Stepping into the brisk autumnal wind that whips across Regents Park the sound of hand claps, harmonies and acoustic guitars races towards you. Upon closer inspection the scene reveals quixotic indie visionaries Of Montreal, Kevin Barnes' merry ensemble completed by Bryan Poole, Dottie Alexander, Jamey Huggins, Davey Pierce and Ahmed Gallab, giving an impromptu performance for some assembled cameras. It's an indie postcard scene with the band clearly having a lot of fun being in each others company on their press junket for latest LP ' Skeletal Lamping'. Later, over a cup of green tea, band founder and front man Barnes discusses the genesis of this latest album alongside the bands attempted resuscitation of the live music spectacle, love of the Prince legacy and the shadows of prescription medication and THAT advert.
In person Barnes cuts a lithe, svelte figure, dressed in regal purple he seems the perfect physical embodiment of his noted Prince obsession. 'Skeletal Lamping' follows hot on the heels of 2007s 'Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer'. “At the time I didn't really think about it this way but in retrospect I can see that it was really influenced by a combination of things, first off a spirit that I was following on the 'Hissing Fauna' tour, this very liberated state of mind and going into this very sexual, funky direction. So I took that into the song writing process, and also, the big one I guess is the backlash from this commercial”, notes Kevin when considering the genesis of 'Skeletal Lamping'.
Whilst this first reason would seem obvious enough, one of modern music's great showman Kevin has frequently performed nude and incorporated erotic elements into the bands music, the latter is a more abstract influence. In 2007, an Aussie themed restaurant chain, Outback Steakhouse, licensed Of Montreal's 2005 song 'Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games' to include in its new ad campaign. Though they threw in some didgeridoo and changed the words the advert dragged Of Montreal into the collective mainstream conscious, not only as an associate of prime Aussie ribs but also, for their fanatical cult indie following, as artist willing to bend over and be branded with that indie-cool death rattle; the 'sell-out' chants. It is something that clearly had a great effect on Barnes, he was distraught enough to post a Conrad Keely style essay on the nature of music and the impossible standards set by the 70's DIY community, and something that he has had to wrestle with. “I think I've gotten past that, I mean we are actually playing that song live now. For a long time we couldn't play it because it was just too weird and we'd get heckled. But we've taken it back and it doesn't feel too weird now. We've paid our penance or whatever. The whole situation behind that was so bizarre anyway, I just found myself being called a sell-out and having to question, 'well am I?' so it was weird and hard. It's definitely a lot easier when no one talks about you or writes about you - that's why I never self Google.”
Alongside the funkier sexual elements of the bands persona (check their blog to see pictures of Kevin virtually nude on horseback in NYC last weekend), one overriding influence on 'Skeletal Lamping' is the zeitgeist forming 'Smile' album by Brian Wilson. “Well I can look back and say that the Beach Boys' 'Smile' was the first time I realised the potential of a song. Like it didn't have to follow a linear path, or a template in any way. 'Sign Of The Times' by Prince is such a varied record, there's so many types of songs and it's a long record, you go on such a strange journey. That's so impressive to me because every song is different, I mean it's in the same ball park but it could almost be different songwriters and that's what I love about Prince as he's one man but he can write as so many different voices.”
Writing in different voices is definitely something that has struck a cord with Barnes as he seeks to extend the musical journey with Of Montreal. Included on 'Skeletal lamping' are songs in the voice of the character Georgie Fruit, a multiple sex change ex funk band black singer, who first appeared on 'Hissing Fauna'. “The whole Georgie Fruit character was just something that happened, it sounds pretentious but it's true I didn't really think about it. These songs just sort of happen and then afterwards I have to answer for them almost”, chuckles Barnes.
One of the key elements to the Of Montreal experience is the live show that accompanies their indie funk party. This tour Barnes and the band have sought to push themselves beyond anything they have attempted before. “Well of course there's Prince, the tours that he did around the time of 'LoveSexy' and 'Sign Of The Times' where everyone in the band is just the best, like the best musicians, but then there's this whole other level where there?d be stuff going on with the keyboard player Cat and they had performance artist on stage who didn't even play an instrument doing different things.”
For Of Montreal this other level involves a multitude of ostentatious showmanship involving western style shoot outs, gay porn and horses on stage. “Well what we started to do was like a Michel Gondry inspired High School Musical theme. So we'd have these ridiculous skits and costumes, like we have a centaur costume I get inside. There's stuff like Satyr's and Medieval wenches. Some people don't like that other stuff. But for us it's like well you already have the music and you can listen to that and get whatever you need to out of that by listening to the record. When we perform live we just want it to hit on another level. We want to defeat that static image you get at most shows. Maybe I have a short attention span but even if I love a band after 5 songs I'm getting bored. We want to over stimulate people like a great or complex movie so that people are remembering different aspects a week after the show.”
Reaching other levels on both record and live is not something that Of Montreal could ever be accused of not doing. It's flippant to label working artists with the genius moniker yet in Barnes modern music has a modern day visionary who manages to decompartmentalise music, theatre and genuine experience into something all too rare.