The predictably unpredictable of Montreal at Toad's
With Janelle Monae. 8 p.m. April 17. Toad's Place, 300 York St., New Haven. $20. 203-624-TOAD, toadsplace.com.
A decade ago, it would have been nearly impossible to predict of Montreal would turn into anything lasting. The band emerged from Athens, Ga., as part of Elephant 6, the indie-famous musical coterie of psychedelic pop aficionados. Starting with Cherry Peel in 1997, of Montreal released a stream of albums full of sunny, quirky guitar-pop.
"We wanted to be the ultimate '60s psychedelic rock band," says guitarist Bryan Poole in a recent phone interview. The lyrics were smart, the music riotously catchy, but of Montreal was seen as something of a kid-sibling band next to earlier Elephant 6 powerhouses such as Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control.
The E6 affiliation granted of Montreal stature most young bands don't have. The band flowered and its audience grew when it moved beyond the E6 sound, starting with the electro-glam-rockisms of 2004's Satanic Panic in the Attic.
It came at a crucial time, lifestyle-wise, for the musicians. "At some point, for most people, the harsh reality of not being able to do it anymore becomes apparent," says Poole. "You get to near 30, and you think, 'How long can I keep living in a house with a bunch of dudes, delivering pizzas?' I mean, I still live in a house with a bunch of dudes, but I don't have to deliver pizzas." Poole is aware that a flourishing second act never happened for, as he says, "a lot of bands I've adored."
He figures the band's growing popularity is the result of songwriter Kevin Barnes' pushing the limits of pop. For example, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, Barnes' mesmerizing, ear-candy-rich but harrowing chronicle of a heavy depression appeared immediately to be a career-defining moment on its release in 2007.
Poole welcomed Barnes' gradual turn toward naked emotionality. "The early, early material struck me," he says. Barnes "told me about events in his life and how they'd resonated.
"When he started writing songs that were personal again, it was something people could relate to."
Last year's Skeletal Lamping delves into weirder, more challenging territory — though sung largely from the point of view of Georgie Fruit, a fictional middle-aged transgendered African-American funk musician with a criminal past, the album touches on a hypersexual part of the human psyche that few indie rock bands address. That gets left to artists like Prince.
As Poole says, "Georgie Fruit kind of invaded [Barnes'] body for a year and a half or two years and wrote all these songs, funky Prince stuff with Bowie backing vocals."
The tour for Skeletal Lamping was an extravaganza, with "extra performers and dancing Buddhas and hanging gallows," says Poole. "I definitely felt like a part of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Luckily we didn't lose money."
Live, the band dresses as if they raided a weird vintage shop. Barnes, who often goes through a handful of costume changes during a show, has pulled stunts such as riding onto the stage on a white horse. Once in Las Vegas, he got naked. The showmanship would appear empty if the songs were weak, but they're a barrage of ebullient and wide-ranging pop from a long string of albums.
The current tour will be scaled down to suit smaller venues, says Poole, and be "hopefully crazy and wild, but not as stupendous." There may also be songs Barnes has written since the Skeletal Lamping's release.
"He's like a welder or a plumber — he's honed his craft," Poole says. "He's pushed himself to go places a lot of people don't." Good news: The pushing is, for many of us, why we keep listening.