Catching Up With... David Barnes, Of Montreal's secret weapon
By Steve LaBate on November 21, 2008 1:00 PM
Kevin Barnes is responsible for the music of Of Montreal, but his brother, visual artist David Barnes is a major factor in the band's aesthetic concept. David has worked on everything from T-shirts and posters to the band’s mind-boggling stage show and trippy album art, including the groundbreaking packaging for Of Montreal’s latest release, Skeletal Lamping (pictured above). While working on our November cover story, Paste associate editor Steve LaBate sat down with David for some insight into his work and relationship with his brother.
Paste: Having done so many of the album covers and so much of the poster art, your work has been tied to Of Montreal for so many years. What do you feel is your creative role in Of Montreal?
David Barnes: I guess I’m just an extension of it. I always think of music and all the other arts tying in together, music being the great unifier. It’s very rare that you meet anyone who makes anything, creatively, who doesn’t listen to music while doing it. From sculptors to painters to—well, I’m not sure about writers, they might need to concentrate more, but at least when they’re not writing, I’m sure they cool down while listening to music. So, I guess I think of it as an extension of that—I’m drawing these pictures and painting these pictures that I thought of while listening to Of Montreal.
Paste: So the art you do to accompany the band’s work, you’re usually listening to a piece of music from the band while you’re doing it?
Barnes: Yeah. Usually by the time the record comes out I’m as sick of it as Kevin is because I listen to it five times in a row while I’m painting, especially when I first get it, when I’m still super excited about it, and trying to figure out all the little nuances. Sometimes when you’re painting, you stop paying attention to what you’re listening to, so if it’s a new song, you’ll listen to the first two lines and then kind of blank out and be like, “Shit, I missed the third line,” so you go back and listen to it again. But, yeah, I definitely listen to it a lot, even if what I’m painting has nothing to do with the music. But I tend to do that with all types of music while I’m working, and ruin it for myself by listening to it too much in a row.
Paste: Do you focus on the lyrics or more just the feeling you’re getting?
Barnes: I’m definitely a lyric person. I know lyrics more than I would know the nuances of the bass part. But I don’t necessarily use the lyrics specifically while working on art for an album; this artwork is more of a feeling than literally taking the lyrics and translating them.
Paste: Tell me about these cool new packaging ideas for Skeletal Lamping and how all of that came about, and what you’ve created for that.
Barnes: Originally, Kevin, Nina [Barnes, Kevin's wife] and I were talking about how the CD as an art form is dying, packaging is dying. I think there will always be people who have a fondness for the LP—collectors and stuff, but that’s so limited. Especially young people, I think, are getting their music straight from the computer and putting it right on their iPods, and so album artwork as a product is dying out. It’s running that risk, so we were thinking, “How could we save it?” When you buy a CD, it usually ends up on the floor of your car. One thing that really hit me was when I stepped on [The Beatles’] Let it Be CD in my car and cracked the case, and I love that album but I just stepped on it, and I wondered how many people are stepping on my artwork, just because they throw it down on the floor and they pick it up and put it on their computer or put it on a spindle at best, and then the CD gets thrown aside eventually, so we were like, “What if it became something else? Like a different product?” A CD case doesn’t do anything for you, really—the best-designed ones are like little books, so you think, “I want to keep this. I’ll put this on my book shelf.” But then we were thinking we could transform it into something else, so once you took the music out of it, it still had a life of its own.
Originally, we were thinking it’d turn into a lantern that you could hang from your ceiling, being literal [about the album title]. It seemed like it’d be an easy transformation, but I just spent days and days with posterboard, doing all this amateur geometry, trying to figure out how to get this big lantern to still fit into a CD. The whole idea was that it could still fit it into a CD, we wanted it to be in the CD stores, so it had to fold into that 5 x 2.4 dimension square or whatever. That was the original idea, but I kept making all these prototypes, and they didn’t seem—even with me and Nina working on the artwork at the same time, and even knowing that the artwork was gonna go on it, it still seemed like, I don’t know, just this big square/rectangle. My big break with it was when I realized that I was literally thinking inside the box, I was literally making a box. Once I realized that, I just kinda went, “Oh, God, it doesn’t have to be a square!” and in like two hours I came up with this beast kind of shape that it’s become now, and then I put in all this artwork I’d been working on, and then Nina took my artwork and put it on her computer and made her version of the exact same images and then added in all of her different stuff. So it was a really fun process. Nina and I hadn’t really collaborated, we’d done some stuff like, “You do the front cover of the 7-inch, and I’ll do the back cover,” but this was the first time that we were really passing things back and forth to each other, and that was really nice. So we ended up doing a lantern also, but it didn’t have to fit inside the CD parameters, so it’s bigger.
Paste: Kevin had mentioned the idea of this multimedia barrage to accompany the album—various happenings, a play, a book you were working on. Is the book still happening?
Barnes: Yeah. All of this stuff just took on a life of its own, and [the band’s label] Polyvinyl has been great. They’ve been working really hard to make all this stuff that we’ve been asking them to make, and we tend to be like, “Lets make this! Let’s make these wall decals!” And they’ll be like, “OK, fine.” But then they actually have to find the company to make them, and they have to crunch all the numbers. So once all this finally dies down, we’ll be able to start the second wave, which will be this book, which is this sketchbook sort of thing.
Paste: Inspired by the album?
Barnes: No, just stuff from throughout my whole life. I thought it was a funny idea for your very first book to be a retrospective on your life’s work, but it’s your first book that you’ve published, so no one has seen any of the stuff before.
Paste: How far back does it go?
Barnes: Well, if I get this box—my great aunt just died recently, and she was the one who encouraged me to draw when I was little, and she saved everything. She had a box full of drawings from when I was like 5, and so we’re trying to get a hold of that box. If I do, it could go back really far.
Paste: When would it come out? Right after the album? Or will it be a while?
Barnes: It shouldn’t take too long, I don’t think. It’s another huge project for Polyvinyl because they’ve never made a book before, but hopefully we’ve given them so many ‘we’ve never made this before’ requests that they’ll have had practice for that sort of thing.
Paste: You’ve been drawing since you were a kid. What was it like growing up with Kevin? Were you both very artistic at a young age? Did you do projects together all the way back when you were kids?
Barnes: Like all brothers, when you’re really young you’re friends and you hang out, and then it reaches a point when the older brother hates the younger brother but the younger brother always wants to hang out with the older brother. So there was a lot of me trying to hang out with him, and in return getting him sitting on top of me giving me a typewriter on my chest or something like that. When we were really young we put on a lot of plays. We saw the Little Shop of Horrors in the movie theater—the second one, with Rick Moranis—and I remember writing and putting on our own version of it for my aunt right when we got home. As we got older, he started playing music like most kids do—because it’s cool and you’re listening to heavy metal, and you want to be in heavy-metal band. But then, at some point, it turns into art. You know, I always drew, my whole life, but it was just drawing, kind of like playing with toys, and I drew battle scenes and things like that, but [Kevin] was the first one who turned me on to the idea that “No, this is actually something important that you’re doing, and it’s called art and you’re an artist.”
Paste: Was he a pretty big influence on you in that way?
Barnes: Oh, yeah. Definitely. I would go to his shows, his open-mic nights, at a little coffee shop with five people. So I’ve been listening to him since—I think I have literally every piece of music he’s ever recorded. At least on tapes.
Paste: I caught Of Montreal’s set at the Langerado Festival earlier this year, and I was really blown away by the part where Kevin was wheeled out, almost naked, in a coffin full of shaving cream. I asked Kevin about it, and he said it goes back to this thing you used to do in college at FSU. Tell me a little about the shaving cream monster.
Barnes: I would go door-to-door, and one of my friends would have a video camera and we would just wander around apartment complexes with me in the shaving cream, and knock on doors, and the person with the camera would be across the street, zooming in, and so you couldn’t hear what the people were saying, you would just see this weird shaving-cream monster go door-to-door and the different reactions from people who would open it for a split second and them slam the door and you’d hear this bolt lock. And some people would be stoned or something—like, five guys with long hair would walk out and be like, “Oh, man what’s going on?”
Paste: Was the shaving-cream monster inspired by anything in particular, or was it just a crazy, random idea?
Barnes: I don’t remember. Maybe I was just shaving, and messing around in front of the mirror and put it all over my face, and I thought it looked funny, and then realized, “Oh, God, you could put it all over your whole body.” But I tried to re-create the human torch, and I put red shaving cream in it not realizing that it would dye my skin, and so I had to go to class the whole next week with like a slightly inhuman red color.
Paste: A lot of stuff like this gag has translated to the band’s live show. I was talking to Kevin about how, since the band has more of a budget now, things have changed. I remember seeing Of Montreal play at a little bar in the suburbs of Charleston in 2003, and [former drummer] Jamey Huggins was out front sewing costumes before the show. But now that you have more of a budget to work with, what has it been like to have a little more freedom to try these different things as the band has gotten bigger? And also, there’s this parade of what seem like these weird non sequiturs during Of Montreal shows—hair in a box, weird masked creatures. Do you think this is fitting for the music?
Barnes: I think so. It definitely fits some sort of spirit of this—there’s never a visual idea where it’s like, “Hey, Kevin I was thinking about doing this,” and he’s like, “No, don’t do that.” So if you come up with a weird idea and you’re willing to make it happen, then it will happen. That’s what’s really fun because a lot of times I don’t really know what’s going to happen. If we go to a festival and we haven’t been on tour for like a month then it’s like, “Oh, God, we have a show tonight.” So we grab a bunch of stuff and right before the show, we’re like, “OK, so what are we gonna do?” And we’ll say, “Alright, you come out and do this, and maybe I’ll be there to do this when you do that…” So it’s really fly by the seat of your pants, which I think is fun. We were thinking of getting dancers for this tour, but then we were thinking, “Dancers are going to want to know exactly what to do, and where it’s gonna be and when it’s gonna happen. But if we get creative, weird people that are willing to do anything, then that’s sets it more up so that anything could happen." On stage, live that person might do something that makes me think of something, so then I do it, and then someone else thinks of something, so it’s definitely that free form versus strict, choreographed live performance.
Paste: What do you have planned out for this tour?
Barnes: We’re gonna be bringing a couple more people with us just to be performers on stage, just because it gets kind of lonely out there when it’s just me. There are limited things you can do by yourself, but once you have two or three people then those people can start interacting. One of things we wanted to do—we were thinking of silent film and how that’s basically just music and people interacting and doing things, and you kind of understand what they’re doing and it’s kind of funny and you seem some emotion, but it doesn’t necessarily have to fit the music. And we have some pretty advanced ideas for the actual stage setup, where the stage will be a character, so it’s this revolving set in the middle of the stage where the insides of it can be changed constantly. So while one thing is up front, people can be changing what’s inside the back part of it, and it flips around and the stage completely changes.
Paste: Is that something you’re going to have to build also?
Barnes: No, luckily Nick Gould, the guy who does our projection, him and Dan, the sound guy, and Davey, the bass player, are all really handy, so they’re going to build it. If I built it, it would fall apart in two days.
Paste: What’s the age difference between you and Kevin?
Barnes: Two-and-a-half years.
Paste: At what point did you start accompanying the band more or less full time on the road?
Barnes: Well, I used to go in the very beginning, while I was on summer break from college. But we had no money and all of our props were made of paper. It was more of an excuse for me to travel, and I’d just get up on stage and do some silly things. Then, two years ago, it kind of started for the same reason. I was like, “I wanna go on tour!” Kevin was like, “Alright, but you have to do something.” So I said, “OK, I’ll go on stage, I guess.” And that was funny for me because I’m a painter, and I realized that I’m a performance artist, too, now. But it really just came out of like, “I wanna travel around, I wanna go to Europe and New York.” But now I really like it, at first I definitely wasn’t—being on stage wasn’t something I felt comfortable with; I was pretty terrified doing it. So I always wore masks because that gives you a certain type of strength, and you’re kind of hidden. And now that’s just sort of become a permanent thing, but now I really enjoy it. And I love—especially with me and Kevin, I don’t know that people would really notice other than us, but there are times on stage when things sort of slow down and we’ll just start interacting with each other and read each other’s minds. It’ll be like, “I’m gonna do this and I hope that he’s gonna do this next, and it just seems like he reads my mind, or vice-versa. He’ll move over and I’ll think he’s going to something, so I’ll go over there and it works out. Those are the really amazing times.
Paste: So you guys have this connectedness, having spent so much time together.
Barnes: My family always says we cheat at Pictionary, because of that connection.
Paste: One more question for you. Were you the ninja onstage at the Langerado show?
Barnes: Yeah. I love that suit now. Whenever we go on tour and I take the suit out—because I’m really big into comic books, so it’s perfect for me. The only way it would be better is if I was actually fighting crime after the show.