Q&A: Of Montreal
Wild frontman Kevin Barnes ponders Prince and another stab at live comedy
Special to Metromix
It’s a bizarre feeling to realize there are indie rock bands that have been around long enough to already have, in the case of the band Of Montreal, 10 full-length albums under their collective belt. After last year’s well-received “False Priest,” the Athens, Georgia-based band has another EP they’re rolling out, “thecontrollersphere,” full of the typically upbeat, electro indie-pop that has come to define their sound.
But lead singer-songwriter Kevin Barnes—who has earned a reputation as an exuberant showman willing to strip down nude during shows or cover his body in mountains of glitter—fell in love with R&B in recent years and the band’s sound has reflected those newer funk and soul influences. That led to a collaboration with celebrated newcomer Janelle Monae on her critically lauded “The ArchAndroid” album and Beyoncé’s lil’ sis, Solange Knowles, who popped up on “False Priest.”
As the band hits the road for one of their celebrated, wildly visual live tours, Barnes continues to rely on the organic nature of collaboration between his creative team, which includes his brother and wife. And considering previous tours have included a live horse being trotted out on stage, those who’ve seen the art-rockers in action know that it often means expectations are going to be blown away.
What can someone expect for the live show? You guys are known for being incredibly over the top and then, other times, pretty minimalist in terms of production.
It’s something that sort of evolves over the course of the tour. We might start off with a concept or a set of ideas and then, the more shows that we play, the more that we switch it up and change it. We have a bunch of performance artists and a bunch of interesting cartoons for this one, though. My brother is the main one who creates most of the content for the stage theatrics of show. I mean, I talk to him about it but, for the most part, it’s his thing.
“Thecontrollersphere” EP was recorded at the same time as “False Priest.” Do you feel the songs differ much?
It’s a similar feeling but, in the way that all the songs are pretty different on “False Priest,” there are a decent variety of different kinds of songs: slower songs, faster songs, and funkier songs. It’s in that ballpark I guess.
What was the determination for holding off on including those songs on “False Priest”?
They would’ve fit but we really didn’t want to make a double album. So, we had to take some of the songs away. There are even more songs from that period that haven’t been released yet. I think we might even do another EP because it was a really productive time for me.
Is there any particular reason why it was so productive?
I think it was kind of discovering a certain kind of music that I’d always liked but hadn’t worked with, as far as a genre. I was rediscovering funk music and soul music and just really riding that wave of excitement.
In terms of that R&B influence, who are the artists that you love?
Well, my all time favorite vocalist would be Sly Stone. I love all the Family Stone records and all the Marvin Gaye ‘70s records, Curtis Mayfield, Parliament, and Stevie Wonder. There are so many great artists from that time period.
How did you end up connecting with Janelle Monae?
We live in kind of the same area. She lives in Atlanta and we live in Athens. We’d met after a show and just started talking. From there, she was working on the “The ArchAndroid” album and we were working on “False Priests” so I’d send her mixes of stuff I was working on and she and her partners would send me stuff that they were working on. I felt very connected to her throughout the whole process. They were very much a great motivator and inspiration to me. I heard what they were doing and thought it was so fantastic and wanted to do something equally as cool.
You went on a comedy tour a few years back. How did that come about?
Well, it was basically me and my wife and my brother were trying to figure out ways to have fun, earn some money and, basically, get out of town for a period of time. It was a fun experience because it was kind of scary to just set up a tour and have no idea what you’re going to do. Then, once you get to the venue, you just look around and say, “Alright, what’s it going to be tonight?” We put something together and, at first, it was pretty terrible but after about the fourth or fifth show it started to evolve into something a little bit more tolerable and slightly entertaining.
Did the show involve sketches or improv or a combination?
It was sketches that were sort of loose and that we could improv on. We didn’t have long moments with any intense soliloquies or anything. [Laughs] It’s definitely more in the dada realm of comedy.
Having a comedy tour under your belt, can you imagine doing it again?
Possibly. It was a fun experience. It was definitely low profile. I mean, we were playing pretty small places that had, at most, like 50 people. It definitely wasn’t the best way to earn a living. [Laughs] You have to really love it. It’s like anything; like when we first started playing music. You play to 30 people every night and just make enough money to buy gas to go the next city.
I saw that you also released the last album on cassette and that seemed pretty unusual. What went into that decision?
I guess it’s something that’s a bit of a movement. It’s kind of like how for a long time nobody was releasing anything on vinyl and then people started getting excited about vinyl again and now pretty much everybody releases their record on vinyl, especially indie artists. It’s a bit of a novelty because nobody really does it anymore. I think it’s cool and it’s just a different format and you can have a different relationship with this other physical object.
There was an article where Pitchfork called you the psychedelic Prince—as in, Prince the artist. What do you think of such a nice moniker?
Yeah, it’s nice but he’s kind of a psychedelic Prince himself. I don’t know if there’s room in this world for two. [Laughs]