Thursday, December 29, 2011
'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.
Natasha Mijares December 8, 2011
The Therapy of Music: Exclusive Interview with DJ List Cristee a.k.a Kevin Barnes from of Montreal
As the December 10 show featuring Au Revoir Simone’s Miami debut approaches, the city has been set ablaze with anticipation not only for these songstresses, but for the DJ sets as well. I got the chance to have a phone interview with DJ List Cristee, otherwise known as Kevin Barnes from the acridly glam pop group, of Montreal. We discussed his fairly new DJing career and about of Montreal’s upcoming album, Paralytic Stalks, which shall be released in the US Feburary 7, 2012 by Polyvinyl Records Co.
The album mixes the flowery, ethereal quality that stays true to their sound with wretched and almost primitive lyrics that come together to make a beautiful milieu of Barnes’ personal experiences. He’s introduced some new elements in this album that can be heard in the album teaser “Wintered Debts” below. However, Barnes continues to uses his personal relationship as paradigms of the relationship man has to the world. He covers many topics, from drunk calling in Sao Paolo, to the void we feel as a solitary planet in a giant solar system, as seen in Tensional Parapraxes (Dour Percentage) where he says “our parents aside, this planet is an orphanage, and it cheapens us the way you and I torment each other”
The album has an inescapable “manic energy” that Barnes shows in Spiteful Intervention when he sings: “lately I’m rutted in the filth of self-authored agonies that really should fill me with shame but all I have is this manic energy.” Barnes has shared that the reason for this mood is because of his problems with depression, and that writing this album has been helping him battle it. In essence, we are really riding along the journey of Barnes psyche and receiving that sense of illumination and wonder in the end.
Listen to the album teaser, “Wintered Debts” (not the lead single):
Wintered Debts by of Montreal
Therapy Life: What kind of music or artists do you like to include in your DJ sets?
Kevin Barnes: I like to play a lot of 60s, 70s, 80s funk and R&B; Sly and the Family Stone, Elements, Prince, Cameo, all sorts of things.
TL: How long have you been DJing as List Cristee and how did you come up with the name?
KB: I guess I’ve been doing it since about a year ago or so. The name, I’m not really sure where that came from; it’s just a strange name that came to me, haha.
TL: We’re also anticipating of Montreal’s next album Paralytic Stalks, which was recorded in your home studio in Athens, Georgia. Would you say that a Southern influence is present in your music?
KB: Uhm, maybe on some level. I might be like Outkast, haha. There are some Southern artists that I like. But I mean, I guess there are different kind of Southern music, there’s like Southern rock and hip-hop. I’m definitely more influenced by hip-hop and R&B than Southern rock.
TL: What kind of creative processes do you take in writing and producing an album? Do you write on tour or do you lock yourself at home and write?
KB: I do a lot of lyric writing on tour when I’m traveling, but pretty much all the music is written at home.
TL: What effect do you think your writing process has on the lyrics?
KB: Well, if you’re traveling, you’re experiencing all these different things that you wouldn’t necessarily experience when you’re at home. When you’re at home, you kind of get into a routine. Especially with writing, you get a lot of consistency, which sometimes is good, but sometimes it’s bad.
TL: The music of the album is riddled with intricate compositions that some would say resembles modern classical, while at others echo at neo-prog, pseudo-country, and 60s pop. How would you characterize or personify the relationship between the lyrics and the music on this album?
KB: They’re equally as important for me. When I’m making music I want it to be interesting and unpredictable and when I’m writing lyrics I want it to have those same characteristics. With this album, I’ve definitely written more personal lyrics, from the heart, and from my personal life. So it’s not really as fantasy based, it’s all rooted in reality and I’ve been going through some tough times so I’m kind of using the music as a form of therapy in a way, because the creative process is a form of therapy.
TL: After adding violinist Kishi Bashi to the touring line-up, you’ve been working with session musicians for the first time in your career. How do you think that changes the of Montreal sound as a whole and are you enjoying how the music is evolving?
KB: Yeah it’s good because, especially with Kishi Bashi, I would write something and do a lot of work on it and I’d kind of get to the point where I wasn’t sure what I could do to change it or make it more interesting, and I would send it to him and he would come up with all of these ideas that would help transform it. Then he would write stuff to me and I would use that as inspiration for new ideas for myself. So it was really great with him and also with Zach Cowell, who is also gonna join the line-up. He played all the woodwinds and the brass on the record and we had a smooth relationship as well, so it was really cool to have people that could contribute things that you’d never be able to contribute. It’s not like a piano player and a guitar, those things I can handle on my own, but I wanted people that play things that I don’t know how to play and that I’d never be able to do on my own. It’s always good to have people that can contribute something special.
TL: Who did the album artwork and why did you choose that piece for the cover?
KB: David did the cover, my brother. He listens to the record while he’s producing the artwork. So he kind of used that as inspiration and tried to, in a way, represent the sounds on the record visually. It’s always a sort of abstract translation; the sounds just sort of made that image in his brain.
TL: Will you be using this kind of imagery for the live shows?
KB: Yeah, the live show is going to be very visual but it’s not going to be as theatrical in a sense because we’ve been using a lot of comedic characters for a couple of tours. It’s almost been like a comedy show, sort of like a Dada comedy show as far as theatrics. For this one, because the subject matter of the record is much darker and more personal, we wanna present it in a different light. It will still be very visual and interesting on that level, but it won’t be as comedic.
TL: So will Georgie Fruit (Barnes’ on stage persona) be back for Paralytic Stalks?
KB: Haha, maybe for the encore but not for the regular show.
TL: There are some very big concepts that the album discusses such as revenge, self-hatred and the egocentric man. What kind of lessons on humanity and existence would you say is most apparent in the album or do you think that people will walk away with?
KB: Well, yeah, it’ a very bitter album in that way, which I think you can lose yourself in bitterness and it’s definitely not the path to enlightenment. It’s definitely more of a self absorbed, kind of negative trip. But sometimes you kind of have to go through it. It’s an element of the healing process. It’s okay to be really hateful and really bitter for a period of time but you eventually have to get over it. So it’s kind of a weird record in a way cause if you stop listening to it midway through, it might actually put you in a bad mood but if you can make it all the way to the end of the record it has some sort of weird healing power at the very end. I’ve noticed that myself when I listen to it. I kind of need to listen to it all the way through in order to feel that sense of balance returning.
By Flor. Published: December 9, 2011.
Hours before his DJ set at Grand Central, of Montreal’s, Kevin Barnes, spent some minutes on the phone with WFK. Last week the band announced the release of their awaited new album, Paralytic Stalks, their darkest record so far.
In this interview, the lead singer and composer of one of the weirdest and most talented groups from the last decade tells WFK how he fell in love with art and the dark side of being a true artist.
WFK: Everybody knows the story of your musical career after you joined the Elephant Six Collective, but what happened before that? When did you start feeling passionate about music?
I guess when I was about 13 or 14. I started making songs and recording in my bedroom. By then I was inspired by heavy metal music but my inspiration has changed a lot over the years.
What was the primordial musical intention when you created of Montreal, back there in 1996, is it still the same?
Yes, pretty much is a labor of love to me. I made it pretty much by myself and I got inspired by different things; I wanted to made something personal, exceptional and interesting and the essence stayed kind of the same from the beginning.
Both your music and performances are notoriously influenced by other art disciplines such as theater, cinema and literature; you were even involved in the A Pollinaire Rave comedy tour. Is there any other artistic discipline that you would like to explore or combine with your music?
You kind of name most of them, you can definitely try to incorporate different things like gardening or other unconventional ideas. We also have lots of pretty strong visual elements on our live productions over the past four years, as far as projecting images and putting thought into the lightning and the stage. But for this future we are actually spending a lot of attention on the visuals and the projections and trying to create a sort of transportive experience for the audience.
You are an artist that was never afraid of opening up and singing to your deepest feelings, in one of the songs that is going to be included in your upcoming album you even declare: “I spend my waking hours haunting my own life / I made the one I love start crying tonight / And it felt good”. Did you ever get involved into serious trouble because your conception of art?
Yes, definitely it creates some issues with the people I’m in a relationship with because I incorporate a lot of my personal life into my songwriting and people, understandably feel sort of victimized in a way to see that they are displayed in front of the world like that because especially is only my perception, it’s only from my advantage point which is not a real fair thing to do. I mean is not fair to the other people involved but in the same time I think that art really has to come from a very personal place if not it doesn’t have much value and it feels superficial, in my mind.
I think that you are one of the few artists left who are so true and sincere in your songs, although, as you said before, it can get you in trouble. So, have you ever thought about changing that way of making art?
Well, I have done some roll playing and I have definitely written songs to fantasy, I have created characters and you know in a way that is more a fantasy based line rather than personal. I guess sometimes you got trough phases were nothing really dramatic is going on in your life but you want to keep on writing songs and creating this “personas” allows you to stay productive without a soap opera happening in your life.
Paralytic Stalks is probably one of your darkest albums so far; are the Georgie Fruit days gone?
I think that I will keep on playing some of those songs, I don’t think that I need to have a funeral for Georgie Fruit or anything like that but this is just a period of me needing to do something different. I don’t worry that much about the things of the past, I’m just only interested in moving forward and trying to live in the present moment and do whatever feels right in that moment.
In the past, of Montreal released many conceptual albums such as The Gay Parade, The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy and Coquelicot. It’s Paralytic Stalks a conceptual record? If so what is the concept behind it?
I think there are lots of recurrent themes but I don’t know if you can really consider it a conceptual album just because there is not real narrative or a story necessarily, it’s almost like general scenes from a period of my life.
of Montreal is one of the few bands that still support cassette, Paralytic Stalks is going to be release in this format among others, and you even have released your own Cassette Box Set. What do you find so enchanting about this format?
I think I’m fond of it because it’s something different that it used to be extremely popular and then it completely fell off. Now nobody even considers it as a possibility but they are so cheep to get, you can go to any thrift store and get a cassette for 10 dollars, I mean they are still around but … I think they are kind of cute in a way, this little plastic things. And also when I first started recording I was recording in a cassette four tracks so all of my early demos were on cassette, so I definitely have a sort of connection with them, pleasant memories about them.
On December 10 you will be performing in Miami with a DJ set. Can you tell us about some of your favorite tunes that you will be playing that night?
I will probably play some Parliament and some Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder and then some more contemporary stuff like Erykah Badu, mostly some kind of funky soulful songs.
of Montreal's Kevin Barnes Talks New Album, Cassette Box Set, His Career
"I don’t think I’ve made a great record. I guess that gives me something to live for."
On October 25, Joyful Noise will release a cassette box set of psychedelic-pop mainstays of Montreal's entire catalog-- all ten albums, from 1997's Cherry Peel to last year's False Priest. The whole thing comes packaged in a wooden box (above) with screen-printed original artwork by bandleader Kevin Barnes' brother, David (who's done the cover artwork for all the band's albums in the past, too).
The retrospective package provides an opportunity to look back at of Montreal's career, from the band's lo-fi, 1960s psych-pop-worshipping beginnings to their zany, colorful, avant present. Rather than getting nostalgic, though, Kevin Barnes is looking forward-- he's currently putting the finishing touches on of Montreal's eleventh album, Paralytic Stalks, which is due early next year. Read on for our interview with Barnes, which touches on the new album, the return of cassettes in indie culture, and his feelings about his band's legacy as part of Athens' seminal Elephant 6 collective.
"The new of Montreal album is bit more esoteric, and it’s probably not something everybody’s going to like. The songs are way more intimate and confessional."
Pitchfork: Do you have a personal history with cassettes?
Kevin Barnes: When I first started recording, I used a four-track and I’ve got an incredible collection of cassettes in boxes that I don’t want to get rid of-- especially from when I was living at my parents’ house and doing nothing but recording songs. I have tons of early recordings that I haven’t listened to in forever. At some point, I’ll pull them out and listen to them and cringe. I think that could be really cool to release them at some point, though. There’s so much there. It would only be for the biggest fans in the world. All ten of them.
Pitchfork: Recently, cassettes have come back in vogue with certain, nostalgia-obsessed sects of indie culture. When agreeing to release this box set, were you taking that into consideration?
KB: I can understand the cassette thing, but I don’t really feel that connected to it. Its like the CD for me-- I don’t really like that tactile quality. Plastic just annoys me. It's easy to romanticize the past. That sort of goes hand in hand with vinyl as well. Having a connection to a physical object is really cool. At some point, people will be nostalgic about CDs, too. It's just human nature.
Pitchfork: What about those buyers who are purchasing things like your box sets for collector's purposes, rather than for the material that's inside?
KB: Whenever anybody's giving a shit about music on any level it's a good thing. It’s not like [collecting] guitars. I know people who just collect guitars and don’t even play them-- that's a different matter.
"I don’t really feel that connected to cassettes. Plastic just annoys me."
Pitchfork: This year marks of Montreal's 15th anniversary, and the band's been through a lot of sonic changes since your early albums. Do you think that you've retained fans from way back when?
KB: Every once in a while, somebody will come up and say, “I found out about you guys forever ago, around [1999's] The Gay Parade.” I was playing The Gay Parade for one of the guys in the band who had never heard it-- he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. I feel pretty detached from [that time period]. We never play anything [live] that was recorded before [2004's] Satanic Panic in the Attic. I closed the book on that period of my life and moved forward.
Pitchfork: So you're never going to play material from before Satanic Panic live again?
KB: I can’t see it ever happening. The only way it would happen would be if a record became popular in some weird random country. [laughs] Actually, The Gay Parade did sell really well in Japan. For a brief time period, we were like rock stars over there. But after a year, it had totally died out. [laughs]
What might have attracted somebody in the beginning is not really there anymore. Albums like Cherry Peel are extremely naive and sweet and not all that competent. It's like natural human development, you start off when you’re young and vulnerable.
Pitchfork: So what's your midlife crisis record going to sound like?
KB: [laughs] I don’t know. Maybe like a bagpipe record.
Pitchfork: What's the record in your career thus far that you're most proud of?
KB: There are moments of my records that I’m proud of, but I don’t think I’ve made a great record. I guess that gives me something to live for.
"I’m not really excited about playing any of my old songs live.
It would feel like I was wasting my time."
Pitchfork: With Jeff Mangum touring and Olivia Tremor Control becoming more of an active concern again, an Elephant 6 revival seems to be in place. A bunch of the E6 guys did the Holiday Surprise tour a few years ago-- if that kind of thing were to happen again, would of Montreal join in?
KB: I didn't go on the Holiday Surprise tour because we were too busy, and I’m not really that excited about playing any of those old songs. I don’t feel nostalgic about it. It would feel like I was wasting my time. I don’t mean that as a criticism against anybody else. I think it’s a defect for me that I can’t really appreciate it that much-- anything I’ve done always just seems boring and stale really quickly. I just want to keep moving forward.
Pitchfork: When's the last time you spoke to Jeff Mangum?
KB: A couple of years ago. He came to one of our shows and we were hanging out backstage for a little bit. He seemed to be in good spirits and it’s always great to see him. I’ve always admired him. He’s been sort of a big brother figure for me.
Pitchfork: You're finishing up a new of Montreal record, right?
KB: Yeah, there’s some moments on this record that are very different from anything I’ve ever done before. It’s a bit more esoteric, and it’s probably not something everybody’s going to like. I can see a lot of people having problems with it, but I can also see a lot of people loving it. I feel like so many records nowadays are disposable-- you’re not really expected to listen to the whole album, and no one does. With this record, I wanted something that was more of an experience that you would listen to from start to finish and have a very deep personal connection to. The songs are way more intimate and confessional.
Pitchfork: Any specific influences you're drawing from?
KB: Twentieth-century modern classical music-- Penderecki, Charles Ives, Ligeti. But it’s not a complete departure. There’s still funky elements, and it’s still very much a colorful pop record. But it goes into darker places. There’s one song in particular that is kind of polarizing in a strange way. I play it for a lot of people and it seems like they just feel confused by it.
Pitchfork: What's that song called?
KB: "Exorcismic Breeding Knife".
In feature/interview on 05/04/2011 at 8:30 am
If you wanted to get all psychoanalytical about it, you could say Kevin Barnes’ soaring falsetto is a mere manifestation of his restlessness. And all those words he crams into Of Montreal’s songs? Same thing. The dude feels he has so much to say and so little time to say it in that he spits them out a mile a minute as his voice reaches Dirty Mind-era-Prince heights.
Check out this line from “Our Riotous Defects,” one of the best songs from last year’s False Priest: “My God, I should’ve realized on our second date when you dragged me into the bathroom at Tameka’s house and screamed at me for like 20 minutes because I had contradicted you in front of your friends/I was like, Oh/And then later that night at my apartment, as punishment, you killed my betta fish/You just threw it out the window.”
At times, Barnes is a marvel to behold. Other times he verges on annoying. Either way, no band has made a transformation quite like Of Montreal over the past 14 years.
On their 1997 debut, theAthens,Georgia, group distilled many of the same influences as other bands in their Elephant 6 collective, making a sort of artsier version of Beatlesque indie pop. But they’ve evolved – sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly – over the years, until they ended up what they are now: a theater-like troupe of funky performance artists made up of more than a dozen members. “I view it as a life form that has its own trajectory,” says Barnes. “I think back to [those first albums] and I don’t really identify with them, like a completely different person made them. It’s like a typical human evolution: The early albums are very sweet and naïve but they evolved into something more mature and sexual.”
The evolution began in earnest with Of Montreal’s ninth album, 2008’s Skeletal Lamping. That’s when Barnes (who plays most of the music on the band’s records himself) let his R&B-singing, cross-dressing alter ego Georgie Fruit take over for an entire album. False Priest is a bigger and tighter version of its spazzy predecessor, using live instruments instead of synths, and singers Janelle Monae and Solange Knowles (Beyoncé’s sister), who add sweetness to the sometimes sour mix.
“I wanted to make something that was more accessible and immediate,” says Barnes. “I have a tendency to put too many ideas into my records. Any song can go in so many directions, and there’s that tendency to just take it there.”
Just as Of Montreal’s music has gotten more ambitious, straying outside its comfort zone, same goes for the feather-boa-wearing man behind it. False Priest is the first album Barnes recorded outside of hisAthens studio (it was made inLos Angeles) and the first time he’s worked with a producer.
Jon Brion (who’s helped shape albums by Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, and Kanye West) arranges sounds that Barnes just kinda threw out there before. The post-disco beats running through songs like “I Feel Ya’ Strutter” and “Our Riotous Defects” lead to messy, glorious trips. “There are so many different ways to listen to music,” says Barnes. “There’s so much going on in Stevie Wonder’s records. When you dissect them in your head, you hear all these things going on. That’s the great thing about music. It can be very complex but also very sneaky.”
Barnes’ continuous restlessness yielded thecontrollersphere EP last month. He calls it a folk record, but that genre tag is debatable, since the highlight — a sprawling and amp-shredding five-minute workout called “Black Lion Massacre” – is the noisiest thing Of Montreal have ever recorded. “I’m never really satisfied with the things I do,” says Barnes. “I never feel like I’ve accomplished anything, so I’m always looking for the next thing.”
Thecontrollersphere isn’t baroque pop or funk machine or anything else, really, found in the group’s bag of sounds (even though most of the songs are False Priest leftovers). It’s Of Montreal between stages, once again, and is likely a sign of things to come. “It’s a bridge,” says Barnes. “It’s noisier and more cacophonous, which is where I’m heading. But it’s hard to say where you are in a moment. I really don’t know where I’m at right now.”
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 summertime. 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?
There's so much, but we'll leave it at that.