Saturday, June 27, 2009

2008-11-13 - Paste (part 5)

Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes: The complete Paste interview

Steve LaBate, photo by Jeremy Cowart |

: There was over 30 minutes of material you said you cut from the album. Are you going to put that out as an EP?
Barnes: I’m not really sure what I want to do with it. On some levels I feel like, “Well, these are the songs that weren’t good enough to get on the record, so why would I want to put out a reject EP?” But I feel like it would be OK if it was like a fan-only sort of thing. I feel like there should be some level of quality control—you don’t just put out everything. In the past I have put out everything; [at that point] I didn’t feel like it was important to worry that much about it. Now, I don’t feel like it’s necessary to release everything for everyone. It might be cool to just put out an EP and people could just download it for free if you want people to listen to it. Or we could just use the tracks for B-sides. There’s a couple songs that I like that, for whatever reason, just didn’t work. I didn’t want to make a 74-minute CD. I wanted to keep it somewhat digestible, so you could listen in one sitting, so you could listen to the whole thing without being like, “Goddammit, is this thing still going?” I wanted to make something where people would want to listen to it again rather than get to the end and be like, “OK, I don’t need to hear this again for another month.” There’s a lot of songs that I actually like that my brother [and collaborator, David Barnes] and I went back and forth on, like, “Should we keep that on there? Should we take it off?” And I actually wanted to edit it down even more, but he was like, “No, don’t do that. You gotta keep it there.”

Paste: Are you going to play some of those songs live? Some of the ones that didn’t make it on the record?
Barnes: Maybe. We have so much work ahead of us [with the touring band], just learning the songs ’cause we have a new drummer now.

Paste: Who’s the new drummer?
Barnes: His name’s Ahmed [Gallab], and he plays in this band Sinkane. It’s funny because we’ve done a lot of press photos with him, but we haven’t done a single practice with him, so hopefully it works out. I’m sure it will. He’s an awesome drummer and an awesome guy. So what we’re trying to do now—in the past we’ve had two different kinds of performance, like we would have an aspect of the show that would have backing beats on a CD player and no live drumming, and then the other side would be all live drumming and no backing tracks. And so this time we’re trying to get rid of the CD player altogether and just have drums on everything, but still have the same sounds from the record, so we had to get this MPC player to sample so we can have the actual sounds from the record, but instead of having a little disc playing, we’d actually have a human being playing it, and that way we’ll be able to really expand upon certain ideas and it won’t be as consistent from night to night—there’s going to be room for spontaneity and experimentation, so we’re all really looking forward to that.

Paste: There’s all this really cool packaging for the new record—so many different options. What was the idea behind this? What are these different options giving people?
Barnes: It just occurred to us: “Why does it have to be,” especially with digital downloads, or just packaging ion general, “why does it have to follow the same path that is always has?” Someone established, OK, we’ll have packaging that’s basically the size of a CD, and that’s just the way it’s gonna be.” We realized it doesn’t have to be that way. If you want to do something different, you can. And the only real restrictions are for the big corporations like Borders or Target or Best Buy. For stocking, they want it to fit on the shelves, so you don’t want to have something that’s going to be a specialty item that’s going to have to be stocked inside a glass case, like when you go into an indie store and they have their window or whatever. So there are different challenges we had to work out, but we really wanted to make something very unconventional, to create an object that could stand on its own. Something that wasn’t just a CD protector, or just something you’d have to categorize and put it on your shelf. Like everything that was involved with the release of the record, we wanted to make an object that would be interesting and thought-provoking, and that would blend into your design scheme in a way. You think of lifestyle, of interior-design objects, like the lamp and the wall decals and posters—these are things everyone needs, everyone uses. We go to IKEA because we don’t want to go to Rooms To Go or whatever, we want there to be a design element in our own house. Ecko and different companies are producing interesting objects that are thought-provoking and inspiring. We felt there was a lack of these things—it’s difficult to find interesting objects for your house, so we thought it’d be cool to produce our own. And luckily, [our label] Polyvinyl has been amazing about figuring out how to make that happen. A lot of labels would be like, “Uh, that sounds expensive.”

Paste: Yeah, because you have to come up with whole new ways to manufacture this stuff, right?
Barnes: Yeah. But also, I think that the spirit of the times, like with what Radiohead did [releasing an independent album as a name-your-own-price download, and then also offering a gorgeous, high-priced special edition]—it sent ripples through the industry. All of a sudden you realize there’s a lot of potential, you can do a lot of different things. You don’t have to just follow the boring path. Everyone involved in of Montreal is very creative and we all want to do interesting, important things, so it’s cool to give people an opportunity, like [my wife] Nina and David, to design these objects, and to also give people the option, so when they download the record, they don’t have to just get this tiny little thumbnail image of the album cover. They get a T-shirt or a tote bag or a lantern or a wall decal—it’s that much more exciting to get that in the mail.

Paste: [Your publicist], Frank, told me about a book and a play and an art show related to the release of Skeletal Lamping. Is that stuff still in the works?
Barnes: Well, we’re trying. David’s working on a book of his illustrations and what we’d like to do is come out with another Skeletal Lamping collection of all new objects, probably in early spring. I love the idea of creating a whole collection of art objects that are somehow affiliated with the release of a record. It makes it so much more interesting than just a record. It becomes a lot bigger, and I love that idea of like—in fashion you get it all the time, the spring collection, like the Marc Jacobs spring collection. It’s always something that’s—it’s not just one pair of pants, it’s a lot of different items. And I really hope that, in the future, it’d be really cool if it caught on and every band did that—released four or five objects with their record. It’s always good to have options, you know? And it’s also really exciting to try to create different things. What we really wanted to do was put on an art show in every major city and coordinate that with the release of the record. I think we’re trying to do one at the MoMAs in every city, and we’re gonna try to work on that in the spring. It would be awesome to do something like that, where you get a group of really creative people in every city and give them a rough idea of what you want to do, and people could put on this performance-art piece at the same time all over the world, and it’s in some way connected to the release of the record. Art is fun in that way, when you try to think of different ways to inspire people, and different reasons to make art, and different reasons to produce things. A lot of our production comes down to inspiration. And a lot of times, you’re just sitting there, you don’t really know what to do and then something will just click. And then, you’re off. You spend the next month working on this thing. So I love that about art—that it’s sort of laying there dormant until you find the switch to turn it on and it just explodes.

Paste: What about that play? Is there something going on with that? Is it something you’re writing?
Barnes: I guess there’s other performance-art troops doing things like this already—the idea was to have a happening in every city on the day we play. So it’s sort of like the circus coming to town, it’s not just the rock show that lasts for three or four hours—the whole day is an event. It’s probably not gonna happen on this tour, but we’re going to try to do that in the future, maybe the next tour, where we get to the city a little early and set up an art installation and a performance-art piece in an art gallery. And we had this idea for this machine that would like record people’s voices, and then you use the voices from that day’s event in the performance at night so everything ties together. I think that would be really exciting for people to feel more connected, to feel a part of it. I think art should always be communal. I always want the live performance to be more of a communal experience so it’s not just us entertaining people. I want people to feel like this is a chance for them to dress up and step out of their normal reality. And this is outside of time, outside of whoever they’re expected to be in their day job. It’s an exceptional moment in time that matters, that has value, and it’s exciting, and it has potential and anything can happen.

Paste: Of Montreal’s live performances have really evolved over the years. I saw you guys at a bar in a strip mall in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., in early 2003, and [drummer] Jamie [Huggins] was in the parking lot sewing costumes before the show. How has the show changed and how has the experience of performing evolved, now that you have some money to help live out your fantasies?
Barnes: It’s really cool now because we have this group of people like Dan Korn, our sound guy, and Nick Gould, our video tech. The two of them and Davey [Pierce], our bass player, are very crafty. They understand woodworking and electronics. So we don’t have to farm out our ideas. We can do everything in house. Everything we do now, because we have a stage concept, we can still realize on a pretty small budget. Any idea we have, we figure out a way to realize it, unless it’s totally cost prohibitive, but then we just tone it down a little and find another way to realize the same vision, just maybe not as extreme as we might’ve wanted. Like Liberace, there are a lot of people who have done some really awesome things because they didn’t have a budget to worry about. Eventually we’d love to get to that point, even if we had a government grant. What I like is to focus on one show at a time—for example, when we did Pitchfork [Festival] a couple years ago, we said, “OK, let’s put everything into this one show and make it really exceptional and different from any show we’ve ever done.” It’s fun to work like that, one show at a time. We’re doing that same kind of thing with the Roseland show in New York in October and then we’re going to keep some of the ideas and use them for other shows. You can feel OK about spending a shitload of money if its only gonna be for one show. The cool thing is, the reason we have a budget is because everyone in the band wants to do this. We’re spending band money to make this happen, so it’s great that I have this group of people who care just as much about putting on a performance as I do. If they thought, “Whoa, I’d have so much more money if I was just in a straightforward rock band…” But at the same time, it wouldn’t be as much fun, it wouldn’t be as fulfilling for anyone. I think we all get off on that. The production planning is just as exciting as the production itself.

Paste: Last year a big deal was made about you taking all your clothes off at a show. What is it like to be naked on stage in front of so many people and how did you feel?
Barnes: I feel really relaxed with my body. I could easily be naked right now and not feel insecure. It wasn’t a big stretch for me. I wasn’t putting myself in this really awkward, vulnerable place because I was totally fine with it. It’s amazing, though: You do something and it’s stamped in time forever. Twenty years from now, it’ll be one of those stories—the way I heard about Iggy Pop rolling around in broken glass. If you wanted to, you could very easily make yourself this huge, iconic figure just by doing wild things and sacrificing your body. A lot of people don’t realize the potential there. But at the same time, you’re walking a line where it’s like, “Is it for shock value?” It might take away from the music if everyone thinks the singer is just trying to get attention because he’s really insecure.

Paste: How important do you think it is for an artist to let go?
Barnes: I think it’s very important that you allow yourself to be vulnerable in your art. It’s important that you don’t put up a wall between you and the rest of the world. I did that for a while. Early on, I had gotten some really negative reviews and they had really hurt me and made me hesitant to share my personal feelings with the rest of the world.

Paste: After Cherry Peel [Of Montreal's 1997 debut album]?
Barnes: Yes. And then, eventually, I realized that there’s always going to be bad reviews no matter what you do. And it’s more important, from a production standpoint to present things that are full of genuine emotion and represent where you’re at personally, and I don’t think I’ll ever feel embarrassed of those things. I think the only time I might feel embarrassed is if I’m doing something I’m not touched by. I’d never do that, but if I did… I think it’s important that people wear their heart on their sleeve as artists. I think that’s something that really resonates with the audience; its something people can identify with, and also it’s very brave. People like bravery.

Paste: So after Cherry Peel you got away from writing personal stuff, and more into characters. At what point did you come back to writing personal stuff?
Barnes: I guess around Satanic Panic in the Attic. I got married to Nina and moved out of the house with the band, and me and Nina and my brother got a place together. It was a supportive environment being with the band, but it was also more challenging as far as accommodating everyone, being in a communal household, being reliant on each other for so many things, and then you’re in a band together, and you spend so much time together. Every artist I know is totally crazy and neurotic, so it’s kind of a dangerous situation to be in. It was really liberating for me to get out of that and move in with Nina and David. They didn’t really have any demands, it was just do what you want, just create something we find interesting and fun. Their life wasn’t really—I mean, it was connected to mine on an emotional level, but not a financial level. And they had their own creative outputs, so it wasn’t the same situation. Like when [the band and I] were living out in the country, if I wanted to do something like on Satanic Panic or Sunlandic Twins—where I recorded every part—then feelings would be hurt. [Former bassist] Derek [Almstead] would be like, “Why are you writing the bass lines? I want to write the bass lines,” which is totally understandable. I was depriving them of their creative outlet that was fulfilling and exciting. So that was a difficult transition for the band, when I took it over again and started doing everything by myself. [Barnes had briefly taken that approach on the band’s sophomore album, 1998’s The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy.]

Paste: Do you feel like your friendships with all these former bandmates have endured that transition, or has it been difficult?
Barnes: It’s definitely been difficult with some people more than others, but I can totally understand any sort of problem that arose from that. And I love everyone that plays with me, and I really support them and everyone is so talented, and they all have their own projects and I totally want to encourage them—like, Jamie is an amazing songwriter and an amazing singer and performer. And Bryan [Poole], and Davey, and Dottie [Alexander] are all fantastic composers as well as performers, and it’s pretty amazing that they’ve been with me all this time and have gone through all these different phases with me, musically, and every time have been able to adapt and get excited about it, and encourage me and basically stay connected through all of it. It’s been pretty amazing. We’re like a family, and you can’t divorce your family. I think we’re like that—we’re like brothers and sisters.

Paste: I read an interview where you talked about the trappings of the Elephant 6 Collective and some of its unwritten rules. Tell me what those rules were, and about breaking free from them.
Barnes: All of it was just my perception of what the rules were; there was no manifesto we all had to sign or anything like that, but there was a spirit of that time, and I started to go this other direction. I had these weird hang-ups that maybe I created myself—this idea that nothing had any value unless it was recorded on an analog tape machine. I couldn’t stand any contemporary bands—I never listened to any of them, really, except for the Elephant 6 bands. I was living in a self-imposed fascist state. I had all these rules about what was good and what was bad, and I was really critical of other bands, and just really stupid. And I know it sounds clich├ęd, but I can’t help but think that [getting away from that mindset] was influenced by 9/11. After 9/11, it was a universal thing in the United States where everyone felt like they need to connect with other people more. It really influenced me in that way. [Suddenly], I wanted to listen to and support contemporary bands. I wanted to feel a part of my time, my generation, and not be so obsessed with ’60s music, and music made by dead people. I’d always loved dance music, but it was kind of taboo to use a drum machine in the Elephant 6 world. Obviously studio trickery was encouraged, but you probably shouldn’t do anything you couldn’t pull off live. Somehow it felt like disco or electro-pop or attitude music wasn’t that cool. [There were] just all these really weird rules I thought existed and that probably don’t exist at all. I started getting into electronic pop music and really wanted to make this weird disco hybrid—you know, pulling from all these different influences. I started getting turned on to ’70s Afrobeat and soul and dub and Jamaican music, and I got all these Soul Jazz and Trojan reissues, and rediscovered my love for Prince and Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone and Curtis Mayfield, and that’s what brought me to where I am now. I don’tlisten to The Kinks anymore—I still like that stuff, but I’d never really think to put on a Kinks record.

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