classical music! But I’m starting to realize that I’ve been wrong, that there is a difference, but the difference is in the minds of listeners, and in the minds of academics. From a musical or creator’s perspective, there’s no difference."
"People are accusing me and other people of having this ironic appreciation of pop music when we talk about it with academic terms, but the real root of the irony is people who draw these barriers, these boundaries that you’re talking about and seek to shut out more commercially-minded music for somehow being less authentic or something. That’s never been the case to my music listening. I'm interested in is it a successful piece of pop music, not is pop music stupid."
On Being A Traditionalist In Music
Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange, once said "I don't want to be that loop pedal guy..." implying that the technique was bit tired in 2014. Though the practice has been played out over the years—which Pallett acknowledges—few musicians make it into an art form that sounds both fresh and refurbished quite like him.
"Over time, it kind of changed where violin looping fit into the music world," Pallet told us. "For a period in the late 2000s, it seemed that every band was a looping band. And it kind of felt dated and wrong. Now in 2014, it feels like it’s taken on this other role. It’s so intensely performative and 90 percent of bands that are on stage now are playing to click or playing to backing tracks, which feels like very, very strange and alien."
In regards to technological advancements in music, Pallett said he's a bit of a "backwards-looking" traditionalist. He has a preference for the sound of analog recordings, plus "cymbals hitting tape, the retention of all the presence, the high-frequency." Since he frequently incorporates drum kits on his recorded albums, he says he's "trying to actually stay away from the cutting edge of digital."
Pallett also told us he's always down to try a new pedal or plug-in, but "generally, if it doesn't sound like something that could have existed 30 years ago, then I'm not that interested. My ears are interested in things that are timeless."
Photo by Mark Lawson