Interview: Of Montreal’s Bryan Poole
By Gazelle Emami
Daily Cal Staff Writer
Monday, January 29, 2007
Category: Arts & Entertainment
Despite ten years together, eight albums, and about 1,500 concerts to show for themselves, Of Montreal is a band only by name. Guitarist/vocalist Bryan Poole phoned in on the way to a soundcheck for his solo projoect, the Late B.P. Helium to give some insight into how Of Montreal now functions as a one-man-show, with frontman Kevin Barnes at the helm. Catch Of Montreal in all of their theatrical glory this Friday and Saturday at the Great American Music Hall.
Daily Californian: In previous interviews, the band has been asked how their name came about, but in every interview it’s a different answer…one has to do with a girl, another with gymnastics, and one even said that it morphed from “ahhh mongrel” to Of Montreal. Are any of the stories true? ... Or, you could just give me a good lie.
Bryan Poole: Well, all of the stories have a hint of truth to them. But the real one would have to be the most personal one, if you know what I'm talking about.
DC: Kevin fell in love with a girl from Montreal who broke his heart?
BP: Yeah, you know, it was the most crazy intense thing that Kevin had experienced at time and it had an influence on his earlier work. He still values it as a really important event in his life.
DC: So, since Kevin the main man behind Of Montreal, how does the band collaborate in creating your distinct sound?
BP: Well it has at various points, Kevin, I think early on when we were a three-piece, you know it definitely had a band dynamic, with Derek (Almstead), Kevin and I. But, I think it was a lot more innocent—Kevin would show us the songs and we would just start playing, you know?
BP: And then I was in Elf Power at the same time and I kept doing double-duty all the time, so I left. And when I left I told Kevin, you really got to get them in there, you've got to get them involved. And he did, and that's when a lot of those more character-driven records were made. They had tons of influence on the sound and texture of the record. But then, things can't last forever, so once Kevin got married to Nina, they moved out of the house and got their own place. Kevin missed being able to do things on his own like he had in the early days, like putting his headphones on and doing some work and getting the ideas out. He had been frustrated having to wait around for somebody to get off work to play a keyboard part, so he told the rest of the band, I'm going to do this next record by myself.
DC: And which record was that?
BP: Satanic Panic in the Attic. Some other people played on that album, and I might sing on a couple songs. But, for all intents and purposes, that was his doing, and it's been that way—The Sunlandic Twins was the same way, and the new record's the same way.
It's kind of awkward in a way, cause it's like, what do the band members have to do with the record? You know? Some people ask, well, don't you want to play on the record? And I'm playing guitar on the new record, but to say it's a band record, well, that would be a lie. You know?
DC: Yeah, so it's hard to comment on a more personal thing for him.
BP: Yeah, and we'd have little battles about it, but that's why I have my own project—there are outlets.
Kevin promises me, he swears to me, we'll all go to a studio somewhere and we'll all do it. I mean, the new record is great, it's totally amazing, but some songs, after the fact, Kevin will be like, “Aww shit you guys.” But I don't fault him for it, it's personal. If you listen to the original recording or something, that's like a very dear thing. It is so him. Sometimes if it's a personal subject and the song means something to him, it might have a different feel with the band.
DC: Mmhmm, just how you can get possessive about things that are personal to you.
BP: Yeah, it's so personal to him, it's hard for him to let it go. And I don't fault him at all, I understand.
DC: So for you, what do you find more rewarding—recording or touring with the band?
BP: On a personal level, I think there are things to be said about both of them. When we write humorous songs, that's a great moment—you're coming together and you're going through this process. Sometimes you have no idea where these ideas are coming from and then you start putting them together, and that's a very exciting moment, it's like, creation, birth.
Recording, you're bringing all the colors to the canvas or whatever. And then, playing live, that's more of, just a performance. It's called the Avalon, yes, it's right there.
BP: Sorry, I'm in a cab. Gimme one second.
So I think playing live for us, definitely from the context of, we don't really play on the record. But the songs, there are so many parts, it's kind of like a jigsaw puzzle, plus the fact that we try and make it a theatrical, fun time. Definitely, the Of Montreal thing as a band, the whole thing is the live experience at this point. A lot of times the songs change as we play them live cause when Kevin's recorded them, he puts so many parts on them that, he doesn't even really know how to play them. Sometimes he'll play a bass line or a guitar phrase then in the computer he'll cut it out and make different pieces of it. So it'll be like, oh this sounds cool if I slide this to here. There are weird happenstances that happen that you can do. You can record a vocal line and throw it over a different part of the song and be like, oh this sounds terrible! That's one way of doing things, I'm not saying he does that entirely, but definitely for things like the bass. When he's recording the bass guitar, he's not sitting there playing the whole bass line; sometimes he might start the song, hear the beat, and he puts in a little simple bass line, you know like “ba-boom ba-ba-boom ba-ba-boom-boom.” And then as he starts getting more melodic ideas, then he'll be like, here's another bass line that's going “ba-beewroooo” or you know whatever. And then all of a sudden he's got like three or four basses, and then it becomes this crazy bass line, but he's never really played it before. So our bass player has to figure out like, how do I play this before!? And then sometimes Jamie has to play bass too to reproduce the sound. And for me playing guitar, there's a lot of synthesizer on the record, so I'll try to mimic the sound of the synthesizer keyboard with my guitar because I'll be playing keyboard lines on my guitar. So for us it's challenging and it's definitely a theatrical performance—there's a lot of things going on that need to be timed, so we'll put a lot of effort into it.
DC: That sounds really interesting, I'll be seeing you guys on Friday…
BP: Oh cool, cool, which show is that?
DC: It's in SF, at the Great American Music Hall.
BP: Oh yeah that thing is so awesome it's gonna be great. So what else you got?
DC: What's the strangest thing you've ever brought into the studio, you know, to create a sound? Like, any weird sounds you've put on the record that aren't necessarily an instrument?
BP: You'd hear stuff about the Beatles putting microphones in sacks of water to get an underwater vocal sound. Like John Lennon would try to do all these crazy things and if he got caught doing them he'd be fired. I'm trying to think of the weirdest thing we've ever done. You know there are all sorts of things where you're making funny noises or you're ripping paper, or sometimes there'll be a group thing where we're like, “Okay, we're all gonna jump on these cans at this time” or we're gonna get these rubbery hoses and wave them around our heads. You have to start learning tricks of how to get different sounds. Definitely the “Au Coquelicot” record, I mean, I wasn't in the band at the time, but anything crazy you can think of to do, they did it.
DC: On “Hissing Fauna,” I can hear some funk influences and some Prince—how have other groups influenced the band?
BP: The earlier period was more 60s psychedelic pop, and Kevin was pretty adamant that he didn't want to listen to anything past maybe early 70s. Then he started doing “Satanic Panic” and then he started to expand and open himself to all sorts of different music, you know like reggae, afrobeat, and checking out all the electronic music that was happening. Kevin would say bands like M.I.A, I'm trying to think of others. And of course Prince, he was like a childhood thing. I think we all grew up with him in a weird way, you know Bowie and all that stuff. The Georgie Fruit character is heavily influenced by Prince. So you know, he allowed himself to channel these things. He's really good at not letting himself inhibit himself—he just lets it come out and lets himself be expressive, and a lot of people just won't take those chances.
DC: Yeah definitely, influences aside, there's definitely a new kind of sound.
BP: Yeah, he's always had his own weird little, idiosyncratic style.
DC: So how do you find balancing your solo work with The Late B.P. Helium and Of Montreal—do you find it hard to switch back and forth between both states of mind and do they influence one another?
BP: It does and it doesn't. As far as trying to maintain a band, it makes it really tough. The Of Montreal thing is just so awesome, the shows that we play are so thrilling, it blows my mind, it's everything we've ever wanted to do. Sure, I wish there was 48 hours in the day to be able to do more of my thing.
DC: You've jumped around a lot of the Elephant 6 bands. Do you find that they share anything in common with how they approach making music or have you found a different experience in each one?
BP: You're breaking up. I'm gonna try walking up this random staircase upstairs.
BP: Ok go.
DC: I was just saying, you've jumped around a lot of the Elephant 6 bands, Elf Power, Olivia Tremor Control—do you find that they share anything in common with how they approach making music or is each one a completely different experience?
BP: Well I think each band definitely has it's own way of working. You know, Of Montreal, Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Gerbils, and Great Lakes, all these bands were happening at the same time. There was kind of this weird utopian vision that we were all like at a special place at a special time doing everything that we wanted to do. It was like this huge family, it was an unreal experience. I mean, there's still that and we're all still friends, but I think there was this backlash where Neutral Milk Hotel doesn't play anymore and Olivia Tremor Control broke up, so it's kind of weird that Of Montreal and Elf Power are still making music.