Hailing from the creative oasis of Athens, Georgia, Of Montreal has spent the last two decades winning the hearts of every theater kid across the globe. Their self-styled sense of euphoric, psych-rattled indie pop and budget-straining onstage antics has turned them into one of the few independent bands who have maintained both upwards-moving popularity and commercial viability, attaining solid, mid-sized fonts on festival posters near and far.
Kevin Barnes has been the band’s unquestionable anchor since the band’s beginning in 1997, when he released Cherry Peel, essentially a solo record. Since then the band has quintupled in size, (shredding seven other players along the way), gone through nine albums (the tenth drops this month,) and reached its creative helix with 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? Barnes is in better health since that opus, and Georgie Fruit, his cross-gendered, funk-loving alter-ego, is just as intact. Of Montreal’s new record, False Priest, is out next week, and I recently talked to Kevin about his songwriting, his early life, and his consistently stunning live show.
You just announced that a new EP will follow False Priest. Why so soon? Were these recording sessions simply more productive than usual?
Kevin Barnes: Well, usually as soon as we finish a record, I start writing within a short period. With all the new ideas coming, I start producing art again, and I usually have more songs than I have space for and maybe some of them don’t fit thematically or conceptually with other songs so I push them off to the side. The Sundalic Twins and Hissing Fauna both had EPs that came along with them, and Skeletal Lamping was so long that I didn’t really need to have an EP because we put everything on the record. There’s always a handful of songs that didn’t make it, but with this record there were a lot of songs that didn’t make the cut, and I want to release everything because I think they’re pretty good, and I’m excited about them. With an EP you have a little bit more freedom to be experimental. Not that you can’t do that on a record, but people don’t judge EPs as harshly as they do a record, so you get more of a chance to try new things. There’s one song in particular that is a real departure for me creatively that I just didn’t have the balls to put on False Priest.
What song is that?
KB: It’s called “Black Lion Massacre.”
KB: Yeah, we’re going to do a live version of it on this upcoming tour. It was actually really cool recording it because it was one of the songs I worked on at Ocean Way with Jon Brion and drummer Matt Chamberlain. We did this crazy recording trick where we had contact mics on drums and cymbals and we ran it through this little amp. Then we mic’d the amp so it has this really cool distorted sound to it. Jon and Matt are both extremely musical so we were able to essentially create a new instrument. The three of us were just sitting around the drum set just listening to the noises it would make. It sounded like you were on some crazy drug. We were just playing with it saying, “Ooh, the cymbal does this now! Ooh, the little area on the top right corner of the tom sounds like this now!” It was really exciting.
You have a love of theater, and that really shines through in your live show. There’s always something happening on stage, whether the audience knows what it means or not. Do you think every band should try to form that connection with their audience?
KB: I don’t really care what anyone else does because everyone has their own vision, but for me personally, we’ve iterated on our show a number of ways. I mean, we’ve gone onstage in our street clothes and just played the songs, and that can be really great because it’s just the music and connecting with the audience. There is nothing really to draw your attention away. But we also do the really big productions, which I really like because it keeps it interesting from night to night. Playing in your street clothes can be fun, but it can also get boring. I like a lot of dynamic, and I can’t stand things to be too predictable. There’s nothing like having a big art collective working together and touring together. It’s great to have a group of people you love and respect working on a project together.
Are you ever afraid of overdoing it?
KB: No, I don’t think that’s possible. The whole point of it is to put on this huge, staggering production, and there’s no way we can achieve everything we want to do because everything is self-funded and we have a limited budget. It comes down to whatever we want to do with this amount of money and hopefully that will be great. And if it’s not great then next time we’ll try something different.
So back to False Priest, would I be wrong in saying that there’s a bit more Georgie Fruit on this album?
KB: There’s a lot of Georgie, but I think at this point he’s integrated enough into my head that he’s not really a character as just a name to a side of my personality. I mean, at first Georgie was just the R&B and soul influence, but now that’s pretty much all I listen to, so it’s definitely integrated.
Do you think that Georgie was always part of your personality?
KB: Yeah, I always knew he was part of me. It helped me as a device during a time where I was thinking that it was sort of weird for me to say certain things or act a certain way because it seemed out of character. He was like a defense for me to say, “Oh, it wasn’t me. It was Georgie.” But I always knew that it was just me because I never think that I need to write “a Georgie Fruit song.” Georgie Fruit songs just happen.
So with Georgie comes a lot of R&B and soul, as you said, and there’s definitely a lot of that on False Priest. You said that you never intentionally write Georgie Fruit songs, but did you intentionally write the new album as a soul album or did that just work its way out through rehearsal?
KB: When I start writing, I just go in the studio and put on my headphones. It’s all very organic the way it happens. I don’t really have an agenda or anything, it’s simply what feels exciting at the time. The only thing I do that is maybe a little more contrived is if I say “this isn’t very creative” or “this isn’t weird enough” and then I’ll really try to push myself to do something that’s outside of my comfort zone or what seems natural.
Are you ever afraid of making something too weird or weird for the sake of being weird? Do you think that by making something people haven’t heard before, despite if it was conceived organically or not, still makes for something important?
KB: I think if you take a song that has a natural beauty to it and make it weird for no reason... it is a fine balance, but I wish that more people would be weird for the sake of being weird.
Of Montreal records seem to be more “sound-based” then other music, like rarely can you identify a clean guitar sound or a undiluted vocal channel. How do you construct a song like that?
KB: I don’t know. I guess I usually start with a fairly conventional structure and then start to take things away and change things. That’s one of the great things about recording on a computer is that you have so much power for editing. Like sometimes I’ll be working on something for a month and then I’ll look at it and say, “Everything but this middle section is boring.” So I’ll get rid of all that and write a new section that has nothing to do with the stuff I tossed out. I like the idea of collage music. I love music that has a sort of collage-y quality to it. It’s more unpredictable and it just stays fresh. I have a sort of ADD sense of songwriting.
I understand you moved around a lot as a kid, has that affected your music at all?
KB: Moving around a lot, I was always the new kid. It was hard to make friends, and I was always a bit shy so I sort of appreciated my own head, to be by myself and have fun and create these rich worlds in my imagination, getting lost in my own little bubble. I think that helped me getting older, writing music, and not needing too many people’s help. That helped me establish my current process where I just go in a room, get lost in the music, and come out eight hours later with songs written.