According to the full version of the above photo, there are potentially a full 13 people in the ever-evolving Of Montreal's current incarnation. As you know, just one of them really matters: Kevin L Barnes, the genius/fruitloop behind all ten of their albums to date, including last month's funky/fucked up False Priest. On the eve of a walloping great three date UK tour, DiS caught up with Mr Barnes to talk about fish slaughtering ex-girlfriends, the futility of religion, and why you can't change the world via the medium of lampshades.
Kevin Barnes: I think because I’d done that collage style writing on the last record I didn’t want to do that again, I felt like a change, so, um I leaned it more towards slightly more linear arrangement with the songs. I also wanted to create longer vamps within the songs. Skeletal Lamping was very jarring, with this one we wanted to bring out the rhythm element more. But I was still very much under the influence of Skeletal Lamping, it’s still very funky and still a fairly sexy record. But I started getting into, I guess, the heavier end of funk music.
DiS: Why did you decide to cut the entire record with live instruments this time? Was it because you had more money?
KB: Well I actually made this record at home, and by my standards it was basically done. But I’d been sending rough mixes to [producer] Jon Brion and I guess he had sort of gotten it into his head that he would like to help me realise a fuller sound. So he invited me out to California and I went in with a session drummer called Matt Chamberlain who came in and drummed on every single song. So once we’d improved the fidelity of the drum I was like ‘maybe I should recut the bass too’ so I just went through song by song and redid all the bass lines and then we sort of realised ‘well, why don’t we replace a couple of these digital pianos with real pianos’ and we kind of got carried away and sort of replaced everything.
DiS: So what you’re basically saying is that you technically made the same album twice?
KB: Yeah... it all just happened organically, I found myself out there working with this wizard of a producer and a musician and transforming my record, it’s been such a great education for me.
DiS: False Priest seems a bit more playful than your last few records; do I take it that not so many of the songs are biographical this time?
KB: Everything is based at least loosely on true stories...
DiS: So ‘Our Riotous Defects’... that actually happened to you?
DiS: Wow. So you had a girlfriend who killed your fish?
KB: Yeah, she killed my Betta fish over some really small shit...
DiS: Wow. On the second date?
KB: Er, no, it was later, well into the relationship...
DiS: It’s not your wife is it?
KB: No, previous relationship.
DiS: How does the subject feel about the song?
KB: Um... well, they’re not really a huge Of Montreal fan, they might hear it on the radio at some point... but I don’t care, she deserves it.
DiS: Yeah, it, er, sounds like it! Does it get harder finding stories like that now you’re settled down..?
KB: It’s pretty easy I guess – when I’m feeling inspired I just let whatever happens happen and I don’t really edit myself or second guess it I just let it flow... it’s funny, a lot of songs I can’t explain the inspiration or influence behind it, I can’t remember writing or even recording them. I just have a really bad memory I guess.
DiS: Skeletal Lamping, False Priest and your upcoming The Controller Sphere EP all take their titles from a single line of the song ‘Faberge Falls For Shuggie’... is there any meaning to them beyond that? Bar the anti-religious monologue at the end of the ‘Do You Mutilate?’, False Priest wouldn’t seem to be much to do with religion...
KB: I think that maybe it has some connection to the part before it, the ‘try to connect XX infinite pleasure’, but it is abstract, that’s the only way I can really write. If I try and make sense than I just fail. I might be failing anyways, but at least I’m doing it in a way that works with my normal brain function.
But I don’t really have any strong agenda. I mean, I was raised a Catholic, I did go to church for 18 years, went to Sunday school for 18 years, my mum is very involved in the church, but I don’t think that much about it or care about it... I don’t feel like the Catholic church is bringing about the end of the world or anything. But what I was trying to say with that very frank lyric at the end, which is something that my brother and I talk about a lot, is that we should put humanity first, that we shouldn’t put god above humanity, we shouldn’t think of a religious prophet as more important than just day to day helping people. I think people get carried away by the mythology of these things, the mysticism of it, that if you don’t on the surface act a certain way they you’ll be punished and if you act another way then you’ll be rewarded in the afterlife... but who cares about the afterlife? I can’t really understand that obsession. We can do better without God, because we can do away with all the uncertainties, leaving just the certainties. If we got rid of religion and just concentrated on trying to empower each other then I’m sure that would help us a lot more.
DiS: It sounds to me like you’ve been pushing your vocals a lot more on this album, not technically, but in terms of a few more vocal personas. Is that something you were aiming for?
KB: Yeah, definitely, and I think listening to people I really like live David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Prince, a lot of people have different vocal personas and with an album they go through four or five different personas. I’m just trying to be very expressive and experimental with what potential I have on this record, really trying to put my heart into every vocal performance and just make it more unconscious, sort of natural expression. It’s a cool thing because on this tour I’m not actually playing an instrument I’m just singing.
DiS: I can imagine you’ve wanted to do that for a while.
KB: Yeah, I’m sure I’ll miss playing a guitar but it's an interesting challenge and it will allow me to put all my energy into my singing. And of course there’s the dance moves, which are really tricky.
DiS: [laughs, unsure if he is joking] Speaking of Bowie: he always took pains to point out the inauthenticity in his dabbling with black American music, referring to it as ‘plastic soul’. Do you feel similar with what you’re doing?
KB: I’m not really TRYING to make soul music, but I don’t believe in that thing that if you’re white you can only make ‘white’ music authentically and if you make music that was created by black people then it’s obviously phoney. Maybe it was at one point, but I think now there’s so much cross pollination and intermingling of ideas and releases and cultures, I don’t feel any more of a phoney doing this than when I was making Coquelicot... which was influenced by the Gershwin brothers... now it’s just a sort of different obsession, but it's emotionally and intellectually connected to me, it doesn’t feel like I’m putting on a persona or anything.
I think that it goes both ways too – I think there are a lot of R&B producers seeking influence from outside sources, it’s not as homogenous as it once was, people are starting to nod to each other... it’s kind of similar to what was happening in the Sixties, Otis Redding covering Rolling Stones songs and Aretha Franklin covering Beatles songs... I don’t really know what happened in the Seventies to make it all so segregated again...
DiS: Do you ever feel at all self-conscious about the music you make? Like, does it require a special effort to psyche yourself up to do a vocal as OTT as the one on ‘I Feel Ya Strutter’?
KB: Er, no, when I’m recording I work on my own and just forget about the world. I don’t think about playing the music live or anybody else ever hearing it, I just want to make it exceptional, powerful, and not question myself. So much of funk music and soul music is so much about swagger, about attitude and confidence and you know I think I’ve reached this point, I know I’ve accepted my flaws, I’ve accepted that I’m not a perfect person, that I’m a total fuck up and I don’t really care, because everybody’s the same way, you know? I think self-forgiveness has really allowed me to go out there and not feel vulnerable, I don’t feel like anyone can take anything from me. It’s not like a cocky thing... I’ve just been down so low that I’ve got a new understanding about myself, what can be taken and what can’t.
DiS: ‘Enemy Gene’ and ‘Sex Karma’, the tracks on False Priest with guest appearances by Janelle Monae and Solange Knowles, are very explicitly duets, it’s not just a chorus hook or whatever; is that a mode you’d been interested in writing in previously?
KB: I’ve been a big fan of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s stuff for a while and I became sort of really obsessed with it while I was working on False Priest, so it was something that I was excited about. But I felt so privileged and so honoured to be able to work with Solange and Janelle, I think they're two of the most exceptional singers and artists and performers and human beings that we have among us on the Earth right now.
DiS: There are no novelty editions of False Priest, whereas Skeletal Lamping had all these special editions that were just a download and a fancy object; did that not pan out how you’d hoped?
KB: Um, it was kind of a funny thing, because we thought it was going to completely revolutionise the music industry. And that kind of didn’t happen, it didn’t even seem to be that big of a deal. And then you see other people who came out with similar things afterwards and we didn’t get any props for it. But we’re just some underground indie band... and maybe somebody had come up with the idea before us and I just didn’t know it. But we were all a little bit deflated because we thought it was going to be this big event, you know, abandoning the conventional product that goes along with the record and doing something totally far out.
DiS: I bought a lampshade.
KB: Maybe it was because the things that we were able to make on our budget weren’t that outrageously commercial... we were just crazy, now I think about it. We thought that this elaborate lantern or wall decal was somehow going to replace the TV or the microwave or something. But for The Controller Sphere we do have plans for some really cool packaging, something that we’ve been working on for a while.
DiS: Should we expect anything different from this tour?
KB: I think the same spirit but we’ve expanded out line-up so that we’re now an eight piece band, so this with the exception of a few samples everything is live. We’re trying to just get completely away from any sort of oppressive backing track, just try and create spontaneous energy, like we did it back in the day. We just want to be a real band, follow the spirit of Parliament. But there’s definitely going to be a theatrical element to it, we have a lot of new props that we’re very excited about bringing over to Europe.
DiS: Do you have a mental cut off point over how far into your back catalogue you’ll go?
KB: I’m weird about my back catalogue and my past in general, it’s almost like another person wrote those songs and I’d be covering some other artist if I played anything before Satanic Panic in the Attic. I think the False Priest tour will be very False Priest heavy with a few Hissing Fauna... and Skeletal Lamping songs thrown in. Luckily we don’t really have any major hits, so it’s not like anyone can go ‘they didn’t even play that’.
DiS: What about ‘The Past is a Grotesque Animal’?
KB: Yeah... that one’s hard though, it’s like a ten minute journey into hell... but I guess we’ll probably play it a couple of times. We’ve never done it with this line up, with a violinist, I think we could definitely create an interesting version of it. Maybe we’ll do it in London.