Owen Pallett’s is releasing In Conflict next week, his fourth album and first in four years. In the meantime he’s been a touring member of Arcade Fire, scored the soundtrack for the Spike Jonze film Her, done string arrangements for numerous acts (including R.E.M., Pet Shop Boys and Robbie Williams) and accomplished lots of other things that would make you feel bad about your lazy ass. In advance of his May 25 show at Berlin’s Volksbühne with Xiu Xiu, Owen spoke with Siegessäule for this month’s issue. Here is the original untranslated version of the interview, along with the videos for “Song for Five & Six” and “The Riverbed”.
Joey: You’re very busy.
Owen: I get depressed if I have too much time without work.
Does it feel like work?
It feels really good. A lot of time, creative work is just typist’s work, just doing scoring at my computer. There’s this nice monastic ecstasy to it, so I enjoy it. Surely you must feel that way sometimes when you’re transcribing interviews.
Ha. It’s just a job. As far as jobs go, it’s nice, but not ecstatic. You’ve said in the past that your music isn’t specifically queer, but comes from a queer experience. The lead track “I am not Afraid” uses gender-neutral pronouns like “ze”. Can you touch more on that? How you relate to gender and trans issues?
I approach my own kind of existence with a very anti-essentialist bent, which is an avoidance of any concrete structures. In this song, I’m identifying that, although the roots of these beliefs may come from a different place as the song’s gender-neutral character “ze” with whom I’m conversing, they kind of arrive at the same ends. My own desire to avoid definition is tied up, perhaps, in some dissociative state of insanity. It’s simply examining the simpatico I’ve felt with trans or genderqueer people. It’s rooted in this fundamentally liminal state.
Ze says “I’m gonna change my body by the light and the shadow of your suspicion”, meaning regardless of outside judgment, it is zes own to change. In the second chorus, I admit that I am not afraid of changing, but it would not affect my own sort of strangeness and confusion.
The key to that song, really, for me, is about the relationship to discipline. I was thinking about discipline a lot when talking to a therapist about resetting synaptic pathways to avoid anxiety. You have to forge new pathways, because synapses run through your brain and wear them down like riverbeds. Often just by sheer force of will, I can get myself out of an anxiety attack. But it takes a lot of concentration and discipline. When I have nothing to do, that’s when I fall into these weird synaptic patterns. So I recognize that discipline keeps me in a good space.
Although the subject of the song is not Genesis P-Orridge, the discipline line is taken from a Throbbing Gristle song. A nine-minute knob-twiddling noise freak-out, whereas my song is a four-minute, light orchestral song. Very, very different sides of what I believe to be kind of similar.
In this song, you also proclaim “I’ll never have any children”, but in another interview, you said that it’s not a proclamation of political intent, just your personal situation. However, you also mention paying attention to news headlines about the state of global civilization. I read about a recent study concluding that the collapse of civilization will come within decades unless we strictly control the population growth.
I see the childless people in the world and the way their bodies begin to decay and eventually die is a kind of microcosm of the end of the world. You see the end of your world with no progeny to sublimate your id onto. According to my current romantic situation, there is no way that fatherhood could be achieved without surrogacy or adoption. Although I’ve seen those methods make many people happy, they do not cater to my romantic sensibilities. The song is examining the duality between that. How a queer lifespan relates to the end of civilization.
In press release for the album, you took the opportunity to announce that Brian Eno, who plays on the album, is gay.
His wife is going to be very mad about that.
Is that why it was only revealed in the German version of the press release and not the English one?
Brian Eno is not gay. Somebody made a mistake.
Yes, I know. They translated “famous guy” to “berühmter Schwuler”, which means “famous gay”.
Yeah, well, what can you do?
The press release also uses the word “cathartic”. You’ve said in a recent interview that you hate this word.
There are different usages of the word. The press release doesn’t describe my music as cathartic, just that it provides a cathartic outlet for the listener.
True, that’s different.
Splitting hairs, maybe.
Well, pretty thick hairs.