Wednesday, June 24, 2009

2007-03-21 - Mountain Xpress

How of Montreal turns despair into disco
by Alli Marshall in Vol. 13 / Iss. 34 on 03/21/2007

Guitarist Bryan Poole speaks about his tenure in neo-glam band of Montreal with a certain weary positivity that come off more like Stockholm Syndrome than enthusiasm.

Theatrical much? of Montreal, among other disguises, is from Georgia.

He doesn’t mean it that way, though. It’s just that Poole—who has his own band, not that he gets enough time to devote to it—has been tirelessly promoting, discussing and playing out a vision conceived in total by of Montreal front man Kevin Barnes.

“Does that cause a bit of strain?” Poole asks rhetorically. “Sure it does. We all have egos.”

But, as Poole happily points out, there’s a bit of a Catch-22 at play. No one in the band wants out now, not when of Montreal is doing so well.

Return to the Velvet Goldmine

Unlike Alanis Morissette’s ‘90s-era hit, much relating to of Montreal actually is ironic. For instance, at a time when it’s so of-the-moment to be “of Montreal” (e.g.: Arcade Fire, The Stills, Melissa Auf der Maur), of Montreal is actually from Athens, Ga., which is the musical equivalent of so last century.

Not that their sound is either Athens college radio or Canadian indie rock. It’s more Ziggy Stardust and Bj√∂rk drop X and have a three-way with Sly Stone.

“We’re all about [glam],” Poole tells Xpress. He’s in Philadelphia, walking to a vegetarian restaurant. “Definitely, with the whole image—with fashion and that blurred thing between the artist and the performer.”

He’s talking about of Montreal’s penchant for creating characters, both through songs and in the live show. The Late BP Helium is Poole’s alter ego, while Barnes, who writes all the songs (and currently, all the music) is known for crafting enough characters to make Sybil jealous. of Montreal’s latest album, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (Polyvinyl, 2007), is written in two voices—that of Barnes, and that of alter ego Georgie Fruit (supposedly based largely on Prince).

In both cases, the lyrics are deeply personal, culled from Barnes’ struggle with depression and his marital problems. That doesn’t immediately translate in the poppy, danceable instrumentation, but Poole admits, “Sometimes it’s like, ‘Wow, this is a really strange lyric.’ And I can’t really decide when I’m singing the lyric whether I am Kevin, singing with him, or another personality of Kevin.

“There’s a song called ‘Cato As a Pun,’” the guitarist continues. Poole sings harmony on the song during live shows. “Sometimes, on stage, we’re kind of looking at each other as we’re singing, in a weird way kind of acting out what has happened between these two people. He kind of comes to me like he’s trying to put his hands on me and I kind of brush him away, like, ‘Forget you!’ ... we’re singing a harmony line the whole time, but it’s not like one of those old guy-girl duets.”

He laughs, “Maybe we should do that sometime.”

Irony number two: That song, “Cato As a Pun,” ends with the line, “I guess you just want to shave your head, have a drink and be left alone. Is that too much to ask?” It was, of course, written months if not years before paparazzi magnet Britney Spears shaved her party-worn head, but still ... it seems almost prophetic. Especially backed by the knowledge that Hissing revolves around Barnes’ own breakdown.

“Some of the first songs he played me, I was just kind of floored by how brutally honest he was about what was going on in his life. I was like, ‘Whoa! Okay! He’s laying it all out there,’” Poole says of the front man. “He decided it was time to get back to writing from a personal nature, whereas before he’d been writing all these character-based songs.”

But because the rest of the band wasn’t there when Barnes was laying down soul-wrenching tracks in his bedroom studio, they can’t totally relate. “There are certain songs that it’s almost too much [for Barnes] to want to sing—it just puts him in a bad head place,” Poole notes. “For [the band], sometimes we practice these songs a lot and it’s like, ‘Oh, I like this guitar part,’ or whatever.”

Irony three: For as soul-torturingly melodramatic as Barnes’ lyrics may be, the instrumentation on Hissing is a far cry from anything darkly post-industrial, lethargically slow-core or wrist-slittingly emo. Instead, there are club beats, disco refrains and new-wave melodies.

In “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse,” Barnes sings, “I’m in a crisis/ I need help/ Come one mood shift/ Shift back to good again.” But the music says: “Hey, let’s wear glitter and do the electric slide!”

Ironic, yes. But it works.

“The first half of the record is very poppy,” Barnes acknowledges in a press release. “That’s the thing—I was trying to make music to help myself get out of this dark period, so instead of writing dark and melancholy stuff, which I knew wouldn’t help me at all, I tried to sort of uplift my life with sound.”

Now, if only someone would copy that memo to Wellbutrin poster children Conor Oberst and Amy Lee.

of Montreal plays The Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) on Thursday, March 22. Loney, Dear opens the 9 p.m. show. $10/$12. 232-5800.

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