SEX, SPACE, PRIESTS AND GIRLS: Of Montreal

With the Athens band currently on
an extensive tour
, we present this Kevin Barnes archival interview from 2011,
originally published in BLURT #9.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

One of the things that happens within the collective life of
a singular pop star and an irksomely essaying journalist after several
interviews throughout many years is that a mood sets in; that of an ongoing
dialogue in which you get where a subject might go before you get to them, and
the flow always feels freshly conversational.

.

There are few places worth getting to (even fewer subjects
worth going with) that are more uproarious, delightful or fresh than where
Kevin Barnes may go. 

 

Since 1997 and from the start of his tenure as the often
sole and always central fountainhead for Of Montreal, Barnes has gone from
cherubic to chiseled; from writing quietly personal narratives to torrid tales
of imagined characters to self-centric emotionalism where sour and sad themes
pore dramatically over upbeat music. From sane to troubled to back again; from
single to married; from the foppishly literary Ray Davies-like innocent pop
prince of the Elephant 6 scene’s second watery wave, to the musky (better than)
Prince-ish king of his own brand of iconic, over-sexed, prog-glam-funk.

 

“You are going to hell for that
remark,” says Barnes, shocked but with a smile, regarding my Prince dis. The
sex, funk and glam thing-that he’s
cool with.                                                                                                                       

 

Maybe I’m overemphasizing Of Montreal’s present level of
purple passion and its furiously finicky funk. Maybe I’m overstepping my charge
toward Of Montreal’s
stature(s) and how divinely brash and contagiously abstract and moonage
daydreamy they’ve been within the last 13 years. Yet, over his ensemble’s last
few recorded efforts in particular, 2008’s Skeletal
Lamping
and 2010’s False Priest, Barnes
has grown into the bizarre immensity (or immense bizarreness) he only hinted at
on the band’s quaint but cutting 1997 debut Cherry
Peel
.

 

For the most part, this ever-blossoming
one-man-band-turned-gang-bang, has grown into a (Gay) parade worthy of acclaim, increasingly garish outfits and, on False Priest, adventurous jumper-ons and
collaborators such as Solange Knowles (Beyonce’s risk-taking sis) and theatrical
Afro-space-case Janelle Monáe, whose debut CD, The ArchAndroid Barnes co-produced and with whom Of Montreal will
tour this autumn.

 

Then again, Barnes doesn’t need more sartorially splendid
members in his band or partners in his madness to have a party. In this
writer’s estimation, he’s a shifter; a skin-shedding sort who can people the
circus in his head and the carnival from his loins with radically diverse
characters across many acts.

 

“I don’t know if I’d phrase it that way even though on some
level I suppose it’s sort of true,” said Barnes, before he started his brief
spring fling of tour dates to alert the world to False Priest‘s rainbow adventures. “I just don’t wanna ever repeat
myself and am always searching for new inspiration because of it.”

 

It’s liberation-musical and sexual and therefore
psychological and spiritual-that’s his biggest inspiration. That’s what brought
Barnes to this new place; a rebirth (or two), if you will.

 

After several Merseybeat inspired albums (including the ’97
debut and 1998’s The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy), and an
oft-reported bout of depression it was Skeletal Lamping that showed
off his love of classic funk elders. He’s not the first man or woman to be
saved by the funk. Yet, as a guy, he claimed he was less repressed; freer and
more sexual than ever before.

 

“It was a personal liberation that informed the art,” says
Barnes. That openness allowed inspirations such as Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye and
Curtis Mayfield to flow through Barnes and his newest music. “I love that they
don’t restrict themselves creatively. They just let it all hang out.” That
level of funky freedom suits Barnes’ goal of making complex music just fine.
“Not complex in a math-y way but in an emotional, intellectual and soulful way.
The most important thing is to follow the creative muse that has a message for
you to deliver. Right now, the message it wants me to deliver is of a
homo-luminous funky nature.”

 

Sometimes, in his estimation, that hunting and pecking-the
search-gets him into trouble with friends and family who might, in his words,
find him difficult and moody. “I have the misfortune of being in a constant
state of emotional instability. My feelings about things and people change so
quickly and unpredictably. I don’t wanna be narcissistic or self consumed. It
is in my nature to be so, though. It’s hard to deal with. That’s why I tend to
keep to myself. “

 

Still, all and everything can be forgiven through art.

 

“If you make a beautiful record or novel or film people will
forgive your unfortunate passions and personality crimes,” says Barnes. “I
think everyone in the Of Montreal art collective knows that I’m not a bad egg.
At least I hope they do. “

 

If the magnificent False
Priest
is the result of the trouble he’s seen and the zeal he’s feeling,
all is forgiven.

 

*****

 

Months later I find Barnes on the road from Athens,
GA, to Jackson,
MI, and pose a question that many
a man, woman, artist and Talking Head has asked: well, how did I get here? And if I did move so far from my
beautiful house and my beautiful wife to something freer and franker, when
exactly did the aesthetic shift occur and how exactly did it reach into the depths of the soul-not music, but the self-so to free
one’s ass so that one’s mind would follow.

 

In previous chats, Barnes seemed slightly reluctant to
ruminate on the personal and psychological aspects of the freedom.

 

The touring he and Of Montreal have done within the last
five years comes into play; so do the places he’s gone to emotionally, onstage
and off. “I guess I’ve been pushing myself to explore deeper levels of my
psyche, just out of fascination for unearthed human potential. I think it’s
important for people to force themselves out of their comfort zones as much as
possible as that is the only way we can develop or evolve emotionally,
intellectually and spiritually.

 

And when? While some might point to the primal urges and
daring pop of 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are
You the Destroyer?
as the start of Barnes’ animal liberation, he sees the
aforementioned aesthetic shift occurring even earlier, with 2004’s Satanic Panic in the Attic.  That’s when he took complete responsibility
for Of Montreal’s creative trajectory: “I felt an incredible amount of freedom
and excitement, like being reborn. I’ve been riding that wave ever since.”

Though I shouldn’t put words in his mouth, I do: does that mean there are two
Of Montreals? There’s the Mersey
Beating Elephant 6 Of Montreal based out of Georgia and the Carolinas that audiences first
learned to love, then the one that appeared right after 2006 where
Space Is The Place right after you turn the corner from Minneapolis,
Philly and Memphis…

 

“We joke around about that-that it does seem like OM has gone through many different stages, not just from
a personal standpoint but also from a creative and stylistic standpoint,” says
Barnes. “I guess it all comes from the sort of mercurial nature of the creative
process and the bizarre personality traits of artists. It seems to be in most
artists’ nature to seek out the ‘new,’ so there are bound to be casualties
along the way. “

 

Barnes may never have realized that he’d split the
differences between his Of Montreals. He did know that he’d always make music-even
though, at age 14, he went through his sports phase and the idea of becoming a
professional football player. “Then I realized I was too wimpy for that and
switched to making music.”

Speaking of wimpy and music… the Elephant 6 Collective, of which Of Montreal rode
the second wave. The fluffy Anglo-inspired psych-pop seemed, at first, made for
Barnes: his softly confessional and post-dated lyrics, his warm dreamy
melodies, Yet Of Montreal was the least publicized or understood of the E6
acts. He must now feel justified in his choice of euphoric, cheerfully arcane
lyrics and preening pop music, because it is Of Montreal that’s lasted and
flourished into the present

 

“At the time of Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor
Control’s heyday we definitely felt a bit in their shadow, but it wasn’t a bad
thing at all, because the attention they received only motivated us and
inspired us. We truly loved them as people and artists. Still do…”

Barnes pauses. He hasn’t really thought about that scene and buds like Marshmallow Coast in some time. And he claims there’s
no nostalgia in his veins or brain, saying, “I tend to leave the past in the
past,” not considering the fact that his biggest influences at the moment might
be Kool & the Gang and Marvin Gaye.

 

“It’s funny for me to listen to our albums like The Gay Parade [1999] and Coquelicot [a/k/a Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse,
2001] ‘cause I can’t really believe that I made them. I’m so far removed for
whatever inspired those albums, it’s almost like someone else made them and
just credited them to me. I have almost no memory of being involved with them.”

Then the breakthrough: “I have almost become a completely different person.
Maybe I was abducted shortly after Aldhils
Arboretum
[2002] and given a new identity.”

It’s true. If you find pictures of Barnes in the old Of Montreal and compare
them to photos of the current collective ensemble, you won’t recognize him. So
many hairstyles and tony outfits. Or the bandmates, for that matter, as so many
players have passed through Of Montreal’s turnstiles. Then again, for the most
part, some of the early efforts like 1998’s buoyant The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy are but solo albums with long
names above the title.

 

Initially it was very difficult to find people who were
interested in the sort of anachronistic vision that Barnes had as a musical
youth. When he was still living in the south Florida of his childhood he didn’t really
know anyone who had a copy of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds or the Kinks’ We
are the Village Green Preservation Society
or any of the albums he was
obsessing over. He says he never wanted to do music completely alone despite
the fact that his insularly iconic sound often states otherwise. “I knew that I
had to move somewhere else to find some like-minded people. It’s been very
important to me to have a great support group, to feel like I’m a part of a
collective of artists. It’s funny, ‘cause OM has become a collective in a way; the
live production consists of so many different elements and showcases so many
diverse talents, it’s an amazing thing to be a part of.”

 

Barnes’ brother David is Of Montreal’s art director and
creator of the records’ cover art and has been one constant in all this, an
extremely essential part of every album from a musical standpoint even though
he doesn’t play an instrument. To Kevin Barnes it is because David Barnes
doesn’t play an instrument that he hears music in a more abstract way than his
performing brother does. He doesn’t have a concept of the same musical taboos
that Kevin Barnes has as a composer. Rather, he appreciates music on a more
visceral and immediate level. He’s not looking for reference points or wincing
at perceived stylistic trends.

 

“[David] just absorbs it at face value-either it works for
him or it doesn’t,” say Barnes. “I definitely try a little harder than I might
because I want him to be amazed and blown away. He and Nina are the two most
important people to me as far as receiving feedback. As long as the two of them
love the album it doesn’t matter what any critic says.”

The other constant in Kevin Barnes’ Of Montreal is that women, not girls, rule
his world. From the idea of the woman he broke up with so to name his band, to
Nina his wife and OM bassist, to the recent deeply penetrating participation of
Janelle Monáe: it’s the ladies in the house that rule his roots, figuratively
and literally. “Yes, this is true,” Barnes admits freely without stifling a
laugh. “I’ve always relied heavily on the support and inspiration of the women
in my life; some incredibly talented and brilliant women. My wife Nina has
inspired me in so many ways, on every level of human consciousness and
unconsciousness. I rely on people to supply me with new stimuli and I
definitely feed off of the feminine influence and people like Janelle. It’s a
powerful and complex source of psychic information. I just try to absorb the
rather intense energy they deliver me and make something exceptional out of it.

 

Satanic Panic in the
Attic
, 2005’s The Sunlandic Twins and even a comedy tour between the married Barneses (!) surely made the most of
being a husband and wife in music and jokes; an indie Bizarro World Sonny &
Cher. But too, there’s been talk of Barnes having had a meltdown around that
same period, a time when Barnes was said to have been psychically and
psychologically disturbed. Without looking to pain him, pitch gossip or toss
dirt-rather, a means to cram to understand-did he genuinely feel as if he had
some sort of break-down or breath-through?

“I was definitely teetering on the brink of a breakdown for awhile there a
couple years ago,” explains Barnes. “It took me a long time to sort of regain
equanimity, or at least a tolerable level of madness. I am not the sort of
person that dreams about attaining tranquility or balance. That peace only
seems good for Yacht Rock…”- here,
Barnes quotes a line from Of Montreal’s “And I’ve Seen a Bloody Shadow”- “‘my mind is exploding with sloppy murders‘:
that’s my general state of being.”

 

To an extent, the breakdown//breakthrough may have worked a
treat for his lyrical output. There is a distinct and seismic shift from the humble,
mumbling personal narratives of his start (Cherry
Peel
) to the tales of role-playing oddity during the middle period (Gay Parade) to the post-Hissing Fauna sad, self-centric
emotionalism and flagrant sexuality often told through characters (e.g. “Georgie
Fruit”) even stranger than himself.

 

“I guess I don’t really second-guess my creative decisions,”
says Barnes, with surprising plainness. “I just follow the organic muse where
ever it wants to take me. I also follow Bob Dylan’s advice and don’t look back.
Whenever I do, it’s always a bit bizarre.”

 

Another pause. “You know, it’s hard to believe I was really
responsible for all those albums. I find that exciting, though, that I can
change so much and almost become a different person from year to year. I hope
it never ends. I hope I find myself at 60, creating a death metal album
praising the Republican Party.”

 

***

 

Two things come to mind while discussing chameleon-like
characterization and all the people he’s been and will become through Of Montreal.
The first is that despite all his talk of loving Kool & the Gang, George
Clinton and most importantly Marvin Gaye (“one thing I learned during this
strange journey is that I’m in love with Marvin, my spiritual and emotional
guide throughout the False Priest experience”), given all the electro, Afrobeat and Krautrock his music has taken
on since the early-Anglo Of Montreal albums, the most obvious influence on
Barnes has been David Bowie. From Kevin’s henna-hair to his razoring croon to
his gaudy outfits, to his glam guitars and attitude, loving the alien never
seemed more right. “Bowie
is a god-love him to death-he is the archetypal artist changeling,” says
Barnes. “He is like a father figure for me.”

The other alien in Barnes’ life is Janelle Monáe, the St. Louis-born,
Mars-heading singer/multi-instrumentalist/composer whose own super-egotistical
sense of characterization (“Cindi Mayweather”) is barely second to Barnes. After they met and formed a bond, not only did Barnes play
on and produce large bits of Monáe’s massive attacking majestic soul-opera The ArchAndroid, Monáe sang throughout False Priest and the two have created
their own inner space-oddity dialogue.

Allow me to repeat Barnes words:

 

“The most important and life altering gift that was
presented to me recently, was my introduction to the Wondaland Arts Society (Monáe’s
label and overall umbrella theory). There, my clone Tils Platform met Monáe’s
clone Cindi Mayweather at a ski resort that we were both transported to
accidentally by the controller’s sphere. Since we had to wait for the wolf
master to track them anyways, they started talking and discovered that we had a
lot in common. The information and wisdom that the W.A.S. has bestowed upon me
has directed my art focus in a beautiful way.”

Translation (almost):

 

“Well I first met Janelle at the Palace of The Dogs
and we just hit it off. We have a lot in common. Though I happened to write the
lyrics for ‘Make the Bus,’ ‘Enemy Gene’ and ‘Our Riotous Defects’ [his songs
that she sings on], she does write great lyrics and is an amazingly gifted
artist and mammal. There is a love affair right now between her W.A.S. and my
Apollinaire Rave collective, so much wild beauty is awaiting the world. The
thing I’m most excited about right now is our tour together, that and seeing
all the new species that this art union will sire.”

Helping to translate everything that is False
Priest
to the world is Jon Brion-a producer heralded for his smart and warm
complexity on albums from Fiona Apple and Rufus Wainwright. Getting Barnes to
tear off from the computers, put down the laptop
and record away from Of Montreal’s Athens home studio (they did it Brion’s
Ocean Way with his famously vintage equipment) altered Barnes’ idea of how
false his Priest would be without
letting it sound like Brion’s.

 

Brion had a vision, in Barnes’ estimation, that he could
transform Of Montreal recordings into something, sonically, much broader and
powerful than their previous albums.  “I
don’t really know why he wanted to help me do it, maybe to prove something to
himself, maybe to prove something to me, maybe just to be involved with
something he was excited about, maybe to earn some good insect karma,” laughs
Barnes. “All I know is that I trusted him, based on his track record, and he more
than fulfilled his promise. I can’t say enough good things about the man. Jon’s
is a saint in my eyes, and a damn good conversationalist to boot.”

Barnes’ notion of what False Priest would be came together last summer, after he’d written the wriggling,
ratcheting “Sex Karma” and had decided that he wanted to make a very funky and
emotionally ambivalent album. He wanted it to feel raw and confident and
complex. “I wanted it to encourage people to make love, boogie down and cry; to
cry about everything it means to be a human, but to see that there is hope.
That there is a possibility of a homo luminous evolution.”

 

The lyrics are funny, frank and rapturous
on songs such as “Strutter,” “Riotous Defects” and “Coquet Coquette.” Less
forthcoming but no less dreamy are menacing soul-jams such as “Hydra Fancies”-influenced
by Philip K Dick novels, and a love song for the W.A.S. celebrating friendship
and artistic partnership. “Like a Tourist” is a collection of snapshots from
his memory reel and a tour of Singapore
and Japan.
(“It’s a dance song about the transient life in a foreign land.  But I was extremely ill during that tour, so
that might explain some of the lyrics.”) The idea of the “False Priest,” save
for the notion of not following prophets, is unknown to him. He doesn’t
question things such as that. “Like, I didn’t think twice about naming an album
The Gay Parade; there is a voice that
just whispers to me, ‘This one will be called the False Priest,’ and I say ‘Yeah? OK.’ A good writer never gives up his
sources, but here’s a clue: sometimes when I say ‘she’ or ‘her’ it’s not
necessarily about a female.”

 

Ultimately, Barnes didn’t go into False Priest with a belief, a reason or a rhyme-well, maybe a
rhyme-beyond getting on the good foot and flowing sensually into the great
soul-jam beyond. “I didn’t really start working on False Priest with any real vision of how I wanted the completed
work to be,” he says coolly. “I just started writing under the influence of my
organic muse and followed it to the end. I learned a lot during this strange
journey-so much so I’ve got another twelve or more songs that didn’t make the
album. But I guess we can get into that in the next interview!”

 

Stay tuned.

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