from volume 03 issue 07 // Michael Rabinowitz
Words: Michael Rabinowitz
Photo: Courtesy 2:30 Publicity
Kevin Barnes does not want you to see him as Ward Cleaver, Cliff Huxtable, or even Homer Simpson. Yes, he is 34 years old, with a wife, a daughter, and a house; maybe even a dog and a white picket fence. (I can’t say for sure. I didn’t ask.) But Barnes wants to be a viewed as a sexually amorphous nymph, an avant garde artist railing against the chains of mediocrity, a “vessel” for the alternate personality of a black transsexual former R&B singer, anything but your standard operating procedural dad.
“I don’t think of myself as ‘34, married with a kid,’” he bemoans. “That creates a different image. You know ... middle-aged man, with a wife and child. Just seems boring."
“I don’t want to think of myself like that," he adds with a laugh. "I think of myself as having unlimited potential, and I can be anything. My identity is fluid. I don’t have to be what my human vessel tells the world that I am. I have a very active internal life experience that is separate from the external one. I am still developing, still growing and changing. I haven’t gotten into this rut that a lot of people get into.”
As this fluid identity grows (almost daily), Barnes, the sole songwriter and creative force behind Athens, Georgia art-pop ensemble Of Montreal, continues to garner attention as much for his extremely personal lyrical admissions as much as his ability to craft an addictive pop track. Part of the original Elephant 6 Collective (Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples in Stereo), Of Montreal has taken off on the flight of Barnes’ sexual lyrical outbursts, outlandish and often nudity-punctuated (mostly Barnes’ junk) live shows, paragraph-length song titles ("We Were Born the Mutants Again With Leafling"), and, of course, the licensing of a song to Outback Steakhouse - an occurrence that forever changed how the American public views Mother’s Day.
The Outback commercial, which bastardizes a version of “Wraith Pinned To The Mist And Other Games,” sticks in the craw of most critics as a brazen form of selling out. It also forced Barnes, never a shrinking violet, to pen an essay to music blog Stereogum railing against the “sanctimonious indie fascists” who look down their noses at musicians that dare to make a living.
It seems that the whole “Wraith Pinned” experience would make Barnes run away from any form of commercializing or commoditization of his art, but not so. Skeletal Lamping, Of Montreal’s latest LP, comes in seven packaging formats: CD, LP, T-shirt, tote bag, paper lamp, button set, and the ever-popular wall decal set. It would seem Of Montreal is wholeheartedly embracing commercialism as art.
While Barnes denies this marketing of Lamping as product placement was a tongue-in-cheek response to the Outback-lash (“we thought it would be fun to make as many art objects as possible”), the sound of the new album is sure to deter any request from the Aussie steakhouse for future licensing.
For Barnes, the cacophonous result of Lamping - a type of nocturnal hunting where a bright lamp is shined upon the game, a metaphor for the “hunting” of Barnes’ darkest emotions - derives from an attempt to shatter the conformities of pop-music structure, much like his efforts to shatter to the conformities of the American dad.
“There are a lot of tricks that every songwriter knows and so many songwriters use, but to me it seems like laziness,” he lectures. “There is no real reason for everyone to do that, or for everyone to feel that they have to do it to make their songs solid. So I broke free from the pop song template and just went wild and had fun, to let myself be super-creative.”
Lamping is beyond “super-creative.” The piece is a disjointed, quasi-neo-soul improvisation that Barnes refers to as “organic,” though nothing organically grown is as jarring. There is barely room to get comfortable, or a semblance of preternatural elegance. Just as the listener gets into a beat or a harmony, Barnes jerks the needle away, to another rhythm or even another song. Then there is the bacchanalian nature of the words: “I wanna turn you on/I wanna make you come two hundred times a day.” Subtle!
“I basically just experimented with the work,” he says. “I didn’t really labor over anything. I just let things happen in an organic way. If it was working, I would take it where it wanted to go. If it wasn’t working, I’d change my direction, try something new. Just put together the pieces. When I was done with one song, sometimes I would use it as motivation for the next piece. Sometimes I would just put them on the shelf with the other ones and make something else. Eventually, I would have all of these sections of songs. What I wanted to do was create a fragmented, somewhat schizophrenic collection of music sections, and piece them together in an exciting, unconventional way.”
Maybe the reason for the schizophrenic results is Barnes’ channeling of another “personality” named Georgie Fruit, a black transsexual who was once in a funk-rock band called Arousal back in the '70s. Georgie does not exist, of course, except in the recesses of Barnes’ mind - he's a construct that allows Barnes’ inhibitions to peel away, with a Prince falsetto voice. Considering Of Montreal’s live performances consist of extreme body paint, a healthy amount of shaving cream (mostly applied to the body), and various poses of bare-ass nakedness, an alter ego can be a helpful proxy.
But even Georgie Fruit sometimes needs to be reined in.
“I try to create a balance,” Barnes admits. “The stuff that is in Georgie’s world sometimes, in my mind, seems a bit cheesy. Sometimes you get some R&B lyrics that make you cringe. You go, ‘aww, man. That's a silly thing to say.’ I was writing things like that that I had to say, ‘No, I am not going to say that, I am going to say something a bit more abstract.’ That was the only clash when I was collaborating with him.”
The live performance, the costumes, the effects, the nudity already garner so much attention. When paired that with an album that is freeform to the point of inaccessibility, one might wonder if Barnes worries that the spectacle of the show will overshadow his music?
Or, if maybe that's the point?
“I never really think about the music at all when we are putting on a show,” he states, matter-of-factly. “OK, we are going on stage, we are going to play the music, we are going to play the music well. That goes without saying - what else are we going to do? Let’s make it a really interesting production. Let’s make it totally over the top, overstimulating, and full of surprises. Not just for the audience but for ourselves. When you go on tour, for weeks or months at a time, it’s always at risk of becoming a bit mundane, even if you are playing in front of big crowds. The nature of our how our minds work, we get easily bored. The more craziness going on in the show, the less likely that you will get bored anytime soon. You have so many roles to play; I am always running around changing costumes and interacting with performance artists. It’s a physical workout for me. I never stop moving.”