"The Past Is a Grotesque Animal," the 12-minute gamechanger on Of Montreal's 2007 album "Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?," documents founding member Kevin Barnes' transformation into his gender-bending alter ego, Georgie Fruit.
Fruit, is a 40-something, black, former funk singer who was a man, then became a women, but eventually decided he was better off as God made him. The 36-year-old Barnes channels the character on "Hissing Fauna's" second half, singing, "I've got my Georgie Fruit on/ He's my dark mutation/ For my demented past time," in "Labyrinthian Pomp."
"Skeletal Lamping" followed in 2008 and further merged Barnes with Fruit. The fragmented, ADD style of the album allowed him to jump in and out of character with ease as songs morphed every couple of minutes, segueing together into one 58-minute piece.
"At first I think it was a foreign entity in a way, or it felt like I was role-playing," Barnes said of Fruit. "But now I've been absorbed by it. I think it's a good device for artists to have, where they're able to explore different parts of their personality that just sort of gives them the freedom to do what they want to do, but maybe they're a little bit insecure about doing."
Easily Of Montreal's funkiest album, "False Priest" continues the hyper-sexual songwriting of "Skeletal Lamping," but distills the concept into distinct songs, rather than fragmented pieces. It also marks the first album Barnes recorded with an outside producer, the acclaimed Jon Brion. Barnes, who's recorded most Of Montreal albums almost entirely by himself, left the comfort of his home studio and brought Brion a finished version of the album to rethink.
"By Of Montreal standards, [the record] was basically done, and then I went out to California just to see what we could do to make it better," Barnes said. "I always had that in the back pocket, like OK, if this sucks and is just a waste of time, I'll just cut my losses and put out this other record."
Brion ended up adding to nearly every song on "False Priest," incorporating a booming bottom end and playing nearly as many instruments as Barnes. He also gives the album a fidelity unheard of for a band that prides itself on lo-fi productions.
"It was very educational and very inspiring," Barnes said. "It wouldn't have worked with any other producer, I don't think. But he's so gifted musically and technically and he understands music in a way that most people don't."
"False Priest" is also notable for two female guest artists: futuristic neo-soul vixen Janelle Monae and Beyonce's little sister, Solange Knowles. Monae will open most shows on Of Montreal's fall tour, including Monday and Tuesday nights at 9:30 Club. The two friends and frequent collaborators (Monae is in two "False Priest" songs, Of Montreal appears on her album "The ArchAndroid" in a song Barnes wrote) are planning a multimedia experience. Typical Of Montreal shows are high on art and chaos — with frequent costume changes, revolving set pieces and a supporting cast — sort of like the indie version of a Lady Gaga performance.
"With this tour, for the first time, we're really going to collaborate completely for every moment in the show," Barnes said. "We still want both artists to have their own personality, but we also want it to feel more seamless; the transitions aren't really obvious or really abrupt where the houselights come on, now all the crew's on changing equipment. We never want to break the illusion that you're being transported into this other reality.
Express asked Barnes to guide us through the funky, sexual, futuristic world of "False Priest" track-by-track.
"I Feel Ya' Strutter"
Pretty much on every song on the record I was trying to emote as much as possible and listening to Marvin Gaye. Marvin Gaye has been my primary vocal influence as of late, and seeing what he does with his voice, how he puts so much heart and emotion and life into ever song, every vocal take. And songs are different and they require different things from the vocalist and so, on this record with every song — or even within the song — I was trying to have different moments convey different emotions and really — I know it sounds cheesy — sing from the heart.
"Our Riotous Defects" (with Janelle Monae)
There's truth to everything. It's definitely a bit of a fantasy song. But yeah, there's definitely moments from my life that I put into it.
It's also like Stevie Wonder — there's moments in Steve Wonder songs that just crack me up, where he'd start talking and saying crazy things about sweet, sweet love. George Clinton, too. It's definitely taking the baton from those artists in a way.
[The "Coquet Coquette" video, see: above] was very collaborative. I originally got the idea at a museum in Chicago. I was hanging out with the Wondaland Arts Society — Janelle Monae and Chuck Lightning, Nate Wonder — and I saw this painting, I don't even remember who the artist was, but it showed these ghoulish figures that were in the water out on this boat, and it sort of clicked in my head that it'd be cool to make a battle on the beach. It's sort of is a reference to the absurdity of war and the absurdity of how violent we are as a race.
That's why I like the ending scene — it's like these two brothers, who actually are me and my brother, we are side-by-side the whole time and we are slaying our enemies together. At the end my brother goes to give me a congratulatory handshake, and instead I just stab him. I look around and I survey the beach and I see that everyone's dead and I'm just depressed because there's no one left to kill.
I originally got that idea [for the chorus] from a Wreckless Eric song, I think it's called "Whole Wide World," but I thought he said "Because nobody's stoned about you." But I think he actually said, "Because nobody knows about you." I actually get a lot of ideas from mishearing things and thinking, "I thought he said that, no, he didn't say that. OK, good, I'm going to say that then." But it's sort of a song about my childhood. And it's fairly autobiographical, and it's the idea that everybody's stoned about you, everybody's thrown about you, it's just sort of confusion. That sort of feeling of being misconstrued and people aren't really understanding what you're about, and you don't really understand what you're about. You know, that state of confusion that you're in when you're 17 or whatever.
"Enemy Gene" (with Janelle Monae)
I really think that without [Monae and Wondaland Arts Society] this record would be a completely different animal. The main things I can point to are they're very much into sci-fi of course, anyone can see that. And also extremely into funk, but mainly Chuck Lightning. He's one of Janelle's collaborators and one of the main songwriters in Deep Cotton, another Wondaland Project. He turned me on to Philip K. Dick. I'd never really read sci-fi before, so it was definitely a big moment for me. There are a few moments lyrically that you might be able to see the sci-fi influence.
It just seemed so natural to have [Monae] sing on it. It seemed to totally capture that same spirit.
That one actually has more of [Jon Brion's] stamp on it than any of the other ones, just because originally I was thinking it wouldn't be on the record and he was campaigning to get it on the record, so he spent a couple of nights creating other synthesizer solos and adding a lot of the stuff that really makes the song special. And then he presented it to me, and I was like, "OK, this is insane. Yes, let's put it on the record."
"Like a Tourist"
That was one of the songs I recorded and it was done, and the things that we added were just little subtle things, like some synth bass and this Mighty Wurlitzer that we played at this church. Jon was doing a film score and the director wanted some really ghostly organ sounds and he found this Mighty Wurlitzer; there's only like a handful of them in the world.
It's like a gigantic pipe organ. It's absolutely massive. And it was in this church that was pretty cool. The mighty Wurlitzer shows up in a bunch of songs. We're like "Oh, well we got all the mics set up, we might as well go through as many songs as we can." He and I both played it.
"Sex Karma" (with Solange)
[Solange and I] met through Janelle. We were hanging out backstage and Solange was there. Janelle introduced us. At that time I didn't know Solange very well, and I wasn't really that familiar with her music, but after I met her and got her record, I realized we had a lot in common. You know, she's just an amazing music lover. She turned me on to a bunch of things. She's an amazing performer, amazing vocalist. We just bonded right away. We've written songs together.
"Sex Karma" was the first song I wrote for "False Priest;" I wrote it pretty much right after "Skeletal Lamping." So that one has been around for a while, and I always felt it would be weird for me to sing or to say "playa," but when I originally wrote it, I thought it should be for a female vocalist, so it worked out perfect.
"Girl Named Hello"
At the end of "Sex Karma," you know the whole — "you look like a playground to me" sort of gospel-ly thing? — I had this drum loop that I connected to the end that had a Cuban sort of Latin groove to it, and then I was like "Whoa, I should extend that, that would be cool." And then I just made this funky vamp. In a way it's a proper funk vamp — it just repeats and it's the same. I did a lot of guitar layering so there's a lot of subtlety to the guitar part; it's not just one riff over and over and over again. That's actually one of my favorite moments on the record.
I'm definitely a big Cure fan. I don't think they get enough credit, but there's definitely that sort of [vibe], there's even a bit of a Cars element to it, that sort of muted guitar thing, and then it changes in the middle section to something a bit different.
"Casualty of You"
I think it's good to have an emotional balance so it's not all just sunny upbeat songs, because it can get kind of static. It's exciting because everything is upbeat and danceable, but I always try to fight that static situation. So it's good to have a counterbalance of something that's heavier, and it's also more representative of who I am or just the human experience. It's not always going to be happy. There's going to be dark moments as well. It has sort of vampire-ish qualities.
"Around the Way"
I learned that there should be nothing embarrassing about expressing a genuine feeling and that's actually the thing that most people identify the most with: the vulnerability, and we need that from our artists. I definitely connect more; that's why I love Marvin Gaye so much. There's so much heart on his sleeve, you can really feel what he's going through. Or John Lennon, for example; "Plastic Ono Band" is one of my favorite albums because of the primal scream therapy he was going through and incorporating into his songs and into his vocals. I love pop songs, but often they can be sort of disposable. And then there are these few moments in pop music where you can always go back to them, and always be touched by them and always be healed in a way.
"You Do Mutilate?"
A lot of my ideas, I don't second-guess them. They just sort of happen, like, "What am I going to call this one? How about this?" And then it just sort of sticks. For a while "Hydra Fancies" was called "Chaotic Ancient Rift." I just love coming up with strange combinations of words. I love the idea of adding a question mark for no reason.