Interview: Of Montreal
Kevin Barnes, the force behind Of Montreal, is one weird dude — as we sat down to talk, he asked me (in all seriousness, or something close to it) if I thought that aliens were trying to hypnotize Earth’s horses with psychic transmissions. He’s also an incredibly prolific musician: the new Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? is just the latest in a barrage of psychedelic indie-pop albums he’s released over the last decade, most of them built around Barnes ‘private mythology. Recorded almost solo, Hissing Fauna documents one of the darkest periods of Barnes ‘life in its first half. (“A Sentence of Sort in Kongsvinger” begins “I spent the winter on the verge of a total breakdown while living in Norway,” which is exactly what he did.) Then everything changes in the album’s central track, an 11-minute disco blowout called “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal,” in which Barnes ‘identity cracks open, and a new one comes out to play — Georgie Fruit, who is to Barnes something like what Aladdin Sane was to David Bowie or Camille was to Prince. And, as he revealed, there are more role-playing games to come in his music.
eMusic: A lot of Hissing Fauna plays with the idea of persona — who you can be, and who you’re restricted in being by your self-perception of your identity. How much does the album’s “I” overlap with the person I’m talking to?
Kevin Barnes: I’m always trying to bring to life these other aspects of my personality, or my creative spirit, or whatever you want to call it. I’ve recently created a couple of songwriting personas, which liberate me in a way. I think it’s really healthy — a lot of songwriters do it, for a good reason, and a lot of people should begin doing it. It helps you defy yourself, instead of being a consistent person and boring everyone. Consistency is total death — it’s the death of art. It’s the worst thing in the world to think you have to be a certain way all the time for people to think you’re “real” or “not phony.” The whole concept of phoniness is absurd. All art is about exploring and experimenting. I have a song ["Cato as a Pun"] where I say “don’t say that I have changed, ’cause man, of course I have.” I really feel like it’s important to freak out and explore different parts of your personality that are hidden or buried, and it’s so exciting to me to find this new voice.
eMusic: So who are those new songwriting personas? You name one of them, Georgie Fruit.
KB: Georgie Fruit is a black she-male, and he/she has lived this pretty wild life. He was involved in music in the late ’70s, he had this band called Arousal, and he’s been in prison a bunch of times. He’s got a funny perspective. There’s another character, List Kristy — she’s this really sweet, optimistic person. It’s hopefulness, not really self-delusion, because a lot of people are just that way, really optimistic, and I tend to be pretty cynical, naturally. So it’s kind of fun to sort of create this character that embodies what I wish I were more like. And there are these two characters that are twins, Champagne and Chandeliera, and they’re sort of sexually ambiguous; it’s hard to say what kind of people they are. A lot of these characters are kind of taken from my new fascination with late ’70s freak-funk, like Parliament and Funkadelic and the Ohio Players, stuff like that.
eMusic: How much is creating those characters a way of compartmentalizing those parts of yourself?
KB: Like everyone, I get bored of myself. I really want to be everything, you know? I don’t want to be just one thing. I want to incorporate all these things I adore, all my heroes — I want to be everybody, and to be everybody you kind of have to be nobody. People like David Bowie or Brian Eno or Prince, people who’ve sort of changed a lot — these people are so important to me. In a lot of ways I feel like a little brother to them, looking up to them and imitating them.
eMusic: A lot of your records have some sort of overall theme, and there definitely seems to be a narrative arc to Hissing Fauna. Do the songs get written around the theme, or does the concept get suggested by the songs?
KB: I’m always thinking about creative ideas, I’m always writing down thoughts, but it seems like I only have like five or six ideas a day. I never really feel like I’m doing anything creative — I think “I’m doing nothing, I’ve wasted days and days” — and all of a sudden another record is done. What happened? How did I make a record? I have no recollection of being involved in the process!
When I was working on Hissing Fauna, I was going through this really heavy emotional period when I was really depressed. I couldn’t really function at all, so I was using music as a therapeutic tool to pull myself out of it, and it wasn’t really working, but I felt like it was the only thing I could do that would help me. I was in Norway, where we were waiting for my daughter to be born, and I didn’t have a lot of things at my disposal — all I had was a laptop, a MIDI keyboard and a microphone.
eMusic: How did those therapeutic exercises turn into an album?
KB: The whole thing took almost two years to develop — it went through a bunch of different phases, because my personal life was totally exploding. At one point, the record had all these songs on it that were later set aside for this EP called “Icons, Abstract Thee.” At one point, the record had a very sad ending, with all these super-heavy breakup songs on it. But then when [Barnes 'wife] Nina and I got back together, it changed the landscape. I always want there to be a close connection between my creative spirit and my personal life, so I thought I’d write some new songs. That’s where Georgie Fruit came in. All of a sudden I became this black she-male — I could tell that to a psychiatrist and they’d say “Hmm, what’s going on here?” I wrote all these songs like “Faberge Falls for Shuggie” and “Labyrinthian Pomp.” Then, once I got in the new direction, I started writing a lot of songs for the next album. If I’m Georgie Fruit, I can say whatever I want — I can be raunchy and rude and insensitive, but it’s not me.
eMusic: So why can’t Kevin do that?
KB: He can do it! But it’s more fun. It’s also a defense, without question — I can say “it was Georgie Fruit.” Although that wouldn’t hold up in a court of law.