Strange as it may seem, Owen Pallett just might be the best person to endorse this Monday’s Arcade Fire show at the Santa Barbara Bowl. As a longtime friend, arranger, and touring member of the band, he carries an obvious bias, but looking at the lengths he’s gone to see this year’s Reflektor tour through to its finish, Pallett’s partiality seems beside the point.
“I’m not ashamed to say that it was pretty stressful having the record come out while I’m out doing Arcade Fire shows,” said Pallett from his home in Toronto last week. Mere minutes into our talk, the 34-year-old singer/songwriter lets out a giggle. “I am candid to a fault during interviews, as you’re about to learn.”
The record Pallett speaks of, by the way, is In Conflict, which he released through Domino Records this past May amid a whirlwind run with his Grammy Award–winning side project. The long-awaited follow-up to 2010’s Heartland is, like much of Pallett’s work, a vibrant and carefully layered concoction filled with swelling violin loops, propulsive synthesizers, and lyrics that beg for a close reading. Still, compared to the vaguely conceptual Heartland, which followed a loose narrative about a violent young farmer named Lewis, Conflict feels like some sort of diary excerpt. The album’s lyric sheet brims with shrouded tales of alienation, lust, and the looming notion of fatherhood. “I’ll never have any children,” Pallett sings on the album’s opening track. Later, over a tense bed of strings, he offers up the line, “I’m not at all afraid of changing, but I don’t know what good it would do me.”
On a professional level, though, Pallett seems to thrive off change. In the past two years he’s written arrangements for a roster of acts that includes everyone from The National to Taylor Swift and Linkin Park. His music for Spike Jonze’s Her, which he cowrote with Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler, went on to become the 2014 Academy Awards’ dark-horse nominee for Best Score. This year alone, Pallett penned a ballet for the National Ballet of Canada and became the Internet’s go-to music scholar, dissecting the arrangements behind Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry in a series of columns for Slate and, more recently, The Guardian.
Still, the bulk of Pallett’s big year has stemmed from In Conflict, which despite its lack of live-show promotion has garnered a veritable flood of positive attention. Written and recorded over a stretch of downtime in 2013, Conflict is Pallett’s fourth studio album, but his first with a live band. Longtime friends bassist Matt Smith and drummer Robbie Gordon do a subtle but noteworthy number on the singer’s swirling soundscapes, making for a record that’s both knotty and visceral. Here, Pallett’s nuanced arrangements feel like they’re spinning just slightly off axis, the instruments bounding to catch up with one another. Take mid-album highlight “Chorale,” which builds on a curious mix of skulking dub bass and sizzling percussion that waxes and then wanes around a regal-sounding horn section. Or “Soldiers Rock,” which finds Pallett’s finger-plucked violin pinging off a Kraftwerk-esque synth line.
“As with all my records, I wanted this one to have that retro-future feel, where it’s both looking forward and looking backward,” Pallett explained, citing The Creatures’ Feast as a major jumping-off point. “We wanted to capture the vibe of ‘Sky Train,’ that propulsive sort of noise-based quality, that locomotive chk-a chk-a chk-a thing,” he laughed. “That’s what gets me off, basically.
“I know it’s so so so cool to have musicians who just seem like they don’t give a fuck and their music comes so effortlessly,” he continued, “but I’m not going to lie to anybody. We labor over it. We think about every decision.”
It stands to mention that the album’s meticulously wrought retro-future feel was helped along by the legendary retro-futurist himself, Brian Eno, who contributes synths, guitars, and backing vocals to a number of In Conflict’s tracks.
“I was aware that I was on his radar back in 2010,” said Pallett, who describes Eno as “basically the closest thing I have to a deity.”
Eventually the pair connected during a festival in Norway where Pallett recalls playing a “particularly good” set. Eno sat side stage and came to him afterward to offer up his praise, which ultimately sealed the bond. “The night after we played that show and he said those things, I was on the verge of just wanting to freak out,” he laughed. “We were all at this after-party, and as soon as Brian left, I ended up just totally raging. I got into a fight. I think a lot of that had to do with built-up feelings about being around somebody you respect and admire so much.”
It’s with a similar air of barely restrained admiration that Pallett talks about Arcade Fire, which (lucky for us) he’ll serve as the opening act for when the band headlines the Bowl next week. “I’m kind of like the bridesmaid — it’s like, ‘Well, Owen’s already there. Let’s get him to do it,’” he laughs, quick to self-deprecate.
But Pallett’s praise for his comrades comes without a trace of sarcasm. “The show is indisputably fantastic, and I’m so proud of them for putting it together,” he said. “It’s just a really immersive concert experience, and it’s so fucking strong in terms of the performances and the material. And I’m barely even a part of it, but it is such an honor to be a part of.”
Bias or no, we can’t help but believe him. Then again, we’ve been calling this one the show of the season for months.
Owen Pallett opens for and plays with Arcade Fire this Monday, August 4, at the Santa Barbara Bowl (1122 N. Milpas St.) at 6:30 p.m. Costumes are highly encouraged. For tickets and info, call (805) 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com.