Tuesday, June 23, 2009

2007-05-10 - Venus Zine

On Kevin Barnes

Months after the release of Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (and our interview with the Of Montreal frontman), we take a closer look at the hype surrounding the incredibly successful record

6:30pm, March 16, 2007: I am sitting on my couch in my pajamas while heating a frozen pizza and watching Wheel of Fortune when my home phone rings.
“Hello,” I say.
“Hi, Genie?” asks a slightly nasal, very distant-sounding male voice.
“Who’s this?” I ask.
“It’s Kevin.”

Pat Sajack goes out of focus for a moment. Kevin Barnes has called me, at my house, on my phone. I notice a stain on the front of my pajama pants. “How did you get this number?” I ask, smoothing my hair.

Barnes was calling from his tour bus in order to clarify a statement he had made during our interview before his show at Chicago’s Metro the evening before. He wanted to make a retraction. Shortly after the phone call ended and my heart rate had returned to normal, I realized that Barnes had made a calculation. The evening before, after the digital recorder had been turned off, I had turned to him and clutched his arm. “I just wanted you to know how much ‘The Past is a Grotesque Animal’ means to me,” I said. “I haven’t felt like a song was written for me since I was 16.”

Barnes thanked me and returned to the dressing room where he would spackle himself with shiny greasepaint and shimmy into a bronze lamé cummerbund. Somehow, something he said about ’70s funk music had bothered him enough that it stuck with him past climbing onto a ladder into a Victorian wedding gown, past playing multiple freak-out guitar solos in front of a Norwegian flag–wielding man dressed as Darth Vader, past scrubbing off the greasepaint and peeling off the purple satin track shorts. Barnes was so bugged he called his publicist, got my number, and, banking on the fact that I was fan enough to do him a favor, asked me to make a retraction. And Kevin, you banked right: I did.

Looking over my notes from the Kevin Barnes interview, it becomes apparent that, aside from the regrettable comment, he told me very little that he hadn’t told dozens of journalists before. When he wrote 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, he was depressed; his marriage was dissolving; he wanted to die; he spent both a literal and metaphorical winter in Norway feeling the darkness of the black metal bands. He told me, as he told a dozen others, that he wants to help people through talking about his chemical imbalance.

So very much has been said about his chemical imbalance. It’s startling to read interviews with Barnes coincident with the release of Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? Startling in the sheer number of times Barnes portrayed himself as an indie-rock poet maudit squirreled up in a freezing Norwegian apartment, armed with just a MIDI, a laptop, and a mic, fighting desperately to outmaneuver soul-crushing despond by writing songs with dancehall melodies and devastating lyrics. Just as startling is the fact that journalist after journalist took him at his word. The rock press was more than eager to embrace the notion of Barnes as a survivor who triumphed over adversity to achieve the best album of his career. It is worth asking why everyone was so quick to paint Barnes as a romantic, suffering artist and, in the next breath, wink knowingly as he waggled his dick in Vegas.

And as for Barnes himself, the man is not an unrestrained hysteric. When I met with him, his bleak days were at a more significant remove than when he confessed his malaise to other reporters. (In fact, his publicist had called me the day before the show to request that I not talk about his depression.) Even so, Barnes felt it necessary to explain just how very close to suicide he had been. “I didn’t know if I’d be here talking to you,” he said, opening his thin arms to the peeling walls of the dingy room hidden behind the foyer at Metro. “I didn’t know if I’d be here tomorrow.”

It would be both cynical and wrongheaded to suggest that Barnes’ public sorrow was merely a ploy to increase record sales, just as wrong as it would be to believe that his latest record was the product of raw depression. That said, his mien was exaggerated by a press starved for authenticity and all too happy to find a figure willing to associate himself with adolescent bedroom angst. The spoils of this characterization became apparent to me when I looked around the Metro that night, filled with hundreds of gangly kids standing agog, raised camera phones acting as digital shields to stave off the overwhelming phantasmagoria of giddy teenage despair set at 130 bpm to disjointed vintage exercise videos.

Barnes’ musical genius lies partly in his ability to revisit this demographic so deftly while maintaining his sophistication. Consider the lyrics of my personal fave (“The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” in case you’ve forgotten):

“I fell in love with the first cute girl that I met / Who could appreciate Georges Bataille / Standing at a Swedish festival / Discussing Story of the Eye.

For the young, smart, and uncomplicated, the song mirrors the simplicity of taste-based attraction and the wonder of French philosophy yet unread and Nordic countries yet unvisited: the imagined pleasures of a future worldly life, possibly obtained in liberal arts college. For those around Barnes’ age (he’s around 30), the song reignites those feelings while coupling them with the self-conscious recognition of (and self-congratulatory remove from) having once been young, hopeful, and pretentious. The alchemy of these lines is best explained in that same song: “I find myself searching for old selves / While speeding forward through the plate glass of maturing cells.”

To not recognize the artful distance of a lyricist who so seamlessly inserts meta-commentary into a genuinely unsettling track seems misguided. However, Barnes himself cultivates this oversight. “That song was taken from a letter I wrote to my girlfriend,” he insisted. “The first half of the album is a record of how I felt at the time.”

I don’t know about you, but the last time I was reeling from an exploding relationship, I could barely get out of bed, let alone come up with hilarious yet poignant stanzas. Sorry, Kevin, I call bullshit. I know artists are more talented than the rest of us, but nobody is so self-aware that their despair is immediately crystalline.

Whatever it entails, Barnes’ new songwriting formula has garnered him more attention and acclaim than his career has yet seen. The new Of Montreal EP, Icons, Abstract Three, gives the literalists what they want. It features somber, totally humorless songs about familial strife like “Derailments in a Place of Our Own” (“How can we make things light again? / How can we win?”) and “Miss Blonde, Your Father is Failing” (“Sweet friend / Know I love you and I’m trying so hard to keep the family together”) alongside the side-splitter “Volatic Crusher/Undrum To Muted Da” (”You gave me your hand / I gave you a fist / Please don’t lose any sleep over me, baby / I hardly exist”). Accordingly, the lyrics are dissected all over the Internet by fans eager to decipher their hidden meanings. One fan wrote: “Du og Meg means ‘you and me’ or something like that, in Norwegian. Nina comes from Norway, so it’s definitely about her.”

Icons is believable as the cathartic meanderings of a depressed mind, but not Hissing Fauna. No, that record is a lot like Barnes’ persona: artful, flamboyant, bratty, maudlin, a bit calculated, and above all, brilliant.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Eugenia Williamson is a native Chicagoan who can’t seem to leave. She recently got her MA from the University of Chicago with a thesis about both the abiding need for high culture in a corporatized literary world and the irrepressible hotness of Jonathan Franzen. Ms. Williamson counts Joanna Newsom and the proprietor of Hot Doug’s among her personal heroes. She and fellow Chicago lit lover Gretchen Kalwinski run literago.org, a Web site for literate Chicago.

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