Paste's Associate Editor, Steve LaBate, sat down with Of Montreal frontman (and our November cover subject) Kevin Barnes for two hour-long interviews outside Jittery Joe’s Coffee in the artist's hometown of Athens, Ga. Here, uncut and in its entirety, is their two-part conversation.
Paste: For the last few years, Of Montreal has been playing bigger venues, the crowds have been getting bigger. You’re probably going to have your biggest Billboard debut with Skeletal Lamping, and you have a lot of respect now from both artists and critics alike. Do you feel like you’re hitting critical mass now, like it’s a big moment for the band?
Kevin Barnes: I hope so. I mean, we always try. For the last couple records we were always trying to think bigger and bigger, always trying to motivate and encourage everybody involved to think that way because eventually you’ll reach a point where it becomes obvious it’s going downhill. But until that happens, you have to keep pushing for more and more.
Paste: How important is that to you, achieving these successes?
Barnes: It’s really important because I feel like once it starts going downhill, it’ll be time to reassess things and change the game plan. I’ll probably still want to put out records, but I won’t be spending as much money and time on the performance. We probably won’t even perform anymore [at that point]. I think we’re probably just going to take it as far as it goes, and then…
Paste: Scale it back?
Barnes: Yeah, well, who knows? This tour, we’re putting way more money and way more time into putting on the biggest production possible, and with each tour, that’s been the mentality. And with this one, I’m thinking, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I just want to blow it all out, and not even care that much about the financial return. Like you were saying, we sort of have the attention of the world, and now’s the time to really do something sensational. And it’s more exciting to do something like that when you know that people are paying attention and people care, because in the early days, we’d put as much money and as much time as we could into the production—we didn’t have much money or time ’cause we had day jobs, but when you do that in front of 50 people, it’s not the same as when you do it for a couple hundred people. So it’s cool and it feels really good now that we’re in a really good place. But our minds are in the right place, as well. Like, my whole thing is, I just want to put on a great production—something people will think about and talk about for a while that, hopefully, will inspire people. And basically, be conscious of the moment, and not just take it for granted because I know that the music scene is very fickle—and it needs to be. There needs to be a great turnover. No one can stay at the top forever or else it’ll get boring. It’s important for people to come up, do their thing, and then be surpassed by someone new. And that’s how the scene stays fresh and exciting. I feel like right now, on an indie level, we’re up kinda close to the top, and we can’t stay there for very long. So now that we’re up there, we have a great opportunity to do something fantastic. Something people will care about, hopefully.
Paste: Let’s talk about the new record. Listening to Skeletal Lamping, it feels similar in a lot of ways to [Of Montreal’s 2001 album] Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies—not sonically, but in how progressive it is. This isn’t just verse/chorus/verse; it’s really jumpy and all over the place. But then that approach is mixed with the kind of more concise, poppy/dancey stuff you’ve been doing on the last couple records. Do you feel like Skeletal Lamping is a fusion of those two approaches?
Barnes: Definitely. The inspiration for Coquelicot came from Beach Boys' Smile and Os Mutantes records and Frank Zappa’s We’re Only In It For The Money—these screwball ’60s psych-pop records. And I really like the freedom you have when you work on that level, where a song can contain six different key changes and all these tempo changes, and it doesn’t matter if it makes sense. So basically, I just take an idea until I get bored with it, and then I move on to something else. But it can still be a part of the same body; it doesn’t have to be, “There’s thirty four songs on this record.” It’s more fun to take five really different pieces and put them together and call them one thing.
Paste: A lot of people, when they write, they have a little idea, and they’re like, “Oh, this is cool. I should turn this into something.” Well, maybe it’s already what it needs to be.
Barnes: Exactly. There’s something to say for the classic pop song; I love pop music, too, and I don’t want everything to be totally fractured and schizophrenic all the time, but I find it frustrating trying to write like that—if you’re like, “OK, I’ve got the music for the verse, now I just need a lyric for the second verse, and it has to fit the meter of what I’ve already established.” For a song to be legitimate, it doesn’t have to fit in a Beatles or Madonna pop template. It’s more exciting to just piece all these different movements together. It’s really liberating as a writer to not feel like you have to continue with an idea past its excitement level. And it’s more spontaneous and exciting [for the listener] because it’s unpredictable.
Paste: Last time I met up with you in Athens, when we did that listening session over at [touring keyboardist] Dottie [Alexander]’s—the first time I heard the album, I thought it sounded unlike anything you’d ever done before. Then the more I listened to it, I thought, “Maybe it’s more of an amalgamation of everything you’ve absorbed up to this point.” What does it feel like to you?
Barnes: When I first started making the record, I didn’t have a preconceived idea, really, beyond just wanting to feel free to do whatever I wanted. And I think it’s sort of the same spirit as Coquelicot, just in the way that it was “anything goes.” I wanted it to be more fractured and schizophrenic and all over the place. And I guess it is, on some levels. Everything is somewhat connected to the work before it, or to the whole body of work—you know, I’ve written all the songs, and I’ve basically arranged all the songs and produced them, so there’s gonna be a continuity anyways. So I definitely don’t think it’s a dramatic departure form anything I’ve ever done, but it’s in this sort of electro-pop thing I’ve been doing for a while, but it also pulls from the spirit of the past, too.