by Patrick Strange, photos by Jason Thrasher | 12.11.2008
From beneath the green and white awning of the downtown Holiday Inn, Athens, Georgia, appears much like any other southern college town. On the main drag, a steady flow of SUVs, minivans and hand-me-down clunkers speed past rows of sun-burnt flowerbeds and two-story brick buildings. Opposite the hotel, where the block is lined with sandwich shops, barbers and 18-and-over bars mopping up from last night’s carousing, beefy guys dressed in collars and khakis meander in the summer heat, while groups of sorority girls in bright T-shirts stand chattering on the sidewalk. There’s even a military man in desert fatigues sitting right next to me, and although he never so much as turns his head, the sweat on his face says he’s dog-tired.
Taking stock of my surroundings, I try to make guesses as to which approaching car belongs to Kevin Barnes, the prolific yet often unpredictable originator of the indie-pop outfit, of Montreal, and also the man who will very shortly serve as my ride. For roughly 16 years, Barnes has called Athens home, and like Pylon, R.E.M., The B-52’s and Elephant 6 outcrops Neutral Milk Hotel and The Apples in Stereo, he has made a name for himself while in the cozy confines of Georgia’s “Lil’ A.” And though Atlanta it is surely not, Athens has cultivated an inordinate amount of talent for such a small and seemingly socially conservative township. Compared to Barnes’ music and of Montreal’s live show, the local scenery is not exactly rendered in dazzling Technicolor. In fact, I wonder if someone like Kevin Barnes must keep a low profile in a place like this—not just to simply get by, but to deter countless incriminating stares from the community’s more orthodox citizens.
But when I see Barnes pull into the hotel parking lot, driving a bright purple sedan complete with purple shag seat coverings and a rainbow air freshener that reads, “I’m not gay, I just really love rainbows,” I realize that someone like Kevin Barnes just doesn’t give a fuck.
On the occasion of the upcoming Polyvinyl release, Skeletal Lamping—of Montreal’s ninth LP in 11 years and Barnes’ self-described “everything record”—Barnes has decided to spend an afternoon in Athens discussing the evolution of his band, his music and his psyche. Currently, he’s taking me to his Athens home, which he shares with his wife, Nina, and their three-year-old daughter, Alabee. Outside the car, the town is still and the day is hot. But inside, Barnes’ brain seems ripe for the picking.
The new record comes on the heels of 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, a sonic cornucopia of pop melodies, fly-by-night instrumentations and lyrical stylings that are some of the best ever rendered by Barnes. Chronicling an emotional nadir in his personal life—including bouts of depression, paranoia and an acute anxiety that led to a temporary estrangement from his wife—Hissing Fauna bared all…and benefited from it. The album was the most commercially successful of Montreal effort to date, peaking upon its release at 72 on the Billboard Top 200 and garnering Barnes and his band new widespread acclaim. With bourgeoning public appeal, increased airplay and various sound spots on commercial TV, you would think that Barnes would capitalize on the momentum; perhaps follow up with an equally accessible album with equally approachable subject matter. Well, think again: Skeletal Lamping is a nonstop 58-minute romp through discordant sounds and combating personas. No track breaks. No refrains. No getting off easy this time around.
After a short drive through Athens, we arrive at Barnes’ modest suburban rental—toys strewn across the yard, a beat-up barbecue pit aside a table of empty beer bottles, a well-used badminton net hung from hedge to hedge—and Barnes launches into his latest opus. He’s deliberate and forthcoming, and talks like a man who does a lot of thinking alone.
“I wanted to do something bold,” Barnes says, gentle in tone but strong in statement. “I wanted to do something schizophrenic and very dense intellectually, but still melodic and catchy. I wanted to create something more than the traditional pop record.”
And that he did. With arbitrary song titles, a pastiche of soul and funk-infused electronica, and dollops—nay, truck loads—of overt sexual energy, Skeletal Lamping is a tenuous return to of Montreal’s experimental middle albums, such as Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse, but with the guided focus of a single artist with one objective: to enrapture yet surprise the listener. Some “songs” are less abrasive, like the beautifully melancholic “Touched Something’s Hollow” and the celebratory love-desire-ego-tripping tirade, “Gallery Piece,” in which a boastful Barnes spouts, “I want to turn you on/I want to make you come/200 times a day.” Others are abrupt and disorienting, such as the opener “Nonpareil of Favor”—a compilation that runs the gamut from soft harpsichord to booming bass kicks to a series of electronic crashes that nearly brings the listener to wit’s end. Psych pop set to the swagger of Prince and the rhythm of Curtis Mayfield, Skeletal Lamping is the modern mix-CD in the purest sense of the word.
“I like the idea of things being jarring in unexpected ways,” Barnes says, sipping a beer as we sit in plastic lawn chairs in his backyard. “I always say to myself, ‘God, I’m such an imitator,’ but the only way I can be slightly original is to combine musical influences in an uncommon way—to make a collage that has never been done before.”
If it seems that Barnes puts way too much pressure on his own two shoulders, it’s because that’s where the responsibility squarely lies. For all practical purposes, Barnes has written, composed and recorded the last four of Montreal albums mostly on his own in his home studio, beginning with 2004’s Satanic Panic in the Attic and including the upcoming release. Although occasional tracks and segments are recorded with other members of the band and with guest musicians, for the most part, what you hear in your headphones is the summation of what Barnes hears in his own head. And following the trajectory of the band’s discography, there is a definite schism between what was and what is. Before Satanic Panic, the albums are decidedly marked by a sense of suspended adolescence, with a more conventional indie sound that has the tendency to go musically and conceptually astray. And from Satanic Panic onwards, the albums become sharply more cohesive, electronic, danceable, and instantaneously addictive.
Bryan Poole, longtime of Montreal collaborator and on-again/off-again guitar-man for fellow Athens outfit Elf Power (as well as a splattering of other projects, like his solo venture, The Late B.P. Helium, and the 19-member psychedelic conglomerate, Dark Meat), has been with Barnes since the beginning. And about an hour before Barnes rolled up to my hotel in all his purple splendor, Poole dropped by to talk about his long relationship with Barnes and the band. 38 years old and sporting a pair of bushy sideburns that nearly encircles his chin, Poole talked candidly about Barnes’ evolving songwriting and recording process.
“During the Satanic days, I built Kevin a new computer,” Poole says succinctly over the hum of the hotel room A.C. “He had a vague suggestion of what programs he should get, but he bought them and learned how to use them. That was the start of him doing everything at his house…and now it’s hard for him to let go because he can do it all himself.”
When asked if he resents the fact that he’s part of a group that some may see as a touring band for Barnes’ melodic wanderings, Poole shuns the idea of imagining it any other way. In fact, though he admits that the early days of recording with Barnes were a “more innocent time,” such as during of Montreal’s 1997 debut, Cherry Peel, Poole perceives Barnes’ central role as a matter of course.
“He was always writing all the songs from the very beginning,” Poole says. “Sure, there’s a part of me that sometimes asks, ‘Why am I wasting my time?’ But, performing with of Montreal is a huge part of my life and it’s a part of my psyche…This is Kevin’s band. It’s his thing. It’s his music. I can’t pretend otherwise.”
During the making of Skeletal Lamping, Poole’s assessments were put to the test. Purchasing time in a proper studio, the band came together for what then seemed like a traditional recording block. Although some members might have had hopes for a productive session in which multiple tracks were laid down, at the end of the day, they left the studio with only one song for the new album recorded as a band, the live favorite, “An Eluardian Instance.” Afterwards, Barnes and the others listened to the track in comparison to the ones that had been recorded by Barnes, and in Poole’s estimation, the communal effort is not drastically better than Barnes’ musical soliloquies.
“You know, I even think I like the newer records more,” Poole says. “The previous character-based records were fantastic, but the lyrics and music were hard for me to approach. Since then, the lyrics mean more, and it all makes more sense to me.”
Later on at Barnes’ house, Barnes decides to take me on an interior tour of his home. As we walk through the side door and enter the kitchen—dirty dishes in the sink, child finger-paintings and family photos askew on the refrigerator door—it’s difficult to believe that this is home to one of the most flamboyant pop performers in indie music today. A domestic space with all the trappings of family life, the Barnes dining room table is covered with books, crinkled bills and stacks of household papers; the couch a proving ground for Fischer-Price. Why, the same man who dons G-string unitards on stage and who even stripped down to his bare essentials, literally, during a Las Vegas performance earlier this year, also seems to be an armchair quarterback—the TV blares ESPN in an empty living room as if left abandoned since the morning edition of SportsCenter. To the unknowing eye, this appears to be the lair of a blue-collar nine-to-fiver…granted, a Regular Joe with flairs of artistic eccentricity.
“You know, I’m basically gay in every way except that I like women,” Barnes says when comparing his public guise to his private life. “We shouldn’t have to feel to be a heterosexual or to be gay that we have to be a certain way. We don’t have to be limited by restrictions, and I hope that my music—this record—can empower people…There’s no reason to villainize those who aren’t the norm.”
of Montreal’s live performances seem to celebrate these ideals, attempting to affirm the catharsis embodied in unfettered pageantry. On stage, Barnes’ colorful compositions materialize in the form of the band’s extravagant costumes and whimsical stage design, and stylized theatrical skits periodically serve as interludes between songs. Fans often cite the now six-person group, ranging from old standbys like Poole and keyboardist Dottie Anderson to the recently-joined bassist Davey Pierce and drummer Ahmed Gallab, as the best show around. And judging by what Barnes and company have planned for their upcoming tour, the show is to become even bigger, too. With hopes for a complex stage setup including two drum sets on risers, a middle-section that will transform into different interior “environments,” and rotating media screens, of Montreal is reaching for splendor—that is, if it can keep its happy feet on the ground.
“We’re still coming from that DIY place; we don’t even have a manager,” Barnes says, “but I feel like this is our chance to do something really over the top and I don’t care how expensive it is. I don’t care if we’re losing money—I just want to do something exceptional.”
The dreamer in Barnes doesn’t sober up once the show is over, either. Soliciting the help of his wife and his younger brother David, who has designed every of Montreal record cover since 1999’s The Gay Parade, Barnes also has definite ideas for the packaging and distribution of Skeletal Lamping. Wanting to provide “art objects” in lieu of traditional jewel cases, Barnes hopes to have seven different permutations—such as a Chinese lantern or a set of decorative wall decals—that are available for online purchase and which contain codes for album downloads. Think of Starbucks download cards, but instead of cards, functional art pieces—and instead of cookie-cutter coffee houses, online stores and neighborhood record shops.
“We wanted to create objects that are very high design…and that also serve a function,” Barnes says with wide-eyed idealism. “The whole concept is that there will be no more boring objects. If we’re going to produce something, we want it to be interesting.”
Meandering through the rooms of his house, Barnes openly discusses any topic that happens to surface, whether it’s the philosophy of music distribution or his wife’s artwork that hangs on the walls, and he does so in the same voluble, excited manner that has marked our entire visit. Although he says that he and his family are soon moving to another house “out in the woods,” Barnes offers to show me his current home studio—the very space where he has recorded the bulk of the last four of Montreal albums. Flicking a light switch, he leads me up a narrow staircase that is mined with stacks of old records and family memorabilia; the curios at times stretching the length of the steps so that we must stick close to the wall in order to ascend. But when we finally reach the top, we enter what is essentially a converted attic, complete with an angled roof and a close, musty aroma that reminds me of Grandma and Christmas decorations in the middle of July. At the far end of the long room, there’s a small string of recording equipment encircling a swivel office chair—keyboard, guitars, drum pads, mics, and a Mac computer stand at the ready.
Approaching the equipment, I’m struck by the diminutive nature of the operation. It’s nearly unthinkable that the resonant, multi-layered orchestrate of such pop gems like “Lysergic Bliss,” “Requiem for O.M.M.” and the entirety of the deconstructionist, genre-warping Skeletal Lamping were created in such austere offices. Here, Barnes has spent innumerable hours hammering away on his craft; muted by headphones and hidden from the world at large in a dim attic in a small southern town in a state that is known more for its peaches than its culture-shifting pop artists. When Barnes leans against the studio’s sloped wall, proudly peering over his workspace, he seems like a kid in his self-made clubhouse.
“The process is the most fulfilling aspect of it all,” Barnes says. “When I’m making music, it’s like a meditative experience. I put on the headphones and just go somewhere else. I enter a dream state. Time stands still. I lose sense of my body. I just lose sense of all my surroundings.”
In the end, exterior spaces are never as important as a healthy state of mind.