by carl wilson

Flesh on Fantasy

As a supplement to this weekend's piece on Owen Pallett of Les Mouches, the eyezapoppin' Toronto music-scene-photojournal Aperture Enzyme has posted this violineriffic video of Owen in action in his loop-pedal-pumping secret solo identity, Final Fantasy. Check it. Also: Blocks has a sample Les Mouches MP3 (Carload of Whatever, from You're Worth More to Me than 1,000 Christians) and interview outtakes are on the Zoilus griddle, servin' up soon.

From classical nerd to maestro of bad taste

CARL WILSON
SCENE
The Globe and Mail
25 September 2004

His lanky, six-foot frame folded into a chair with an acoustic guitar, his boyish face squinting over a microphone and topped with a newly dyed shock of canary-yellow hair, Owen Pallett looks like the kid he used to be: the classical-music nerd at a recital.

Until, that is, he lets fly with open-throated barking about sex, suicide and men with “hands of hooks,” over squalls of free-form noise.

By day, the 24-year-old Toronto musician works as a programmer and violinist for the mild-mannered CBC radio show, The Vinyl Café. He made his name crafting effortlessly elegant string arrangements for such Canadian indie-rock luminaries as the Hidden Cameras, the Constantines and Royal City.

But his mind prowls nocturnes, tearing open secret cupboards and making pacts with wolves. The full bundle of contradictions is apparent in his version of the Carpenters' sappy 1970s classic, Close to You, with his trio Les Mouches.

As Pallett whispers through the original tune, he's dogged and abused by squeaking and scratching from fellow guitarist Matt Schmidth, until finally the tapestry is torn to bits in a barrage from drummer Rob Gordon — as if the birds that “suddenly appear every time you are near” had been dive-bombed by the stars that “fall down from the sky every time you walk by,” and turned into feathery balls of fire.

The sticky-sweet love ballad is laid bare as a sickness unto death. It would make an ideal soundtrack for the notorious, banned 1987 film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story by Todd Haynes, in which the Wonder-Bread-pop songbird is played by a Barbie doll, her polyvinyl face gouged away, scene by scene, by anorexia.

Like Haynes (who later made Safe and Far From Heaven with Julianne Moore), Pallett restores real discomfort to a heritage of gay camp humour and melodrama that has grown too familiar. In Daddy Needs a Daddy, a song inspired by Schmidth's family, the closeted father asks if his son would be “amused” to know that at the boy's conception, his sperm “thought its target was Cary Grant.” As one critic said of Superstar, the effect is “both giddy and awful.”

“I'm always left a little breathless when I see Les Mouches,” says Toronto songwriter Jim Guthrie, whose latest album is graced by Pallett's strings. “They're really like no other band on the scene.”

Spinning folk, punk, free jazz and a touch of Bartok together into a whirling mirror ball of sound, Les Mouches provoke gasps and nervous laughter. Their latest album, You're Worth More to Me Than 1,000 Christians, comes packaged with a red-paper heart stamped with the French obscenity “merde.”

“If something isn't funny in some respect,” says Pallett, “really, how can you take it seriously? We've had people come up and say, ‘Why are you screaming? I don't understand.' It's comedy.

“I met this guy who'd just come down from the Yukon last weekend, and he was so horny — he said in the Yukon that's all there is to do. He's a total stranger, and he puts his arm around my shoulder and is licking my cheek and stuff. I appreciate how a situation like that is both funny and tragic. I'm not trying to say that rape is funny, but art about rape can be funny, art about AIDS can be funny, art about the futility of queerness can be funny.”

Pallett's infatuation with “bad” taste may be partly a reaction to a long apprenticeship in excessive “good” taste — growing up in a large but fractured musical clan in Milton and Mississauga, Ont., he began playing classical violin at 3, and remained “very, very serious” about it into adulthood.

But after moving to Toronto to do a degree in composition, he says, “I became acutely aware that the classical music I was familiar with was light years behind what was going on in art and literature and philosophy.”

Just in time, he was invited to lead the string section of the Hidden Cameras, the “gay church-folk-music” group led by artist Joel Gibb, that has since made an international reputation. While Pallett had played in many bar bands, the Cameras helped connect him to a much more sympathetic musical network. Soon he was offering the benefits of his training to a whole community of self-taught creators.

And when he finally came to write his own songs, he spurned high-compositional grandeur for the embarrassing minutia of intimacy. “A really interesting inspiration is ordinary conversation, what people gossip about,” he says. “I love thinking about whether my friends and relatives are straight or gay. And about dieting, because everyone's always thinking about that.”

While the violin is mostly absent in Les Mouches, it's the focal point of his solo project, Final Fantasy, in which he sings over layers of looped, minimalist violin lines. Pallett seems almost perplexed at how audiences swoon at this prettier style. “I guess the technical achievement is more obvious,” he says. “Final Fantasy is evocative and poetic, but Les Mouches is me trying to be brutally honest.”

In response to demand, he's recording a Final Fantasy album now, while also preparing a string duo called the Tenderizers, and a “high-school dance band,” Boy Magic. Meanwhile, he goes on a national tour with Vinyl Cafe. “I think everybody's personality has more sides than can be reflected in one or two bands.”

He admits he is tiring of playing indie string-doctor, mainly because of budgets. “If I knew even two other string players who would work for free, all of a sudden Toronto would be brimming with the most beautiful string-drenched albums. . . . But there have been times when I've been like, ‘Aha! I've reinvented Motown! I have replaced Nelson Riddle and 40 violinists by myself!' and it gets ridiculous.”

And while no one is a more vociferous booster of Toronto's vibrant conceptual-pop scene, old ambitions still beckon. On his latest collaboration with acclaimed Montreal indie band the Arcade Fire, he was delighted by the band's technical expertise. “In the end,” he smiles, “it's people who know how to play their instruments who are going to win.”

And by the time he's 30, he says, “I'll probably just quit and write operas.”

Meanwhile, his peers look on in wonder. As Guthrie says, “There's really no limit to what he could do.”

Just don't expect Pallett to settle into the predictable. He casually drops the news, for instance, that Les Mouches is thinking of playing shows in states of undress. “We've been rehearsing naked lately,” Pallett says. “It gives us a real good sense of awkwardness.”

Les Mouches appear tonight in Toronto at Cinecycle with the Creeping Nobodies; on Thursday in Ottawa at Zibbibo; and on Oct. 2 at the Pop Montreal festival.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, September 27 at 3:27 PM | Linking Posts

 

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Zoilus by Carl Wilson