|Written by Glen Sarvady|
Of Montreal Leader (and Outback Pitchman) Kevin Barnes Mines Art From Some Not-So-G'Days With His Mate
Kevin Barnes is hunkered down in one of his favorite places in the world - the attic of the rented Athens house he shares with his wife Nina and young daughter Alabee. "I don't like living out of a suitcase - I like having a home base where I can have my stuff set up. When it comes to writing and recording I like to be in Athens because there's this attic where I have everything set up, it's like a separate world," he explains on a chilly evening. "I get enough of the transient lifestyle when we're on tour." It's a surprising admission, given the guy's history. For the past few years Barnes has alternated stretches in Athens with periods in his wife's native Norway, most critically in late 2004 when the uninsured couple relocated to leverage that country's universal health care system for the birth of their child. And before he retreated to the attic, Barnes' band Of Montreal was one of those all-consuming experiences, to the point that its members shared a house in full-time musical immersion.
Without these experiences Of Montreal would hardly sound like the 2007 edition that dropped the sprawling synth-glam opus Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?. Few bands can lay claim to an evolution as dramatic as the one from their beginnings ten years ago as a Kinks-influenced cabaret act on the outer ring of the burgeoning Elephant 6 scene to the proto-disco/synth-pop of 2005's breakthrough The Sunlandic Twins. Fewer still have made the journey with the same core personnel - there are plenty of examples of musicians asserting full control over a "brand" and turning it into a one-man recording process, but rarely does that transition occur without running off other members. "We were kind of at an impasse," Barnes says of 2002's Aldhils Arboretum, Of Montreal's most collaborative release and also its least satisfying. "Things were sort of fizzling within the band. We had been living together in a house on the outskirts of Athens - that sort of ended badly, not so badly that it was unrecoverable, but we reached a point where we all needed our own space. I had just gotten married, so my wife and I moved out to our own house and set up a studio. Rather than being a taskmaster and telling everyone how to play their parts on the next record, I just decided to do it all myself and take the band in a direction I had wanted to for awhile."
That new direction found Of Montreal disassociating with much of the Elephant 6 doctrine. "We had this hang-up about electronic music, thinking that using MIDI instruments and electronic drums was almost like cheating," Barnes recalls. "I started realizing how narrow-minded that was and how liberating it was to open yourself up to all kinds of music, which led me to listen to more electronic and dance music and realize how complex it was." Barnes acknowledges that he initially faced a tough sell, to his community more so than his bandmates. "I was very much influenced by bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and Music Tapes, but it's kind of a weird clique, and it was difficult to incorporate anything outside this little bubble. And beyond the music there's kind of an ethos attached too - you don't go to McDonald's, you don't shop at Wal-Mart, you've got to be a vegetarian, you shouldn't care about fashion, follow the earth. And after a while it was like, ‘Fuck it -- I like glam, I like thinking about imagery.' I don't mind pretentiousness anymore - it's kind of fun to be false, because you're experimenting with different characters within yourself. I think it's better to take the David Bowie approach, working the nebulous concept and following whatever inspires you - even if it contradicts the thing you were doing before."
Still, Barnes doesn't dismiss the role commercial acceptance played in smoothing the transition. "I think what helped a lot was that we started reaching a larger audience with Satanic Panic in the Attic, the first Of Montreal release recorded as a one-man band. One of the reasons we were having problems was that we had been struggling for so long without seeing results - if the goal is to support yourself with your music and that's not happening, then you have to pick up some sort of job you hate and you sort of lose focus. But when the band is doing well not only is it fun, but you're more focused because it is your job, and a dream come true."
Particularly since The Sunlandic Twins bumped Of Montreal from the smaller clubs into the mid-size halls, the financial aspect has clicked. As the sole writer and recorder Barnes reaps the benefit of the CDs, but the band shares equally in all tour and merch proceeds. "It's supporting everyone - it's not like we're buying yachts or anything, but we're so used to scraping by on small budgets that it works."
Barnes' next financial decision certainly tried the patience of the earthy Athens crowd. If you're familiar with The Sunlandic Twins and watch network television, by now you've likely noticed the prominent use of "Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games" in an ad for Outback Steakhouse. "It happened very, very fast," Barnes explains with a hint of sheepishness. "I had been approached by a couple of different ad agencies before asking to use songs for commercials and it never panned out, so when they called about Outback I was very cynical and said, ‘Sure, pitch away.' Then they asked if I'd be OK with this much money, and I really in my heart didn't think it was going to happen so I said, ‘Yeah, sure, whatever, just leave me alone I'm working right now.' So when the deal actually came through I was like, ‘Fuck, do I really wanna do this?' I mean, Outback is so far outside the spectrum of what I care about, or what people who listen to this kind of music care about. It put me in a difficult position because I knew that if I did it then from an economic standpoint I'd be totally set for about a year, and I could focus on music without having to worry about anything. But I also knew it would turn people off and potentially ruin the song for people. I think it has ruined the song for a lot of people and it really messes with my credibility." Don't listen for Barnes' voice (or his original "Let's pretend we don't exist" chorus), in the spot, though. "That was the weirdest part -- they didn't want me involved at all. It was like, ‘What are you guys really paying me for? You're basically taking my melody line and the bassline, and that's it' - they didn't want the performance, they didn't want my lyrics. Why couldn't they just write their own melody line? They could have come up with something almost exactly like it, and I probably wouldn't have been able to sue them."
Don't expect to see the tour van pulling into the Outback lot for freebies, either - bassist Bryan (The Late B.P.) Helium is a vegetarian. Continues Barnes, "I definitely have leanings toward vegetarianism but I'm not going to say I am one because I don't want to be that militant about it. We're not those people like, ‘You have to be exactly like us or you're an asshole.' I think about this like every day, because we get people writing us constantly - most say we know you're not Donald Trump, you need the money, good for you, but others - mostly the younger ones - are really uptight about it. You try not to think about being accessible but it's always in the back of your mind - is this going to sell well enough to support me, the band, my family? And that's been taken off my mind. But then you get this money and it's like I can just go back to making art and being as freaky and weird as I want to be. It's not apparent on Hissing Fauna because the record was basically done, but on the newer stuff it's almost like I'm proving to the world I'm not a sellout."
Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? both builds on the sound of The Sunlandic Twins and takes that disc's success as license to move further onto the fringe. Its chipper moments are even more ebullient, its interludes more obtuse, and Barnes ventures deeper into '80s funk territory (Sunlandic's credits jokingly include Prince's crossed-out name as an all-purpose mastermind; the gag's even more relevant now). It also harbors a decidedly dark undercurrent. Barnes pooh-poohs my hypothesis that Sunlandic represents the giddy early throes of romance, whereas Hissing Fauna reflects everyday realities setting in. The thematic thread can even be traced to "Eros' Entropic Tundra" from Satanic Panic (one of that disc's few tracks, he explains, dating to pre-Nina days), on which Barnes dejectedly doubts he'll ever meet Ms. Right. "I'm not a super consistent person, so every day I don't know how I'm gong to feel," he counters. "Nina is really my first relationship - I had always been living in a fantasy world, looking for someone who didn't exist."
Barnes claims he wasn't much of an autobiographical writer pre-Fauna. "This is the first record that really mirrors what was going on in my life. It's sequenced very chronologically." And unfortunately for him, the disc chronicles a pretty heavy time. "Nina Twin is trying to help/And I really hope that she succeeds," he sings on "Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse" (Barnes hardly tries to disguise his sources - "I really view her as my twin, someone that you totally connect with on all levels"). The move to a foreign Nordic environment in the dead of winter (Barnes may want to research Seasonal Affective Disorder before scheduling his next Nordic stint) with few social contacts and a host of top-shelf stress factors (new home, new spouse, new kid) triggered a severe depression. "I was freaking out - we had no home base, we were staying at a friend's place in Norway, we're having a baby - all this stuff is totally on my shoulders and I have to deal with this craziness. And then I've got this new baby that I'm not spending any time with because of touring around Sunlandic. And there's so much stress on your relationship with a new kid. I was mainly making music on my laptop as therapy, to lift me out of this horrible darkness, because I was going crazy." Barnes matched his perkiest hooks with the direst topics. The bouncy "A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger" opens with the singsongy admission "I spent the winter on the verge of a total breakdown while living in Norway" and best of all, he tries to summon a moodswing by repeatedly pleading "Come on, chemicals!," turning "chemicals" into a ten-syllable word. "I think being in a foreign environment and being forced to grow is really healthy, because you can get knocked out of this position of feeling comfortable in the world," Barnes postulates in hindsight. "I think the government should pay for all Americans to go live somewhere else for six months, just to see what it's like to be a stranger, to get a new perspective and not feel so cocky."
Initially, Nina Twin's help didn't appear to be enough. After migrating back to Athens in 2005 the couple broke up, Nina returning to Oslo with Alabee. "It was a really heavy scene - we had actually filed separation papers." Although Hissing Fauna's arc isn't purely narrative, the couple's romantic nadir fuels the disc's centerpiece. On "The Past Is a Grotesque Animal" Barnes recites a 12-minute synopsis of the twins' courtship set to a discordant motorik churn. "I fell in love with the first cute girl I met..." Barnes relates in a seemingly standard-issue recrimination, then continues "...who could appreciate Georges Bataille," and you realize this isn't typical boy-girl angst. "‘Grotesque Animal' kind of lets the tension out. Once that was off my chest, the record lightens up," he concurs. "After I recorded that there was a break in the Sunlandic tour, Nina and I got back to try to patch it together, and the record gets a little more fun again." To wit, the criminally infectious "Bunny Ain't No Kind of Rider" follows with hints of Barnes pulling back from the brink of an after-hours dalliance, and from there it's clear he's cast his lot with his Twin. How does his wife feel about such public airing of their travails? "She's an artist herself, she's awesome about this," Kevin gushes of Nina, a veteran of the Norway music scene who briefly doubled as Of Montreal's bassist before deciding pregnancy and nightclub smoke made for bad bedfellows. The two met at an Oslo Of Montreal show, continued their courtship at the Swedish festival called out in "Grotesque Animal," and married fairly quickly when she agreed to move stateside.
Hopefully the family has now mastered their logistics, as 2007 shapes up as another touring year. The band, now scattered cross-country and cross-continent (longtime keyboardist Dottie Alexander resides in Santa Cruz, drummer Jamey Huggins followed his girlfriend to Stockholm, where he's doing production work, and newest addition Matt Dawson recently left Athens for Portland) convened in Athens for two weeks of rehearsals before the holidays, and planned for two more before hitting the road in late January. "We've got it worked out now after three albums doing it this way - I just send them each a special mix CD with their part on it and they learn it on their own. The big change is getting programmed drums into the live set. We were very much into the sixties scene and took pride in pulling off these complex arrangements without using backing tracks, but now that we're more dance-oriented it seems more acceptable."
"I'm already pretty happy with how we sound musically, but there's a lot of work to go on the theatric side," reports Barnes, who visualizes the new live set as "a photo shoot where each song has its own frame, rather than a static image throughout the show." The opening screen at Of Montreal's website, a montage of Barnes applying copious makeup, reinforces the importance the latter-day Of Montreal places on fashion. "I've been playing less musical instruments live, trying to get the point where I can focus entirely on the theatrical aspects. I still love playing guitar, but it's nice to have the freedom not to play it on all songs."
Furthering the Prince comparisons are a pair of tracks ("Faberge Falls for Shuggie" and "Labyrinthian Pomp"- whatever Barnes' aspirations to accessibility, he certainly doesn't advance them with his song titles) on which Kevin launches into an ill-advised falsetto channeling Sly Stone-by-way-of-The Purple One. These vocal acrobatics seem hard enough to replicate live, not to mention doing so without blushing. But Barnes voices little concern. "I've always been lucky to be able to just get into the character. I never feel self-conscious or nervous - I'm actually more nervous the smaller the crowd since then they seem more, um, human."
Despite issuing no new "proper" material in 2006, Of Montreal did a yeoman's job staying in the spotlight. In addition to continuing accolades for Sunlandic and the Outback hubbub there was The Satanic Twins, a remix album of tracks from The Sunlandic Twins and Satanic Panic. It was an odd experience for Barnes, who's used to having a hand in every note of the finished product but in this case did little more than assembling and shipping off the basic tracks. He's particularly fond of Grizzly Bear's and Mixel Pixel's takes on his material.
Current label Polyvinyl also brought the bulk of the band's back catalog (which had been snared in the Kindercore debacle) back into print. Don't look for those chestnuts to be added to the set list, though. "I don't like playing the older stuff - it's not that I don't like them, but I'm just not there anymore," he explains. "I'm not a very nostalgic or sentimental person, I don't romanticize the past, so doing them just feels unnatural. It's like the closing of a chapter - that period is done, I feel like Satanic Panic is the beginning of the new period."
That new period is proving to have plenty of sauce and sizzle.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
2007-02-00- Stomp & Stammer
Feb.07 Cover - Of Montreal