The first Owen Pallett album, in 2005, was called Has a Good Home. Fact is, the man is now homeless. One of the key Torontopians of the early 2000s, he decamped to Montreal last year—but has barely been there, either, since he signed up for Arcade Fire’s Reflektor tour, which has kept him on the road for the last six months and likely will for the next six as well. Owen’s fourth album, In Conflict, comes out May 27. I think he’s topped himself yet again. It says a lot that Brian Eno’s presence is one of the least interesting things about the record. I’ll have a lot more to say about it, both in this space and for Maclean’s, in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, however, Owen Pallett is coming home to Toronto this weekend: for less than 24 hours. He plays the Danforth Music Hall on Saturday, May 10.
March 18, 2014
From a Philadelphia hotel room
You’ve been in Montreal since when?
It’s been a gradual drift. I lived there for four months in the winter, and stopped paying rent in Toronto in April 2013. But I was away since the end of 2012.
Do you feel at home there now or are you not even there enough?
100 per cent. I even feel like a bit of a Torontophobe (laughs). I come back to Toronto and think, “Oh, noooooooo. More Toronto!”
That didn’t take long.
It had been happening already, getting off tour and coming home to Toronto. It used to be that I would get off tour, and it was a bit of a joke because often I’d get home on a Sunday. I would immediately throw my shit in my room and go down to Wavelength. Like clockwork. I’d see all my friends, I’d wear something stupid, it was great. But it was becoming the opposite. I’d be taking the Gardiner in and have this sinking feeling. “Not Toronto again!” I don’t blame the city. I think it’s having my great 20s there; had I not enjoyed my 20s so much it might be different.
Well, you left your 20s in the most Torontocentric way possible. What was your 30th birthday party about again? A show with 30 acts in 30 hours at Lula Lounge?
30 acts in 10 hours. Everyone had a 20-minute set.
How do you now view what happened in Toronto between roughly 2000-05 now?
I don’t know if it was special, or if it was something that happens to a lot of cities and a lot of crews. I’ve been thinking about it a little bit, because a lot of what we’re told is bad is actually good. One of those things is what people refer to as arrested development, or naivete, or wide-eyed wonder. There is something magical and amazing about being in a scene that has that excitement. The root of sexual impulse is in all these things: arrested development, naivete. I think they’re linked: this joyousness that is linked with a bit of ignorance. Part of that ignorance is saying, “It doesn’t matter if your band is not 100 per cent the best band, but is maybe a 9/10 band.” That’s pretty much every band in Toronto at that time, was a 9/10 band. And the 10/10 bands are the ones we hate now. I don’t know what it was. It was situational, but I think it could happen in any city. That’s what is so beautiful looking back on it, is that it wasn’t Toronto-specific, even though it happened to have happened in Toronto. It was more tied into this moment of non-cynicism.
It’s like falling in love and not thinking about getting old and having Alzheimer’s. It’s the immediate rush, the wide-open headfirst plunge.
Yes, and I don’t know if it’s possible now. Reading the Twitter feed after the Arcade Fire show in Philadelphia last night, one in three comments said something like, “Well, no black people at this show!” I thought, “What?” The implication is that the onus is on Arcade Fire to specifically get that 15 per cent of the American population out to their shows, whereas I believe the onus is on the American people to create a situation where these people can perhaps afford to maybe come to these shows! Oh wait, [boyfriend/manager] Patrick’s telling me not to talk about class in an interview. But what I’m trying to say is that I tend not to place the burden on artists; I place it on socio-economic structures and politics.
I feel as if the environment [now] is quite the opposite of joyous. It’s become a statement of acumen to be a cynic. So Toronto 2000-05, I’d be embarrassed to play show-and-tell with now, because people would either find it dated or problematic. I have trouble even identifying myself as a gay man at this point. A lot of what was going on in Toronto was intrinsically tied to LGBTQ emancipation. Not emancipation, but—now when I hang out with my Toronto friends, especially my straight ones, it’s like, “Oh right, you really get me.” In the rest of the world, you can’t make jokes about poo dick or whatever and have people laugh. They’re like, “That’s disgusting. I’m leaving the room.”
But there was that moment in Toronto with Will Munro and Hidden Cameras that provided a freedom for the whole music community to be themselves, to be less conservative. It was also a time when the concept of gay marriage went mainstream.
I think of gay marriage and Will Munro to be polar opposites. The attitude in Toronto was very anti-institutional. If there was one thing that straights and queers all learned was that there was this new idea of beauty, which was rooted more in positivity and participation. You can even see it in Margaux Williamson’s films, with Carl Wilson with his shirt off, like no fucking problem. I watch that movie and I think, this is it, this is the whole idea of 2000-05, trying to get everyone to take their shirts off. Gay marriage is not the opposite, but on a different track. Pretty much most queer people will agree that marriage isn’t for them, but it’s a symbolic gesture for acceptance of the lifestyle as equal. That’s different than taking your shirt off.
There are two characters on this record—in “I’m Not Afraid” and “The Riverbed”—who reach a point in their life where they realize they’ll never have any children. It shocked me to hear that—only because I can’t think of any song, ever, that deals with this topic, this transformative moment in the lives of everyone: either having a child, or deciding not to, or having that decision made for you. It’s a huge moment in someone’s 30s or 40s, yet it’s not common song fodder compared to divorce or death or other life events.
Me, I want kids. But I’ve never thought about it, because a large part of my desire for children is not wrapped up in the disgusting biological need to see one’s face on a young person. I mean, disgusting theoretically—I’m sure it’s very nice. The thing that is not available to most homosexuals is the thrilling sex story. Paraphrasing a friend of mine: “Oh, we had broken up and then she flew down to New York and came to the show and put on some makeup and we got wasted and had sloppy sex in a hotel room—and then nine months later so-and-so was born.” The romance of having it as an extension of your romantic life doesn’t exist for gay men. Usually it’s an extension of administrative activity—which is so disappointing!
Were somebody to come along and deposit a child in my lap, I’d be the best dad. But the whole administrative process makes me wonder: do I actually want this? I didn’t know that I wanted one, I thought it wasn’t for me. Then a lesbian couple, friends of mine, asked me if I would father a child for them. I was asked via text message. My heart completely exploded. I’d never felt this feeling before. I remember using one hand to respond to her text, and thinking, how can I continue to text her while phoning my mom? It turns out she was joking! [pauses] And we’re not friends anymore. [laughs] “Thank you for showing me that I am a bag of meat with procreative desires. Never speak to me again.”
I love how the line is delivered in “I’m Not Afraid”: “I’ll never have any children” is set to a lovely, major-key melody.
Yeah, well, there’s nothing weird about it. In a way there’s a delicious irony, in that some people are celebrating the Macklemores of the world for a song like “Same Love,” and I’m like, “Oooh! I can’t wait to get all y’all into the reality of queer life! Are you really going to be celebrating a song like ‘Same Love’ when you understand the full extent of what we’re talking about here?” I’ve always felt very much in the middle in regards to gay rights arguments. I don’t know if it was you who said it, that I never met a dichotomy I didn’t like—that was you, wasn’t it?
Yes, it was the lede of the first Exclaim story.
That might have been true eight years ago, but I don’t really feel that way. I’m much more in this weird grey area where I’m having trouble believing in anything. Not in a nihilist sort of way, but in this, “Wow, it’s so confusing!” I’ve been singing about this since my first record, which ends with me saying, “Confusion is why I sing.” This is really meant to be the topic that comes to the forefront on this record. Pretty much every assertion I make on this record is like I also believe the opposite. Like desire portrayed in a negative light. Or that I’d personally love to have children—except the reality is that I wouldn’t.