Interview: Kevin Barnes of Of Montreal
"In the indie-rock world, it’s not very common for people to sing about sex."
By Anthony Carew, About.com
Born in Athens, Georgia in 1997, Of Montreal are an indie outfit existing in an eternal state of reinvention. Driving force Kevin Barnes draws influence from '60s pop, psychedelia, kraut-rock, glam, funk, and disco, and has pushed his band into increasingly theatrical liveshows. After releasing their breakout album, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, in 2007, OM reloaded in '08 with their 9th LP, Skeletal Lamping.
Has Of Montreal changed a lot over the years? Are “Nickee Coco and the Invisible Tree” and “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” almost the works of different bands?
“The inspiration for 'Nickee Coco' is completely different from 'The Past is a Grotesque Animal,' in terms of the different life experiences that they were spun from. But the desire to create and the fulfillment I get out of the creative process is the same. Musically, we’ve definitely gone through different phases, but the spirit is pretty much the same.””
Have you, lyrically, been drawing more from your life on the last couple LPs?
“I go through phases. Our first record, Cherry Peel, most of the songs were written about a relationship I'd had. Then I went through a period where I didn’t want to write about my personal life. So I wrote these short stories put to music, where there're elements of my personal life there, but they’re pretty deeply obfuscated by these character-sketch motifs. With the last couple of records, though, yeah, I have been sharing more of my life with the world.”
Do you know why?
“With Hissing Fauna, it was a matter of necessity. I was going through this horrible period, emotionally, and I needed to find some way to transcend the experience, and make it more positive. Because it was destroying me. It’s the sort of thing you see in soul music from the ’70s: people dealing with horrible economic situations by making music that was uplifting and positive. Music doesn't have much power if you don’t allow it to take on a life of its own. If it’s completely insular, and you’re just writing about how upset, or melancholy, or suicidal you are, then it just becomes a part of that ugliness. But, if you try and use the music as a sort of cathartic tool, to transcend the experience, then it has a magical power.”
Do you think this ‘uplifting’ feeling was behind Hissing Fauna's success?
“I think it was so successful because it deals with these real, raw themes in an interesting, somewhat sophisticated way. Hopefully I’ll never have to make another record like that, but those’re the sort of records that people really connect with. It’s always good when you have that voice that just says: ‘hey, I’ve been there, too, you’re not alone’.”
Is it the record you're most proud of?
“I can’t really be that critical, objectively. I don’t really think about the records. Like, Hissing Fauna, I’ve never actually listened to it. I’ve never listened to any of the old ones; I’m only interested in what I’m doing in the present moment. Of course I’m happy with that record. I’m happy with all the records. I’ve never taken the safe route, never made a record just to be commercial with it. They all have artistic integrity.”
Why is it so rare for bands to achieve an ever-evolving longevity?
“I don't know. I don’t understand bands that put out three records that all sound the same. What do you get out of that? I’m not interested at all in nostalgia, or repeating myself. There’s naturally going to be something that connects all the records together —all the songs come from one brain— but I’m always trying to defy my natural instincts. That’s what’s exciting to me: trying to do something different every time.”
What did you try differently with Skeletal Lamping?
“I wanted to make something that was very fragmented, very unconventional, that would be very excited to listen to because you never knew what was going to happen next. And be more adventurous lyrically, deal with subjects I’d never attempted to write about before. Like: gender roles and identity, sexual politics. Basically: just make a mesmeric, intellectual, playful, bizarro record that's unlike anything else.”
Were you out to make a particularly sexual record?
“I was just feeling frisky. For whatever reason, I started going through this sexual awakening. I think I was in this dormant state-of-mind, sexually, for a really long time; and, I came out of it in the last four or five years. I know in the indie-rock world, it’s not very common for people to sing about sex in an explicit fashion. But, the stuff I listen to —’70s soul and ’70s funk— sexuality plays a really strong part.”
How have listeners taken this newfound lasciviousness?
“Because we have a really, really young audience, they appreciate the frankness. They’re discovering things right now, so it’s kind of exciting hearing people sing about things like sexuality, or bisexuality, these things that’re a bit taboo. I really feel like it’s ridiculous how uptight people are about their sexual identity, and identity in general. The idea that it has to be fixed, and if you deviate from that you’re somehow a phony, I realized that’s just bullshit. It’s impossible to be a phony. You can only be who you are in that moment; it doesn’t matter if it contradicts who you were yesterday, or if it contradicts who you are tomorrow.”
Are you as into personal reinvention as musical reinvention?
“Definitely. It’s important to allow yourself to be a new person every day. Artistically, it’s exciting to be able to do something different. For me, to contradict myself is very exciting. I want to change every day, not go through the same routine.”
Have you always battled against taboos?
“For some reason, I’ve always championed the homosexual cause. I’ve always had a problem with butch masculinity; like you have to be a certain way to be a man. So, I’ve tried to do my part to muddle that up a bit. Everyone contains aspects of both femininity and masculinity, so it doesn’t have to be so hard-and-fast; if you have feminine aspects to your personality, you don’t have to kill it or repress it or hide it. When I was in high-school, I felt really alienated by peers. I got called a faggot a lot. I always wondered: why is that even an insult?”