Dirty Minds and Super Freaks
Sep 01, 2008 Photography by Patrick Heagney
"Everybody involved is so emotionally invested in Of Montreal that it’s become like a cult,” says Kevin Barnes, Of Montreal’s master of ceremonies. He’s assessing not only the status of his band in the public eye—due to mount with the release of the band’s exceptional new album, Skeletal Lamping, to be promoted on tour with a “show to end all shows”—but the drive among its members and in the extended family that makes all their DIY dreams come true.
A dozen years and nine albums in, this Athens, Georgia band is at the height of its power, and the peak may still lie ahead. More than merely an ambitious pop act cranking out a superior composite of psychedelic flutter, post-punk deconstructionism, throbbing glam rock, and smutty funk, the band truly does have the trappings of a cult. The awe inspired by their live spectacle, soaring pop music, and complex lyrical intimations attracts followers as well as fans. Some display their devotion by mirroring the band members’ wild costumes—on stage, they’ve been known to sport angel wings, Native American feathers, lobster arms, lingerie, 10-foot dresses, Darth Vader masks, assless chaps, and nothing at all.
Barnes is the band’s main exhibitionist, a flamboyant frontman for whom the role of cult leader wouldn’t be much of a stretch. He’s got the requisite charisma, narcissism, and libido (judging by his lyrics and sometimes lewd stage antics), not to mention a leadership quality perhaps fueled by control issues—his artistic, auteurist M.O. is such that the rest of the band is excluded from the creative process. Barnes is not only the band’s sole songwriter, he also records virtually every scrap of music himself.
“Kevin is the maestro,” confirms guitarist Bryan Poole (aka The Late B.P. Helium, one of his side projects). “It’s his thing. It’s been great because Kevin has been writing great music, though it is definitely an ego challenge, which is why I find it very important to play with other people. Kevin’s my friend, I like helping him get across his vision, and I’m a tool if he needs me to play some guitar on recordings. But generally, that doesn’t happen.”
Poole has been at Barnes’ side since 1996, the nascent days of Of Montreal, which was named in bitter tribute to a Canadian girl who broke Barnes’ heart. Poole quit the band briefly at the top of the decade, a period during which Of Montreal went through a democratic phase (at Poole’s urging), but Barnes had regained complete control by the time Poole rejoined, just prior to the release of 2004’s Satanic Panic in the Attic. But despite a few shifts in personnel, the band has stayed together, and it’s primarily Barnes’ talent and ambition that have propelled them to where they are, so his M.O. must be working. Poole is reluctant to complain about his “bread and butter,” though he admits that his friend is prone to prima donna behavior. But even that has its silver lining, Poole says, quoting a snatch of wisdom handed down to him recently by an Irish cab driver/down-on-his-luck former musician:
“‘Yeah, so, your lead singer, he writes all the songs?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ ‘He’s probably an asshole, isn’t he? He must have his head up his ass.’ And I was just like, ‘Well, I wouldn’t say that,’ and he’s like, ‘Yeah, but, you know, anybody who has to really put on a good show and really go for it has to have this pretentiousness about them, and this thing where they’re into themselves and there’s just no way around it. The people that aren’t into themselves make bland art.’ That was his assessment. And yeah, Kevin can sometimes be that way, so maybe that’s true.”
With their busy Technicolor imagery and delirious pop noise, blandness has never been part of the band’s palette. Even in the beginning, Of Montreal attracted lovers and haters almost exclusively with their penchant for what Poole calls “twee psychedelia,” as well as styles of music stretching back past more recent allusions—from The Beach Boys, Brian Eno, and Abba to the pop music and jazz of the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression.
“In the early days,” says Barnes, “I was really into Cole Porter and the Gershwin brothers, and the curly moustache and the pinstripes and the vaudeville scene and the music hall and the theatricality and the lifestyle of these people, who weren’t making a really good living and were probably not treated so well, but they were doing what they wanted to do: They were performing. I was just fascinated by that world. It really influenced my songwriting as well as my guitar playing and everything.”
Touring in support of the album The Gay Parade, Barnes wore white face paint and a pencil moustache in a guise he called “Claude Robert.” Looking back now, Barnes realizes that role-playing was a defensive maneuver, a reaction to the harsh negative reviews he’d received for Of Montreal’s 1997 debut, Cherry Peel.
“I didn’t feel comfortable exposing my personal life anymore, so I created these songwriting characters so I could write through them. I had that shield, where I could say it wasn’t me that was saying that, it was Claude Robert or whatever.”
“I became more confident after I got married,” he adds—his wife Nina Barnes, with whom he has a four-year-old daughter, Alabee, contributes to the band’s artwork, particularly the various art objects that make up “the Skeletal Lamping collection,” which includes Of Montreal tote bags, Chinese lanterns, and sculptures. “Having that person on your side really, really meant a lot. I didn’t need to worry so much about what other people were saying about me because I knew that I was still loved by my wife and loved by my brother and by my friends. Maybe I just became a little bit more mature. When I was younger, if I got a bad review, it was as if the world was giving me a bad review.”
In recent years, Barnes has employed what he calls the Dylan Thomas technique, a “super geeky exercise” in which he attempts to channel the great Welsh poet as his muse while writing lyrics, but he’s also become a believer in writing what you know. “People can connect more with personal songs and with vulnerability than they do with writers who are writing from the outside. It doesn’t really seem like it’s coming from the heart if you’re writing from some character’s perspective.”
Barnes was particularly revealing on Of Montreal’s last album, 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, based on the despair he experienced during a bipolar breakdown.“When I was writing Hissing Fauna, I was in a really, really, really bad state of mind. I wouldn’t be here right now if I still thought that way—that was something that you can only really tolerate for a period of time and then it’s just unbearable and you just have to kill yourself. Luckily, I was able to turn it around and I feel a lot better now. That’s why the new record is a lot sassier and sexier and more playful.”
The contrast between Hissing Fauna’s giddier pop songs and their lyrics about depression, salvation, and psychiatric therapy created a classic contrast reminiscent of bands such as The Smiths. But elsewhere on that record lay the seeds of Skeletal Lamping—the driving post-punk drone of “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal” is perhaps a precursor to the new album’s wealth of “noisy tension music.”
“I hadn’t really done very much with dissonance or friction before,” says Barnes. “With this record, I was experimenting with creating something that still had an infectious quality to it and an immediacy to it but was at times a bit awkward intentionally so that it would catch the listener off guard. I wanted to make a record where you never really knew what was gonna happen, you never knew what was gonna hit you next.”
Moreover, the suggestive throb of Hissing Fauna’s “Faberge Falls for Shuggie” is the domain of yet another of Barnes’ personas: Georgie Fruit, a black shemale funk fiend. Although she makes a cameo appearance on Skeletal Lamping, and the accompanying dirty falsetto and slinky beats are in high supply, Barnes says he wants to kill off the character, who’s less a mask than a part of his true personality.
“Kevin’s found himself sexually, it seems, in the last couple of years,” offers a chuckling Poole. “As a result, we’ve moved from wanting to be a ’60s psychedelic band to being a more glam/sexual kind of band. On the last couple of records, there were bigger, heavy dollops of Prince and Bowie. Those are huge icons, but it’s hard to deny some of those influences showing up in the music and in what we want to do for our stage presentation. We have grand visions.”
Skeletal Lamping was originally conceived as one 50-minute composition with no track markers, but the record has been broken up into songs for easier consumption, and because, according to Barnes, “naming songs is too much fun,” (“Beware Our Nubile Miscreants” is one example). Among its eclectic contents are harmonic pop confections, slithering funk rhythms, and bursts of cacophonous clatter and hallucinatory overlapping vocals, perhaps voicing the myriad eccentric characters currently holed up in Barnes’ noggin.
“I always try and make a good mixtape with a record,” he explains. “I want there to be a lot of dynamic and a lot of variety. I try to defy whatever natural tendencies I have so that I can attempt to be a different artist from song to song. There’s still going to be a natural continuity ’cause you can’t really completely break free of your artistic instincts, but something I aspire to is making something that could feel like a bunch of artists collaborating, not just the product of one mind.”
Aside from Poole and fellow bandmates Dottie Alexander, Jamey Huggins, Davey Pierce and new drummer Ahmed Gallab, Barnes’ brother David is essential to the Of Montreal cult. He’s largely responsible for the band’s visual aesthetic, from the cover art (he’s created roughly 98 percent of their covers to date, according to Kevin) to the costume ideas and conceptual shenanigans that have become part of the live show—having Kevin emerge from a coffin full of shaving cream is one of the Barnes brothers’ recent stunts. This brand of collaboration has its roots in arts experiments and practical jokes that they used to indulge in as kids. Kevin says some of their stunts were too annoying and “avant-garde” for their mother to appreciate at the time, but she’s come around now that they’ve taken it to a professional level. Well, semi-professional.
“It’s all part of the DIY, indie spirit,” says Kevin. “That definitely appealed to me, involving David and creating something together. It’s a really cool bonding experience, even though the process can go through a bunch of different phases and you can be frustrated with each other. But in the end, you feel really good about it, it’s something that you’ll always have to look back on, something I’m very proud of and happy with.”
For the Skeletal Lamping tour, Kevin, David, and the gang have cooked up their most spectacular show to date, featuring (among many other things) a spinning room onstage that will contain a series of “atmospheres” and a gaggle of performance artists. Poole says it threatens to reach Vegas proportions, thanks to some lucrative festival dates the band has played, and a lot of cult muscle. Whenever and wherever they build it, the followers will come.
“My whole goal with putting on these productions,” says Barnes, “is that people who come to the shows will see it as an opportunity to put on a performance of their own, to dress up and put on some really outrageous outfit and realize this fantasy that they might have. No one is going to be critical of you and no one is gonna call you an idiot. It’s a very positive thing, something any great movement has, like the glam rock movement or the hippie movement. Even if people have to be conservative because of their job or whatever, they can just be a freak for the night. I think it’s good for the spirit.”