The Universal Experience of Depression.
If band biographies have taught us anything, it’s that one’s career success is often inversely proportional to the success of one’s interpersonal relationships. Sure, it’s a laughable music biz cliché — the climb up the ladder (or the charts, as it were) heralding the downward spiral, with the whiskey bottle only revealing its projectile properties until after the sold-out show — but that doesn’t mean these things can’t (and don't) really happen.
Take Kevin Barnes, creative core of Athens, Georgia’s Of Montreal, who perfected his sunny candy-coated synth-pop sound on 2005's infectious Sunlandic Twins, only to then battle depression and a separation with his girlfriend, Nina, and his now two-year-old daughter, Alabee. Meanwhile, Of Montreal was becoming a critical darling and playing sold-out shows across the country. While Barnes’ tale may not be of What’s Love Got to Do With It proportions, Barnes, unlike Tina Turner, was able to mend his wounded personal life and take a great artistic step forward in the process.
BARNES' INNER VIEW
“I started to totally freak out. I had this really serious, kind of like the very beginnings of this insane chemical depression period. It was, like, insane and almost led me to kill myself...”
The recently released Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (Polyvinyl Records) is Of Montreal’s most introspective effort to date, but, thankfully, the bright harmonies and rhythmic fun that has become the band’s fingerprint isn’t lost along the way. Barnes pours his heart out, but only so we can dance happily along. Chicago Innerview called Barnes during a tour stop in Las Vegas to discuss how everything from anxiety to antidepressants to alter egos factored into his band’s newest album.
Chicago Innerview: Can you talk about what you were going through when you were writing and recording Hissing Fauna?
Kevin Barnes: The very first part of the record I wrote before my daughter was born. I was living in Norway because my girlfriend is Norwegian and we didn’t have health insurance because we thought it would make more sense — because they have socialized medicine in Norway — to have our daughter over there. So we’re living in Norway and I started to totally freak out. I had this really serious, kind of like the very beginnings of this insane chemical depression period. It was, like, insane and almost led me to kill myself. So all the early songs like 'Cato as a Pun' and 'Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse' and 'A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger' — all those songs were written and recorded while I was living in Norway, during the beginning of that really insane period, using the very limited resources that I had — just a laptop, a MIDI-keyboard and a microphone. At the same time, right after my daughter was born, I went on tour in support of Sunlandic Twins because that record had just come out. I had this newborn baby that was like two or three months old and I had to leave my daughter and girlfriend back in Athens, Georgia. It was really difficult for me because the band was taking off at that point. We were sort of finally reaching a larger audience and feeling like all our hard work, all our paid dues were sort of paying off. But at the same time, I couldn’t really enjoy it because I knew that I was putting my girlfriend and my daughter in a crazy situation. I just basically abandoned both of them to go on tour and pursue music. Everything was just on fire, exploding all around me. So then my girlfriend and I split up and she went back to Norway with our daughter and I kept touring.
Chicago Innerview: Had you experienced depression before?
Kevin Barnes: No, never. That was the thing. It totally just hit me. I had never ever seen anything like it. And coming from this sort of blue-collar background, my parents never accepted depression as a real affliction or as a real physical thing. It was just basically like, ‘If you’re depressed you need to just pull yourself together. You can do it. Don’t be weak.’ So I had to kind of cast that aside and go, 'Okay, I have a problem and this is something that I need to face and I need to fix. If I’m smart about it, then I’ll be able to recover from it. If I’m stupid, then I’ll either get into serious drugs or just try to find some type of escape.' That’s why a lot of the songs, or some of the songs, make reference to spiritual longing, you know, like desperate for something to sort of help me. I needed help, but nothing was helping. You know, no conversation is going to help, no therapy, no drinking or drugs, no exercise, eating healthy, yoga — I went through all that stuff and none of it helped. And then, luckily, I got on antidepressants and that did help.
CI: Were you afraid the medicine would inhibit your creative impulses?
KB: It hasn’t turned me into a zombie. I was worried it was going to make me like a numb person and not feel anything emotionally. Luckily, I was on a pretty low dose of this thing called Cymbalta, which I still take, but I take it like every other day. And to some degree it made me more detached when I was taking it everyday. I was on the medicine before my girlfriend and I split up, and I think that being on the medicine just made me feel like, 'Okay, I don’t really care. I can’t help you right now and it doesn’t bother me right now because I’m on medicine.' So we split up. That’s what 'The Past Is a Grotesque Animal' is about — the split-up, that time apart not knowing if we were going to get back together and freaking out, to some degree, about that.
CI: Lyrically, Hissing Fauna reflects your experience with your separation and depression, but musically it’s a very jovial record. Like on 'A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger' you’re candidly singing about a nervous breakdown over keyboards that sound like the soundtrack to a bike ride on a warm, sunny day.
KB: Well, I was relying on music in a way that I haven’t really in the past, sort of using it as a form of therapy. It was the only real escapism afforded to me that actually helped in any way. I wasn’t really writing songs and then going into the studio after I had worked out the arrangements. For the first time I was composing everything in the studio, in the moment as this form of therapy. So all the songs up until 'The Past is a Grotesque Animal' were written when we were still together. I wrote 'The Past is a Grotesque Animal' after we broke up. And then the songs after 'The Past is a Grotesque Animal' I wrote after we had gotten back together. So that’s why the music on Hissing Fauna, a lot of times, doesn’t really make sense with the lyrical subject matter. I was trying to create something that was more buoyant and upbeat and happier-sounding to lift my spirits, rather than create something that matched my mood, which wouldn’t really help me anyway because it would just reinforce this darkness that I really didn’t want to be a part of anyway. I was just trying to create something that was a bit more optimistic and positive and hopeful musically, but then when it came to the lyrics, there was no way I could really fake that sort of thing. I couldn’t really say, ‘Oh, life is grand,’ you know?
CI: I’ve heard the second part of the album is also about you reinventing yourself as Georgie Fruit. Was this alter ego another part of your escape?
KB: It’s definitely a strange occurrence. To some degree, I have always experimented with different recording personas and stage personas. But this new character, Georgie Fruit, definitely sprung forth after the breakup with Nina and the reconciliation and all that. He’s like this middle-aged, black, she-male with a checkered past; he’s been to prison a couple times and he was in a band called Arousal in the late-‘70s. I created a pretty thorough backstory for this character, so he seems very real to me. It, in a way, enabled me to breathe life to this different aspect to my personality, my creative spirit.
CI: Now that you’re doing better, is it going to be tough to relive the Hissing Fauna material night after night on tour?
KB: Unless I just completely go through the motions, I’m going to have to relive the inspiration for those songs. But it also translates into something more positive when you are performing it with your friends in front of an audience of people that are, ostensibly, nice and cool and supportive and can also somewhat identify with universal experiences like depression and suicidal thoughts and intense anxiety.
Of Montreal :: with Walter Meego :: Metro :: March 15.