Not so long ago, Kevin Barnes had a nervous breakdown. He was nine albums into a career as the frontman for Of Montreal, a pop band from Athens, Georgia, that was veering increasingly toward dark and dancey glam-rock. But his life, and his sanity, were unraveling. It didn't help that he split from his wife around the time she had his first child. It didn't help that he was in Norway . But it did, perhaps, help him to write a mind-blowing album. Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? channels David Bowie and Prince without sounding like a rehash of either. The band, long known for its theatrical, over-the-top stage performances, has raised the bar, with Barnes recently going naked at a show in Las Vegas. Believe it or not, he's actually not insane anymore. And he and his wife have reconciled. So we talked to him recently about stripping onstage, coming back from the edge and the album that may just be one of the year's best. — Sarah Hepola
You recently went full-frontal at a concert. Why did you do that?
I'd been thinking about it for a couple shows, but I'd heard that if I did it in a venue that wasn't twenty-one-and-over, I might have to sign up as a sex offender in every city we travel to. It just turned out that, around that time, we were going to do a twenty-one-and-over show in Las Vegas. And what better place to go naked than Vegas? The stars were aligned. So we made it a kind of sex show. We had straight and gay porn projected during the show.
It wasn't just like, "Now I'm gonna take off my clothes." I warned everyone in my band. They weren't sure I was gonna do it, though. I guess it's still a bit taboo, but there's some history of people doing similar things. People like Jim Morrison. I'm sure Iggy Pop has done it. GG Allin did way worse than that. I mean, it's not like it's the 1950s, and it's Elvis Presley naked onstage.
Yeah, but it's still shocking. People have nightmares about being onstage naked. Why did you want to do it?
It's just like the ultimate exhibition as far as performance goes. You're always putting yourself in a vulnerable position as a performer. And our band definitely has a flair for the theatrical, so it's not a big stretch for me. I'm always wearing these ridiculous clothes — stripper wear, fishnets, camping it up at bit. Actually, I think before I went naked that night, it was more obscene. I was wearing a gold miniskirt with no underwear. Sometimes when you're flirting with nudity, it has more impact. It can be more shocking if your cock is hanging out of a miniskirt.
But I'm totally relaxed about nudity. It's probably easier for me, because I feel so comfortable with my body. I think it's insane how uptight people are about nudity. Your clothes are your armor, I guess, on many levels. But I'm probably secretly a nudist at heart. I'm gonna be one of those horrible old men on a beach, running around naked.
I wasn't drunk. I wasn't nervous. For some people, I guess it could be dreadful. But I get into this persona that has no inhibitions. If I were naked in a grocery store, it might be a different story.
Even though you were pretty much fully exposed that night, you did have had on makeup and fishnets.
And a sash.
That's right. Can't forget about the sash. What does it do for you to wear fishnets and eyeliner?
Well, I don't think of it as cross-dressing or a perversion. It's more because of this new stage persona, who is a she-male. Psychologically speaking, people might be listening to me and thinking, "This kid has problems." But it helps, as an artist, to have a persona. You are given so many liberties as a performer. You can get away with whatever you want. And cross-dressing has a history, the extremely androgynous music of the '70s and punk rock during the New Romantic period. So I don't feel freaky at all. I mean, no matter what I do, I'm not going to be as freaky as Prince.
Let's talk more about your persona. Does he-she have a name?
This character's name is Georgie Fruit. I don't really know where that name came from. It's a songwriting persona for me, so it kind of goes beyond what I wear and do onstage. It gives me an outlet to explore different aspects of myself. I don't feel like I have a split personality or anything. It's this exaggerated view of my personality. So it's fun to be able to take certain aspects of my personality and blow them up, put them on the screen for overyone to see. Because I'm a performer. And like all performers, I'm slightly insecure and need constant affirmation. Otherwise I wouldn't go onstage.
When did you develop this persona?
When I was making the last record. I had gone through this heavy chemical depression, and it was a reaction to that. I was like, enough of that. I was sick of writing about my life. I was bored with myself. And I wanted to write about something fantastic, and bizarre, and otherworldy.
That's interesting. Because this album is more autobiographical than most of your earlier albums. Am I wrong?
It's all autobiographical. But I'm talking more about the second part of the album, when this songwriting persona pops up. Instead of my natural reaction to things, I was pretending to be a different person, coming from a different background, and seeing how they would view these experiences in my life.
So about those experiences. There's a line in which you say: "I spent the winter on the edge of a total breakdown while living in Norway." That pretty much strips away metaphor. What happened?
Basically just all these life-changing events were going on. I'd gotten married, and we were expecting our first child, and we were living in Norway, and I didn't know how to deal with those things, because as an artist you live in your own fantasy world. So when reality hits, it hits hard. It was hard to adapt. I had a very difficult time with things. I went through a chemical depression I couldn't get out of. It affected me on all levels. Affected everything, affected songwriting. It was so bad I had to get on medication. And once I got on medication, it became easier to handle. These things that felt unresolvable seemed easier. My wife and I split up, and then we got back to together. All of that probably helped me create this new character. You get sick of self-analysis. I wanted to explore other things, disconnect.
Depression can either spark your creativity or snuff it out. Which was it for you?
Fortunately, mine wasn't the kind of depression where I couldn't do anything, where I just sat in a room and did nothing. It was actually an inspiring period for me. My sanity was crumbling. It was a period of losing my grip. It wasn't so much like, "I'm sad." It was way more violent.
Do you hear that reflected on the album?
Mainly in "The Past Is a Grotesque Animal" [a seven-minute song that comes at the album's midway point]. But I didn't really want to reflect my reality so much. I was trying to change my reality. I felt miserable and insane. Instead of making fragmented, cacophonous music, I was trying to make something that was upbeat and happy. And use music as therapy. Instead of just revelling in something that was ugly and depressing.
That reminds me of track five, "Gronlandic Edit," which is amazing. The dance song of the year for me. But it took me a while to realize that, as great as its groove is, the lyrics are a downer.
There's a pretty strong contrast between songs and subject matter, yeah. And part of that is because musically, I have enough experience that I know what's a happy sound and what's a sad sound and I can produce something that's in chorus with what I feel or don't feel. But in a lyric, I can't fake that. I mean, if you're depressed, it's hard to write about how it's a sunny day and everyone's really happy.
But you could hide personal information — for instance, you used to bury it in these character sketches. I was reading an old interview where you talked about not wanting to write about yourself, because it made you feel vulnerable. What changed your mind?
Early on, I was very impressionable, and it was hard for me to handle negative criticism. I got some nasty reviews from people, and it made me want to withdraw and not write anything personal. So I started writing, as you say, these kind of whimsical character sketches. And I slowly started to incorporate more personal stuff over the last few albums — Satanic Panic in the Attic, The Sunlandic Twins. On this record it was more out of necessity, because it was such an overpowering part of my existence. I couldn't make something trivial out of it. My life was sort of hanging by a thread.
But how do you protect yourself from criticism now?
Luckily I'm not as vulnerable as I used to be. I have thicker skin, because of the experience I've had, and also just being a performer for a while now. I used to think that a bad review was the world's response to the music. Now it doesn't matter much. Now I realize it's just one person's opinion. It doesn't really mean anything.
I wanted to ask you about a couple lyrics. On "Bunny Ain't No Kind of Rider," you sing: "Eva, I'm sorry, but you will never have me. To me you're just some faggy girl, and I need a lover with soul power." I assume this is a song about getting hit on by groupies.
No, not really. It's just more about going out to the club. When [my wife] Nina and I were split up, I went through an exploratory phrase, because I didn't know if we were going to get back together again. And sometimes when you're single, you don't necessarily want to be single. You want to find someone you can connect with. So I would go to clubs and meet people, but nothing would ever come of it. And that's the story of one of those experiences. Obviously I would never say anything like that. I was trying to be cruel, almost to the point of absurdity.
But did you ever go out with groupies?
No. There's just such an imbalance there. Someone's going to mythologize you in this totally unnatural way. You obviously aren't that person. You don't feel like you're this iconic figure. Most people feel kind of pathetic and retarded most of the time. It's difficult to feel relaxed around a fan, because you're not really you.
In the song, "She's a Rejecter," you say, "I'm forever going celibate." What does that mean?
Actually, it's "I'm forever going celibate tomorrow."
Ohhh. That's a big difference.
Yeah. It's just the idea of, like, being a drug addict. This is the last time. This is the last day. I'm always saying tomorrow's going to be different. I'm going to change everything tomorrow.
The album begins with the sound of a little baby. Is that your daughter?
It is. It's actually her singing. She's just singing her own song. It's just like, la-la-la. n°