It’s slightly hard to comprehend that the Kevin Barnes being smothered in red paint on Camden’s Koko stage on a Thursday night is the same mild, almost gregarious Kevin Barnes who attentively answered our questions on a park bench four days earlier. The Of Montreal supreme leader is as interesting, as fascinating and as thoughtful as you would imagine, and perhaps normal is an unfair word to choose, but for someone who creates music so extraordinary and live spectacle so wildly eccentric it makes Ziggy Stardust look like an aging, parochial drag queen, he appears remarkably grounded.
Skeletal Lamping, Of Montreal’s ninth album in just 12 years and the follow up to last year’s soul-bearing, glammed up breakthrough Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, is a bold, startling, uncompromising and frankly remarkable record. Initially conceived as one long composition broken into different movements, the eventual 15-track funky as fuck beast goes form making sense one minute to baffling the next, an awkwardness intentionally conceived to challenge the perception of how an album is both constructed and consumed.
"That was kind of the point for it not to make sense,“ Barnes says. “I wanted to make something that was really unpredictable and had a lot of surprises because I think that so much pop music is predictable and doesn't have a lot of value for that reason. So I wanted to make something that was, for better or worse, an exceptional record that was different and kind of went places that I'd never gone before and a lot of indie music hadn't either.
"I like the idea of awkwardness because it stands out when it's awkward. If everything is linear and it makes sense, it doesn't prick up your ears so much, you think 'oh that's natural, everything kind of resolves, it's pleasing' but that's boring."
Skeletal Lamping is by no means an uncomplicated barrel of laughs but is a marked change from its predecessor which was informed by alienation, depression and subsequent temporary marriage break up. Barnes recently described himself as being at piece with the chaos in his life, adding today simply that this time around he “allowed anything to happen that wanted to happen and didn't really censor or edit myself that much, to allow the freaky voice come out and have its way."
That freaky voice would belong to the alter-ego of Georgie Fruit, introduced briefly last time out, who, being a black shemale funk singer of a 70’s heyday, tends to dominate proceedings on Skeletal Lamping . Having first retreated behind the persona of Claude Robert in 1999’s The Gay Parade after being affected by criticism of the band’s debut Cherry Peel, Barnes insists that, despite Georgie’s presence, he has long since stopped hiding behind shields. The characters and their creators are one in the same. Is he more comfortable then, 12 albums on, with the criticism that comes with being a musician?
"Yeah, definitely. I still don't like negative criticism, no one does but it doesn't hurt me as much. It used to put me in a bad mood for a really long time but now I'm just disappointed that a person would think that way.
“Everyone's entitled to their opinion but for some reason a lot of people who spend their time blogging - half are super positive and just want to turn people onto things they love and the other half are really bitter and want to put people down. So it's just weird when someone marginalizes something you’ve put so much time and heart into.
"It's a little bit easier but not really - I don't even touch the computer in that way.”
Barnes felt the wrath of the blogging community when he allowed Outback Steakhouse to use his 2005 song ‘Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games’ in its an ad which changed lyrics from "Let's pretend we don't exist/Let's pretend we're in Antarctica" to "Let's go Outback tonight/Life will still be here tomorrow." Having believed it was going to be used as a radio jingle, he has already defended himself in an essay entitled Selling Out Isn’t Easy", but the fiasco nevertheless acted as inspiration for the new record.
"For whatever reason I was in that particular state of mind and followed that spirit into that place that helped me create the record but a lot of it was having to prove myself or wanting to prove myself. It gave me that motivation to create something that was really far out and interesting and to show the world that I wasn't a sell out."
Skeletal Lamping is so far out that you wonder if Barnes shows any sign of slowing down. Of Montreal’s prolific catalogue is littered with highlights (The Gay Parade, Satanic Panic In The Attic as well as these last two) but it’s inconceivable to consider the band’s peaked. Having stated his aim of wanting to get as much art out into the world before he no longer can, does he ever worry about the well drying up?
"I really have it in the back of my mind and it's something I worry about - becoming older and becoming more boring and safe. There's so many artists, as they get older, especially in music, they just put out worse and worse records. They start when they're young and hungry and everything's exciting and then they get comfortable and that's super depressing. I don't like to see that. So in my head, I'm always like, man, it sounds cliched, but you have to stay excited and freaked out by the world. I don't really feel any different than I did when i was 24. The same confusion, paranoia, anxiety and confusion drives me."
We say we hope it's the same in ten years time when he’s 44 to which he agrees "I hope so too." What then of the premise of this record’s title - lamping being the brutal hunting technique involving the flooding of an area and shooting or capture of animals in powerful light - something Barnes proposed he was attempting to do to his proverbial skeletons but hadn’t yet decided whether to "shoot or just capture them." Shoot or capture then?
"I definitely would let it go, I wouldn't kill it."