Paste's Associate Editor, Steve LaBate, sat down with Of Montreal frontman (and our November cover subject) Kevin Barnes for two hour-long interviews outside Jittery Joe’s Coffee in the artist's hometown of Athens, Ga. Here, uncut and in its entirety, is their two-part conversation.
: For the last few years, Of Montreal has been playing bigger venues, the crowds have been getting bigger. You’re probably going to have your biggest Billboard debut with Skeletal Lamping, and you have a lot of respect now from both artists and critics alike. Do you feel like you’re hitting critical mass now, like it’s a big moment for the band?
Kevin Barnes: I hope so. I mean, we always try. For the last couple records we were always trying to think bigger and bigger, always trying to motivate and encourage everybody involved to think that way because eventually you’ll reach a point where it becomes obvious it’s going downhill. But until that happens, you have to keep pushing for more and more.
Paste: How important is that to you, achieving these successes?
Barnes: It’s really important because I feel like once it starts going downhill, it’ll be time to reassess things and change the game plan. I’ll probably still want to put out records, but I won’t be spending as much money and time on the performance. We probably won’t even perform anymore [at that point]. I think we’re probably just going to take it as far as it goes, and then…
Paste: Scale it back?
Barnes: Yeah, well, who knows? This tour, we’re putting way more money and way more time into putting on the biggest production possible, and with each tour, that’s been the mentality. And with this one, I’m thinking, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I just want to blow it all out, and not even care that much about the financial return. Like you were saying, we sort of have the attention of the world, and now’s the time to really do something sensational. And it’s more exciting to do something like that when you know that people are paying attention and people care, because in the early days, we’d put as much money and as much time as we could into the production—we didn’t have much money or time ’cause we had day jobs, but when you do that in front of 50 people, it’s not the same as when you do it for a couple hundred people. So it’s cool and it feels really good now that we’re in a really good place. But our minds are in the right place, as well. Like, my whole thing is, I just want to put on a great production—something people will think about and talk about for a while that, hopefully, will inspire people. And basically, be conscious of the moment, and not just take it for granted because I know that the music scene is very fickle—and it needs to be. There needs to be a great turnover. No one can stay at the top forever or else it’ll get boring. It’s important for people to come up, do their thing, and then be surpassed by someone new. And that’s how the scene stays fresh and exciting. I feel like right now, on an indie level, we’re up kinda close to the top, and we can’t stay there for very long. So now that we’re up there, we have a great opportunity to do something fantastic. Something people will care about, hopefully.
Paste: Let’s talk about the new record. Listening to Skeletal Lamping, it feels similar in a lot of ways to [Of Montreal’s 2001 album] Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies—not sonically, but in how progressive it is. This isn’t just verse/chorus/verse; it’s really jumpy and all over the place. But then that approach is mixed with the kind of more concise, poppy/dancey stuff you’ve been doing on the last couple records. Do you feel like Skeletal Lamping is a fusion of those two approaches?
Barnes: Definitely. The inspiration for Coquelicot came from Beach Boys' Smile and Os Mutantes records and Frank Zappa’s We’re Only In It For The Money—these screwball ’60s psych-pop records. And I really like the freedom you have when you work on that level, where a song can contain six different key changes and all these tempo changes, and it doesn’t matter if it makes sense. So basically, I just take an idea until I get bored with it, and then I move on to something else. But it can still be a part of the same body; it doesn’t have to be, “There’s thirty four songs on this record.” It’s more fun to take five really different pieces and put them together and call them one thing.
Paste: A lot of people, when they write, they have a little idea, and they’re like, “Oh, this is cool. I should turn this into something.” Well, maybe it’s already what it needs to be.
Barnes: Exactly. There’s something to say for the classic pop song; I love pop music, too, and I don’t want everything to be totally fractured and schizophrenic all the time, but I find it frustrating trying to write like that—if you’re like, “OK, I’ve got the music for the verse, now I just need a lyric for the second verse, and it has to fit the meter of what I’ve already established.” For a song to be legitimate, it doesn’t have to fit in a Beatles or Madonna pop template. It’s more exciting to just piece all these different movements together. It’s really liberating as a writer to not feel like you have to continue with an idea past its excitement level. And it’s more spontaneous and exciting [for the listener] because it’s unpredictable.
Paste: Last time I met up with you in Athens, when we did that listening session over at [touring keyboardist] Dottie [Alexander]’s—the first time I heard the album, I thought it sounded unlike anything you’d ever done before. Then the more I listened to it, I thought, “Maybe it’s more of an amalgamation of everything you’ve absorbed up to this point.” What does it feel like to you?
Barnes: When I frist started making the record, I didn’t have a preconceived idea, really, beyond just wanting to feel free to do whatever I wanted. And I think it’s sort of the same spirit as Coquelicot, just in the way that it was “anything goes.” I wanted it to be more fractured and schizophrenic and all over the place. And I guess it is, on some levels. Everything is somewhat connected to the work before it, or to the whole body of work—you know, I’ve written all the songs, and I’ve basically arranged all the songs and produced them, so there’s gonna be a continuity anyways. So I definitely don’t think it’s a dramatic departure form anything I’ve ever done, but it’s in this sort of electro-pop thing I’ve been doing for a while, but it also pulls from the spirit of the past, too.
Paste: One thing that comes up a lot in this record is—there’s this sexual directness, you know? In the past, the lyrics have kind of played with androgyny, and the performances, with all the costumes. But I really think this one pushes the envelope with its sexual directness. Why is this a theme you keep coming back to, and how does it play into the album, conceptually?
Barnes: This character just sort of evolved on our last tour, the Hissing Fauna tour [in support of the band 2007's album, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?]. Not even to give him a name, but just internally sort of evolving in this new way, and it was definitely more sexual. I don’t know, I feel like that person I sort of became or that stage persona or whatever—like, part of me, my artistic mind—evolved in this way that influenced the songs on the new record. And I hadn’t really thought about it that much because I don’t really second-guess the creative process. You know, when I’m doing something, I don’t think, “Well, what is this all about?” I just do it. But then, when the record’s done, then you think about it. But it is different for me [now]—I’m definitely exploring topics I’ve touched upon, but never really in depth like this. So I think I was influenced by the spirit of that tour, the last couple tours we’ve done for Hissing Fauna, and the outfits I was wearing and the sort of character I had become.
Paste: Living in Athens from 1998 to 2003 and following Of Montreal as it developed, it’s been really interesting to watch your public transformation—from being this quiet, eccentric D.I.Y. indie pop artist, who was not so in-your-face, to being this David Bowie-esque performance artist. In the post you wrote for Stereogum, about selling your song [“Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games”] to Outback Steakhouse, you talked about making yourself into a cartoon. How much did that idea have to do with your gradual transformation, and what was the transformation like for you? How did this stage persona develop?
Barnes: I can’t really say. It all happened in a very organic way. I think I realized at one point a couple years ago—in the indie-rock world, there’s a lot of pressure to be modest. And a lot of people [in that world] are very shy, and feel if someone’s going to be legitimate or genuine, it can’t be pretentious. But I realized it’s fun to be pretentious. Pretentiousness offers freedom. My concept of pretentiousness isn’t phoniness; it’s just role-playing and not having a fixed identity. Because I think that’s really destructive when people, especially in the indie community—it hearkens back to the punk-rock mentality where, to be real, you shouldn’t have a stage persona, you have to just be this person on stage all the time, and you have to have accountability for what you said yesterday. But I feel like it’s cool to not put those restrictions on your character because you’re gonna be different people from day to day. And there’s no reason why you have to put yourself in this prison, like, “This is my identity and this is who I am, and if I stray from that then I’m being phony.” I don’t believe it’s possible to be phony. You’re always gonna be who you are. And even if you contradicted who you were yesterday, it doesn’t matter ’cause yesterday’s irrelevant. Today’s the only thing that matters. Once I accepted that, and allowed myself to not have a fixed identity, I realized, “I want to be something fantastic. If I’m gonna create who I am, I don’t want to be this shy, meaningless creature that hasn’t made a splash in the world. I want to be something outrageous and fantastic and inspiring and bizarre.” In my normal life, I’m very down to earth. I watch ESPN and do a lot of like boring things nobody would get excited about.
Paste: You were saying you play baseball.
Barnes: Yeah, yeah. But I realized, “OK, if I’m gonna be a performer, I need to perform, you know—I need to do something fantastic.” There’s no point in going on stage in your street clothes ’cause that’s not that exceptional. If you’re gonna go on stage and you’re gonna have people watch you, look at you, and you want to entertain them, you should do something exceptional.
Paste: Yeah, it’s like, every choice you make, you can make it be interesting and add to the experience or not.
Barnes: You’re only limited by your imagination. I think the spirit that’s happening right now [in music]—people are adopting that. There’s a lot of bands right now that are like, “Yeah, fuck it, let’s do something really crazy. Let’s do something visually interesting!” I think that’s my major gripe with [most] live bands—no matter how much you love the songs, after like the seventh song it just becomes static, you know?
Paste: It’s like, “are you trying to entertain the people that are there to see you and help them have an amazing experience, or are you there to indulge only yourself?”
Barnes: Yeah, and even beyond that—when I think about the visual dynamic and emotional dynamic, most performers aren’t really that ambitious as far as what they want to do for the audience. Now, I’m kind of viewing it like concept art, more on a theatrical level, something that has more dynamic and more depth so it’s not just like, party all the time, you know? For this new tour we’re going to try to play more with tension and try to create anxiety in the audience, so it’s not just always happiness, it’s also like moments of fear and tension and confusion, which comes closer to the emotional depth we all have within ourselves. I don’t think it has to be all one dimensional for it to be worthwhile. In a way, you’re sort of limited. I mean, when you go into a club, there’s only so much you can do to transform the environment. But that’s the major challenge—”OK, what tools do we have that we can use to completely transform this venue that people have maybe been to like 20 times already and seen any number of different kinds of bands perform there?” We want to try to transform it, so it’s an otherworldly experience—something so exceptional, so out of the ordinary, that people will have that special moment, like when you see a movie or a painting or read a book that really touches you. The reason it touches you is because it’s jumping out from this other world, and it burns in your memory as something exceptional. And I think that’s the motivation behind Of Montreal’s recordings, as well. I don’t want to do anything that’s dismissible. I’m sure that’s why there’s a lot of people who hate us, and there’s a lot of people that love us, and I think that’s a great thing. I feel that it’s a positive. I’d rather make something that people despise with all their heart, you know, than were completely indifferent about.