Interview: Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes

Interview: Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes

In the mid-'90s, Of Montreal songwriter Kevin Barnes kicked around several U.S. cities searching for a music scene simpatico with his own interests, and finally found one in Athens, Georgia, in the indie psychedelic-pop bands circling around the Elephant Six label. Starting with 1997's Cherry Peel, Barnes began creating music that was whimsical, inventive, and perhaps more purist than any other Elephant Six band in hewing to a '60s aesthetic. His more recent albums, Satanic Panic In The Attic and the new The Sunlandic Twins, reflect his growing interests in modern music, especially dance-pop, but they're no less imaginative, idiosyncratic, or fun to listen to. Barnes recently talked with The A.V. Club about fatherhood, songwriting in Norway, and the early days. The band is on tour across the U.S. through the end of September. This is an extended cut of an interview that appeared in The A.V. Club's Twin Cities print edition.

The A.V. Club: You used to live in Minneapolis about 10 years ago. What were those days like?
Kevin Barnes: It's kind of an interesting story. I had just signed with Bar/None, and they were the first record label I had ever worked with. We were looking for a producer at that time, because we didn't understand that you could do it yourself, because we were so young. They, at that time, were working with Chris Mars, the drummer from The Replacements, and he had a studio. So the idea was to go to up to Minneapolis and work with Chris Mars. But we went up there and he wouldn't return any of our phone calls, and wouldn't return Bar/None's phone calls, so we didn't actually ever meet him or work with him. But we decided to stay there anyway. And it was fun for the first couple of months, because it was summertime. But once the winter came, it was a little bit too much for me, because I had come from Florida, so I was used to a lot of sunshine. And there's not a lot of sunshine in Minneapolis in the winter. [Laughs.]
AVC: No, not really.
KB: It was kind of a bizarre experience. But a really good thing came out of it, because I got this used guitar at this really great used-guitar shop, and I still have it. It's my main guitar, and I play it all the time.
AVC: And then you ended up in Athens, Georgia. Did you move there right after Minneapolis?
KB: Yeah, I can't even remember chronologically where I was when. Basically, right after high school, I didn't go to college, I was just sort of bouncing around trying to find people to play with. So I went to Cleveland, because that's where my sister lived. Basically, I was just trying to get out of where I had gone to high school, which was down in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. And that was just totally devoid of any sort of culture, at least indie-rock culture. Nobody knew of anything down there. Everything was completely what the major media feeds to you—at that point it was, at least. I was just bouncing around, traveling. Tried moving to Seattle, tried moving to Providence, Rhode Island, and Cleveland, and Minneapolis, and Chicago, and couldn't really find a place I felt comfortable. Then through Bar/None I also met this guy Julian Koster, who worked with the Music Tapes and Neutral Milk Hotel. He's the one who encouraged me to move to Athens, and I'm happy I did, because that was kind of the heyday of the whole E6 thing. I got to meet all these people and have them perform on my record and play on their records and perform live with each other. It was a great experience. And that's when things finally started rolling.
AVC: It sounds like you really like Athens.
KB: Yeah. Well, now, it's kind of slowed down a bit. It's just a place where the rent isn't too expensive and you can kind of get by on making whatever amount of money you can make, and focus more on your projects than working a full-time job.
AVC: Your daughter Alabee was born about eight months ago, right?
KB: Yeah, basically. Seven and a half now.
AVC: Your daughter, Alabee, must have been at the forefront of your thinking while you were working on The Sunlandic Twins, since you finished it just before she was born, and the record came out just afterwards. And there's a song about her on the record ["So Begins Our Alabee"]. How has becoming a father changed the way you approach life and your music?
KB: Well, it's definitely made it more complicated. Going on tour, for example, is extremely difficult now, because emotionally I'm torn. Half of me is happy to be doing it, and the other half wants to be home with her. In that way, it's kind of making things a little bit more difficult, but she more than makes up for it, you know, because the time I have with her is really amazing.
AVC: When she gets older, do you think you might take her with you on tour?
KB: Oh, yeah, definitely. We have plans. The next album's tour, I'll bring her along.
AVC: Is your wife, Nina, touring with you right now, or is she staying with Alabee?
KB: For now, she's gonna stay with Alabee. I think on the next tour, she'll be back in the band.
AVC: Who's taking her place right now on tour?
KB: Matt Dawson.
AVC: How would you say Sunlandic Twins fits into the evolution of Of Montreal's sound? It seems like the big break from what you'd been doing previously was actually the previous record, Satanic Panic In The Attic, and Sunlandic kind of builds on that.
KB: Oh yeah, there are definitely some new influences at work on the last two records. The introduction of the drum machine adds a lot. That's something I've wanted to do for a while, because I've always been a big fan of dance music. I always went to dance parties and some Blur song or David Bowie song would come on, and people would start freaking out. And I thought, "God, I want to have a song like that." So that's part of my motivation for the last two records, to try to make music that really resonates with people and is really fun, but is also challenging musically.
AVC: You normally do a lot of recording work alone, but it seems like there was more of that this time out. Is that true?
KB: Well, I've definitely done a lot of stuff by myself on the previous records. On Satanic Panic I did most of the stuff, and on this one I did. On Cherry Peel [the band's 1997 debut] I had a little help, but did most of it myself, and the same with [The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy]. Even The Gay Parade was mostly by myself. So yeah, it's not anything new. We went through a short phase where we were a fully functioning band with people contributing equally musically. That was for two records, and then after that dissolved, I just sort of took it up again myself.
AVC: Is it true that your writing method changed a bit for this album?
KB: Well, the music—I write a lot of lyrics on tour, just as I'm going around day-to-day. I keep a little notebook in my back pocket and I'm always thinking of lyrics, just trying to write down ideas and hope that they could turn into songs. Musically, I've never been able to do that, really. Every once in a while, I get an idea in my head and figure it out when I get home. Usually I just sit down with a piano or guitar and create something sort of spontaneously. But this record actually was a little bit different, because I spent a couple of months in Norway—that's where my wife's from. I was working on this theater piece, and some of the music I made for that actually ended up on the record.
AVC: Which songs were from the theater piece?
KB: The one instrumental, "October Is Eternal," and then some other stuff I wrote for it but didn't use, like the "Our Spring Is Sweet Not Fleeting" instrumental. And then actually some of the pop songs, I didn't write for it, but they were used during the piece. "The Party's Crashing Us" and "Death Of A Shade Of A Hue" and "Wraith Pinned To The Mist," those were all used in the piece with other people singing, which is interesting because they're professional actors but amateur singers, so most of them were singing kind of like Everybody Says I Love You by Woody Allen. I just wanted it to be natural for people, to just use their natural voices, and if they didn't have the greatest ability, it wouldn't matter. "Death Of A Shade Of A Hue" was actually sung by a classically trained opera singer, so that was a real interesting treat to hear.
AVC: This is the first time you've worked with theater?
KB: Someone else's theater, yeah. I've done some of my own theater stuff, but that was the first time I've ever been commissioned to write music for someone else's theater piece.
AVC: Would you like to do more of that in the future?
KB: Yeah, definitely. It's an interesting challenge.
AVC: The band has been very prolific in the past eight years; you've put out something like 12 or 13 records. How have you maintained that high level of focused activity for so long?
KB: Um… I guess it's because I'm pretty one-dimensional and I don't have that many other hobbies or interests. I can spend more time focused on writing music and writing lyrics and dreaming up ideas.
AVC: Do you have any trouble keeping your creative energies going without running into mental roadblocks?
KB: Sometimes, yeah. It kind of comes in bursts. While I'm recording I'm also writing, so I'm kind of ahead of the game that way, so I don't have to start from scratch once the record is released. And then I'll have ideas kicking around that I didn't use on one of the records that I'll rework, and then [it becomes] stuff I can use for the next record.
AVC: Do you strive for a certain amount of positivity or playfulness in your music?
KB: Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, at least for the first handful of records, the goal was definitely not to have any sort of testosterone or phony attitudes in the music and in the vocal performances, but then on the last couple records, I've realized it's fun to be a little pretentious from time to time, and open my mind up to that a little bit. And I was also really closed-minded during the time of the first couple of records, when I only wanted to listen to stuff that was made in the '60s or early '70s. I couldn't really stand to listen to modern production, it drove me crazy. But then I somehow had this breakthrough, and in the last couple years, I've really searched for contemporary music that inspires me because I want to feel more connected to my generation and the world in my time. So I think that made an interesting shift in the dynamic and the direction of the band.
AVC: Who are your most recent influences?
KB: Stuff like—I mean, it's still not contemporary, but Talking Heads, and in the last couple of years, Brian Eno's albums and his production work, you can definitely hear that. And also '70s Afrobeat like Fela Kuti, and Jamaican dub and rocksteady. And then the modern stuff I've been into is dancier stuff like RJD2, and then stuff like Broadcast and Four Tet and Manitoba, and The Go Team! and The Arcade Fire. There's so many good records coming out now.
AVC: Are you currently working on the follow-up to Sunlandic Twins?
KB: Yeah, I have almost all the songs written. I've demoed a lot of them, and I've probably already used some of the demos to some degree, but I haven't really started. It doesn't really feel like I've officially started recording it, because we've been doing so much touring, and we have another three months' worth of touring ahead of us, so I probably won't start really working on it until December.
AVC: Do you think it's too early to say what it might sound like?
KB: Well, it's sort of coming to mind, it's sort of developing. It's always an organic process. Eventually, it starts to click and I go, "Okay, this is what it's going to be." I have a working title right now: I think it's going to be called The Hissing Fauna. Yeah. And I think it's going to be sort of schizophrenic, like I want it to feel like a whole bunch of ideas all tied together, and different ideas would be returning. I have this idea of it like being inside the brain of someone who's having a serious fever spell. And so, you know how you get in these loops when you're under a fever and you're lying in bed sweating it out. I imagine it as this sort of semi-claustrophobic, looping, oddball pop record. But it probably won't turn out anything like that. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you find that the final versions of your records tend to vary widely from what you originally thought they'd be like?
KB: Yeah. A lot of times, I kind of feel that I haven't really been a very good editor of my own music. Like I've just gone wild and just put a ton of energy into it, and then I become so attached to everything that I want to have everything included. But now, I'm sort of approaching record-making slightly differently, and thinking sometimes less is more. So I think this time, once I make it, then I'll try to be more objective and say, "Okay, what really needs to be here?" Just to make it as succinct as possible, but also be true to my vision.
AVC: Is there a particular meaning behind the title The Sunlandic Twins?
KB: Yeah, it's the idea that Sunlandia is this world—essentially, it was in a dream that my wife had, that she and I were living on this planet called Sunlandia, and we were the only two inhabitants, so we were the Sunlandic Twins. The album cover is a representation of the vision that she had. My brother [David Barnes] made it, so she had to describe it to him.
AVC: Your brother does most of the artwork for your albums, doesn't he?
KB: Yes.
AVC: You've been working with him closely for much of your career. What are your collaborations like?
KB: Well, it's kind of changed a little bit. When he had less going on, like when he was in school, we would collaborate from the very beginning, especially when the records were more conceptual and the packaging was more elaborate, on records like Coquelicot Asleep In The Poppies and The Gay Parade. We'd go back and forth as I was recording it. [I'd be] sending it to him and talking about the style we want for the artwork and the kind of packaging and stuff like that. But the last couple of records, he's been so busy that I'd finish the record and give it to him, and he'd listen to the record and spend like a marathon eight hours in a row working on the album cover, just listening to it and playing the album over and over again to get in the right mood. We discuss the direction, and I give him some concept of what I'm looking for, and then he runs with it.
AVC: You also reportedly play him early drafts of your music to see how he reacts.
KB: Oh yeah, he's super important in that way, too. He and my wife. Especially with this record, he was more critical of the lyrics, which I think is a good thing. So he had me rewrite a couple of song lyrics because he didn't think they were provocative enough. And I feel happy about it—you know how I was saying before, I wasn't a very good editor. So I think it's good for me to have someone saying, "Okay, this would be a good song if you changed this one thing."
AVC: What can you say about his project thebeewithwheels.com?
KB: It's amazing. He's been doing it for a while, and he just got the website up within the last year or so. What he does is, he makes portraits for people, hand-drawn portraits. People tell him what they want in the portrait and send a photograph, so he puts them in this world that they created. [They might] say, "Well, I'm really into puppies, and I'm really into science, and I really love this one movie." So he'll take their photograph and put them in the middle, and then all around them, put these demented puppies, weird science things, and a scene from that movie. They're extremely original, really bizarre, and really cool. He's doing really well with it. And it's great, because I just did this NPR interview, and when they posted it on the NPR website, they put a link to David's site. And so he has all these people that are, like, totally outside of the indie-rock sphere writing him and getting him to do portraits—it's all these professionals writing him, like biologists and stuff.
AVC: His artwork and your music complement each other very well. They both kind go off in strange directions.
KB: Definitely. I think he has one of the best imaginations of anyone I've ever met. He can just sit down, and even in his sketchbook, you look at it and start laughing. Really funny stuff, really interesting stuff. But he can just do it, it's so natural to him. It's not like he has to smoke a ton of pot or something, and put himself in this state of mind. He's always in that state of mind.
AVC: There's been a couple of phases to the way you approach your lyrics. The earlier records were mainly from your own perspective, and then you began moving into character-based music. Lately, it seems like you're simultaneously going back to autobiography, and at the same time, ramping up the surrealism.
KB: When I first started, I wanted the lyrics to be very straightforward and personal. But then I reached a point where I kind of withdrew. I think it's because I was really affected by some negative reviews. So I thought, "Okay, well, I don't want to share that side with the world anymore, but I want to make music." So I was really impressed by Ray Davies at the time, and also the short stories of Roald Dahl, so I thought I'd make these strange character sketches. And that way I'm not really putting myself out in a vulnerable position, but I'm still being creative. I think that's a subconscious thing, but it's also really fun to work in that way, because you don't have to make lyrics with generic subjects like love and heartbreak, you know, those typical human problems. You can transcend all that stuff with your imagination. I was working like that for a while. But then I realized that wasn't that fulfilling any more, because I discovered that I really wanted to share more. Because there's not that much emotion in that style of writing, it's just kind of whimsical and fun. And actually, The Hissing Fauna, I think, will be way more autobiographical.
AVC: Because of the new fatherhood aspect?
KB: I think to some degree. But it's also a shift that happened a couple of years ago when I realized I wanted to be in touch with more contemporary [culture] and wanting to feel like I was connecting more with the world.
AVC: Have you been writing short stories lately? You have some posted to your website, but it looks like it's been more than a year since the last one was posted.
KB: Yeah, I do that every once in a while. If I'm trapped somewhere with a lot of time on my hands, I sit down with a piece of paper and do, like, stream-of-consciousness exercises. That makes the time pass a lot faster. I haven't really posted any of them. I think I just go through phases every once in a while where I'm like, "I'm gonna pretend to be a writer. I'm gonna write short stories and post them on my website." But they're shit. [Laughs.] I'm not really that motivated in that way. I'm more interested in just making music.
AVC: Hypothetical question: Someone offers you a million dollars for a multi-album major-label deal, but in exchange, you have to give up creative control and let the label market you the way they want to, and change your sound the way they think it'll sell the best. What would you do?
KB: I guess it depends if I would still be able to do side projects. Because it might be kind of fun to take that journey, you know, as long as I would have time to do my own thing. I would be sort of taking the money to fund the real projects. I've heard that Stanley Kubrick would do that, like I guess he did Eyes Wide Shut because he wanted to get the money to work on another project he was more interested in. So I definitely wouldn't be against that if they didn't destroy my creativity or eat up all my time so I couldn't do anything interesting.
AVC: How do you approach the difference between playing a song live and the way that you record it in the studio?
KB: We've actually approached it in a way that would basically just reproduce the music from the record live. We've always tried to do that, to take the recordings, arrangements, and orchestrations and reproduce them as closely as possible, because that's the vision that we were pleased with on the record, so we said, "Okay, that's how we want to perform it live." It gets tricky the more time we spend in the studio tweaking sounds and doing things that are difficult to pull off live. [But] there are so many guitar-effects pedals and synthesizers and different effects and stuff that you can have a close facsimile to the record. We delegate parts: "Okay, this is your part, this is your part, and this is going to be your vocal part." And then we go in and start rehearsing for about a month and try to get it together.
AVC: Do you play most of the record on tour?
KB: The last tour, yeah, we did mostly songs off the new record and songs off Satanic Panic. There are a couple songs on Sunlandic Twins that would be very difficult—like "Death Of A Shade Of A Hue," which has just four cello parts and lots of layered vocals. That one would kind of difficult to pull off. And "I Was A Landscape In Your Dream" would be hard because there are so many synthesizers on it, and we only own three synthesizers. So we can't really do that. But, everything else, pretty much, we did on the last tour and we'll do on this tour.
AVC: Your shows reportedly have a lot of theatrical elements.
KB: Yeah, definitely. The last tour, there were costume changes and sound bites that we'd play to go on stage and in between songs. Lots of movement on stage with people changing instruments. Basically, we just do that to keep it interesting visually. We spend a lot of time on the music, and every band spends a lot of time on their music, but we thought it would be cool to take it one step further and give people something interesting to look at as well. It's pretty low-budget, but it's also a lot of fun to do it that way. Especially because you're not just tied to one place on the stage the whole night, you get to move around a bit more and interact with the audience a bit more.
AVC: David Byrne has talked about that too, how he had a lot of costume changes and such in his show because it was the most cost-effective, best way to bring a really radically different look to what was going on. Especially for him, because he was going to be the focal point anyway.
KB: Yeah, that's exactly how I feel. When you come out in a different outfit, all of a sudden it's like, "Oh, refreshing." It's a new thing that's happening. It's stimulating in a different way.
AVC: Do you have any big plans for the current tour, as far as that goes?
KB: I'm still trying to piece it together, actually. It's funny, because it always comes together the last day. Like, running around, "What else do I need? I need a wig!" Usually, it's last-minute preparations that make it come to life. I would like to say that we're bringing, we're basically creating the environment on this tour, where it's sort of a package tour, with us and this band called The Management. They're this two-piece, really fun band. It's these two guys that are basically the modern version of Wham!, who have this giant, plastic iPod that they pretend to play—it's a giant prop. They sing along with the backing tracks they've created, and they have these amazing dance-pop songs, and really great stage presence. And then there's this DJ that's going to be playing music between the bands, so it's going to be sort of an event. It's interesting, because most tours, there's a different band you've never seen before. A local band that's on the bill that maybe doesn't work musically [next to Of Montreal], and maybe it does. But this time, it's going to be cool because we're going to be totally controlling the evening and creating the environment.
AVC: That sounds like the kind of approach that The Flaming Lips would take.
KB: Yeah, they're amazing. They're a big inspiration on everybody that has an interest in that way. They do stuff that none of us could really afford to do, but it's great because if you see footage of them in the early days when they didn't have any budget, they'd still put on these amazing shows.
AVC: The bonus EP that came with Sunlandic had a song called "Every Day Feels Like Sunday." Is that a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Morrissey song "Every Day Is Like Sunday"?
KB: No, it's funny. I guess it's the zeitgeist at work, but I'm not a big Morrissey fan, and I've actually never heard [his] song before. I wrote it, and then someone [told me], "That's basically a Morrissey song. You just ripped off a Morrissey song!" [Laughs.] It's kind of embarrassing. It's like, "Oh shit, are you serious?" [Laughs.] It's so hard to come up with an original idea anymore.
AVC: How do you find original ideas?
KB: Well, I guess the more absurd you get, the more likely it is to be original. I guess there are certain themes that happen to be used so many times, there's a greater likelihood of them already existing. So I guess that's the best way to avoid that duplication, is to do something totally absurd and totally out-there.