Kevin Barnes: hungry like the wolf
Prior to tomorrow night's show at the Phoenix, we spoke to the Of Montreal ringleader about alcohol-inspired creativity, wearing women's clothing, what his mom thinks of his onstage nudity and spirit animals.
BY Sarah Nicole Prickett May 02, 2011 15:05
Something you might not know about Of Montreal—particularly if you don't know anything else about them either—is that they're not actually of Montreal. As the story goes, frontman Kevin Barnes—who is from the world's most wonderfully named place, Athens, Georgia—named the band after a Canadian girl who broke his heart. Well, he's returned the favour several times over since then. Barnes used to whip up chipper, psychedelic twee-pop songs (kinda like Animal Collective) and insane gimmicks (one album
was called Dustin Hoffman and featured “Dustin Hoffman” in every song title). Now, he makes sad songs that trick you—with a lot of bells and whistles and disco references—into thinking they're happy. Those are the best, or worst, kind, depending how you feel about being sad.
From 2007 (when Of Montreal got deeply glam with Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?), till now, with the release of totally manic EP thecontrollersphere, Barnes has fashioned himself as a kind of Bowie who can read. (If you don't get it, Google it.) His live performances look like Judith Butler case studies plus drugs. (You'll see, if you catch Of Montreal this Tuesday night at the Phoenix.) Meanwhile, in recent phone interview, Barnes tells me about everything from his favourite summer drink to his spirit animal, with some stuff about music in between.
So, where are you now?
Is it always sunny?
[Laughs] No, it's actually not.
Did you watch the royal wedding?
You know what, I missed it. I slept on that.
I would have, too, but I had to wake up for a minute and comment on “The Dress.”
How was it?
Beautiful, but so virginal. I don't get that about wedding dresses—like, you're 29, we don't believe you.
Maybe she got the hymen surgery. There's home kits for that now.
Yeah, at Shoppers. Or—what do you have in the States?—Walgreen's. Anyway, I was listening to The Controllersphere, and it reminds me so much of Bowie's “Space Oddity.” All spacey, lost and bleak.
The whole album reminded you of that?
OK, mostly the second song, but that was the most memorable one for me.
Yeah, it's very Bowie-influenced. I was also extremely wasted when I was writing and recording it.
What were you drinking?
I think I was drinking my favourite summer drink, which is gin, tonic, watermelon and a little bit of Perrier. It's really good. A little bit of mint, too. You gotta do that in the summeritme. It makes you feel better about the intense humidity. Although I like humidity. It feels like being in the tropics or something. I can imagine myself somewhere.
And you can go naked, which is a big pastime for you. I mean, I saw the Pitchfork photos. Question is, did your mom see them?
She was embarrassed. I've done so many things to embarrass her that she's kind of used to it. It's a bit of a shitstorm for a couple of days [after I do something like that], and then it's fine.
You've sold songs to a few commercials. Like, there was one for a steakhouse. Does that make you want to make your songs weirder, so commercials won't want to use them?
I haven't had a song in a commercial for a while, but it's not that intentional. That one [for Outback Steakhouse, which changed the lyrics of the song "Wraith Pinned to the Mist" to form a jingle] came out before I had any representation of the ad agency world—just how sinister they can be. They completely lied to me in regards to that song, that nightmare. For the other ones, I actually gave my consent. It's a good thing for indie bands because there's a good amount of money. Actually, there was a Canadian commercial I made the music for—it might have been online only—the Subway commercial. It was the people [Kangaroo Alliance] who made the "Wraith Pinned" video, the animated video, and they were working for a Canadian ad company. They did the animation and I did the music for a Subway commercial. You wouldn't notice it, though. It wasn't, like, Jared eating a sub and listening to my song.
My favourite use of an Of Montreal song in The September Issue; they play “Suffer for Fashion.” It's perfect.
I actually haven't seen that! But I should. Janelle Monae was super-into it, she was telling me the other day.
Your own fashion sense is notoriously theatrical. Were you always into the dress-up box as a kid?
No, I did a lot of athletics and kinda hung out with friends. My parents made me take drama. I was in Oklahoma! in high school, but I was just, like, a loser in the chorus. It wasn't until later that I discovered theatrics on my own. What we do [in Of Montreal] is so much more fun, because we just combine everything. In a way, I like bad taste better. The New York Dolls are one of my great inspirations. When I think about what they did at that time, and in New York City, one of the toughest places, to dress like that was really inspiring.
Diana Vreeland agrees with you on bad taste.
It should be fun! Go into your girlfriend's closet and grab whatever and put it on. Go out on stage. A lot of fashion is so trendy and it's so insecure, and there's no real joy there. You should be able to look ridiculous. That's why someone like Björk is really great. She does take chances.
Cross-dressing is kinda mainstream now. Even Kanye West wore a Celine shirt, a women's shirt, at Coachella.
Well, in the '60s, men were given options that weren't just grey, beige, khaki, white—these boring colours. Men like myself don't look in the men's section in most stores because it's so boring, but it wasn't always like that. After the '60s, the whole psychedelic period, we lost that for some reason in the '70s. It came back a bit in the '80s, on the club scene, but it dropped massively in the '90s when every guy was so butch in jeans and whatever. I think maybe it just goes in waves. Now, maybe we're back on track to having fun.
A lot of your songs are wild and bright, but the lyrics are very dark and serious. Are you doing that on purpose? Making people dance at their own funerals?
I think it's a combination of what I wish were true and what is true. I want to make emotive, joyful music, and in the past I have made similar lyrics to match the joy of the music, but then the music became slightly more cynical, slightly changed, and I'm trying to get out of it, but it's difficult to be extremely optimistic in the face of everything. I'm a bit of an Eeyore at heart.
And the music is Tigger.
Exactly. I think Tigger's on acid anyway.
I have this new therapist and she says all creative people are depressed, but maybe she just wants to make me feel good enough to hand over my money.
On some level, it's true. I think about what it is that makes artists want to produce, make us want to do it. On some level, it's dissatisfaction with reality, and trying to create our own. For me, making music definitely takes me to a better place. It's definitely therapeutic. I would be lost without it. I always have something I need to say, not even for the world, but just for myself.
What's happening with your side project with Andrew [VanWyngarden] from MGMT?
We've both been swept up in our own projects. It's been kind of difficult. We love each other and respect each other and hope that it does happen someday, it'd be really great. It's loading there in our consciousness.
Who else is left on your list of dream collaborations? You've done so many already.
There's a lot of people. It would be fun to collaborate with certain bands like Animal Collective and Caribou. Actually, you know, the person I would most want to collaborate with is Erykah Badu. She's extremely funky, she's like the funkiest woman alive. She has a spirit that is so free and crazy and interesting. She reminds me of everything that I like about funk music. It should be playful and wild and heavy and emotional.
Last question: what's your spirit animal?
I don't know. We've talked about this, but I don't know.... Maybe the wolf. I think about the way it's used in contemporary art. It's always the tackiest, most terrible thing imaginable, like all the truck-stop art. I like the way it appeals to people who aren't artists or avant-garde in any way, but they might hang a silk painting of a wolf, and it's big and mysterious.
Anything else you want to tell me?