Kevin Barnes isn't from Montreal, nor is he from the Florida subtropics, although he did move from Michigan to Palm Beach Gardens at age 15. But he left when he was 21 and never even glanced back.
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"I don't look fondly on those years. I blocked them out of my memory," says the acclaimed psychedelic poptician from his home in -- where else? -- Athens, Georgia. "I didn't like living in Florida. I never really met anyone else who was on the same wavelength I was on. It was always a struggle to try to make things better, but eventually I just gave up and moved. I'm definitely much happier in Athens than I was down there in West Palm."
That comes as no surprise, since Athens is where Barnes found his current bandmates and fell into the same circles as Jeff Mangum (of Neutral Milk Hotel) and Will Cullen and Bill Doss (Olivia Tremor Control), even becoming their housemate. "It was a little strange," Barnes says about shacking up with the noted Elephant 6 affiliates. "We already felt like a little brother to Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel and Apples in Stereo. Those were the three godheads, and we were kind of underneath them."
Barnes, 28, probably doesn't see it that way anymore. Of Montreal has taken the same totems sacred to the psychedelic pop crowd -- Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds -- and elevated them to outrageously ambitious heights. Each Of Montreal album has been a novella jacketed with a distinct personality, with the new Aldhils Arboretumexploring the sensation of disconnect from one's own community set to colorful little romps ("A Question for Emily Foreman," "Pancakes for One") and fun, hurried pop gems ("Natalie and Effie in the Park," "Predictably Sulking Sara") popped out of a pocket, displayed, and hidden again. The slightly '60s arrangements are weighted with toots and honks and a tambourine's silly shake. An oboe doesn't even sound out of place as lead instrument by the time you've traveled all the way to the arborescent "Kissing in the Grass."
Beyond the obvious influences, Barnes cites early King Crimson, South American crazies Os Mutantes, Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt, and Philip Glass. Certainly a far cry from his first musical aspirations, attempted while at Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach, where he began the seeds of a band called Soulcraft (!), known for Metallica, Fugazi, and Jane's Addiction covers. Barnes was the singer. "I had this Jim Morrison complex," he groans. "I thought I was a poet. It was very, very embarrassing. I don't know if anyone has any film documentation, but if they do, I hope they burn it. Those were awkward years. I was very impressionable."
Actually, videotape does exist of the acoustic-oriented songs Barnes was writing and performing just before he headed north in 1994. At the Wormhole, a small record store in downtown West Palm Beach, Barnes introduced some of his first compositions [see "The Caucasian Rock Circle," December 13, 2001]. At Soundsplash, another local CD store, he located copies of two current touchstones -- the Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society ("that changed my life forever") and Brian Wilson's long-lost Smile.
Luckily for Barnes, by the time he'd left Florida, he was recording four-tracks in his bedroom (sound familiar?), sending one to the Bar/None label, which snatched Barnes for a three-album deal. He called his first project Trucker's Wife and spent the next few years traveling around the Midwest. During a trip to Montreal, he suffered and subsequently became utterly consumed by a horrific heartbreak, the echoes of which still color his work and gave his band its name. Of Montreal's first record, 1997's Cherry Peel, introduced Barnes' lo-fi, confessional navel-gazing. "Rather than focusing on the negative or even becoming active and changing reality, we were just becoming more introverted, trying to change our reality that way," Barnes explains. The next year's follow-up, The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy, was a virtual role-play of Barnes' Canadian heart-shatter. The songs were barren and painfully personal but as melodically complex as Cole Porter classics. Therapeutic, no doubt, for Barnes but still bidding a warm welcome to the rest of the world, the mini-symphonies of Bedside Dramasolidified Of Montreal's capable charms.
By 1999's The Gay Parade, Of Montreal began creating strange lands with weird characters. Staring at traffic one day, Barnes rearranged the images in his mind into a sort of abstract parade, each passing vehicle becoming a float and each float symbolizing a brightly colored song. The next year, the band released Horse and Elephant Eatery (No Elephants Allowed): The Singles and Songles Album, capturing stray fairy-tale fragments sans the expected thematic thread but still remaining innocently engaging.
Almost too grand to be believed (and certainly a lot to absorb all at once), 2001's honestly subtitled Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse explodes with untethered creativity. The concept and story line are impossibly intricate, as evinced by titles like "The Events Leading Up to the Collapse of Detective Dullight" and "The Hopeless Opus or the Battle of the Unfriendly Ridiculous." The accompanying booklet features bizarre anthropomorphic cartoon characters like the kind Robyn Hitchcock is known for, but rendered in the style of National Lampoon's M.K. Brown. The results -- festooned with theremin, horns, marimba, even kazoo, earned Coquelicot comparisons to Syd Barrett on Sesame Street.
"It feels dismissive when people say 'very childlike,' because it has this connotation of being frivolous," Barnes complains. "I never want to make something pretentious and too serious. I'm into surrealism and dadaism and absurdism, and the fundamental elements of those movements was a playfulness and a libertine attitude."
Barnes doubts he would have ever found the inspiration for this lysergic imagery if he'd stayed in the land of Jimmy Buffett cover bands. "Everybody in Palm Beach Gardens was into surfing and, oddly enough, country music.
"I really don't feel like Florida is my home -- it's just where my parents happen to live," continues Barnes, who plans to keep his visit low-key. "I'll probably bum around the house, go to the beach, and pray to God I don't see anybody from high school."