John Lennon in the College Tower
April 29, 2005 -
Interview With Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes.
In the Pulse next week you might only get to read one fourth of this so here it is:
It is impossible task to briefly sum up Of Montreal in a small blurb. They are the dignity of American pop music in the new millenium. Kevin Barnes is the wunderkind behind the songs, and the sole performer for most of the last two albums, 2004's Satanic Panic In The Attic and April's The Sunlandic Twins. They are playing at Lamar's on Wednesday. Kevin let me call him while riding through Illinois.
How is the tour going?
--> It’s been wonderful
Sounds like a pretty exhausting tour.
--> Hopefully it won't be exhausting, it’s definitely long.
So how do you feel The Sunlandic Twins has been received as you go out to tour for it now?
--> It seems to be really, really well received. People have been dancing like crazy. There's been a really fun dance party every night. We've been playing some much larger audiences and people have been singing along. Yeah, it's been great.
How do you feel about The Sunlandic Twins in relation to previous Of Montreal albums?
--> I feel happy with it. I feel happy with all our records though, so I don't really have a favorite.
What was your introduction to electronic instrumentation for Of Montreal like? Your first album and this one are definitely two different sounds.
--> Well I used to be really uptight. I could only use things that were done in the Sixties and earlier. I wouldn't give anything modern a chance, till the last three or four years. I sort of got more into what my contemporaries were doing, becoming more influenced by it. I guess that's probably the reason it took me so long to get into it but now I'm having a lot fun working in it- though it’s not really electronic. I don't really consider The Sunlandic Twins an electronic
album. There are some characteristics that are similar [with electronic music] like the programmed drums and stuff. It’s still very much rooted in the Sixties and Seventies.
So that kind of answers my next question, do you consider Of Montreal a band whose influences are rooted in a certain decade?
--> Not really. Just one or two in particular. Our roots, or whatever you want to say, would be in Sixties pop. Just because that was such a great time period for pop song writing. People were breaking all the rules and taking a lot of chances, being more adventurous in the studio. There was this great epoch. That's definitely the main driving force. We're also into the Seventies songs, some weird stuff like krautrock. And into the Eighties, the synth-pop movement, all the angular guitar stuff. So we like everything.
What is the recording process like when you do an album mostly by yourself?
--> It’s putting on the headphones, starting with some idea like a rough structure, and laying down some sort of skeleton of the song. Then it’s overdubbing and watching the thing come to life. Usually I have some idea of how I want it to be, but it just comes together in this organic way over time, working on it every day, ten hours a day.
I spent two hours trying to figure out the chords to Eros Entropic Tundra. Your chord progressions seem to be endless. Where do they come from? Is there a moment where they click in your head? Where is the inspiration?
--> I'm always trying to come up with something that is unpredictable for the listener. I try to avoid clichéd resolutions. If it’s so obvious that the melody line will resolve in this way, then I try to fight that. So maybe that makes for more interesting progressions.
One thing that that does is helps the music form a narrative apart from the lyrics. It’s like the music is going somewhere so the lyrics don't always have to tell the story. There's a lot of instrumental stuff on The Sunlandic Twins, do you consider that stuff to be part of the narrative you’re telling as well?
--> Oh definitely. The goal with an instrumental is to hopefully take the listener some place different. To do the same thing that you would do with lyrics but in a different way. You can create an atmosphere. In a lot of ways it’s more potent and more powerful then something with words. With lyrics you’re automatically sent somewhere specific but with an instrumental everyone can have a different experience or hear something different. Its less linear I guess.
Does the word indie mean anything to you in the context of music genres?
--> To me it's the best possible term to use. You’re independent of the machine; you’re free to do what you want. There are no restrictions, there’s nothing to lose. It’s totally liberating.
So you would justify that as a fitting term for Of Montreal?
--> Yeah definitely. But a lot of people probably have their own connotations. That's what it means to me.
Your shows are pretty exciting and dramatic. How do visual arts and other art forms influence your music or your performances?
--> For the live shows, it’s just that we want to give something different to the audience. We don't just want to get up there in our street clothes and play the songs. We just want to put on a show and want it to be exceptional. We want people to leave saying "Wow that was interesting, I've never seen anything like that before". We just don't want to be producing anything boring.
Your brother’s [David Barnes] album art is always very stylized. What kind of influence does he have on the music as an artist?
--> I sort of bounce ideas off of him. When I was recording the last two records, we were living together in the same house. I'd play stuff for him and get his input. On the new record he told me to change a lot of the lyrics and I think it was good advice. The lyrics that I had settled on weren't that great, maybe they were too generic or something. He was thinking, "Your music is good, maybe you should try and work harder on the lyrics", and so I did. I was happier with the end result than what I thought I had finished before.
How were your intentions with this record different than they might have been with Satanic Panic in the Attic?
--> With The Sunlandic Twins, at least the first half, I wanted to make something that was really dancy, sort of disco. But intelligent disco with some interesting changes, something that would create a party atmosphere. The second half I wanted to be a little bit darker, a little bit more instrumental. With Satanic Panic, I didn't really go into it with a strong idea like "I want this record to be just like this". It just evolved in its own way in its own time. It’s difficult to answer that question. When it’s done, it’s done and this is the character it has, but I don't really start off with a really strong vision or a mission. I just see what happens.
Your arrangements are so intricate and lush, what is the arranging process like for you?
--> It's kind of like the process I was describing before. I have a song on the acoustic guitar or piano and I lay down the basic tracks and then the arrangement is all the overdubbing. Once I put down the basic tracks and the vocals, then I think "What’s it missing?" or “What could really give each song an interesting character or personality?" That's what the arrangement process is, one piece at a time, like putting together a puzzle.
Is there a moment where you sit back and say “That's it. The songs over. That's what I want”, or is it a continuous process?
--> Definetely. I reach that point with every section. I kind of dissect [the song] section by section- the first verse, second verse, bridges, intros, outros. I look at them as separate sections within the whole piece. Once I'm satisfied with every single section, then the songs done.
How do you record bass? Because the bass on the last two albums sounds so full and McCartneyish.
--> I have a Rickenbacker with flat wound strings. I don't mic it. I go direct into my mic preamp. That goes into the board and then that goes into either my tape machine or a computer. I don't really EQ it very much. I compress it a little bit. I just want to get a really direct sound that has a lot of definition and is not very bassy because I don't like super bassy bass. I don't like sub-bass. I play the bass like a guitar and I treat the bass like you would a guitar, a solo instrument. Bass lines are something that I really labor over. We always have, when Derek was the bass player he would do it. And anytime anyone does bass, we take the bass very seriously.
Who is playing bass with you on this tour?
--> On this tour it is Matt Dawson.
So Nina is at home with your new baby?
--> Thank you.
Is it a he or a she?
--> A she. Her name is Alabee.
Hence, the name of the song [“So Begins Our Alabee”]. The song “Wraith Pinned To The Mist And Other Games” is one of the more minimal tunes on the album, was it a struggle to keep such a catchy tune that low key? Or was it even a question?
--> Yeah. I haven't really worked that way. I usually overload every song with a million overdubs. With that one, it just had so much room to breathe. I thought was cool to be sort of laid back, sort of funky. That enabled me to sing in that breathier style. I didn't have to shout over that mix. So I kind of wanted it be sort of sleek and sexy.
I can only imagine that people are really loving that tune live.
--> It’s been really fun. It’s cool because I can take the guitar off and dance around a bit. Most of the song is just bass, drums, and vocals, so everyone can move around and get the crowd hyped up. So that's a real fun number to play.
Do you still have a day job?
How long has it been since you did?
--> About two years.
Is that long Of Montreal has been on Polyvinyl records?
--> Same amount of time.
So has that experience with that record label been really good?
--> Yeah it has been wonderful. It’s been by far the best experience, they just do everything properly. With most labels, you wonder how the hell they stay in business. It’s just idiotic the way a lot of labels operate. So Polyvinyl is on top of things and really up front. So yeah, it has been great.
What kind of jobs did you hold before you the freedom to quit a day job?
--> I had a ton of jobs, silly things, like working in video stores, telemarketing. Things like that, temporary work that was noncommittal so I could leave, go away on tour and stuff.
What are the three best feeling you've ever felt?
--> You mean, like three best experiences?
--> Feeling true love, feeling really satisfied with an experience- like you have something that's really successful, it was very successful, it was exceptional, what a surprise… And also great heartbreak. You couldn't really call it a good feeling but at the same time it's a different sort of feeling that makes you feel alive in a way that you don't often feel.
If Of Montreal were to be a cover band, who would they cover?
--> Os Mutantes.
What comes after this tour?
--> Hopefully more of the same. I have a whole bunch of songs in my head already that I want to start recording. We're going to do some more touring in August and September. Actually it looks like we're going to be able to go to Japan in September. Do some more touring in Europe in September and October. More touring, more recording, more productivity.
Is the community of musicians in Athens still as strong as it used to be?
--> I think so, I've withdrawn from that community but a lot of people are still really active in each others projects.
Does the fact that you've withdrawn have to do with you getting older or starting a family or anything like that?
--> No, I think that it's just in my nature. Maybe it's getting older, I don't know. I'm not really "older". I'm only thirty so I shouldn't have characteristics of an old person. It’s more just me being satisfied. I'm not really social, so I'm satisfied being at home with Nina and working on stuff. I'm obsessed with being productive. I consider going out wasting time. I'm really boring in that way, single minded. I just like working on things.
So is you being a workaholic the reason Of Montreal has put out so much music in the past ten years?
--> I guess so. I never want to stop. I just want to keep pushing and stay on fire, stay excited.
Is getting old something that frightens you?
--> No not at all, the only thing that frightens me is what other people have gone through. You know? I'm thinking about other people becoming complacent and boring. Like artists. It doesn't happen to everybody but it happens to musicians more than other artists. They just get set in their ways as they get older. That frightens me a little bit. But I guess I'm on top of things, conscious of it and I'm pushing myself. I think that they stop pushing themselves because they get too comfortable or too successful. That's the only thing that I fear about getting older.
What is your method for fighting that? Because it seems like something that even people who feel the same way that you feel succumb to sometimes.
--> I think the most important thing is keeping your ear open. Listening to a lot of what your contemporaries are doing, listening to what the younger kids think, and just staying alert to what's happening. You can't just listen to the same things forever. Then it just becomes really dull, you keep doing the same thing. Staying on top of what new is happening in music, and film, and everything. Just staying inspired by your fellow humans.
What is an example of something new that influences you?
--> Recently, stuff like The Fiery Furnaces, Animal Collective, Carribou.