Of Montreal Trades Polite Beatles Worship for a Flashy Prince Fixation
Kevin Barnes loves loincloths and horses. Outback Steakhouse? Not so much.
By Kevin O'Donnell
Tuesday, October 14th 2008 at 3:01pm
Kevin Barnes has contemplated suicide. Two years ago, the frontman for indie-pop institution Of Montreal moved to Norway with his wife to raise their newborn daughter, Alabee. The weather was shitty, he was living apart from his family and friends in a strange country, and his new family suddenly forced him to face the uncomfortable truth of adulthood. "I was in such a bad state of mind that I couldn't see anything positive," says the 34-year-old. "There was just lows. Nothing was beautiful." He tried yoga, meditation, and psychiatry to cure his depression. Nothing worked. "It was like you're bleeding to death," Barnes recalls, "and someone hands you a Kleenex and says, 'Here, put this on.' "
So Barnes threw himself into his music, writing most of last year's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, a bizarre, brilliant set of whacked-out psychedelic synth-pop that explored his twisted psyche. And this month, the frontman and his crew—Bryan Poole, Dottie Alexander, Jamey Huggins, Davey Pierce, and Ahmed Gallab—return with Skeletal Lamping, which, while not as dark as its predecessor, is definitely crazier: a jaw-droppingly-great 15-song explosion that features burbling synth dirges, horn rave-ups, sweaty disco bangers, cacophonous noise-rock explosions, and party-starting, Prince-style funk. It's also one of the funniest records you'll hear all year, with Barnes delivering explicit ruminations on sex, gender politics, and relationships: "We can do it soft-core if you want/But you should know I take it both ways," he proclaims in sweet falsetto on "Our Elegant Caste." And on "Wicked Wisdom," he unleashes non-p.c. nuggets like "Why is it white girls don't ever have any ideas?"
"I really enjoy eccentric '70s soul, where people sing stuff like, 'If you want to get with me, you've got to get on your knees and crawl to me,' " Barnes explains. "So I'm pushing myself to make outsider art that's very provocative and bizarre. I want to grab people and have them say either, 'I love this' or 'This is bullshit!' I feel like with indie rock, everything is so gentle and polite."
It's taken Barnes a while to come to that realization. Soon after he formed Of Montreal in 1997, he became part of Athens, Georgia's Elephant Six Collective of bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and Apples in Stereo—precisely the style of "gentle" indie that he rebels against today. Even the band's earliest records—including 1997's Cherry Peel and 1999's The Gay Parade—were conventional, Beatles-style rock records. But Barnes found E6 to be a much-needed support group. "If we were by ourselves, we probably would've broken up," he says. "But knowing that our friends supported us and that they loved us, it made us feel empowered."
In 2004, Barnes started writing and recording the band's records largely by himself; his craft noticeably improved on that year's Satanic Panic in the Attic and 2005's The Sunlandic Twins. After the latter release, Barnes was approached by Outback Steakhouse to use the quasi-funky number "Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games" for a commercial. Barnes, who couldn't afford an attorney to help negotiate the terms of the contract, agreed. But when the commercial finally aired, the company altered the lyrics from "Let's pretend we don't exist" to "Let's go Outback tonight." Of course, he was furious—but also inspired. "I never had to deal with anyone ever calling me a sellout," he says. "It's funny, too, because I feel like it helped motivate me to make music that was more out there and interesting. The backlash was a good thing."
The money has certainly helped Of Montreal stay afloat. The band still receives a yearly royalty check for $33,000, which helps finance their over-the-top concerts. These days, Of Montreal are one of the best live bands going. Friday night, the group did a sold-out Roseland Ballroom gig featuring stage risers, movie projections, glam-rock costumes, a cover of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and a sequence where a crew pretends to hang Barnes with a noose. Plus, since this is New York, they went one step further: Barnes got nearly naked and rode around the stage on a white stallion. He'd also hoped to shave his head and eyebrows and cover his entire body in red paint, but at the last minute, he opted to go just with the paint. "It takes a really long time for your hair to grow back," Barnes says. "I chickened out."
Fittingly enough, Prince happened to be performing an intimate show on the rooftop of the Gansevoort Hotel that same night. So after his own gig, Barnes tagged along as the plus-one of MGMT frontman Andrew VanWyngarden. (The longtime friends are collaborating on a side project dubbed Blikk Fang.) Barnes has long been a fan of Prince; he compares Skeletal Lamping to "Sign 'O the Times, Lovesexy, and The Black Album all together." So to see his idol live for the first time in such an intimate setting was an absolute blast. "There's a Prince song called 'The Ballad of Dorothy Parker' that I think is definitely one of the best pop songs ever written," Barnes raves. "I feel like that one song has inspired so many other songs for me." While it's not like Prince and Barnes are pals, it's certainly something Barnes hopes for. "If Prince contacted me and told me he liked my music," he says, "it would just mean the world to me."