The Village People never did this much acid, did they? Photo courtesy of Of Montreal.
Music critics, and often, the publicity machine that throws the meat into their cages, tend to push overt narratives for each artist’s new album. Phrases like “a stunning debut, “a return to form” or “their best album since (fill in the blank)” get tossed around rather liberally. But occasionally that narrative really does describe an artist’s creative trajectory.
Take the long-running indie rock act Of Montreal, an Athens, Ga.-based band that ran away with many critics’ hearts in 2007 with the stunning “Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?” Leader Kevin Barnes’ jittery laptop meditation on depression and busted relationships traded Brian Wilson’s melodies for ’80s synth-pop, making it the year’s most danceable headphone masterpiece.
His personal demons exorcised, now Barnes is questioning his own identity via R&B collage and indie-funk rhythms on the new album “Skeletal Lamping.” We talked to Barnes about narratives, “idiot” critics and more in advance of the band’s Sunday show at the Ogden Theatre.
Your stage show has gotten more grandiose lately, and a recent New York show even featured a horse on stage. I’m guessing you’ve scaled it back for your road dates.
Actually, the only difference is there’s probably not going to be a horse. But everything we did in New York we’ve been doing every night. It’s a really crazy show. We’ve never done anything like it.
How would you describe it?
It probably has more in common with the ambitious artists of the ’70s like Alice Cooper, Bowie and Zappa — people who really wanted to spend a lot of time and money to put on these over-the-top performances. What we’re doing is more than just costume changes. There’s so many different layers. We have five performance artists and completely different theatrical things happening from song to song, three giant video screens, all kinds of things.
Sounds pretty intense — and bigger than the last time you guys played Denver.
From song to song it’ll be a completely different theatrical thing happening. With the performance artists, sometimes the band is interacting with them, sometimes we’re not. There’s really sort of complex things that are happening. Something goes away, something new thing pops up, then that goes away. It’s an over-stimulation of the senses.
It sure sounds like it.
I, like, never stop moving. I’m always changing costumes. I go through I don’t know how many. It’s been really good for me — really good exercise.
Is it all pretty choreographed or is there some improvisation to it?
We have loose boundaries we sort of work within. So we know, “OK, this is a scene where these weird skeleton cowboys are going to come out and do this thing.” A lot of things start out as this rough idea, but if you get another idea while you’re on tour, you can just inject that into the show. So it’s not set in stone. The performance artists can do whatever they want. My brother’s had a number of different ideas, like after our fifth show we injected some different elements into it. It’s kind of fun because it adds spontaneity to the performance.
You’ve got some really unique packaging and extras with this album, too. Tell me about that.
We realized that we didn’t have any limitations with the industry changing the way it has and downloading being so popular. So if people are going to download the record, you can create any sort of packaging you want, because it doesn’t have to fit into a sales rack. You can just create any number of objects. You can choose between all these options — you get a download code with a T-shirt, or a Chinese lantern, or a handbag. We realized we had the opportunity to bring all these objects to life, and luckily our record label was cool enough to front the money and do all the legwork.
How has the stuff been selling?
The response has been great, we’ve been selling all these items like crazy. It’s definitely been a success, and we’ve put out so many records, like ten or something, and we’ve gone in a conventional way as far as the packaging pretty much every time. It’s (usually) a booklet in a jewel case, but with (”Skeletal Lamping”), there’s never been a CD package like this that wasn’t just like a specialty or limited edition.
So it’s like this everywhere?
Right, this is the way that we put this out. It’s like this everywhere all over the world. I’m really excited about it, because if we’re going to keep producing these physical objects they should have value beyond what you put on the shelf. It protects the CD from getting scratched, sure, but we realized we could make this crazy sculpture, too. It’s a conversation piece. You put next to your bed on your nightstand.
A lot of personal trauma went into making “Hissing Fauna…” What, if any, theme has emerged for “Skeletal Lamping”?
I guess it would be investigating identity, and the fluid nature of people’s individual identity and self-perception. It’s also playing with gender roles and examining sexual politics.
The new album has been getting some really polarized reviews. Do the negative ones from websites like Pitchfork ever get under your skin?
I wasn’t bummed out necessarily that they gave it a bad review. I was bummed that they gave it such a thoughtless review. My attitude about this record is that you don’t have to like it or enjoy listening to it, but you have to acknowledge that it’s an exceptional record. If you can’t, then you’re an idiot. You’re just small-minded and you should feel ashamed.
That’s a pretty strong statement.
Well, I don’t think it’s necessarily a great record, but it’s at least an interesting record. Anyone that gives it a throwaway review just pisses me off. I’ve read some reviews where people clearly didn’t have the musical background or the intelligence to understand and appreciate it, and I’ve read reviews where they did. But whenever I read a negative review, the reasons that they give are just absurd. People say it’s too fragmented, too schizophrenic. ‘He knows how to write pop songs. Why doesn’t he just do it?’ I wanted to make it that way.
Do you feel constrained by expectations?
Sometimes… It’s like, why does every album have to be just like the one before it? Personally, when a band comes out with a record that’s different than their contemporaries’, it’s exciting to me. It’s something to appreciate. But a lot of people are so lazy and they just want something to make sense and have an immediate connection — and in a way, be disposable. The consumer mentality is destroying the album as an art form.– John Wenzel