Saturday, September 19, 2009
"I felt like I had been in a sexually hibernated state of mind all through my twenties. In my early thirties, I started waking up to sexuality and exploring it, thinking about it a bit more."
Trying to pin down psychedelic pop act of Montreal in their brief British summer tour has been as tricky as a slippery eel, yet we wrestled like a bitch on heat and finally spoke to them on their US turf. Their evasion hasn’t been without precedent, with touring injuries, back to back shows and broken down vehicles but still the band still are fighting fit. Even twelve years later, face painted enthusiast and front man Kevin Barnes is wonderfully meticulous about sloppy spelling, reminding SUPERSWEET “of Montreal, is with lowercase “o””, just in case we get it wrong (as if we would...)
It’s tempting to imagine that Barnes is completely eccentric in his personal life in reflection of the obscure directions fulfilled within his music. Blissfully as normal as the rest of us, he tones down off-beat motivations to watch Sports Center, host cocktail parties, play volleyball and take part in "pretty conventional stuff". Admitting that people usually are surprised by his homely activities, simply reveals how much a distinct mark of Montreal’s illustrious affair with music has left over the past twelve years.
Long before he established himself as the genius behind the ecstatic pop experiments in Georgian sensation of Montreal, Barnes spent every day working on music. "All I really did when I was in high school was go home, hide in my bedroom and just make four-track recordings all day," he says. The intimate bedroom demos eventually saw the light of day on the 2001 compilation The Early Four-Track Recordings. Every song is named after the actor Dustin Hoffman from hilarious track ‘Dustin Hoffman Does Not Resist Temptation to Eat the Bathtub’ to the incontinence song ‘Dustin Hoffman Becomes Indignant and Wets Himself'.
Revealing the reason for homage to the Marathon Man, Barnes concedes that "It was a funny, kooky idea to pretend like it was a concept album, even though the songs had nothing to do with the titles, and nothing to do with Dustin Hoffman. It was just a spontaneous thing the band created over lunch one day." Placing jovial stints aside, Barnes has progressed a long way since high school recordings, releasing eight studio albums of diverse pop music, all leading up to the climax of 2008's Skeletal Lamping.
Skeletal Lamping is of Montreal's most overtly sexual record, both musically and lyrically. Each track is a none-too-subtle exploration of lust which just as much about getting you off, as making you ferociously dance. Lyrical vivid, of Montreal explicitly boast with words "I want to make you come / 200 times a day" and "I took her in the kitchen / ass against the sink" making the band's previous work look downright innocent by comparison. In fact, it was Barnes's shifting attitude towards sex that inspired him to take the record to a more provocative place: "I think I was just going through a sexual awakening," he says, "I felt like I had been in a sexually hibernated state of mind all through my twenties. In my early thirties, I started waking up to sexuality and exploring it, thinking about it a bit more. It was kind of natural that it also came through in my art."
Although Skeletal Lamping differs from of Montreal's previous records in numerous ways, it maintains the sense of humor that runs through their songwriting and notoriously decadent stage performance. While Barnes performed an actual a comedy tour in 2005, called ‘A Pollinaire Rave’, the front man confirms that he now expresses his comedic impulses through of Montreal. Telling SUPERSWEET that "there's always a sense of humor involved in the theatrics” Barnes answers “I think it's just incorporating that into what of Montreal is now, whereas before, ‘A Pollinaire Rave’ was sort of a separate thing. Now it's all together as one."
Always challenging dance-pop conventions, Barnes comments on the problems of adhering to such structures today: "Sometimes I think that people follow the pop template too much.”. Barnes observes how “There's a pressure that if you want to have a commercially successful song, it has to fit into these parameters, and I think that's definitely unhealthy for the art of music". To combat this anxiety, the singer welcomes song structures as a challenge and a creative liability all because "It's kind of fun to fit as many ideas as you can into three and a half minutes!"
Ready for the artistic exertion, work on of Montreal's anticipated next album False Priest is already in motion, with approximately six songs completed, yet Barnes is still writing and experimenting before deciding what will be on the new record. The creative kook describes the new album as “very funky dance music” complimented with "a lot of strange lyrical imagery”, sneakily hinting that the record will feature some longer songs than we're used to hearing from him.
Continuing the of Montreal legacy, Barnes adds False Priest to their self-produced selection of albums, yet the singer is always open to working with other producers under the right circumstances: "It all depends on what sort of chemistry there is between me and the other producer, and I don't know if I could get to that place," Evidently, producer Jon Brion recently released an EP of remixes from Skeletal Lamping, swaying Barnes’s ideas of collaborative production. With little opposition to possible Brion-produced of Montreal record, the singer ponders the idea, thinking it "could definitely be good. It could definitely be interesting."
After the exciting change of direction that was Skeletal Lamping, it will be fascinating to follow of Montreal in their rapid ascent to giddy new heights of dance-pop.
Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes is currently in his Athens, Georgia, home studio working on the band's tenth album, which will be titled False Priest and is tentatively due out next spring. We briefly spoke to Barnes this past Wednesday about his progress on False Priest, which he says is influenced by Parliament and the '80s No Wave scene. "We're kind of making this psychedelic, No Wave, funk album," says Barnes.
So what are you guys working on right now? Are you working on the new record already?
Kevin Barnes: Yeah actually, I'm working on a new record it's gonna be called False Priest. Right now, I'm just kinda like fooling around, just making songs and experimenting. And I'm not so much thinking about what songs are going to be on there or what I'm going to do with the songs. I'm just going to be really free and not think about the outside world at all. I think that's the best way to make music—if you're not thinking about anything other than just being absorbed by the creative process. So that's what I'm trying to do now is just listening to a lot of music and making a lot of music and just kind of immersing myself. I have enough songs now for one album, but I want to just keep writing, see if there's anything else pops up. And then we'll probably release it in the spring of next year.
You said you're listening to a lot of music. What kind of stuff are you listening to that's informing what you're doing?
I've been listening to a lot of Parliament. I've got like The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein and of course Mothership Connection and there's this crazy one called Funkentelechy vs. The Placebo Syndrome. I love it because it's so playful. And it's so funky and groovy. But I just watched this documentary of them and I couldn't believe that we weren't really necessarily influenced by them directly, because we have so much in common. Like the stage show is just so crazy, and there's just so many people on stage, and wild costumes. And you know, so far beyond what everybody else was doing—especially as a black artist. I guess you have Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix and people like that, but at that time [Parliament] were like the biggest freaks in the world! The best band in the world! I think, when I'm watching this, I'm like, 'man if I was alive back then, I'd just would've been like a Deadhead for them, just following them everywhere because I just connect with it so much'—it's just so free and crazy and so awesome. There's a lot of Parliament that I'm listening to, and Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder—a lot of soul stuff and funk stuff. Then I've got a couple of No Wave compilations from the New York, early '80s, No Wave scene. Like Teenage Jesus & the Jerks and people like that. I'm getting into that. So we're kind of making this psychedelic, No Wave, funk album.
Cool! You should get George Clinton to come down and sing guest vocals or something.
Man. I'd be extremely intimidated, first of all. Because he's like the real deal. Seriously just out there, kinda like in a Sun Ra sort of way. Probably not as far as Sun Ra. I'd be like, 'man, sitting next to George.' Just even being on the same block as him would be just amazing.
I saw him at the airport recently.
Are you serious?
Yeah, he was at the baggage claim area at the same time I was.
Oh my god, that is so funny!
He was in a wheelchair and he had some woman like, wheeling him around.
He was in a wheelchair?
Yeah, he probably couldn't be bothered to walk. He's George Clinton man; he doesn't have to walk if he doesn't want to.
Yeah, it's easier to sit in the chair. How old is he?
I don't know, he's probably in his 60s or 70s at this point [Editor Note: He's 68]. I'm not sure. Maybe he has a reason to be in a wheelchair, but I got the sense that he just wanted to be pushed around by a lady.
But I don't know for sure.... Well, is there anything else you can tell me about what you're working on? You think it's going to come out next spring?
It sounds like it's going to be funkier than your last record? Is that the plan?
Well, our last record was extremely schizophrenic. I was trying to piece together the different compositions to create something very unpredictable. It was still had sort of funky, dancy elements, so it's not like this new thing I'm doing is completely new for me, it's just this weird evolution, sort of freaky evolution that is just sort of happening and I'm just letting it happen. So it's not going to be a total departure from Skeletal Lamping or Hissing Fauna, but it's definitely different, it has a different quality to it. But it's really difficult for me—I'm sure for you too or anybody—to describe music with words. It's kind of visceral.
of Montreal's Kevin Barnes has been experimenting with pop music for almost 20 years, all the way back to recording home demos in high school. He started of Montreal in 1997 in Athens, GA, and fell in with the Elephant 6 collective, which included bands like Elf Power, Neutral Milk Hotel, and The Apples in Stereo. Since then, of Montreal has put out nine records, including Barnes' biggest critical success, 2007's Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?
The subject matter of Hissing Fauna was darker than anything of Montreal had released before, but that gave way to the sex-soaked disco of their most recent album, Skeletal Lamping. The band's sound has changed dramatically over the years, especially with the addition of more electronic and dance elements. Although their upcoming record, False Priest, is only starting to take shape, Barnes sees it continuing in the funky, danceable direction of Skeletal Lamping.
We caught up with Barnes on the phone to chat about the adventures and eccentricities that come with being in of Montreal, and found out that whatever you assume about the guy in the eye makeup and the wild outfits is probably wrong.
JH: Have you been saving any demos since then, that might turn into another project like that?
JH:So, about the stuff you've been working on recently ... what did you think of the critical reception for Skeletal Lamping?
I wish that rock criticism had more value. I think it could be very beneficial for an artist to have an outsider's perspective on what they're doing. It can be sort of an insular experience. I think it could be good if it were someone whose observations you actually respected. It would be good to hear what they had to say. For the most part, though, you can just tell in the first couple of lines if there's going to be a terrible review, in terms of what they're bringing to the table. Their observations are just so far off from what your inspiration was, or motivation or anything.
You might be extremely eccentric, and you'd have no idea. In our band, everybody thinks that every other member of the band is totally crazy, that they are the only sane one. It's probably like that with all groups of friends. It's some weird aspect of the human condition that we think everyone else is crazy, except for ourselves.
JH: If your band were the cast of a sitcom, what would that show look like?
I was listening to music that people consider more sexual, like funkier stuff, soul music and R&B. When you think about what music would seem like the most sexual music, most people would say Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" is the sexiest song. But in kind of a funny, weird way, it's almost cliche. Like the scene in a move where someone's about to have sex, and "Let's Get It On" will come on, and everyone will start laughing.
JH: Well, even with sex, it's important to have a sense of humor about it.
JH: What's your take on the three and a half minute pop song? Do you think it will ever die, and do you think it would be a good thing if it did?
I looked up to them as big brother figures. They were a little bit older than me, and they had done all the things I wanted to do: release records, self-produce, go on tour, and do it all on your own terms. I wanted to be a part of it. I was sort of just pulling their coat from behind, like "Hey guys, can I come to the party, too?" Now we've been able to establish our own thing, so I'm not really a part of Elephant 6 although I guess it still exists to some degree. Only briefly was it ever a fully-functioning label that would sign bands and release records. It was really more like a friend collective that became a movement, in a way.
I think I would, in the future, like to start working with other people as an experiment, to see what might come of it. People like David Bowie, for example - he always seemed to benefit greatly from other people's influence. Brian Eno or Tony Visconti or whoever. People that could bend his mind in a way he wouldn't have known naturally, and really great things can come out of collaborations like that. I've been a bit paranoid and insular the last four or five years, but I see myself coming out of that and wanting to work with other people in the future.
JH: And sometimes the word you need is in another language ...
Kevin Barnes doesn't want to be all things to all people. In fact, he'd rather keep ‘em guessing.
BY A.D. AMOROSI
Maybe corny is the new sexy. Or maybe the liberated sexuality that Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes sings of is a musical solution to his problems.
But when Barnes talks about Of Montreal's Skeletal Lamping and the sensuality rampant throughout, it's funny that when he's tries on his favorite track, it's the record's most diligently innocent one, "An Eluardian Instance," that's the sweetest love song he's written in a long time. "There's just a nice nostalgia there that's not too corny," observes Barnes. You can almost hear him sigh when he says so.
Moving from lean lo-fi pop to something more luxuriating like glam's grandeur has given Of Montreal its time in the sun. It would be a simple thing - if only people would let enjoy it.
"Ha, I don't know what happened to me," laughs Barnes, about being the earnest nice boy from Athens with an epiphany-filled ethereal pop band from the Elephant 6 collective first led astray by a woman from Canada. It would seem as if his first real loves were the Mersey bands of Britain, what with the initial Anglo ardor of 1997's Cherry Peel on Bar/None, or ‘98's The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy on Kindercore.
"To be honest, the first music I fell in love with as a kid was pop, soul and funk," he confides. "My first cassette tape was a Kool and the Gang greatest hits. I got into Prince at a very young age too. I didn't discover the Kinks and the Beatles till around high school, so you could say my roots are in freak funk more do than Anglo psych pop."
I could say that. OK. I will. That explains some of the funk. But the flamboyant fabulousness of 2007's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? and the new music's sensually branded glam pop came under the auspices of an alter ego, "Mr. Fruit" and that character's nascent sexual aplomb. Before you ask, he doesn't tell.
"I don't really know where this new direction came from. It's all very organic. Maybe I got sick of being so depressed and uptight and needed a new position. It just sort of evolved out of the depression and paranoia."
Much has been said of Barnes' depression. He started a band because he was sad a woman left him. It's been rumored he was recently in real trouble with his psyche. And of course, while early tracks of Of Montreal were silly and humorous ("Tim, I Wish You Were Born A Girl") many of Barnes' narratives since 1997 have evolved with dramatic sadness as their basis. While The Gay Parade saw the advent of Barnes' invented characters (in songs such as "Jacques Lamure" and "Mimi Merlot") and miserable conversations ("Advice From a Divorced Gentleman to His Bachelor Friend Considering Marriage"), albums like Aldhils Arboretum, found peppy melodies and bleak lyrics as their base - "Doing Nothing" and "Old People in the Cemetery," for example.
Before the current crop of sexually awake albums, his favorite Of Montreal record was Coquelicot, the epic and the open ended classic that is the transitional bracket between glistening pop and sexual healing glam. "It is pretty similar to Skeletal Lamping in its structure or lack thereof," says Barnes. "Coquelicot is the first record I really cut loose and completely abandoned the conventional pop song template. That is the one record that was a true collaboration with other people as well. It was a pretty great experience. Unfortunately it didn't sell worth shit and the band sort of fell apart quickly after that."
With that band disappeared and Fauna's main character - Mr. Fruit - doing most of the talking, phase two of Of Montreal seemed complete and successful.
But, why did Barnes need an alter ego in Fruit to begin with, and now that he's disappeared, is Skeletal Lamping all Barnes?
"I realized that it was me all along. There is no split personality thing happening."
He doesn't wish people to think that Skeletal Lamping is a concept album or that he was singing from the perspective of a fictional character. "SL is just as personal an album as Hissing Fauna. I'm just exploring and exposing different areas of my psyche. I think people tend to find sexuality to be more superficial than subjects like mental problems or relationship woes. I don't agree though. The psychological aspects of sexuality are extremely complex and fascinating to me. So much of our self concept is influenced by how we define ourselves sexually. I have chosen to not define myself and to allow for my self identity to be fluid."
What Barnes discovered that has made Skeletal Lamping so much freer and sexual than previously was that he was hung up; that time and energy and his current openness about himself and his music was ripe. "I guess I was in more of an introverted and hung up state of mind earlier on in my life. I seem to be going through a sexual awakening. I guess it is somewhat influenced by hitting rock bottom and being reborn. I couldn't have predicted it. I try not to second guess things. I just follow the organic spirit where ever it wants to go. That sounds like a hippy bumper sticker but it is true."
So why do audiences and critics seem confused by this new record and the personae or non-personae of it. Read Of Montreal's most recent press and it's as if every critic - but BLURT's staff of course - ain't doing a whole lot of fucking.
"I can't say," says Barnes. "I think that anyone who feels annoyed by the complexity of the album just lacks intellectual depth. I can't understand how these so called 'music aficionados' criticize the album for being too unpredictable and complex. I would have thought that critics would have celebrated the album for its exceptional quality but I've been shocked by how many critics have completely missed the boat. I guess I gave them too much credit."
And what's the something-something so delicious about Skeletal Lamping that is the secret to it success? Barnes can't help but stifle a giggle. "Every instrument on every song was recorded while masturbating," says Barnes.