|Monday, 23 February 2009|
Success proved elusive for OF MONTREAL until frontman and main creative force KEVIN BARNES threw some sleazy electro-funk grooves and an existential crisis into the mix. Now the Georgia-based troupe are one of US indie’s shining lights, because, as Barnes tells BRETT COLLINGWOOD, "artists who take chances are more interesting than artists that take the easy route".
1999: A shy, introverted man in his mid-20s sits in his room with only a cassette four-track machine for company, obsessively writing and recording his idiosyncratic, innocently psychedelic indie-pop. He is about to go on tour with his band. Onstage they will wear outlandish costumes and perform bizarrely surreal skits between songs. Unfortunately, as has been the case since the band began two years previous, not many people will attend the shows.
2009: A shy, introverted, man in his mid-30s sits in his room with only a computer for company, obsessively writing and recording his idiosyncratic, glammed-up psychedelic electro-pop. He is about to go on tour with his band. Onstage they will wear outlandish costumes and perform on a multi-tiered set along with several even more outlandishly attired dancers arraying themselves in peculiar (and in some cases borderline illegal) tableaux in front of several giant video screens. The shy introverted man has transformed into a booty-shaking funk Adonis in glittery make-up, hotpants and feather boa, who during the course of the show will engage in sword fights, sing while clad in a ten-foot-high dress (!), be led to the gallows and hung (!!!), and emerge from a coffin wearing nothing but whipped cream. Thousands of people worldwide are now attending the shows.
Quite a difference a decade can make. Yet that’s been the unlikely journey of Kevin Barnes and his Athens, Georgia collective Of Montreal. Where once they were derisively dismissed as the overly twee runt of the Elephant 6 litter (the loose collective of like-minded, psychedelically inclined bands that also included The Apples In Stereo, The Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel and Elf Power), Of Montreal now regularly sell out shows throughout the US and Europe. Their music, meanwhile, has morphed from a childlike, hallucinogenic dream-world peopled by eccentric characters with names like Rose Robert, Nickee Coco and Coquelicot, to a sexed-up, electro-funk-psych-pop carnival led by Barnes’s alter-ego Georgie Fruit, a 40-something transsexual with a shady past and a taste for funky decadence.
The change began on 2004’s Satanic Panic In The Attic, which found Barnes introducing electronic elements into his music for the first time, and flowered fully on 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, a darkly autobiographical account of Barnes’ struggle with depression that introduced the Georgie character and a hefty dose of synthesised disco-funk sleaze. One suspects that this last element has played a role in the vast improvement of the group’s commercial fortunes over the last couple of years: an Of Montreal show has always been visually exciting, but unlike years past, the music is now perfect for shaking one’s booty most righteously.
Speaking from his home in Athens, which he shares with his wife Nina, four-year-old daughter Alabee, and his brother David (who’s responsible for the band’s eye-searingly colourful album artwork) the charmingly softly spoken Barnes agrees that OM’s ever-more-ambitious live show is what’s turned things around for them. "People have really liked it a lot because we’re doing something different; they don’t really expect it. I think they appreciate that we’re trying to give them something exceptional, not boring."
It’s a philosophy that’s certainly been applied to Of Montreal’s latest record, Skeletal Lamping. Musically it takes in elements from the band’s entire career – dreamy psychedelia, ’60s pop, Afrobeat, synth-funk – and throws in snatches of old-school soul, spare piano balladry, noise freakouts, and musique concrete for good measure. The main difference, though, is that this time the album is made up of a myriad of song fragments all strung together to form one continuous hour-long piece of music. While the idea is not new (side two of the Beatles’ Abbey Road immediately springs to mind), the way Barnes integrates such wildly disparate segments into a cohesive whole allows a breathtaking survey of the sheer breadth of a restless and overflowing musical imagination. "I just wanted to make something that felt more like a journey, something that never got boring or predictable," Barnes says. "Something that felt like more than just another collection of songs."
The overall effect is of Barnes opening up his head and spilling out the contents – whether good, bad, ugly, nonsensical, sexy or just plain weird – and leaving the listener to decide what to make of it all. Such an unfiltered, warts-and-all approach would be an anathema to the majority of Barnes’ US indie contemporaries, those who can only convey their Very Important Emotions via tightly controlled, structured, buttoned-down guitar-bass-drums-and-not-too-much-personality-please-we’re-sensitive-American-indie-boys rock/pop. Ironically, by flying in the face of such conservative generic strictures, Barnes and Co. have finally ascended very close to the top of the indie mountain.
"I think it’s important not to dumb things down or make things easily digestible or acceptable, just because you fear it won’t reach a large audience unless you do it that way," Barnes declares. "I don’t care about reaching a large audience; I just want to make something I find interesting and fulfilling.
"I don’t think it’s really healthy for an artist to worry about how they’re going to be perceived," he continues. "You just have to do what feels natural, do what you’re naturally drawn to do, and then you hope that some people like it. But it’s really not important if they like it or not, it really doesn’t matter. You can’t expect everyone to like it, number one, and number two, it cheapens the experience for you if you’re worrying about that. For me, I wouldn’t get as much out of making music, I wouldn’t get as much out of the process if I was always second-guessing everything and worrying about whether some person I’ll never meet will like it or understand it."
Still, one suspects that Barnes is positively revelling in the fact that, after a decade in the wilderness, Of Montreal are finally getting noticed.
"I definitely feel more confident," he admits. "It makes you feel like you’re not just this meaningless ghost of a person. If no one buys the records and no one comes to the shows then it’s harder – slightly harder anyway – to feel confident in what you’re doing; you have to maybe consider that your voice is not needed in this world."
Of course Australia is only just beginning to wake up to the band, and one suspects OM’s first-ever Australian tour will do much to boost their profile here, even if logistics prevent them bringing all of their stage-set and props. "It’s too expensive to fly the gallows over and a lot of other stuff over. We’ll definitely do something visual and theatrical though," Barnes promises.
So with his band riding a wave of critical and commercial success at present, can Kevin Barnes still relate to the shy, introverted bedroom recording enthusiast of a decade ago? "Yeah, pretty much. I mean, the spirit’s the same. People ask me, ‘how do you think you’ve grown artistically or musically over the years?’, and I really don’t think I have, you know? It’s the same spirit driving me: I’m really excited about music, I love the art form, and I’m really motivated and ambitious just like I was back then. The source of the inspiration has stayed pretty true through the years."