Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes Says Their New Album Comes From a 'Darker Place'
'Paralytic Stalks' hits stores on February 7th
By Matthew Perpetua
December 5, 2011 1:20 PM ET
Of Montreal will release Paralytic Stalks, their 11th studio album, on February 7th. Though the band have not abandoned their distinctive colorful funk, the disc finds frontman and songwriter Kevin Barnes spiking their tunes with abrasive noise, artful orchestration and some of the bleakest lyrics of his career. ("I spend my waking hours haunting my own life / I made the one I love start crying tonight and it felt good," he sings in "Spiteful Intervention" – and that's one of the album's most upbeat numbers.) Barnes recently opened up to Rolling Stone about grappling with depression while working on the new material, his plan to change the tone of the group's theatrical live show and his disappointment with the response to his band's previous album, False Priest. You can stream "Wintered Debts," the first track released from Paralytic Stalks, above, or download the song for free here.
The press release that was sent by your publicist along with your new album made a point of stressing that you're singing entirely from the first person in these songs, that you're not using any personas this time around. Why was it important to make sure people knew that?
It’s not really something I felt like I needed to disclose, but I guess on some levels, it's just the reality. It was sort of also a decision that I had made, though in some ways it was sort of made for me, because I was going through a difficult period. And a lot of times when I go through those kinds of periods, I use music as a sort of form of therapy. So, I guess I wasn't in good enough spirits to fool around with a persona.
So you work through more upbeat themes through fictional characters?
I think so. I think usually, that if I'm in a happy, balanced state of mind, my imagination tends to go in that direction, where I'm able to create a more positive atmosphere musically. I think I am a bit of an Eeyore. And when I'm feeling better, I really want to sort of want to magnify the effects of that, and that's why I'll create these really outlandish characters.
Did you know going into this album that it was going to be a particularly dark set of songs?
Yeah. I'm not going to just write when I'm happy. I also need to write when I'm in a darker place. I definitely didn't want to be there, but I just sort of found myself there. False Priest is very colorful and more upbeat for the most part. There are kind of darker songs, but for the most part, I was trying to make something that was more like Earth, Wind and Fire or Sly and the Family Stone. Something that was more funky and positive. But somehow that didn't last, and I sort of fell back into this darker place and was just writing songs from that perspective. But it wasn't really something that I set out to do as far as, "I want to make a dark record." It was "I need to make a record" or "I need to make music" because it's one thing I find extremely fulfilling and also distracts me, in a positive way, from my condition.
What brought on this dark phase you were in?
I think it's some sort of cyclical thing, you know? That you just have ups and downs. And I have a lot of depression issues. A lot of people in my family have had a lot of depression issues. In the past, I've tried to make things that are really upbeat, to sort of change my mood or try to alter my mood in a way. Somehow make myself happier. To some extent I'm still doing that with this record. It's still poppy, it's not extremely morose and minor. It definitely has a hookiness to it.
When you perform the darker songs in concert, do you reconnect with that mood?
The first 20, 30, 40 times that we play it, it's definitely still connected to the source. You know, a song like "Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse" has an upbeat, dancey quality to it and the lyrics are much darker. But just by creating a sort of carnival-esque atmosphere, it sort of changed the song in my head. And now when I play it, I'm not really thinking about the original inspiration. I'm thinking about what it has become. And it's sort of become this anthem in a way.
How are you planning to present these new songs live? It seems like it may be tricky to get across some of these arrangements.
Yeah, it's going to be a serious challenge. Zac Cowell, the guy who played the woodwinds and the brass instruments on the record, is joining the band. He is going to be playing those parts, but they're all multi-layer parts, so I think we'll have to experiment with having some samples mixed in with the live playing. And, you know, maybe have people playing parts that were originally on a flute on a synthesizer, or things like that. So it will sound different from the record. It probably won't sound exactly like the record, but we'll try to get pretty close.
Are you going to change the way you present the show visually for these new songs?
Yeah, I'm really excited about that actually. Right now we're still developing ideas. I think, in the past, we've sort of had fun using comedic elements – we've had performance artists coming out in different kinds of costumes and definitely on the False Priest tour, it was way more comedic and sort of Dada, sort of absurd stuff happening. And we've been doing that for a while and it was really fun, but I think now we want to do something slightly more abstract that is relying more on projections. But not just projecting onto a screen behind the drum set, but actually using the whole stage to create a very dynamic visual experience.
There are a few different shows that you've done in New York that have a few over-the-top sort of antics, like when you came out on stage riding a horse at the Roseland Ballroom. Do you feel a need to top that sort of thing, or do you want to move away from it?
I'm trying to not necessarily back away from it, but I feel like right now there's so much flash in music, so much showmanship. Which is great, like Lady Gaga, for example. But I think that in my head, I want to make something that's less superficial. I've been listening to a lot of John Lennon solo stuff and realizing how powerful that music is when it's more raw and direct. I want the stage production to work within that context. I've done that already, you know? I've been on a horse. I've been naked. I've covered myself in glitter, and all that stuff, and it was really fun but I don't want to just do it over and over again. I don't want to become a caricature of Georgie Fruit or whatever. I want to keep growing as an artist. I want to keep doing different things and trying different things and exploring my imagination.
How will this affect your choices of what older songs to play?
I had this kind of cool realization recently where, forever I've been thinking that, "Oh, the show has to be this upbeat dance party from start to finish, and I just want all the songs to kind of blend together and I want it to feel sort of like a mix-tape, like a really well-made, upbeat mix-tape." I realized there's a sort of insecurity in that; you're always afraid of letting the energy go down, and it's almost like you want to get off the stage at a super-high point and you worry about there ever being a moment where people get bored and start talking. But I want to be less insecure. We've got this hour and a half, whatever it is, 70 minutes on stage, and there's no reason to feel like, "Oh we need to apologize for taking chances with certain songs that aren't necessarily everyone's favorite song." I'd rather play slightly more obscure songs that fit the mood of Paralytic Stalks, rather than make it this upbeat dance party. That's not to say it's going to be extremely tedious and pretentious and boring, you know? I just want to make something that's a bit heavier, more beautiful and more emotive.
So what older songs would fit into this kind of show?
I was thinking of playing "Nonpareil of Favor," which is on Skeletal Lamping. It definitely starts off really upbeat and happy, and then it goes into this kind of crazy, noisy guitar thing. So I'd like to play some of the longer songs. Because most of the songs on Paralytic Stalks are pretty long. Or at least half of them are at least six to 10 minutes long.
When you write a song like that, are you kind of piecing together different fragments and ideas?
Well, nowadays, I don't usually write before I record. So I'll write and record a section of a song and work on that for a couple days, and once that's done, it’s "Okay, well now where do I want this song to go?" So I'll work in blocks of a minute, minute and a half. So you could say, "Well that could be a verse and that could be the chorus so let's just repeat that verse and repeat the chorus again and you're done! " Which is kind of a lazy way to write songs, but that's just the way pop music goes, for some reason. There's so much repetition in pop music, and that's cool, that's what it's about. But sometimes I like to get out of that and put a little bit more thought into it and make it a bit more transportive and not worry so much about the hookiness of it.
When did you make that shift over to kind of writing directly to tape?
I guess it was probably around The Sunlandic Twins. I think Satanic Panic in the Attic, I was still writing songs on acoustic guitar and working on it a couple months before recording it. Then I sort of realized there's no real reason to do that. Which on some levels is kind of a shame, because whenever I try to do solo shows, I don't even know what to do with myself because it seems so boring just playing them on acoustic guitar. But back in the day, when you're writing on the acoustic guitar, at least for me, I would try to make the acoustic guitar part kind of interesting too. But now it's like all about the layers and instrumentation, which doesn't really translate as well on acoustic guitar.
Was there anything that came out in the past year that really inspired you?
I was really inspired by Sufjan Stevens' record, The Age of Adz. That woke me up in a way where I realized that music doesn't have to be extremely digestible. You don't have to think about getting a song on someone's iPod playlist. You don't have to accommodate the direction that people are going with music, where they want one single, they don't give a shit about a record, they just want one single that they can put against all of the other singles and I feel there's a superficiality to that. At least for me, for someone who loves music and wants to connect with the human race through music or art, you don't really get that with some three-minute pop song about getting drunk and partying and all that.
The first song you put out from this record is "Wintered Debts." Why did you choose that song as people's introduction to the new album?
I think it was a pretty good representation of what people will be able to expect on the record. It is one of the longest songs and it's one of the more intimate songs – at least it starts that way until it transforms into something different. We could have picked any number of songs on the record, but I guess that one just felt right. I don't care if any of the songs get played on the radio and I don't care if it's even a popular record with people. I'd hope that people can connect with it, but that wasn't the motivation for making it. I'm not really plotting like, "This will be the one that gets them! And then I'll give 'em this one!" It's not like that. It doesn't matter. People could hear any of the songs.
Did you have greater commercial ambitions for any of the previous records?
Yeah, definitely. With False Priest, I was definitely hoping it would help us take the next step commercially, and that's why I did certain things like make a song that was kind of shorter, but also gave them logical titles. And it's funny because for some reason in my head I thought it was a very commercially acceptable record, but I was listening to it the other day and realizing that it's actually not that commercial. It's not a record that would necessarily make a band, or get a band on the television, or break a band, because it's still pretty artsy and weird, and also anachronistic in that it's pulling from these influences that most 18-year-olds aren't interested in. Most 18-year-olds don't think Isaac Hayes is awesome.