Eric Grandy Interrogates Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes
by Eric Grandy
Of Montreal's current tour has to be the biggest production you've ever put on. How has it been holding up on the road?
It's great. I mean, at first it was a bit of a headache because there were so many little details that we had to iron out and make sure everybody was on the same page. That took some time. We had to rent this gigantic warehouse space where we could set everything up and run through a couple rehearsals. But it was totally down to the wire, down to the last second. We brought a sewing machine to the first couple days of rehearsals because we had to finish some of the costumes and make some totally last-second changes. Now we've kind of got it down because we've done it so many times, and now it's working really efficiently and it's cool.
No big surprises or malfunctions so far?
Oh yeah, there've been a lot of slight, little glitches here and there, but probably nothing that anybody would really notice. The audience is just so overstimulated anyways.
Overstimulated is a perfect word for the show. Do you worry some people—older fans, DIY purists—might be put off by the spectacle?
Well, it's still totally the same [DIY] thing, it's just bigger. Nina [Barnes, Kevin's wife] makes the masks, David [Barnes, Kevin's brother] spray-paints the costumes or whatever. It's still the same group of people. If people are expecting a conventional rock show then maybe they're going to be disappointed, but I don't think Of Montreal are ever really been about that. We've always tried to put a little theatrics into the show. We've always tried to fight the kind of static image you get at rock shows, where it might be exciting for the first four or five songs, but then it just becomes static because nothing's really happening. Or maybe we all just have really short attention spans, and we want things to change constantly, but I don't think it detracts from the music. I'm always surprised when I hear someone complain about the theatrics. It's like, if you just want to hear the music, then just listen to the CD. 'Cause, I mean, we are playing the music, but in addition to that, we're doing all these other things, too. I can't really see how it takes away from the experience, but... some people are weird.
Speaking of short attention spans, the new album, Skeletal Lamping, is full of odd transitions—tracks that seem to contain two or three separate songs stitched together, other songs that seem split in half by arbitrary track divisions. How did this structure come about?
Well, it's definitely not coming out of left field. It's similar to stuff I've done before with Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies and The Gay Parade. It's something that's been influenced by the Beach Boys' Smile and Os Mutantes and Frank Zappa's We're Only in It for the Money. There've been a lot of records that are sort of fragmented like that. In the '60s a lot of bands were doing that, it was like the trendy thing to do—really experimenting with song arrangements and orchestrations and not feeling like a song has to follow a linear path for it to be valid.
For me as a songwriter, it's very exciting to work like that, where you don't have to worry about fitting into the pop template, the sort of prescribed arrangements that everyone uses. You can still do exciting things within that, but I find it more liberating to not have any rules and just basically take an idea as far as you want to go with it, and when you feel like changing or doing something different, you can—just change the tempo, change the key, change the vocal style, change everything. That's the most exciting music for me to make—at least, right now. I go through different phases. Sometimes I want to write the perfect pop song, I want to make something that's really catchy and immediate or whatever, but as of late, I've been thinking more about these fragmented little compositions and then piecing them together in a way that's unpredictable and exciting.
So how do you piece all the parts together?
A lot of times, I would work on a section of music, and when I was finished with it I would listen to it and think, "What would be an interesting place for this little thing to go; what would be an interesting direction?" and use that as inspiration for the next piece. Then sometimes, I would work on a piece and get bored with it, then work on something else, and not even think about putting them together. Then I have all these pieces—let's see what they sound like when they're up next to each other. That's kind of a fun aspect of computer recording—you can look at everything like a god looking down on this world you've created and say, "Okay, I want to put a black man's head on the Chinese man's body, and I want to put the Filipino vagina on the cat," or whatever. You can have these crazy Frankenstein experiments.
That's as good a time as any to ask about your black, transsexual alter ego Georgie Fruit. Where does that come from?
I can't really say. It was just this weird, organic thing. All these ideas were coming to me that seemed different from all the ideas I'd done before, and just for fun I gave that voice a name, but now I kind of feel like it's gone. The Georgie Fruit character or whatever is just gone; I don't know where he is anymore. So it's almost this weird possession of a part of my brain, and now it's released it and it's gone.
So recording Skeletal Lamping was a kind of exorcism?
Yeah, definitely. A really skilled psychiatrist might be able to say, "Oh, well, you know, you went through this horrible depression period, and you were sick of being yourself, so you wanted to be something else, and this gave you an escape from reality." And I think to some extent that's probably true. Maybe I did get sick of being myself and this shitty situation that I found myself in and wanted to be something new, and that gave me an opportunity to sort of get outside of myself.
Have you gotten any criticism of the character in terms of the identity politics of adopting a black, transsexual persona? Any accusations of gender tourism or racial exploitation?
No one's really given me a hard time, but then I don't really sit there and Google my name and see what people are talking about. But I think it would be kind of ridiculous. The whole concept of the record is that identity is fluid and that you can be any character that you want, you can be whatever person you want—it doesn't matter what your human vessel says to the rest of the world. The message that your human vessel is sending doesn't have to completely define you. Like you can be anything you want internally, so you can accept that as reality. It doesn't have to be like, "Oh, I'm a man trapped in a woman's body" or "I'm a woman trapped in a man's body" or "I'm a Creole trapped in an alligator's body." I sort of accepted the chaos of my reality, and inside that chaos, anything goes.
It's kind of funny. I know that music is very important to people, and some people are very uptight about things, but art shouldn't be uptight. There shouldn't be any restrictions put on artists.
So you don't sit around Googling yourself, which is probably healthy, but there's that first line on the album, "My lover/I've been donating time to review/All the misinterpretations that define/Me and you," which to me always sounded like a response to the critical dissection of your personal life following Hissing Fauna.
Oh, that's not a reference to Of Montreal or anything like that. That's a reference to the way we misinterpret the things that we say to each other, especially when you're traveling a bit, and you're relying on things like text messages or e-mails, and everything kind of gets muddled and confused, and people's intent is lost, the nuances of language are lost. It's definitely not a reference to Hissing Fauna reviews.
The line, though, "I'm thinking about you in my secret language," reads like a mission statement for the album. Where Hissing Fauna was direct and confessional and pretty easy to dissect, Skeletal Lamping seems a lot more oblique.
Yeah, the feedback I've gotten so far is some people don't think it's as genuine as Hissing Fauna because it's—to me, it's not as melodramatic. It's not as obvious. Certain people feel like singing about heartbreak or depression or psychological problems seems more genuine than talking about sex or identity deconstruction or things that are a bit headier. But I think that Skeletal Lamping is probably the most confessional and most personal record that I've ever made; it's just more abstract.
Between the abstract lyrics and the weirdly disjointed song structure, the whole album has kind of a dreamlike quality.
Yeah, it definitely is closer to my general state of mind. I think it's a pretty universal thing: You'll be thinking about one thing, and you'll be distracted or stimulated by something else and your mind will go there, and then the other thing will kind of come back and regain the power over you, and then this other layer will happen. There are so many different layers of consciousness going on at the same time, and that's why on the record there will be a song where I might be singing about something, and then this other voice will come in and it will seem completely out of left field, like it has nothing to do with what I was just singing about. But it's like you're in a conversation with someone, and then you look at their eyebrow, and then all of a sudden you're thinking about eyebrows, but you're still continuing the conversation, and then a fly goes by, and then you're thinking about fly legs and eyebrows and fly legs and the conversation you're having and all this stuff.
Skeletal Lamping also has all these characters and scenes, it seems like a much more social record than Hissing Fauna.
Yeah, it's definitely less insular. When I was making Hissing Fauna I was kind of trapped inside of myself and stuck in this vicious circle that I couldn't get out of. Skeletal Lamping is definitely more communal; it's reacting and exchanging ideas with the rest of the world more. So it's not just me in this little bubble freaking out.
How are you going to top this album and tour? Have you even thought about what you might do next?
Yeah, I started recording a new record, and I'm excited because it's really different from anything I've ever done before. It's going to be heavier and more chaotic and more expressionistic. I think it's going to have less lyrics and be almost more cinematic. Right now it's all these vague ideas that I have, but that's how the records normally start. I have these reference points in my head, and I start experimenting and see where it goes. I want to make something that feels very progressive and exciting and different and otherworldly and not like Kevin Barnes, not like Of Montreal. But I always try to do that, and it always sounds like Kevin Barnes. It always sounds like Of Montreal. I don't know if I can get beyond myself, but I always try.