Kevin Barnes tells us about the creative process he follows with each Of Montreal album, and speaks more in-depth about the ins and outs of his new work, the slippery “Paralytic Stalks,” where he distances himself from accessible, danceable sounds. Always moving ahead.
Since Of Montreal came to land at Polyvinyl and especially with the release of “Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?” (2007), the group’s fame has grown exponentially. Nobody would have said that after their tough beginnings as a part of the group Elephant 6 –which is now so reclaimed by new and old generations– the band from Athens would manage to sneak its way up to 34 on the Billboard 200 thanks to “False Priest” (2010), their second-to-last album. But we should also keep in mind that the work had dazzling stars collaborating on it: Janelle Monáe and Solange Knowles. Nevertheless, when it seemed that Kevin Barnes and company were already feeling comfortable with this new status –that of a popularity that they never wanted to seek out– they have now distanced themselves from a phase characterized by accessible, danceable sounds, and have made a 180-degree turn like “Paralytic Stalks.”
This last album caught more than one listener off-guard, having more personal lyrics than effer, offering dark, psychedelic excursions, a denser sound, and leaden guitar riffs. For this reason, we wanted to speak with the brain behind the group, Kevin Barnes, so that he could tell us what he had in mind, what he expects in terms of public reaction, and what his artistic goals are. So we find a musician who couldn’t care less what others might think, and whose sole intention is to offer new experiences with every new work.
Where are you at this moment?
I’m at home in Athens Georgia, it’s 2 am so all I see through the window is darkness and the shadows of trees.
Concerning the new album, why did you decide to move towards a more psychedelic, obscure, dense and heavy guitar riff-infused sound, quite different from your last “dancey” records?
I was going through a difficult time and I felt inspired to make an album that was more emotive and representative of my psychological state. I sort of leaned on the creative process to help me navigate through the madness and turmoil.
I think this is a very rewarding album once you give it a couple of tries. Was in your aim to make it somehow “difficult”, or not easy to get immediately?
Not really, I don’t know what other people will find difficult or challenging, all I can do is make music that I feel driven to make, sometimes the music I make is accessible and sometimes it’s not. but it’s never calculated or contrived. I really love music as an art form, I love how one can express, through sound, something as abstract as anguish, just by choosing the right instruments and forcing them to speak.
And as a possible conclusion from the previous question, are you afraid of puzzling old followers due to the fact that these songs are not as catchy as the ones in “False Priest”?
I don’t worry about what an album’s reaction is going to be while I’m making it. I think that would be very paralyzing. I think it is an artist’s responsibility to continually take chances and to push themselves into new territories creatively. I have no interest in finding some magic formula that works commercially and then just working within those restraints. A lot of bands do it but I find it very dull. There are so many different kinds of music that I want to explore and experiment with before I die. Hopefully people appreciate that each Of Montreal album is different and that one can’t really predict what the next one will be like.
What does your sixth sense tell you about fan reception of the album? Do you think it will repeat the commercial success of “False Priest”?
I’m not sure. I hope people connect with it on a deep emotional level. I don’t really care if it sells well, I only care about whether or not people connect with it and are comforted by it and inspired by it. It is a very personal album and I made myself fairly vulnerable. I think that that is a very good thing. I think it is braver to sing from the heart rather than sing from a persona. Sometimes honesty makes people uncomfortable, but I am attracted to that discomfort recently. I have a sense that if I feel uncomfortable about singing a certain lyric than I must be on the right track, cause if I had nothing to lose by singing it than it couldn’t really be worth anything.
The lyrics now sound more personal and intimate. Did you want to make a confession, or is it accidental?
It was definitely intentional. I wanted to strip myself bare and stand naked in front of the world and face all of the ugliness and despair and frustrations of the human condition without turning away. I was sort of sunk in a very negative self-hatred cycle for awhile. I was working through a lot of different things and I used the creative process as a form of therapy, as a tool to find resolution and balance.
How different do you see Of Montreal now, compared to the band it was before signing with Polyvinyl?
Musically it is pretty different but there are a lot of consistencies. I’m still writing and recording pretty much by myself in my home studio and I still follow the organic spirit whereever it wants to take me. I used to be really inspired by vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley and now I’m more inspired by soul music and avant-garde classical music, but the actual writing routine and work ethic is the same.
Did the label help to shape the sound as it is now? How is your relationship with them?
No, they are very hands-off when it comes to a band’s artistic decisions. If I asked for feedback on something they’d give it and they might voice some opinions about whether a song should be left off the album or which song should be the first single...but they have been very cool and basically let me do what ever I feel like doing. They’ve stood behind me all the way, we have a very good relationship.
When you start writing a new album, what’s the starting point, or the final goal? Continuity? Reinvention? No goal at all, just making music?
I don’t usually have a great sense of the identity of the album I’m creating until I get about half-way through the writing/recording process. I definitely try to push myself to create something different from the previous albums; it’s hard to completely defy your artistic instincts and create something entirely new sounding every time. I can see there is a thread that ties all of the albums together even though they are all fairly different from each other. I do think it’s important for artists to experiment and take chances, there’s really no need to stick with a certain formula.
This was the first time you hired session musicians to record the songs. How was this experience and why did you choose this option?
I only chose musicians who could play instruments that I couldn’t play; I decided it would be better to have real musicians playing strings, brass, woodwinds... rather than just record myself playing software versions of those instruments. This is the first album in a long time that I collaborated with anyone. Kishi Bashi and Zac Colwell contributed a lot of really great moments on the record. They helped me realize my vision in a really cool way. I wanted to make something very visual and transportative, they definitely helped me accomplish that goal.
There are no guest artists this time. Why is that?
I guess because it is such a personal album, I didn’t think it was really appropriate to have anyone else sing these songs, I think it would have just been kind of awkward.
But there were in the past. How was the experience of collaborating with Solange Knowles and Janelle Monáe?
It was really great. I have only used guest vocalists a few times on records, it’s not something I usually consider, but it was a great honor to have those two singing on my tracks.
Would you like to repeat this in the near future? Do you have any artist in mind?
Possibly, if it seemed to make sense at the time I would do it. I’d love to work with Erykah Badu or Little Dragon.
There’s some AOR influence in “Paralytic Stalks,” and it’s like there’s a mild revival of the format (according to Bon Iver, M83 and bands like that). How can you explain this genre’s revival?
I’m not really sure what you mean by that. If you are referring to artists making less commercial-sounding music than I guess it’s because some artists are just not interested in making a bunch of generic accessible pop music, there is really no reason for an album to have to be filled with 3-minute catchy songs, it can be a fun challenge to try to write a great pop song, but it’s also very fulfilling to create something longer and not necessarily easily digestible, something that is a bit more esoteric and bizarre.
There are also nods to country. What were you listening to whilst recording the album?
All sorts of stuff, I do like country music from the 1950’s, a lot of the records from that time had a very eerie quality to them. I was also listening to some avant-garde classical music, like Krzysztof Penderecki, Charles Ives, Harry Partch… and at the same time I still listen to a lot of 70’s soul music, I love Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and I’m a huge Parliament fan...
You recently released all your discography in cassette. What do you like about this format?
Well I don’t have cassette deck myself, but I think it’s cool just ‘cause it’s a bit of a novelty, plus I like the idea of keeping this dying media alive for a little longer.
Are cassettes only focused on collectors or do you think they have a much wider audience?
I don’t think they have much of a chance of taking the place of digital forms, but they might hold on for awhile and become as popular as vinyl. I’m not really all that passionate about them though.
"Black Lion Massacre"
Setting aside “L’Age D’Or” and “Slave Translator,” which could perfectly fit in “False Priest,” the rest of “thecontrollersphere EP” seems like a whole different work, meaning it doesn’t quite sound like its predecessor or an advance of “Paralytic Stalks.” I was quite surprised with those oriental strings and the noise-rock influence. How did you come up with these songs and what is the concept behind them?
I was just experimenting and trying to create something different from anything I’ve done before, I have a fairly eclectic album collection and I like to try my hand at different musical styles. I don’t really know where a song like “Black Lion Massacre” comes from, I guess I was just interested in making something noisy and sort of fucked- up that night. “Holiday Call” was one of the first collaborations I did with Kishi Bashi so in that way it does sort of connect to “Paralytic Stalks.”
“L’Age D’Or” is a homage to Luis Buñuel. What do you like most about him?
I’ve seen a lot of his films and I’ve loved them all, he had such a free spirit, I definitely connect with the Dada/Surrealist’s approach to creating art. I also love that he never really lost his spark; the movies he made in his old age were some of his best. It’s very inspiring to know that an artist doesn’t have to become irrelevant as they get older.
In your last tour there was a Mexican fight onstage. What performances are you preparing for the new one?
What we’re doing now is very hallucinatory and sort of over-the-top visually; we’re not trying to incorporate a comedic element as much any more, that’s not to say it will be super-pompous or pretentious, we are trying something new, since Paralytic Stalks is a bit darker and more personal than our previous two albums and we want the visuals to reflect that spirit. We have created a fairly intense visual experience for the audience which will hopefully enhance the emotional aspect of the music.
The Elephant 6 collective has recently regained popularity. What are the best memories you have of those years? Would you like to collaborate with them again?
I have some good memories from that time but I also have a lot of bad memories. Those were difficult years for us because we really didn’t have much of a fan base and we were always really broke. Plus I’m not much of a nostalgic person, I’ll wait to fetishize my past when I’m an old man, for now I’m more interested in the present and the future. I do think that W. Cullen Hart [editor’s note: co-founder of the group and member of The Olivia Tremor Control] is a genius and I’d love to see Jeff Mangum making music again. I actually saw him perform in Athens a couple nights ago, it was amazing, He’s such a talented human.