Keeping It Surreal With Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes
No, Coquelicot, Even The Insects Aren’t Safe From Adventure
Of Montreal's neo-barbershop psychedelia is too distinctive to be strictly experimental, yet too whimsical to be much anything else. This stuff, particularly the last two proper albums worth of it, bears the influence of too-clever detourists like They Might Be Giants and XTC and the playful wit of Tin Pan Alley. Ringleader Kevin Barnes' tendency to cram surplus syllables into his half-sung lyrical narratives is somewhat reminiscent of Elvis Costello. Loose comparisons aside, though, Of Montreal's sound is too individualistic, too confrontationally flighty, to be called pop in the strictest sense - even in Athens. Some call it childish escapism, some call it charming fantasy, some rub their temples to ease the don't-get-it vertigo, but no one simply dismisses it as pleasant background music and goes about his or her business. Of Montreal, an uncontrived product of the members' collective imagination is never boring.
Flagpole: How much importance to you place on public perception of and reaction to what you do?
Kevin Barnes: It's a tough question, ’cause of course I want people to like it. But that's not the motivation. I try not to get too upset when people don't like it. I guess you kinda have to build up this wall between you and everyone else, because you don't want them to influence you.
FP: Do you think that gets easier as you go along?
KB: Definitely. At first, I was so vulnerable. Any time there was a bad review, it would destroy me. But now, you just come to terms with it, ’cause that's the nature of the business. It's actually kind of a fun game, if you can look at it objectively, like: "This guy hates it. What's he hate about it? What's his angle?" Someone writing about you, taking you seriously enough to even hate you, is something, I guess.
FP: How would you describe the Of Montreal utopia?
KB: It's this absurd world. Things could happen that would seem sort of vicious and unkind, but it's a playful world. Kind of like the world of Yellow Submarine. Some crazy thing will come up and suck up this little insect, a cute little insect, and it seems like, "Oh, he killed the insect!" But for some reason, it's darkly humorous. So I guess it's a darkly humorous world.
FP: Playing in other places, on the road, what's the most absurdly humorous shit that Of Montreal has gone through? What's your favorite horror story?
KB: Most of the stuff, the most horrific is the most boring. Just like, one or two people sitting there staring at us, not paying attention, in the back of the room. The most humorous experience we've had is: We played this club in L.A. that normally has glam-rock bands, aspiring major label bands, real cheesy, with a smoke machine pumping the whole time. We played there ’cause the club we were supposed to play, The Knitting Factory [West], hadn't been built in time, so we had to throw together this gig on Melrose Avenue. We went out there and did this little theatrical play, the Detective Dulllight play, and everyone was scratching their head, wearing their modern Melrose garb and looking confused. The smoke machine pumped between songs. No applause. It was really cool.
FP: I guess it was a year ago, there was some talk of an Of Montreal animated movie. What's the status on that?
KB: That was the dream, but we realized we don't have any money to make such a project. When we went over to Japan, we realized we're marginally popular over there. It was like this dream world: All of a sudden, people aren't making fun of us because we wear costumes on stage and have colorful artwork; they're embracing us. That was a really positive experience, and I think we were probably deluding ourselves, but we were thinking, "If we go to Japan, we can do all the things we want to do." So, we have dreams. I don't know if it'll ever happen, but that's something I always have in the back of my mind.
FP: What film would you recommend for someone who wanted to turn the sound all the way down and watch while they listened to the new Of Montreal record?
KB: One movie that really inspired me before we started writing songs was, actually I took the lead character's name from it, her name is Coquelicot, is this movie called King Of Hearts. It's a half-French, half-English movie. It's about this town in France at the end of World War I. The Nazis have occupied it, but they realize they're losing the war and they have to leave. But you know how the Nazis are. They put all these bombs there, so when they leave they'll destroy it anyway... The only people left are the people in the insane asylum. They leave the door open, so all the people in the insane asylum filter out into the streets, and they're all able to live their fantasy lives. It's a beautiful idea.
FP: What's your take on depression?
KB: Depression to me seems like empty thoughts. Not even a thought, not even a feeling, just the absence of feeling.
FP: What's your definition of success?