For some, the fantastical mythology and theses behind Final Fantasy's He Poos Clouds might seem impenetrable, but more than a cursory listen to the album reveals critical, occasionally derisive commentary on our modern-day world. My recent interview with Final Fantasy (nom de disc of Owen Pallett, the son of two entomologists and the string composer of the Arcade Fire's Grammy-nominated Funeral) reveals even more of the artist's judicious eye: of himself, video games, the United States, and (ahem) fans of poignancy. He Poos Clouds is musically thoughtful, imaginative, and florid, but make no mistake: There are no floral patterns here. Pallett's music contains ideas—and they're worth paying attention to.
One of your very first musical projects was scoring a video game at the age of 12. How did that come about?
My brother was a graphic designer on the game Jill of the Jungle, which was a small hit on the shareware BBS's. He then got the money to produce his own game, which was called Traffic Department 2192, which in turn I wrote the music for. It's pretty embarrassing music, I must admit.
Which do you prefer: The old-school Nintendo version of Final Fantasy or the PlayStation-era ones?
I like Final Fantasy VI and IX. The rest of them are tedious. I even gave Chrono Trigger a shot, but it was magnificently boring. But I'm a Tetris player; give me action any day.
What was the impetus for the three guidelines you created for the making of your new album He Poos Clouds?
I decided to make it a string quartet album because I thought it would be a pretty fucked up thing to do, to make a record that only had quartet on it. I'm in total admiration of early Felt albums, Young Marble Giants's debut album, and all these other monochromatic records that make so much out of so little. In an age where every instrument makes it onto every record, I wanted to make a string quartet record. And it was wonderful, hard work, even though I totally failed. I had to put a bunch of other instruments on topto round the whole thing out. But it was really tough; I've never written for string quartet before, and I wanted to avoid the pitfall of imitating NYC minimalists, which is the sound of too many classical/pop hybrids, and makes for very complacent sounding music. But I'll make another quartet record sometime, and hopefully it will be an improvement.
The second thesis was the Dungeons & Dragons thing. That was just a hilarious conversation that turned into something quite serious. The more I got into researching D&D, the more tragic the whole thing became. It's such a detailed way of codifying the world we live in, but without any actual belief process, and no spiritual benefits. I love it. I think TSR (or Wizards of the Coast) should design a fully functional religion—devoid of any actual belief system—that involves the worship of fictional deities, the practice of invented rituals, and lots of personal and environmental enrichment. As well as sexy mating rituals, good costumes, amazing wedding parties. It would be great.
The last thesis was the grand statement, “Nobody who ever listens to the album will ever again entertain thoughts of suicide.” This doesn't mean the album is meant to be a cure for depression. Rather, I'm making an effort to demystify death and sing about it frankly and humorously. Although everybody thought this last statement was meant to be a joke, I just read this morning that Philip Pullman had the same purpose when he wrote the His Dark Materials trilogy. Frustrated with the image of the heroic warrior, the tragic suicide, and, in general, the way death was glorified in every fantasy novel in history, specifically C.S. Lewis, he made an effort to approach death and killing in His Dark Materials with a sense of stark realism. Bodies decay and rot. Ghosts are tormented. All deaths are senseless and unnecessary. Never does anybody “die for a purpose.” I feel the same way and hope that, in my small way, with my silly lyrics, I can convey the same sentiment.
The lyrics of songs like “This Lamb Sells Condos” marry the ancient and the (post)modern, drawing on D&D as well as real-life scenarios. Why was it important for you to “modernize” the game in this way?
Most people don't take fantasy fiction seriously enough, and I think it's the best method of commentary and satire on contemporary life.
Do you think that because of the nature of the album that He Poos Clouds is less “personal” and/or accessible than your debut Has a Good Home?
Don't know and really don't care. More casual listeners seem to like Has A Good Home better than He Poos Clouds, but more often than not, casual listeners are looking for poignancy in music. Personally, I'm not interested in manipulating people's emotions to the point of poignancy. I like music that contains ideas, not floral patterns.
Is it true that some music files were lost during the recording process? How did this affect the final product?
Yes. We lost “I'm Afraid Of Japan” and we had to splice it together from some demos. We also had three different versions of “Arctic Circle” that were all wrong, so we cut and pasted between different versions. If you listen with headphones, you can hear the instruments moving back and forth in the mix as we crossfade, and strange breaths that go nowhere. And, as always, we made every effort to record/mix/master everything as fast as possible to preserve all the valuable defects that make recordings so special.
The vocals on the album aren't placed particularly high in the mix.
That's the way it's supposed to sound. If I were to list all the things about every album I've ever heard that I'd like to change, I'd grow old and die and never have time to listen to another record. In short, I wouldn't ever tell Rufus Wainwright he over-sings because, well, that's the way he wants it to sound, right?
On the album's final track, “The Pooka Sings,” the titular creature ostensibly challenges your belief in magic, winged men, and the healing powers of love, and you seemingly cave in to the questioning and answer “No.”
I don't believe in any of these things. He's asking me why I've written this overwrought album that is, really, just fiction. Although I die and the album ends, my rebuttal comes in the next album, which is entirely fictional high fantasy.
If you could relinquish one of your human senses or abilities in exchange for one magical power, which would you choose?
I'd trade all my senses for a Swords-to-Plowshares spell. I would cast it on the United States.