Tuesday, June 23, 2009

2006-04-07 - Athens Exchange

by The Bridge

Small Town

It's Athens in the wintertime. As I'm walking home from work, a car drives by slowly, with the windows down, tunes loud, playing a song by my co-worker's band. It's Athens, it happens a lot. It's a pretty good song; I step to the beat. Oslo in the summertime/Nobody can get to sleep...

It's Of Montreal, a band born of the Elephant 6 collective who outlived and outgrew their kid brother status in said collective. You might (if you were prone to tedious, drawn-out analogies) want to think of Olivia Tremor Control as the overbearing mother of the group; Neutral Milk Hotel as the absentee father; and Elf Power the surprisingly well-adjusted older son. Of Montreal were, in the early days, a smaller caliber affair, drawing modest numbers for their shows and releasing albums to mixed reviews and less than spectacular sales. They had staying power, however, sticking it out for over a decade and counting. The last four or five years have been a mite snow-ballish for the group. Satanic Panic in the Attic, their second to last full-length, went to number two on the college radio charts in Billboard magazine. The follow-up album, last year's The Sunlandic Twins, is their current label Polyvinyl's biggest seller to date.

I'm not entirely sure where the band was, saleswise or famewise, when I met Dottie Alexander, current keyboardist for Of Montreal and former bartender at a joint called the Globe in Athens, Georgia. I know that they were popular enough to have acquired a disease common to all notable public personas, a disease which manifests itself mainly in the way that we, the common folk, interact with its victims. People like Michael Stipe, who is in the terminal phase of the disease, will encounter the same kind of whispering and eye aversion and/or unabashed staring (it's the same sentiment, whether you're looking too hard or not looking at all) usually reserved for the severely deformed. Having lunch with a friend at the Globe one day, not long before I got a job there myself, I noticed that Alexander was early stage symptomatic.

My friend, a vinyl collecting geek, was talking about independent record labels. I was listening half-heartedly. "And her band is on that label, too," he said, dropping his voice to a mutter on the word "her." I followed his gaze to the girl behind the bar, the girl from Of Montreal. "They're pretty popular." he added, still in a conspiratory undertone. She glanced in our direction as she walked by, and I hurriedly changed the subject, hoping she hadn't heard us talking about her. Fame makes me nervous. It's part of the disease. Their disease.

Ordinary Joe

So, to make a long story short ("TOO LATE!", cries the peanut gallery), I eventually met Dottie, we worked a shitty bar job together, and I forgot about her disease for a while. It was easy to do when she was doing Ordinary Joe stuff with me: cleaning toilets at the bar, bitching about our boss, paying parking tickets. By the time I saw her perform with her band, I had forgotten that anyone else had even heard of them. But they had, in large numbers, and ignoring it became increasingly difficult. Flipping through magazines at a newsstand, I'd come across my friend posing with her band in Mojo magazine, with a pithy little bio. On a trip to Gainesville, GA, the pharmacist in a grocery store drilled me with questions about the Of Montreal hoodie I was wearing - where did I get it, did I see the last show, when were they coming back. And finally, there is this intersection. Athens Exchange wants to send someone to interview them. I mention it to Dottie on her last visit to town. "Oh, why don't you do it?" she says. Sure, why don't I do it? Makes perfect sense. I know Dottie, I can get her to set it up, why not?

For future reference: because it's fucking weird.

Big Band

On the day of our interview, the band is, by and large, hung over. It is the day after their homecoming show at the 40 Watt, so I'm amazed that Dottie was able to persuade them to come at all. Everyone shows except for bassist Matt Dawson. Guitarist Brian Poole and drummer James Huggins are stubble-faced and wearing shades. Dottie looks happy but subdued, dressed in simple black, none of her usual multi-colored tights or screaming orange scarves. Lead singer Kevin Barnes does not look hung over, but he's a queer one, perpetually shiny-eyed, almost always decked out in something a bit beyond jeans and a t-shirt. Today he's wearing a pastel suit and a white-brimmed newsboy cap with slender blue and white striping that looks like something a train conductor in a Richard Scarry picture book would wear.

The band saunters raggedly in to the "quiet room" at Hot Corner Coffee, where the photographer and I have been discussing seating arrangements. As the others are getting coffee, Huggins strolls around the room, checking out the local artwork. He spots the photographer's laptop, set up by my tape recorder. "Is this yours?" he asks. I tell him whose it is.

"Photographer? You're not taking pictures of us." Shit. "Oh, no... You could have done that last night, when we looked cool..." We did take pictures last night, but that was for a review of the show, and this is for the interview. I try to explain, but Huggins is now a resolute non-participant. "I mean, maybe I speak for myself here... I bet I speak for some of the others..." He shakes his head and wanders out of the room. Five minutes later, Dottie returns from the coffee counter with an iced concoction and a rueful look. "Well, you pissed Jamey off," she grins. I start to freak out, quietly. "Don't worry, it's just Jamey. He's like that to everyone," she grins again and rolls her eyes.

Dottie and Jamey

They argue like a married couple. "We practically are one," I have heard her say, more than once. Both have significant others - it's a platonic love, certainly. But a looooong one. The two joined Of Montreal in '98 "as a package deal," Dottie says. At the time they were playing together in a drums-and-keys two piece called Lightning Bug vs. Firefly. Flashback to over a year ago, when the two came into the Globe while I was working. They sat at my table and ordered lunch. After Jamey placed his order (a sandwich), Dottie told me how to make it (hold the mushrooms, I think. Or maybe it was onions). "You're right, I don't want mushrooms (or onions or whatever)," Jamey said. "How did you know that?"

"Please. I've been listening to your picky orders long enough to know-"

And they bickered for a bit, cute as codgers. They do that a lot. "Jamey," Dottie once said, drunk, after a pissy phone conversation, "Is my cross to bear."

"What does that mean?"

"I don't know. Nothing. Jamey's great."

One night, closing the bar by ourselves, Dottie and I were required to call a male in to sit with us through closing. Our boss felt uncomfortable leaving two girls alone at night with all that money. So Dottie called skinny, foppish Jamey Huggins, who sat at the bar, drank overpriced beer, and insisted that everyone dance with him when we were supposed to be restocking, because he liked the song that was playing. He told us the entire history of Os Mutantes (which Dottie already knew). He was in a good mood that night. Jamey Huggins in a good mood is like a child at his birthday.

Dottie and Jamey are oddly twinned. Both have a high play instinct, both are very bright, and neither one has much patience for a party spoiler. Unless they are in a very bad mood, in which case the party is over.

Where Your Heart Is

Eventually, Brian Poole and Kevin Barnes return to the quiet room and arrange themselves on the couch with Dottie, and we begin the interview, while Huggins meanders about the room, uninvolved. The interview takes thirty, forty minutes, but it feels like an eternity. All of the effort I have made trying to forget that my friend is a rock star is being undermined, swiftly, by my very own deliberate actions. I have made her an adversary: she sits on one side, me on the other. Already, Huggins has fired a decisive shot, wounding my ego. My heart's in my throat. I feel like a jackass. "Do you feel weird coming back to Athens?" I ask, mostly because I feel weird. No, not really, is the group consensus. I've never interviewed a whole band before, and I'm getting flustered. One pissed off drummer and a simple "not really" are bad ways, I feel, to begin an interview. I reword the question, trying to get a more interesting response. "The wedding show," Barnes offers, finally. "That was pretty weird." "What wedding show?" Dottie asks. "THE wedding show..." "Oh, that one," says Poole, as he and Barnes lock eyes in an odd, intense stare. "The wedding show?" I prompt, hopeful. Barnes nods and mutters something, softly, about a show with the Psychic Hearts and the Modern Skirts. "That was probably the most different, definitely."

Great! That's something. "Different good, or bad?" I ask.

"Just different. Definitely." I try to get more about the wedding show, to no avail. In response to my next (admittedly dorky-sounding) question about whether Athens is still where the various members' hearts are, Barnes points out that "Leonard Cohen said, never go home with a hard on."

Okay, let's run with that. "Don't you have to do it anyway?"

"Oh, yeah. You know, he's just... Canadian, and shit." Barnes makes a small gesture dismissing Canadians.

A week later, in response to a rather panicky, help-me-write-it email to Dottie, she fills me in on the wedding show: "The wedding show was bullshit. We made it up. Having you on."

Dumb Interview

This is not the dumbest inerview that Of Montreal has ever endured. That honor, I believe, would go to the girl from an MTV2 contest who interviewed them in a record store. "She was deathly afraid of ketchup," Dottie said. The band, bored and bewildered, made up a bunch of ridiculous stories in response to her queries. Among them: Brian Poole's love of Ukranian mime. So I suppose a fib about a wedding show, with scant elaboration, isn't too bad. There's also the sex cult, which I kind of figured wasn't true. It's what I got for saying, "So, the band name...?"

"Boo!" (Times three.) "You're not going there." "Hissss..." "We get asked that. Every. Single. Time."

"But, I've read the story, where it came from, and I just-"

"Which one?" asks Poole.

"Oh-the one about the girl that Kevin dated, and she-"

"Enslaved me-" giggles Dottie.

"Into her sex cult," Barnes says.

"Don't you worry about how that information will affect your parental, family-oriented fans?"

"Yeah," says Dottie, "but we're finally ready to leak it."

"I've been leaking for a long time," Barnes adds brightly. "That's why we have to do so many costume changes."

"How do you feel about your expanding fan base?" Now I'm hoping to hear them bitch about frat boys and 99x listeners. "I mean, do you ever look out at these big crowds and see a bunch of people that you don't really believe..."

"Exist?" Barnes suggests, helpfully.

"I mean-that they really like Of Montreal," I finish, lamely. It has just occurred to me that it might be rude to suggest that the people coming to their shows don't actually care about the band. But no one seems to notice, or care.

"No. God bless them all." Barnes says, firmly and sincerely. Dottie and Poole nod and murmur in agreement. "How the audience reacts makes all the difference," Dottie adds. "It's a symbiotic relationship. Generally, the newer crowds have been younger and more into it, and it's a party. It's kind of what we wanted, to play and dance and enjoy, and then go home and get laid."

Like Children Playing

It is a party, watching them play, Of Montreal are a band that I can imagine six year olds loving, and I mean that as high praise. Their shows are a study in fun, pure, sincere, fun, with props and singalongs. There are costumes: wonderfully kitschy leisure suits, lots of body glitter, sometimes Dottie wears a wreath of blinking lights in her hair, usually Kevin Barnes takes his shirt off. At the last Athens show, Matt Dawson wore what looked like a oversized Russian cossack-style hat for the duration of the set, which had to be uncomfortable under the stage lights.

Dawson, by the way, is a bespectacled, cherub-cheeked guy who probably cringes every time someone refers to him as being "elfin." It was through him that I first heard of Fela Kuti, one of his musical heros. When he was couch crashing at Dottie's house, he whipped out a DVD on the man and begin to wax worshipful about him. "Thriteen wives, and he got them all to marry him at the same time," he sighed, "You gotta respect that.

Later, chatting about his role in the band, he remarked that being in Of Montreal is a little like being in a school play. "Because it's Kevin's show, Kevin's songs. You just learn your lines and play your part, you know?"

I like that, because it evokes a sense of childhood. Barnes' control of what Of Montreal puts forth feels like the bossiest kid on the block-the one who tells the best ghost stories - getting everyone to dress up and play make believe with him. There are bizarre improvs in most Of Montreal shows - pantomimes with strobe lights, strange chanting, occasional props. During these moments, they look less like rock stars and more like the goofy hipster kids that you see at parties in college towns, fucking around, making a joke of everything.


"Those are the most enjoyable parts of the show," Brian Poole says of the improvisations. His bandmates agree. "We did one hundred and thirty shows last year, and we played some of those songs every night. So it kind of keeps things interesting."

"It's really more for us than for them," says Dottie.

"When we play "Exquisite Corpse" - I'm not sure anyone really likes us playing it." Dottie and Barnes snicker in agreement. "But we have fun."

"You do most of the lyrics, Kevin - is that right?"

"All." "He does 'em all." His bandmates answer for him.

"I put the words in." Barnes whispers in a gentle parody of modesty.

"Is it important to you that the others 'get' everything you're saying, that they understand the words?"

"No, not at all," he replies, very quickly. "I'd be shocked if they knew any of the words."

"It's funny," Poole says, "I sing backup on almost every song. If you asked me to quote a line, I probably wouldn't be able to do it. Sometimes when I'm singing, I'll think, what the hell am I saying..."

"Sometimes I've felt really bad," Dottie interjects. "when I figure something out - like, oh, is that what you were talking about? Oookay."

Barnes nods. "At this point, I've played them so many songs, I don't expect them to pay attention anymore."

I consult my notes on the lyrics. Lots of literary references, this guy. Orwell, Keats, Greek mythology - "Were you an English major?"

"No, I'm a pseudo-intellectual. I don't know, I just have an interest in it. I never really went to school."

"Of Montreal is a very literary band," I observe.

"We're all members of the Oprah Winfrey book club," he explains, "and that helps us stay in touch with contemporary literature."

Elephant 6

"It was like a family. It really was. And everyone was really excited about what was happening - and those days can't last forever," Brian Poole acknowledges. "We're all still friends, of course, but you go to do your own thing eventually. There's not that concentration now, that high feeling, like there's some utopian music vision that's happening all over... but it still exists. We played with Robert Schneider, from the Apples [Apples in Stereo] for a couple of shows, recently, and a bunch of guys and girls [from Elephant 6] came out for the show last night. I try to play with everyone from that that I can, but, you know - the Orange Twin kids [a label started by many for the Elephant 6 members], they have their own stuff going on."

"Did you guys ever consider being on Orange Twin?"

"Brian is on it," Dottie says, referring to Poole's solo work as the Late B.P. Helium.

"Yeah, and they're cool," he says. "But Polyvinyl, it's just the best thing that ever happened to Of Montreal. I mean, Kindercore [a now defunct Athens indie label] tried, but... Polyvinyl just really has their shit together."

"So, who handles the financial decisions, contracts and whatnot - who's your manager?"

"Brian." Dottie laughs. "Most of that stuff is unfairly deferred to Brian. Not that you don't do a great job," she assures him. "But you have too much work."

"You need a tour manager, then?"

"We need Flam Dikton," says Barnes.

"We're short listed for Flam Dikton," Dottie sighs.

"He came to all five shows at South by Southwest," Barnes points out.

Flam Dikton, apparently, is an old-hand manager who has worked with some big names and is, according to the band, the shit. The currently unobtainable shit. These kids ain't dumb. They know the stakes are rising, and they don't want to make any missteps that they'll be kicking themselves for later. Poole, who gives off the most grounded air of the bunch, is clearly concerned about not letting the business tedium overtake the joy of making music. "I read this thing about Arcade Fire last year when they were blowing up. Someone asked the front guy how everything was going, and he was like, 'Oh, it's been terrible. I'm busy opening bank accounts. I haven't had time for anything else.' Of course it sounds like, oh, you poor baby, you have all this money to deal with."

Dottie chuckles. "I remember being outraged by that."

"What he was saying is basically, he's having to deal with all this stuff that has nothing to do with the music. That's how you get the history of musicians rushing to sign bad contracts, or doing something stupid, and then later saying, shouldn't we be getting paid for this? And someone says, well, no, you signed it away."

A While Ago

At the Go Bar, many months ago, I sat with Dottie and her roommate, Elyse, and we talked about their plans to move to Santa Cruz. While we were talking, I noticed Michael Stipe lounging on the couch near the DJ's table. He had on sunglasses and his usual hangdog expression, and he needed a shave. As the girls talked, I stared at him, feeling oddly disturbed by his presence, and guilty for feeling disturbed. The guy can't help it that he's famous; it isn't his fault, I told myself. What difference does it make anyway?

But I couldn't help it. I didn't like him being there, in that tiny little bar. I didn't like the largeness of him. The simple fact of what he did for a living erected a wall around him, and it made me feel cagey. Of course, it is possible he doesn't like it either.

Not too long after that, I went to see Of Montreal play a show at the 40 Watt. "I have this whole other persona onstage," Dottie admitted once. "You'll probably call me out on it."

She did. Or maybe she didn't, maybe the simple fact of being onstage erected a wall around her that altered her by itself. She looked too large. Too lit up. Too doll-like, like anyone might pick her up and pose her to suit themselves.

Bye Now

I end the interview somewhat awkwardly, and the kids start to gather their stuff. I say goodbye to my friend with no hug, which is all right. I'm not a big hugger. She is, though. I'm afraid I've altered our relationship irrevocably. I've gone and made her big.

A week later, I leave Dottie a voicemail worrying about all of this, and complaining that I'll never finish this piece. She calls me back and tells me I'm crazy and paranoid. Mildly relieved, I send her an email with one of the many questions I had wanted to ask and forgotten: Don't you think it's weird that I'm interviewing you, by virtue of what you do, and not, say, a brain surgeon or a math teacher?

Her response: "Brain surgeons are boring." That, and people dig musicians because it's something they can imagine themselves doing, and therefore relate to.

I don't think I can imagine myself doing what these guys do. It seems wonderful and impressive and lonely and awful. I'm horrified at the thought of them signing a bad deal and getting screwed by some megalabel and tossed aside after their fifteen minutes. I'm equally horrified that they'll become mondo-famous and my friend will be like Stipe-a rock star in a tower, unreachable. Let's wish these guys luck. Let's hold out hope that, ten years from now, they'll still act like six-year-olds onstage.

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