Monday, September 12, 2005

Interview: Final Fantasy

I conducted this interview a few months ago for a magazine called HoBo. Unfortunately, our interview came too late for the cut-off, and since it's a quarterly magazine, it probably won't make it into the next one.

Owen is currently away on tour. If you're in Europe, and you have a chance to see him play out there, don't miss it. The live show is amazing.

Because this was for HoBo, the article is more conventional (read: staid) than what I usually write.


“You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.”

If you were a 12-year-old me, you’d eventually follow that gully downstream until you came to a grate. From there you would open the grate and enter the Colossal Cave. So begins the introduction to Adventure (also: adventure.exe), the first computer-based role-playing game that I had ever seen. It also happens to be the title to track nine on Owen Pallett’s debut CD under the name Final Fantasy. I’m not sure how many people might catch this cult reference, nor how many would recognize the name “Final Fantasy” as belonging to one of Japan’s most popular videogame franchises. I mean, how many of us are such huge nerds?

Don’t worry, none of this impacts the songs unless you’re paying attention — it doesn’t sound like “videogame music,” and in fact, these themes don’t even come up through Owen’s lyrics; at least, not obviously. He won’t be singing to you about his days playing D&D or his evenings huddled in front of his computer.

If you haven’t heard Final Fantasy, what it sounds like is far from what you might expect at this point, although dropping the names Arcade Fire and The Hidden Cameras as two of Pallett’s other affiliations might give you a clue.

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After reading my lead-in, which I’d handed to him printed on a folded piece of paper and sandwiched in a copy of HoBO, Owen laughed, “you haven’t heard the new album.”

I was nursing a beer, watching Owen eat couscous in a bar on Queen Street West – a summer day in downtown Toronto. Disgustingly hot, I’d moved inside from the patio to enjoy some air conditioning when he rolled in. After asking him where he was from (here) how he got into music (classical background), and some other pedestrian crap, Owen immediately launched into a brisk clip of nerd-speak, describing a few of his inspirational touch-stones.

There are some issues with putting two nerds together to talk – invariably their discussion will lead down a few different paths: technology, computers, operating systems, videogames, obscure cult films, perhaps music, and, if they are socialized, the difficulty of being a socialized nerd. Directing our conversation towards pertinent subjects was not easy.

In any case, he was right; I hadn’t heard the new album – it’s due out in January of next year on Tomlab, and it won’t be complete until September. “I’m really happy with it so far,” was Owen’s take. Merely satisfied with his debut release, Has A Good Home, Pallett is keenly aware of the type of music he wants to create, and the gap that exists between this vision and what he produced on the first album.

Based entirely around Owen’s violin, Final Fantasy is a unique project. Using effects pedals to loop sounds, and to add delay and other modifiers to his strings, the resulting music is superficially baroque, but still pop in it’s underpinnings. With guests playing drums, and contributing additional instrumentation, Final Fantasy is, indeed, highly original, well orchestrated pop music.

Critical acceptance of Has A Good Home has been generally favorable, with consistent recognition of Owen’s great song-writing ability. When I asked him how he felt about critics, he gave an exasperated sigh and smiled, “the concept of applying a set of numbers to every record ever made is just… incredible.” And no, that’s not incredible good. Of course, he reads what they have to say, he has a couple favorite writers, and, well, he even admits to liking the whole thing in a can’t-take-it-too-seriously kind of way.

Getting back to the new record, Owen quickly pointed out that it’s “based on the eight spheres of magic,” as presented in Dungeons & Dragons. “Not that I’ve ever really played D&D; I always died at the first kobold attack.” Without getting too far into something most of the population has no interest in, the concept of the magical spheres is not as simple as say, fire, water, and ice. Rather, they are abstract theories, which can be expanded upon in ways that will be transparent to the listener -- unless they’re consciously aware of the references. Don’t be scared; nerds don’t usually hurt you, and you don’t have to read any Dungeon Master Handbooks to appreciate the music.

Beyond Final Fantasy, Owen has gained considerable recognition by doing string arrangements for, and being a touring member of Arcade Fire, one of Canada’s hottest musical exports. Over the past couple years, he’d been working with two other Canadian acts -- Jim Guthrie, and The Hidden Cameras, both successful in their own right. Oh yeah, then there’s his other band, Les Mouches. All of this makes Owen a very busy guy.

Recently on the cover of NOW! Magazine, Toronto’s largest independent tabloid paper, and with an upcoming European tour, it looks like things are moving pretty quickly. “When I don’t have to work anymore, that’s when the music will go downhill,” Owen smirked. Funny. But it’s this kind of self-awareness that helps Final Fantasy achieve a high level of openness and intimacy with the listener. However you might interpret or apply Pallett’s lyrics, you feel like he is allowing you a glimpse inside, and it’s this honesty and truth of intention, that sets his work apart from so many others.


Final Fantasy - The CN Tower Belongs To The Dead *repost