Owen Pallett not afraid to explore inner conflict
- Credit: Archant
Perched on the edge of a bench outside Bethnal Green’s Hurwendeki Café – an eatery so trendy I initially walk past, mistaking it for a car garage – Owen Pallett looks tentative.
The dilemma that sits before him was spelled out earlier in a series of typically forthcoming tweets and it makes for a slightly awkward start to our interview.
“I know I come off as precocious or, really, arrogant in written conversation but it’s for a number of reasons,” he’d written this morning. “First: straight-transcribing the conversations of highly social people doesn’t do the subject favours when inflection is lost.
“Second: 12 interviews in one day, which means I’ll have to answer the ‘classical vs. pop positioning’ Q twelve times. Lastly: it’s a lot of pressure to verbally create content for your blog-digestion on the fly, so be kind to my mistakes.”
As the title of the musician’s new record, In Conflict, suggests, this is a man caught between two minds in every sense. His music has become renowned for it – balancing as it does his near-unrivalled skill as a violinist with rich, percussive electronic pop music.
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Furthermore, when asked to reflect on his diverse career, the man formerly known as Final Fantasy seems determined to give thoughtful, eloquent answers, but at the same time he’s apprehensive of how this might reflect in print.
“It’s just that most of the conversations I have about music are verbal and fun and rely on a certain amount of implication and tone of voice.
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“Sometimes I’ll have an animated discussion that doesn’t translate when described, which just makes me nervous and very understanding of pop artists that go through media training.”
The 34-year-old asks for permission to light a cigarette, and holds it politely behind his ear as I say this reminds me of the phrase, ‘‘writing about music is like trying to dance about architecture’’.
“Well actually, I disagree with the statement,” he replies, before nonchalantly adding, “It was Frank Zappa who said that by the way.
“I think music writing is its own genre, it’s often more to do with writing than music and I respect it as an art form. Even now, I think it informs as much of an impression on the way people digest music as the actual response they have to it themselves.”
However they’ve digested it, audiences have certainly taken to Pallett’s weird and wonderful creations. Following the success of his Polaris prize-winning album I Poo Clouds back in 2006, he has even found a kindred spirit with fellow Canadians Arcade Fire.
While touring with the indie behemoths for the majority of last year delayed the release of In Conflict, it also led to a further collaboration with Will Butler when they were asked to compose the music for Spike Jonze’s Her. The result was a soundtrack deemed worth of a nomination at this year’s Oscars ceremony.
“I walked the red carpet and everything, but it was bittersweet,” Pallett sighs. “Award ceremonies like that – they always seem to mean more to family members than the artists themselves. You want to get recognition but those sort of shows rarely seem to affect my ego in a positive way.”
So what does? “Well Brian Eno said he liked my new album. He’d worked on a couple of tracks with me and once we finished, he dropped me an email to say he liked the lyrics. I’ll keep the rest of it private, but it was very sweet and I slept well that night.”
The new album is undoubtedly superb, as his upcoming show at Oval House will attest. Lead single Riverbed is driven by a furious hook as cinematic as anything from his soundtrack work, while On a Path showcases the wordplay that captured Brian Eno’s imagination over an earthy bed of staccato violins.
The climate for Pallett’s music is surely as receptive as it could ever be, with bands like Clean Bandit proving that classical-crossover can top the charts, but you get the feeling he’s paid no mind to the thought. Does he even like their self-labelling as Baroque Pop?
“No, not really, it’s a term that’s been applied to many bands over the years. It’s perhaps an inappropriate analogy after recent events, but I always liked Nick Thorburn from The Island’s answer. When asked to describe his genre, he said it was the sound of a fighter jet crashing into the ocean.”
Perhaps that’s the crux of Pallett – a man whose only real stubbornness comes from an unwillingness to reduce his art to simple, digestible colloquialisms.
Faced with a character like that, it seems a contradictory task to spring the ‘‘classical vs pop positioning’’ question for the twelfth time, so we finish our tea and let the matter drift away into the East London ether.
Owen Pallett plays Oval Space on Wednesday May 21. Visit ovalspace.co.uk