Alone Again Or
Kevin Barnes Goes It Solo For Of Montreal’s Latest Album
With a new record out on a new record label, things are moving for Kevin Barnes, the essence and heart of Of Montreal. Satanic Panic in the Attic sees a return to form for the whimsical pop group, as the joyous songs feature a cast of characters reminiscent of early Of Montreal recordings like The Gay Parade or the early Cherry Peel. Barnes decided to do most of the recording for the new album alone - Flagpole recently sat in the grass and discussed the decision, the direction and more.
Barnes spent about four months in his home studio recording most of the instruments himself, although he was helped out by cellist Heather McIntosh and several other current and former Of Montrealers. "It's just something I wanted to do really badly, and the rest of the guys let me do it - which was very nice of them. It's sort of like that thing when you first start making 4-track songs and lose yourself in the headphones. It's a really cool experience that you miss when you record a record with a full band. I wanted to immerse myself in the music... [Home recording] takes a little longer, but then each song has its own sonic character that bands who go into the studio for a couple of weeks just don't get the chance to make."
Of Montreal's albums have always told the stories of a number of characters. From ailing grandfathers to dispirited boxers, the colorful names and events in the songs suggest a child's picturebook, until analysis of the lyrics reveals a decidedly mature outlook on life. "A lot of the songs had been written before recording was started," says Barnes. "In a way our last record [Aldhil's Arboretum] was a lot less playful than the one before that [Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies, a Variety of Whimsical Verse]... I wanted to do something less crazy and out there, but not quite as... straightforward, I guess, as Aldhil's Arboretum. I definitely wanted to get back to the cinematic storytelling.
"I think that just to stay active, to continue writing songs, you can't always write songs about your emotions or about girls in your life; it just gets boring. I'll think, 'I need to find some different subject matter,' I'll invent a character and see what happens to them. I'll create a scenario, and it's a fun writing exercise.
"A lot of times, daydreaming and role-playing in my head helps a lot. I've made characters out of people I see walking down the street or at the post office. There are a couple of story songs on the new album, like Chrissie Kiss the Corpse and How Lester Lost His Wife."
Satanic Panic in the Attic features a number of direct love songs, and none are more direct than the sweet and pointed "Your Magic is Working." The song plainly sets out emotions for all to see, and it's a straight from-me-to-you message.
"I was really cynical for a while, and kind of disenchanted," says Barnes. "The last record shows that disenchantment, I think. But then I fell in love, and so everything turned upside-down - I was happy again! I wanted to write some love songs for my wife. I had all this happiness, so I wanted to create something that was a lot more positive and gentle."
In the past year, Of Montreal's seen some lineup shifts. Andy Gonzalez has been committed to his Marshmallow Coast project, and Derek Almstead recently decided to go full throttle with Circulatory System. Barnes is joined on this upcoming six-week tour by Dottie Alexander and Jamey Huggins, both longtime Of Montreal members, The Late B.P. Helium's Bryan Poole, the band's original bassist and current touring guitarist, and Casper & the Cookies' Jason NeSmith and Nina Barnes.
"It's cool," says Barnes, "in a way, to have so many new members, because we were so strong before as a five-piece with Andy and Derek, that in a way it's been helpful to start from scratch again. It's a humbling experience, but refreshing at the same time. We hooked up with Polyvinyl through our booking agency [the Kork Agency]. When we were looking for a label, Polyvinyl stood out. We were talking to Minty Fresh and Future Farmer, but we went with Polyvinyl because they especially bent over backwards to make things work for us the way we wanted."
Satanic Panic in the Attic features a stronger sound than previous Of Montreal albums. The bass and guitar make their distinct presence felt, and the songs groove and glide more than ever before with rock and electronic effects blended into the sugarpop. Barnes attributes this to his solo work.
"I'd never had programmed drums before," says Barnes, "and I played around with them on some songs on the album. This might sound ridiculous, but for the first time I was aiming for a sexier sound. I've been listening to a lot of '70s African funk and late-'60s, early-'70s Jamaican dub... they're just so sensual and groovy, and I tried to incorporate that feel into the album... I was also getting into Manitoba, Mum and other contemporary electronic records. For the longest time I was only listening to the Kinks, the Beatles, Os Mutantes and other '60s psychedelic pop albums. I don't know if since I played everything myself I was able to express my ideas better... it's just one person's ideas, so maybe it seems a little more concise."
So with such a positive solo experience, what's the future hold for a combined-efforts Of Montreal album? "There's a great momentum you get recording with a full band," says Barnes. "If you lose your way, someone else will come in with an idea to inspire you, and it just bounces around like that. So going back to a full-band record is definitely going to happen. I don't want everyone else to get nervous!
- Chris Hassiotis