Owen Pallett has never met a dichotomy he doesnt love. As Final Fantasy, hes a solo performer who sounds like a symphony. His music is pristine, beautiful and scarred with ugliness and shouting. Hes a virtuoso who prefers music made by amateurs. His favourite writers combine gay romanticism and fascism. He covers both Joanna Newsom and Mariah Carey. And Pallett himself is a perfectly endearing balance of brash and bashful, a charismatic combo that could sell you even the most daring ideas through his music.
In the five years since he joined his first pop band, the Hidden Cameras, Pallett has been propelled into the role of MVP in the current state of Torontos music scene. At one point he was in eight bands, and his string arrangements adorned many of the citys finest recordings, particularly Jim Guthries Now More Than Ever. That landed him a job with the Arcade Fire, and we all know how that gig turned out. In the meantime, Pallett has been integral in building the Blocks Recording Club, a non-profit workers co-op that epitomises the idealism and DIY spirit in the scene known as "Torontopia.
With characteristic irreverence, the new Final Fantasy disc is called He Poos Clouds. Its a funnier way of saying "the sun shines out of his ass. Listening to one of his more prominent employers rave about him, the title might well be autobiographical.
"I think Owen is a musical genius, says Stuart McLean, without reservation. In 2004, McLean was so struck by an early Final Fantasy performance that he hired Pallett to work for his Vinyl Café, the most popular program on CBC Radio a show whose musical taste is considerably more conservative than Palletts other project at the time, the abrasively abstract art rock band Les Mouches. Final Fantasys first tour experiences were on a Vinyl Café trek playing to the 40-plus demographic in northern British Columbia. "Some nights you could just feel the audience erupting with joy, McLean says slowly, relishing the memory. "They had never seen anything like that, and it was one big collective wow. There were moments of transcendence, when it becomes a moment out of time.
Palletts performance achieves that transcendence by layering and looping individual violin sounds, both melodies and percussion, until they ravel a tapestry of orchestral grandeur that seems absurd stemming from one performer. Layered loops themselves might be a bit old hat by now. But combined with Palletts complex constructions shifting time signatures underneath long-form melodic motifs and an advanced sense of harmony the looping is less a gimmick than a means to an end, in order to give the songs the orchestration they deserve. These arent three-chord songs in four-bar patterns, though they definitely function as pop.
Richard Reed Parry, of Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre, says, "I think He Poos Clouds is the most impressive amalgamation of the modern classical world and art/pop music that actually reaches far on both sides of the equation. Other pop records borrow technique and aesthetics from the classical world, but Owens new record is a real modern classical record: the arrangements, the writing, the recording and the overall realisation of the whole thing. I dont know anything else like that.
There are ten songs on He Poos Clouds, and eight of them represent the schools of magic outlined in Dungeons & Dragons guidebooks. Pallett explains, "In the order they appear on the album, they are: abduration, illusion, conjuration, necromancy, enchantment, evocation, divination and transmutation. One of the remaining two songs is a short transition, the other is an epilogue where a character asks the "reedy-voiced singer, "Why are all your songs about the things that dont exist?
Palletts ex-roommate and Blocks cohort Steve Kado, says, "It actually is about the schools of magic, but its also about normal people. His analogy for divination is the Freedom 55 ads. He thinks divination is meeting yourself in the future, and what your future self says is invest. The transmutation song is about plastic surgery. Conjuration is represented by an impotent Toronto condo developer and his "erections a metaphor for both his personal failures and public "pillages.
Contrary to appearance, Pallett isnt big into role-playing games. He just reads the books. "I find them really interesting from an anthropological perspective, he says. "Its a new system of belief thats entirely fictional and yet so resolute in its ability to simplify the entire workings of the universe with the roll of dice. My argument is and this is the reason for the existence of this record that though [D&D] was created strictly for entertainment purposes, it does fill a mental need that a lot of people who do not have an actual system of beliefs require. Im not trying to stereotype D&D players as godless atheists, but come on, D&D isnt played by most church groups.
Pallett is a godless atheist himself, a queer one at that, and considers it "the most taxing of all the religions. "You have to develop your own moral ideas and a way of existing. You have to have some sort of a reason for living. You cannot tell me that music has not become its own form of religion for a music geek. Essentially its religious zealotry, because these people dont have god in their lives. Which I think is a good thing, because its far better to have wars over stuff like music.
On the subject of art and zealotry, the new song "Im Afraid of Japan was inspired by the writings of Yukio Mishima, whom Pallett says is a spectre hanging over his own writing. Once one of Japans best loved novelists, Mishima was a walking contradiction: a romantic, gay writer who was also a fascist that committed suicide after trying to stage a military coup in Japan in 1970. "His books are all about abstract notions that are convincing when you read it, but its all the groundwork for fascism, Pallett explains with vigour. "I think Mishima is both overappreciated and underappreciated. Underappreciated in that not enough people in the West read him, and overappreciated in that the most interesting aspect of him is that he was a murderer. He was responsible for the deaths of two men in the end, as well as his own life. He was a violent, awful guy, with a lot of misguided political ideas. His political ideas and his literary career go hand in hand.
"In that song, Im making fun of his concept of suicide and the idea of a glorious death. Here is Mishima, who had this love/hate relationship with Buddhism all his life. He had just spent eight years of his life writing a testament to Buddhism [in a four-volume novel about reincarnation, concluded on the day of his death]. Then at the end, he writes [the equivalent of] Actually, all of this is shit and I dont believe it and then killed himself. It says to me that the thoughts going around in his head were hilarious. I spent so much time on that song trying to work into every word the feelings I have for Mishima.
Pallett finds equally morbid and amusing parallels between Mishima and one of his other idols, Morrissey. "In my head they are two figures who are tied together in some way, these incredibly talented but malevolent forces. The actual function of both of their writing is something very negative and destructive. The question is whether its necessary or not. To my mind theres no disputing that Mishima is the greatest author of the 20th century, and to me Morrissey is probably the most interesting figure in pop music of the last 30 years. There are so many different sides to what theyre writing about. Its like believing in a lie, basically. Life is not that tragic or dramatic. It would be wonderful if it was, but the way Mishima writes, he over-philosophises and applies meaning to so many things that are inconsequential.
Final Fantasy material is a mix of the playful and serious, often simultaneously. Even "Im Afraid of Japan is a joke, albeit a morbid one. "Its interesting that people dont find Owen that ironic a person, says Steve Kado. "Because its such lush and cerebral music, they assume its about him or real human feelings. When actually, its about really dumb stuff, and perceiving normal things in funny ways. In that respect its much less of a serious thing than [Blocks bands] Barcelona Pavilion or Ninja High School or all these bands that are assumed to be jokes all of whom sing about real factual things. Because Final Fantasy locks down the signifiers necessary for its reading as emotional music, people dont question whether it is or not.
Final Fantasys first album, Has a Good Home, was recorded in a rushed six-day session and released two days after Pallett began touring with the Arcade Fire in January 2005. Final Fantasys set met a rapturous response, selling hundreds of CDs in the process and causing a major panic back home at Blocks HQ. After an initial run of 500, Has a Good Home went on to sell approximately 7,000 copies.
Pallett recalls, "When Has a Good Home was finished, Steve and I were listening to it and I said, This will sell lots of copies! Blocks will make money! To me, it was less of a pompous statement than it was a recognition that the Arcade Fire were going to blow up, because Steve and I knew that from day one. We thought we might sell 2,000 copies of the record instead of 200. But it went out of control, and Blocks wasnt able to take it. There were times when I would come over to Steves place with a cheque, and hed say, Oh, man, youre totally killing me. Id say, What are you talking about, Im giving you money here! Hed say, Youre ruining my life!
Pallett rejoins the Arcade Fire in July to record the follow-up to Funeral, in between Final Fantasy tours. Having witnessed their stratospheric success first-hand, he says, "Ill just say that Ill be very happy if I never sell more than 10,000 copies of any record. Id be very happy if I only sold 500 copies of every record I made for the rest of my life. Anything more than that is like a bell curve. I dont know where the magic number is, but I definitely do not want to be expected to sell a million copies, which is the position theyre in now. They seem to be handling it pretty well.
Yet from day one, Final Fantasys sole intention was to please other people more than Pallett himself. "It was definitely made with the idea of it being popular, says Steve Kado. "Its horribly manipulative. He later defined it as public service.
"It was a total placating manoeuvre! Pallett admits. "I dont want it to sound like Im calling Final Fantasy fans idiots or something, because I dont feel that way. Its just that my personal taste does not include Has A Good Home. Im really happy that some people are into it, but it was written specifically with Vinyl Café in mind.
Thats fine with Stuart McLean, who says, "Owen is a true artist. A craftsman repeats him or herself over and over trying to perfect the craft. But an artist shifts and moves and is restless. I think Owen has the restlessness of the true artist.
But what will the Vinyl Café crowd think of a record called He Poos Clouds? "I havent thought of that, says Owen. "I made the first record for them to be happy about. This is the record Im happy with. This might sound arrogant or whatever, but I put a lot of work into the record and Im really proud of the results. Some people are going to hate it, and I cant wait to receive that hatred! But others are really going to like it. Im waiting with bated breath to find out what people think of it, because I think its awesome.
And in case that comes off too strong, he immediately defers to his community. "My biggest hope is that people who get into Final Fantasy will subsequently become fans of Deep Dark United and Hank and SS Cardiacs because I think Blocks has the best catalogue ever of any label in the world! Im serious! Three Gut had a very good roster with less than 20 releases, and Rough Trade had a good period in the 80s with maybe the best run of records ever. There are lots of great labels around the world, but I think every band on Blocks is totally wonderful.
He Did Start the Fire
In December 2004, as they were quickly becoming the biggest buzz in the underground, the Arcade Fire invited Owen Pallett to open their winter tour of the U.S. "We had done a full-scale U.S. tour, and it was a bit insane to have two local opening bands every night, says bassist Richard Reed Parry. "It was often lousy. We thought we should bring someone on tour with us who did something exciting that connects with our show, not just some random rock music in a bar.
In April 04, Parrys other band, Bell Orchestre, had been invited to open the Toronto CD release show for Palletts previous band, Les Mouches. "That was one of my favourite shows Id ever seen ever, of any band, Parry enthuses. Les Mouches then opened two shows for Arcade Fire, and Owen told them about his new solo project. They invited him to open their tour and join the band, without ever hearing a note of Final Fantasy until he took the stage the first night.
"It was amazing from the get-go, says Parry. "Hed have the audience spellbound when nobody knew who he was, just him and his little violin, shrieking. I watched his whole set every single night of the tour. Hed go out and do his weird songs in Dallas, in a bar full of drunken Texans, and skinny Owen would have them eating out of the palm of his hand. Watching him do that every night was a real kick. People who dont even listen to lyrics loved the beauty of it and virtuosity of it. It makes this impact regardless of what kind of art you like or what the songs are about.
When you spend the majority of the year on tour with your own project and the biggest indie band in the world, how do you maintain your role in a workers co-op masquerading as a record label? Blocks Recording Club main-man Steve Kado explains, "When Blocks began and we were living together, Owen made stuff, planned stuff and organised things. Lately, Owens been on tour a lot. He does a lot of ambassador work for us, which I consider to be totally valuable. When hes back he does a lot of folding [of Blocks trademark hand-assembled CDs], because it doesnt require any long-term commitment. Owen quite conscientiously always pulls his weight, which is quite admirable, because he could just say, Shut up, Im paying the bills. Because he is paying the bills thats the other thing he does at Blocks!