[interview] Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes talks trench coats, P-Funk, and his need for "powerful positive energy" in music

The steady ascent of Athens, Ga psych-pop theater kids of Montreal is hitting absurd new highs-- and on the week of the release of their newest and most far-reaching album, False Priest (Polyvinyl), the band come to the House of Blues Thursday night for an over-the-top mind-orgy of Caligula-eque proportions (even roping in Futurist-R-&-B juggernaut Janelle Monáe to join the proceedings). I already wrote about the band and their theatrics in this week's Phoenix; here, below, is the full transcript of my talk with OM mainman Kevin Barnes, as he talks P-Funk, alternate personas, and the his predilection for "powerful positive energy" in music.

Daniel Brockman: So a few months ago I spoke to James Husband of your band, who told me about the album as it was in formation, and he basically had no idea how the album was coming along, since it was pretty much your baby, a sort-of solo effort. True?

Kevin Barnes: Yeah, I kind of think of of Montreal as two different animals, the recording side and the performing side. The performing side is a much more collaborative effort, and the recording side is more of a solo effort for me. Everyone has their own musical projects as well.

But not just recording, but songwriting, right?

For the most part, I write and record at the same time, so I don’t really-- I sometimes write full structures on the piano or guitar and go in and record them, but I actually prefer to just experiment and write sections. Like write a section, then when that’s done, thinking “Hmm, where do I want the song to go now”, all in pieces that are like a minute long, 45 seconds long.

But this record’s completely different, sort of. I basically made a record just like I would make any other of Montreal record, piecing everything together one instrument at a time, using drum loops, etc-- but then I went to California to work with Jon Brion for a couple of months, and he contributed a lot of ideas, he added a lot of synthesizer parts and Wurlitzer parts and he sort of helped transform the album, in a way.

It’s interesting the way you refer to your process as “writing sections”, which is different from conventional “songwriting”...

Yeah, I think that even when I would write full songs on the guitar and record them, I’d still break them up into sections so that the verse would have a strong personality and a certain identity, and the chorus might have a different personality. So when I write a song it isn’t just a single vamp that goes all the way through. I just want it to feel sort of collage-y.

Is that what you were going for on what became False Priest?

For this record I really challenged myself to make something a little different from Skeletal Lamping or other more collage-y records, just going for more of a classical pop structure but still maintain an unpredictability.

You mention “classical pop structure”-- which kind of reminds me of the hype boiling over a few months ago that you were all into modern R&B and pop, and collaboration with Solange Knowles and Janelle Monáe. Did this whole thing alter the way you “wrote sections” to make it sound more conventional?

Well, not exactly. I mean, I’ve pretty much exclusively been listening to Parliament, Sly and the Family Stone, Funkadelic, Stevie Wonder, you know, records from that time period, 60's and 70's soul and funk. That’s the music that I’m most excited about right now. I love how emotive the vocalists are, a lot of those guys had a lot of different vocal styles that they could switch up depending on the song. You know, sometimes you’re happy, sometimes you’re energetic, you can express so much with your voice. Everyone has that power, in a way, and for me on this record I was trying to experiment more, vocally, and put more emotion in the vocal performances.

Yeah, I can definitely hear that-- and I can definitely hear a George Clinton influence, especially vocally in some of the new songs. The bands you mention seem to really be comfortable with being out there and having crazy personalities.

I think that’s what led me in that direction with the last few records-- I love the freedom that those artists had, they just sort of stuck their ass out and didn’t care. It’s just about allowing yourself to just be and not have a lot of baggage about it. It’s all about a celebration of all things in life, it’s not all full of insecurity.

It seems like kind of a shift from the more 60’s-oriented sound of earlier of Montreal.

This whole thing has been a very slow organic development, moving from 60’s psych pop to where we are now. We always had a theatrical side but were limited by capital, because we self-finance everything, we are never getting anything from outside sources. Once we decided “Ok, we’re going to put some money aside and make these big productions”, we were able to realize a lot of these ideas that we’d had for a long time. But you know, I wasn’t really that familiar with Parliament, Funkadelic, the whole P-Funk thing, for a long time. I mean, I knew a few songs, you know, “We want the funk, give us the funk”, all that, but I didn’t really know the whole story. I didn’t understand all of that until a friend of mine, who was obsessed with them, was like “Look, you don’t understand, you’re going to freak out when you get into this stuff because you’re actually very similar to them in a lot of ways”. And he was right, we had a lot in common with Parliament. And what really got me was things like the vocal arrangements. Because they were very sophisticated-- it isn’t just “we want the funk” being yelled over slap bass, everything is composed in a really elaborate way that just speaks to me on so many levels and is just so brilliant!

I can see how that would appeal to you, since your music has always been... I dunno, just full of ideas.

I’ve always been drawn to a density of ideas, like how I was always about bands like Os Mutantes. What attracted me to Os Mutantes was how unpredictable their songs were, how unconventional the arrangements and orchestrations were. But it’s always important for there to be an extremely powerful positive energy. I get the same thing from Os Mutantes that I get from Parliament and Sly and the Family Stone and the Beach Boys, even though it sort of mutates with all these different artists. Just a powerful positive energy.

I can see that-- and it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that all of those bands you mention there are real “album” bands, bands that always made album-long statements. Is that something that is important to you?

I do love albums and I think just growing up, these albums were my bibles, they were very sacred to me.

You know, with vinyl, if you want it to sound good and have a 70-minute album, it would have to be a quadruple album or whatever. But by the 90’s, when I was around Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control, the idea was, you know, “Just fill that CD up with as much material as possible!” 72 minutes, or whatever the limit is! I was surrounded by all these creative people bounding with all this stuff and it seemed a shame to have an album that was only 45 minutes.

And you know, at one point I was like “I wonder how long Sgt. Pepper's is?”, because I always thought it was so long. And it’s, like less than 40 minutes, I think! And you know, it’s this classic album, that seems so epic, but it’s actually so concise. In modern terms, it’s like half the length of what you can put on a CD. So I had like 3 or 4 songs that I intended to put on False Priest that I decided at the last minute to take off, just because I wanted people to be able to listen to the record without hitting full-on fatigue and going “Oh man, I can’t take any more of Kevin Barnes’ voice.”

Is that a consideration of yours when you are working on an album, what people will think?

I try not to think about the outside world, at all, when I’m writing, you know. It’s very important for the process-- if I started thinking about what writers were going to say or what fans are going to say, it just sabotages the spirit of the thing. What I love is that it’s almost a therapeutic endeavor for me, when I’m getting into the zone and I’m working really fast and it’s so exciting and intoxicating and fulfilling. And if a little voice came in and said “Now wait, what will people think of this”, that would ruin the whole thing. Because it’s all about fantasy, in a way, it’s all about needing to be transported into this other wild exciting space.

Is the use of quote-unquote personas part of this transporting process?

I think that it’s definitely a device that I use, but it just sort of organically clicks. It’s not like I think “Oh, I need to now write a Georgie Fruit song”. It just sort of like-- this sort of organic thing just sort of happens, a kind of Dr Jekkyl and Mr Hyde thing happens. I sort of become this character and I’m familiar with that character and I don’t censor it. I don’t have to say “Oh, I can’t say that in a song” or “I can’t write that” or “I can’t use that vocal style.” And it’s like “Oh hell yeah, ok, I’m gonna do this now”. It’s really exciting and liberating and empowering in a strange way to do it.

People make a big deal about Georgie Fruit, and your personas-- but it seems entirely possible to listen to an of Montreal album without noticing that there are personas and transformations going on. Are these personas actually real? Does Georgie Fruit exist, or is “it” just a tool for songwriting?

I just gave it the name Georgie Fruit, but it’s just a part of me that’s really important. Because for a while I had a lot of musical ideas that were all about falsetto singing and sexual content, and if I were to be self-conscious and think “Oh, that’s not me”, then I might not go ahead and do it. but if I think “Of course it’s me, it’s coming out of me”, then I’ll feel able to do it.

Right-- and if it’s a part of you, then how can it be fake, or whatever, right?

People somehow think that personas are not genuine, but I don’t agree. I think that there’s nothing you can do that isn’t a part of you, there’s nothing you can do that isn’t genuine.

Is the whole persona thing a way to say things that are hard to say as yourself? And if so, how did you get into that whole mindset, as a songwriting device? Is it a desire to mask yourself, or reside in an alternate interior world?

Well, I think that when I first started with Cherry Peel, it was a very personal record, and I think I got sort of slammed by what little press we got, it was pretty negative across the board. And I think that really affected me psychological. It was like the first day of school, you get all excited and you have great optimism and you get pushed around and beat up and come home with a bloody nose and the next day you think “Fuck it, I’m not talking to anybody, I’m gonna keep my head down and wear all black.” And my way to wear all black was to wear a kaleidoscopic trench coat. As I went into this other fantasy world, with Bedside Drama and The Gay Parade, I became obsessed with Cole Porter and other things that were completely anachronistic. And so I think that there is a part of me that does need to hide in an alternate reality than the one I live in.

Do you feel like this alternate reality thing tends to obscure the catchy pop songs that you write? Because despite all the weirdness, your music is pretty straight-up catchy for the most part, and pretty easy to get on musical terms.

I feel like we don’t make it easy for people to like us. I think we’re a very polarizing band in that way. A lot of people might have actually liked us if we had seemed less pretentious or less theatrical. Like, you know, if they were stuck on a desert island with the records, they had no references, no concept of what we were about, it might be easier to like our albums if it was just the songs. I think when some people see the whole thing, the presentation and the way we are-- we aren’t the kind of band that just anyone can love.

It seems like of Montreal has built up a significant mythology, with so many albums, so many songs, etc.-- it’s a daunting discography. When you make a new album, are you conscious of the album’s place in your overall oeuvre?

We don’t really think about the past that much. Skeletal Lamping, that was a really major production. And on one level, we thought “Ok, should we keep on with this mythology we’ve created with these kind of characters”. But we realized that it’s more fun to just start from scratch and create something new, it’s more fun to do that and forget about all that older stuff.

So you don’t continuously shape songs over time until they are album-ready-- each album starts with a blank slate?

Yeah-- it’s kind of like starting a new chapter and it’s really exciting. It’s kind of sad but if a lot of time has passed after writing a song, I don’t really feel that excited about releasing it, even though I might have liked it a lot at the time, and can still sort of appreciate it. I have a pretty huge unreleased catalog-- and some might see the light of day, but I’d much rather work on something new, that’s what I’m all about.

When you work on a new album, are you seeing it visually as well, like what the stage show will be like for each song, that sort of thing?

For this record, the things that Jon [Brion] was contributing were really cinematic, so I was thinking very visually right away. Because I think with Skeletal Lamping it was really a hodgepodge thrown together. There were a lot of ideas but they weren’t very refined. Like “ok, these pigs will come out on stage and then this man with a gas mask will come out on stage and gas them all and then a cowboy will come and shoot them all”, but it was all thrown together like a Benny Hill sketch.

With this production we’ve been talking about it, thinking about it, brainstorming it for three or four months now. It’s definitely been a more intricate process, coming up with visuals and theatricals with dancers for every song. We’ve really invested a lot of time to get it just so.

Jon Brion seems like a good fit for the new material, since it seems more cinematic as well, which ties in to his film score background.

It’s kind of funny the way the whole thing happened, maybe there was a kind of subliminal connection. I think the way that Jon connects to music is very visual, more visual than most people, especially with his soundtrack music. Like he tries to connect his music to the plot and the characters, like there’s so much secret information for everything that he writes when he writes for a film. Like when he did stuff for Little Miss Sunshine, he was using a lot of backwards sounds referencing the storyline and what the characters are going through. I think when he was writing his synth parts, he definitely added this very intense visual element.
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