Kevin Barnes is a softly spoken gentleman, a red wine drinker rather than a lager lout. He will not be badmouthing peers and providing sensational soundbites this afternoon; he will, instead, answer with consideration and genuine enthusiasm, dissecting his stand-alone art in a fashion most singular.
The man when removed from his music is unlike so many other artists when sat in the interview hot seat: not for him the massaging of an ego precariously close to bursting, or self-mythologizing psychobabble glaringly misplaced, despite the depths evident for exploration. It’s quite the contrast, given his music as the lifeblood and lynchpin of of Montreal is so colourful, psychedelic cacophonies laced with erudite lyrical turns and peppered with sparkling pop micro-passages. It’s one of the few 100 per cent exclusive sounds of modern pop.
of Montreal’s most recent album, their ninth, is ‘Skeletal Lamping’, released late last year via Polyvinyl. Charting higher than any of Barnes’ previous releases, it’s the group’s most commercially successful yet. Yet it’s also their most ambitious – conceptually the songs are acted out by Barnes’ character Georgie Fruit (think Bowie doing Ziggy, only superbly sexually charged rather than purely loving the alien), and compositionally it’s a patchwork of myriad styles, stitched together to form a whole that’s served to split opinion.
Album eight, 2007’s ‘Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer’, raised Athens, Georgia-based of Montreal’s profile significantly, earning unanimous positive feedback. Barnes’ latest, for all its highlights, hasn’t proved as universally admired, and this is one of many things he talks about when we meet in a central London pub.
You’re in town to play Heaven, with Franz Ferdinand, before playing further shows in the UK and Europe. Are the crowds good to you here?
Yeah, definitely. It’s a step down from what we’re doing in the United States, as we’re bigger in the US, ut we intend to come back here again and again to build it up. It’s definitely building – we had a great show at Koko the last time we played London.
There’s a feeling here that Koko’s not so great from a sound point of view, despite it being a decent venue otherwise. Did you have any problems?
It’s hard to tell from our perspective, but there was a lot of slap-back. Some venues really aren’t designed for a band like ours.
Because you are a band that sets out to really bring your records to life live, right?
Yes, we try to reproduce the arrangements on the records as closely as we can, and we’ve always done that. I’m schooled like that. Some people think that a record is one thing, and you can reinterpret it live, but I’ve never done that. Even when we do cover songs, we cover them very close to the original. We try to reproduce them. I never worry about how a song will translate live when I record it – the record is the document, and will be around a lot longer than the show.
Talking about documents, it’s interesting what you’ve done with ‘Skeletal Lamping’, releasing it on formats including a t-shirt and a paper lantern, with a digital download, alongside the regular CD and vinyl. It seems you’re highlighting both the disposability of traditional formats, but also working to preserve the album as an artefact…
Yeah, that’s something we were talking about earlier today – nobody’s really taken the approach on, to release items like these. Well, not many people. I think it will, eventually, become the norm, because music right now has little value in CD form. If you want someone to buy your record, you should want to give them a physical object that has value, and that is exceptional in some way. We’re going to put out another collection in a couple of months, and when the next album is done we’ll do the same thing. That’s how we’re going to roll from now – putting out a collection with each record.
It almost sounds like the band is becoming a brand – perhaps with a ‘collect them all’ mentality?
Maybe, but perhaps that’s inevitable, to ensure continuity. For us we’re doing it as it’s an opportunity to create objects that we want, for ourselves. So even if nobody buys the Chinese lantern, I’ll have one. I have one of everything.
I think you’re right to observe that few people actually want a CD nowadays – they buy it and burn it onto their laptop, or whatever, and then the CD sits there collecting dust.
CDs, I mean… I guess physical formats are not so practical now. It’s easier to have everything on a portable MP3 player, or whatever. The real tragedy is that you have to deal with such compressed audio in that format.
But people – those who perhaps don’t listen as closely as you, as a musician – would rather get something quickly than have something of quality. At least that’s the way the market seems to suggest things are going, with downloads up and physical sales down.
I guess now everyone wants the immediacy of the download, so what we’re trying to do is bring back the album, both in terms of format and design. Not every song I write is a radio-friendly song, and I mean to do that deliberately. I rarely listen to just one or two songs on an album; I want to listen to the whole album and then decide if the band’s worth me being excited about or not. I can’t come to that conclusion after just a couple of songs.
But it’s easy to assume an album’s great based on a handful of hits. Look at MGMT – much-revered last year, but their album doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny.
I’d kind of disagree – the songs that are not everywhere are my favourite ones on that album, the ones that aren’t so easy to digest. Some of the criticism that ‘Skeletal Lamping’ has received is for that reason. The Pitchfork review mentioned hits and misses, like you as an artist are trying to make a hit every time. I don’t feel that way. I don’t feel that a song needs to be a dancefloor burner for it to have value, and often it’s those songs that prove to have the most value.
Sounds like you’re the kind of artist who likes to keep track of how his albums are being received.
Well, that review was a really touchy thing for me. I have the sense that there’s a clique at that site, and I’m not sure how to identify with it. What they do well is support bands that are not getting into the mainstream, and I read it for that, but that review stung. It’s almost like your brother or someone saying it to you. I know this album is very polarising, but I think that those who love music as an art form will appreciate it. You might not want to put every track from it on a tape for your girlfriend, but if you are a true fan of music, you have to recognise it’s an exceptional record, regarding how it’s constructed.
It’s not like reviewers didn’t know what to expect – you said yourself that the album would be made up of loads of short passages, hopping all over the place style wise. You said it wouldn’t have much of an air of continuity.
Yeah, the reasons that they (Pitchfork) give for not liking it are the things that were announced before the album was released.
But it’s also your highest-charting album so far, breaking into the top 40 stateside.
That was a good thing – all our shows are selling really well, too. Because ‘Hissing Fauna…’ did so well we did think that maybe people wouldn’t go for ‘Skeletal Lamping’, but they have. We’re enjoying the most success we ever have at a commercial level.
And you’ve done it without repeating yourself. The new album follows on from ‘Hissing Fauna…’ conceptually, but it’s no retread.
I think a lot of bands get conservative if they’ve found a degree of success – they look to keep the momentum going by writing the same record as before. But I think that’s the unhealthiest thing you can do. It’s important to not listen to what people are saying, because it can go both ways – you can be influenced to write a certain way, like it’s affected your subconscious, and it’s counter productive. That happened early on with me, when I was very sensitive to negative reviews. I still am, but not as much as I was back then. But I’d change the trajectory of a song I was writing, a song that was very personal, because of some very nasty reviews. I thought that I didn’t want to make myself vulnerable in that way, but I soon realised that I had to make a stand and write how I felt, how I wanted to.
You seem to have guarded yourself against lyrical criticism by playing a character on this new album, Georgie Fruit…
Yeah, and initially I thought it’d be a good vehicle for writing in a certain way – it’s not me talking, it’s this character. But, of course, anything that’s put down is coming from me, whatever the device; it’s my personality in there.
I note it’s something that even Beyoncé has done on her latest album, write from a character’s perspective…
I mean, there’s nothing new in adopting a character. David Bowie is someone I really admire, and I’ve sort of patterned my career based on his. He went through so many different phases, and commerciality was never the most important thing to him. I think a lot of the Berlin-era records, like ‘Lodger’ and ‘Scary Monsters’ which came afterwards, those feature non-hits on them, but it’s those songs I like the most. Like, he wrote radio hits, but the albums featured a lot more. That’s when I realised that an album doesn’t need to be full of hits to have value. Some of Bowie’s albums are only now finding their place, years after their release – it took me ages to get into ‘Lodger’, but now I just adore it. Sometimes when people create something that’s an instant hit, it doesn’t evolve – you can’t live with it, and it becomes very superficial. Great records are those where you have a breakthrough moment: “Wow, I never got this before, but now I do”. All of a sudden those albums become your favourite things.
Do you think your albums are ones that reveal themselves slowly, so perhaps they’ll be appreciated differently ten years from now?
Maybe, I mean hopefully. There’s lots of music from the ‘60s and ‘70s that I listen to now, which I love. When I found the ‘…Village Green Preservation Society’ by The Kinks, it seemed a bit weird – I was living in south Florida, had just gradated from high school, but I found this album and it changed my life. And that was 25 years or whatever after it came out.
I’ve often thought The Kinks are rather left out of the Great Influential British Bands equation, you know? But perhaps that’s changing.
I think when things aren’t that commercial – when songs are not on the radio every day – they have a greater personal dimension to them. When I was listening to The Kinks at that time, nobody else liked them. So that felt like discovering something really special – music can be romanticised in a great way. To me the trick is to be slightly commercial so you can continue to create art. You have to make a living, but there’s a fine line. Cross that line and you lose that value. I think our records can go into the part of your brain that doesn’t classify it as it would Kleenex, or hot dogs – it recognises it’s not part of the everyday.
And it’s never the same as what’s come before it.
I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of watering down what’s come before, even in the context of one band’s career. You produce a great album, and people really like it, but the second is a tamer take on the first.
I look at how major labels handle bands now, often ostensibly with pressure on the first album release, and wonder if acts like Radiohead would have ever made it if they’d released their debut today.
Well, they probably had that pressure at that time. I don’t think things have changed all that much since when pop music started and its commercial potential was realised – there’s always pressure, because investors are involved, and they need to see a return on particular products. Plus there are so many overheads at a major label. Working on Polyvinyl is great because they only have about six staff.
Would you not consider a self-release strategy then?
That’s definitely too much for most people to take on by themselves. If we were running our own label and handling all the promotional duties, and everything else, it’d be overwhelming. But we’re in complete control at Polyvinyl – if they suggest that maybe a song shouldn’t be on a record, but I think it should be, it goes on the record. Now we’re in a position where we have more leverage, and I can make the album I want to make. The new stuff I am working on is accessible but excitable – it might not be the record of the year, but for me the important thing is that I get what I need out of creating, otherwise there’s no point. Otherwise it’s cheap. I’m not trying to crack any codes. There are people making pop music that’s fun and exciting, but not everyone’s ambition is to do that. Some people want to make weird albums. I want to be the weird uncle, you know what I mean?
Yes, I get what you’re saying. Barnes sticks around for further off-record conversing, before disappearing into Soho in search of nourishment. Well, two glasses of not-so-quaffable red will last you only so long.