Thursday, June 17 : Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes Talks New Album, Tour With Janelle Monáe
"I've always had a suspicion of the Catholic Church, even as a kid."
"I've always had a suspicion of the Catholic Church, even as a kid."
False Priest, the new album from Athens glam-funk freaks of Montreal, is coming this fall. Frontman Kevin Barnes recorded much of it in Los Angeles, working with the producer and composer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Kanye West). The album will feature collaborations with like-minded R&B sirens Solange Knowles and Janelle Monáe. And according to Barnes, it'll also feature a ton of trunk-rattling bass, a first for an of Montreal album.
We recently caught up with Barnes as he was finishing work on the album. We talked about the Catholic Church, what False Priest will tell you about your car stereo, and the touring extravaganza of Montreal is planning with Janelle Monáe.
Pitchfork: The new album is called False Priest. What does the title mean?
Kevin Barnes: It's open to interpretation. At first-- just as with most things I do-- I didn't really think it had a meaning. But the meaning I've grown to attach to it is sort of a sense of a false policing of yourself, or your psyche-- creating false limitations for yourself, as if there was a false priest inside of all of us that controls us.
Pitchfork: Do you mean inhibitions?
KB: On some level. But inhibitions can stem from so many different sources. We all have our sense of right or wrong, or acceptable or unacceptable thinking or behavior. Especially for me, growing up Catholic, the word priest has more significance than it would for someone who didn't go through that. I've always had a suspicion of the Catholic Church, even as a kid. My brother [artist David Barnes] and I, in our theatrical performances, address that a lot as well: the hypocrisy and the negative aspects of the Church.
Pitchfork: A lot of artists who grew up Catholic and are conflicted about it seem to end up creating work informed by their experiences with the Church.
KB: Yeah, I guess there's something to it. A lot of people take a lot from it. It gives them a sense of balance. It gives them a sense of control, as if they don't feel like there's total chaos. It gives their life meaning on some level. But it never really worked for me. My two sisters go to Church every Sunday. My parents go to Church every Sunday still. It's just my brother and I, for some reason, who didn't connect with it.
Pitchfork: How much did you work with Jon Brion on this one? Did he produce the whole album?
KB: No, he didn't produce it. Basically, I made a record in my home studio. By of Montreal standards, by the previous records' standards, I made a record; it was basically done. And then I came out to L.A., to Ocean Way studios with Jon. He basically showed me how I could make it sound a lot better, improve the fidelity, get more low end, expand the audio spectrum. And so we cut live drums on top of my programmed drumming, and we recut all the bass guitars and added a whole bunch of synthesizers. I basically came to Jon with a finished record, and we improved upon it.
Pitchfork: Is this the first time you've done a really high-fi recording?
KB: It's not even really that hi-fi. It's definitely more hi-fi than anything I've ever done. If I were to have done the whole thing with Jon, then that would have been a different story. But just from my own limitations as a non-engineer-- basically just working by myself and not really concerning myself too much about fidelity-- it's just about getting the ideas out, not worrying about mic placement or EQ or compression or anything like that. It's more about writing all the compositional elements and then dealing with whatever fidelity it has after the fact. But we've definitely accomplished a lot since I've been out here, improving the sound of it.
Pitchfork: What genres did you play around with on this album? And did the improved sound inform the music?
KB: There's a thick R&B influence, so it's cool that we have a lot of deep low end. Basically, every song has a lot more low-end information than I've ever used before. We're trying to make a record that has similar low end to records like The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest and even, to some degree, stuff like Dr. Dre. That was the goal: To make something that had that low end but also was my thing, an of Montreal record. So it's different. Most indie-pop records don't have that low end.
Pitchfork: So will this be trunk music, then?
KB: That was definitely the thinking: People all of a sudden realize what kind of car stereos they have. It's one of those things where if you listen to it on your laptop, you're not going to hear it, but if you listen to it in the club, then you're really going to hear it; you're really going to feel it. Most cars have pretty decent sound systems nowadays, so you'd hear it there, too. That's the funny thing about when you're mixing, trying to make it sound good in every situation. But there's certain limitations, especially with laptop speakers or something coming out of your iPhone; that's not going to sound that great.
Pitchfork: Are you hoping this one gets some action in the club?
KB: Yeah! I mean there's definitely a lot of candidates there. There's a lot of very dancey, very funky songs. Jon and I were talking about what we really love about music: The physical connection that you can have, besides an intellectual connection. If the music can go through you, and not just make you want to dance, but give you a physical charge as well.
Pitchfork: Jon Brion co-produced Kanye West's Late Registration. There's not too much club music on there, but it's a really widescreen experience. Are you going for something similarly huge like that?
KB: Yeah. That was the thing when we were adding instruments out here and looking at what I had done already, trying to bring that out even more. The thing I really love about music is an unpredictability; that's essential for me. If I'm going to appreciate or connect with something, it can't be predictable. So we try to have these "holy fuck" moments where you're really having your mind blown, especially if you're listening to it on headphones. There's a lot of different records where I'm like, "Oh my god! That's so cool! I can't believe they did that!"
Pitchfork: What are some of your favorite examples of records that do that?
KB: Probably the biggest and most obvious example is the Beatles' "A Day in the Life", when those strings are ascending up and it's getting all chaotic and crazy, and then there's the big ending. That was the first moment when I realized the power of music. That song is so brilliant on so many levels, and in addition to that, there's that moment that just makes you go, "Oh my god!" When it's over, you're breathless.
Pitchfork: You've been doing of Montreal for so long and for so much of the time it's basically been a home-recording project. Is it a big adjustment to come out to L.A. and work the way you've been working on this one?
KB: Yeah. I can't imagine that I would have been able to do it with anyone else, but somehow I just felt so relaxed with Jon. I just really love hanging out with him, even if we're not working. A lot of the time, we're just hanging out, talking and trading stories. We talk about music and playing songs together; he's amazing in that way. He has this head full of songs. He remembers everything and can figure it out instantly. So we spent a lot of time sitting on the piano. We'd talk about some Marvin Gaye song, and he'd be like, "Oh yeah! It's like this! And then this chord changes; it's so beautiful!" We were falling down over these things. We both just love music so much, and we're just so excited about the creative process. He's an exceptional human, and I can't imagine that I would have had as wonderful of an experience with anyone else.
Pitchfork: You've got Janelle Monáe and Solange on this album, and they're both fans of your band. Is it a charge for you to reach across these aisles and connect with people who work in genres that are so far outside where you've been situated?
KB: It's funny. I listen to so much soul music and R&B music. I never really felt like we were a part of any genre. I know that other people would group us in with certain other bands or whatever, but in my heart I didn't really belong there. So it wasn't really strange at all for me, at least, to think of myself on the same wavelength with [Monáe's collective] the Wondaland Arts Society and with Solange. But it was definitely exciting. It's always exciting when you meet someone that is insanely gifted, who you respect so much. And if you get the sense that they respect you too, that's the greatest feeling.
Pitchfork: What are Janelle and Solange like to work with?
KB: Fantastic. I mean, they're my good friends, so we just have fun together. I wrote a song on Janelle's record, and we sang it together. I'm super-close friends with everybody at the Wondaland Arts Society, and we trade songs back and forth all of the time; they're like my best friends. And Solange is fantastic. Her son and my daughter are best buddies, and I think we're going to have an arranged marriage for the two of them.
Pitchfork: The song that you've got on the Janelle Monáe album is really interesting; it's basically an of Montreal song with her singing on it, rather than with you guys playing on her song. It's interesting how it fits into the fabric of that album, and also how it stands out from it. Whose idea was it to put your song on her album?
KB: I guess it just happened organically. I can't really remember a conversation or anything. I think I was just sending them songs. After I met Janelle and [collaborators] Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder and everybody from the Wondaland Arts Society, it was almost like this romance began. I still feel that excitement. Like, we're in the honeymoon period. It was just super exciting to know each other and to collaborate together, so I can't even really remember how it came about. It just happened organically and now it's there. I haven't really thought about it.
Pitchfork: It's cool how it comes up like that. I like how that album is just left turn after left turn.
KB: For me, it's the album of the last five or 10 years. It's fantastic because it's not just one thing. Like you said, it's constantly changing, and it's almost a through-composition. You never really know where one song is ending and another song is starting. And there's so much cool stuff happening on every fadeout of every song as well. You're like, "Where's that going? That thing was so great! I wish they would have developed it more, but oh, another amazing thing is just popping up!" I can't say enough good things about that record.
Pitchfork: When you're putting music together for a record, do you think about how it's going to come off onstage, with all the theatrics of your live show? Do you develop ideas for the show as you're working on the music?
KB: No, the live show usually comes after the fact. Usually, I write without thinking too much about how we're going to pull it off, just sort of getting excited about what's inspiring me at the moment. We just did this two-week tour, and basically every night on that tour, we would all have a meeting and talk about different ideas that we want to try out for the False Priest tour. We were really excited about production and getting that in motion. Right now, I'm still in L.A. mixing stuff, but my brother and Davey [Pierce] and everybody in the band is back in Athens, building props and creating costumes and thinking up ideas. So we're super excited.
The initial tour that we do to support a record, we'll invest a lot of money and a lot of time and energy and try to make it this giant production. We don't necessarily make money on those tours, but that's not the point. The point is just to be involved in something artistically satisfying and exciting. So this initial False Priest tour we're doing with Janelle Monae. It's going to be the most exciting event that I've ever been a part of. I just know it because we've got so many exciting ideas. We're going to marry the two shows together, in a way. It doesn't feel like you go see a band, and there's a pause, and there's another pause, and then it's over. We want to control the environment from right when the doors open, and have performance art and video performances and so many different levels of artistic stimulation that would go on throughout the whole night, so there's never a moment where there's house music or boring lighting. We want to transform the venues each night, so it becomes this exceptional experience for everyone.
Posted by Tom Breihan on June 17, 2010 at 8 a.m.