I consider myself very privileged. Not just anyone gets to call up Of Montreal wunderkind Kevin Barnes and shoot the shit. Well, that is unless you look up his phone number or something. At any rate, I felt honored to speak with the writer of one of the most outstanding records of the year so far, Satanic Panic In the Attic. The album is an odyssey of winsome storylines dancing over sugary melodies and some truly eccentric song-writing. I caught Kevin while he was on the phone with a friend, but he was gracious enough to give Junkmedia a few minutes of his time to chat it up.
So you just finished up a pretty big tour a few weeks ago. How did that go?
It was great. It was by far the best tour that we've done in every possible way.
What were the bests and worsts of the tour?
Well, the best part was we got really good tour press, so that helped a lot; and we're doing really well on college radio, so it seemed that people were getting into the record at the same time we were touring. The worst part about touring is touring in general -- eating at places you wouldn't ever eat at. Not getting much sleep... but that's tour so...
You also just put out a fantastic album, Satanic Panic in the Attic. Considering the number of line-up changes you've had with Of Montreal, who exactly played on this album?
This one is mostly me; I did most of the stuff myself. Some people came in and helped, like Andy Gonzales, who's played guitar with Of Montreal for a while. He didn't do the last couple tours because he's back in school, [ but] he played guitar on a couple songs. My friend, Eric Harris, played drums on a song and Heather Macintosh played cello on a couple songs. But the majority of the instrumentation was done by me.
What is your song-writing process like? Do you start with a chord progression or a melody, or...
Well, normally I try to think creatively every day -- doing some role-playing and humming and seeing what happens, seeing what comes up -- and then sometimes it will turn into a song. I'll just go into my room and pick up my guitar and figure out what the chord progression would be for that melody line and then try to write lyrics. Probably a pretty typical procedure.
Is it hard to be a creative songwriter these days?
Most people aren't as creative as I'd like them to be. There're only a handful of songwriters that really try to push themselves to do something that's eccentric and strange and unconventional. Maybe it's hard, or maybe it's just hard to want to try? I don't know. It seems like the majority of at least mainstream music is like that: super predictable and boring. But then you have the indie scene, which is so great. People can really express their own personal vision.
I really enjoyed the somewhat dancey structure of songs like "Disconnect the Dots" or "Rapture Rapes the Muses." At the same time, there has been a revival of danceable music in the underground. Is there any correlation?
I think I'm definitely influenced by what my peers are doing, so that played a part in it. But it's something I've been wanting to do for a while -- do some programmed drum beats -- just because it's fun, it's a different thing. I get kind of bored doing the same thing over and over again. With the last record, Aldhils Arboretum, it's just a straight record; it's just conventional rock and roll instrumentation. It was an interesting experiment, but I didn't want to do anything like that -- I wanted to do a more eclectic mix of styles.
How do you feel about integrating the newer technologies into your music?
I think it's great to use modern technology in your own way. I think that's really the only way to make progressive music. For music to progress, it has to use the tools that people are creating currently, so things aren't just retro, retro, retro. There's no way music can evolve if you're obsessed with some period that happened at one point in time.
I don't have any qualms about using a drum machine or computer programming or studio trickery. That's like an artform in and of itself. I think it's exciting to be able to work that way; I don't think you should ever limit yourself, say, "I'm only going to use these organic instruments," or, "I'm only going to use analog because it seems more pure." If that's your trip, that's fine; for me, I'd much rather be completely open-minded and use whatever's available.
Your lyrics are one of my favorite parts of Of Montreal records. The lyrics of "My British Tour Diary," well, can be read as a tour diary. Others are much more abstract. Where do you come up with your lyrics?
It's a lot of role-playing and creative thinking; trying to think of different, weird ways to say the thing, or strange scenarios that I can put into a song. Like [the song] "Chrissy Kiss the Corpse," where I was just driving in a car with my dad and, for some reason, I was imagining my sister -- it was a really grim, macabre vision that I was imagining my sister at my nephew's funeral and how she would have to kiss the corpse. I was like "That'd be a funny idea for a pop song." I mean, not really funny, but like it'd be like [sings] La la la la la! You know, bouncy melody line and really dark lyrics.
What are your feelings on the folding of Kindercore records?
It's really sad, because there was a period where Kindercore was doing really well and they had this great financial backer in Emperor Norton. So they had tons of money, high rolling and were putting out tons of records. That was their high-water mark and then after that they sort of went down hill, they lost Emperor Norton. They had too many bands, so they had to get rid of some bands. Then this really, really, really crappy company called Telegraph sort of bailed them out financially, but in the end sort of destroyed them. It's a really sad story, because it started off so pure and so great; Ryan built it up out of nothing, then it started to erode.
How do you feel about your new home at Polyvinyl?
I think they're amazing. It's by far the best experience I've ever had working with a label. They're so together, so organized, so motivated and ambitious. And on top of that, really sweet people. Their hearts are in the right place and are really supportive.
Who are some of your favorite bands from the present time?
All the bands we put on that four songs cover EP, and we picked our favorite four contemporary bands. It was Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, the Shins, the Z-Twins, which is this really great band from the UK, and Broadcast. That's the stuff I'm really into. I've been getting really into stuff like Daft Punk and Phoenix -- I really love Phoenix. I guess they have a new record coming out soon. And then there's the obvious stuff like The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev.
What's your favorite thing about music these days?
I think the best thing about it is that the indie scene is thriving. If everybody had to rely on major labels, no records would ever get released, or none of the great records that are being made right now. Also, with recording equipment costs getting a lot lower, it's becoming more affordable for people to have studios. I've been able to build a studio just from producing records and getting recording advances and putting that into the studio. It becomes this freedom to explore things you wouldn't be able to if you were paying by the hour.
What can we expect from Of Montreal in the coming months?
I'm working on a new record right now that's gonna be more like a synth-pop record. It's going more in the direction of "Disconnect the Dots" and "Rapture Rapes the Muses." I just wanted to do something like that -- that was my foray into the programmed drum thing. It's really fun and really interesting. I've always loved '80s bands, and there's that whole new '80s dance revival thing. But people don't really do the "Come on Eileen"-type of dance stuff. People are more influenced by new wave and no wave... like Depeche Mode, I guess. It seems like a lot of people that are doing the '80s dance revival thing, they don't really capture the joy of the 80s -- the blissful, sweet, pop element. My goal for the next six months is to finish another record and have it out by around March or April.
You've put out quite a number of records on a consistent basis. How do you stay so prolific?
It's such an important part of my life that it is my life in a lot of ways. So there's nothing else to distract me, nothing else that I do. I don't have any other hobbies, I don't watch television; I don't do anything. When I'm at home I'm writing and recording.
July 12, 2004