Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes: Inside/Out.
Published on February 12, 2007 at 5:45pm
Born in the Southern university town of Athens, Ga., in 1997, by way of frontman Kevin Barnes, Of Montreal have proven themselves to be one of the hardest-working art-pop, disco, glam indie bands around. In an era where myspace saturation, and a stamp of approval from Pitchfork, can send new bands from zero to 9.0 in a matter of months, it's a rare occurrence to see a band that's been steadily releasing records and wearing van tires bald with tour after tour for nearly a decade (they've played Seattle close to 20 times) finally make a blip on the pop culture radar. Their latest, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, has been raved about in such high-minded publications as The New York Times.
Barnes' music has gone places most people only dream about . . . while tripping on acid . . . in Alice's wonderland. From concept records where each song incorporates Dustin Hoffman to albums whose titles—like Horse and Elephant Eatery (No Elephants Allowed)—are reflective of the bizarre, colorful content within, it's clear there's no shortage of imagination at the source. Even while he was wallowing in the depths of depression on foreign soil during the making of Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, Barnes' well of weird, hook-drenched psychedelia seemed to spring eternal. And with sold-out shows and three costume changes a night, Barnes and his band just might need to get ready for their close-up.
Seattle Weekly: Your material is so full of imagination that it makes me wonder what you were like as a kid growing up.
Kevin Barnes: Well, I was a really shy kid, very introverted. I didn't have a lot of friends when I was really young. I don't know why. I guess where we lived there weren't a lot of kids around. So I think that kind of helped me establish an internal dialogue that benefited me later in my creative life.
What brought you to Athens?
I moved there because I really wanted to get a band together. I heard there was a pretty cool scene in Athens. You know, it had the sort of . . . the romantic dream of the early '80s—REM and the B-52's starting out. It's a cool city, very artsy, and people are pretty open-minded. It's a strange little oasis in a way because, y'know, it's in the South.
You spent a good portion of time while you were working on Hissing Fauna in Norway. What was that experience like?
It was cool to be in a European city and spend a long period of time there—learn where everything is, get acclimated—just because it's a different lifestyle in a lot of ways, especially during the Bush regime. It feels kind of weird to be an American.
Did you get that vibe from the people there?
To some degree, but I was pretty much like a ghost. No one was really like, "Oh my God, you're an American, let's talk politics!" I mean, most people were really cool, and understood that just because you are American doesn't mean you are a right-wing conservative. It was definitely a challenge, going through it all. At the time, I was like, "Oh my God, I'm freakin' out. I'm having a kid, and I have all these anxieties, and I'm in a foreign environment, and this is so crazy and I can't handle it!" I sort of broke down in a way. But now that I've kind of gotten through it, it's sort of made me a little bit, not necessarily stronger, but I think when you have experiences that don't totally traumatize you too incredibly and you are able to get past them, they give you an interesting perspective on things.
In one of the songs that you wrote while you were there, "Gronlandic Edit," you talk about the desire to pray to some kind of higher power, praying to a saint that nobody has heard of. Can you expound a bit on that?
Well, I was in this horrible downward spiral of chemical depression, and I didn't understand what was going on because I'd never experienced anything like that before, and so I felt totally under attack by these invisible forces, trying desperately to keep my head together. But I had so many problems. Anxiety issues, paranoia issues, and all these things. So I started thinking about God, or the saints, or religion, some type of spirituality, because I don't have any whatsoever. So I tried to think: "Should I be Buddhist, Mormon, Muslim?" None of them really appealed to me. But I felt like I wanted, like I needed, help—some sort of guidance. And so the saint that nobody has heard of is my uncle who died 10 years ago. For some reason—I don't do it as much anymore—but when I was in the really low period, I would try to pray to him and connect with him to have him help me, like picking him as a sort of celestial, benevolent force to contact. Because it's kind of my thought that when you die, sometimes, if you want to, you can help people who are living.
How much of the record was written in Norway?
I wrote the first half of it, from "Suffer for Fashion" to "A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger"—all of those songs were written and recorded in Oslo. Then we rented a house in Athens, and I put together kind of a makeshift studio in the attic. That's where the second half of the record was recorded.
In a song on the second half of the record, "Bunny Ain't No Kind of Rider," you tell a girl named Eva that she will never have you because you need a lover with soul power. ("Eva, I said I'm sorry/But you can never have me/Cuz you're just some faggy girl/And I need a lover with soul power/And you ain't got no soul power.") Can you talk about how you'd define soul power?
Well, it's kind of like my concept of emotional depth, and there's something beyond that, too, like when I imagine a person with soul power, it's like they're super comfortable with themselves and with the world around them. They just feel at peace in a way, and they can project that onto other people as well.
You've been putting out records and touring for nearly 10 years, and it seems like this release has been garnering quite a bit of attention. Do you feel that it may be a tipping point of sorts?
I think that maybe it's just—things have just sort of aligned in the right way, right now: the music that I'm writing, the sound of the recordings, the sound of the recordings of my contemporaries, and what the record-buying public is interested in. [The music is] sort of in line with whatever's fashionable right now. That's the thing you realize: Selling records has nothing to do with the quality of your record.
You used to be a gymnast.
Uh-huh—yes, I used to be totally into it.
Your suit in the video for "Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse"—is that something you would have worn as a gymnast?
That's more speedskating. I have two different leotards, though—one of them is kind of obscene. It's a gold G-string, but I only wear it on special occasions.
Do you wear tights with it?
Yeah, I've been wearing tights. Not because I'm modest, but because I think it looks better when you don't have to see all this hair.
No waxing, then?
No. I thought about waxing, but then that's kind of like a commitment. You can't just wax once.