Tuesday, June 23, 2009
2004-05-10 - 30Music
Of Montreal create fun music. It really is as simple as that. Hailing from the booming Athens, GA music scene, Kevin Barnes and company (when there is company, that is) have been making the most of constructing engaging indie pop fun for the past six years. In our conversation with Barnes, we really do cover a whole lot. So much in fact that it’s seemingly pointless to tease you right here with what was discussed. Just read on already.
As we typically have proper intros to our interviews, this time around we decided to extend the intro into a feature story of sorts, simply because Of Montreal are artsy as hell. Please check the Features section for this intro/feature/show review of sorts extravaganza. You’ll be glad that you did.
30: First, I should say welcome back. I understand you actually used to live here.
Kevin Barnes: I did, yeah, for like four months or something.
30: Oh really? When was that? That was before this band was started up, right?
Barnes: Yeah, that was like ‘94 maybe.
30: Were you playing anything here back then?
Barnes: No, not really. I don’t think I did. I was trying to get a band back together but nobody was interested.
30: Eventually, obviously you settled in Athens [GA], which is a huge music town. What are your impressions of Minneapolis? If you weren’t playing then, maybe you weren’t able to form an opinion…
Barnes: I wasn’t – I just wasn’t able to form any opinion. The bands we play with have been really great. You know, it seems like there is great stuff happening in Minneapolis.
30: A lot different sound than the Athens sound.
Barnes: Yeah - I’m sure it’s like a climate thing. I think that influences people’s impressions - people’s artistic impressions. You’re reacting to your environment. It’s unavoidable, I think. Not that everyone has to make melancholy music just because it’s cold, but I think it’s probably natural that music in California is going to sound different than music from the East Coast.
30: Speaking of what goes into making people’s sounds, I understand there was a covers EP with some copies of your new album – I didn’t get a chance to hear that. What is on it?
Barnes: It is all contemporary covers. We did a Shins cover, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci cover, Broadcast and V-Twin.
(Kevin’s wife, Nina, stops by and they chat for a few moments. Kevin apologizes.)
30: That leads into my next question, actually. There were some personnel changes again with the band. Are you looking for a set lineup, or are you pretty comfortable just changing?
Barnes: I don’t mind having a rotating cast of characters. The most important thing I’m looking for when we go on tour is that everyone is feeling good, and their hearts are in it, and they want to do it. And they’re having fun. And also, personality-wise, how everyone will click, because they’re going to spend so much time together. I’d definitely pick that over musicianship – although everyone’s such a great musician anyway already, but it’s like, if you can choose who you’ll hang out with 24 hours a day.
30: Let’s move to the new album, you pretty much did it mostly yourself, or a lot yourself anyway. How much of a change in style for recording was that – so much of your albums are really dramatically arranged and overdubbed, clearly a lot was just you to begin with anyway. Was it really that different?
Barnes: Not really. I mean, it was fun. It was kind of like the others, like Petite Tragedy was kind of like that, with people coming in and contributing. But it wasn’t like a diplomatic thing where everybody is there from the start to the finish and has their say the whole way through. This record was more like Petite Tragedy or Gay Parade. Then we made a couple records as a full band – and that was a good experience also – but I think I would probably prefer doing it this way just because I can control it more. And it’s less of a mind-fuck. You don’t have this drama – not like we were a soap opera kind of band, but it’s hard to do that, people’s feelings getting hurt and this and that. It’s better because you can keep it focused and then have people help you. It just feels more relaxed.
30: As far as your preference, the first time I saw you live a few years ago I was shocked to hear what a rock show it was, given what I was hearing on albums like Gay Parade and so on. Do you have a preference as far as which experience, or end result, you’re putting across? Does it matter to you?
Barnes: Well, the live show, you want it to be high energy. You don’t want it to be convoluted. You don’t want it to go over people’s heads too much. We try to combine both elements. There’s definitely a poppy element to Of Montreal as well as our more proggy element, prog-pop or whatever. But we try to keep it fun and light and playful, so people can have a good time. It’s important. People are there to have fun, and people are there to drink and talk to their friends. It’s like a social gathering as much as it is a rock and roll performance. People don’t necessarily come to sit and listen to music. A lot of times they come just to be around other people and enjoy that experience.
30: Do you prefer that – which is almost like being a house band the way you describe it –
Barnes: Yeah, totally!
30: Over being in the studio, or would you rather sit back and play with a dozen dubs of your voice?
Barnes: I’d rather, if I had to choose between the two, just record because that’s when you can be the most artistic. When you go out live you have to make sacrifices and you can never control it – it’s so unpredictable every night. Like, you don’t know what the sound’s going to be like, you might have no vocal monitor, you might not be able to hear the drums at all, everything might be totally flat-sounding. When you’re in the studio you have control. You can change it, you can mess around. And that’s just the greatest thing for me. That’s my greatest joy, is when I work in the studio.
30: What’s been [the crowds’] reaction? The album hasn’t been out in the States for very long. Do people know the new songs yet?
Barnes: Yeah! Yeah, totally, yeah. I’ve been shocked. Even from the very beginning, I looked out into the crowd and saw people were singing along with the new songs, and that’s really encouraging.
30: How much of the new album are you playing live?
Barnes: Pretty much all of it. I think we’re only not playing like three songs…two songs. Two or three songs. It’s definitely a tour to support the new record and, if, for no other reason, it’s just fun to play the new songs, just because we played the old songs so many times. I was thinking about that because I had just gone over to catch some of the Strokes’ show and was thinking, “God, they must have played that song, like, a million times.” I don’t even know how they do it. For me, I get bored. I don’t really want to play the same songs over and over and over again.
30: There’s been a lot written in the press already about the electronic influence of the album. Was that something you really artistically felt like doing, or was it more a matter of you being in the studio alone, and it was kind of a one man band thing, like Prince?
Barnes: No, I always loved dance music. I always loved old ‘80s dance party music and synth-pop. So that was kind of my aim, with the more programmed drum songs. Just to make something different, something you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find on an Of Montreal record, just to keep things interesting.
30: Are you doing the programmed songs live, or are you using real drums for that?
Barnes: There’s one song that we have programs on, we have it on a CD, through the house [system].
30: You said you’re doing all but a few [of the new songs]. Out of curiosity, are you doing “Lysergic Bliss” live?
30: Are you skipping the end part? The vocal part?
KB: No, we’re doin’ it. (Laughter). We’re attempting it, anyway. Yes. Yeah.
30: That blew me away – it was very Queen, with a huge, big sound.
Barnes: Yeah I don’t even really know where that came from. I mean, I like Queen a lot, but I don’t even own any Queen records. I don’t even know the greatest hits or anything, but it’s a lot of vocal stuff. I think it was just because I record a lot on the computer, so it’s like, ‘Na-na-na,” you can just keep adding more and more and more and more. I was just like, ‘Ooh, I can do this crazy vocal thing!’ And there’s nothing stopping me from doing it!
30: It’s not like with the old four-track, the cassette four-track. Critical response has been, I think, probably better for this album than, certainly for the, for lack of a better word, the “opera albums.” Do you care? I mean, does this matter to you?
Barnes: I hate to see a bad review. It hurts my feelings. But it’s not going to prevent me from doing what I want to do. I think I realized kind of early on, there’s no way you can control the way people view your music. There’s no way you can present it in a way that they’ll totally get it -that everyone, across the board, is going to get it in the way that you want them to get it. You just can’t let it get into your head. It just fucks you up. It’s so damaging. And I think that for a long time it did hurt me because when we were making the Gay Parade or Petite Tragedy, it was so innocent, and it was just so sweet, and I was so oblivious to the world. But the rock media is so pessimistic and so jaded. It can be really, really damaging to a young artist.
30: There’s definitely an optimism in your music that isn’t, like, dopey optimism – like stupid – but it seems really sincere. It’s really fun to hear. It’s a good time.
Barnes: That’s what I’m hoping. Hopefully it’s just refreshing. Because there’s just so much cynicism, just in the world, and in people you talk to. And there’s really no point. You can create your own reality in so many ways. So, you can either view it as, “the world is horrible, where spirits are crushed every second,” or you can just look at the flowers and smell the wind and feel OK about your life.
30: About your arrangements, back to the albums: your arrangements on the albums are always just immaculate – layered and really very interesting. Do you put a lot of thought into “how am I going to do this later, live,” or do you really work it out in rehearsals?
Barnes: Yeah, we just kind of figure it out as we put it together. The thing that we realized is, the live show, it comes and it goes, and maybe we’ll never play it live. Maybe we’ll never be able to duplicate that live. But it doesn’t really matter, because the record is something that people have forever. As long as the medium exists, the music will be there. That’s the most important thing, is focusing on making the album really interesting, and then worrying about reproducing it when you have to.
30: Between some of your lyrics and the short stories you put up on your website, it strikes me that you have a lot of interesting things to say. Do you read a lot, or have you read a lot?
Barnes: Yeah, I do. Before I was always into more classic literature. Recently I’ve been getting really turned on to more contemporary writers. Recently I read this really great book by Jonathan Safran Foer, it’s called “Everything is Illuminated.” And Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy is what I’m reading right now. But before that, I was huge into Roald Dahl and his more adult short stories: Uncle Oswald; Kiss, Kiss; (a third title is somewhat inaudible – possibly My Complexion]. I just really like his style because there’s always a twist at the end. And there’s always some subversive element.
30: Do you find literature coming into songwriting? There are a few people who do, but they tend to be so completely different than most of what you do – Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen. Do you find it creeping in, or are they two separate things?
Barnes: As far as? Than writing prose?
30: When you’re writing songs, are you thinking about it as writing prose, or literature, or are you just writing pop?
Barnes: A lot of times, if I’m getting a story-type song like “Good Morning, Mr. Edminton,” or “Nickee Coco,” I kind of address it like a short story. You have to create the introduction, establish some character development and then there’s some sort of ending. It’s kind of neat, because it’s all in this three-minute section of time and it all has to be in there. So it’s kind of an interesting challenge to develop some short story in the template of a pop song.
30: I have one more – customary for our site. What were you listening to when you were 17 years old?
Barnes: Seventeen? I think, actually the Replacements. I was getting into like.
30: You’re bringing it right back home.
Barnes: Yeah – Let It Be was my favorite record when I was 17, I think.