Saturday, June 27, 2009

2008-11-13 - Paste (part 6)

Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes: The complete Paste interview

Steve LaBate, photo by Jeremy Cowart |

: So when you did Skeletal Lamping, you recorded with the touring band and then decided to go back and do it over by yourself?
Barnes: No, nothing was recorded with the touring band. Well, there was one song that I had done a demo of. I guess it wasn’t even really a demo because it turned out to be the version I used. It was just an idea, kind of an experiment. We went into a good studio in town ’cause we’d been playing the song live a bunch, and got the band to play the same parts they’d been playing live. Even though the engineer was great, and it was a good experience, I felt like it was lacking something, that personal touch or whatever. That’s the problem I think when bands record in big studios, it can become a bit samey, there’s drum sounds that, like, you’ve heard them before. I guess I’m just so comfortable with my setup now and the way I record bass, and the way I record drums sounds and vocals. And [the bigger studio] was kind of expensive, and I realized that if I made a whole record that way, I could make five records on my own. We actually used some of the parts from that [full-band] session. And we did do a band project where everyone contributed song ideas and wrote their own parts. We have this band called Instant Witch.

Paste: Have you done anything with it?
Barnes: Yeah, we’ve recorded 20 to 30 minutes of music. It’s really fun. We’ve been playing a couple songs from it live [with of Montreal]. We’ve played one song live a bunch of times recently, called “Tender Facts.” We just booked a block of time at the studio, and were like “OK, everyone just write something and bring it to the session and we’ll just knock it out and see what happens.”

Paste: Are you guys going to put it out?
Barnes: We haven’t put it out yet, but I’m sure we will. Bryan did this kind of Afrobeat thing and this Cuban-sounding thing, and Jamie did this kind of rock ’n’ roll thing. We all just did different songs and played on it like a live band, and it was fun. But then I realized, also, that I don’t really want to be in a democracy. If you have all these very specific ideas of what you want to do, and how you would do it—that’s the worst thing about being in a democratic band: Everyone has to compromise to the point where it’s not that fulfilling anymore. And for me, any type of compromise is too much, which is obviously not very healthy, but it’s the way I am.

Paste: I caught you guys at the Langerado Festival this year, and for the finale you climbed out of a coffin full of shaving cream, and there were all these masked dancers and heads on poles. They were throwing boxes into the crowd. I asked this guy what was in the box he caught, and he was like, “Human hair!” With Of Montreal, there’s this parade of what seem like of non-sequiturs. Do you think that’s a fitting backdrop for your music?
Barnes: I don’t know if its fitting or not. We don’t really think about what’s fitting for the music, but we want to do something that’s theatrical and visual and, yes, it’s possible we’re taking away from the music, but I don’t really care. If people just want to hear the songs, they can listen to the record. We want to do something beyond that, something that touches on all different levels of the senses. With that idea, what we wanted to do was have a big tarp over the audience full of human hair, and then we’d pull a rope and all the hair would fall down on people, but we realized there would be a lot of legal issues with that because human hair can be pretty dirty and have a lot of germs. We actually collected hair for a long time—a friend of ours works at a salon, and every day he’d sweep up the hair and put it in a bag, and we had all these bags of hair and we were ready to go. Then our tour manager talked to the promoter of the festival, and the guy was like, “Eh, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” so we put it in boxes instead. [On stage], I don’t really know what’s going on a lot of the time because my brother creates a lot of that stuff, and I can’t really see it because I’m at the front of the stage and everything is happening behind me. It’s really thrilling when I turn around and see some totally bizarre situation happening—different performance artists, and I’m like, “OK, I’ll just get back to my rockin’ out. But the coffin idea was his. He actually used to do that a lot, cover himself in shaving cream, when he was in college. He went to FSU in Tallahassee. Just for fun, he’d cover himself in shaving cream and put food coloring in it so he’d be this weird, green shaving-cream man, and he’d go around and knock on doors and freak people out. They’d be all stoned and be like, ‘‘Whoa!”

Paste: I think a lot of the lyrics in your music have a similar feel, this bizarre randomness. Sometimes they remind me of Zen koans, those mind-bending riddles that are supposed to snap you out of your normal state of reality. With your lyrics, I was wondering whether they were more well-thought-out artistic choices or more arbitrary, and if you think it matters either way.
Barnes: It’s never arbitrary. Even as disconnected as it might seem, it always makes sense to me. And it’s really weird, but it’s just one of those weird things, like, I know it’s right, even though it could go any number of different ways, but for some reason I’ll look at one line and be like, “That sucks,” and someone else might look at it and be like, “It doesn’t suck any worse than the rest of the lines,” but somehow in my mind it makes sense. It’s kind of like that with the music too—sometimes I’ll listen to something I’ve written and think it’s really not happening, it’s really boring. It’s just a feeling.

Paste: We talked about when you married Nina, and going from life with all these people in the band to living with just Nina and David. How important is family to you? You collaborate with Nina and David quite a bit, and when I met your mom, she seemed very supportive of you.
Barnes: It’s really important. I have a really strong relationship with everyone in my family. I really love that. I think about that a lot. It’s really amazing to have a family where people just have to accept you, and that’s the best element. Sometimes you annoy each other, sometimes you don’t want anything to do with each other, but you have this really special, magical connection with the people you grew up with and spent so much time with. My mom actually lives behind us at our house, which would probably be a nightmare for a lot of people, but I actually really like it. My dad’s been living down in Florida ’cause he’s still working, but I wish he lived up here with us, too. I like that idea, of being able to spend time together, have dinner together—you do your own thing during the day. These are the people who are as far from strangers as possible, and even though they might not completely understand you, and you don’t completely understand them either, you have such a special connection [with them] and that’s really important.

Paste: Now that you’ve been a father and a husband for a few years, how does that affect your life as an artist?
Barnes: I was afraid it was going to affect me in a negative way. I was afraid I was going to turn into Kenny Loggins or something, and write all these sweet, mundane little love songs. But it’s kind of funny, I don’t know if part of my mind has rebelled against that. It’s affected me in a good way, I think; it hasn’t taken the fire out of me. I still feel totally neurotic and freaked out and confused most of the time. I just think it’s cool to have, with Nina, this sounding board, someone who’s in my corner all the time, and she’s not going to sugarcoat things for me and tell me something is great even though it sucks. I trust her and respect her, and if she says something is exciting, I can get excited about it too, and if she doesn’t seem that excited about it, then I’m like, “Maybe it’s not that good.” It’s the same with David. The three of us have this really special connection where we really understand each other, and motivate each other and are really excited about each other’s art. It’s not like pulling teeth to get David to listen to one of my songs; he actually wants to hear it. And he gives me really interesting feedback because he’s not a musician. So he’s hearing different things, he’s not hearing things on a technical level like some musicians might—it’s more of a visceral thing for him. And Nina is the same way because she listens to all kinds of music, and her mom’s an amazing musician, and she grew up with all types of music and she’s a musician, too. She’s turned me on to all sorts of things.

Paste: So what are their creative roles in Of Montreal? Is it ever more than being a sounding board?
Barnes: Nina and David do all the artwork for the albums and T-shirts, and all the merchandise, and both of them listen to the records as they’re being created and help me figure out the identity of the record sometimes. In a way, it’s almost like having a therapist. Talking to them helps me order my ideas and put things in a better context. But they created the artwork for the new album packages and the posters and all that stuff, and we also create all the theatrical stuff together and the different ideas, like the shaving-cream thing. All the ideas you’ve seen [executed] on stage probably have come from either David or Nina, but anyone in the band can contribute ideas, like the 10-foot dress, that was Jamie and Dottie’s idea, and we had our friend in town sewing for us. I realized today that Of Montreal is an art collective—it’s all these artists working together, and it’s all centered around the band, but it’s branching off in different directions and everybody is wearing different hats and contributing different things.

Paste: What was your relationship like with David growing up? Did you guys always make music and art together?
Barnes: We always did things, but we didn’t really do that many things together. David was always drawing. From my earliest memory, he had drawing journals and spent most of his time in his room making these funny little comics, but we didn’t start working [together] in any way until I started putting out records. It just sort of fit with my mentality at the time, which I still have—that it’s cool to create a personality for the band, and I like that David has contributed art to every single record, with the exception of Petite Tragedy. On every single record, he’s done something and I’ve done something, but what we try to do is make it seem like a different person is doing it, so there’s continuity but it doesn’t seem like the same shit over and over again. That’s kind of the fun challenge—how are we going to do something different than we did last time? It’s very rewarding, but also very frustrating when you’re going through the process, going back and forth. It’s funny for David and Nina cause they’ll spend hours and hours, and I’ll go in and look at it and go, “It’s pretty cool, but what if you change this?” And that’s happened a lot of times, where I’ll spend hours and hours playing a song and they’ll be like, “Yeah, it’s pretty cool, but it gets kind of boring at that one part, and I’ll be like, “Goddamn you, fuck you!” but then I’ll think about it and be like, “You’re right, actually,” and then I’ll go back and change it and it’s better. So I think it’s good to have people you respect to throw ideas off of during the development of a project.

Paste: When I talked with your mom, right after your Langerado performance, she said you’d always wanted to be in band since the 6th grade. Now, you’ve been in this national touring band and have had some success. Looking back, how does the reality of it compare to any dream you might’ve had?
Barnes: It’s just as good as any dream I might’ve had, you know? In the early days, I probably wouldn’t have said that. I always wanted to be in a band. I never cared about school. I never thought that I would get anything out of education or really any other career. [Being in a band is] all I wanted to do. It’s kind of funny now, ’cause I was thinking about, having a daughter, I probably won’t push her very hard to be an A student. A lot of times when you’re growing up, your parents will put that on you, like, “If you want to get anything out of life, you have to go to college and get good grades,” but that’s not necessarily true. What you really need to do is find something you love, and find a way to make a living at something you love. And that’s a lot harder than getting A’s. We just had this production meeting this morning, and talking about the different ideas we’re coming up with, it’s so exciting and fun—there’s nothing else I’d rather do.

Paste: You got your first drum set when you were in seventh grade. What was it like getting that first instrument?
Barnes: When I got that drum set, I’ve never been happier in my life. My parents got it for me for Christmas, and we had this half-finished basement, and they set it up down there, and I went downstairs and it was like a miracle. I couldn’t even believe my eyes—it was that kind of moment you see in the movies. It was the most beautiful object I’d ever seen. I was really into hair metal at the time. And it was a black Pearl drum kit, and everyone played black Pearls at that time. And it was just like…

Paste: Like [Poison drummer] Rikki Rocket!
Barnes: Exactly! I was so psyched. But [after a while] I started getting a little, well, not frustrated with drums, but I wanted to do something more melodic, like guitar. For some reason, I took to guitar really quickly. I’ve never really become a great guitar player, but playing chords and doing what I needed to do to write songs came pretty quickly. I never really had lessons, but I had an uncle who taught me how to make bar chords. Then I learned every Rolling Stones song, and that was my musical education. There was this one tape collection I had called The London Years and it was all their early stuff—really simple three-chord songs. So I would just listen to them and figure them out and play along with them. That was around the time we moved to Florida from Michigan, so I had a lot of time to myself. I was like 14 then. I would sit in my room and play the songs and imagine I was on a big stage. I guess I kind of imagined myself as Ron Wood.

Paste: So all the many instruments you play came with time?
Barnes: Yeah. My parents were really cool. I wanted to get a bass and my parents were like, “OK, if you get a B in Chemistry we’ll get you bass.” And then I’d try really hard and get a C+ and they’d be like, “OK, close enough.” I had this really wicked Warlock bass, and I played that in a band for a while. I had a bunch of little bands with my high-school friends. We’d just play covers. My dad very much discouraged me from playing bass. He’d be like, “Nobody wants to be the bass player. Why do you want to be the bass player?” And I’d be like, “Dad, bass is cool.” But that was always my focus—trying to find people to play with, which was really difficult, especially in Florida. I couldn’t find anyone to play with. For some reason, there weren’t that many kids into playing instruments in West Palm Beach at that time. It’s probably different now, but at that time, just to find someone who could play drums was impossible.

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