INTERVIEW: Owen Pallett on the making of The Mountain Goats’ In League With Dragons

Owen Pallett photo: Yuula Benivolski

This interview is part three of an epic trilogy, following my NOW Magazine article and extended Q&A with John Darnielle on the Mountain Goats’ In League With Dragons. Owen Pallett was kind enough to type up in-depth answers to my emailed questions about his production of the album, which I was only able to use a fraction of for my original piece, so I now have his blessing to blog them here in full. If you’re in Toronto, catch the Mountain Goats tonight at the Phoenix, and listen to their stunning new record. In the meantime, read on for my chat with Owen!

I know you first toured with The Mountain Goats in 2009, but how did you originally become aware of John’s music? He mentioned that you covered one of his songs and were a fan before you began collaborating.

Caleb from Cerberus Shoal first told me about We Shall All Be Healed back in 2003 or so, and I met John Darnielle at a party in Chapel Hill in 2005, and later he wrote a nice review of He Poos Clouds for Plan B magazine in 2006, but it wasn’t until 2007 that I actually listened to The Mountain Goats. I was in a car in Dawson City with Grant Lawrence and his producer and they put on “No Children” at full volume and I said “what the hell is this” and dove in. By 2008 I was e-mailing John ideas about constructing his set lists randomly by casting coins. I covered a few of his songs live— “Alpha Omega”, “Pure Heat” and “Going To Bristol.”

I definitely derive equal-but-different satisfaction from the material from his boombox years and his 4AD/Merge years. I found that John’s performances on his early records had so many wonderful moments of improvisation and accident that they’re absolutely riveting.

When John asked you to come on as the producer of In League With Dragons, he said you came up with a proposal to bring in Thom Gill, Johnny Spence, and Bram Gielen for the sessions. Why did you choose them specifically?

John had been throwing references at me that suggested “excellent musicians” and “a certain amount of pre-production.” Initially I’d proposed that we learn all the songs prior to entering the studio, but the calibre of musicianship (both with my hired guns and the band itself) made it clear that we would be able to do things quickly.

John has also been an enormous Thom Gill fan since we were on tour in 2009—John’s interest in working with me was also an interest in working with Thom. Because I know that Johnny and Bram have wonderful chemistry with Thom, I thought it’d be an excellent Wrecking Crew. The chemistry was so strong that I’ve since used the same trio on other recordings I’ve made, and hope to use them regularly in the future.

John also talked about how you chose to focus on playing the songs as they written, bringing a “krautrock diligence” (in his words) to the parts as opposed to experimenting in studio. Was it your intention to preserve his original impulses as faithfully as possible?

Part of the appeal of The Mountain Goats’ early recordings is the sparsity of the production, the feeling of simplicity and space. My favourite latter-day “recorded in the studio” songs retain that same feeling of suspension—“Against Pollution” in particular is dramatic because so little happens, the understatement of the performance is electrifying.

I found myself asking for performances that were trimmed of any superfluousness. I asked Jon Wurster to play no fills. I asked Peter Hughes to play no disco octaves, to stick to the simplest line possible. I started using “grains of rice” as a unit of measurement for how many gestures I wished for each player to contribute to a performance—I’d say, “Johnny, on that pass, you gave seven grains of rice. Let’s bring it back to four grains of rice”—the idea being that if you limit the number of gestures you perform, it gives added weight to the gestures you retain.

“Done Bleeding”, which ended up being the opening track on the album, presents a very clear thesis. Bass playing straight eights, drums playing a basic beat… I wanted this album to be brutal in the simplicity and restraint of the performance. (I felt, too, that this would be a good approach, given the harmonic adventurousness that John had gotten into on certain songs such as “Done Bleeding” and “Doc Gooden.”)

I also saw you mention on Facebook asking Jon Wurster to play as few drum fills as possible, which he seems to stick to outside of the country-rock accents of the title track and the New Order hi-hat mania on “Sicilian Crest,” which stands out from the rest of the songs. Why did you want to him avoid flashiness?

I find repetitious drum beats to be more interesting. Keeping a beat that is simple, allowing for the drama of the performance to be subject to one’s own bodily capability, it sounds very human to me. It sounds like prayer, it sounds like the mind trying to grasp the concept of infinity. I love that sound.

It also creates incredible drama when Jon starts going outside the box. There’s one or two snare interjections on “Clemency For The Wizard King” that are so simple, but so powerful. Or the outro on “Younger”, when after five minutes of the same thing, Jon finally starts to rock out. If you deliver a restrained performance, it makes those moments of excitement that much more exciting.

Thom’s guitar solo on “Cadaver Sniffing Dog” and Johnny’s organ playing on “Doc Gooden” are a few other standout moments in my opinion. Are there any other passages or arrangements on the album you’re especially excited about?

I knew Johnny was a synth wizard but I had no idea, literally no idea, how amazing he was on the Hammond. As soon as we heard him on it, we started getting him on everything.

I think “Done Bleeding” is one of the finest songs/productions I’ve ever had a hand in… everything about it from Johnny’s organ, Bram’s sweeping synths, the rock-solid rhythm section, and the moment-of-truth string entrance, I can’t think of a better song I’ve worked on. “Clemency Of The Wizard King” was also completely wonderful. John and Matt on each side of a figure-8 microphone and holding each others hands, singing in perfect harmony. I’m very attached, too, to the drama of John’s vocal performances on “Possum By Night” and “Going Invisible 2.”

John is very proud of the work done by the band on this record, and wants people to focus on what he describes as a “gigantic texture for him to sit inside of.” Was that your ultimate intention as well?

I’m really glad he felt that way! I myself was entirely preoccupied with the mood of the performance, and making sure that it complimented the lyrics, as well as contributed to a larger sound-world of the album as a whole. The days we spent working on the album were, frankly, extremely smooth—only a couple of minor arguments. John kept delivering home-run after home-run in his vocal performances.

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