Monday, June 29, 2009
Another BP interview unearthed! This time from Philadelphia's Used Wigs website. It is actually a very enjoyable podcast, but if you want to go straight to the (beeps) point, it's 24 minutes in... Here, BP talks about what it's like to live in Athens, offers some insight about the A Pollinaire Rave comedy tour, and discusses why Philadelphia's is one of his favorite cities (and a whole lot more!).
So check out this video, and learn about
(a) the different types of tomato sauce,
(b) who, between a lion and a shark, would win if they ever got to fight on the moon (and why),
(c) Kevin's grandfather's hunting habits (and things you always wanted to know about the South but never dared to ask) and
(d) why squirrels are akin to fish.
Oh, and also, Kevin and Bryan are apparently very confused about the differences between being vegetarian, vegan or pescatarian, and Kevin can't pronounce "Yorkshire" right (which send that annoying Mancunian college girl turned interviewer into squeaking mode). Oh well. At least there's no question about the name of the band, and no sign of Georgie Fruit either.
Thanks to spirichwlpasta over at the Townhall for the link.
Sunday, June 28, 2009
Q : I don't know if you're aware of the fact that tonight in Brussels there is the gay & lesbian film festival... Is it a coincidence?
K : Well, maybe not... God works in mysterious ways...
Q: Are you often shocked by questions?
K : No, never. I've no idea what it would take to shock me... Something physical would have to happen.
Q: So I won't hurt you...
K : Unless you start to choke me, I think I'll be fine.
Q: I know it's a phony question, but do you feel like a gay icon?
K: That would be weird because I'm not gay. But I really champion the gay cause, because I feel like so many people are so uptight and feel like they have to identify with their gender. They think they have to have a fixed identity, it is so important to them. Being caught making out with a person of the same sex would be a nightmare for a lot of people, which is absurd. I think people should be free to explore and less uptight.
Q: Do you think that what we call in French “la fluidité des genres” is an important thing and do you think that there will be a time when people are more comfortable with gender fluidity?
K: It's hard to say. Humanity has always been like that. We carry this burden and we pass it on to our children, who will in turn pass it on to their children... It clearly doesn't seem to be getting any better. But maybe, eventually, yeah... maybe it'll be a whole new epoch and everyone will be free... I don't know... At the same time, as long as people are not violent and don't fight you for being who you are, and don't hinder your self expression, I don't care if someone's uptight. Really, they have their own reality and it's their thing... I have my own reality and it's my thing. I'd be as much of a fascist if I tried to turn them into someone like me and threaten them with punishment... Obviously the first step is for everyone to be cool and care about their own business. I wouldn't want everyone to be like me. I'll do my thing, you'll do your thing and as long as we can live together peacefully, that's fine to me.
Q: Do you hide behind a character or can someone listening to your songs guess who you truly are?
K: You can definitely get to know me personally. Nothing's ever purely fictional. Everything I sing about is something that occurred to me, that comes from my mind... I can't fake it. I couldn't write something that's completely alien to who I truly am, how I truly feel... At least on some level, there is honesty in everything I do.
Q: So who's Tim?
K: Tim was a very good friend of mine when I was growing up in a small town. There wasn't any cool people around, people like us... Tim is the only person I had – I wasn't sexually attracted to him, but to me, it would have been perfect if it had been the case. We had great moments together, and I was really fond of him... It's kind of a tragedy of sexual preference.
Q: Would it have been a problem for you to be sexually attracted to a man?
K: No, not at all. I look forward to it. I love it when something unexpected happens, something I'd never thought about, things I'd never thought I'd do. I try to stay open to new experiences, and not have any strict rules for myself : “this is who you are – this is how you should act.” I want my identity to be as fluid as possible, and I really like it when I find myself obsessed with something I never thought I'd even like. That's the exciting part of life. Something new comes up and it adds value to your life.
So if I ever feel some kind of chemistry with a guy, I wouldn't hesitate and I'd go for it. But that's still kind of tricky, because I'm married and I love my wife, so we'd have to have a threesome or something.
K: When I was growing up, I was always making up stories and daydreaming and acting out scenarios. We did theatrical stuff with my brother and my cousins and we would put on shows at family gatherings. Then I really got into sports. I was very butch back then, and somehow as a teenager I grew more feminine again, because I realized that my sports friends were very uptight, not very open-minded, and you had to be very tough and very stiff all the time and I just wasn't like that.
But that's funny, because I still really like sports. I like the idea of being this kind of fruity guy who's still very athletic and good at sports, and maybe even better than the other straight guys...
Q: But with purple nail varnish...
K: Exactly, I'd do like a jumpshot with sparkly nails and freak their minds.
Saturday, June 27, 2009
12/11/08, 3:51 pm EST
Photo: Jim Newberry
2009 is shaping up to be a busy year for Kevin Barnes and Of Montreal. Talking to Rock Daily from Athens, Georgia, during a lull in the band’s ongoing Skeletal Lamping tour, Barnes says he’s already begun working on the band’s next album. “I’m slowly putting together some new stuff for the next record, like whenever I have a free moment,” Barnes says. “I’m really excited, I’ve been working on a lot of ideas. I kind of want to go in a slightly different direction, experiment, try to look for a new spark, inspiration. What I want to do now is slightly noisier. It’s sort of abstract in my mind, but right now what I’ll create will be mesmeric and kind of physical music. Try to create music that you have a physical reaction to. Try to touch you on a level that’s not strictly intellectual but more physical, and that’s not to say you’ll dance to it.”
Barnes said this new direction was inspired during a recent cab ride in London. “The cab driver was listening to this music, it was really loud and it was the coolest thing I’ve ever heard. He didn’t speak English so I couldn’t talk to him about it, but the music made me feel queasy but in a totally different level,” Barnes remembers. “It just haunted me so now every time I’m thinking about making music, I want to make music like that, it just speaks to a different level of consciousness.”
Barnes also talked about a side project he’s excited about called Blikk Fang. “Me and Andrew Andrew VanWyngarden from MGMT have a project together I really want to get off the ground in 2009, I’ve been talking to Jon Brion about maybe collaborating as well,” Barnes said. “We’ve actually created about 20 minutes of music, but that was the early part of last year. We’ve both been traveling like crazy so it’s hard to get together. The stuff we’ve done so far is sort of a soulful prog. It’s probably gonna be a pretty schizophrenic, crazy album.”
As for finally documenting the band’s theatrical live shows, Barnes reports, “We’ve filmed two shows, a show from L.A. from last year’s Hissing Fauna tour and we filmed one a month ago in Atlanta, so we do have plans to release a pretty comprehensive DVD with all the videos and two full live performances and documentary material as well.”
Paste: Tell me how you got your first record deal.
Barnes: I had this friend, we were like best friends in Florida, and he was way more in touch—he had an older brother who turned him on to some things, and he knew about the indie scene, about indie labels, which I had no clue about. I guess there was some list that had all the indie labels, and there was this book about how to put out a record on an indie label, or how to start a label or something like that. We wrote songs together, and I wrote my own songs on the side. He got a list of all these labels, so we made a demo. Nobody seemed at all interested except Bar/None who wrote back and said they liked what they heard and wanted to hear more, so we sent them more and they were like, “eh, that’s pretty cool,” but they weren’t that into it. So, in secret, I sent my own tape with my own songs and they were like, “hey this is cool, we like this a lot,” but this put me in a weird position with my friend because they rejected the songs we wrote together and they liked the songs I wrote myself. For a while, I tried to sneak him into the contract, where we’d write the songs together and I’d sing them, but I’d try to sing them in his style, but [the label] wasn’t really that into that, and eventually it was obvious they didn’t want that stuff, they wanted my stuff. After a couple years of trying to work it out, we started to split apart, and I realized I’d be better off working by myself, so I just signed the contract with Bar/None and put my own songs out.
Paste: Are you from Athens originally?
Barnes: No, originally I’m from Cleveland, Ohio.
Paste: After Florida, you ended up in Cleveland and Minneapolis for a bit. Tell me what was going on in your life then, and about what made you come to Athens.
Barnes: The funny thing is, the guy I was telling you about, my friend from Florida, he was a huge R.E.M.
Paste: Since it took so long for Of Montreal to have any kind of commercial success, did you ever doubt yourself and doubt the music you were making?
Barnes: I never really doubted myself. It’s kind of like that thing—when you believe in it, even though it’s not selling, you can always say, “well, people just don’t get it.” It definitely was frustrating as hell. I wasn’t very happy during the early years. I hated working at these non-committal jobs and having to spend so much time doing that.
Paste: What kind of day jobs did you have?
Barnes: I worked at a video store forever, and I did some telemarketing—all sorts of jobs you can’t really get any fulfillment out of. It seemed really impossible to earn a living playing music. It was like this code I just couldn’t figure out how to crack. How are these other people doing it? Are they more talented than I am? Are they smarter than I am? Why can’t I do it? But I never gave up because there was no reason to give up. Making music was the only thing that fulfilled me. I wasn’t going to give up just because people weren’t buying my records because that would’ve deprived me of something super-important in my life, of my whole focus of existing. It was definitely frustrating and depressing, and I almost feel like I paid too many dues. I’ve been kind of scarred by the amount of dues I paid. I was so emotionally invested in every show, and you go on tour for years and play to 50 people, and you’re like, “What the fuck, this is our third record, our fourth record, our fifth record and we’re still playing to 50 people. What the hell’s going on? Why isn’t it clicking with people?” You just can’t figure it out. And then, like magic, all of a sudden people start caring and you’re like, “What happened? Why is it different now?” But I’m happy. I’m psyched people care now because I know all too well what’s it like to play when people don’t care.
Paste: I interviewed you before a show at the 40 Watt in Athens right before Sunlandic Twins came out, and you seemed like you were in a pretty good place at the time. You told me, “I got married and I felt really emotionally strong. I was stable and happy and using that energy to make music.” But between then and Hissing Fauna you went through a difficult period—some depression and you and Nina split up for a while.
Barnes: Yeah, we split up for 3 months.
Paste: What was this time in your life like, and what do you think brought on this depression? How was your mindset when making Hissing Fauna?
Barnes: When I look back on it now, I think that it all centered around having [my daughter] Alabee. Being married is one thing, that sort of connects you to the world on one level, but there are so many anxieties that come with being a father that I wasn’t prepared for. I was living in this fantasy world inside my head, in this sort of bubble, and having a child roots you to the earth on such a huge level. It really slaps you in the face, like, “I am mortal, I am not going to last forever, I am responsible for this little thing, I have to take care of her.” It puts you in this strange, fractured state of mind, especially when you’re so used to being self-centered and egotistical all the time. That was really difficult for me. Also, the scenario around her birth—we were in Norway and we didn’t have a place to live, didn’t have a house of our own. We were couch-surfing, which is so insane when I think about it now. Nina’s eight months pregnant and we’re couch-surfing in a foreign country. Even though Satanic Panic had done well, we didn’t really have any money to speak of. There was no way we could’ve had Alabee in the United States because it would’ve ruined us, we would’ve been so far in debt. But in Norway, they take care of their citizens—they actually give you money [when you’re having a child]. You don’t have to pay for anything; they give you money to help out. So we decided to do it over there. We took everything out of our house and put it in storage, and went to Norway—without a home, without a country, just floating around, waiting for this child to be born and freaking out. Sunlandic Twins was done but hadn’t come out yet, and I knew I was going to have to go on tour once the record was done. It was a really weird transitional period, and that transition was really difficult for me. It took me a long time to find my footing again after that. I think that was the cause of my depression, but also, a big part of it was being on tour and Nina has this two-month-old baby back in Athens, living in this little apartment. I’m on tour, which is like a party. I’m having fun and she’s got all the responsibility. I wanted to be there with her to help her, but this is my dream, this is what I’ve wanted to do forever and things are really evolving in a positive way: We’re playing bigger shows, selling more records. But, at the same time, Nina is at home and suffering, and there’s nothing I could really do about it. So I was torn. I couldn’t satisfy everyone and I couldn’t satisfy myself. Eventually, it came to a head, and that’s why we split up. It was like, “Well fuck this, I can’t do this anymore, it’s driving me insane. I’m not going to quit music, [and I’m] not going to stay home. I can’t do both, so you have to go away.” It was really fucking hard for her. It’s so like a man to be, “OK, you take the kid and go.” And [she] takes all the pain and responsibility, and it’s so like a woman to be able to handle it. I would’ve totally lost my mind, but she’s so strong. She’s a fantastic person. And for her not to hate me after that, I think proves how strong our bond is. I couldn’t think of being with another person, and I don’t think she can either, so she just forgave me and we got back together. All that happened while I was touring for Sunlandic Twins and writing and recording Hissing Fauna. “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” is about our breakup. And that was difficult once we got back together—here’s this record documenting our hard times but it’s only from my perspective. The world only knows my side of the story; they don’t know her side. I think for a while that was kind of hard for her too, me airing out our dirty laundry for the whole world to see. But then, she’s like me, she’s an artist as well, so it’s like, “I understand, that’s what it’s about, you’re an artist.” There are tons of examples of people going through these breakups or tough times and writing about it, and the other side has to deal with it being out there.
Paste: How was your mindset while working on Skeletal Lamping as opposed to the more turbulent times that led to Hissing Fauna?
Barnes: I’m slightly more stable now because I’ve been on anti-depressants for a couple years, and things are a little bit less insane—still insane, but less insane. I think I was in a happier state of mind because I don’t have to worry about money as much, and don’t have to worry about doing my part with Alabee because things have worked out, she’s in school and my mom’s there to help. I just focus on making music. In a way, it’s sort of established now too—it’s a silly thing, until you start making money with music, some people are always going to be like, “Don’t quit your day job.” When [playing music] becomes your primary source of income, people give you more respect and give you more space to do what you need to do. So I take advantage of that and spend as much time as possible working on music.
Paste: The word ‘whimsical’ has been used to describe Of Montreal. It’s even in one of the band’s album titles, and I’ve heard you use that word to describe the music before. What does that word mean to you, and do you think it’s still the best word to describe Of Montreal’s sound and approach?
Barnes: It’s definitely still a pretty good description of the band. When I think back on the earlier records, people would always say we were twee. At the time, I was super annoyed: “How can they say that, it’s not twee; it’s really emotionally heavy and blah blah blah.” But now when I look back, I’m like “Yeah, it is twee, it was twee, that shit was extremely twee.” At the time it really offended me, I didn’t really understand it, which is insane because it just shows how delusional a person can be. Obviously, now, things are a bit heavier emotionally but it’s funny how people have this perception of emotions like, things are light if they’re happy and dark if they’re sad. It’s not necessarily that cut-and-dry. It’s not like something has less value because it’s happy. But for a while I got into that state of mind: I don’t want to make super-happy music because it might seem like it has less legitimacy. [2002's] Aldhils Arboretum was actually the one record I was more influenced by the outside world. While I was writing that, I was trying to make something that seemed slightly more mature than the past records had been. I abandoned that with Satanic Panic and just did what I felt like doing. And now I’m still in that state of mind. [Aldhils] was just a brief departure into that world. It was also at a time when we had been a touring band for a long time, and we were trying to crack the code in a way: How can we do something that we still find creatively interesting, but that doesn’t make people disregard it as twee or preschool music, music for babies.
Paste: You’ve been making music under the name Of Montreal for almost a decade now. When you look back at all these different records and this body of work, how do you feel about it?
Barnes: I never listen to the old records, but I’m happy with them. I’m proud of them. I’m proud of the packaging and the personality of each one. I’m also really happy that each record has its own individuality, but it all works together. I kind of toyed around with the idea of changing the band name for Satanic Panic and closing that chapter and moving on. But I decided it’s cooler to have it all under the same heading. It’s interesting that it’s pretty diverse. When we first started getting [a lot more] people into the band around Satanic Panic and Sunlandic Twins, I knew they weren’t going to like Gay Parade or Coquelicot. It’s very unlikely they would listen to that and be like, “This is awesome.” I think in 20 years time, hopefully, I’ll still be putting out different kinds of records, and still developing as an artist and trying different things. Hopefully, Sunlandic Twins, Hissing Fauna and Skeletal Lamping will be just as foreign to what I’m doing 10 years from now as The Gay Parade is to what I’m doing right now.
Paste: When I was listening to the new record, I was thinking, “you could play a lot of this in a club.” But I bet [Coquelicot’s] “Good Morning Mr. Edmonton” would really clear a place out.
Barnes: Yeah, definitely.
Paste: The name Of Montreal came from a relationship you had with a girl from Montreal.
Paste: How much do you still relate to that name? Or is it just something you picked and stuck with?
Barnes: At the time, it made sense, but it was very shortsighted of me to pick a name that was always going to be connected to this relationship I had. At the time, it was the most important thing in my life, but I should’ve known 10 years from that point it wouldn’t really have the same value. [But] I think just the fact that the impetus for calling the band Of Montreal was centered around a life experience—I think that’s still true. Everything I do is centered around my personal experiences. Each record is a time capsule for what I was going through at the time—what I was listening to, what kind of films I was watching, books I was reading, people who were in my life. So I think the name is still appropriate in a way, if you think of it in a broader sense than just a failed relationship.
Paste: Have you ever considering producing records?
Barnes: I’m actually doing my first production job in a couple weeks, with this French band. I’ve never really produced anybody before. I’m kind of excited, but also a bit nervous. I feel kind of like a charlatan even though I’ve self-produced and engineered all [the Of Montreal] records. I feel like I’m not really proficient enough to call myself a producer/engineer. At the same time, I guess I am, I am producing and I am engineering, and if people think it’s OK and they like it, then there’s no reason not to try it. I would really like to do it as long as I’m on the same wavelength with the person. I would want to collaborate with people and be creative in it, and not just sit there and say, “Oh, you want to record guitar now?” and then get up and move the microphone to the guitar. I definitely would want a more hands-on relationship with the band. But I think it would be a lot of fun.
Paste: I heard you were going to be in a new Joe Swanberg film. I guess it starts shooting in September?
Barnes: That has actually been postponed for a while. Originally, I was supposed to do this film with him and then he called me—“Hey, I want to do this other thing.” He’s been working with Noah Baumbach a lot, and he’s like, “We want to do this project that’ll be a bit different.” And then this production job came up with this French band, and I’d rather do that. But I’d definitely like to get into acting at some point, if it was a good role. I’d really like to do something where I could be really freaky, like a Crispin Glover thing.
Paste: So when you did Skeletal Lamping, you recorded with the touring band and then decided to go back and do it over by yourself?
Barnes: No, nothing was recorded with the touring band. Well, there was one song that I had done a demo of. I guess it wasn’t even really a demo because it turned out to be the version I used. It was just an idea, kind of an experiment. We went into a good studio in town ’cause we’d been playing the song live a bunch, and got the band to play the same parts they’d been playing live. Even though the engineer was great, and it was a good experience, I felt like it was lacking something, that personal touch or whatever. That’s the problem I think when bands record in big studios, it can become a bit samey, there’s drum sounds that, like, you’ve heard them before. I guess I’m just so comfortable with my setup now and the way I record bass, and the way I record drums sounds and vocals. And [the bigger studio] was kind of expensive, and I realized that if I made a whole record that way, I could make five records on my own. We actually used some of the parts from that [full-band] session. And we did do a band project where everyone contributed song ideas and wrote their own parts. We have this band called Instant Witch.
Paste: Have you done anything with it?
Barnes: Yeah, we’ve recorded 20 to 30 minutes of music. It’s really fun. We’ve been playing a couple songs from it live [with of Montreal]. We’ve played one song live a bunch of times recently, called “Tender Facts.” We just booked a block of time at the studio, and were like “OK, everyone just write something and bring it to the session and we’ll just knock it out and see what happens.”
Paste: Are you guys going to put it out?
Barnes: We haven’t put it out yet, but I’m sure we will. Bryan did this kind of Afrobeat thing and this Cuban-sounding thing, and Jamie did this kind of rock ’n’ roll thing. We all just did different songs and played on it like a live band, and it was fun. But then I realized, also, that I don’t really want to be in a democracy. If you have all these very specific ideas of what you want to do, and how you would do it—that’s the worst thing about being in a democratic band: Everyone has to compromise to the point where it’s not that fulfilling anymore. And for me, any type of compromise is too much, which is obviously not very healthy, but it’s the way I am.
Paste: I caught you guys at the Langerado Festival this year, and for the finale you climbed out of a coffin full of shaving cream, and there were all these masked dancers and heads on poles. They were throwing boxes into the crowd. I asked this guy what was in the box he caught, and he was like, “Human hair!” With Of Montreal, there’s this parade of what seem like of non-sequiturs. Do you think that’s a fitting backdrop for your music?
Barnes: I don’t know if its fitting or not. We don’t really think about what’s fitting for the music, but we want to do something that’s theatrical and visual and, yes, it’s possible we’re taking away from the music, but I don’t really care. If people just want to hear the songs, they can listen to the record. We want to do something beyond that, something that touches on all different levels of the senses. With that idea, what we wanted to do was have a big tarp over the audience full of human hair, and then we’d pull a rope and all the hair would fall down on people, but we realized there would be a lot of legal issues with that because human hair can be pretty dirty and have a lot of germs. We actually collected hair for a long time—a friend of ours works at a salon, and every day he’d sweep up the hair and put it in a bag, and we had all these bags of hair and we were ready to go. Then our tour manager talked to the promoter of the festival, and the guy was like, “Eh, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” so we put it in boxes instead. [On stage], I don’t really know what’s going on a lot of the time because my brother creates a lot of that stuff, and I can’t really see it because I’m at the front of the stage and everything is happening behind me. It’s really thrilling when I turn around and see some totally bizarre situation happening—different performance artists, and I’m like, “OK, I’ll just get back to my rockin’ out. But the coffin idea was his. He actually used to do that a lot, cover himself in shaving cream, when he was in college. He went to FSU in Tallahassee. Just for fun, he’d cover himself in shaving cream and put food coloring in it so he’d be this weird, green shaving-cream man, and he’d go around and knock on doors and freak people out. They’d be all stoned and be like, ‘‘Whoa!”
Paste: I think a lot of the lyrics in your music have a similar feel, this bizarre randomness. Sometimes they remind me of Zen koans, those mind-bending riddles that are supposed to snap you out of your normal state of reality. With your lyrics, I was wondering whether they were more well-thought-out artistic choices or more arbitrary, and if you think it matters either way.
Barnes: It’s never arbitrary. Even as disconnected as it might seem, it always makes sense to me. And it’s really weird, but it’s just one of those weird things, like, I know it’s right, even though it could go any number of different ways, but for some reason I’ll look at one line and be like, “That sucks,” and someone else might look at it and be like, “It doesn’t suck any worse than the rest of the lines,” but somehow in my mind it makes sense. It’s kind of like that with the music too—sometimes I’ll listen to something I’ve written and think it’s really not happening, it’s really boring. It’s just a feeling.
Paste: We talked about when you married Nina, and going from life with all these people in the band to living with just Nina and David. How important is family to you? You collaborate with Nina and David quite a bit, and when I met your mom, she seemed very supportive of you.
Barnes: It’s really important. I have a really strong relationship with everyone in my family. I really love that. I think about that a lot. It’s really amazing to have a family where people just have to accept you, and that’s the best element. Sometimes you annoy each other, sometimes you don’t want anything to do with each other, but you have this really special, magical connection with the people you grew up with and spent so much time with. My mom actually lives behind us at our house, which would probably be a nightmare for a lot of people, but I actually really like it. My dad’s been living down in Florida ’cause he’s still working, but I wish he lived up here with us, too. I like that idea, of being able to spend time together, have dinner together—you do your own thing during the day. These are the people who are as far from strangers as possible, and even though they might not completely understand you, and you don’t completely understand them either, you have such a special connection [with them] and that’s really important.
Paste: Now that you’ve been a father and a husband for a few years, how does that affect your life as an artist?
Barnes: I was afraid it was going to affect me in a negative way. I was afraid I was going to turn into Kenny Loggins or something, and write all these sweet, mundane little love songs. But it’s kind of funny, I don’t know if part of my mind has rebelled against that. It’s affected me in a good way, I think; it hasn’t taken the fire out of me. I still feel totally neurotic and freaked out and confused most of the time. I just think it’s cool to have, with Nina, this sounding board, someone who’s in my corner all the time, and she’s not going to sugarcoat things for me and tell me something is great even though it sucks. I trust her and respect her, and if she says something is exciting, I can get excited about it too, and if she doesn’t seem that excited about it, then I’m like, “Maybe it’s not that good.” It’s the same with David. The three of us have this really special connection where we really understand each other, and motivate each other and are really excited about each other’s art. It’s not like pulling teeth to get David to listen to one of my songs; he actually wants to hear it. And he gives me really interesting feedback because he’s not a musician. So he’s hearing different things, he’s not hearing things on a technical level like some musicians might—it’s more of a visceral thing for him. And Nina is the same way because she listens to all kinds of music, and her mom’s an amazing musician, and she grew up with all types of music and she’s a musician, too. She’s turned me on to all sorts of things.
Paste: So what are their creative roles in Of Montreal? Is it ever more than being a sounding board?
Barnes: Nina and David do all the artwork for the albums and T-shirts, and all the merchandise, and both of them listen to the records as they’re being created and help me figure out the identity of the record sometimes. In a way, it’s almost like having a therapist. Talking to them helps me order my ideas and put things in a better context. But they created the artwork for the new album packages and the posters and all that stuff, and we also create all the theatrical stuff together and the different ideas, like the shaving-cream thing. All the ideas you’ve seen [executed] on stage probably have come from either David or Nina, but anyone in the band can contribute ideas, like the 10-foot dress, that was Jamie and Dottie’s idea, and we had our friend in town sewing for us. I realized today that Of Montreal is an art collective—it’s all these artists working together, and it’s all centered around the band, but it’s branching off in different directions and everybody is wearing different hats and contributing different things.
Paste: What was your relationship like with David growing up? Did you guys always make music and art together?
Barnes: We always did things, but we didn’t really do that many things together. David was always drawing. From my earliest memory, he had drawing journals and spent most of his time in his room making these funny little comics, but we didn’t start working [together] in any way until I started putting out records. It just sort of fit with my mentality at the time, which I still have—that it’s cool to create a personality for the band, and I like that David has contributed art to every single record, with the exception of Petite Tragedy. On every single record, he’s done something and I’ve done something, but what we try to do is make it seem like a different person is doing it, so there’s continuity but it doesn’t seem like the same shit over and over again. That’s kind of the fun challenge—how are we going to do something different than we did last time? It’s very rewarding, but also very frustrating when you’re going through the process, going back and forth. It’s funny for David and Nina cause they’ll spend hours and hours, and I’ll go in and look at it and go, “It’s pretty cool, but what if you change this?” And that’s happened a lot of times, where I’ll spend hours and hours playing a song and they’ll be like, “Yeah, it’s pretty cool, but it gets kind of boring at that one part, and I’ll be like, “Goddamn you, fuck you!” but then I’ll think about it and be like, “You’re right, actually,” and then I’ll go back and change it and it’s better. So I think it’s good to have people you respect to throw ideas off of during the development of a project.
Paste: When I talked with your mom, right after your Langerado performance, she said you’d always wanted to be in band since the 6th grade. Now, you’ve been in this national touring band and have had some success. Looking back, how does the reality of it compare to any dream you might’ve had?
Barnes: It’s just as good as any dream I might’ve had, you know? In the early days, I probably wouldn’t have said that. I always wanted to be in a band. I never cared about school. I never thought that I would get anything out of education or really any other career. [Being in a band is] all I wanted to do. It’s kind of funny now, ’cause I was thinking about, having a daughter, I probably won’t push her very hard to be an A student. A lot of times when you’re growing up, your parents will put that on you, like, “If you want to get anything out of life, you have to go to college and get good grades,” but that’s not necessarily true. What you really need to do is find something you love, and find a way to make a living at something you love. And that’s a lot harder than getting A’s. We just had this production meeting this morning, and talking about the different ideas we’re coming up with, it’s so exciting and fun—there’s nothing else I’d rather do.
Paste: You got your first drum set when you were in seventh grade. What was it like getting that first instrument?
Barnes: When I got that drum set, I’ve never been happier in my life. My parents got it for me for Christmas, and we had this half-finished basement, and they set it up down there, and I went downstairs and it was like a miracle. I couldn’t even believe my eyes—it was that kind of moment you see in the movies. It was the most beautiful object I’d ever seen. I was really into hair metal at the time. And it was a black Pearl drum kit, and everyone played black Pearls at that time. And it was just like…
Paste: Like [Poison drummer] Rikki Rocket!
Barnes: Exactly! I was so psyched. But [after a while] I started getting a little, well, not frustrated with drums, but I wanted to do something more melodic, like guitar. For some reason, I took to guitar really quickly. I’ve never really become a great guitar player, but playing chords and doing what I needed to do to write songs came pretty quickly. I never really had lessons, but I had an uncle who taught me how to make bar chords. Then I learned every Rolling Stones song, and that was my musical education. There was this one tape collection I had called The London Years and it was all their early stuff—really simple three-chord songs. So I would just listen to them and figure them out and play along with them. That was around the time we moved to Florida from Michigan, so I had a lot of time to myself. I was like 14 then. I would sit in my room and play the songs and imagine I was on a big stage. I guess I kind of imagined myself as Ron Wood.
Paste: So all the many instruments you play came with time?
Barnes: Yeah. My parents were really cool. I wanted to get a bass and my parents were like, “OK, if you get a B in Chemistry we’ll get you bass.” And then I’d try really hard and get a C+ and they’d be like, “OK, close enough.” I had this really wicked Warlock bass, and I played that in a band for a while. I had a bunch of little bands with my high-school friends. We’d just play covers. My dad very much discouraged me from playing bass. He’d be like, “Nobody wants to be the bass player. Why do you want to be the bass player?” And I’d be like, “Dad, bass is cool.” But that was always my focus—trying to find people to play with, which was really difficult, especially in Florida. I couldn’t find anyone to play with. For some reason, there weren’t that many kids into playing instruments in West Palm Beach at that time. It’s probably different now, but at that time, just to find someone who could play drums was impossible.
Paste: There was over 30 minutes of material you said you cut from the album. Are you going to put that out as an EP?
Barnes: I’m not really sure what I want to do with it. On some levels I feel like, “Well, these are the songs that weren’t good enough to get on the record, so why would I want to put out a reject EP?” But I feel like it would be OK if it was like a fan-only sort of thing. I feel like there should be some level of quality control—you don’t just put out everything. In the past I have put out everything; [at that point] I didn’t feel like it was important to worry that much about it. Now, I don’t feel like it’s necessary to release everything for everyone. It might be cool to just put out an EP and people could just download it for free if you want people to listen to it. Or we could just use the tracks for B-sides. There’s a couple songs that I like that, for whatever reason, just didn’t work. I didn’t want to make a 74-minute CD. I wanted to keep it somewhat digestible, so you could listen in one sitting, so you could listen to the whole thing without being like, “Goddammit, is this thing still going?” I wanted to make something where people would want to listen to it again rather than get to the end and be like, “OK, I don’t need to hear this again for another month.” There’s a lot of songs that I actually like that my brother [and collaborator, David Barnes] and I went back and forth on, like, “Should we keep that on there? Should we take it off?” And I actually wanted to edit it down even more, but he was like, “No, don’t do that. You gotta keep it there.”
Paste: Are you going to play some of those songs live? Some of the ones that didn’t make it on the record?
Barnes: Maybe. We have so much work ahead of us [with the touring band], just learning the songs ’cause we have a new drummer now.
Paste: Who’s the new drummer?
Barnes: His name’s Ahmed [Gallab], and he plays in this band Sinkane. It’s funny because we’ve done a lot of press photos with him, but we haven’t done a single practice with him, so hopefully it works out. I’m sure it will. He’s an awesome drummer and an awesome guy. So what we’re trying to do now—in the past we’ve had two different kinds of performance, like we would have an aspect of the show that would have backing beats on a CD player and no live drumming, and then the other side would be all live drumming and no backing tracks. And so this time we’re trying to get rid of the CD player altogether and just have drums on everything, but still have the same sounds from the record, so we had to get this MPC player to sample so we can have the actual sounds from the record, but instead of having a little disc playing, we’d actually have a human being playing it, and that way we’ll be able to really expand upon certain ideas and it won’t be as consistent from night to night—there’s going to be room for spontaneity and experimentation, so we’re all really looking forward to that.
Paste: There’s all this really cool packaging for the new record—so many different options. What was the idea behind this? What are these different options giving people?
Barnes: It just occurred to us: “Why does it have to be,” especially with digital downloads, or just packaging ion general, “why does it have to follow the same path that is always has?” Someone established, OK, we’ll have packaging that’s basically the size of a CD, and that’s just the way it’s gonna be.” We realized it doesn’t have to be that way. If you want to do something different, you can. And the only real restrictions are for the big corporations like Borders or Target or Best Buy. For stocking, they want it to fit on the shelves, so you don’t want to have something that’s going to be a specialty item that’s going to have to be stocked inside a glass case, like when you go into an indie store and they have their window or whatever. So there are different challenges we had to work out, but we really wanted to make something very unconventional, to create an object that could stand on its own. Something that wasn’t just a CD protector, or just something you’d have to categorize and put it on your shelf. Like everything that was involved with the release of the record, we wanted to make an object that would be interesting and thought-provoking, and that would blend into your design scheme in a way. You think of lifestyle, of interior-design objects, like the lamp and the wall decals and posters—these are things everyone needs, everyone uses. We go to IKEA because we don’t want to go to Rooms To Go or whatever, we want there to be a design element in our own house. Ecko and different companies are producing interesting objects that are thought-provoking and inspiring. We felt there was a lack of these things—it’s difficult to find interesting objects for your house, so we thought it’d be cool to produce our own. And luckily, [our label] Polyvinyl has been amazing about figuring out how to make that happen. A lot of labels would be like, “Uh, that sounds expensive.”
Paste: Yeah, because you have to come up with whole new ways to manufacture this stuff, right?
Barnes: Yeah. But also, I think that the spirit of the times, like with what Radiohead did [releasing an independent album as a name-your-own-price download, and then also offering a gorgeous, high-priced special edition]—it sent ripples through the industry. All of a sudden you realize there’s a lot of potential, you can do a lot of different things. You don’t have to just follow the boring path. Everyone involved in of Montreal is very creative and we all want to do interesting, important things, so it’s cool to give people an opportunity, like [my wife] Nina and David, to design these objects, and to also give people the option, so when they download the record, they don’t have to just get this tiny little thumbnail image of the album cover. They get a T-shirt or a tote bag or a lantern or a wall decal—it’s that much more exciting to get that in the mail.
Paste: [Your publicist], Frank, told me about a book and a play and an art show related to the release of Skeletal Lamping. Is that stuff still in the works?
Barnes: Well, we’re trying. David’s working on a book of his illustrations and what we’d like to do is come out with another Skeletal Lamping collection of all new objects, probably in early spring. I love the idea of creating a whole collection of art objects that are somehow affiliated with the release of a record. It makes it so much more interesting than just a record. It becomes a lot bigger, and I love that idea of like—in fashion you get it all the time, the spring collection, like the Marc Jacobs spring collection. It’s always something that’s—it’s not just one pair of pants, it’s a lot of different items. And I really hope that, in the future, it’d be really cool if it caught on and every band did that—released four or five objects with their record. It’s always good to have options, you know? And it’s also really exciting to try to create different things. What we really wanted to do was put on an art show in every major city and coordinate that with the release of the record. I think we’re trying to do one at the MoMAs in every city, and we’re gonna try to work on that in the spring. It would be awesome to do something like that, where you get a group of really creative people in every city and give them a rough idea of what you want to do, and people could put on this performance-art piece at the same time all over the world, and it’s in some way connected to the release of the record. Art is fun in that way, when you try to think of different ways to inspire people, and different reasons to make art, and different reasons to produce things. A lot of our production comes down to inspiration. And a lot of times, you’re just sitting there, you don’t really know what to do and then something will just click. And then, you’re off. You spend the next month working on this thing. So I love that about art—that it’s sort of laying there dormant until you find the switch to turn it on and it just explodes.
Paste: What about that play? Is there something going on with that? Is it something you’re writing?
Barnes: I guess there’s other performance-art troops doing things like this already—the idea was to have a happening in every city on the day we play. So it’s sort of like the circus coming to town, it’s not just the rock show that lasts for three or four hours—the whole day is an event. It’s probably not gonna happen on this tour, but we’re going to try to do that in the future, maybe the next tour, where we get to the city a little early and set up an art installation and a performance-art piece in an art gallery. And we had this idea for this machine that would like record people’s voices, and then you use the voices from that day’s event in the performance at night so everything ties together. I think that would be really exciting for people to feel more connected, to feel a part of it. I think art should always be communal. I always want the live performance to be more of a communal experience so it’s not just us entertaining people. I want people to feel like this is a chance for them to dress up and step out of their normal reality. And this is outside of time, outside of whoever they’re expected to be in their day job. It’s an exceptional moment in time that matters, that has value, and it’s exciting, and it has potential and anything can happen.
Paste: Of Montreal’s live performances have really evolved over the years. I saw you guys at a bar in a strip mall in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., in early 2003, and [drummer] Jamie [Huggins] was in the parking lot sewing costumes before the show. How has the show changed and how has the experience of performing evolved, now that you have some money to help live out your fantasies?
Barnes: It’s really cool now because we have this group of people like Dan Korn, our sound guy, and Nick Gould, our video tech. The two of them and Davey [Pierce], our bass player, are very crafty. They understand woodworking and electronics. So we don’t have to farm out our ideas. We can do everything in house. Everything we do now, because we have a stage concept, we can still realize on a pretty small budget. Any idea we have, we figure out a way to realize it, unless it’s totally cost prohibitive, but then we just tone it down a little and find another way to realize the same vision, just maybe not as extreme as we might’ve wanted. Like Liberace, there are a lot of people who have done some really awesome things because they didn’t have a budget to worry about. Eventually we’d love to get to that point, even if we had a government grant. What I like is to focus on one show at a time—for example, when we did Pitchfork [Festival] a couple years ago, we said, “OK, let’s put everything into this one show and make it really exceptional and different from any show we’ve ever done.” It’s fun to work like that, one show at a time. We’re doing that same kind of thing with the Roseland show in New York in October and then we’re going to keep some of the ideas and use them for other shows. You can feel OK about spending a shitload of money if its only gonna be for one show. The cool thing is, the reason we have a budget is because everyone in the band wants to do this. We’re spending band money to make this happen, so it’s great that I have this group of people who care just as much about putting on a performance as I do. If they thought, “Whoa, I’d have so much more money if I was just in a straightforward rock band…” But at the same time, it wouldn’t be as much fun, it wouldn’t be as fulfilling for anyone. I think we all get off on that. The production planning is just as exciting as the production itself.
Paste: Last year a big deal was made about you taking all your clothes off at a show. What is it like to be naked on stage in front of so many people and how did you feel?
Barnes: I feel really relaxed with my body. I could easily be naked right now and not feel insecure. It wasn’t a big stretch for me. I wasn’t putting myself in this really awkward, vulnerable place because I was totally fine with it. It’s amazing, though: You do something and it’s stamped in time forever. Twenty years from now, it’ll be one of those stories—the way I heard about Iggy Pop rolling around in broken glass. If you wanted to, you could very easily make yourself this huge, iconic figure just by doing wild things and sacrificing your body. A lot of people don’t realize the potential there. But at the same time, you’re walking a line where it’s like, “Is it for shock value?” It might take away from the music if everyone thinks the singer is just trying to get attention because he’s really insecure.
Paste: How important do you think it is for an artist to let go?
Barnes: I think it’s very important that you allow yourself to be vulnerable in your art. It’s important that you don’t put up a wall between you and the rest of the world. I did that for a while. Early on, I had gotten some really negative reviews and they had really hurt me and made me hesitant to share my personal feelings with the rest of the world.
Paste: After Cherry Peel [Of Montreal's 1997 debut album]?
Barnes: Yes. And then, eventually, I realized that there’s always going to be bad reviews no matter what you do. And it’s more important, from a production standpoint to present things that are full of genuine emotion and represent where you’re at personally, and I don’t think I’ll ever feel embarrassed of those things. I think the only time I might feel embarrassed is if I’m doing something I’m not touched by. I’d never do that, but if I did… I think it’s important that people wear their heart on their sleeve as artists. I think that’s something that really resonates with the audience; its something people can identify with, and also it’s very brave. People like bravery.
Paste: So after Cherry Peel you got away from writing personal stuff, and more into characters. At what point did you come back to writing personal stuff?
Barnes: I guess around Satanic Panic in the Attic. I got married to Nina and moved out of the house with the band, and me and Nina and my brother got a place together. It was a supportive environment being with the band, but it was also more challenging as far as accommodating everyone, being in a communal household, being reliant on each other for so many things, and then you’re in a band together, and you spend so much time together. Every artist I know is totally crazy and neurotic, so it’s kind of a dangerous situation to be in. It was really liberating for me to get out of that and move in with Nina and David. They didn’t really have any demands, it was just do what you want, just create something we find interesting and fun. Their life wasn’t really—I mean, it was connected to mine on an emotional level, but not a financial level. And they had their own creative outputs, so it wasn’t the same situation. Like when [the band and I] were living out in the country, if I wanted to do something like on Satanic Panic or Sunlandic Twins—where I recorded every part—then feelings would be hurt. [Former bassist] Derek [Almstead] would be like, “Why are you writing the bass lines? I want to write the bass lines,” which is totally understandable. I was depriving them of their creative outlet that was fulfilling and exciting. So that was a difficult transition for the band, when I took it over again and started doing everything by myself. [Barnes had briefly taken that approach on the band’s sophomore album, 1998’s The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy.]
Paste: Do you feel like your friendships with all these former bandmates have endured that transition, or has it been difficult?
Barnes: It’s definitely been difficult with some people more than others, but I can totally understand any sort of problem that arose from that. And I love everyone that plays with me, and I really support them and everyone is so talented, and they all have their own projects and I totally want to encourage them—like, Jamie is an amazing songwriter and an amazing singer and performer. And Bryan [Poole], and Davey, and Dottie [Alexander] are all fantastic composers as well as performers, and it’s pretty amazing that they’ve been with me all this time and have gone through all these different phases with me, musically, and every time have been able to adapt and get excited about it, and encourage me and basically stay connected through all of it. It’s been pretty amazing. We’re like a family, and you can’t divorce your family. I think we’re like that—we’re like brothers and sisters.
Paste: I read an interview where you talked about the trappings of the Elephant 6 Collective and some of its unwritten rules. Tell me what those rules were, and about breaking free from them.
Barnes: All of it was just my perception of what the rules were; there was no manifesto we all had to sign or anything like that, but there was a spirit of that time, and I started to go this other direction. I had these weird hang-ups that maybe I created myself—this idea that nothing had any value unless it was recorded on an analog tape machine. I couldn’t stand any contemporary bands—I never listened to any of them, really, except for the Elephant 6 bands. I was living in a self-imposed fascist state. I had all these rules about what was good and what was bad, and I was really critical of other bands, and just really stupid. And I know it sounds clichéd, but I can’t help but think that [getting away from that mindset] was influenced by 9/11. After 9/11, it was a universal thing in the United States where everyone felt like they need to connect with other people more. It really influenced me in that way. [Suddenly], I wanted to listen to and support contemporary bands. I wanted to feel a part of my time, my generation, and not be so obsessed with ’60s music, and music made by dead people. I’d always loved dance music, but it was kind of taboo to use a drum machine in the Elephant 6 world. Obviously studio trickery was encouraged, but you probably shouldn’t do anything you couldn’t pull off live. Somehow it felt like disco or electro-pop or attitude music wasn’t that cool. [There were] just all these really weird rules I thought existed and that probably don’t exist at all. I started getting into electronic pop music and really wanted to make this weird disco hybrid—you know, pulling from all these different influences. I started getting turned on to ’70s Afrobeat and soul and dub and Jamaican music, and I got all these Soul Jazz and Trojan reissues, and rediscovered my love for Prince and Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone and Curtis Mayfield, and that’s what brought me to where I am now. I don’tlisten to The Kinks anymore—I still like that stuff, but I’d never really think to put on a Kinks record.
Paste: On the song “St. Exquisite’s Confessions” on the new record, when you say you’re “tired of sucking the dick of this cruel, cruel city,” are you talking about any city in particular or is it more of an imagined, kind of made-up situation?
Barnes: That’s kind of about Oslo. I have this really special relationship with Oslo because my wife’s from Norway and my daughter was born in Norway, and I spent a lot of time there, and I set up a little studio there and started recording that song there. And you know, it’s weird when you’re in a foreign country. Even though most people speak English there, it’s their second language, so you automatically feel like an outsider. And I’ve had really weird anxiety attacks and bad mental episodes in Oslo, but I’ve also had like some really great experiences. It’s a beautiful city and Norway is a beautiful country, but there’s a darkness there. There’s a real heavy darkness. There’s a lot of super-depressed people. When you have really strong experiences, they stick with you—they’re imprinted on your mind all the time. You walk down a street where you’ve had a weird experience and it kind of happens again; it’s like it never stops happening. So I wrote that song, in a way it’s that feeling of—when you feel beaten by your environment, and you’re trying to push on. Curtis Mayfield
Paste: You touched on this in a post on your website this past summer, but, in regard to the title Skeletal Lamping, what skeletons are you spotlighting and have you gotten any further with the question you posed about whether you want to shoot them or capture them?
Barnes: [laughs] I just want to let ’em go. I always want to change and evolve and reject the past and not really worry about it so much. I don’t feel the need to inspect my motivation for things I’ve done; I just want to continually move forward. But I think, when you make art, like a record or whatever, it’s sort of frozen in time, so it’s like turning the light on in a room and leaving it on forever. But you can also walk away from the room with the lights on—or keep paying the electric bill, but move into a new house.
Paste: How, if at all, did the negative reaction you got about the Outback Steakhouse commercial affect your approach to the new record?
Barnes: The backlash from the Outback commercial really motivated me to push myself, to make something bold and different so people couldn’t marginalize me. When someone calls you a “sell-out,” they’re basically saying you have no value; that you’ve given it up for your bank account—”well,” I thought, “I’m going to prove you wrong.” It filled me with a great energy, the desire to show these people, even though they’re sort of invisible. Like when anyone writes on a blog they’re called like AJJohnson622 or whatever [laughs], it’s like they don’t really exist. But I think what they’re saying, the thought they’re posing—if it matters to you like it matters to me, I wouldn’t want people to think I was a sell-out. But then, I have a complicated relationship with that concept, the idea of selling out. I [eventually] realized that selling out isn’t possible—I can’t sell out because I don’t make music to make money; I make music because I feel compelled to do so. I never sit down and say, “OK, I haven’t written a song in a while. I gotta do this.” It’s never like that. I want to do this. This is what gives my life meaning, what gives me a sense of fulfillment. I’m not really trying to sell records. I mean, I’d like to sell records because it makes life easier when you do sell them, but that’s not the fundamental motivation behind it. I also can understand how people get upset ’cause [when you sell a song to a commercial], in a way you’re sacrificing the song, potentially forever. You know, if it develops negative associations with people, or if it deprives people of having a romantic connection to the song, because you can’t really have a romantic connection to Outback Steakhouse. Or you can, maybe, but it probably wouldn’t be on the same level.
Paste: Like, “Man, that Bloomin’ Onion was so good!”
Barnes: [laughs] Yeah, I’ll never forget that time I spent… But I can really understand both sides of it. It still kind of hurts me though. No one had ever really said that to me before, no one had ever called me a “sell-out.” It would’ve been impossible, really, unless they would be like—I mean, some people are actually like, “You were on Conan O’Brien, you’re a sell-out.” Some people are actually like that; it goes that far. Like, “Oh, I can’t like this band anymore because they were played on the radio.” I mean, some people are like that. But the sad reality is that—if you’re an indie artist—you have to look to other avenues to earn a living. And either it’s going to be a day job that has nothing to do with music, or you can try to find some way to use your talents to earn a living. And that was actually the first time I had ever been offered anything like that, and I was so broke, and I was like, “I can’t say no to this.” I couldn’t project into the future and imagine what the ramifications were going to be, or how it would be different, and I think that if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t do it again, but only because of the scope of it—only because it’s been like their ad campaign for like three years and it’s not going away. Most bands, maybe they do a commercial and it’s there for like a month, two months, tops. And this thing has been like [McDonald’s’] “I’m lovin’ it.” And so, [if I’d known it would be like that], I definitely wouldn’t have done it. But I was so green at the time—I didn’t have representation and I had no previous experience to put it up against. So it’s the price of an education on some level. But it also really helped me financially. I was like, “Well, let’s put some more money into this next production. And now I sort of compare it to an actor or director that will make like a big-budget film in order to fund their pet project, their art project. Like I said, sometimes you have to suck a little dick to get by, just like everyone else has to suck dick, you know? Everyone has to have this other job or this other thing that allows them the freedom to do other things. But now, whenever I’m doing [anything commercial], I try not to incorporate
Paste: Well, now you can be like, “I’m the guy who wrote the song for the Outback commercial.”
Barnes: It’s a funny thing, too, ’cause other people—people who aren’t at all connected to the indie world, like my dad’s friends, you know, people like that,—they’re so impressed. They’re like, “Oh my god, that’s so great, man! That’s so wonderful!” Like for them, it’s like validation. And if you’re applying for a loan, and someone’s like, “What do you do?” You say “musician.” “Oh really? Have you written any songs I might know?” And then you can say, “Well, have you heard the Outback Steakhouse commercial?” [laughs] And then they’re like, “Yeah, I’ve heard that! Aw, that’s fantastic! I can’t wait to tell my friends that I met the guy who wrote the song from the Outback Steakhouse commercial!”
Paste: Tell me about how Dylan Thomas influenced the lyrics on Skeletal Lamping.
Barnes: He’s one of those writers that he has such an interesting—almost like a self-produced lexicon. His style of phrasing things and putting words together is so original that it bends my mind. A lot of the song titles from Hissing Fauna and Skeletal Lamping were results of reading a Dylan Thomas poem and then trying to stay in that spirit, that frame of mind, and just write whatever comes to mind. Just sort of automatic-writing style, where you just turn off your mind and write whatever comes out. It’s great; it’s almost like a drug, like a really quick drug. You just like read one poem and try to absorb it and be influenced by it, and see what comes out of you after taking the drug. I mean, I don’t really do drugs like that, but if drugs did that for me, then I would because it’s always good to bend the mind, to gets it out of the grocery-list mentality. You know, you make lists—these are things I have to do today, and these are the people I’m gonna talk to and it’s always situation-appropriate. But if you bend your mind, you can get out of the trappings of that. It can help you think really creatively.
Paste: Have you ever done any kind of trance writing in the past? Written songs where you let go like that?
Barnes: Yeah, I do that a lot, at night usually, when everyone else is asleep and I can just—almost like a meditative state, where I try to shut everything off and just let the stream of consciousness flow, and I come up with some things that I find really interesting. So I do a lot of writing like that. And it’s also good [to try that] if you have music [already]. I think a lot of hip-hop artists do this, where they just sort of ad-lib and don’t really know what they’re gonna say next, and maybe do 10 tracks of ad-libbing, and then pull something interesting together. I definitely do that.
Paste: Where do you think the collagist aesthetic on the new album comes from?
Barnes: I guess it comes from the desire to create something unpredictable, and so it’s things that are seemingly out of place with each other, which helps create that unpredictability, ’cause if you’re listening to a song, a lot of times you can predict where the person’s going to go—you know how they’re gonna resolve the melody line and when the chorus is gonna come, and to me that’s not that exciting. I wanted to make something that was really unpredictable because that’s the kind of music I like listening to, and I want to make the kind of music I want to hear. So what I’m trying to do is make something that’s really unpredictable, but also has an immediacy to it—something that’s not completely out there and so impossible to follow that it hurts the brain. I don’t want to hurt the head too much; I just want to create something interesting that has unexpected twists. When I listen to the first two Os Mutantes records, I can listen to them all the time because they’re speaking a language I don’t understand, so it has a mystery. Musically, if you’re not following along, and you’re not looking at the CD player and seeing, “OK, this changed from track 4 to track 5,” you don’t even know when one song starts and the other ends.
Paste: I had difficult time, when we were listening to the album the first time, trying to figure out where the track breaks were. I took notes, but when I went back and looked at it again, they were all wrong.
Barnes: A lot of times, when it would’ve made sense for it to end in one place, we were like, “No, let’s just include that other thing and say it’s part of the same song.” I wish there could be hyphenated track listings or hyphenated track markers—like, “OK, this is track 6.2 or something.”
Paste: A lot the past records you’ve put out with of Montreal have been really fantastical, but I feel like this one has almost a space-age vibe to it.
Barnes: I really want to make now music. I want to make music that feels progressive, like it’s reaching toward the future rather than being this sort of anachronistic retro thing. In the early days, I wanted to make something retro. That was the kind of music I was into. But now I really want to push music into this new area it’s never been before, and I haven’t yet, but that’s definitely the motivation. So I think that might give [my recent music] a sense of being more progressive. At least, the intent was to make something progressive. I feel like music is going in a really great direction. There’s a lot of bands that are doing really interesting things—bands like Health and Gang Gang Dance and Deerhoof and Animal Collective. I feel like we’re in the middle of something amazing, that people are going look back on 20 years from now and be like, “Holy shit! All these classic records were being made during this period,” like when I think about The Pretty Things and Pink Floyd and The Beatles, and all these bands making amazing records in 1967. And I hope that this continues, where people are using the technology of the time, the instruments that are there that weren’t before to create something now, something that really feels like this time period. Even if it sounds dated 20 years from now, it doesn’t matter as long as it has a personality and an identity outside of anything before or after. I mean, everything is inevitably going to sound dated. It’s amazing to me how the ’80s—the sound is such a really strong… it has such a strong personality, and the fashion…
Paste: The gated drums, the synthesizers…
Barnes: Yeah, everything. And I think that’s so fantastic. Like, the ’90s, it had that [distinct identity] to some degree, but not on that level like the ’80s. And people joke around about the ’80s—it definitely seems silly, you know, and we kind of laugh about it, but that’s really all you can hope for: to create something that has such a strong identity that it’s impossible to take it out of context.
Paste: Earlier you were talking about the way the tracks on Skeletal Lamping jump into each other and the erratic way the album is sequenced. All that chaos, when I’m listening to it, snaps me in and out of these trance states. What role do you think chaos plays in your music?
Barnes: Well, this is the first record where I really tried to incorporate tension, and tried to build tension in the songs and not just make it as melodic as possible. I tried to incorporate elements of dissonance. I think it’s really exciting to work in that area because that’s kind of a heavier, deeper form of composing, because you’re touching on all these different emotions. In the past, I’ve done a lot of electro-disco pop, which is basically like one emotion, maybe happy, with slightly intellectual lyrics. But this album, musically, I wanted it to have more depth and to create something that’s more mesmeric at times, even anxiety-producing at times, and in a way reflect my state of mind or the human condition ’cause you’re never just happy and you’re never just sad, there’s always varying levels of everything from moment to moment.
Paste: Why did you choose “Id Engager” as Skeletal Lamping’s first single?
Barnes: We felt like it was dancey and fun, but it was hard to pick one song.
Paste: Are you gonna put out a few singles?
Barnes: Yeah. We’ll definitely do a couple, but “Id Engager” seemed like a safe choice because it’s not such a dramatic departure from Hissing Fauna but it’s also kind of representative of the new record because it has so many different sections and it’s sort of out there, sort of like the freak-disco song on the record. I really pushed for “For Our Elegant Caste” because I thought that was a bit bolder of a statement. But, you know, people on the business side were like, “Well, maybe that might be a bit too much for the first single.” [The song’s chorus feature the lyric: “We can do it softcore if you like, but you should know I take it both ways.”] I feel like there’s no real way to ease people into this album—either they’re going to open-minded and cool with it or they’re not. So I felt like there was no real reason to try to dumb it down or pick the most accessible track. But at the same time, I like “Id Engager.” It’s not a totally simplistic love song. There is depth to it. And I think it’s an interesting song because the lyrics in the verse are in opposition to the lyrics in the chorus. The lyrics in the verse condemn this hedonistic, superficial relationship, and warn people against it. But in the chorus, there’s this unapologetic lyric about, “I just want to play with you, I don’t care about having a deep relationship. I just want to have a superficial, noncommittal experience.” It’s like the two voices are sort of fighting each other.
Paste: Sounds like something that goes on in people’s minds all the time.
Paste: Going back to the new album’s sexuality—why do you think so many Americans are so uptight about sex? And were you consciously trying to challenge these people?
Barnes: I definitely wasn’t trying to challenge people. When I’m making music, I don’t really think about people listening to it. The process is very organic and very insular—I’m just in this bubble, experimenting with different ideas, and I’m not really thinking about how it’s going to be perceived. That never really enters into it. Luckily, because I think if it did, it would freak me out and would be kind of paralyzing. But, yeah, I think I was just in that state of mind where I was pushing myself. Like, I went to a couple parties where I actually took off all my clothes and was masturbating in front of people, and I was really pushing myself to break down all these taboos we have. It’s so strange that we’re like, “OK, we have these bodies, but we have to cover them up, and we have to feel ashamed or awkward about our sexuality and about our physical vessel.” It’s just this human vessel that we’re inside of. And, of course, you feel naturally connected to it or responsible for it in a way, but I kind of like the idea of being irresponsible with your body, you know, like allowing your body to be exposed or doing things with your body that might be considered irresponsible—as if you’re the parent of your body, like your mind is the parent of your body.
Paste: Your body rebelling against your mind?
Barnes: Exactly. So I tried to do a lot of body rebellion on the last tour. Like, we go to parties and it’s funny because, when you break it down—especially if everyone is in that state of mind—then people are OK with it. If people can connect on that level then they realize, “Yeah, it is silly that we have to be uptight about the body.”
Paste: These are things everybody does in private, so it’s like, “Well, what’s the big secret?”
Barnes: Yeah, everybody does, so it’s a universal thing. Yet we have to somehow cover it up. I think about that a lot. It’s really interesting. Especially when you start drinking and you lose your inhibitions; is that a natural state of mind, when you have no inhibitions or is it more natural to have inhibitions? It’s hard to say. And then, you can also think about, “What are the protective elements of the inhibitions. Are they protecting you, or are they hindering you?
Paste: When we were over at Dottie’s house that last time, I can’t remember how it came up in the conversation, but you said you’ve always been attracted to women but you feel like you have a lot in common with gay men. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
Barnes: It’s interesting, I mean, I can’t really say that I like—I mean, I like it all, you know? But I just like acting really fruity—it’s fun. I guess I just don’t really have a sense of, “This is the proper way to be.” Sometimes I feel like acting butch and sometimes I feel like acting fruity. When I was younger, like when I was in high school and stuff, I used to wish I was gay because I thought gay men were—it just seemed nicer in a way. I thought it’d be a better world, maybe, if all men were gay. There’s so much negativity around the male, butch mentality—they’re so uptight. Gay men seemed more open-minded, tolerant and just cooler. And it seemed like this like magical, arty world I wanted to be a part of. I was so disappointed when I realized I wasn’t attracted to men physically! It’s like, I could just be an honorary fag, but I could never really be truly gay. But, I mean, that’s the funny thing about sexuality—it’s like the cultural thing, too. You know, there’s the gay community and there’s the straight community, and there’s these little cliques, and you can join the gay community if you like having sex with men, or you can just be an honorary member of the gay community if you’re open-minded and cool and don’t care. But, like I said before, I really like playing sports and a lot of artists aren’t into sports. Most of the guys on my baseball team are straight, so obviously I’m OK with straight people, too. I guess I fall in between gay and straight. There’s probably a lot of people who feel that way. It’s really clichéd, the parameters we put on it.
Paste: Looking at it as being clearly one way or the other doesn’t really capture the subtleties of it—it seems like there’s got to be a whole series of points in between.
Barnes: Men and women both have testosterone and estrogen in their bodies—we have the same elements, it’s not like we’re just male or just female. We are this nebulous object, this combination of femininity and masculinity. And it’s really tragic that the straight world is so uptight about femininity. There are so many men that are really butch, and you have to be super-butch or else there’s something wrong with you. And I felt that way growing up—in high school, I was like, “Well, I’m not like these guys, these jocks. They’re so uptight, they’re always really stiff—always spitting and trying to be tough. Always frontin’, you know? And I didn’t really feel that way. That’s probably why I thought that I was gay, just because like I wasn’t like that.
Paste: You felt different from them.
Barnes: Yeah, it wasn’t natural for me to be like that. I spent a lot of high school in Florida—my parents were down in Florida, and people were like chewing dip and Confederate flags and pickup trucks. So that was a weird scene to be exposed to ’cause when I was living in Michigan, it was a cooler scene, like everybody was growing their hair out…
Paste: When was that?
Barnes: That was like, late ’80s. I graduated in ’92. So I was living in Michigan and I went to freshman and half my sophomore year outside of Detroit. And that felt better to me ’cause I was a skateboarder, I was sort of a skate rat, and I grew my hair out, and I was listening to metal and punk music, and that sort of fit me better. And then when I went down to Florida, I went to this Catholic school and all these kids were into country music, which was so uncool. You know, in Michigan, nobody listened to country music.
Paste: Like hot-country radio stuff?
Barnes: Yeah. Country music is very straight, very butch, you know? I don’t think there are any openly gay country singers. [laughs]
Paste: I don’t know if they would make it or not.
Barnes: No, that’d be a good genre. Gay country. [laughter]
Paste: Yep, flamboyant country. Well, man, think of all the stuff those guys used to wear. I mean, it’s funny because you look at all those suits on display at the Ryman in Nashville—and those are pretty gay suits, you know?
Barnes: Yeah, it was very flamboyant, especially in the ’70s, with the rhinestone-cowboy scene. But now it’s, you know, cut off.
Paste: “We’ll put a boot in yer ass!”
Paste: One thing that comes up a lot in this record is—there’s this sexual directness, you know? In the past, the lyrics have kind of played with androgyny, and the performances, with all the costumes. But I really think this one pushes the envelope with its sexual directness. Why is this a theme you keep coming back to, and how does it play into the album, conceptually?
Barnes: This character just sort of evolved on our last tour, the Hissing Fauna tour [in support of the band 2007's album, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?]. Not even to give him a name, but just internally sort of evolving in this new way, and it was definitely more sexual. I don’t know, I feel like that person I sort of became or that stage persona or whatever—like, part of me, my artistic mind—evolved in this way that influenced the songs on the new record. And I hadn’t really thought about it that much because I don’t really second-guess the creative process. You know, when I’m doing something, I don’t think, “Well, what is this all about?” I just do it. But then, when the record’s done, then you think about it. But it is different for me [now]—I’m definitely exploring topics I’ve touched upon, but never really in depth like this. So I think I was influenced by the spirit of that tour, the last couple tours we’ve done for Hissing Fauna, and the outfits I was wearing and the sort of character I had become.
Paste: Living in Athens from 1998 to 2003 and following Of Montreal as it developed, it’s been really interesting to watch your public transformation—from being this quiet, eccentric D.I.Y. indie pop artist, who was not so in-your-face, to being this David Bowie-esque performance artist. In the post you wrote for Stereogum, about selling your song [“Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games”] to Outback Steakhouse, you talked about making yourself into a cartoon. How much did that idea have to do with your gradual transformation, and what was the transformation like for you? How did this stage persona develop?
Barnes: I can’t really say. It all happened in a very organic way. I think I realized at one point a couple years ago—in the indie-rock world, there’s a lot of pressure to be modest. And a lot of people [in that world] are very shy, and feel if someone’s going to be legitimate or genuine, it can’t be pretentious. But I realized it’s fun to be pretentious. Pretentiousness offers freedom. My concept of pretentiousness isn’t phoniness; it’s just role-playing and not having a fixed identity. Because I think that’s really destructive when people, especially in the indie community—it hearkens back to the punk-rock mentality where, to be real, you shouldn’t have a stage persona, you have to just be this person on stage all the time, and you have to have accountability for what you said yesterday. But I feel like it’s cool to not put those restrictions on your character because you’re gonna be different people from day to day. And there’s no reason why you have to put yourself in this prison, like, “This is my identity and this is who I am, and if I stray from that then I’m being phony.” I don’t believe it’s possible to be phony. You’re always gonna be who you are. And even if you contradicted who you were yesterday, it doesn’t matter ’cause yesterday’s irrelevant. Today’s the only thing that matters. Once I accepted that, and allowed myself to not have a fixed identity, I realized, “I want to be something fantastic. If I’m gonna create who I am, I don’t want to be this shy, meaningless creature that hasn’t made a splash in the world. I want to be something outrageous and fantastic and inspiring and bizarre.” In my normal life, I’m very down to earth. I watch ESPN and do a lot of like boring things nobody would get excited about.
Paste: You were saying you play baseball.
Barnes: Yeah, yeah. But I realized, “OK, if I’m gonna be a performer, I need to perform, you know—I need to do something fantastic.” There’s no point in going on stage in your street clothes ’cause that’s not that exceptional. If you’re gonna go on stage and you’re gonna have people watch you, look at you, and you want to entertain them, you should do something exceptional.
Paste: Yeah, it’s like, every choice you make, you can make it be interesting and add to the experience or not.
Barnes: You’re only limited by your imagination. I think the spirit that’s happening right now [in music]—people are adopting that. There’s a lot of bands right now that are like, “Yeah, fuck it, let’s do something really crazy. Let’s do something visually interesting!” I think that’s my major gripe with [most] live bands—no matter how much you love the songs, after like the seventh song it just becomes static, you know?
Paste: It’s like, “are you trying to entertain the people that are there to see you and help them have an amazing experience, or are you there to indulge only yourself?”
Barnes: Yeah, and even beyond that—when I think about the visual dynamic and emotional dynamic, most performers aren’t really that ambitious as far as what they want to do for the audience. Now, I’m kind of viewing it like concept art, more on a theatrical level, something that has more dynamic and more depth so it’s not just like, party all the time, you know? For this new tour we’re going to try to play more with tension and try to create anxiety in the audience, so it’s not just always happiness, it’s also like moments of fear and tension and confusion, which comes closer to the emotional depth we all have within ourselves. I don’t think it has to be all one dimensional for it to be worthwhile. In a way, you’re sort of limited. I mean, when you go into a club, there’s only so much you can do to transform the environment. But that’s the major challenge—”OK, what tools do we have that we can use to completely transform this venue that people have maybe been to like 20 times already and seen any number of different kinds of bands perform there?” We want to try to transform it, so it’s an otherworldly experience—something so exceptional, so out of the ordinary, that people will have that special moment, like when you see a movie or a painting or read a book that really touches you. The reason it touches you is because it’s jumping out from this other world, and it burns in your memory as something exceptional. And I think that’s the motivation behind Of Montreal’s recordings, as well. I don’t want to do anything that’s dismissible. I’m sure that’s why there’s a lot of people who hate us, and there’s a lot of people that love us, and I think that’s a great thing. I feel that it’s a positive. I’d rather make something that people despise with all their heart, you know, than were completely indifferent about.