From Pitchfork. Published on November 19, 2007. Interview by Mike Carriere.
In contrast to his on-stage persona, Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes-- the primary force behind one of this year's best records, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?-- comes across as soft-spoken and self aware on the telephone. Here, Barnes speaks openly about living with the ghosts of the past and the potential rebirth of Of Montreal as a funk band.. And while it's still a bit unclear if Barnes will be able to pull off such a metamorphosis, there is one thing that you can count on: It's definitely going to be fun to watch him try.
Pitchfork: You announced earlier this year-- via your MySpace blog-- that you were in the process of "exploring the dark and gloriously detestable sides of my consciousness." So, how's that going for you?
Kevin Barnes: [laughs] It's going well.
Pitchfork: When you make that sort of statement, I assume you're referring to the material you're currently working on. Is this exploration of your dark side apparent in the music of your new songs, or are you mainly referring to the lyrical content of your latest material?
KB: It's mainly in the lyrics.
Pitchfork: How does this approach differ from the one you took with Hissing Fauna? That was a record that explored the dark, and even possibly detestable, sides of your consciousness. Does your new material push these themes in a new direction, or do you see these songs as continuations of some of the issues you explored on the last album?
KB: It's hard to say, because Hissing Fauna was very personal. And the new stuff I'm working on is personal, but it's not necessarily reflective of my personal experiences, my personal life. For the new songs, I invented this character-- a songwriting persona-- and a lot of the songs are written from his perspective. He's different from me, though I realize he's obviously a part of me. He's a bit more arrogant and he's less compassionate and less concerned with being P.C. So it's making me approach things differently. I had this thought that when people create art they are trying to present themselves in a positive fashion. And no one really wants to come across as a jerk or whatever. So you never really let those aspects of your personality show up in your art, if you can help it. Well I thought it would be kind of fun to try to emphasize those elements of my personality, those unpleasant aspects in human nature.
Pitchfork: You also note in the above-mentioned blog that you think indie rock, as a whole, has become way too polite, while at the same time not paying enough attention to the "criminal and the profane." I would tend to agree with you, and I think you could even add "the sexual" to that list as well.
KB: Yeah, definitely.
Pitchfork: But why is that the case? Why does it seem that indie rock is so polite and polished these days? Is it because the genre now holds at least the potential for mainstream success? Is it because indie rock, for the most part, has been decoupled from its punk roots?
KB: I think for the most part it is music made by kids who just aren't into the aggro side of life, and it's sort of a reaction to that. The kids really aren't into punk rock or hardcore. But, at the same time, they're also not into Limp Bizkit or bands like that.
Pitchfork: So I suppose there may be a positive side to such a development.
KB: Yeah. It's slightly more intellectual and it's a slightly more controlled form of expression. A bit more poetic, maybe.
Pitchfork: You've also noted that this decision to explore the criminal and the profane was inspired by the example of French author Jean Genet who, during the course of the twentieth century, went from petty criminal to respected writer. Yet towards the end of his life, Genet became heavily involved in political organizing, even spending some time with the Black Panthers in the United States. Do you see yourself following such an evolutionary path? What role might politics play in your new material?
KB: I think the only role they might play is in the science fiction sense, when you think of a terrifying, potential future where we lose all of our human rights, Big Brother controlling everything. So that's there. But I get really depressed when I think about politics because it's such a bogus thing. The people who are the politicians, it seems like, in a way, they have this cult status where they are almost like religious leaders. But the whole thing is so confusing because they are supposed to represent a section of the population, and they can't really have an identity because they are supposed to be representing a collective. It's so bizarre to me. But then you also have that drive for power. It's very interesting to think about that as well. Why does someone want to be like that? They have to lose their identity to become this important historical figure. What's the benefit of being such a historical figure if you don't really exist, if you don't even have a real identity? The other thing about politics is that it just becomes too obvious, you know, to write something like an anti-Bush song. It's like, "Yeah, we know." [laughs] It never really held much romance for me; it never really seemed exotic or interesting.
Pitchfork: The album was about your temporary separation from your wife. What did she think about the record, both the final product and the process that went into creating the songs?
KB: She is very supportive of me, and she doesn't want to stand in the way of my creative process. But I know that she was extremely weirded out by the whole thing. You can choose to get upset about something, or you can choose to focus on something that doesn't upset you [laughs].
Pitchfork: Do you think the creation of Hissing Fauna made it harder to reconcile, or was it something where-- once you got it out of your system-- it made it easier?
KB: I don't think it played too large a role in anything. There was a sort of understanding that I'm a songwriter and I'm going to write about what's going on in my personal life. If I didn't, I think things would begin to get a bit phony.
Pitchfork: What is like reliving and revisiting these crises every night through your performances?
KB: Well, it's kind of an interesting thing. Obviously, the more you do something the less of an impact it has on you. So at first it was a bit strange to play these super-personal songs. But because the music itself was so buoyant and bouncy and fun and easy to dance to, I think that a lot of the times I can just get into this sort of mechanical mode where I'm performing, where I just get into the character of that song. There's a sort of detachment in that. Also, there's the communal aspect of sharing something with other people and receiving feedback from an audience and realizing it's not just me on stage, whining about my personal crises. A lot of people can identify with what I'm singing about.
Pitchfork: And, based upon people's responses to the album on various message boards and web sites, it does seem that this record really had a profound impact on many listeners. Are you comfortable with people having such a visceral reaction to your work, of almost appropriating your own emotions? Or does that strike you as a bit too intrusive?
KB: No, not at all. It's just sort of a universal theme that people will write about. I sort of connected to songs like that when I was going through that experience, and they were really important to me. Stuff like John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band period, Alex Chilton/Big Star's Sister Lovers period-- records that sort of present this character in a state of mental or emotional collapse. In a way, those writers probably felt really vulnerable releasing that stuff, but, to me, in a lot of ways the most important music is the music that people can identify with on a deeper emotional level. I don't really feel embarrassed or self-conscious about it. I just feel happy that I was able to create something that people were able to connect with.
Pitchfork: If the final outcome of this personal drama was positive, why do you want to continue to dive into the darker sides of your personality?
KB: I don't know. I guess because I never really feel this concentrated happiness where I'm like "I'm so happy with everything and I'm going to write this blissful little song." Everything is always very complex and every minute you go through such a broad range of emotions. The new record that I've been working on is very fragmented, very schizophrenic-- expressing all of these different kinds of feelings and emotions. It's very ugly at some points, and very pretty at some points. I think, in a way, it's very reflective of the inner workings of my mind, and probably most people's minds.
Pitchfork: And does the actual music behind such thoughts share this schizophrenic quality? Are you continuing with the bouncy, poppy sound you developed on Hissing Fauna, or are you moving in a new direction?
KB: Musically, it is sort of all over the place, too. There really isn't necessarily a sense of continuity there. It's definitely funkier. It's maybe developing off of things like "Faberge Falls for Shuggie" and "Labyrinthian Pomp" from Hissing Fauna. It's kind of moving things in those directions. It's something that I find exciting, as it's not something that I've really worked with a lot in the past. It still holds some mystery for me. I really feel there is something I can use in that genre. It's fun for me too because it kind of-- touching upon what we were talking about earlier-- goes against the kind and gentle side of indie rock. Funk music is not like that at all.
Pitchfork: Funk music is often dirty and impolite. How is it affecting the persona you've created for the next record?
KB: It's funny, because I've created a back story for this character. The character's name is Georgie Fruit, and he's in his late forties, a black man who has been through multiple sex changes. He's been a man and a woman, and then back to a man. He's been to prison a couple of times. In the 70s he was in a band called Arousal, a funk rock band sort of like the Ohio Players. Then he went through a few different phases. It's funny, because, in my mind, when I think about this character, he's so far removed from my personal experiences. But I can somehow identify with this character really well. I think that because I'm so into Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, and Isaac Hayes and all of those people. I was just thinking about that the other day, about how your upbringing has so much to do with the way you view the world-- it colors everything, it colors all of your opinions. It's interesting to try to really, really get into this character that is so foreign to you and your personal life. For me, it's been a really rewarding experience.
Pitchfork: Do you have a fear of misrepresenting this character? You are obviously not a transgendered African-American man [laughs]. Are you concerned with the reaction such a story-telling device might provoke?
KB: No, it's a very organic process. For me, getting into the character and making this record is a very pure experience. Though afterward, I know I may have to deal with the repercussions. But while I'm working I try to keep all of that out of my mind.