Kevin Barnes of oddball Athens, GA art-rock band Of Montreal talks about mythology,
insanity, sexuality, hard work and terror—because that’s what little boys are made of.
insanity, sexuality, hard work and terror—because that’s what little boys are made of.
by LORRAINE CARPENTER
“It’s weird, sometimes an interviewer is like a psychiatrist,” says Kevin Barnes, halfway through his fifth session with this reporter. “It’s like you’re laying down on the couch and they’re asking these questions that you’ve never really thought about before. On some levels, it’s good, because it helps you work things out, but then you’re working it out in the public eye. Then again, I don’t worry about protecting my personal life. It’s okay to share everything with the world. I have no secrets, really—no secret life, no secret mind.”
Since Of Montreal was formed in Athens, Georgia in 1997, Barnes has made his name laying his heart, soul and body bare in public, from the name of his band (a reference to a local heartbreaker), to lyrics about mental breakdowns, spiritual voids, sexual fantasies and violent urges, to bizarre and shameless wardrobe choices. Flamboyance has always been an important part of the act (albeit in lesser degrees in the past), encouraged and abetted by his bandmates and the rest of the Of Montreal posse, particularly his brother David and wife Nina—they contribute to the band’s impressive, excessive artwork and on-stage antics, from the “Skeletal Lamping Collection,” a whole set of items accompanying the new album (with online purchases from the Polyvinyl Web site), to the sets, costumes and performance art that the band puts to use in the current show, their most elaborate to date.
And the music matches the escalated grandeur and ADD onslaught of the visuals. Practically every motif in Of Montreal’s back catalogue is jammed into Skeletal Lamping’s 58 minutes, skipping rapid-fire from post-punk droning and hammering to dirty falsetto funk to fluffy, effervescent pop to wee melancholy ballads, with horns and guitars and synths and screams and croons and the choir of heavenly Kevins, all care of Mr. Barnes, who composes, writes, records and plays it all himself.
Mirror: You’ve talked about this album in terms of upending people’s expectations and purposely creating discomfort by abandoning conventional song structures and embracing sonic extremes. Who are you playing to here? Fans? Critics? The people who call you a sell-out?
Kevin Barnes: I don’t even know what those people want. My only motivation is that I wanna make something fantastic and exceptional and exciting and provocative.
M: Do you think that this album in particular, and Of Montreal in general, is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition?
KB: It’s been like that all along. In the early days, we were making this really happy, twee, concept-art, psychedelic pop music, and there were tons of people who just hated it with all their heart, and there were some people who really loved its innocence and sweetness. What we’re doing now is somewhat polarizing, though it’s definitely not intended to be. But I rarely self-Google, because it’s too terrifying and freaky. Every time I see a comment like, “Of Montreal is great, they’re my favourite band,” right underneath it there’ll be a comment like, “This band sucks, I hate them so much, I wish Kevin Barnes would die.” Some people get very emotional about it—it’s just human beings making art! When people say, “That asshole is so pretentious, he needs to be knocked off his high horse,” they don’t realize that that pretentious asshole is totally freaked out by the world and has a lot of anxiety problems and is actually a sweet person and needs their love.
You might think that Bono really has his shit together. He’s in one of the most popular bands in the world. But I bet he stands naked in the shower and looks down at his feet and thinks, “God, I’m a weird little dinosaur.” I don’t think anyone feels totally content and secure all the time, no matter how successful or popular they are. They’re still these little dinosaurs.
M: One of your bandmates, Bryan Poole, said that the band’s emphasis on funk has something to do with the fact that you’ve “found yourself sexually.” What does that mean?
KB: Well, forever, in my 20s, I was basically a celibate, then somehow I blossomed and had a sexual awakening. I’m like a 13-year-old girl discovering sex and its wonders and complexities.
M: Do you consider yourself bisexual?
KB: I’m everything. I did an interview for a gay magazine and the guy asked me how I define myself sexually, and I said I don’t. In the spirit of this album, the spirit that I’m in right now, it’s ridiculous to ever brand yourself one way or another. Say you’re a white man; there are so many emotions and principles that go along with that, that establish your concept of yourself and your position in the world. I really try to divorce myself from all of that. I don’t wanna think of myself as a white bisexual male, it’s just silliness, and eventually people will evolve beyond that. If you have bisexual tendencies one day and not the next day, what does that make you? I guess that’s the dilemma I’m facing and trying to solve by creating this fluid perception of reality where anything goes, no restrictions or classifications, and it’s all just one day at a time, or one hour at a time, or one minute at a time.
M: You’ve been very open about your mental health in your lyrics and interviews—you recently told Rolling Stone about your psychiatric medication regimen. Do you ever worry about being stigmatized as a “nutter”?
KB: (laughs) Well, that’s what I am. But nobody feels that way, really. Everyone feels like they’re sane, they have it together and everyone else is crazy. I’ve been with these people in this band for a long time, and I know that they all think I’m crazy, but I think they’re crazy. One of us has to be wrong. But if you’re a thinking person and you have an active internal dialogue going all the time, you’re gonna be a bit kooky. Very few people are just straight-up boring, dull, nothing going on in their head. Sarah Palin, for example, is totally crazy and weird. It’s easy to hate conservatives for being such a drag but they just have a totally different viewpoint—things that are totally cool for them are not cool for me and vice versa, and that’s interesting.
M: It’s funny, when I was reading the definition of “lamping,” the use of floodlights in hunting, I immediately thought of her shooting moose from a helicopter.
KB: Yeah, that’s the myth. If she becomes physical and materializes as a leader, it’s scary. But as a fictional character, she’s fine.
M: Do you think people view you as a fictional character? Do you ever wonder about your own mythology?
KB: That’s too weird. I’ve romanticized John Lennon’s life, Ray Davies, Syd Barrett, all my heroes that I’ve idolized, and I know that some people really like Of Montreal and have this sort of romantic relationship with us and with me as a writer, but I can’t really put myself in that same place. Some people say crazy things like, “You’re like Brian Wilson,” and it’s just like, “No I’m not, he’s, like, good, he’s awesome, I’m just like this thing.”
We’ve spent so many years on the bottom where we just were not growing at all, we put out so many records that nobody really liked and we toured so much playing in front of very few people every night, it was so gruelling and so traumatizing, that now that we have this success, my skin is thicker ’cause I had to, as a defence, kill that part of me that might potentially become conceited.
I also had a blue-collar upbringing. My dad really, really worked hard to instill a strong work ethic in me, and it’s not so meritorious to go to work every day, that’s what you do, you work. There’s nothing to celebrate, really, you do what you’ve got to do.
M: So it’s work, but it’s not a job?
KB: Yeah. I don’t push myself to go into the studio and write songs, it’s something that I naturally feel compelled to do. Producing something validates my existence, it gives me a high, a sense of fulfillment. Ever since I got my first cassette four-track recorder when I was 15 or 16, I’ve been writing songs and putting them together one instrument at a time. At first, I didn’t have any friends that played music, I didn’t have many friends to begin with, so it gave me a reason to live. And back when no one gave a shit about the band, I never stopped making music, I never even considered any other option because there was nothing else I wanted to do. And even though now we’re more popular and we’re able to do this for a living, the spirit hasn’t changed, the motivation hasn’t changed, the excitement hasn’t changed. It’s an adventure.