Why Kevin Barnes Is Not Normal
originally published in Wireless Bollinger (no longer hosted).
Kevin Barnes is not a guy that you can rely upon to act ‘normally’. Whether this be performing a handful of songs completely nude (well actually, he did wear face paint, a red cummerbund and some sensational black fishnet stockings) or the creation of the character Georgie Fruit (the personality that dominates the second half of Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?), Barnes is not afraid of the atypical.
However, reliable is exactly what Barnes’ recording project, of Montreal, is. Throughout his decade-long career as the mastermind of this band, Barnes has embraced change, evolving from the ‘60s-influenced and character-driven style of The Gay Parade to the post-Bowie, dance-glam and lyrical melancholy of Hissing Fauna. Barnes’ reliability as an artist is not driven by rehashing similar past successes, though. It is borne from the quality of each release and his ability to impart catchy hook-laden pop on every record, regardless of musical evolution.
“When I was making Hissing Fauna, I wasn't really thinking that I was making an album. I was just losing myself in the recording process and using it as a form of escapism. I wasn't thinking about how the songs would fit in with the rest of my canon,” Barnes said. What about the Georgie Fruit persona? “He/she created herself/himself. I didn't sit down and say to myself, ‘I wanna create a new persona,’ or anything like that. It just happened organically.”
Possibly this is one aspect of Barnes’ success: that where some bands refuse to change, or force themselves to, of Montreal have evolved naturally. Either way the development of the new album has been favourably received by both fans and critics.
“I try not to pay attention to reviews. It is rare that I read a piece about of Montreal that I find constructive. Basically, it's either an ego stroke or an ego crusher. I'm one of those people that is more wounded by negative criticism than encouraged by positive comments, so I try to avoid reading anything about me.”
Many fans of of Montreal would have heard the album prior to these reviews as the album leaked in September 2006, five months before the real release date.
“I knew it was going to happen so I wasn't disturbed by it. It was a little disappointing that it leaked so many months before the release date, but it didn't bother me too much. In some ways, I think it actually helps bands. It's always good to get word of mouth going before an album is released. It might potentially hurt album sales, but the benefit of turning people onto the music outweighs the negative. We just want people to hear the music, and it doesn't really matter that much how they go about getting it, as long as they support the band in some way: go to the show, buy a shirt, make out with one of us.”
Hissing Fauna’s greatest evolution is undoubtedly the personal nature of the lyrics, these being a marked departure from the character-led stories of early of Montreal. I ask Barnes about the theme that dominates the first half of the new album: chemical depression.
“A chemical depression is one you can't get over on your own using conventional methods like exercise, extra sleep, healthier eating habits, yoga.
It's not just a general sadness or loneliness. It's a condition not unlike high blood pressure and requires the right kind of medicine to help you balance things out.”
Barnes continues: “I got on anti-depressants and they saved my life. They helped me deal with things that had become unresolvable in my personal life. Unfortunately, they also made me more detached and indifferent. I think that's why my relationship with Nina [Barnes’ wife] dissolved for a long time. It's the trade off I had to make to keep my sanity. Luckily being on medication hasn't slowed down my creativity. I was afraid it would turn me into a zombie, but it didn't.”
The writing of the new album was clearly therapeutic for Barnes. Did he consider that such an honest appraisal may help fans of his understand the realities of depression?
“I hope so. I wasn't really thinking about that when I was recording the songs. It's definitely a very positive thing though – when one's difficult and painful experience can offer support and comfort to others going through similar experiences.
That's one of the greatest things about art, that it can transform the horrid and nasty aspects of the human experience into something more poetic and tolerable.”
Barnes is a noted fan of the writing of Syd Barrett [the founder and early principal songwriter of Pink Floyd], a man who had struggled similarly with depression. Barnes’ description of Barrett’s music could easily be applied to a description of his own: “I just love his free form style of writing. His songs are very catchy and infectious, but also unconventional in their arrangements.” Barrett gained cult-status for his withdrawn tendencies; arguably it was the combination of his depression and drug taking that led to his reclusive nature and exit from Pink Floyd.
“I think if you are already a little unstable, drugs can be very destructive,” Barnes cautions. “There are certain people who can do tons of drugs their whole life and be fairly unaffected, and others that are deeply affected by one experience. I don't mess around with drugs for that reason. I don't need them to be creative and they just make me paranoid and freaked out even more than I already am.”
While depression is a central theme of Hissing Fauna, Barnes has also provided fans with a porthole into his background with references to religion in his lyrics: “The church is filled with losers/ psycho or confused,” and his MySpace blogs: “I have this recurring dream about being in a house possessed by an evil invisible force. [This is] probably an extension of the effects of my catholic upbringing, so many of my weird superstitions can be blamed on that”. What exactly is this weird superstition concerned with?
“Well, it's more a feeling that God is going to do horrid things to me if I partake in certain activities. I don't really worry about it that much, but it is always somewhere buried back in my mind. I realised early on that it was just a bunch of bullshit. I can't understand how people can really believe in organised religions.”
“I went to Catholic school for a long time, and I was also forced to attend church services every Sunday during my childhood. I found it dreadfully boring and I didn't believe a word of what they were teaching, other than the golden rule. I could see all of the hypocrisy and phoniness involved in the church and it made me sick. Now I can appreciate the theatre of it, but it's still too perverse for me to handle. I guess it made me a bit more cynical about adulthood and the ‘normal’ people of the world.”
“It helped me see very clearly what I didn't want to be as an adult. I can't stand most religions because they over-simplify things in this extremely childish sort of way. It is an escape from the insanity of life, but it's an unhealthy escape in my view.”
Another element of Barnes’ childhood that has flowed over to his music has been an early love of theatre – which may explain the nudity/Georgie Fruit thing.
“My parents forced me to join choir when I was in high school to perform in school musicals but I really hated it at the time. I felt it was super lame and couldn't get into it. For some reason, as I got a little older, I started to really get into classic musicals like My Fair Lady and Gigi. When we perform it is very important to us to do something exceptional and unpredictable. We want to offer an audience visual dynamics, as well as musical dynamics. We want the performance to engage people on all levels.”
Will we be blessed with a similarly grand Australian tour? “Right now our Aussie label is trying to set something up. Hopefully we'll be able to tour in June. We won't be able to transport everything from the U.S. tour, but there will definitely be a strong theatrical/visual element to the show that we travel overseas with.”
It is hard to imagine Barnes as an artist settling for anything less than a stunning live show, as he seems highly unaffected by current trends or so-called realities. With this said, I can’t help wonder how of Montreal will next evolve?
“I'm working on a new album now. It will still be poppy and melodic, but more fragmented in its structure. I'm stepping away from the pop song template. I am going to create a bunch of 30-to-50-second sections and string them all together. I don't think there will be any pauses between pieces. I want it to feel like one long piece with hundreds of movements. The tentative title of the album is Skeletal Lamping.”