eMusic Q&A: Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes
by Michaelangelo Matos
Ten years ago, Kevin Barnes would have seemed like the least-likely-to-succeed satellite of the Athens, Georgia-based Elephant 6 troupe, a loose collective of bands and artists that became a mini-phenomenon among indie-rock fans in the mid-to-late-'90s. Barnes' group, Of Montreal, were maybe the most whimsical of the E6'ers; their early records, even ones as good as 1999's The Gay Parade, were more notable for what they weren't (meaning, actually from the '60s) as for what they were (modern recordings that pined for the '60s).
Then, shortly after 2002's Aldhils Arboretum, Of Montreal fell apart. Barnes, newly married, moved out of the house shared by most of the band, and the group's power dynamic shifted. Later that same year, Barnes recorded Satanic Panic in the Attic alone, and regrouped the band. By 2005, Barnes had re-conceived Of Montreal as something just as knotty and psychedelic as before, but with wider spaces and deeper grooves. That approach has resulted in three albums that tower over the band's earlier work: 2005's The Sunlandic Twins, featuring the irresistible disco workout "Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games" ("Let's pretend we don't exist/Let's pretend we're in Antarctica," goes the chorus); 2007's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, No. 8 in the eMusic user poll of 2007's Top 10 albums; and now the new Skeletal Lamping.
Skeletal Lamping is denser than the two albums preceding it, thanks to tunes and arrangements that jump all over the place stylistically a la the Fiery Furnaces, and looser, thanks to lyrics that both acknowledge and make fun of therapy-speak, as on "Id Engager": "Ladies, I'm screaming out to you from the depths of this phallocentric tyranny/My self-conceptions awaiting your invasion clumsy penetration punishment/When the hope of another wet nightmare is all we have to live for." Say that ten times fast.
eMusic spoke with Barnes over the phone from his home in Athens.
What would you say the primary difference is between Skeletal Lamping and Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? in terms of the way you made them? Did you work differently?
Not really. I guess maybe the way I've arranged the songs is a little different. I experimented with that on Hissing Fauna, and it's something I'd done more on older albums like [2001's] Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies and [1999's] The Gay Parade. But basically [on Skeletal Lamping] I'm creating fragmented songs out of separate sections that I just piece together. Some feel more random than others. Basically, I recorded everything myself in a home studio for both [Skeletal and Hissing], so the similarities are there in that aspect.
Was that something you went in knowing you wanted to do in advance?
I think I was naturally compelled to do that now — it was a more interesting way to write. I just wanted to have fun. Sometimes when you're trying to craft the perfect pop song or whatever, it can be a bit tedious: "I've got the music for the verse and chorus, and now I have to come up with the music for the second verse." I find it more interesting to just work with an idea until it becomes boring and then move onto something else, not force [myself] to make it kind of linear. It definitely works better with my attention span to constantly change things and not try to make things have a continuity, to just evolve in an abstract way.
When you put the album together, was everything in pieces waiting to be put in order, or did you have an idea for a sequence laid out beforehand?
I didn't really think about making a record very much, more so just thinking about making a one-and-a-half-minute piece of music. And then if I made another piece of music, I'd say, "Is it interesting together?" If not, I'd make another piece of music and see if it worked. I had about two hours' worth of these fragments — I didn't think about them as fragments, just as little pieces. It was fun to see what worked, to see what was interesting. I couldn't really lose; they were all different from each other. I wasn't trying to create something fragmented, just [something] that flowed and was consistently interesting.
Is there an element to Of Montreal, either musically or in concert, that you think is obvious but no one else seems to have caught onto?
I can't say that's ever really crossed my mind [laughs]. We don't have an agenda; we're just trying to do something that's artistically satisfying. We don't really think whether people like or want it; we do what we feel compelled to do. We're not checking bloggers or whatever.
On "An Eluardian Instance," you sing about "Koster Island" and then about climbing "upon the rocky shore and freak[ing] out to the Mountain Goats." Are you referring to Julian Koster and John Darnielle here?
I'm friends with them, but no: Koster Island is a place in Sweden, and it was the last place my wife and I were before out daughter was born.
How old is your daughter?
How does she respond to your music? Is she an Of Montreal fan?
She likes it. I don't really listen to my music, so I don't really play it for her that often. But she does seem to respond to it. It's kind of funny, she's singing, "We can do softcore if you want" [from Skeletal Lamping's "For Our Elegant Caste"] — we don't try to hide any of that stuff from her. I couldn't care less about whether she says the word "fuck." It's kind of a Lenny Bruce thing [laughs]. We're not militant about it — she can say what she wants to say.
Athens is a college town, and you've written about academia a little — particularly on the song "Art Snob Solutions." Let's say Of Montreal dries up tomorrow and you went back to school. What would you major in?
I've never really responded to the world of academia for some reason. I sort of had this romantic view of intellectualism, and I've definitely tried on my own to broaden my mind and expose myself to different philosophies and things like that. I don't think I would ever go back to school. I dropped out of community college after three days; I never went beyond high school.
Who controls the tour-bus iPod?
[Laughs] We don't really have one. There is a communal area where people hang out afterwards, but we're into the same things. There are maybe some guilty pleasures that some of us might have.
What do you typically listen to while on tour?
Prince, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones — music that's more high energy, playful, and frisky. A lot of Sly & the Family Stone — mostly stuff from the '70s. We're all into Fela Kuti and Afrobeat and things like that — we'll put that stuff on, and the tried and true stuff we've grown up listening to.
Did any particular incident or situation inspire "Id Engager"? It's obviously an idea-driven lyric but it sounds like it could have come from a real-life situation.
With every song I've ever written, it's a mystery to me as well. Once it's written, in that spirit, I sort of lose the thread of what the inspiration was. I'm sure it had its root in something personal, but now I can't even recall it. Something to do with this concept of players — it's a bit weird, because the chorus is about, "I just wanna play with you, I just wanna have fun," and the verses are sort of condemning that. But it is what it is. It's hard for me: I'm not thinking about motivation or understanding why. I don't second-guess it; I just let it happen in an organic way. I'm moving on; I'm thinking about what I want to do next. I feel divorced from the songs in that way.
Maybe that's one reason why the lyrics on Skeletal Lamping generally feel even less inhibited than those of earlier Of Montreal albums. Some of them seem almost therapeutic.
I really felt this freedom to take chances and go somewhere that would have been more insecure in the past, and let it all out there. Part of that is the soul influence, the freedom that people Sly and Prince had. People that are basically — I don't even know if this is a term, but "freak-funk." It's intellectual but it hits you on a visceral level as well. One of my favorite contemporary artists is Erykah Badu: she embodies that spirit for me: soulful and playful and organic, but she can also turn and go really serious and introspective.