Owen Pallett

Interview by
Ed Droste
Photography by
Neal Franc


Owen Pallett is the violinist who played with The Hidden Cameras and co-wrote the string arrangements for The Arcade Fire’s smash album The Funeral. Most of all, Owen is the genius violin-and-vocals one-man-band Final Fantasy. With my band Grizzly Bear, I spent a few weeks touring with him last spring on his home turf of Ontario, Canada, to sold-out ‘I love Owen’ concerts. Owen kind of reminds me of a hot highschool dork, seemingly insecure, but quite the contrary. He was born on September 7, 1981.

Ed: The last time I saw you, you were snuggling with my boyfriend. Spooning him in my cousin’s apartment in London… I totally got in trouble ’cause my cousin thought I was bringing home some random ho from the street and having a threesome in their place without asking.
Owen: I can’t believe it… Your cousin was upset? It was an unconscious spooning. I was asleep. And anyway, you were egging me on to have sex with him.
That’s baloney! I didn’t want you to have sex with my boyfriend!
(laughs) It was just because I didn’t have Patrick next to me. We sleep very close. I need somebody close to me to sleep properly. And your boyfriend is as good as any.
Anyway, that was in London, and you played the Homefires Festival. You were crazy stressed about your arrival situation… Is it always go-go-go, flying from Switzerland to Portugal to England with just you and your violin?
These days, yes. Because I’m so portable — just a suitcase and a violin. I think my booking agent went ape-shit. It was like, ‘Wow! We can fly him anywhere!’ I’ll go a week playing different cities in Europe with flights every day. But then… I missed the plane to Homefires from the Kilby Festival. We had to spend over 600 euros and we flew to Stansted. It took us two hours to get into the city. I got to the venue ten minutes after I was supposed to start playing. So I pushed through the crowd, threw my suitcase on the stage, plugged in and started playing with no sound check. It was nerve-wracking. I was already drenched with sweat, dirty and stinking from hauling my shit across London.
And still the Guardian wrote up the next day that you were, naturally, the highlight of the weekend. Well, what surprised me about touring with you in Canada was the number of teenage girls saying, ‘You helped me through a seriously hard time…’ (laughs) And the look on your face is always priceless. Remember in Kingston when that girl cornered you and was like, ‘You saved my life!’
I don’t know why people make statements like that. My music is kind of antagonistic. I’m not singing songs like, ‘Let’s run away together and be free,’ but more like, ‘I’m sick and I hate you.’ But I’m not going to look in that horse’s mouth.
That’s very diplomatic. Now…you get to take your boyfriend on tour with you. How did that come about?
It was difficult when we first started dating, because I was playing with other bands, and there’d be no way he could come on tour. And there was…some cheating. On both sides. And we were okay with it at first, but then Patrick pointed out that it was unfair to him… Because when I traveled around, I had more opportunities, but Patrick only had our circle of friends. So we became monogamous.
So if Patrick was a traveling salesman, it would be okay?
Yeah, if we both had traveling jobs, we’d probably be more promiscuous. But it’s hard to have affairs with people in the same city. There was one instance where Patrick got wasted and fooled around with a friend of ours. And I was away on tour. So Patrick had this drunken…tryst with our friend. And the friend was straight-edge! Straight-edge means, of course, that he can’t be trusted. I felt like our sober friend had taken advantage of my drunken boyfriend.
That’s giving Patrick the benefit of the doubt! So I read in a lot of interviews that you talk about Final Fantasy as this ‘big, gay thing,’ and all the characters are gay. Would you call your music gay-centric?
That’s a pretty tedious way of labeling it. It’s one of those things, though, where people always associate ‘gay art’ with sodomy and suicide. Like it was a big deal for the literary community when Michael Hollinghurst won the Booker Prize with his 80s gay-scene book with the rim-job scene.
You think that’s why it won?
No, it was a really good book. He’s as good as Henry James. Did you read it? It’s good. It’s all about 80s yuppies and Margaret Thatcher and conservatives and drugs. I got six boners while reading it. I had to put it down and…indulge myself a few times.
That’s a pretty good advertisement for it.
Oh, but it’s very, very literary.
Did you get boners playing Final Fantasy, the game series?
No. That’s not why it’s gay. It’s gay because every individual who worked on that game series is a homosexual. The gayest one of the series was Final Fantasy 7, which was also the most popular. First, the leading men are very feminine looking.
But that’s typical of Japanese anime.
It is typical of that kind of anime called bishounen, which is primarily looked at by goth girls and gay men. And Final Fantasy took it to extremes. The men all look like girls, except the bear, who’s shirtless and has a gun for an arm. Also, all the female characters are really weak. They never have anything interesting to do or say. Very plastic. And there’s a lot of father-son conflicts, and never any requited heterosexual romance. Seriously! Final Fantasy 7 is about an effeminate boy who chases after another effeminate boy because he knows…they’re not like other boys. Then, along the way, he dresses up like a girl to seduce an executive…and…he sees his girlfriend killed by the man he’s chasing…and so he takes her in his arms and lets her sink into the ocean. It’s so melodramatic.
It sounds queeny.
That’s exactly it.
Are you a bottom?
(laughs) Well…
It’s a stupid, cliché question, but honestly everyone wants to know! I actually really hate the terms top and bottom. I remember when I first learned that I was technically a ‘bottom’. I was like, ‘What?’ Because the labels are so misleading… Like I get annoyed with myself that I even use the term bottom, but I guess it’s easier than saying: ‘I like to get penetrated in the rectum.’ But anyways, back to you.
I know what you’re talking about. I dated a girl when I was 21 who worked part-time as a dominatrix. She gave me an explanation once about the whole thing. She said that the dominant-submissive relationship was much more complicated than just top-bottom. In fact, the submissive one was the one actually in control.

BUTT - 2

Bossy bottom!
Exactly! I had dated a few guys before I was dating this girl, but I had never gone all the way… So then, when it did happen later, well… I think it’s a good way of thinking about it. The top is just the object. The bottom can just say, ‘Pull out, I’m done,’ and it’s over.
So, what are you? A little bit of both?

Yeah. When I first started dating Patrick I was always on the bottom. Then it shifted and I’m almost always the top. But it’s still back and forth.
I’m not trying to pass judgment, but I know a lot of gay men who just refuse to have anal sex. For me, it’s so…key. Integral. What do you think about that?
Do you know Sky Gilbert?
He’s a Canadian playwright and columnist. He wrote a column for a weekly magazine once where he ‘confessed’ that he wasn’t actually into anal. And he’s kind of a famous gay Canadian.
He’s never tried it?
No, he has, he just doesn’t like it. And he wrote, ‘Believe me, it’s still a party in the bedroom.’ It was like just confessing that fact was shocking enough. I mean, ‘no anal’ is no more perverted than ‘anal’, really… You know what I mean?
I guess it’s something you have to get used to, too.
I started dating Patrick when I was pretty young… I had just turned 23. And every boy I had dated before then was around my age. And not one of them was really into anything. It was squeaky clean. Basically just dinky-touching.
Did you date guys first or girls first?
Girls. I had my first girlfriend when I was 13.
And were you just…trying to like girls?
No, it wasn’t like that, I had an older brother who was a homo, so it was no big deal.
Was a homo?
Um, I don’t know the whole story. I’ve never actually talked to him about it. He’s married now — to a beautiful woman. But when I was 13, he was just the gay brother.
What do you think? I’m sure there are tons of little boys in rural communities everywhere like, ‘If Owen can do it, I can too…’ as they’re playing Final Fantasy 7.
I have no comment on that. If anything I would encourage young men to remain heterosexual.
Don’t say that! Why would you say that? Why are you saying that people should stay straight? Because the gay lifestyle is inherently doomed and you’re going to end up a 40-year-old cruising for boys?
No, I just think that people should become ‘gay’ because they like sucking dicks. Not because… Not because of the glamorous gay lifestyle of some pop star. (laughs) Not because of Scissor Sisters.
Oh, c’mon, who does that, really?
Well, that’s what you just described! ‘If Owen can do it, I can too!’
No, I mean that ‘if Owen can be out and proud, I can have the balls to come out.’ Ew, I can’t believe I just used the term ‘out and proud’.
(laughs) But I’m not out and proud. I’m out and ashamed.

BUTT - 3
Owen live, playing songs of his two albums, Has a Good Home and He Poos Clouds

That’s bullshit. If you were ashamed, you wouldn’t be doing that Out photo shoot yesterday and a BUTT interview today.
No. I’m ashamed of gay culture. I’m ashamed of Canadian culture and white culture and male culture, too. It’s not just gay culture.
Let’s get juicy. Let’s talk about Patrick Wolf. (laughs) Just kidding...
(laughs) Oh my God. Did I tell you what happened when I did that interview for Plan B magazine? The interviewer asked, out of the blue, ‘So who’s a better kisser? Simon Bookish or Patrick Wolf?’
You kissed Simon Bookish?
That’s not the point. (laughs) The point is, there’s gossip about me that I didn’t start.
So who is a better kisser?
I haven’t seen Patrick in…years. Jeez, it was so long ago. I met him before he… He hadn’t even put out his first record yet. We were playing a show together in London and we…became friends.
What happened? Blowjobs?
Mmm…no. I went back to Canada. I was in love already and I didn’t want to screw things up at home.
Did you think about leaving one Patrick for another Patrick?
No. Patrick Wolf is cute but…we couldn’t date. It would be like crossing classes. Like a prince dating a washerwoman.
He’s gonna read that!
Oh, c’mon, he’s the prince, of course. I’m the servant-girl. Anyway, I don’t think he likes my music much. I helped him get a show in Toronto, at this indie rock night called Wavelength. Nobody in Toronto knew who he was, so I opened for him, and put him up and took him and his manager out for dinner. But after I played, all he said was, ‘Sounded like Laurie Anderson.’
Oh, shit. You guys totally have a gay indie rock rivalry going. You’re battling to see who’s the next Michael Stipe!
I don’t want to battle him. I like him. And I’d lose, anyway, by default. He’s better looking than I am.
That’s not true. False modesty will get you nowhere. So, you’re latest album just won the Polaris Prize. It’s fantastic, everyone’s gushing, worldwide acclaim…
Everyone’s gushing but nobody’s actually listened to it. Most people are just talking about how they won’t listen to an album that has ‘poo’ in the title.
That’s retarded. People are listening to it.
Dude, no! When I won the Polaris Prize, the next day, every Canadian newspaper reported that I was an electronic act. Seriously! It was, ‘Electro artist Final Fantasy wins Polaris Prize.’ I did interviews the next day and somebody asked if I felt that electronic music was finally getting the attention it deserved. I mean, there are actually no electronic instruments on the record. It’s a fucking string quartet record!
What’s the next material going to be like? Different? Or is it going to be Pooing Clouds Part 2?
It’ll be the same approach, sonically, but then way more garish. I want it to be even more over the top.
But I remember you saying that this one was already way over the top…
I’m going to see how far I can take it. It’s going to be so relentlessly pretty that it becomes aggro. Like a Sparks record, or Kevin Blechdom’s latest record. You know that album? I love that album! That’s my favorite record! It’s all synthesizers. I’m going to take the same songwriting approach, but make it all orchestral.
Do you die again at the end of this album? You died at the end of both your other albums.
I didn’t really die at the end of Has A Good Home, it’s ambiguous. I throw myself into the sea. It’s meant to be a metaphor for the whole Final Fantasy project — writing and recording that record was like wading out into the ocean and trying to drown myself. And I don’t die at the end of He Poos Clouds, either. I just resolve to never make music again. With the third album, I break that promise.
So there’s going to be some serious retribution?
I break that promise, make another record, and the fictional characters get totally upset about it. I might die at the end of this record.
Why do you have to die at the end?
It’s better. Tragedy always works better.

Originally published in BUTT 18