Final Fantasy: Interview
Making the Menial Seem Magical
Owen Pallett will tell you he's kind of a nerdy
guy. He likes to play video games and role-playing games. But he's best known as
the man behind Final Fantasy, his solo+ band for exploring the world through
looped-violin chamber pop. Already a veteran of Toronto's virile music scene,
Owen's credits include the always-mentioned string arrangements for The Hidden
Cameras and The Arcade Fire, but that résumé still doesn't really prepare you
for the hauntingly evocative beauty of Final Fantasy.
After the dissolution of agit-noise group Les Mouches, Owen Pallett began
messing around with his violin and a loop pedal. Before he knew what-was-what,
Final Fantasy was invited to open for the aforementioned The Arcade Fire. The
collection of songs that would become his debut album, Final Fantasy Has A
Good Home, were hastily written and recorded in the span of two weeks. He
spent the next year taking his captivating solo show around North America and
Europe before returning home to Toronto to contemplate his next move.
While his first album was largely just Owen and a loop pedal, for the second
album, Final Fantasy swelled to a quartet. Drawing inspiration from the magical
realms of Dungeons & Dragons, Owen sought to bring that glimpse of a fantastical
world to the realm of everyday life. He wanted to dispel the romanticism of
death by providing an alternate version of the escapist fantasy.
Final Fantasy's new album, He Poos Clouds, will be released May 28 on
Tomlab. Owen spoke to Tiny Mix Tapes shortly before he left for his European
tour, sharing his perspective on atheist nerds, the sad state of contemporary
classical music, and the Bad Band Revolution.
how's it going?
Good. I'm just here on the internet, looking up truffles. Which isn't to imply
that I can just throw my money away purchasing truffles but I was just kind of
What do you use those for?
Nothing, I'm just kind of curious. I'm really interested in like looking at a
recipe that requires really expensive ingredients and figuring out a way of
approximating it. Like for example foie gras you can make a pretty feasible
duplicate by preparing some chicken liver and adding it to a duck confit, and
then making the duck confit with some chicken liver as well, and the result is
entirely unlike foie gras but kind of a nice substitution for it, minus the
expense and the cruelty.
Are you into cooking?
other interesting hobbies, besides playing music?
Umm.... Roller skating? Video games, I play lots of video games. I read a lot. I
play sports. That's honestly all I do.
What is it
about Toronto that leads to such prolific band-forming?
Have you heard of the Bad Band Revolution?
I may be the first person to tell you about it and I certainly don't take credit
for it, itself, although I think it's sort of a distillation of what us bands in
Toronto have been sort of going for in the last three years or so. What it is is
a desire for freewheeling experimentation over careerism. Which has been sort of
parsed and extrapolated upon to include bands that have non-musical concepts
involved, I mean, a lot of people have said a lot of different things about it.
It's essentially that there's respect for music in all its different forms, and
as soon as you have that respect then you have these audiences with really open
ears and musicians with really odd transparent skin, like you can just say
anything to them, and any criticisms you can lay on them and they'll just be
totally fine with it. And so there's just been a lot of bands that realized that
great albums are made in days and great songs are written in minutes, so, you
know, fuck it. We're just going to make music as fast as we can. So if you want
to read up about Bad Band Revolution
just do a search for it with that in quotes and you'll find a lot of stuff on
it, because it's kind of a distillation of what's been going on in Toronto for
the last three years and it's just achieved a manifesto form by this woman
named Kat Collins-Gligorijevic, who's the wife of Matt Collins, the frontperson
of Ninja High School, and Kat herself is a member of Barcelona Pavilion, which
is the first band on my label, Blocks. Anyway, I feel like it's finally codified
what makes Toronto
Toronto. I've been asked a lot of questions like, "What is it that makes
Montreal and Toronto so distant?" and it's like, well, aside from the fact that
there's a lot of music going on in both cities there's really nothing going on.
When people talk about Toronto music they talk about, outside of like Broken
Social Scene, like most of the bands they talk about being from Toronto are a
bunch of bands with no, you know, careerist aspirations. This includes myself.
And who are just having fun. And Montreal doesn't have much of that, or even any
of it. I'm not saying one's better than the other, it's just like a feature of
the music that's made here, there's a lot of crap that's being made here,
because we like crap.
But at the
same time I think one of the characteristics about Final Fantasy is that it
sounds very refined, and it's got that sort of composed quality to it. Are you
anti-refinement or anything?
For the longest time I was. My favorite band of all time is US Maple, and
they're like just the most unrefined band of brash jerks. I think their music is
the best, the best music that's ever been made in the pop music medium, and for
a while I tried to figure it out, and tried to emulate it, but I realized that's
just not the sort of person I am, so I kind of went the other way and tried to
make music that was overly orchestrated, like to the point where it was almost
ridiculous and tacky.
"With the He Poos Clouds
stuff, I tried to take these ways that [nerds] codified their magic and the
different forms of magic that exist… and I thought to myself that you could use
that same sort of thing to codify a lot of menial tasks."
Do you think it's easier to
arrange string parts for other people's music or to write your own songs?
easier to do it for other people's.
So how would
you describe your work process?
It depends. I usually just play on the violin a lot. I'm pretty good at
stealing, I get a lot of inspiration from other people's songs, and I rip them
off in a way that to me is pretty bogus, but you'd never ever guess it. That's
basically what most of my compositional style has been, is just ripping other
people off, so I've gotten just pretty good at concealing it. There's this one
song I have that's like a note for note rip off of about five different songs
all at the same time. That's it.
One of the
things that I thought was so exciting about your solo shows was watching you
build up these textured, intricate songs just using a loop pedal. Are you not
going to do that any more now that you've got this string quartet setting?
No, I'm going to keep doing it. There was a while when I got really excited
about playing with a string quartet and I had these big ideas and these big
plans, and I thought, 'Oh, we'll tour around the world with this string quartet,
and I'll play violin and sing and stuff.' Of course I'm just not that good as a
song writer to really pull that off, and to lose the gimmick of what makes the
solo shows so nice, it would be shooting myself in the foot. I'm just being
brutally honest here, the songs aren't good enough to go around with a string
quartet and just play them.
I don't know, I think the songs on the new album utilize the quartet setting in
a pretty exciting way, especially texturally...
Oh no no no, on record it's something totally different. You can get away with
anything on a record. But for a live show its like, if you're going to expect
people to sit through a dozen songs that are just string quartet and singing, or
string quartet and harpsichord and singing, you're asking a lot. Like nobody
could do it, like Buell [Neidlinger] couldn't do it, like Brian Wilson couldn't
do it, come one. I dare anybody to come up with a pop act that is going to hold
the attention of a typical rock show attending audience, that could maintain the
attention of one of those audiences with just a string quartet, I mean Rasputina
can't do it,
can't do it...
So you don't see yourself trying to bring together the indie rock scene and like
the chamber music scene?
No, I don't like the idea of fusion at all. I think if you want to do
something... like a crossover project, to me, just sounds like watering down two
things and putting them together. So I had that idea for a long time, that I was
going to try to reconcile like, from an academic standpoint... Like when I was
in school I was really interested in pop music and none of my teachers got it.
All my teacher would be teaching "post-modernity," like in quotations. But they
did not understand how the sort of philosophical ideas of post-modernity made
not only pop-music acceptable for academic analysis, but necessary for academic
analysis. I think as soon as John Cage came along, and said the things he said
and wrote the things he wrote, all of a sudden it's like after that moment pop
music became much more relevant for posterity's sake than classical music. And
in the academic world, especially the academic music world, because you
certainly don't see Cage in semiotics programs and literature programs and art
history programs, people do not see John Cage this way, but if you go to a North
American school and they teach about John Cage they're going to laugh and tell
you about his dice-rolling tricks and stuff like that, which is bullshit. So, I
kind of gave up on trying to reconcile these two things because when I was in
school it just seemed like kind of a futile maneuver. Because classical music is
fucked right now and there's a lot of amazing composers working in that field,
and I think that if any of them were to turn to writing pop music with the
training that they have that immediately you'd find great bands. It's kind of
mind blowing that all the best bands out there right now are actually classical
musicians who have started to play pop music. Specifically classical composers,
like Damon Albarn, go back and listen to all your Brit-pop records and see which
are your favorites, because I guarantee you that there are at least three Blur
records that are
fantastic. And Damon Alburn is a classical composer, classically trained. Same
So do you think there's a problem with the consumption of classical music? Like
classical music tends to be best enjoyed in like a live setting, in a concert
hall, whereas most pop music is consumed as a recorded medium and that doesn't
translate as well to classical music?
Umm, it depends exactly what you're talking about right now. Because when you
say classical music I think you're thinking of like old classical music, but I
say classical music I'm talking about what's being written now. I don't really
think of old classical music as being relevant today. I think it's nice, and
pleasant to listen to from sort of an anthropological perspective, and you can
get some genuine inspiration and enjoyment from it, but I don't think, when I'm
writing music I'm not thinking about Chopin. Like it's great, it's totally
worthwhile, but I'm mostly trying to think about how new music exists nowadays,
and how pop music exists nowadays. So yeah, classical music and the way they
present it comes from a long history of live performance only, no recorded
medium. But before there were pop music recordings there were classical music
recordings, it was all the music schools that had access to the equipment and
stuff. I just think that pop music has leapt ahead, and is light years ahead in
achieving things sonically than what classical composers will allow themselves.
But anyways, in terms of cross-pollination I don't think that it really exists,
like would you believe it, there's a new piece by [Cristos Satpiece], who's this
lefty Toronto composer, he uses a rap singer, like there's a guy doing rap. And
there's a gospel choir. And it's like a piece of classical music with a
Does it work?
Look, I don't even need to hear it. I know it's not going to work. Like a rap
singer?! I'm quoting you exactly what it says. "It's a symphonic performance
with a rap singer." Like I don't even think the best rapper in the world could
pull it off in front of an orchestra, even with the best orchestrator and the
best hip hop artist or whoever could pull it off with an orchestra, it just
would not work, it would be shitty, you know. Cross-pollination just doesn't
work like that. So anyways, that's just my two cents on that whole thing.
"I just feel it's better to
cast your eyes downward than to put on makeup."
I know you studied opera
composition in school. Do you ever see yourself returning to opera?
Have you ever
been asked to score a film or anything like that?
Umm, not anything that I would actually consider doing. People have used Final
Fantasy music in films and stuff. Like there's a Douglas Copland film out there,
what's it called, "Everything's Gone Green?" What I'm actually more interested
in right now, I mean opera's sort of a distant thing because I think that my
abilities as an opera composer are going to increase over time, whereas how well
I can sing and tour around the world is going to decrease over time, so I kind
of want to stay on the pop tip for a while before I go back to doing opera. You
know what I mean. You can write operas anywhere, but to release records you kind
of have to be able to travel and stuff. So whatever. I'm more interested now in
the classical end of things, I'm writing for baroque ensembles, I kind of want
to write art songs that are made to be performed by the orchestra. But I was
looking into doing something with Buffy Sainte Marie, who is a pretty awesome
Canadian singer who doesn't get any respect because she's a weirdo, and she's
like the greatest singer that Canada has ever had. Anyway, I was trying to get
her to do something but her management said that she "takes it easy these days."
So that doesn't seem like it's going to happen, which I'm a little heartbroken
elaborate on this idea that your new album, He Poos Clouds, is based on?
The idea that "forms of magic are filtering their way into our day to day
It's actually the reverse that's true. It's pretty tricky, I should actually
work with somebody to sort of come up with a formal statement about this I
guess. I'm a pretty cynical... what would you call cynicism without the sarcasm?
And without the jadedness. Like I don't lie. Like a friend will be talking about
how wonderful this whole situation was and I'm just like, 'It just sounds like a
blowjob to me.' There's just a lot pop music about this belief in magic and I
kind of just don't fall for it. Basically what attracted me to Dungeons &
Dragons magic is that it's like escapism for atheists. Cause you get nerds, who
I'm pretty sure most of them don't believe in God, and they gather together and
create these rules and systems of beliefs that they don't even believe in
themselves. To me I find that awesome. I find that fascinating. So anyway, with
the He Poos Clouds stuff I tried to take these ways that they codified
their magic and the different forms of magic that exist, Underdark or whatever
D&D world they're talking about, what's it called? Allen? No no, I'm getting my
genres confused, I can't remember the name of the main world in Forgotten
Realms, but anyways, they have a way of codifying all the magic that exists
there, and I thought to myself that you could use that same sort of thing to
codify a lot of menial tasks. So that's what the songs are about, each song
sings about a menial task but as if it's something magical. So that's sort of
what I'm covering, which makes it sound sort of dry and academic, but it's just
a loose framework for making an album about something that really interested me,
which is kind of the sense of belief and non-belief at the same time. Does that
Yeah, I think
so. It's kind of hard to wrap your head around abstractly, but I know what
you're talking about.
I mean, the
whole thing started when I watched my brother's godfather die, and there was
something genuinely magical about watching someone die. Like you don't
experience it anywhere else. I don't want to sound like a monster here, but I
really don't feel any romance about these things, like I'm pretty cold towards
it, like this is my brother's godfather and very close friend of the family and
now he's totally in the depth of the morphine haze and you know, doesn't know
where he is, and now I'm watching his last gasps of air. So when you're watching
that it's kind of a bit of a shock for me, because I used to be a born-again
Christian, and ever since I've had those beliefs I've never really thought about
mortality. And it's fucked up when you realize you are an atheist and that death
is approaching and death is a lot scarier, and maybe you don't think about it as
much as maybe you should, you know what I mean? Cause there's that whole side to
atheism that seems be neglected when I decided to put on that hat and accept
that belief, and that is just that death becomes a whole lot scarier. And it
really shocked me out of those sort of romantic teenage ideas of suicide,
because you can't really be suicidal and be an atheist at the same time, cause
that's fucked right? Like it doesn't make any sense. So, anyway, the record I
guess was me trying to flesh out those ideas and convey those sentiments over a
series of songs.
I read in one of your interviews last year that you have five albums planned out
already. Are you sticking to that game plan?
Well I think I'm going to have slow it down a little bit. It's a tricky balance.
There was a time when I wasn't recording as fast as I was writing and now I'm
not writing fast enough, it's just kind of back and forth, because my schedule's
so up in the air, like I don't have a manager or anything like that, I'm not
living in some bubble, and so it's a pretty real world existence at this point.
You can't just wake up and start writing songs until lunch time.
something you'd like to move towards, being a full-time songwriter, as it were?
I don't think so. I definitely don't want to have to rely upon managers or
anything like that. Even publicists seem to be people I don't want to have to
work with. I mean I send out all my own press releases at this point, which is
nice because you know it's not going to be cheesy if you do it yourself. So
anyways, I don't really have time to keep up with all the plans I had and I find
myself falling behind a little bit, which is too bad, because I really admire
over-productive musicians. But so far I'm doing pretty good, I mean, in the last
year I've recorded almost fifty songs, that's pretty good. So I probably won't
have as productive a year next year cause it's going to be mostly touring. The
next record I'm making is going to sound a lot like Young Marble Giants. It's
going to be very sparse, just solo violin and bass and drums, and try to make it
like an intensely quiet dance record.
"I don't really think of
old classical music as being relevant today. I think it's nice, and pleasant to
listen to from sort of an anthropological perspective, and you can get some
genuine inspiration and enjoyment from it, but I don't think, when I'm writing
music I'm not thinking about Chopin."
Do you prefer touring or
staying at home and doing songwriting and recording?
It's kind of bits of both. The first few times I went on tour I was kind of
like, 'Oh, I miss Toronto so much,' because I had a lot of good friends here and
such an awesome thing going on. Now it's like Toronto is full of negativity and
a lot of cocaine, so I'm kind of happy to get away some times. I've thought
about moving but there's going to be coke in every city so fuck it. But yeah,
I'm happy both ways. Touring's okay.
How's the reception been in different parts of the country and the world?
Good. Like it's a gimmick, what can I say. People are surprised by it. There's
no one really doing what I do. I mean Colleen does a similar thing with the
cello, but her stuff is more soundscape oriented, and Andrew Bird does kind of a
similar thing, but in the end I think he's kind of using looped violin to not
sound like looped violin. So when people see it they're kind of taken aback. I
don't know how much longevity I have, I don't think I could sustain anybody's
interest for longer than an hour so I usually try to keep it short. So far the
reception's been good.
So you've heard the new record.
really like it a lot.
Yeah, contrary to the finishing of the first record, which I kind of hated, I'm
really really thrilled with this one. I can't wait for it to come out. I'm
really looking forward to it, to hear what people think of it.
Are you going
to do the whole tour with the quartet?
quartet aren't playing with me at all for any live shows. We did a couple shows
like that and the plan was that we were going to go over to Europe with them,
but it's tricky. They're totally great, they're like the best quartet ever, but
it's tricky. I'm not the best singer, and I'm not the best harpsichord player,
and to take the harpsichord around would be tricky. So after one show, and it
was a good show, we played after Akron/Family, and it was fine, but you could
tell people were not as excited about this thing as when I got up on stage and
just did live looping. And there is something also kind of mannered about that
whole thing, and a little bit precious. Like who the fuck am I to take a string
quartet around, like it adds such gravity to the songs you're making. It would
be far better to just plug in some guitars and leave them feeding back while you
play your set. I just feel it's better to cast your eyes downward than to put on
So how are
you going to adapt these quartet songs to a solo setting?
Oh they were all written with looping in mind. Well, at least half of them. I
think there's only four songs on the record that I couldn't actually play within
the live setting. The first two, the last one, and the "I'm Afraid of Japan"
one, all the other ones are songs I can play live, and have been.
Are you still
going to do cover songs?
I kind of want to get away from that, you know. The reason why I do cover songs
is that it's nice to get involved, to kind of meet with the audience, to like
bridge a gap, but in the end it's just kind of competitive, like is your cover
better than the other person's cover, or it becomes ironic, like people don't
really know. People just assumed that when I was playing Mariah Carey that I was
I really like that song. I actually went back and downloaded it after I heard
you do it.
Yeah, it's totally a great song. I actually prefer the original version to the
Ol' Dirty Bastard remix. Yeah, it's just a great song. So there's just this
stigma of "What is this cover thing you're doing?" I think I'm gonna try to get
away from it. It was little showy-offy, like 'Look at me! I can recreate an
entire song with just a violin and a loop pedal!' Which is kind like showing off
in a way. But I did do this thing where I played an entire
Orchestral Manoeuvres in
the Dark album,
start to finish, with the violin and the loop pedal. And it was interesting
because I thought everyone knew Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, but there
were only three people in the audience who knew the album. It was "Dazzle
Ships," a classic record in my mind, but nobody knew it. Everybody just thought
they were new songs I had written. So I might try to do that again when I'm in
Liverpool, cause there will probably be people there who will get into it a
little more. Cause I put a lot of work into learning it so... other than that I
don't think I'll be doing any covers.
who poos clouds?
Oh, well not me. Yeah, it was tricky, cause I really like the idea of album
title that incorporate the band name, like Scraping Foetus off the Wheel, or...
Right, Final Fantasy Has A Good Home. And it's also kind of a nice way of
dodging the copyright bullet, like your album name becomes the band name. But
anyways with this one I was worried that if Final Fantasy He Poos Clouds was the
entire album name people would think that they were talking about me, and I
definitely don't poo clouds, I poo shit. So, I think it's just... these are
essentially devotional songs, speaking about an incredible wealth of emotion and
all the delusion and sort of insanity that goes along with being in love with
someone, so I figured it was a pretty appropriate title. A lot of people think
it's the worst album title they've ever heard but I'm pretty proud of it, I
think it's a good name for an album, and it's pretty suitable for the record we