Interview by Monte Holman
Of Montreal has been putting out smart records since 1997, beginning with Cherry Peel (Bar/None) and prolifically progressing to their latest effort, The Sunlandic Twins (Polyvinyl). Spinning out of the Athens-based Elephant 6 collective, Kevin Barnes has consistently, and constantly, produced sprightly and imaginative recordings.
The Sunlandic Twins is no exception. It takes liberties with traditional song structure and retains a home-recording aesthetic, but this album reels in many of the experimental tangents older songs floated away on. It's tight and danceable, more accessible to the ass-shakers. After bird shit on my shoulder while I was waiting outside the club for the interview with Kevin (he said it was good luck), we sat down and talked about the band.
Go see Of Montreal on this tour if you have the chance. Hands-down the best show we've seen this year. Check out the remaining tour dates at www.ofmontreal.net. Their new record is one of the best of the year.
FREEwilliamsburg: The first time I heard the record, I wanted to turn on the Wizard of Oz without the sound and use The Sunlandic Twins as the soundtrack. Did you go into this album thinking, "this one's going to be cinematic"?
Kevin: I think so. To some degree, that's a goal in all our records, for it to be very visual. I think it'd be great if we found someone who understood what we were doing musically and had a really distinct style, visually, to take the record and make a movie out of it, whether it be animated or live-action stuff. I think it would be a great experience if you could have it on and just listen to the music or turn on the TV and watch the visuals.
FREEwilliamsburg: I love the video the Kangaroo Alliance did for "Wraith Pinned to the Mist."
Yeah, I love it too.
FREEwilliamsburg: It's playful but sort of darkly so, which is another thing I noticed on the record-there's a sort of Shel Silverstein underbelly to an apparent theme of youth.
Kevin: With this one, our influences are a little older-the early records were very gleeful and very childlike and naïve and innocent and sweet. But as I'm growing older, it's becoming impossible not to be influenced by the world. That's sort of filtering through as I'm maturing or whatever.
FREEwilliamsburg: Like you feel like you're becoming a cynic?
Kevin: I'm actually coming through it, I think. I went through a phase of pretty heavy cynicism, but it never really found its way into my music because I feel like the music should be an elevation. It shouldn't become muddled by social diseases you pick up. So I always approach it like escapism. Like this is the personality I wish I had.
FREEwilliamsburg: That comes through, especially in Sunlandic Twins. Lots of make believe. With sharp teeth.
Kevin: (laughs) Right.
FREEwilliamsburg: I read that children like Of Montreal. Do you hear that a lot?
Kevin: It's pretty friendly music. It's not the kind of music where kids are going to be like, "Ew, adults are scary." (laughs) Musically, it's very buoyant, very colorful, and I think kids can identify with that.
FREEwilliamsburg: Your brother, David, who does all the artwork for the band, has a great website (www.thebeewithwheels.com) that you can link to off the Of Montreal site (www.ofmontreal.net)-are you all involved with his site, and is he also involved with the band?
Kevin: The site's totally his thing. And with the band, he's kind of an objective ear. We'll play him something and he'll say, "oh that's cool" or "you should change this or that." He's always there in the creative process, but he doesn't actually play an instrument. He doesn't add any actual music, but he adds these sort of abstract things like, "well, that doesn't really sound right-maybe add a little more, like, lava!" (laughs) And we're like, ok, lava-what would that be?
FREEwilliamsburg: Was creativity encouraged as you and your brother grew up?
Kevin: It's funny because neither of my parents were very artistic, and neither really are my sisters. I have two older sisters. So my brother and I just sort of stumbled upon it and really got excited about art and made it our lives' focus. You can't really trace it back to any specific person. It just happened. We were definitely nurtured in that way, like my dad bought me musical instruments and encouraged me and let me practice my drums in the house.
FREEwilliamsburg: At one point the whole band was living together in the country-how was that?
Kevin: For a brief period, it was wonderful. (laughs) After a while it was just like...too much time together. We were touring together and living together and hanging out together. Living out in the country like that, it's a pain in the ass just to leave the house. You end up spending way more time at home than you would normally. Also, lines were blurred-like people's rolls became confused. Everything was sort of muddled up a bit.
FREEwilliamsburg: Sunlandic Twins was mostly written by you-was it more of a group project back then, when you were all under the same roof?
Kevin: Back then, it was very collaborative. Coquelicot and Aldhil's Arboretum were the two band records that we did where everyone actually contributed a fairly equal amount.
FREEwilliamsburg: Do you see things coming back around, or do you like the way it works now with you as the primary writer?
Kevin: We did the last few records pretty much the same way, just sort of layering parts on top of each other, filling it out. But we did a couple recordings together, a 7-inch where every member of the band threw in their own part, and it was fun. It was the first time we'd done that in years. I could see us doing that again, to some extent, probably not a whole record.
FREEwilliamsburg: Do you record in Athens?
Kevin: We've always recorded at home. We've always recorded, engineered, mixed, produced, all that stuff, by ourselves. That explains the super lo-fi sound of our records. (laughs) Because we don't know, really, what we're doing. But it's fun to do it that way because you have total creative control-no timeline, really.
FREEwilliamsburg: Do you have a preference between recording to tape or doing it digitally?
Kevin: I always used tape until Sunlandic Twins. I only used tape on one song. Everything was on my computer. That was the first time, sort of an experiment. I used to be an analog enthusiast who thought anything digital would just be gross, but then I realized the potential of working in the digital world. You can do so many creative things.
FREEwilliamsburg: You guys are into media and on-tour extras like skits, videos, etc. Are those additives as important as the songs themselves? Like when you're writing the songs, are you also thinking of the possibilities the songs will have with other forms of media?
Kevin: Almost always, I write the song for the song. When we go on tour, we think "what can we do to make this tour special? What can we do to make it visually stimulating as well?"
FREEwilliamsburg: You tour extensively-how do you keep it fresh?
Kevin: The music we're making right now doesn't require too much brain power. (laughs) It's less intellectual. Kind of funkier music, dance music. It's more visceral. It's more fun. It's like being at a dance party every night. Plus, it's really exciting because the response from the audience has been so great. It's so encouraging. It's been amazing-doing such great numbers in places we've never touched upon. We used to be very lucky to have 80 people, and now it's like 480 people.
FREEwilliamsburg: Tonight, for instance, is sold-out (at North 6).
Kevin: Yeah, it's a new development for us. We were laboring away for years and years, (laughs) and no one seemed to give a shit. It's building up in this really cool way, and it's exciting because we feel like we're connecting with the audience more, and they're connecting with the music more.
FREEwilliamsburg: Have the label folks (Polyvinyl) played a part in that?
Kevin: I think the record label has played a big role because they're super artist-friendly, and they're also on top of things like very few labels are. But I also think musically, there's an obvious shift in style, like it goes from very conceptual, bordering on goofy at times, to this new phase, which is a little bit sexier and funkier. I think that people who were turned off by us before, are like "this is Of Montreal? I kinda like this. It isn't so bad." (laughs)
FREEwilliamsburg: Who's on this tour now? Same people as the last album tour?
Kevin: On Satanic Panic in the Attic, Nina, my wife, was playing bass, and now we have a new bass player, Matt. He's been playing with us for over a year now, and he's the only new guy. I've been playing with most of those guys, and girl, for a long time-about seven years or so.
FREEwilliamsburg: Seems like all of you have three or four projects you're involved in. Is Of Montreal everyone's priority?
Kevin: It's been like that. I don't know how long it's gonna last-you can only play someone else's songs for so long. (laughs) Brian has a project, the Late B.P. Helium, that he's going to be involved with. It's great; he's a great songwriter. And Jayme is also a really great songwriter, and he's getting a record together, a couple records, actually, that are going to be released in Sweden. So he's spent a lot of time over in Sweden. It's kind of hard to balance it sometimes, but everyone dedicated themselves, at least for the last year or two, on Of Montreal.
FREEwilliamsburg: Are you planning on taking a break after tour or getting back into the studio?
Kevin: Definitely going to get back in the studio as soon as possible. We're going out west again in January. We're going to try to squeeze in as much time in the studio as is possible in between tours.
FREEwilliamsburg: Is the next album written already?
Kevin: Yeah, I've got a majority of it written.
FREEwilliamsburg: You're playing in Montreal tomorrow night.
Kevin: Playing in Montreal is great. Last time was really great. The people there are really nice.
FREEwilliamsburg: Will you ever hear the end of it? I think everything I read about you guys starts with "Of Montreal isn't really from Montreal-hahahahaha."
Kevin: Yeah, you kind of get sick of it. Answering that question. (laughs)