Friday, June 26, 2009

2009-04-22 - City Beat

Collective Consciousness

Of Montreal finds itself a decade-long overnight sensation

By Ryan Mclendon

Many bands exist for years before anyone deigns to care. It took Aimee Mann the better part of two decades she went from fronting ‘Til Tuesday in the ‘80s, known only for the sugar-sweet hit, “Voices Carry,” to getting nominated for an Oscar at the turn of the 20th century for her contributions to the Magnolia soundtrack.

Quintessential singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston was basically a sociopath in his parent’s basement until Kurt Cobain became his unwitting billboard by wearing one of his T-shirts in a photo, long, long before every nauseating Indie twink claimed him as an influence for his Sadcore song stylings.

Of Montreal, the non-Canadian, pro-vaudevillian, Ziggy Stardust-esque troupe from Athens, Ga., have a similar chronology. They seemed to have come out of nowhere, even though they released their first album, Cherry Peel, in 1997.

But it wasn’t until 2005, when the album Sunlandic Twins was released, that Of Montreal began to cause a stir. Previously, their vibrant, synth-driven, flamboyant energy was seemingly fed the glittery residue that was left in the industry by bands long since deemed irrelevant to average music consumers: Queen, David Bowie and Prince. Needless to say, they weren’t commercially viable before that time.

If you remember, 2005 wasn’t exactly a renaissance of sonic Monets from superb musicians — awful music was the zeitgeist. Either record producers were signing record contracts to mediocre artists that made brains bleed across the nation (read: Fall Out Boy, Ryan Cabrera) or well-established, formerly brilliant artists were releasing tripe (Tori Amos’ The Beekeeper and Garbage’s Bleed Like Me). Good bands went marginally unnoticed in a sea of (non-Shirley Manson oriented) garbage.

But then Of Montreal became viable … in a commercial.

Their song “Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games” from Sunlandic Twins was dismantled and re-dubbed — even using another singer that sounded similar to frontman Kevin Barnes — by Outback Steakhouse. Exchanging the lyrics “Let’s pretend we don’t exist/ Let’s pretend we’re in Antarctica,” to the widely hummed-around-the-office favorite, “Let’s go Outback tonight,” Of Montreal got the flame-grill-kissed taste of fame.

“That’s something (we) signed not knowing what was in the contract,” says guitarist Bryan Poole. “We didn’t know that they could do anything they wanted to with the song and butcher it to hell.”

Poole has been the constant guitarist in Of Montreal since their inception. Their last two albums, Hissing Fauna, You Are the Destroyer and Skeletal Lamping have been fan favorites. Their sound — gleeful, spastic and psychologically stunning — is as complex as anything Henrik Ibsen ever wrote, fraught with tension and relief, color and charm.

Their albums are the equivalent of watching the best Rock Opera ever and then dying immediately afterward.

However, even Poole’s role with the now-successful band isn’t enough to satiate his sonic palate. He also performs in the bands Dark Meat, Tiny Sticks and his solo work as The Late B.P. Helium.

“It’s really important to keep playing with different projects because it expands your vocabulary,” Poole says.

But being a member of various groups doesn’t strike Poole as odd or even difficult to manage. “They’re all projects,” he says. “They’re entities unto themselves. They’re just friends.”

Poole’s not overly choosy about who he collaborates with. His criteria of workability is quite straightforward. “I don’t be in a group with assholes or jerks who play over everything,” he says.

But when he chooses to work with a band, he wants to be able to a) have a good time and b) make some terrific music. When it comes to Of Montreal, the proof is in the pudding.

“Basically these are friends of mine, so I’m making music with my friends who also happen to be great musicians,” Poole says.

Another way Poole keeps it simple is playing with musicians who are within the same artistic collective. Of Montreal and one of Poole’s earlier start-ups, Elf Power, were both members of the notorious Elephant 6 collaborative, along with other notable bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and The Apples in Stereo.

Elephant 6 is unique because it’s a collective of musicians that continually produces well-known Indie bands that occasionally swap musicians. Kevin Barnes even briefly played in Elf Power before Of Montreal. For Poole, this is perfection.

“(Elephant 6) is like a group of friends,” Poole says.

Despite Of Montreal’s success, Poole is set on maintaining his multiple-band status and hopes it doesn’t affect any of his other projects. However, Of Montreal does seem to take precedence with him because of the sheer amount of time he commits to the band.

“There’s only so many days in the year,” Poole says. “If Of Montreal is touring for half of the year, than you can say it’s my main project. But it’s really not my main project.”

Nonetheless, Poole also makes sure that while he’s touring with Of Montreal that his other projects still get attention. “You try to space things out and coordinate things to get together with other people,” he says.

Poole’s concept of versatility keeping a musician from going stale may be one of the many forces that helps keep Of Montreal consistently interesting.

“When you get together with different people, you get different ideas,” he said. “I work well with people that will come up with an idea I don’t know about.”

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