Words by Chris Jones
In every self-respecting artist’s career, there comes a time for reinvention. Unless you’re Oasis, you have little chance of long-term survival and critical appreciation unless you take the odd risk; push the boundaries of who you are and what you are capable of. The Beatles, short as their career was, did it several times. Radiohead continue to delight and confound expectation at every turn. But no-one is as synonymous with the idea of complete, fearless reinvention as David Bowie, and Kevin Barnes, who to all intents and purposes is of Montreal, knows this well.
Now on his ninth studio album in 11 years, Barnes is at a creative peak. Of Montreal’s last album, 2007’s masterful Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, continued his gradual shift from the bright indie-pop of his earlier career to lyrically darker and musically more varied climes. However, 18 months on he is now back with a new album, Skeletal Lamping, and it is immediately obvious that he has no intention of standing still. The musical range is yet broader, encompassing everything from cacophonous guitar noise (‘Nonpareil Of Favor’) and avant-garde freakouts (‘Plastis Wafers’) to his more usual pop, soul and funk. And that’s without mentioning the dizzying sound mosaic he has created, or his decision to perform much of the album in character. On the latter point, Barnes’ Bowie fixation is most marked.
Just as Bowie introduced Ziggy Stardust in 1972 as his career was taking off, so Barnes (albeit on a much smaller commercial scale) introduced the character of Georgie Fruit, a middle-aged black transsexual soul singer, on Hissing Fauna, and he plays a much bigger role on Skeletal Lamping. Barnes says that the title – which first appeared as a lyric on Hissing Fauna track ‘Faberge Falls For Shuggie’ – initially had no meaning.
“At first it wasn’t really about anything,” he says, “it was these two words that popped into my head. I gave it meaning later, and the obvious one that cropped up, to me, was thinking of these skeletons from your closet that you’re bringing to the surface.”
Or shining a light on – the word ‘lamping’ refers to the cruel hunting practice of shining powerful lamps on prey in order that they panic and are therefore easy pickings. The title is an appropriate metaphor for the task of exposing raw, often sexually explicit subject matter, as expressed through the medium of Georgie Fruit. It seems like a bizarre step, but Barnes is happy to admit that Ziggy was a major influence on his decision to introduce a character to his work.
“I think, definitely, I would never have come up with any of this stuff if it wasn’t for people like David Bowie, and Ray Davies and Prince,” he says. “People that created these different personas for themselves and recreated themselves from album to album. Those are the people that I look at and say, ‘This is great’, because there’s always a fear of repeating yourself in music. You put out five or six records and there’s a tendency for people to get trapped in this one thing that they think defines them as an artist or a band or whatever, and I found that that very limiting; I never want to do that. So it’s great to see these other people that are willing to take chances and really do different things throughout their careers. It’s almost like they become different artists in different periods, and they can be different people.”
Georgie’s libidinous stamp is all over Skeletal Lamping. From the stark proclamation, “I’m just a black shemale / And I don’t know what you people are all about” on ‘Wicked Wisdom’, followed swiftly by the strident “We can do it softcore if you want / But you should know I take it both ways” (‘For Our Elegant Caste’), we are left in no doubt as to who we are dealing with. For Barnes, creating Georgie was a form of escapism after the struggles with depression, medication and his faltering marriage that had blighted him and provided much of the lyrical inspiration for Hissing Fauna.
“He sprouted up around the time of my depression period,” he explains. “When I was coming out of [that] and becoming slightly more healthy, this little figure sort of popped in my head. It’s kind of abstract and difficult to explain, because it’s not really a split personality situation where it’s like, ‘Georgie Fruit is talking right now’, you know what I mean? It’s almost like a songwriting device.
“Psychologically, I could say that maybe it was a necessary thing that had to happen for me. I was sick of being trapped in this circular, negative spiral where I was obsessing over my internal feelings about whatever, like depression, anxiety, paranoia, suicidal thoughts, all that shit. I was really getting sick of that and wanting to explode and go somewhere new. I think creating this character helped me put all that stuff in the past and move forward and feel, ‘OK, this is fresh, this is exciting, this is different, this is new. It’s not connected at all to that darkness’.”
He is, however, quick to stress that he hasn’t fully assumed the character of Georgie Fruit to the extent that Bowie became Ziggy, conducting press conferences and giving interviews in character. “I don’t want people thinking that Skeletal Lamping is in any way a concept album or that I’m singing from the perspective of this fictional character,” he insists. “It isn’t like that. Creating Georgie Fruit gave me the ability to give a voice to this other aspect of my psyche, and it’s sort of pretentious and difficult to really say it, but I feel this sort of thing was unlocked inside of me, and I gave it a name. It was not really necessary to give it a name, but I think it helped me go to a place that I’ve never been before. It gave me a defence or something.”
So the words on the album are Barnes’s alone, even though he himself has given the character a name and a backstory. Georgie and Kevin are one and the same. Sort of. It’s a confusing and slightly troubling distinction. But maybe he felt like he needed to give himself some distance in order to be able to tackle his sexuality in such a fearless and often alarming way. The album is peppered with references to sex, often with outrageously comedic effect. To imagine these words coming from a skinny, floppy-haired, 34-year-old white man is frankly bizarre, but it’s a topic that he felt inexorably – and involuntarily – drawn to.
“I didn’t really decide to do it, I just felt compelled to do it,” he insists. “I try to work that way, I try not to second-guess myself or direct myself in any way, really just let whatever the organic, creative spirit wants to happen, happen. I did realise that, ‘OK, this is a pretty sexual record’, but it didn’t bother me or anything.”
With the record having leaked months before its October release date, Barnes has had plenty of time to gauge the online response from the band’s devoted fanbase and the media. With of Montreal’s status as one of the biggest underground bands in the world, and with such a huge back catalogue for fans to get their teeth into, there is no shortage of discussion online. Reviews have largely positive, though the critical acclaim hasn’t been as deafening and unanimous as that which greeted Hissing Fauna. Nevertheless, the fan response has largely been excellent, and Barnes has clearly been keeping an eye on it.
“So far it’s been really good,” he says. “Initially, when I was making it, I was a bit nervous that people would be not as into it or not prepared for it. But then I realised that it’s not really that far-out. It’s not really that shocking, so I didn’t really give people enough credit. It’s not completely out-there. The only thing that’s really unconventional about it is addressing bisexuality in a very open way. There’s so many really heterosexual songs, and then there’s new things sprouting up like “I kissed a girl and I liked it” or whatever. It was just the spirit of the time, people were becoming more open-minded to those sort of things.”
Though Barnes is married, his flamboyant, androgynous image – coupled with the new album’s lyrical content – begs the question as to how he defines his own sexuality, especially as he hasn’t chosen to disassociate himself from his latest set of lyrics.
“I don’t really try to say I’m this or I’m that,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I don’t even necessarily think it’s healthy to define yourself in that way. You might have characteristics of one thing or another from one day at a time, and if you’re open-minded I guess you could say you’re bisexual. So I guess I could say I’m bisexual, but I’ve never dated a guy. I’ve never had a long-term relationship with a guy, so I can’t really say that. But maybe, 10 years from now, I will.”
Aside from Georgie and the fixation with sex, a third aspect of Skeletal Lamping has set tongues wagging – the music mosaic alluded to earlier. Rampant eclecticism has long been a feature of of Montreal’s records, but here that approach is taken to its logical conclusion, and applied not just to an hour-long record, but to four-minute songs. We had fair warning of this last year, when Barnes stated in an interview with an Australian website: “I am going to create a bunch of 30-to-50-second sections and string them all together. I don’t think there will be any pauses between pieces. I want it to feel like one long piece with hundreds of movements.”
He has been almost as good as his word. Coherent songs do appear from time to time (first single ‘Id Engager’, ‘An Eluardian Instance’, the excellent Seventies piano rock pastiche ‘And I’ve Seen A Bloody Shadow’), but throughout the rest of the album, ideas come and go with bewildering speed. Hooks, lyrical ideas and melodies threaten to burrow into your brain before, tantalisingly, being snatched away. It’s a frustrating experience, but strangely addictive and reminiscent of bands like Wire, the Minutemen and Guided By Voices (who Barnes specifically cites as an inspiration). The difference is, those bands finished the song when the idea was up. Barnes doesn’t; he just heads straight into the next musical motif without finishing the “song”. Why do it?
“Mainly just to create an interesting arrangement,” he reasons. “I feel like a lot of songwriters use repetition out of laziness, or just because that’s the conventional thing to do. You know, pop songs can be so predictable and, to me, they lose their value when they’re like that. It’s like you know exactly what’s going to happen, and it’s just boring. So I wanted to make a record that destroys that pop template. It’s kind of arbitrary – I could easily have put the track markers anywhere. It’s not like these four sections work any better than these six sections, but it’s kind of fun too when you’re open in that way – anything goes and you can do any sort of tempo changes or key changes or musical style changes, wherever you want to do it. I really tried to keep it interesting for myself.”
All the same, Barnes acknowledges that this approach might infuriate some listeners, who hear a glorious 30-second section and fantasise about Barnes turning it into fully-fledged, three minute pop song. “Yeah, I can definitely see that. Going back to David Bowie, he has that record Low, where he fades the song out. He makes a one minute song, or a minute-and-a-half or whatever, that’s so amazing and you want it to go on for another two minutes. But it’s kind of sweet in that way that it’s short and you go, ‘Aw, I want to hear it again!’, so you go back and listen to it again. There’s something to say about not getting what you want, but getting a taste of it.” Leave them wanting more? “Yeah, like if you get some dessert or something that’s so delicious, but you only get three bites. But if you’d had 10 bites, you would’ve been sick of it.”
Talking to Barnes even for a short time, it is very apparent that he is borderline obsessive about music. With such a prolific record over the last decade, that’s no surprise. However, he is also refreshingly – unduly – modest about his capabilities as a songwriter, musician, performer and producer. When asked if he feels unable to limit his sound, a sound that has touched upon so many different styles in what is often – by now erroneously – labelled an indie-pop project, his answer is simple:
“I don’t really want to. For me, what’s exciting about making music is pulling all these references together. I don’t really think of myself as terribly original. All I’m really doing is taking all these other people’s good ideas and putting them together in my own way. That’s all I can really do.”
That said, he knows that if this is all he can do (and it plainly isn’t), he is among the best around at it. He doesn’t offer any doubt that he will have the opportunity to keep making music for as long as he wants, and he sees himself doing it into old age, as his heroes have done.
“I look at people like Robert Wyatt or Fela Kuti, people that never really stop making interesting music. There’s plenty of people who have really long careers, but they’re completely irrelevant because they stopped taking chances and they just keep spinning out the same crap over and over again. I don’t want to be like that. For me, my main goal is to always stay excited and to continue moving, and developing and changing, and doing different things. Kind of like what David Bowie did. He went through so many different periods and so many different phases, and he’s left the world with so much to dissect and go through and explore. That’s definitely my goal.”Skeletal Lamping is out now on Polyvinyl