An Interview with Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes
July 14th, 2008 by Matt
Of Montreal’s new record Skeletal Lamping, like the band’s live show, is a take-it-or-leave-it showing of craziness. Songs not only have schizophrenic changes in melody, but are also lyrically at war with themselves from minute to minute. And as you might expect from a group who often perform in dresses, once in the nude and always with makeup, Kevin doesn’t really care what you think. He’s not writing for the fans, he’s not writing to please his label and he surely isn’t writing to please us armchair music critics.
For the first time in over ten years, Kevin Barnes is writing for himself.
This past June I was lucky enough to be invited down to Athens, GA to hear Skeletal Lamping shortly after it was finished. After sitting in silence for about an hour to listen to the record — all the while wishing I’d brought a pen and paper to jot down notes about album (Sparks, Funkadelic and Prince produced by the Dust Brothers?) — Kevin was nice enough talk for a while about a great many things. He shared a lot about his motivation for the new album (the Outback Steakhouse commercial), how his wife gave him the courage to start writing personally again and what it was like to cover his three-year-old daughter’s favorite song.
An Interview with Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes
YANP: Obviously this record is very different from anything you’ve done prior. Was it a conscious decision to move away from the old sound or is that just where your writing took you?
Kevin: For some reason I’ve been gravitating more towards… I mean there’s always going to be more pop sensibilities there because I love pop music, but I try to incorporate different things. Obviously some funk influences and even some hip hop influences.. I feel like I have more in common with contemporary hip hop artists than I do contemporary indie pop artists.
Do you follow any producers?
I always like the stuff that Danger Mouse does, I think he’s awesome. Even like Timbaland’s stuff I think is really cool usually. Pharell, a lot.
MP3: Of Montreal – September Gurls (Big Star)
Did your time in Norway influence you musically?
Disco is pretty hot over there still. Not like 70s disco, but like club music. Electronic music is big there too. I didn’t really meet anybody or see any bands, but that probably did have an effect on me. You know, that sort of sophisticated electronic music. That definitely played a part. A lot of this record I actually did write and record when I was in Norway last summer, though.
So Skeletal Lamping is a very sexual record. Were those themes in your mind at the time or a part of Georgie Fruit?
It was definitely, for whatever reasons, one of those natural, organic things that just happen. I just was compelled to do that and sing about those things. Those were the things that I’d be singing in the shower and go upstairs and start working on. It wasn’t anything premeditated (laughs).
Is the full album supposed to be taken as fully from Georgie Fruit’s point of view or just occasional bits?
I don’t even separate them in my mind. the Georgie Fruit character is not separate from Kevin Barnes. I can’t really say “oh that was just this role I was playing,” because it’s just a part of my personality. All of it is just a part of me anyways.
Have you seen the documentary This Film Not Yet Rated?
It’s about the MPAA and how they focus more on sex rather than violence in movies
It’s a weird thing. A lot of people think about that: why is sex so dangerous? Why is it a frightening concept.
Well it seems handled differently in this record. All your characters seem comfortable with sex.
Definitely. You should be comfortable. When I make a record, I try not to let the world in. It’s kind of me in my own little island in my head. The only reason you’d ever feel insecure is from worrying how other people would perceive you; and if you’re the only person in the world, you’ll be totally secure.
Do you still do most of the instruments on the record?
I did basically everything on this record myself. There’s some cello and one song where basically everyone in the band plays something.
I picked up on a couple songs you’ve been playing live for a while. Did anything change in “Softcore” or “Our Last Summer as Independents?”
Some lyrics changed and some new melodic parts were added to Last Summer, but Softcore was basically done when we performed it last summer. We didn’t really change anything.
Was creating this album more about linking melodic sections together or about seeing where the song goes?
Some of the things that seemed to flow better were probably ones where I would make one section and then use that as inpiration for the next section and then use that. And then some of the stuff I just tried to piece together in a collagey sort of way. It’s a very collagey sort of record.
A lot of stuff is me intentionally putting two things together that weren’t written with each other in mind, so it’s kind of awkward when they’re next to each other. But I liked that when I stared doing that. It’s cool because you don’t expect that. Like I said in the blog, a lot of the time you can finish the artists’ sentences. That’s obvious. That’s obvious. It’s always obvious. At times it can be great, but I didn’t want to make anything obvious. I wanted to surprise the listener.
Listening to the album for the first time was so strange. There were parts that would sound really good, and I’d be thinking “yeah, keep that going,” but it always switches before you’re ready. It’s like musical denial.
I think that’s why it has a lot in common with Coquelicot, because nothing is really extened. Even though something might be really cool and you’re like “oh, I wish that would go on longer,” it never goes on longer. It’s always replaced by something new. That could be potentially be frustrating for some people if they like something, but hopefully they’ll go back and listen to it again.
The record kind of feels like … when it starts, the first maybe fifteen minutes are kind of conventional and makes sense but then when you get in the heart of it, that’s when it becomes more dance and more complicated.
Yeah. It’s one of the more forward songs on the record, but ends in that great whirl of layers. It’s a great first song for the record.
Actually, it was intended to be the last song and then everyone was like “man, you should put that first” because it’s the most different as far as coming out of Hissing Fauna into that song. The second half is sort of abrasive…
Yeah… [Laughs] Sorry, I’m still trying to process the record.
I understand. It’s like seeing this complicated movie just one time and then you’re like “God… and then that one part!” You can’t photograph music in your mind like you can with movies. With movies you have all these other things that are being recorded in your mind like dialogue, images and emotional memories and things like that. With music, you don’t have any sort of visual photographs.
MP3: Kevin Barnes – Shakedown Street (Grateful Dead)
Does doing music for movies interest you at all?
It would, if I could get into the movie. It’s weird, because with that stuff — unless the movie’s already done and you’re making music to it — it seems difficult if someone was like “well here’s what I want, make music to it.”
I remember reading how Leone extended the opening scene in Once Upon a Time in the West because he didn’t want to edit down the song Morricone had written for it.
What will you remember when you look back at this album?
I think that… I think it really was inspired by the commercial backlash when I was getting a lot of backlash from the Outback Steakhouse commercial. I think it did influence me as far as like “I’ll show them I’m not a sell-out. I’ll show them how talented I am…. I can’t be marginalized. I have a lot of value”
I’d never had to deal with that before because we were always so underground. It was a weird thing to face. You can only have backlash if you have success and we’d never really had success, so I’d never had to deal with backlash. So I definitely think that played a part psychologically in the making of the record.
Who confuses who more: you or your fans?
I definitely am not confused by my fans. It’s hard to tell if people are fans.. because a fan is a temporary thing in a lot of cases. People will enjoy a thing and then get bored with it and move on to something else. So does that make them less of a fan when they were a fan? It’s kind of like love in a weird way: when you break up with someone, does that completely undermine what you experienced together and the good times you had just because you’re not together now?
Dealing with criticism is confusing when you put out records. It can be really distracting and weird. I remember when I put out my very first record, Cherry Peel, I was so excited and so full of the joy of making music and sharing it with the world. It got so many bad reviews that I read that I was like Oh man, the world is a bitch, you know?
Were the escapism and fictional characters in the Gay Parade and Coquelicot reactions to that?
Definitely. In a way, it was to protect myself. I’m not going to make myself vulnerable. …But then those records got bad reviews too (laughs)
When did you make the switch to being comfortable writing about yourself again?
I guess when I got married. I’d always been single. I was basically celibate all through my mid-20s, I never dated anyone and kind of lived in this fantasy world. When I met Nina, she somehow gave me this great sense of empowerment. I have this great person at my side and that’s all I need. I don’t need the rest of the world’s approval as long as I have this one person who believe in me and supports me. It’s funny how that works. Having my brother, having Nina — that’s all I need. If they say “man, you’re doing some good stuff” then I know my work has value.
I caught the “I wish David was here” lyric in new record. That’s really great. I love how you summed all that up in Du Og Meg: “his thoughts were not just rubbish”
It seemed like that was almost what I needed. Because I had gone through this period of being disconnected emotionally. My emotional world was not really finding itself within my artistic production.
Was that frustrating?
I had become really cynical. In the back of my mind — even though it sounds dreadful — trying to figure out a way to reach people and to have a song that actually mattered to people and wasn’t just throwaway bullshit. I felt like a lot of stuff I had done, just because I wasn’t selling records, I thought “well these songs must not be very good because nobody’s into them and they’re not resonating with people.”
But then once I gave up on that, organically it all just worked out and people started caring about us and we started reaching a larger audience.
Was it a coincidence that stylistic chances match up for the ability to be more personal?
There was a weird, almost fascist state of mind in the Elephant 6 collective, at least from my perspective. There were sort of these rules to keep it analog, keep it 60s and 70s. There are sort of unspoken rules in a weird way and I was so influenced by those guys. They weren’t dictating these things, but that’s what they were into and I was so smitten.
But I wanted to branch out. I wanted to do different things. I felt a bit nervous, you know, about drum programming and using midi instruments because those were definitely off limits within that clique. Or at least no one did it and it was not respected. You had to actually be able to physically be able to do it.
Then I realized that was holding me back and I really wanted to explore this other kind of music. We all lived in a house together and I moved out of that house and into a house with Nina and my brother. Then I didn’t have anyone in my immediate space who could influence me. Everyone in my immediate surroundings was very positive and very supportive and everyone wanted me to try something new.
Who all did you live with before moving in with your brother and Nina?
The whole band was living in like a big house together out in the country for a couple years. it sort of became an entropic sort of thing: fighting over stupid things, living in this insular environment that was far enough from Athens that you didn’t really want to leave the house. Even though it was positive at times and we definitely had good times together, I felt smothered by it. If I was going to make a recording by myself where I’d play the bass, Derek would be like “what’re you doing, man?” and if I did drums, Jamie would be like “when am I going to play?”
So it was good for me to get out of that and into my own world. Because before I met those guys I used to do everything myself. In high school, that was my great escape from the harsh realities of life: just put on the headphones and lose yourself in the creative process. And when you’re collaborating with a lot of people, you can’t really do that as easily. There’s a lot of compromising that goes on and a lot of political stuff you have to deal with. When you get alone and do it by yourself, I get a great surge of energy that I’d been holding inside for so long. And finally when there was no one to tell me no or to tell me “do it this way” or whatever, it was like an explosion of creativity and I still feel like I’m kind of riding that wave.
Are you writing more songs because of it?
When you’re working with a bunch of people, there are a lot of schedules that you have to deal with. But when you’re doing it by yourself, then it’s whenever you feel like it — which for me is all the time — I just go and work, I don’t have to say “oh, I have to wait for Derek to get off his shift at the coffee shop” to do the bass line, I just do the bass line … I do six bass lines! (laughs)
Has music ever felt like work?
For me, the process is what’s exciting. Listening to the record when it’s done is exciting for a little bit, but I never listen to my old records and I don’t really like playing most of the old songs. So this record is new and it’s kind of exciting to listen to but in a couple months I’m not going to want to listen to it and I’m going to want to do something new.
Is that why you like to debut new material live?
It takes so long for a record to come out — it takes five or six months usually — that I have half a new album recorded.
So I wanted to ask you about Arlene… [Kevin's guitar has "Arlene" scratched into it]
I was living in Minneapolis. When I got out of high school, I moved around a lot trying to find people to play with and I’d heard Minneapolis had a scene. I just happened upon this used guitar shop and I got Arlene there really cheap. And it’s a great guitar.
I don’t know the story behind the etching. It was there when I got it and the guy at the store didn’t know either. I mean, imagine just some weird dude, maybe some metalhead dude just like “this is for you, babe…” No one has ever come up to me and been like “man, that was my old guitar!” but maybe one day. [Laughs]
[Laughs] One day… So what happened to “Feminine Effects?” That’s one of my favorite new songs of yours and it’s noticeably absent from the record.
We’re trying to figure out if I want to do an EP or what. There’s a lot of songs that I cut from this record — about 35 minutes worth of material. So I could do an EP or just have extra songs for bsides or bonus tracks and things like that. I like that song. We’ve only recorded it once. We’re recorded it a couple times, but only once that I liked. I never recorded it in my studio, but we did it live a few times.
MP3: Of Montreal – Feminine Effects (live on MPR)
Like the MPR recording you used for the Green Owl compilation? That’s one of my favorite recordings you’ve ever done.
Yeah. My brother was like “man, that’s the only version … you can’t do another version. You’ve got to use that version if you’re going to do it.”
Wow. I’d never thought of it that way, but he’s kind of right. Speaking of which, I’ve got to say that I love the return of the piano on the new album. Did I hear some horns on the record as well?
Yeah. Originally we had these kind of electronic sampled horns. Every time I’d listen to it, I’d think “man, we’ve got to get some real horns on this.” So eventually we got the guys from Dark Meat to come in and do some real horns for us.
Oh, fantastic! I love those guys. So when you were thinking of the sequence and flow of the record, what were some albums you had in mind as good examples?
In the Aereoplane over the Sea is one of the best sequence records ever. Everything flows so perfectly through the whole record — it never gets boring. And OTC did that with their two records. That was definitely the spirit that I was using and sort of pulling from. And the Fiery Furnaces stuff kind of hurts the brain a little bit more because the songs are bit more dense and the lyrics are some times impenetrable. That’s what I love about them, lyrically they’re so far ahead of everyone else.
I loved when you all covered their song “Tropical Iceland.”
That was my daughter Alabee’s favorite song for a long time. That was the first song she really connected with. At that time she called ice cream “icey” and she was a big fan of ice cream. So when she heard that song she was like “oh! icey land!”
[Laughs] A land made of ice cream!
MP3: Of Montreal – Tropical Iceland / And She Was (Fiery Furnaces / Talking Heads)
You can also hit up the Of Montreal covers archive I’ve put together.