Interview: Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes, Super-Wicked Style

Kevin Barnes neon

Kevin Barnes, Photo by Joann Jovinelly

Kevin Barnes, leader of the indie band of Montreal, is a poet disguised as a rock singer. His latest release, the ambitious monster Paralytic Stalks (2012) all at once explained everything or nothing depending on your attention span. Brimming over with lush and complex arrangements and influenced by everyone from William S. Burroughs to Krzysztof Pendrecki, the album expects great flexibility from listeners who may well find themselves overcome with moments of ecstasy as well as melancholia just for participating. No matter where you are when you drop the needle, you’re guaranteed transport to another plane of existence — at least metaphysically.

Paralytic Stalks is only the latest notch on Barnes’s mental bedpost. He raised the bar again, now about a dozen albums in, stretching his ever nimble mind that much further and taking fans along for his latest riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. It also made them curious about what lies ahead for the shape-shifting band led by a man who consistently defies logic.

When not touring (at press time they are just back in Athens, GA, after a string of European festival dates), Barnes kept the lines of communication open, answering scads of probing questions about his writing and getting ever-more candid about his personal life (still filled with demons), creative process (eternally elastic), and forever changing line-up (never the same band twice). And despite minor criticisms of 2010’s False Priest, Barnes — the eternal chameleon — is consistently gaining audience. But it’s a different sort of fame than the group had at what some consider a career highpoint in 2007. Gone, at least temporarily, are the flashy television advertisements and licensing deals. Barnes himself looks back on the recording, one he considers his most commercial release to date, with pause. But when listening to the last two records against each other, the highly danceable and hook-laden False Priest stands totally erect and completely confident, setting the stage for anything, which is how Barnes rolls.

This year in particular has been a whirlwind for the band. Besides the recent announcement of a new album for 2013, two new singles (“Middle Child” and “The Triumph of Disintegration”) are set to drop as early as October. Those are in addition to another single earlier in 2012 for Record Store Day (a collaboration with Deerhoof) and a fourth, a flexi-disc on Joyful Noise Records (an outtake from the Skeletal Lamping sessions). You might think of that last one as a preview. Barnes has announced that he will be releasing another album this fall, an anthology called Daughter of Cloud that combines outtakes from as far back as 2006 just before the release of Hissing Fauna, the just-gone-gold record that critics hailed among his best.

The current of Montreal tour has also been elaborate. Carefully choreographed visual effects and theatrical stage antics have made it a cut above past shows that served as much bombast with slightly less aplomb. Barnes is still publicly executing his id, but the alter (super) egos are less vivid; they’ve been integrated.

Musically, the band took the lush, full sound of an eight-piece (besides its core players Bryan Poole, Dottie Alexander, Davey Pierce, Clayton Rychlik and Nicolas Dobbratz, of Montreal’s semi-current line up features on and off band mates K. Ishibashi (Kishi Bashi) strings/vocals, and Zac Cowell, horns/woodwinds, vocals) to new heights.

And Barnes is more relaxed on stage than ever, fully immersed in the moment and totally connected to fans, even literally, like this past June in Kentucky when he ended a three-song encore by taking an unexpected — and likely unplanned — leap into the crowd. At a time when most artists pull farther from the public, you get the feeling that Barnes is more interested in his fans than ever before, if only to better understand himself.

Joann: I was curious about the title for Paralytic Stalks. Is it representational of some of the feelings that are on that record?

Kevin: Definitely. I wanted to evoke the spirit of the album with the title and I was kind of bouncing around a couple of different ideas that seemed fairly mysterious but kind of provocative in a sense because they make you think. Obviously, [the title] seems like a negative thing. It’s hard to say what it is, like is it something that grows in your backyard or in your head or what.

Joann: You have such fantastic personal style. I was wondering what clothing or accessories are your favorites and if you’re still robbing pieces from Nina’s closet…

Kevin: I have this pair of red shoes that I’ve had for five or six years. Those are probably my favorite item, but I have a bunch of other things that I’ve either found or someone made for me that I keep, too. I steal stuff from my wife, yes, but not so much anymore. Mostly I go to second-hand shops. There’s a really good second-hand shop in Athens, GA, [Agora] where I find lots of great things.

Joann: How can young men elevate their own personal style?

Kevin: It’s all about taking chances, I think, and owning it, like not being self-conscious at all. Recently I was watching Rockers, a film about the Jamaican music scene in the late 1970s, and everyone’s sense of fashion just blew my mind — everyone looks so good. There were some really interesting combinations, for the men especially, so I’ve been inspired by that lately. [Great style] is just kind of pulling inspiration from movies, different time periods, or just your imagination.

Joann: Tell me about F.E.C. and the Sleep Rats…

Kevin: It’s a reference to this dream that I had before the [Paralytic Stalks] tour. I imagined that I was part of this gang called F.E.C. and the Sleep Rats and I was the leader. It’s just kind of a fun way for us to sort of make a cartoon out of our lives, you know, and feel like we’re part of a group, part of a gang, and not just individuals spiraling off into nowhere, so we just feel sort of connected to each other in that way, in that sort of cartoon-like way.

Joann: Has it become easier to balance life on the road with life at home in Athens?

Kevin: A lot of the touring experience is sort of like living in a fantasy world where I have a bit more control over my own personal experience whereas when I’m at home I have sort of a working-class mentality where I just want to make art and be productive in that way. When you hit the road it’s a totally different lifestyle — you’re living with a bunch of your friends in this bus and it’s almost like a weird cartoon. Everyone has their role and you have this goal that you’re all working toward every day and you try to accomplish it the best way you can in the most interesting ways. It’s like a fantasy, like a strange cartoon.

Joann: Tell me about the Paralytic Stalks Tour. You’ve gone everywhere this year: Across the United States, South America, up to Canada, all over Europe, and just recently Turkey and Israel. Does touring the world change your perspective on the United States?

Kevin: Well, it makes me realize how comfortable I am in the sense that this is my home, like I have a sense of otherness when I’m outside the U.S., like it feels sort of alien and interesting and exciting. There are good and bad things about the United States and maybe it’s easier for us to be less critical when you see everything that everyone else is going through — not to say that you should be less critical. Despite our social and economic problems, it’s much better here than many other places. Reading the Howard Zinn interviews is really empowering. For example, people initially thought that some Civil Rights protests were failures because the government and local police struck them down. It seemed like a failure, but at the same time, there are no failures, just building blocks toward something more positive. Lots of things take root in that way. Occupy Wall Street may have disbanded now, or it seems as though the life went out of it, but just look at what they accomplished: the knowledge that you can do that, that you can organize.

Joann: You’ve managed to steer your career to a very enviable place where you have one foot in the underground indie scene and the other always tipping into mainstream success. How do you feel about that?

Kevin: It’s hard to say. The band has always existed in an underground scene, but we’re not completely underground and not completely mainstream either, which I think is a really good place to be because there’s no pressure. You don’t have people relying on you as much, as far as people associated with major labels, or people involved in different aspects of the [music] industry. We can be as free as we want to be creatively and take chances and nobody will give us grief about doing things that go against the grain. I think we’re fortunate enough to have a fan base of very open-minded people who want us to try different things and not do the same thing over and over.

Joann: One of the greatest things about of Montreal is your amazing lyric writing. Do you write other poetry?

Kevin: I write a lot, but I don’t compile it in that way. I have tons of pages of random lyrics and ideas. I’m always conscious of trying to document those things in the hopes that they’ll turn into a song or inspire something later, but I don’t ever go back and try to compile what I haven’t used into a different format; I’m always focused on songwriting. In the past, and I’m trying to get better about this, but I almost looked upon older writing as dead if I hadn’t used it quickly enough, so there’s a lot of ideas that just got thrown away because I didn’t get to them.

Joann: Why did you abandon your Tumblr?

Kevin: I have a weird hang-up about social media and sharing ideas or even interfacing with the outside world in that way. I treasure my privacy. It’s always weird when I read something that I’ve written and I think, ‘Why did I write that?’ or ‘Why did I embarrass myself in that way?’ or ‘Why did I feel compelled to share those random ideas?’

Joann: What gives a person soul power?

Kevin: I think that experience and emotional depth gives you soul power. It has nothing to do with race or gender or age or anything like that.

Joann: In past interviews you’ve considering everything from scoring films to writing a novel. As a muse secondary to making music and performing, to which other artistic mediums are you most drawn?

Kevin: I guess writing novels or poetry because it comes naturally to me and it’s something that I find fulfilling, engaging, and interesting, but I wish that I had more interests or passions. All of my passions are centered on music. I’m actually a big sports freak, so I think it would be interesting to do something outside of the arts, like sports writing.

Joann: The of Montreal/Deerhoof collaboration for this past Record Store Day, “A Filthy Fifth”, was an unexpected delight — a rather edgy, noisy rock song — which got me thinking more about of Montreal in a garage-sounding, grungy incarnation.

Kevin: I’ve been thinking about that actually. I’ve been thinking about what to do next. There are so many musical directions that I’m interested in pursuing. One of them is a psych-glam [sound], like a T-Rex sort of thing. And I’ve been thinking about doing an acoustic record [too]. I also want to do something that’s futuristic and that has no direct reference point to pre-existing genres. Because so much of what I do is centered on [existing] reference points, I think it would be better for me to abandon that and attempt to make something more original in that it’s not inspired by Prince or David Bowie or whoever. Putting in the effort is certainly worth it if it brings me that much closer. “The Filthy Fifth” is basically a Deerhoof song and Zac, K (K. Ishibashi), and I spent a night in the studio and freaked it out, made some madness all around it.

Joann: I read that the original “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal” was longer than the version you released on Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? Do you ever think of releasing that song in its entirety?

Kevin: I could, but I don’t think the longer version is better. It was a wise decision to edit it because it’s basically just the same thing for another six minutes — just more ranting. I cut out certain lyrics that I didn’t think were good, or whatever, so I could release it. I’d have to do back and find it on some hard drive somewhere.

Joann: You mentioned that you have a lot of recordings from the time of the Early Four Track Recordings. Would you ever consider releasing more of that?

Kevin: I’d have to find a cassette four track and remix them, I guess, or make a mix down of all the songs and put them on a cassette right after another. I could release them like that, but they would be hissy and extremely lo-fi, and only fit for people interested in hearing more from that time period. There’s a lot.

Joann: I wanted to ask you about K. Ishibashi (Kishi Bashi), now that he’s left of Montreal and gone off on his own.

Kevin: Well, hopefully it’s not a permanent thing. Hopefully we’ll reconnect at some point, but it’s time for him. His [solo] project [151a] is really taking off, so we’re really happy for him.

Joann: Is there any hope that he’ll contribute to the new record?

Kevin: Yeah, hopefully. We’ll probably collaborate again.