Toronto-based wunderkind, Owen Pallett, last interviewed by OMG.BLOG in 2010 following the release of his album Heartland, was one of many artists to release new music during the pandemic. No stranger to the expansive, pastoral opus, Island is Pallett’s fifth official solo full length record. On it, he continues to employ the tale of his protagonist, Lewis (who also featured on Heartland) as he traverses the world of Spectrum.
This alternate reality created by Pallett provides the foundation through which Pallett explores the often treacherous themes of solitude, trauma, sexuality and sexual identity, all encompased in the the constant state of transformation inherent in the queer experience.
Island features some of Owen’s best work, with pulverising depths tempered with moments of extreme sublimity, not a small feat to translate into a palatable (sorry) promotional visual experience of the music video format. Having collaborated with a wide variety of artists and filmmakers up to this point, it’s surprising that this key element to the last two records, with one more to come, has yet to be explored visually.
Enter Toronto-based illustrator Eric Kostiuk Williams, the award winning, increasingly in-demand artist who’s colourful, oozy work harkens back to a time where queer culture was steeped in code and all things subterranean. His work navigates a frothy, psychedelic underworld, steeped in queer histories of club cutlure, populated by queens, freaks, perverts and demi-gods.
Given the mutual otherworldliness of their work, the creative collaboration between the two friends seems overdue. Recently, though, the duo unleashed not one, but two videos in support of the record. This week in particular see’s the release of “Fire Mare,” which expands on the work they explored in a video for “Paragon of Order” shortly before that. The new single comes in advance of the vinyl release of the record, with packaging as rich as its contents.
We talked to Eric and Owen about how all these intersecting elements resulted in their collaboration and what we can expect from Owen’s as-yet-unreleased third installment in the turbulent fable of Lewis the farmer.
Read the full Q&A after the jump!
Kevin Hegge: Hi Owen! I’m wondering if you can describe your relationship to Eric and his artwork, and why it appealed to you to apply it to the visual world of this record?
Owen: Sure! Eric and I are friends, and I’m a fan of his graphic work but it never really occurred to me that we would ever collaborate, or at least not on a video. When I was considering what I wanted the video for “Paragon of Order,” I was really inspired by the Peaches video for her track “Rub, which was made by Peaches and the LA-based artist Lex Vaughn. I loved the way that that video portrayed a very aggressive version of a female sexuality. I was interested in having a sexually explicit investigation of a more soft masculine sexuality. I was exploring all these different potential collaborations, like working with Steven Dunn, the director of Closet Monster, as well as working with Bruce LaBruce, which was something that was under discussion.
Then, one day I was watching La Jetee and I was like, “Oh my gosh, you can tell such a strong story so well with just a series of still images. On top of this, the pandemic had already started, so options about how we were going to film were limited. Then it occurred to me, seeing as Eric has this way of drawing male sexuality that’s very appealing to me – not just in an erotic sense, but I just felt like it was very in line with the visual aspect that I wanted to have tell the “Paragon” story with. So I reached out to Eric and we just kind of verbally made up a storyboard and described what we wanted Lewis to look like, and he just started drawing! There was little to no edification that went on. It came together really, really quickly.
I also wanted to have a video for “Fire Mare” so I subsequently asked Eric to do that one as well, and as great as “Paragon” was, I think “Fire Mare” even supersedes it in every way. It’s probably my favorite music video that I’ve produced. So many others are just as amazing, but I’m so happy that something as difficult as telling Lewis’s narratives through visual representation, especially something as sensitive as the plot of “Fire Mare,” where it’s drawing from events that happen in Heartland but also has a visual representation of the songwriter in it… I was just so thrilled with how it turned out.
Eric, there’s a scene in the “Paragon” video that takes place in a bathhouse that really stands out, stylistically. You’ve worked with bands in the past for album covers or artwork. How is the process of adapting your work to another artist’s work? Can you talk about the freedoms or challenges that brings, and why the sexual nature of that scene loosens up in terms of the style structure of your work?
Eric: Well it was a really interesting exercise working on the video, because so much of my own personal work through comics and illustration from over the years has had a slightly whimsical, campy quality to it. So I was kind of excited to step away from that, and get into a world that’s a bit more serious in tone, or rooted in a more mythological, fantasy aesthetic. For part of that process for the “Paragon” video, I started working with brushes a bit more, which I hadn’t done in years, which makes things a little looser and more expressive.
For early scenes, it was interesting going with a different representation. But then when we were talking about the bathhouse scene, that kind of fell more into my comfort zone for being a bit sexier, and kind of dipping into more surrealism, which is something that I’ve featured a lot in my work over the years. I remember Owens specifically saying he wanted things to get melty and squishy in the way your other stuff has been. I felt like that scene felt like the dessert part of the music video in a way!
There’s so much water, like oceany imagery throughout the videos, so it was fun making visual parallels, like the steam and the warping of figures leading right into the final scene where he’s getting swept up by the waves. It was a lot of work, but it was also just such a collaborative process. It’s just really exciting. I felt like her brains clicked really well.
Owen, can you give us the Coles Notes update on where we’re finding Lewis, the protagonist whose narrative is woven through your last two albums, in these videos?
Owen: The basic format of it is that at the end of (Pallett’s 2010 record) Heartland, Lewis was killed by his creator Owen, or at least kind of disposed of him in some way – it’s unclear as to where Owen really is in this world. On this album, Island, Lewis is alone, and he falls into cycles of hedonism by drinking and going to bathhouses and stuff like that.
Lewis’s sexuality has always been ambiguous. He’s pretty clearly heterosexual on Heartland, and on Island he’s pretty clearly homosexual, but, as a result of his hedonism, he causes some real life destruction, both to himself and to those around him. He’s in prison as a result, and he calls upon Owen in a kind of a fit of desperation. And then, it’s unclear what exactly releases him from prison and lifts them up into space, but that’s the end of the album.
So really, like the kind of basic plot points of this, we were able to summarize and have contained just within these two songs, “Paragon of Order” and “Fire Mare.”
It will all become clear on the third installment! It’s all written. I haven’t written those specific lyrics yet, but the plot outline for what happens in the explanation for everything turned out great. Wrapped it up better than, uh, better than Madmen!
But I had something, I had something I wanted to say, relating to the previous thing you were talking about in terms of all squishy imagery. I’ve actually thought about this recently when watching porn, and seeing the way that eroticism is depicted and the way that sexual interaction has to be kind of adjusted so that it can be filmed, to try and convey the thrill of penetrating or being penetrated.
Like, although it’s maybe erotic to look at, it’s not actually really representative of what sex is and what it feels like psychologically. I feel when I’m looking at Eric’s imagery, both within the “Paragon” video and his other visual representations of sexual interaction, that it’s much closer to the actual experience, this kind of squishiness and surrealism, the bodies becoming ambiguous and feeling very fluid.
Eric: Well s been a dry spell this year, so I’m glad I still know how to represent it in some way.
Owen: You completely forgot what it feels like. So it’s not entirely accurate. It’s like a faded photograph.
When I was looking at the YouTube comments of “Paragon of Order,” these hardcore fans were freaking out about how it was the first time that they were seeing Lewis – visually manifesting that must have been a lot of pressure!
Eric: Yes! I saw that too. Early into the planning for “Paragon,” I did the first sketch of Lewis to show Owen, and he said he needed to be a little more rough around the edges, just because of where he’s at in this video. So I just kind of made him slightly disheveled, but also a bit hotter, with wider shoulders and neck type of thing. When I showed Owen the final design, we were both like, “Ooooh, that works!”
Owen: He’s actually meant to be kind of Twink-y on Heartland. He’s meant to basically be like Zach Effrony, like from High School Musical.But now he’s like a… What’s that word for somebody who was a twink and he’s no longer a twink?
Owen: A Tweren’t! I invented that. And somebody who pretends they’re a twink, but never really was a twink is called a Twasn’t.
You have to keep that in. I think I’m a twasn’t! Kevin, you’re a tweren’t because you used to be a twink and Eric, you’re still pretty Twinky. You’re just a twink.
All the seasons of twinkdom contained in this one Zoom meeting! Owen, why did you decide to introduce the visual of Lewis at this point in time? Was that a timed intention, or did that just come out of brainstorming with Eric?
Owen: I wanted it from the beginning. I’d even been talking to people that I wanted to cast as Lewis. I was talking to a male friend, who’s Trans, that I thought would be a really good representation of Lewis.
I was talking to a friend of mine who’s kind of pansexual, gender neutral, and biracial, who I thought would be a really good representation because I kind of wanted Lewis to have this ambiguity about his presentation so that it didn’t imply any particular one state. I wanted him to kind of be loose in terms of his identity, but then he became more of a masculine archetype, as Eric and I were developing it and it kind of fit.
How does Eric’s image-translation compare to your vision of this world, Spectrum, as you invented or envisioned it?
Owen: I just wish there was more! Eric and I have talked about the possibility of soliciting funds to enable him to set aside several months of his year, next year, to complete videos for the rest of Island or even songs from Heartland, or songs for the third Lewis album, which has yet to be made. I think that it’s a really appropriate union.
And I also think that it’s really kind of unprecedented to have a full graphic novel that’s presented in a music video format. I really want to do that. So if anybody’s reading this, if anybody’s sitting on an extra few hundred thousand dollars that they can, um, PayPal us then, you know, we’ll make something really beautiful!
Now that you’ve committed to the visual of this world and this character through Eric’s work, does it not kind of cement you to that interpretation of that world? In that way, it makes even more sense to explore it further.
Owen: Yeah, I would agree. I do feel as if Spectrum is looking exactly like I imagined it! I didn’t really have one set kind of idea about what Lewis would look like, but I’m really happy with this version of him.
Do you think your fans are there with you, in terms of this narrative path continuing through these records? Do you have a sense that there are places that the story to go like you might with a soap opera or something like that?
I think that people are starting to correctly identify certain themes, like people who are really invested in the narrative. I mean, Heartland even had PhD thesis written about it! And I read them all. I was very curious as to how people were unpacking the whole thing. Sometimes they were saying stuff that wasn’t in line with what I was trying to convey, but other times they were so astutely observing what I was writing, that they were giving me insight into my own work.
This thing I’m realizing more and more is that certain people listening to my music are starting to understand not just the relationship of queerness in terms of sexuality, but how Heartland and Island relate to gender issues and Trans ideas, and starting to put these connections together that I myself am really thrilled about. I kind of came up in a scene where there were a lot of “gay” bands that were explicitly singing about gay sex.
I’m thinking of Kids on TV, and Hidden Cameras and stuff like that. I’ve always kind of had an approach where I wanted my work to be queer, but I didn’t want it to speak specifically about like cottaging or sucking dicks or whatever, so I’m really, really gratified that certain listeners are picking up on those themes.
Eric, can you talk about “Fire Mare” and how you handled the appearance of Owen in the video?
I was thrilled that Owen asked about a second video, because the first one was such a positive experience. I was especially excited because “Fire Mare” is my favorite song from the album, and seems to be a fan favorite as well. We knew we wanted to bring in full color halfway through for when this dream sequence emerges as does Owen.
Again, I did a character design of music-video Owen, and it worked out well. I always get a little intimidated when drawing friends or real people. I know, for some reason, just trying to capture likenesses can be a little funny.
I can imagine it’s a terrifying experience for everyone involved! So is that why you drew Owen super buff and young?!
Owen: I told Eric when drawing me that I didn’t want him to oversell me, I wanted to look my age! I have very skinny, spindly limbs, and I wanted them to be represented as such. He did kinda bulk me up a little bit, regardless. He shaved about five years off of me. Next time you have to shave me down like Todd Haynes shaved down a Barbie!
Eric, because these videos aren’t technically animations, was it a challenge for you to adapt your style into one that would work more for a music video?
Yes, I was nervous at first, cause I actually love music videos. They’re probably my favorite art form, or up there at the top with comics. There’s a lot of similarities between them from the get-go. Someday I’d love to learn proper animation, like flash or whatever, but for making a series of still images, I wanted to make sure that I was bringing enough to the table that it wouldn’t feel like lesser-than-animation.
So part of that was creating a sense of movement between images. Then, when I found out we got to do a second video, I was really excited to push myself on that front. Plus we had a lot more time to make “Fire Mare,” so I had a few months over the summer and fall to really nail it.
My two favorite parts of the video are where Lewis kind of languishing in the prison cell as the day goes by. Using a light table, I traced the entire prison cell background for each of the four images and redrew them in great detail, but showing the sun moving across the cell throughout the day. Then the way we did a gradual transition from one image to the other turned out really successfully, I think.
Then, into the dream sequence, Owen was suggesting these images referencing Heartland, that were kind of jumping from one to another in terms of content, but through all of them, we have Music-Video Owen approaching Lewis from the background. I wanted to have all the images and environments changing, but the one constant is Owen coming closer and closer. So that was really rewarding to put together, to see how it came out like that was really fun.
Owen: I think the real turning point was the moment when, in the “Paragon” video, Eric sent me the image of Lewis’s face looking drunk and sad, and then it transitions to a memory of him kicking Owen off a cliff. But his face is still there in the sky, like he’s like having this memory, and when I did a crossfade of the two images, it was so seamless and beautiful. We were just like, alright, wow, we know this works and we can not only just have this be kind of, “image, image, image,” but we can actually have the images interact with each other sequentially and it will be effective.
Eric: It was really exciting making them. It’s the same medium in terms of the way I work, but it’s a new medium in terms of how it’s presented. So there’s still so much potential in it. That’s where the idea of making more videos in the future is really exciting. I still feel like there’s so much I want to explore and experiment with.
There is this sense of finality to the end of “Fire Mare” with this transcendent moment with Lewis taking off in this fiery ascension. Is that meant to be some sort of finality or more of a cliffhanger?
Eric: Or is he going off to get fucked in space?!
Owen: Well, at the time, I mean, we wanted to just show what happens, which is that he starts to ascend into space in some manner, which is just described as that he’s fucked. I think that it’s kind of meant to be both, because we weren’t sure if there’s going to be another video, if we’re going to have the inclination or the time or money to kind of put that together.
So I think with both videos, we wanted it to both be conclusive, but also give the opportunity for a sequel. So there’s not like a post-credits cliffhanger, Marvel movie kind of like, “to be continued…”
It’s more of a pilot than a franchise at this point in time.
Owen: Exactly. Yeah.
That’s very practical! Can you talk about the vinyl release for the album? The packaging has been revealed and it’s a pretty heavy duty reveal!
Owen: Yeah. The vinyl took a lot of extra time to put together for a number of reasons, so we weren’t able to get it delivered this year, but we’ve just put out the pre-order and it will be delivered in March of next year.
The vinyl features artistic contributions from several people. Can you talk about those pieces that make up the album artwork?
Owen: Interestingly enough, the cover of the album was not at all anticipated. I was just doing a photo shoot with Jeff Bierk as the photographer, and Jeremy Laing working as the general stylist, kind of like our director. We just had this very apropos image where Jeremy’s hand is kind of holding me in place and we have an iPhone casting light in a basement.
And, as soon as I saw the image, I was like, “This is perfect for the cover.” It conveys the mood, it references the cover to Heartland in a way, because I’m also on the cover of Heartland, also in a kind of distorted, strange way. So that was how we came up with the cover. It was just by accident.
I also (I think in 2018), when I was thinking about what would be an effective cover in the context of the larger schema of what covers look like, I was looking through all the albums released in 2018, and I didn’t see any covers that had candid photos of the artists. So I thought that would be a really good cover. Then, ironically 2020 was a year filled with all these album covers that were candid janky photos. So it’s like I kind of anticipated, but then fell behind on a zeitgeisty trend!
Jeremy has also been doing a lot of… What do you call it when you’re making a rug? Hooking. He was doing some kind of hooking art, and it was so beautiful we thought that it was a nice contrast to the very stark imagery, so that when you pulled the record out, there’s this beautiful spectrum of colors. That’s also meant to be reflected in Eric’s video, how there is this colorful interior world.
The vinyl includes a limited run that comes with the demos of the album, so for that we used an image from the “Paragon of Order” video that Eric had made.
I had made a series of demos and circulated them amongst my friends to get their reaction. These demos were completed in 2016, and I was sending them around to friends, and I got such a positive response! People were saying these are the best songs I’ve ever written, and that I should just put the demos out themselves.
This is part of the reason Island is so stripped down. I always wanted to release them, and so we’re releasing them analog-only. So the only way that people are going to hear these demos is on vinyl, and there are only 500 copies. So, you got to get in early and get that deluxe edition!
I like that you’re continuing this curatorial approach to packaging your records by incorporating work created by the community that you’ve been a part of for a very long time.
Eric: I was thinking earlier about how the community connections kind of led us to start working together on this. I forget how many years ago, but before I knew you super well, Owen, I had to draw you as a part of the cluster for Maggie Macdonald’s No One Receiving podcast series, which would have been two years ago now, maybe longer!
I had to draw you and (Toronto-based musician ) Mike Barry as boyfriends for your characters in the podcast, which is so funny. Then when I worked with Fucked Up on the Dose Your Dreams album art; you contributed some arrangements to that and Maggie was a creative consultant on it. So it was all very cute and linked in a way.
Eric, with all this talk about your ability to portray the lustful fever state of sex through ilustration, I wondered if that made COVID-imposed isolation even, er, harder?
Owen: What he’s really asking is do you jerk off to your own drawings?
Well I think a lot of people will be jerking off to this incarnation of Lewis, plus needing to escape to another world. So it’s rather good timing for the release of this work!
Eric: When I first started publishing my auto-bio comics, I would occasionally get random emails from strangers saying that they got off on them! I was like, “Oh my god, that’s amazing.” It was flattering, kind of creepy, but like, great.
But yes — it was a very meaningful thing to work on during COVID stuff, especially just having something to focus on over the spring and summer. So I’ll always remember it fondly for that, among other things!
— Q&A by Kevin Hegge (@theekevinhegge)