Interview: Of Montreal
Whether cavorting around the stage in ballet tights or turning his psyche onto skewed, Technicolor pop songs, Of Montreal main man Kevin Barnes puts so much of himself on display that it almost seems impolite to look. For over 15 years he’s commandeered his continuously mutating studio project and live band, while simultaneously exploring his own multiple personalities, sexualities and spiritualities.
Invigorating the psychedelic soul of 2008′s Skeletal Lamping and 2010′s False Priest with free jazz and classical avant-garde, Of Montreal’s 11th album Paralytic Stalks significantly broadens his one-man rock and funk aesthetic. Instead of relying on simple synth plug-ins, the self-taught Athens, Georgia, multi-instrumentalist hired studio pros to play real harp, cello and other orchestration. Despite the added personnel, it’s Barnes most personal work, and he holds nothing back in discussing it.
So let’s get right to it – what do you think Paralytic Stalks says about you?
It says that I’m fucked up and have a lot of emotional issues, I suppose. A lot of people can just live, be happy, appreciate their loved ones and all that, and for some reason I can’t do that. Most of the time, I feel I’m being fucked with. I see that I should be happy and that there’s a lot of beauty in the world; I’d like to be hopeful and happy and balanced, but I’m not.
Did the reaction to False Priest shape this album?
With False Priest, I was definitely more interested in trying to craft the perfect pop song and still experiment with this funky persona I had been developing. I was in love with what my perception of what George Clinton and P-Funk was, and I was fantasizing that I was in that group of people, and that it was 1976. On some level, I was trying to create a record that would fit in their canon more than my own. But the reality strikes you – it’s not 1976 and I’m not Bootsy Collins. It’s almost as if I had some kind of identity crisis, because I had totally absorbed that vision. I thought I was that person, but the rest of the world showed me that I wasn’t.
There was some negative energy that I received from the outside world around that record. It was impossible to deny it, and I guess that woke me up. I think if it had been a wild success commercially maybe I would’ve continued going down that road. It did well, but somehow I was hoping that it would break through on a mainstream level.
And your goal with Paralytic Stalks?
I wanted to create something more rooted in my personal life and examine other parts of the human condition, not the celebratory kind, but actually the darker side of humanity and what it means to be a human being, the terror of consciousness.
How did violinist Kishi Bashi and woodwinds/horns player Zac Cowell – who are now in your live band – contribute to the album?
They were able to help me create something very different from what I’d done in the past, which I think is important for any artist; to keep producing new things so it doesn’t just sound like you’ve figured out the formula and you’re just doing it over and over again. They’re exceptional musicians – and excellent arrangers and composers in their own right – and are coming from a more avant-garde place. So when I say I want it more like [jazz saxophonist] Albert Ayler or to be like [experimental composer] Krysztof Penderecki, they can help me create something that not just follows in the spirit of those things, but also makes something fresh out of it.
How did you avoid falling into a similar trap of trying to become Ayler or Penderecki?
I was experimenting with microtonality and using my voice as an instrument and trying to create these different sonic textures and have longer songs. “Exorcismic Breeding Knife” is directly influenced by avant-garde classical themes, but a lot of the songs just seem like normal pop, like “Dour Percentage.” You would never think I had ever heard anything but Sly and the Family Stone or Stevie Wonder.
Do you write when you’re happy, or do you turn to music to work through your problems?
I guess both; I’m trying to write all the time. Sometimes I’m in a good mood and I’ll write a happy song. False Priest is a very happy record. When I was making it I was in a better state of mind. But Paralytic Stalks documents a way darker state.
Are you in a better place now?
Not especially. I could feel happy, but five minutes later feel terrorized by something.
What do you turn to when you need healing?
I’ve tried meditation, but for me it’s not much different than watching soap operas in the middle of the night. Who’s to say that that isn’t the void, and that the mind can’t switch off through TV like it can through meditation?
Have you lifted lyrics from journal entries or emails? Yours sometime come across like emails one might write, but not necessarily send, at 4 a.m.
It’s funny that you should say that, because I got into a situation with this last album where I was sleeping eight hours, but doing it at different times of the day. And I got to a point where I was going to bed at noon or 2 p.m. and waking up at night and spending much of my time in isolation while everyone else was asleep, and so I did write much of Paralytic Stalks at 4 a.m. I’m more creative at night, but psychologically it’s not particularly good for me. You’d think you’d find your equilibrium, where you’re used to being alone and it becomes normal, but for me it never really has.
How have you built up your vocabulary?
I read a lot, and if I come across a word I don’t recognize, I’ll look it up and often try to use that word in one of my songs. With your iPhone, you have a dictionary right on hand and can keep the words you’ve looked up. I’ll test myself: I’ll look at the word and see if I can remember the definition. It’s kind of geeky [laughs], but fun. I try to avoid the rhyming dictionary, but I do use a thesaurus sometimes. It struck me a couple of years ago that I only speak one language and don’t even speak it very well; I just understand how to communicate on a really simple level. So I wanted to dig deeper into the language, and I’m attracted to the idea that you can express yourself in a more precise way if you have a wider vocabulary.
When you adopt a Prince-like voice or vocabulary, or creating a character like Georgie Fruit for Skeletal Lamping, how do you ensure you’ve giving back to, and not just taking from, African-American culture?
I just don’t look at people like that. I have black friends but I don’t think of them as my African-American friends. I aim to transcend that, whether it’s in my friendships or in my music. For whatever reason, there are African-American musicians who are insanely talented in ways that white musicians aren’t.
And what about gay culture? When you’re performing in San Francisco, where I live, you’re engaging an audience who knows about gender-fuck and have studied people like the Cockettes and Sylvester.
Some of our best performance experiences have been inSan Francisco. Gay people are often much freer with their bodies and with the way they present themselves and dress and live their lives, and that’s inspiring to me, and to us as a band.
I think one of the reasons you’re respected by many gay listeners is that you’re willing to go so far out on that limb that you come off as gay or bi. I know you’re married, but are you comfortable with people making that assumption?
To me being gay isn’t at all a bad thing, so I certainly don’t consider it a problem, like I would if they thought I was a child molester or a mass-murderer. Just because I’m not having anal sex doesn’t mean I don’t want to hug someone or have an intimate friendship. Who knows, I might consider myself gay 10 years from now or 10 months from now or maybe even 10 minutes from now. Maybe they see something in me that I can’t yet see.
Have you performed in parts of the country or world where people are freaked out by the gender-fuck costumes, or the pig-fucking dancers?
We tend to attract like-minded people who enjoy the same freedom we do, so we rarely get those kinds of negative reactions. The only time it happened was when we performed inMexico Cityon the same bill as NOFX and we were in this period when we were influenced by the New York Dolls and performing in glitter makeup and high heels. These kids in the audience had really bought into that hardcore punk ideal and weren’t into our outfits at all. But they looked so baby-faced and innocent that I couldn’t take their reaction seriously.
What will you do when you can’t fit into the fuchsia tights anymore?
[Laughs] Maybe I’ll become a novelist.