From Columbus Alive.
When I dialed up Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes, he was talkative, engaging and open about his personal life and loves. Here's a full transcript of the interview to preview the band's stop Monday, Sept. 25 at Newport Music Hall.
So what have you got on your plate today besides interviews?
Not much. Just kind of doing some recording stuff.
But the new album's done, though, right?
OK, so you're just going even farther ahead.
(Laughs) Yeah, I just, I really enjoy it, so, you know, when the record's done, it's time to start a new one.
Well, I want to talk about that in a while, but first I want to talk about the live show. Specifically, what's the setlist like these days?
Mostly stuff from Sunlandic Twins and Satanic Panic in the Attic, and we're also doing some new songs that are going to be on the new record Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
For someone who's never seen you play before, or even for a little while, could you kind of describe what the current show is like?
Yeah, it's pretty theatrical. There's lots of costume changes, and it's pretty high energy, pretty glammy, like a glammy disco party.
Do you ever get any complaints about not playing as many old songs?
Sometimes people will request it, or they'll shout out an old song or whatever, but for us, we're kind of, we've kind of entered this new chapter of our band's story, and it's kind of weird to go back in time and play. I personally feel kind of bored, even though it's been a long time since we've played the songs, it's just like, I just like dealing with new and exciting, so to play a song from a record that came out three or four years ago to me is like revisiting the past, and I'm not really nostalgic about the past. When something is done, I kind of get bored with it and I want to move on. So that's pretty selfish from me if fans want to hear the old stuff and I refuse to play it because it's boring for me, but that's kind of the way it goes as an artist. You don't really want to go backwards. You want to just keep moving forwards.
Plus I would imagine you've got a lot of new fans who don't really know the old stuff anyway.
Yeah, that's kind of true too. It's a little bit weird like that maybe there's three or four people in the audience, or maybe more, that are familiar with our first couple records. Where most of the fans have just come on with the last few records, the last two or three records. So, yeah, it is kind of weird, you throw out some old song, and 60 percent of the people at the show are like, "What the hell was that? Was that a new song or what?" And also, stylistically, a lot of the, most, pretty much all of the songs don't really fit with the new thing that we're doing. So it would be kind of jarring in a way to try to incorporate that. But I think that over the next couple years we probably will start playing more of a variety of stuff. But on this tour at least, it's kind of sticking to sort of dancier numbers from the recent records.
Why did you decide to move into that realm?
It was just something that, I had been doing this sort of 60s concept album thing for a while, you know, sort of psychedelic influences. I really sort of burned out on it and wanted to do something new. And I really love dance music, and I always have loved going to dance parties. So it's kind of fun to sort of explore that genre. And also, even though some of the sounds are kind of retro, but it's sort of—my hope is, I'm sort of exploring this genre—hopefully I can take it somewhere new, to make sort of progressive music, you kind of have to make something that feels more within the context of the time that you're alive and forward, you know? So, like, making all this sort of retro 60s psych rock or whatever was fun, but it also didn't really feel very progressive.
I've been enjoying the remix record. Why'd you decide to do that?
That was kind of the idea of one of the guys at the record label. He thought it would be kind of fun to see how other people would interpret the songs. And there's a couple songs on there that I really love and I kind of wish that I had recorded them that way.
It seems kind of like a logical extension. The shift into the electronic stuff was kind of gradual, and got more and more, especially on Sunlandic Twins, then sort of the remix album is the next extension of that almost. So where, musically, then, do you go from there with the Hissing Fauna stuff?
The Hissing Fauna is pretty similar in style to Sunlandic Twins. It's still a lot of programmed drums and a lot of kind of funky basslines and layering of sounds like I did with Sunlandic Twins. But I guess the real difference is lyrically it's a way more personal record. I've kind of gotten back to that desire to share with the world. You know, I went through a phase of really kind of walling myself off from the rest of the world as far as trying not to really make myself vulnerable from a lyrical standpoint. Kind of just writing about fantastical things and writing about characters and making it up, so it's not really, "Oh, it's not me, it's kind of this character I made up that I'm singing about." But with the last couple records I've sort of gotten back into that, like writing more personal songs, and this record is probably the most personal record I've ever written.
What's it about?
It's all about... it's all about me. (laughs) It's all about this crazy period. It was definitely the most dramatic period of my life. My wife and I had a daughter. But then, kind of in an unconventional sort of way I reacted—well probably maybe very conventional—but I guess I reacted in a negative way to her pregnancy and having a daughter and stuff. At first I wasn't really capable of accepting it. It was really difficult because it's such a lifestyle shift. All of the sudden all these things are changing internally and externally, and it was totally freaking me out, and I was trying to balance being in a band and touring and all that and also being a father and being supportive to my wife—because I couldn't, if I'm going to be on tour, I can't be there with her, and if I'm going to be with her I can't be on tour—so it was conflict that I couldn't resolve, which eventually led to this intense depression period. And as a result of the depression, all of these paranoia and anxiety problems were popping up. And I just started totally freaking out, like a total collapse, which I've never ever gone through before. And eventually my wife and I split up, and we got a divorce, and she moved back to Norway, and I went through this hedonistic period, and all this turmoil and all this craziness was going on in my life. The record represents all that, that journey that I went through.
Luckily, I was able to come back and sort things out, and figure things out in my mind, so now, even though we're still divorced, we're living together. So, like, she's my girlfriend now. (laughs) You know, we're raising our daughter together—so the record kind of represents that. The first half of the record is like—you can kind of sense a lot of tension and turmoil and stuff, and then there's this 11-minute song that just is like a total just primal scream of a song, you know, like everything, it's just kind of like, just lay it out there. And after that, it's sort of a release. And then from that point on the record becomes a lot lighter and a lot happier sounding, sort of these weird little dance numbers. So yeah, in that way it sort of reflects what was going on in my life and how my life is a lot better. I feel a lot happier, and my relationships are better, and everyone's getting along, and things are working out in a cool way, and I'm super happy to be a father, super happy to be involved in the circle.
In that way, that's why I was saying it's like the most personal record I've ever made because it's like I was writing all these songs at the point that I was in, so they were all like totally connected to those periods of the last two years.
Yeah, that sounds pretty significantly different in terms of the lyrics. In songs before that have seemed to deal at least a little bit with real world experiences, even something as playful as "My British Tour Diary," it's always been sort of in this whimsical way. Is that still kind of an element of this stuff despite the fact that it's a little bit darker?
Yeah, that's the thing. It's funny because even some of the heavier songs musically sound really buoyant and playful because I'm trying desperately to pull myself out of this destructive circle, so how am I gonna do it? And unlike some artists that would just go in there and write this really heavy, minor-key song, for me to get out of it I feel like I need to make kind of happier music and sort of elevate my mood, or sort of transcend the mood by making something that sort of represents the way I want to be. But then lyrically it has a darker undertone, so it is kind of like a weird juxtaposition of those two. So it's not like a super morose-sounding record, and probably people who aren't really that observant or aren't really paying attention to the lyrics might think, "Oh, this is a really happy record."
Do you imagine that the family stuff might result in you cutting back at all on the recording and touring?
No, not at all. I mean, it seems like the last year was sort of a trial period. It was like, "OK, so, what's it going to be like?" And it hasn't affected my productivity at all. I've still been writing so much, like every day. That's what I was nervous about. I think that was one of the reasons I was freaking out. I was like, "God, do I have to become this domestic animal and stay at home and become like a Kenny Loggins type of songwriter that just writes these benign, happy little songs. So I was sort of afraid of that happening, like "If my personal life is really happy, and I feel at peace, then will my music suffer?" You know, it's kind of one of those things that everybody worries about. But it hasn't happen. Like, even the new stuff I'm writing right now, it's just as far-out and bizarre as anything I've done. I feel good about it. I'm still pushing myself, you know? I guess that's the point. I'm still pushing myself to try to come up with something that is different from what I've done in the past, and something that's kind of surprising and exciting for me.
Before you moved into the more personal realm, when you say you were walling yourself off, where did those fantastical lyrics come from? Was that just like an exercise in creative writing?
Yeah, that was kind of what I was going through at the time. I was really into the short stories of Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey and people like that. And I was also going through this weird sort of vaudevillian kick where I was thinking about music halls and vaudeville and just kind of playing off that. It's like I was just sort of romanticizing that period. Like the handlebar mustache and unicycles, just, like whatever—organ grinders with monkeys, and—just thinking about the images and then also incorporating that with the 60s psychedelic concept album influence as well. So it was, like, Village Green Preservation Society, and Beach Boys Smile, and of course like the Beatles, like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's and White Album and all that stuff. And the Pretty Things S.F. Sorrow. All these really great records I still really adore.
So, musically, those were the influences. But then, with the last couple records, the influences have been a bit—like for me, I'm really influenced by Brian Eno, and his production work with Talking Heads and David Bowie, and the African influence, you know, like Fela Kuti and Tony Allen and the sort of Afrobeat stuff from the 70s. And also getting into more 60s ska and rocksteady and dub music, so the sort of Afro influence also entered into it as well. And also hip-hop influence.
So yeah, I was sort of pulling from all these different places that I hadn't really before. Before I was like very Anglo, it was like all white pop music. And now I've sort of got into different stuff like Sly and the Family Stone and Ohio Players and Isaac Hayes and Stevie Wonder and kind of making this funkier thing. Which is really fun, and it's really challenging for a person to try to—you know, like a white boy to try to make funkier music, by himself, in his attic on his computer. So it's kind of a crazy undertaking, but it's a lot of fun. When I listen to Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder, I listen to the instrumentation, and I'm so blown away by how much life there is in the performances. It's in every single aspect of it, like the basslines, and the drums, and even like all the way down to the percussionist, there's so much life and so much energy and so much color, and it's so rad. And that's kind of the thing that's exciting me now. It's sexy too. It's this great sexual attitude that's not totally obnoxious. It's not annoying, it's like, this is cool. This is like—I don't know, it's just so rad. I love it.
You mentioned the earlier stuff you used to do was influenced a lot by the Village Green Preservation Society, Smile, etc., etc. You've been pretty consistent about putting out a record a year or pretty close to that. Would you find that old model of putting out two records a year and barely even touring, would you find that desirable, and would it even be possible?
Yeah, I could definitely do it if I wasn't touring. But I kind of like the idea of putting out a record and having that be such an important part of your existence for a period of time. So like when you go on tour, you're representing the record on tour, and you're totally engulfed in that, whatever you were trying to convey with that record.
So we go on tour with Satanic Panic, and the way we approach touring is like OK we want to put together this, it's like a show, it's like a theatre piece or something. It's like the same every night. There isn't a lot of room for spontaneity or experimentation. Usually it's like a show that we establish through rehearsing and brainstorming and stuff like that, and we have pretty set in stone what we're going to do basically every night. And then we just perform it every single night, and we have costume changes, we put on makeup, and it's really theatrical in that way, and it's really fun. So that I really love. I really love touring, and I love the camaraderie of being with the guys and Dotty and, like, "OK, so what are we going to do this tour? What are we going to do to make this tour really outrageous and really fun and the best thing we've ever done?" Cause we're always trying to kick it up one more notch.
So, yeah, I mean, eventually maybe I might get burned out with touring and I might just want to make records. It's hard to say. But one thing I always try to do is just listen to the voice inside of me or whatever that tells me what to do and not second-guess it too much.
What would you be doing if you weren't making music?
God. I don't know. Maybe like sports writing. I'm really into sports.
Yeah. I always kind of had this idea of, like, if I wasn't making music, maybe I'd like to be an editor of live TV, like somebody who sits in that little trailer outside the stadium and, like, putting together the montages for the commercial break and stuff like that.
Any particular sports you're into, or just kind of a general sports fan?
I'm really into football. That's my favorite sport. And then I also love basketball. College and pro. And baseball I'm into, but baseball's kind of—it's so long. The season's so long, and if your team is—like my team is the Indians, and it always seems like they suck. They went through a period of being really good, but then they've kind of sucked the last couple of seasons. So it's like, if your team sucks there's no pleasure in following them, so it's like, "Oh, they lost again. Big deal." Usually I'll watch the playoffs and get excited about that, but I can't just sit and watch the Dodgers and the Cubs or whatever. But with football it's different. I could watch basically any game and enjoy it. Basketball's sort of the same way.
You mentioned you're an Indians fan. Was that before or after you went down to Georgia that the Braves beat the Indians?
No, that was before. I was living in Minneapolis then. Yeah, that was horrible. That sucked. It sucked because I was so into the team the whole year, and then the year before, wasn't that the strike year, the year before?
Yeah, that sounds right.
Yeah, so they didn't even have the playoffs that year. And then they had such a great team. But I always know, cause I'm also a huge Browns fan because I'm from the Cleveland area originally, so I always have that thought in the back of my head that, "They're just going to break your heart, man." You know, cause they always do. The Browns, the Cavs, the Indians—they always get to the championship game or whatever, and then they just kind of fall apart. So in my lifetime I've never actually seen a Cleveland team win the Super Bowl or the championship or the World Series or whatever. Come close a couple times. Actually, that was really cool a couple years ago when Ohio State won the national championship because I thought for sure it was just going to be like all the other teams—cause I'm a big Buckeyes fan too because that's where my dad went to college—so I was kind of, so psyched. That was such a crazy game. That was fun.
That's really intriguing to me because I guess you just sort of imagine that the stereotype is like, especially with your music being so theatrical, you have like the theatre people and the artsy people, and they hate sports or whatever. So I'm always intrigued whenever somebody breaks that stereotype.
Yeah, well, sports was my true first love. When I was younger I thought for sure I would be a professional athlete. I'd just like sit and play baseball and football all day long by myself, and watching football and baseball and just daydreaming about it. And then somehow I turned this corner where I found music and I was like, "God, music is so exciting, and it's way more fun to play music by yourself than it is sports by yourself. So I started getting into that more."
So the last question is, for me in '04, Satanic Panic was one of the defining albums in terms of capturing the essence of summer '04 for me. You already kind of got into this, but what music is going to define Kevin Barnes in '06?
I think definitely discovering Fela Kuti and 70s Afrobeat was huge. That's one of those weird things where you hear something over the course of a couple years, and you don't really pay attention, it doesn't really stick with you. And then one day you just have a breakthrough and it's like, "Holy shit, I love this! I don't know why, but I love it." It was kind of like that with Fela Kuti, and also with all of the old jazz reissues, like those 100 Percent Dynamite, 200 Percent Dynamite, those records, and like Cedric Brooks, and all this amazing Jamaican stuff and reggae records. I never liked reggae at all. I thought it was kind of cheesy music. And then somehow it just sort of like sunk in, and it was like, "That's not cheesy at all, this is fucking brilliant!" It's so original and so bizarre. I started really getting into that stuff, and I think that sort of really opened up a whole different world for me. I sort of understood what the Talking Heads and Brian Eno was doing. Because clearly they were super influenced by African music, but at the time I just thought, "This is just Brian Eno's thing," then I realized, wait, it's not Brian Eno's thing, it's Brian Eno's interpretation of his influences. So it was kind of cool in that way too, that I was able to understand my hero's influences even better.
September 21, 2006
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