Paste: One thing that comes up a lot in this record is—there’s this sexual directness, you know? In the past, the lyrics have kind of played with androgyny, and the performances, with all the costumes. But I really think this one pushes the envelope with its sexual directness. Why is this a theme you keep coming back to, and how does it play into the album, conceptually?
Barnes: This character just sort of evolved on our last tour, the Hissing Fauna tour [in support of the band 2007's album, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?]. Not even to give him a name, but just internally sort of evolving in this new way, and it was definitely more sexual. I don’t know, I feel like that person I sort of became or that stage persona or whatever—like, part of me, my artistic mind—evolved in this way that influenced the songs on the new record. And I hadn’t really thought about it that much because I don’t really second-guess the creative process. You know, when I’m doing something, I don’t think, “Well, what is this all about?” I just do it. But then, when the record’s done, then you think about it. But it is different for me [now]—I’m definitely exploring topics I’ve touched upon, but never really in depth like this. So I think I was influenced by the spirit of that tour, the last couple tours we’ve done for Hissing Fauna, and the outfits I was wearing and the sort of character I had become.
Paste: Living in Athens from 1998 to 2003 and following Of Montreal as it developed, it’s been really interesting to watch your public transformation—from being this quiet, eccentric D.I.Y. indie pop artist, who was not so in-your-face, to being this David Bowie-esque performance artist. In the post you wrote for Stereogum, about selling your song [“Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games”] to Outback Steakhouse, you talked about making yourself into a cartoon. How much did that idea have to do with your gradual transformation, and what was the transformation like for you? How did this stage persona develop?
Barnes: I can’t really say. It all happened in a very organic way. I think I realized at one point a couple years ago—in the indie-rock world, there’s a lot of pressure to be modest. And a lot of people [in that world] are very shy, and feel if someone’s going to be legitimate or genuine, it can’t be pretentious. But I realized it’s fun to be pretentious. Pretentiousness offers freedom. My concept of pretentiousness isn’t phoniness; it’s just role-playing and not having a fixed identity. Because I think that’s really destructive when people, especially in the indie community—it hearkens back to the punk-rock mentality where, to be real, you shouldn’t have a stage persona, you have to just be this person on stage all the time, and you have to have accountability for what you said yesterday. But I feel like it’s cool to not put those restrictions on your character because you’re gonna be different people from day to day. And there’s no reason why you have to put yourself in this prison, like, “This is my identity and this is who I am, and if I stray from that then I’m being phony.” I don’t believe it’s possible to be phony. You’re always gonna be who you are. And even if you contradicted who you were yesterday, it doesn’t matter ’cause yesterday’s irrelevant. Today’s the only thing that matters. Once I accepted that, and allowed myself to not have a fixed identity, I realized, “I want to be something fantastic. If I’m gonna create who I am, I don’t want to be this shy, meaningless creature that hasn’t made a splash in the world. I want to be something outrageous and fantastic and inspiring and bizarre.” In my normal life, I’m very down to earth. I watch ESPN and do a lot of like boring things nobody would get excited about.
Paste: You were saying you play baseball.
Barnes: Yeah, yeah. But I realized, “OK, if I’m gonna be a performer, I need to perform, you know—I need to do something fantastic.” There’s no point in going on stage in your street clothes ’cause that’s not that exceptional. If you’re gonna go on stage and you’re gonna have people watch you, look at you, and you want to entertain them, you should do something exceptional.
Paste: Yeah, it’s like, every choice you make, you can make it be interesting and add to the experience or not.
Barnes: You’re only limited by your imagination. I think the spirit that’s happening right now [in music]—people are adopting that. There’s a lot of bands right now that are like, “Yeah, fuck it, let’s do something really crazy. Let’s do something visually interesting!” I think that’s my major gripe with [most] live bands—no matter how much you love the songs, after like the seventh song it just becomes static, you know?
Paste: It’s like, “are you trying to entertain the people that are there to see you and help them have an amazing experience, or are you there to indulge only yourself?”
Barnes: Yeah, and even beyond that—when I think about the visual dynamic and emotional dynamic, most performers aren’t really that ambitious as far as what they want to do for the audience. Now, I’m kind of viewing it like concept art, more on a theatrical level, something that has more dynamic and more depth so it’s not just like, party all the time, you know? For this new tour we’re going to try to play more with tension and try to create anxiety in the audience, so it’s not just always happiness, it’s also like moments of fear and tension and confusion, which comes closer to the emotional depth we all have within ourselves. I don’t think it has to be all one dimensional for it to be worthwhile. In a way, you’re sort of limited. I mean, when you go into a club, there’s only so much you can do to transform the environment. But that’s the major challenge—”OK, what tools do we have that we can use to completely transform this venue that people have maybe been to like 20 times already and seen any number of different kinds of bands perform there?” We want to try to transform it, so it’s an otherworldly experience—something so exceptional, so out of the ordinary, that people will have that special moment, like when you see a movie or a painting or read a book that really touches you. The reason it touches you is because it’s jumping out from this other world, and it burns in your memory as something exceptional. And I think that’s the motivation behind Of Montreal’s recordings, as well. I don’t want to do anything that’s dismissible. I’m sure that’s why there’s a lot of people who hate us, and there’s a lot of people that love us, and I think that’s a great thing. I feel that it’s a positive. I’d rather make something that people despise with all their heart, you know, than were completely indifferent about.