Interview: Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal
Whether he's exorcizing personal demons on the harrowing, yet poppy Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? or putting on a stage show with skull masks and people dressed as imaginary creatures, Kevin Barnes and Of Montreal continue to push up against the confines of indie rock. From breaking down traditional song structures on Skeletal Lamping to getting his best Bootsy Collins on with False Priest, Barnes may just make the most fun music about personal trauma and sexual desire. I was fortunate to spend 45 minutes speaking with Barnes about the creative process, Sufjan Stevens, his influences and selling out. I am proud to present the Spectrum Culture interview with Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal.
Your new EP Thecontrollersphere seems like a departure from what you were doing with False Priest.
Well, the songs were written and recorded around that same time period. It's very much a sister release to False Priest. There were songs that could have been on False Priest, but for whatever reason didn't make the cut.
I read an interview with you that said when you were making False Priest you were consciously trying to keep the length of the album down. Were these the songs that got cut off or a different batch of songs?
I only briefly toyed with putting "Black Lion Massacre" on False Priest but "L'age D'or" and "Slave Translator" were definitely intended for False Priest, but I cut them at the last minute.
I feel like the music on False Priest is more traditionally constructed pop songs while these break down the structure of traditional songs, especially the first track.
Yeah, definitely. On False Priest I was trying to make something that was a bit more accessible. Just a really well put together pop record without asking too much from the listener. Some of the Controllersphere songs are a bit more esoteric and not really for everyone.
Was that decision for the format of False Priest a reaction to Skeletal Lamping? That one definitely demands more from the listener.
Maybe to some degree, instead of making another Skeletal Lamping. I was excited to make something different than that.
You mention all of these titles on Hissing Fauna near the end. Was there a conscious trilogy in your mind at that point or did it come after you wrote the lyrics?
It just sort of happened organically. I didn't have a real vision of how the records would sound. I just knew those would be the titles for the next three records that followed Hissing Fauna.
Did those titles play on any obsessions of yours or were they free association?
They are definitely more free associations. At the time, I was just trying to come up with interesting song titles and that was part of the process. I got three album titles out of it.
Speaking of titles, the song titles on this new EP are less esoteric, to use your word, than many of your past ones.
I kind of go back and forth on that. You can name it anything you want to. You can give it a name people recognize and would make sense or give it a name that has a connected meaning with the song or maybe it doesn't. Sometimes I feel like giving it a totally sensible title and sometimes I feel like giving it some other kind of title. Like "L'age D'or," for example, I could have easily called it "She's My Party Drug" or something stupid like that. I guess a lot of times when you think a lyric is powerful or interesting then you can put more of a focus on it by titling the song that way. If you don't really care or don't really feel that strongly about any of the lyrics or you don't really want to put a spotlight on them then you give it some other title.
Traditionally bands title their songs after the chorus because it's the hook. Where with "Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse," most people would probably call it the "chemicals" song.
Exactly. Especially with Hissing Fauna there's so many Norwegian words that nobody can really pronounce. It's not like I would even know how to say it either and I lived there for that time period. Titling songs is a slippery slope sometimes.
Is "L'Age d'Or" a direct reference to the Buñuel film?
It seems to me a lot of your music practices the same principles as of Surrealism. Two major hallmarks of Surrealism are sexuality and savage desire. Those are things you are not shy about putting into your music.
Definitely not. I think we share the same spirit. The same excitement about life and its potential and being broad-minded and open to new experiences. Exploring different aspects of the psyche.
Do you notice a difference in reaction between American and European audiences when it comes to the sexual and violent parts of the stage show?
Not really. It's pretty much the same when we go to Europe or other countries. I think we appeal to a certain kind of person all over the world. That kind of person is definitely in the minority as far as human beings go. But there's a good contingent of them all over the world. We're pretty much playing to same species of human or whatever you want to call it.
We have a pretty puritanical country here and if you played a show for non-Of Montreal fans they would definitely be more upset about you taking a person in a pig costume from behind than people shooting at one another on the stage.
Yeah, but I think it's always very cartoony. Unless you have no sense of humor you will probably find most of the theatrics entertaining. You might find it juvenile. All of it is really tongue-in-cheek. We hardly ever have a serious agenda that we're trying to push or try to make people uncomfortable. We're just having fun. We feel so free. We feel so liberated physically and emotionally and intellectually that there aren't really any taboos that we're afraid of.
Are a lot of the sexual lyrics tongue-in-cheek also?
I don't know. It depends on what specific lyrics. There's definitely songs that are more personal to me and they come from a darker place. Those aren't necessarily that fun. But they can help me resolve certain issues. It's always better to talk about something and get it out in the open. It's not always fun but it's therapeutic.
Yeah, Hissing Fauna felt more confessional than the albums that followed it.
That record is out of necessity. I was going through such a difficult time and I was using music as something to help me heal. It's not like I set out to make a really personal, confessional record, I just needed to make that. If that makes sense. It wasn't a premeditated thing, "Well, this record is going to be very confessional." I was going through such a terrible time and I was using music as therapy in a way.
Now that the dust has settled, is looking back on that record and that period harder for you to re-experience? Do you feel the same pain? Are those songs closer to you because they spring from a more personal space rather than a persona?
I like that record. I like playing those songs. It's funny because we have so many songs that we haven't touched live. We haven't played anything from any of the records that came before Satanic Panic in the Attic in forever. I can't remember the last time we played any of those songs. It's kind of weird, like my mind turned around Satanic Panic in the Attic and these last couple of records. We seem almost like a different band. I just feel so disconnected from those other records but I feel really connected to Hissing Fauna, Sunlandic Twins and Satanic Panic in the Attic. I definitely feel really connected to them but some songs are harder to perform night after night. Like "The Past is a Grotesque Animal," we've played that many, many times. But it's not something I'm really feeling right now and don't want to do it. But it's cool to have songs like that. If you are in a certain mood you can exorcize those demons with a song. If all you had was really happy songs, you'd be kind of fucked if you're in a shitty mood (laughs).
"The Past is a Grotesque Animal" has to be hell to play, especially on your voice.
I'm a weird vocalist. I'm really taking chances because I am not trained at all. I have no idea really how to protect my voice or even how to warm up. I have some really rudimentary techniques I use to warm up but a lot of times I don't even warm up. A lot of times I just
take the stage and realize, "Oh shit, I'm not warmed up yet! I can't sing this yet!" Then you just have to work your way through it.
I know that as a fan singing "Past" it wears me out.
Yeah, that song is super wordy. There are songs on Icons, Abstract Thee EP that came out right after Hissing Fauna that we've never played and I can't even listen to them because it still hurts me. It's way too sad still. But I guess there is a form of detachment that happens with songs. It's detaching from the source or inspiration and taking it somewhere else. Then I can deal with it. I've played "The Past is a Grotesque Animal" so many times and it doesn't really hurt me in that way. It just felt good to do it. But with those other songs I would just feel bad (laughs). I don't even want to sing them or think about them.
I'd like to back up for a moment about the longevity of the band and not playing the old stuff. Every time I see Of Montreal I feel like the audience gets younger and younger which is pretty fantastic for a band that has been around for so long. Is it hard to attract new fans without alienating the old ones?
To be honest, I don't think it's that healthy to think about your fans because you could be a fan of one record or one song. It could change. You don't really have to be beholden to some concept of the fan's perception of you or what they want from you. What one specific person wants from you or what a majority of people want from you. I don't think it's healthy for an artist to even consider that. So, I don't really think about that when I'm writing and recording. I'm not really worried about alienating people or pleasing people. I don't really think it would help the process at all. It's very important to me when I'm creating something to not let anybody else into my little bubble. I feel like that makes it impure and takes it out of this place it needs to be for it to happen organically.
So what is it about your music that attracts the 16-year-old? There is a sophistication about it that's different than what is on the radio these days or lack thereof radio.
I'm not sure really. I can't really say. Maybe because it's liberating. Maybe seeing people wearing interesting outfits and dressing up. I think it appeals to the side of people's personality that is in a hibernating state most of the time. Then they get a chance to cut loose because it's like Halloween or a costume party. It's always fun to go to a costume party when Halloween rolls around because everyone gets into it. Pretty much everybody has that side to their personality but most of the time it's in this hibernating state.
Back to the breaking down of song structures - another artist I feel is doing similar things is Sufjan Stevens with his newest record The Age of Adz.
Yeah, I love that record.
Someone was telling me that you do. I do see some similarities between his music and yours. I know that record, like Hissing Fauna, came out of personal strife.
That record has really meant a lot to me. It is probably the record I have connected with the most over the last five years or so. Not only because of its emotional content but also musically I feel like I've never heard music like that before. It's one of the most groundbreaking records we've ever had as humans. It is weird to me that it hasn't gotten more acclaim. I mean, it has gotten a lot of critical acclaim but I saw the records making critics' album of the year lists and I just couldn't believe that record wasn't on top of all the lists. Anybody who really loves music and loves the art form should see that it was the most fantastic, most exceptional record made that year.
I think one of the problems was that people were expecting another Illinois and it's completely different than that.
With artists, all of their records are held up against each other. If that was his first record and there was no other reference of what Sufjan does and what he is capable of it probably would have had a completely different impact on people. I was thinking about a review I read of the new Deerhoof record. I love Deerhoof and I think they're incredibly creative and extremely wonderful and important. I couldn't believe this writer was giving them such a mediocre review. I was thinking about all the other records that were getting good reviews that were so much more derivative and so meaningless. Well, not meaningless but I can't imagine them having any sort of value 10 years from now. It's weird that certain records that are more adventurous, more cutting edge and more valuable....
Not everyone wants to be challenged when they listen to music.
Yeah, that's true.
Have you seen Sufjan play those songs live?
No, I haven't seen him yet but I think we're playing a festival together this summer so hopefully I will get a chance to see it. I can't imagine how he'd do it live.
Speaking of stage shows, the last time I saw Of Montreal, it seemed to be more Kevin Barnes-centric than ever before. The band surrounded you in a horseshoe shape and you had the entire stage to roam around. Will we be seeing less and less of the other band members?
That was just an idea for the last tour because we wanted to do something different from the previous tours where we had a lot of action with the performance artists. We'd done tours before where we had this room where most of the theatrics took place but that was an insanely heavy stage and it broke everyone's backs (laughs). So we decided to make it a little easier on ourselves so we created that horseshoe shape. I wasn't playing guitar on that tour. It was fun for me to be a front man and dancing around and have that sort of persona. On this new tour, it's kind of similar to that but we're getting more people involved with singing songs. We're getting band members involved in different ways. We kind of felt it was weird to have the band so displaced in a way and have them pushed into the shadows. We want to get people more involved this summer.
Is there a line where theatrics can overshadow the music?
I never really felt that because the music doesn't change just because something is happening on the stage. It doesn't get quieter. If people are really trying to focus on the lyrics but they're getting distracted is one thing, but I don't think you could ever have too much going on on stage for me. If I go see a concert 99% of the bands that really have any sort of theatrical elements to their shows, they might have some video stuff but I would never think that. It's obvious if you've seen our shows that we wouldn't think that. I wouldn't feel that way about theatrics. I always loved what George Clinton did. I always loved the theatrical side of Parliament and how they had so many different layers to what they were about. We view ourselves in that vein. We think of ourselves as the grandchildren of Parliament.
On your last tour it seems like you found a great foil for yourself in Janelle Monae.
She's amazing. She has become a really close friend of mine. It's amazing to develop new friendships, especially artistic relationship like that. It's something I treasure and hold very close to my heart.
Did she help you come up with that Michael Jackson tribute at the end of the show?
No, that was our idea. We wanted to come up with something we could all do together. We didn't really think of the tour as Janelle Monae and Of Montreal. We wanted there to be a lot of integration between the two groups. We just wanted to have a lot of cross-pollination. The Michael Jackson thing at the end was a really great way to close the evening together, holding hands.
I also saw you do a Franz Ferdinand cover and a Nirvana cover once to end your show.
It's kind of hard to pick them though. That's the tricky thing. It's always fun. The Nirvana was great. It seemed like the right time and it had been long enough for people to get back into Nirvana. It was around the time of the anniversary of Nevermind. That record meant a lot to me at one point so it was great to do that one again. It's a great song. The most badass rock song ever.
Which cover song ideas have been floated around that will never see the light of day?
We tried a number of things we felt like we couldn't do. It's hard to do a Marvin Gaye song or Al Green. If you don't have that voice, it's going to sound kind of weird. I guess you could always do it. We were listening to the Slits version of "Heard it Through the Grapevine" yesterday and realized how incredible that version is. In a lot of ways, it's just as good as all the other versions out there but it's not Marvin.
Speaking of your voice, I feel like your vocal style has been moving closer and closer to Prince. I know you referenced '70s musicians such as Parliament and Stevie Wonder but has Prince been a direct influence on your songwriting as well?
Yeah, definitely. Without question. I adore him and I adore everything about him. He's an incredible professional.
He's an incredible musician and incredible vocalist and dancer. You couldn't really ask for a better human (laughs). I mean on an artistic level. Especially his earlier records like Sign O' the Times, Parade and basically everything up until Diamond and Pearls is, I think, the most incredible pop writing we have.
I remember reading somewhere they floated doing a Prince and Bob Marley duo at one point. But Bob Marley wouldn't do it because Prince was too effeminate. I should probably Google it to be sure. That would have been pretty interesting.
I guess Stevie Wonder did some stuff with Bob. I was doing some Googling about that. That's awesome but I don't think there is any footage of it. There's a recording of a show Stevie did in Jamaica maybe, and Bob Marley played and they played some songs together. It was pretty amazing. Yeah, Prince and Bob Marley would have been pretty great.
Stevie Wonder is another guy who had an amazing run of albums.
Yeah, it's insane. I was listening to a lot of Stevie Wonder when I was doing False Priest and rediscovering Songs in the Key of Life and Innervisions and Music of My Mind and that whole period. Songs in the Key of Life is one of those records that really inspires you and you really love it but at the same time it can make you feel like, "Why do I even bother?" I'm never going to make anything that great (chuckles).
Is it reasonable to hold yourself to a standard like that?
No, definitely not. That's why I have to be like, "Fine, I'm not Stevie Wonder. I'll never be that great." But I'm not going to not make music because I'm not Stevie Wonder. There is that little voice sometimes that's like, "God, man. I wish I was that good" (laughs). You know, that's all right. I'm sure he probably felt that way about other people too. I'm sure he probably felt that way about James Brown or Otis Redding or whoever. Everyone has that insecurity. Jimi Hendrix didn't like his own voice. Things like that. How could Jimi Hendrix not like his own voice? He sounds great!
You have definitely mined the funkier side of Stevie Wonder but have you ever thought of doing something as heartbreaking like "All In Love Is Fair" or something like that?
Those kind of ballads are actually my least favorite Stevie stuff, even though it's great. I can appreciate it but I don't know. Writing about love like that is kind of tricky. If it really comes from the heart, that's one thing. But so many times people will sit down and write a song and they just write about love because it's the conventional thing to do. But I'm not really that into love ballads at all. They just don't seem that genuine most of the time.
You don't feel like something like "Let's Get It On" isn't genuine?
No, that's genuine, for sure. Sexuality is a real, natural thing. If I thought about it I'm sure there's some love songs that really touch me. I feel like John Lennon's songs for Yoko seem genuine. There has to be a rawness too. If it's just super flowery and sentimental it doesn't really have much impact.
What songs in your lifetime have meant the most to you?
Definitely the first two John Lennon solo records.
Plastic Ono Band and Imagine?
Yeah, Plastic Ono Band plus Imagine. Definitely Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. There is always an emotional impact and potency in those records. All the Beatles records. All the '60s Kinks records, Os Mutantes, Sly and the Family Stone with everything up until Fresh. Curtis Mayfield's first couple solo records. There's just so many.
It's pretty amazing that we get to experience this stuff, isn't it?
Yeah, it's great. I was talking to someone yesterday about as an artist it's kind of incredible that in 2011 that you have Stevie Wonder, Parliament, Prince but you also have Sufjan Stevens and Animal Collective and Caribou and other people like that. There's so much incredible music from earlier times and even world music. Especially now, everything is so accessible. All this incredible stuff from the '60s like Ethiopian funk. You can get your hands on that. Like Cambodian music. It's crazy how much access we have to so much incredible stuff.
How do you find time to listen to music?
I like listening to music when I'm doing little things around the house like cooking or chilling out. I always want to have music on when I'm doing something non-musical. It's not going to be a distraction. A lot of times if I come into the studio before I start work on something, I will listen to something to get into the spirit of it and let that inspire something out of me.
Let's talk about the music industry. I just watched Morgan Spurlock's movie about advertising. The whole conceit of the film is selling out vs. buying in. This is about the Outback thing. I feel like the whole attitude of the country has changed lately. Back when Of Montreal started out, people would have been pissed off about a band jumping from an indie label to a major. Now there is no radio or MTV and people don't care about a Wilco song on a Volkswagen ad or your song on an Outback commercial. Was it hard for you to make that decision? Is that the only way to get your music out?
It's kind of a tricky thing. As an indie artist, everyone is always so broke all the time. They've been broke their whole lives probably. When these big companies come to you with a check for more money than you've ever seen at one time, more money than you'd probably make all year, it's really, really difficult to say no to that. But then there's that dilemma because you know there's going to be a bad backlash. I think it still exists in the community. Not with everybody but there's definitely a punk rock attitude still prevalent in the scene where you don't lip synch or do certain things. There's these unwritten rules as far as maintaining your credibility. If you put a song in a commercial and it's pitching some stupid product and your song gets associated with that stupid product it's kind of terrible because the song has been ruined for people. You just throw trash on the song in a way which is not respectful to your own art. But at the same time, you need that money to keep going and to keep putting out records.
People would say, "Well, R.E.M. wouldn't do that and Radiohead wouldn't do that," but they are not in the same financial position as a lot of indie acts.
Totally. For them, there is no reason to do it because they don't really benefit, necessarily, from having a song in a Volkswagen commercial. It depends who you are. I think what you're saying is true. People aren't as critical as they used to be and it probably wouldn't be death to band. There would probably be a handful of people that would be like, "Fuck that band. They're sell outs, blah blah." You don't really hear "sell out" that much anymore. It doesn't seem like it really comes into the conversation that much anymore.
Right, the attitude has changed.
I'm sure if you're a punk rock band and that was your whole thing , anti-corporation, then you'd lose everything if you did that. For most people, you gain people who are like, "Oh, actually that song was really cool."
What was your experience with it? Did you gain more fans or was there backlash?
I think we had both. Definitely there was major backlash. We had people coming to the shows....There was one show we played in Austin, Texas where these people brought a big Outback Steakhouse banner. They went so far out of their way. They got napkins from Outback Steakhouse and were throwing them in the air (laughs). It was something they had to spend money on actually and that's a lot of time. That was like next level backlash. But we had people still come to the show and stuff. It wasn't like nobody was supporting us anymore.
No one threw a Bloomin' Onion at you?
I think they had a Bloomin' Onion that they wanted to throw but then someone somehow caught it beforehand (laughs).
Would Kevin Barnes circa Cherry Peel feel the same way?
About selling out?
If you got approached with that sum of money.
I think it would be the same situation. It hasn't really changed. During Cherry Peel I had this telemarketing job. All of us had these terrible jobs so I think if I had got offered a way out of that even in spite of losing some credibility in some people's eyes, I don't think I would be able to refuse it. You have to really sacrifice a lot to maintain that level of anti-corporate whatever. You can't really get around it. Everybody shops in the same places. Everybody is supporting these corporations anyway. What difference does it make if you have a song in a commercial or you go there and buy their hamburger? It's the same thing in a way. At least if you sell a song for a commercial, you're getting something out of it. I could see it both ways. I can see how it's potentially damaging
to a song, at least, and to some degree people's perception of you and your commitment to your art. There are other hard realities you have to accept as an adult.
I interviewed one indie artist who said the goal nowadays is not to be rich but not have to work a day job anymore.
That's pretty much it. You just want to be able to make your music. No one is really trying to get yachts and Mercedes Benz. We're just trying to stay afloat and be in a situation where we can focus as much as possible on our art.
Do you self-finance all your own records?
I have a deal with Polyvinyl where we split all the expenses. But I have my own studio where I record. With the exception of False Priest everything I have ever recorded was recorded in my home studio. Studio might give you an exaggerated concept of what it was, especially back in the day. It was basically a 4-track and a $100 mike. Slowly, with each record, it has gotten a little bit better. I have understood how to get better sound, slowly, over time, by just learning little things, little engineering tricks and little mixing tricks. Pretty much everything is done on a shoestring budget or no budget at all.
You seem to have a lot of ideas circling around your work. Where are you headed next?
I started working on a new record. I'm basically done, actually. All of the songs are a lot longer. Much of the songs are about eight minutes long. It's a little bit like I was doing with Skeletal Lamping, having these longer, slightly fragmented songs. These ones are less fragmented. They feel more like one composition and not a bunch of different compositions pieced together. I've incorporated a lot more symphonic instruments. There are a lot of woodwinds and strings and brass. Things I haven't really used in the past very much.
Are you playing these or do you have people coming in?
Yeah, I can't play those instruments. K Ishibashi, who plays in the band now, plays violin and is doing all the string arrangements. He's turned me onto a bunch of his friends that are really talented and also excited about experimental arrangements. Which is important because a lot of people can play an instrument, but they don't have much imagination. They have all these rules in their heads, especially classical musicians. They have all these rules in their heads about what you can do and what you can't do. They are a bit robotic about it. Then you get that great combination of virtuosity and imagination. I feel really fortunate that I've met a couple people that fit that description.
Is there a thematic preoccupation in your new songs?
It's definitely more intimate. It's more personal. It's not really as sexual. There are a couple of funkier moments but I wanted to make something that sounded more intimate just because I was going through some different things as of late. Similar to Hissing Fauna, I was using music as therapy to get over these things and resolve them.
Do these songs have movements and tempo switches like the Sufjan songs?
Each one is different. The Sufjan record definitely feels almost like a through composition. You could listen to the whole thing and think about them as different suites because it definitely feels consistent throughout, which I can't even imagine how he was able to sustain that focus on something, to my ears and to my mind, that seems so complex. To have that complexity sustained throughout the 70 minutes or however long it is, that was something I was extremely inspired by. There is a lot more repetition on his record than there is on my stuff. I don't repeat very many sections. I create these expansive soundtracks. A lot of the songs go into these weird, less lyric-based and more music-based moments. There are definitely moments of heavy lyricism but there's really, really moments of instrumental periods. That's really different for me because I haven't really worked much with instrumental music.
I know Sufjan used a visual artist as his inspiration. Do you use any external stimuli when it comes to writing or does it all come from within?
There are definitely a lot of outside influences, especially musically. I hear something like Stevie Wonder for example or I hear something like "Boogie on Reggae Woman" and I listen to what he's doing on the keys and I think, "I want to do something like that. That's so incredible." So then I'll make something like that. It won't sound like Stevie. Nobody can sound like him, anyway. But often, Parliament and Prince and Sly, all these people influence me greatly.
by David Harris