Owen Pallett Breaks Down ‘In Conflict’
Arcade Fire member and Oscar-nominated composer talks gender essentialism and acid flashbacks
When he’s not playing in Arcade Fire, composing Oscar-nominated soundtracks for Spike Jonze, and stringsplaining the music-theoretical underpinnings of Billboard chart-toppers, Owen Pallett records brainy, tuneful, and frankly swoon-inducing chamber-pop under his own name.
This week, he releases In Conflict, his first album since 2010’s Heartland. Featuring contributions from Brian Eno and foregrounding Pallett’s rich string arrangements — as well as the buzzing tones of the vintage ARP 2600 synthesizer — it is a stunning piece of work, and one unlike pretty much unlike anything else out there. What other albums can you think of that simultaneously reference Gyorgy Ligety and Tori Amos, or the Mountain Goats and Bronski Beat?
Pallett is at once a deft melodicist and a crafty, yet highly unconventional, lyricist; spend enough time listening to “I Am Not Afraid,” for instance, and you’ll find yourself singing its refrain out loud, no matter how ill-suited the chorus (“I’ll never have any children / I’d bear them and eat them, my children”) might seem for polite company.
Many of the album’s lyrics flit between the plain-spokenness of a diary entry and the charged abstraction of postmodernist poetry, lending the album a kind of uncanny quality, like trying to make sense of a particularly realistic dream. “I don’t even know, my God,” says Pallett when asked how he writes his material. “I have a sort of ritual: Wake up earlier than I should, like an hour before, so I’m still kind of half-asleep, and then douse my body with pots of coffee, at a coffee shop with no internet connection, and just type, type, type.”
SPIN caught up with Pallett by phone in late March, in between Arcade Fire’s Coachella dates, for a guided tour of In Conflict’s musical influences, literary references, and autobiographical vignettes. Stream In Conflict below.
“I Am Not Afraid”
My biggest influence in my pop arrangements are actually these really heady modernists, Galina Ustvolskaya and [Gyorgy] Ligety. Ustvolskaya died maybe five years ago. Her music is described as relentlessly ugly; she was called “the lady with the hammer,” all this kind of stuff. And her music has this way, this method about it, which, as well as Ligety — it’s not specifically religious music, but there’s an overtone of theological devotion, or theistic devotion, that’s implicit. It’s just so repetitious that it takes on the air of someone saying the rosary or people self-flagellating themselves. When I first was just coming up with this record in the abstract, I really wanted to set the scene, and before I’d even really fully written “I Am Not Afraid,” I knew I wanted to begin with this string chord that didn’t change, with a drum beat that was the slowest, most impotent sounding drum beat you could ever imagine. And piano chords stacked up, fifths stacked up to the heavens, like it had this religious overtone. It’s not religious, but it’s meant to suggest monomania.
[Brian Eno] was a fan of Heartland, so I kind of had it in my head that I was on his radar, and then about a year later he invited me to play this festival he was curating in Christensen, Norway. So I flew my band over and I met him and we played the festival. The set we played was really, really, really good. Sometimes we don’t play so good and sometimes we play great, and it was one of those really great sets. And he was really impressed. We just had a really nice rapport and it was a wonderful time. So then, much later, we ran into each other in New York at another function for the Kitchen, and afterwards — just before he was dancing to Motown with Danny Lanois all night — we were talking about something else, and I mentioned I was working on a new record and I was wondering whether he wanted to sing some backing vocals on it.
This kind of came from two places: one, because I read A Year with Swollen Appendices, so I know that he’s all about backing vocals; and two, because at that point we had just recorded “Infernal Fantasy” and I kind of was hearing backing vocals similar to [Talking Heads’] “The Great Curve” at the end of it. And I was just, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great if instead of me doing my own kind of light bark, we got Eno to do his real bark?” That was the only song where I was kind of like, “Oh, I want it to sound like this.” And the rest of the record, I just sent it to him and he worked astonishingly fast. He was just sending me back two or three tracks a day — like, really, really complicated and beautiful vocal parts and synth parts. And the thing about all of his stuff was that it was so dramatic that we ended up using only about half of it. Which is kind of unfortunate, because all of it was so, so, so amazing. It was just that I was not entirely willing to turn this record that I had been working on for two years into an Eno record. [Laughs.] It was a very ego-affirming process to go through. He is very, very supportive. Yeah. I recommend that everybody, if given the option, work with Eno.
“On a Path”
I didn’t know while I was writing this song that I would leave [Toronto] shortly after. I think I finished the song, and then two months later I picked up and moved to Montreal at the drop of a hat. I kind of suddenly was like, “That’s it. I want to move to Montreal.” I don’t remember if I was working with Win [Butler] or if I just went out to visit them. But when I was there I was just like, “I love being here. I love being close to you guys.” And I loved the city so much. I think I wrote that in October, and I arranged at the end of December that I was just going to move to Montreal for a temporary period in the middle of the winter. And I loved it, especially in the winter. I love the cold and I loved the enormous snow banks in the middle of the city and I loved that people were skiing around. So [my manager and significant other] Patrick [Borjal] and I moved in April. The song wasn’t specifically meant to be about Toronto, but about any sort of diasporic place, which, as somebody who is currently living transiently, is something that I feel very strongly. But in this case, I had been living in Toronto for 15 years and had seen a scene — a music scene, an art scene — kind of bloom and die, and then even an echo of that scene bloom and die. So it felt like I was seeing it all happen and then ending it.
“Song for Five & Six”
It’s funny that you should say that line [“The sticks smash on the flatbed / Boys tour the town victorious in war”] sounds ominous. I never actually viewed it that way, because the song is about playing soccer. [Laughs.] At the end of the game, getting up on the flatbeds — the back of a flatback truck. You know, everyone grabs a stick and just travels around the village, banging on the flatbed all covered in mud.
“The Secret Seven”
I had a very specific and tricky thing that I was trying to sing about, which was drawing some lines between when I was 19 and a violin student and in school and suffering from mental illness, and Tyler Clemente, who was a violin student and in school and killed himself. I was hoping to try and draw some sympathetic lines between our two situations and form an alternate version of the it-gets-better message, which was that it doesn’t get any better and things stay the same, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, you know. Whenever I hear about those “It Gets Better” videos, I always get “The Doll Song,” from the Mountain Goats, in my head. I think the line is, “I was reading Paul, and I didn’t know what he means, because it says love is kind — but that has not been my experience!” Whenever anyone’s like, “Oh you moved to the city, things get a lot better,” I’m like, “That has not been my experience!” [Laughs.]
That song was really based around this piano figure that I was obsessed with. Then it turned into the horns. So I just tracked that first and then had the idea that I was going to create a sonic backdrop with the ARP  at home. I didn’t know that I was going to be using the ARP entirely, but it just ended up being that way. Mostly, the sonic environment you’re hearing comes from taking really simple sort of, like, pops out of the ARP and hitting a spring reverb with it, but overloading it, and that creates the sound of rock hitting rock. Lyrically, you know, that song is pretty straightforward. If I were to break it down it would maybe cheapen it.
I’ve had the Arp since 2008. I worked on a film score and it was an incredibly difficult process. The reason I was doing it was it was a pretty big paycheck. But when it was over I was so angsty that I treated myself by buying this expensive, antiquated synth. It took me a while to get into it, and I ultimately didn’t really use it that much on Heartland. I was using it in a very entry-level manner, which is its own kind of beauty. But when it came to making In Conflict, I had just gotten so into it and so used to it that I couldn’t really use any other synths.
“The Passions” was originally going to be a much longer and more descriptive song about something that happened, but then I just kind of cut it down until it was the absolute bare bones. ‘Til it was only the best jokes, I guess.
“The Sky Behind the Flag”
I think the title of this song came before the lyrics themselves. I was trying to figure out what it meant and how it worked, and the thing that it came back to was this strange and amazing relationship that I had in my early 20s. So the song is kind of just about that, even though a lot of the imagery is taken from disparate sources of different failed relationships.
Maleness is something that I am able to sing about because I’m biologically masculine. But I’m kind of agnostic about it, otherwise. I certainly do think about maleness, and I do think about things that I’m doing that are reflective of that, and things that are the opposite of it. But I’m trying to reject my desires for control, in both a macro perspective and a micro perspective — both control over the details of one’s life and the desire to have influence in the world. Part of the reason that I hooked up with Arcade Fire is that I wanted to drift a little bit; I thought it would be good to have my ego put down, to simply be a cog in the machine, you know?
[“The world will forget any good you have done”] sounds sinister, but it’s meant to be a liberating line. It’s interesting, because the video for that song, people viewed it that it was somehow meant to be voyeuristic, when actually I was hoping that people wouldn’t relate to him as an other, but also be able to have a personal relationship with that desire sort of bubbling under the surface.
My uncle Jimmy is in the video, and this song is kind of, a little bit, not really written about him specifically; it’s about masculine traits that I’ve recognized both in myself and in him. Which is this feeling that the whole act of civilization is just a way of restraining oneself. And you see Jim accessing all these things in the video that are these sort of perks of civilization: self-improvement and getting rides from friends and taking the subway — all this kind of stuff. the real currency of his life, that is the ego, that is receiving respect or receiving shame. That’s really what the song is about — whether it’s alcoholism or some darker thing, some bad thing, just a statement of acceptance. Because a lot of it is rooted in the ego. People just can’t talk about that sort of stuff because they’re too proud to.
Yes, that’s true [that this song is about an experience on LSD]. I don’t like the idea that I might have glamorized that experience by writing a song about it. But yes, you guessed correctly. The song is like a weird true story about — I mean, the house didn’t actually fucking burn down, but there was a ton of damage — about just being so completely distracted by teenage lust that we forgot we were about to fry pierogies. We dropped acid and we forgot that we were frying pierogies while we were having sex on the couch — true ’90s stories. [Laughs.] But maybe I’ll write another song based on the actual facts, without all the occultism.
This is a tricky one to talk about because it’s based on some connection of thought that I made between — I don’t know, it’s so hard for me to talk about that one. I was trying to trace back to a moment in my life when I was really starting to become aware of the intersection between political and personal. I was in the early stages of my queer activity on a physical level. I had a really supportive family to the point where I never even had to come out. And when you’re privileged with that, it can present you with a very cavalier attitude towards the politicization of the personal. If you were never oppressed, then you might not fully understand the importance of a pride parade.
A large part of what this song was inspired by is a book that my brother gave me when he was doing his MBA. I think he thought this book would help me, and in a way it did. Because at the time I was kind of like a Marx-loving squatter, like, busking on the street, and he gave me this book about The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, or something. I don’t remember the exact name actually, because I read it and then discarded it. But it traced the fundamental building blocks of how to be successful in a capitalist environment, and I remember the first suggestion was a very good one, which was save 10% of your income. So I’m sort of like, “Oh, what a great suggestion. I’m going to set aside 10% of my busking tips every day.” But by the time it got to the end, there was essentially the admission that the entire endeavor was based on a transaction of exploitation. I tried to take that sort of realization and transpose it onto personal relationships, the one that one might have with their lover and their brother and their families. But I have to acknowledge, too, that I have a desire to be a revolutionary, but I’m completely complicit in the improper constructions that I hate. So I just have to be arty about it, I guess. I mean, complicity is a pretty gray area. I’m in Palm Springs right now playing Coachella festival with Arcade Fire, so there’s that.