Interview: of Montreal
Kevin Barnes on tripping out — at reviewers and on record — and why he's not Frosted Flakes
Words Jazz Monroe
Kevin Barnes, of Montreal mainman and alt.pin-up icon, finds trouble in a number of places — clinical depression, his allegedly shaky marriage, unfavourable Pitchfork reviews — but right now, he just so happens to be hung up on pop music. Pop music, the latest in a panoply of troublesome topics, is a real drag to the guy.
“It all depends on what the intent is,” father-of-one Barnes says of the trouble with radio-targeted mainstream ‘artists’. “Some people make music as a product. It comes to a point where there’s a lot of money, taking it into an area it really shouldn’t be. Like, you’re basically a box of cereal or something. People want you to taste the same every time they buy you; you become Frosted Flakes. You might be able to get away with changing your flavour a little bit, from album to album, but people don’t want you to make dramatic changes or anything, ’cause they like the way Frosted Flakes taste.”
Not entirely surprisingly, the wild confidence of March-bound LP Paralytic Stalks — whose heritage encompasses early John Lennon, King Crimson and Sufjan Stevens’ Age of Adz — doesn’t stretch to Barnes’s conversation. The likable 37-year-old stutters his way from sentence to sentence, a hesitant sibling of his flamboyant on-record persona. “I get bored with myself, I get bored with the things that I work on, and I wanna do something different,” he later admits. “Sometimes I feel like I’m cooler in my songs than in a conversation”.
You’d hesitate to agree — after all, black shemale alter-egos such as Georgie Fruit, star of 2008 album Skeletal Lamping, hardly represent the currency of conventional cool — but it’s fair to say the man on the end of the blower is a distinctly more sensitive beast than, as he puts it, the ‘Jumping Jack Flash frontman’ commanding of Montreal’s see-’em-to-believe-’em live shows.
The Athens, Georgia eight-piece — with visual assistance from Kevin’s brother David and wife Nina — have rightly earned a reputation as one of the most intriguing acts in indie rock. Performances have featured nudity, bunny outfits and choreographed ballet routines. Songs are inhabited by lysergic visions, dual personalities and witty confessionals of a uniquely sexual vivacity. Whatever the occasion, you can bet the performer Barnes will erupt exuberantly into (onto?) it.
However, it’s a persona we’ll perhaps see downplayed at the outset of this year’s tour: in abandoning guitar for piano, the singer’s rejigged the template implemented since his band set out their stall as members of Elephant 6, an indie collective assembling the talents of Apples in Stereo, The Olivia Tremor Control and Jeff Mangum’s Neutral Milk Hotel, among other invariably ill-monikered oddballs. Though of Montreal was established as early as 1996, it wasn’t until several albums in that sites like Pitchfork emerged, to provide international coverage for niche bands of their ilk.
More recently, though, the ’zine provoked an exhaustive blog post from Barnes, following a lukewarm review of 2010’s poptastic tenth LP False Priest. The rant — for which Barnes has since personally apologised — was aimed at the review’s author, Rob Mitchum, going to great lengths to decry trifling annoyances including mixed metaphors, lack of specific-song coverage and failure to decapitalise the ‘o’ in the band’s name. The overall effect was passionately cheek-reddening. It did, however, set the unlikely scene for a ritualistic shedding of old songwriting skin. Kevin finally gave up giving a fuck.
“It was totally out of line for me to react in that way,” he reflects, still patently embarrassed. “But at the same time, if you care about something, you don’t wanna see it mangled like that. It’s a dangerous mix, so far as when you release something, you’re exposing yourself, you’re making yourself vulnerable, and you really hope for the best. But you can’t expect the best. You can’t expect everyone to love everything you ever do. So I’ve gotten to this point now where I’m just going to release it. And I’m not going to second guess it or try to create something that will be liked by people. Because at the end of the day, it could either flatter me or it could devastate me. But other people’s opinions — I don’t know how much they benefit me, as an artist or whatever. So maybe getting the reaction that some people thought False Priest was superficial or something, maybe that did inspire me to make this record, which is not superficial at all.”
It follows that the LP in question, Paralytic Stalks, is far and away the most grimly ambitious and inaccessible milestone in of Montreal’s frequently ambitious and inaccessible career. Packed with tunes that stammer and burst and slide out of reach like rainbow-coloured water balloons exploding in a badly edited stop-motion movie, it’s a challenging project for sure, but gradually these nine curios (four of which break the seven-minute barrier) furrow a snaking path to your heart. Feeling liberated by the “hallucinatory energy and subject matter” of William S Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Cities Of The Red Night, a eureka moment came in the form of Sufjan Stevens’ sprawling Age Of Adz album.
“I didn’t really know of his material until that record, so I was really surprised”, Barnes enthuses of Sufjan. “I was very impressed with his complexity and the production and all the sounds that were happening, and the emotional content and the personal nature of it. I found it very inspiring. It was an important record for me to listen to and be like, ‘Here’s a guy who’s clearly not trying to get radio plays. [He’s] clearly doing it for a very pure reason: self-expression’. I think in that way it sort of encouraged me to do the same. Encouraged me to try and make a record that was very personal and put myself in a more vulnerable position, as far as exposing my inner life [went]. I think that kind of record is very important. It’s really the most important kind of record — as much as we like superficial fun, poppy songs. You know, I really cherish records like Age Of Adz or Plastic Ono Band and I can’t imagine if they didn’t exist. It’d be a much harder life. They help you. They help me a lot. There’s a lot of pain in those records, but I think in that way people don’t feel as fucked up if you know there’s other people as fucked up as you are.”
Like Sufjan’s effort, it’s the shape-shifting scope of Paralytic Stalks that’s truly extraordinary. Where the jumpy-happy pop bent of False Priest sprinkled on the catchy like so many hundreds and thousands, this time out, latching onto any hummable tunes is tantamount to juggling blindfolded on a treadmill. Which is not simply spendthrift awkwardness, but a spurt of sideways-creativity borne of agitated malaise: the recording process was Barnes’ bleakest ride since the band’s defining opus, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
“Hissing Fauna was the period that I was in the darkest place,” he says, letting in only a note of pathos. “But I think this one was second to that. I don’t know why I entered into this depression period again. Sort of floundering through it, trying to keep my head together. It happens to me… I don’t know why, it happens to me quite a lot. But at least I’m able to use it as an inspiration and not be totally crippled by it.”
You wonder whether continuing to write larger-than-life, self-exploratory rock songs benefits Barnes’ mental wellbeing.
“Yeah, I’m not sure”, he responds. “Maybe I spend too much time in my head or something. Maybe if I was a labourer and I had to wake up every morning and focus on breaking up gravel for eight hours, if my mind was focussed like that then I wouldn’t have as much time to brood and get into trouble.”
Admittedly brooding and getting into trouble are worthwhile and not uncommon hobbies for the jobbing songwriter, but few accelerate to such hot-blooded extremes as Barnes. When it comes to of Montreal, no stone of self-doubt is left unturned. Paralytic Stalks sees masochism sidle up against sadism sidling up against turns of “psychotic vitriol”, all straddling prolific interludes of eye-of-the-storm euphoria and, as ‘Spiteful Intervention’ puts it, “asthmatic energy”.
If the theory sounds unhinged, it’s a shadow of the realisation. As existential dilemmas and personal shortcomings collide, sexually-charged motors whirr and rumble. “I just can’t get hard for reality / At least not mine”, mews the wonderfully disjointed ‘Ye, Renew The Plaintiff’. “I spend my waking hours haunting my own life / I made the one I love start crying tonight”, roars the buoyantly erratic and operatic ‘Spiteful Intervention’. “I’m considered ugly from every angle / You’re the only beauty I don’t wanna strangle”, crows the smoothly skittering ‘We Will Commit Wolf Murder’, soothingly.
The outcome is an indulgent array of future-pop peculiarities. But, while part of us suspects that Paralytic Stalks sets the band up for an old-fashioned critical panning, it’s the giddy recklessness with which Kevin swans into that inevitability; the blind audacity of the whole farrago, that makes this the quintessential of Montreal document. The swaggering self-analyst is back, in all his flawed glory.
And things are looking up. While Kevin claims to have ditched the antidepressants that wrought havoc on the man who wrote Hissing Fauna…, he now possesses the psychological tools’ to snuff out oncoming bouts in the blue corner. “I think with seeing the signs of the impending darkness or whatever, I can control things a little bit better now,” he explains. “I’m not as easily destroyed. I’ve been able to figure out a way to maintain a little bit more balance, and not feel like I’m being thrust under the waves.”
The feeling, then, is ultimately one of optimism for Kevin’s songwriting autumn years. “I wanted to make something that was artistically interesting. So making a song that’s six minutes long or eight minutes long is basically saying it’s never gonna get played on the radio. But, it doesn’t matter! I’m sure King Crimson didn’t get much radio play. [Better to] make music for people who love music, and love music as an art form and not just, you know, some product or some item that we think defines us, temporarily.”