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June Garber

Final Fantasy: Falling in Love with a Video Game Character

Polaris Prize winner Owen Pallet, aka Final Fantasy, didn't set out to court acclaim but by following his own strange vision he's found it anyway.

By Scott Wood


An elf? A mage? A druid? Polaris Prize winner
Owen Pallett
When I congratulated Owen Pallett a.k.a. Final Fantasy on his album He Poos Clouds winning the inaugural Polaris Music Prize, he was still having trouble with the fact that he had won. In fact, Pallett ranks himself at nine or ten among the other finalists—Broken Social Scene, Cadence Weapon, The Deadly Snakes, Sarah Harmer, K’Naan, Malajube, Metric, The New Pornographers and Wolf Parade.

For those unfamiliar with Polaris, it is Canada’s first monetary prize—$20,000—for a full-length album based solely on artistic merit, without regard to genre or record sales. The CBC called him the darkhorse, and, as Pallett is quick to point out, when he read articles about Polaris, before the winner was announced, some didn’t even mention him.

Pallett thought Wolf Parade’s Apologies to the Queen Mary was going win and he is quite convinced that the jurors awarded him the prize because they have a dodgy sense of humor. “It’s kinda of hilarious that a string quartet album about Dungeons & Dragons with a trademark infringement band name and a kind of vulgar album title just got called ‘the best album.’”

I tell Pallett he is too quick to sell himself short. Despite the intentionally odd name, He Poos Clouds is ambitious and wonderfully strange. But the album was not an easy birth. When Pallett first started writing Clouds, he knew that stuff he was doing with his previous band les Mouches—basically arguments that he sang or as Pallett chuckles, “I-hate-myself-I-wanna-die-please-stick-it-in-me sorta songs”—would not work. Final Fantasy would be a chance to develop himself.

So Pallett set out to modernize the eight Schools of Magic from the Dungeons & Dragons Magic User’s Handguide. However, there is no need to cringe. He Poos Clouds is not a record about elves, unicorns and composite longbows.

For example, the song “This Lamb Sells Condos” uses ‘Conjuration’ as a starting point, but the song is about a real estate developer who Pallett holds accountable for the destruction of the Toronto waterfront and turning it into a future condo slum. Sadly, he sees the same fate in store for Vancouver and thinks the city deserves buildings made from better quality.

“Song Song Song” was inspired by ‘Invocation’ and is a reaction to male-centric music and art music criticism. Pallett frowns while explaining, “a lot of women artists, especially musicians, get called ‘crazy’ anytime they try to do something innovative.” In the song, he is “encouraging them to create their own language by forgetting that they are women.” And, remember, this is a string quartet album.

‘Necromancy’ is updated in “If I So I am escaping into my music by creating music that is escaping into fantasy. Were A Carp”, which is a fictional retelling of the death of his brother’s godfather. This friend of the family’s lower intestines had burst after a stroke, so his final days were filled with agony and morphine. Pallet remembers being at his bedside quite vividly, “He had this interesting pattern of falling into unconsciousness and coming up, and the look of eyes when he came back into conscious was one of incredible terror. You always hear about people dying and coming back to life and seeing ‘the light’… obviously he was not seeing any light, and he was really having to deal hardcore with his own mortality.”

The experience instilled in Pallett what it really means to be an atheist, “the terror of ending up a smear on the sidewalk.”

“In a way this album is a really conceptually cynical,” as an atheist Pallett is disturbed by current global events. “Every single thing you read in the world today is just conflicts between different beliefs that I hold in equal contempt—not because I am better or more intellectual than them, I consider them all equals. But it’s very, very frustrating to read the paper everyday and see that sort of thing. So I am escaping into my music by creating music that is escaping into fantasy. And it is meant to both be a statement about the state of religion on society and my own personal viewpoint on atheism.”

I try to add some levity to our chat by asking him what his D&D character is. An elf? Mage? Pallett somewhat sheepishly admits that he was a druid and that he found the game “extremely boring” yet still zealously read the handbooks.

But Pallett wants to keep things serious, and here he comes out as a fantasy aficionado. He Poos Clouds was his attempt at serious fantasy art. As he sees it, so many classic novels—he cites Dante, Huxley and George Orwell—are utopian and dystopian commentary on our society. And those stories are told exclusively in the fantasy or science fiction realm. Pallett is tired of the cuddle-friendly Lord of the Rings and wants fantasy to be the realm of the auteur, instead of CGI action blockbuster stuff.

When Pallett brings up blockbusters, I mention a quote of his, where he stated that he thought megaband Coldplay made “manipulative” music. Pallett admits he listens to Coldplay “all the time” but feels their motivations are quite different from his own. “When somebody says ‘can you feel it?’, or something to do with ‘looking in your eyes’, or ‘baby baby, baby, yeah!’—they are totally brilliant lyrics because they evoke something individually in everybody and that’s manipulating their emotions by causing them to recall things that have nothing to do with the music they are listening to. It’s creating universal music.” 

He feels his Final Fantasy project is more The look of eyes when he came back into conscious was one of incredible terror. You always hear about people dying and coming back to life and seeing 'the light'... obviously he was not seeing any light. akin to filmmaker Todd Solondz, who Pallett feels “is interested in painting a very sharp, precise portrait. [Like] the girl in Welcome to the Dollhouse—who no one will ever have anything in common with, since she is in such insane situations. I am more interested to show the relationships between things rather than trying to evoke something [audiences] have already felt.” Then I ask him if we will ever see an album about him emoting like the Coldplay singer. He is emphatic, “No, all my songs are about me expressing my emotions. Chris martin’s songs are about the rest of the world.”

At his point I ask Pallett about his thoughts on being a queer artist, the inherent responsibility, since the subject matter of his work is not overtly G-A-Y. Pallett takes a moment to enjoy his tuna melt and then answers, “You can always detect whether someone is gay or not even if there isn’t sodomy involved.” He feels the process is all linked to coming out and declaring that you are going to deviate from what is expected. “I feel that making that sexually motivated decision in the face of tradition is kind of anti-establishment, kind of punk rock, so I think that you can hear when a gay artist is making music as opposed to a ‘breeder’ because their music sounds very anti-establishment and there is an element of destruction with it.”

A gay man making a string quartet album where the song inspired by a D&D ‘transmutation’ spell is about plastic surgery and cooking? Yeah I have to agree—that is pretty punk rock.

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