an interview with Of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes ———- they play Metro this Sunday
by Ben Wilkes
Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes @ NXNE 2012 (more by David Andrako)
Of Montreal began recording music in 1996, the same year TuPac got shot for the last time and Yasar Arafat was still a player in the peace process. Since then, Kevin Barnes, the band’s primary songwriter and lead singer, and his troupe of avant-poppers have released 11 full-length records, 9 EP’s, and 7 compilation albums. All of this by the muse of a musician who told us, “I have no idea how to be commercial.” Such prolific, enduring, and yes, popular output excites curiosity about the creative mode behind it.
I had the chance to talk to Kevin about just that. In the process, we found out why the band rarely play old (pre~2007) songs anymore, why he likens Of Montreal to gospel music, and how the group has attempted to break out of the “indie mold.” Kevin also quite frankly told us what to expect from their next release and what we will hear on this tour. Obviously he has no plans to slow down – intimate spiritual exiles at his home in Athens, GA might just be what keeps him going.
Legendary live performances fit with theatrical skits composed by Kevin’s brother David and glam costumes rivaling Bowie himself greet Chicago on Sunday, December 9 at Metro. Advance tickets for the show are still available.
Our chat begins below…
bvChicago: Hey Kevin, How’s it going?
Kevin Barnes: Well, everyone in Athens [Georgia] got sick around Thanksgiving, so I’m just trying to get that out of my system.
bvC: Wow, that’s the worst timing.
* * *
bvC: When I listen to Of Montreal’s latest album, Paralytic Stalks, I’m intrigued by the lyrical content. While the lyrics remain starkly personal, they seem to form a social commentary that’s broader than I had experienced with your music before. For example, on the track “Spiteful Intervention,” “It’s fucking sad that we need a tragedy to occur to gain a fresh perspective on our lives.” Who’s the audience that you’re addressing here? Did you use a different approach than you’ve used in the past?
Kevin: I actually wasn’t imagining an audience when I was writing it; it’s all very personal. I was in this sort of bubble that I always try to get into when I’m writing. I black out the outside world. Sometimes, when I do that, I can create a certain persona that I’m able to write through. But with Paralytic Stalks, there was no persona. It all came directly from my personal life and personal experiences. I wanted to make a record that was more intimate and confessional. In a way, I’m very self-consumed during the times when I write. I was going through a difficult few years psychologically and emotionally, and writing this record helped me work through it.
That’s the thing with records – I’ve been thinking about it recently – when I’m in that state of mind, I’m out of touch with the outside world. It helps me re-connect with the world once I finish a record and release it. But while I’m writing, I have no real concept of how it’ll be perceived or how even I’ll perceive it once it’s done. So now that I look back on Paralytic Stalks, I don’t really feel the same way that I did while I was making it. I have an outsider perspective on it.
bvC: You frequently combine this intimate, but gloomy exploration with upbeat, lively music. What sort of doors do you think this opens for you creatively?
Kevin: I view music-making in a way that maybe sounds retarded, or people would take it in a pretentious way: I think of the music I make as spiritual music. It has the same purpose as gospel music or songs from the prison yard or cotton fields – music that’s intended to lift your spirit. Not to compare what I go through to slavery or serious torture, but sometimes, mental anguish feels that way. It feels like I’m in a prison or I’m be subjugated by something. So, I’m trying to liberate my mind in the writing process, but at the same time, with spiritual music, you’ve got to talk about something that’s relevant to your life. If you’re facing a challenge or dilemma of some kind, you want to address that directly. It’s a combination of making music that lifts my spirit but also adjusts to personal problems.
bvC: I find that when people trace the history of a band or a certain style of music, it’s done very rigidly. It’s broken up into artificial terms, like when the record deal happened or how the sound changed from album-to-album. How would you trace the progression of Of Montreal?
Kevin: The one consistent thing is that I’ve always looked for a spark, a source of inspiration, then followed it to the end, until I get bored of it; then I look for something new. When I first started writing, I was really influenced by Broadway musicals, vaudeville, and old-style songwriting, y’know like Cole Porter and the Gershwin Brothers. I was also into psychedelic pop music from the 60’s. I combined those two things and that was a great inspiration in my life for many albums. Then, I lost interest in that and became obsessed with glam, David Bowie, Prince, and dance music in general, and focused my energy on that. [takes a breath] Then, we evolved into what became Skeletal Lamping and False Priest, which were pretty funk influenced – I got into Parliament [Funkadelic], Sly & the Family Stone, and Stevie Wonder. On Paralytic Stalks, there were still remnants of that, but with an avant-garde classical influence. Now I’m moving into a new direction inspired by Fairport Convention and to some degree, outlaw country music from the 50’s and 60’s. I’m basically trying to look for new forms of inspiration that can bring new things out of me. I don’t want to stay with the same thing for too long. If it becomes too formulaic, it’s not as fulfilling, or as challenging.
bvC: That explains how my friend went to a show of yours and came back complaining about how y’all didn’t play anything off of Cherry Peel, but I think it makes sense when you describe it like that; that you’re moving through these waves of inspiration.
Kevin: It’s hard for me, because I enter these new periods of my life and discard the old periods. It’s not that I dislike them or am embarrassed by them, it’s just not exciting for me anymore, doesn’t feel as alive or as relevant. I could go back and play those songs, but I’d just feel way more awkward. I wanna sing the songs that I’m in the same spirit as still. If I go too far back, it’s like something I made in 8th grade, I can’t even really identify with that Kevin Barnes anymore.
bvC: Do you think growth in technology and the resources a band has in terms of electronic production and equipment has externally influenced your changes in style?
Kevin: To some degree, it definitely has. When we first started making records, it was all analog. We had those limitations. You know, working with an 8-track or a 16-track, we couldn’t really go much beyond that. With computers, if you have a drum machine built into the software, that changes the style. When I first started experimenting with computer recording, I went kind of crazy; there’re like 200-tracks on some of these songs. It’s really fun to work that way – it makes it a lot easier to work alone. It appealed to me, because that’s how I fell in love with recording music initially when I was in high school and got my first cassette 4-track. I never really had that many friends and that’s what I did in my free time: just work on music. I fell in love with the process of piecing songs together, one instrument at a time, and getting lost in the construction of a song. It’s fun for me to get back into doing that again, to be able to work alone and make things that sound interesting, with denser compositions.
bvC: Does this solitary songwriting strategy ever feel isolating or is that just the way you operate?
Kevin: Well, lately, I’ve found the need to collaborate more. There was a period around The Gay Parade, Aldhils Arboretum, and Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies… that we had a more democratic situation, with everyone in the band writing their own parts. But for whatever reason, I wasn’t getting as much fulfillment out of that, because I wanted to write all the bass lines and I wanted to write all the keyboard lines, and I didn’t want to have to wait for someone else to do it after they got off work or something. It’s like “Oh, I have an idea, I just want to get it down now.” Also, I just didn’t want to have to work around any ego issues other than my own…
bvC: Well those are enough already.
Kevin: [chuckles] It’s much easier to work by yourself. It’s just like any work of art, if you have a really strong vision for what you want it to be and you can do it by yourself, it doesn’t really make any sense to get other people involved. You’re taken out of the process, which is good in a way, because then it becomes more communal, but at the same time, it waters down your vision and potentially, gets way more frustrating. You’ll be like, “Don’t play it like this. Play it like this!” And the other person’s like, “Shut up! I’m the one writing the part.” So you have those kind of silly band arguments. But yeah, I just had this really strong vision of what I wanted to do, I knew I could do it by myself, and I had a good time doing it by myself. I think I also have a tendency to feel a little self-conscious when there are other people in the room while I’m writing or recording. I like being alone so I can get totally immersed in the process.
bvC: The documentary that you guys are funding via Kickstarter, Song Dynasties, sparked a thought. Obviously, writing is a very personal thing for you, a genuine flow of expression. In our consumer-driven, capitalist world how do you reconcile the art that you’re creating with the fact that this is how you support yourself? Is it ever difficult to balance the honesty and integrity of your art with external forces?
Kevin: The thing is, I have no idea how to be commercial. Any attempts I’ve made at being commercial just sort of fail. And the things that I’ve thought wouldn’t really be commercial, have turned out being so. So, much of it is just a matter of the spirit of the time that you can’t really control. The majority of the creative leaps I’ve made are anti-commercial, but not really, because that implies intent. Because I’m naturally attracted to things that aren’t necessarily trendy, that’s one reason why things end up being not commercial. I’ve always been interested in things that are slightly more obscure. And if everybody’s listening to a certain kind of music, then I’ll probably naturally want to listen to something else. Or at least it feels that way, you know? Every once in a while I’ll have this idea that I should only listen to the top 10 records at the time and be influenced by that and make a record that sounds like those and just see what happens. But I don’t think I would get anything out of that really. And if it did go over well, then I would just become more cynical.
bvC: As Of Montreal has aged and developed, the live show has become a central facet of your reputation and the means by which people experience your music. How much of that is planned versus an improvised endeavor?
Kevin: Every night’s a little bit different; every tour is different. We have a general concept of what we’re gonna do. My brother’s the one who writes all the theatrical skits and coordinates the visual element, so he’ll have a pretty strong concept of what he wants to do. But things can definitely evolve and some happy accidents occur and he’s like, “Wow, well that’s what we’re gonna do from now on.” Or after you’ve done the same thing for a couple shows, we’ll decide, “Hey, let’s try something different this time.” It definitely has the freedom to evolve once we hit the road. A lot of times things will seem a certain way and you think, “Oh, this will be cool.” Then you do it a couple nights and you realize that it’s not working and you try something different.
bvC: Do you think your stage identity, Georgie Fruit, liberates you to do whatever you want? I’m just curious how that developed and how you think that fits into your musical persona.
Kevin: Even from the early days, we wanted to have some sort of theatrical element to the show to break from the typical indie rock band getting on stage in street clothes and staring at the floor. With as many tours as we do, having that side to the show makes it more exciting and interesting to do the same thing every night. A lot of times I don’t really know what’s going on with the big ensemble because I’m facing the crowd and not turning around to see what’s going on behind me. So I probably only see 10% of what they’re actually doing. But it feels good to know they actually are doing something, to know that we’re putting on a show that is interesting and unconventional.
bvC: So you guys have already been on a Paralytic Stalks tour this past spring, what’s the thrust of this tour? Are y’all playing a lot of songs off Daughter of Cloud, the new rarities compilation?
Kevin: Yeah, we’re playing a lot of songs off that, as well as a lot off the previous 5 or 6 records. We’re trying to pick songs that we haven’t played for a while. We’re tired of Paralytic Stalks, so we’ll go back and play some False Priest songs. So we’re kind of mixing it up. I tend to get bored pretty quickly with things. I mean, I’ve probably played “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse” like a thousand times. So, if I had my way I wouldn’t play it again for a long time. But at the same time I know Hissing Fauna‘s one of our most popular records and people like us to play those songs. So sometimes you can’t be selfish about it and you have to pick songs that people want to hear. But at the same time, I like to put in songs that, for whatever reason, I am excited to play, even though they weren’t popular songs, or are more like deep cuts.
bvC: So y’all are from Athens, Georgia, which has a pretty excellent music repertoire (i.e. Neutral Milk Hotel, The Olivia Tremor Control, R.E.M., Danger Mouse), and you all stay very connected to the place. How has that influenced Of Montreal?
Kevin: I think living in this small, sleepy, Southern college town definitely helps us to not be distracted by anything and rely on ourselves to find entertainment and inspiration. If I lived in New York, who knows what kind of records I would have made, or San Francisco, L.A., or Chicago, things might be different, but I think that the thing that applies to all of us is that the pace of Athens is so slow. You take your time with things; you don’t feel like anything’s breathing down your neck. It’s kind of like being in a meditative state all the time. So I think that helps us explore different sides of our imaginations. Also, to be untouched by trends and to be free from popular society, it’s very easy to be off-the-grid culturally in Athens. Things will rise to the surface and you’ll discover thoughts in a very organic way and you won’t know is this the hottest thing ever right now, you’ll just know if you like it or if you don’t like it.