Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes: The complete Paste interview

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Paste : Do you feel like your friendships with all these former bandmates have endured that transition, or has it been difficult?
Barnes: It’s definitely been difficult with some people more than others, but I can totally understand any sort of problem that arose from that. And I love everyone that plays with me, and I really support them and everyone is so talented, and they all have their own projects and I totally want to encourage them—like, Jamie is an amazing songwriter and an amazing singer and performer. And Bryan [Poole], and Davey, and Dottie [Alexander] are all fantastic composers as well as performers, and it’s pretty amazing that they’ve been with me all this time and have gone through all these different phases with me, musically, and every time have been able to adapt and get excited about it, and encourage me and basically stay connected through all of it. It’s been pretty amazing. We’re like a family, and you can’t divorce your family. I think we’re like that—we’re like brothers and sisters.

Paste: I read an interview where you talked about the trappings of the Elephant 6 Collective and some of its unwritten rules. Tell me what those rules were, and about breaking free from them.
Barnes: All of it was just my perception of what the rules were; there was no manifesto we all had to sign or anything like that, but there was a spirit of that time, and I started to go this other direction. I had these weird hang-ups that maybe I created myself—this idea that nothing had any value unless it was recorded on an analog tape machine. I couldn’t stand any contemporary bands—I never listened to any of them, really, except for the Elephant 6 bands. I was living in a self-imposed fascist state. I had all these rules about what was good and what was bad, and I was really critical of other bands, and just really stupid. And I know it sounds clichéd, but I can’t help but think that [getting away from that mindset] was influenced by 9/11. After 9/11, it was a universal thing in the United States where everyone felt like they need to connect with other people more. It really influenced me in that way. [Suddenly], I wanted to listen to and support contemporary bands. I wanted to feel a part of my time, my generation, and not be so obsessed with ’60s music, and music made by dead people. I’d always loved dance music, but it was kind of taboo to use a drum machine in the Elephant 6 world. Obviously studio trickery was encouraged, but you probably shouldn’t do anything you couldn’t pull off live. Somehow it felt like disco or electro-pop or attitude music wasn’t that cool. [There were] just all these really weird rules I thought existed and that probably don’t exist at all. I started getting into electronic pop music and really wanted to make this weird disco hybrid—you know, pulling from all these different influences. I started getting turned on to ’70s Afrobeat and soul and dub and Jamaican music, and I got all these Soul Jazz and Trojan reissues, and rediscovered my love for Prince and Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone and Curtis Mayfield, and that’s what brought me to where I am now. I don’t listen to The Kinks anymore—I still like that stuff, but I’d never really think to put on a Kinks record.

Paste: So when you did Skeletal Lamping, you recorded with the touring band and then decided to go back and do it over by yourself?
Barnes: No, nothing was recorded with the touring band. Well, there was one song that I had done a demo of. I guess it wasn’t even really a demo because it turned out to be the version I used. It was just an idea, kind of an experiment. We went into a good studio in town ’cause we’d been playing the song live a bunch, and got the band to play the same parts they’d been playing live. Even though the engineer was great, and it was a good experience, I felt like it was lacking something, that personal touch or whatever. That’s the problem I think when bands record in big studios, it can become a bit samey, there’s drum sounds that, like, you’ve heard them before. I guess I’m just so comfortable with my setup now and the way I record bass, and the way I record drums sounds and vocals. And [the bigger studio] was kind of expensive, and I realized that if I made a whole record that way, I could make five records on my own. We actually used some of the parts from that [full-band] session. And we did do a band project where everyone contributed song ideas and wrote their own parts. We have this band called Instant Witch.

Paste: Have you done anything with it?
Barnes: Yeah, we’ve recorded 20 to 30 minutes of music. It’s really fun. We’ve been playing a couple songs from it live [with Of Montreal]. We’ve played one song live a bunch of times recently, called “Tender Facts.” We just booked a block of time at the studio, and were like “OK, everyone just write something and bring it to the session and we’ll just knock it out and see what happens.”

Paste: Are you guys going to put it out?
Barnes: We haven’t put it out yet, but I’m sure we will. Bryan did this kind of Afrobeat thing and this Cuban-sounding thing, and Jamie did this kind of rock ’n’ roll thing. We all just did different songs and played on it like a live band, and it was fun. But then I realized, also, that I don’t really want to be in a democracy. If you have all these very specific ideas of what you want to do, and how you would do it—that’s the worst thing about being in a democratic band: Everyone has to compromise to the point where it’s not that fulfilling anymore. And for me, any type of compromise is too much, which is obviously not very healthy, but it’s the way I am.

Paste: I caught you guys at the Langerado Festival this year, and for the finale you climbed out of a coffin full of shaving cream, and there were all these masked dancers and heads on poles. They were throwing boxes into the crowd. I asked this guy what was in the box he caught, and he was like, “Human hair!” With Of Montreal, there’s this parade of what seem like of non-sequiturs. Do you think that’s a fitting backdrop for your music?
Barnes: I don’t know if its fitting or not. We don’t really think about what’s fitting for the music, but we want to do something that’s theatrical and visual and, yes, it’s possible we’re taking away from the music, but I don’t really care. If people just want to hear the songs, they can listen to the record. We want to do something beyond that, something that touches on all different levels of the senses. With that idea, what we wanted to do was have a big tarp over the audience full of human hair, and then we’d pull a rope and all the hair would fall down on people, but we realized there would be a lot of legal issues with that because human hair can be pretty dirty and have a lot of germs. We actually collected hair for a long time—a friend of ours works at a salon, and every day he’d sweep up the hair and put it in a bag, and we had all these bags of hair and we were ready to go. Then our tour manager talked to the promoter of the festival, and the guy was like, “Eh, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” so we put it in boxes instead. [On stage], I don’t really know what’s going on a lot of the time because my brother creates a lot of that stuff, and I can’t really see it because I’m at the front of the stage and everything is happening behind me. It’s really thrilling when I turn around and see some totally bizarre situation happening—different performance artists, and I’m like, “OK, I’ll just get back to my rockin’ out. But the coffin idea was his. He actually used to do that a lot, cover himself in shaving cream, when he was in college. He went to FSU in Tallahassee. Just for fun, he’d cover himself in shaving cream and put food coloring in it so he’d be this weird, green shaving-cream man, and he’d go around and knock on doors and freak people out. They’d be all stoned and be like, ‘‘Whoa!”

Paste: I think a lot of the lyrics in your music have a similar feel, this bizarre randomness. Sometimes they remind me of Zen koans, those mind-bending riddles that are supposed to snap you out of your normal state of reality. With your lyrics, I was wondering whether they were more well-thought-out artistic choices or more arbitrary, and if you think it matters either way.
Barnes: It’s never arbitrary. Even as disconnected as it might seem, it always makes sense to me. And it’s really weird, but it’s just one of those weird things, like, I know it’s right, even though it could go any number of different ways, but for some reason I’ll look at one line and be like, “That sucks,” and someone else might look at it and be like, “It doesn’t suck any worse than the rest of the lines,” but somehow in my mind it makes sense. It’s kind of like that with the music too—sometimes I’ll listen to something I’ve written and think it’s really not happening, it’s really boring. It’s just a feeling.

Paste: We talked about when you married Nina, and going from life with all these people in the band to living with just Nina and David. How important is family to you? You collaborate with Nina and David quite a bit, and when I met your mom, she seemed very supportive of you.
Barnes: It’s really important. I have a really strong relationship with everyone in my family. I really love that. I think about that a lot. It’s really amazing to have a family where people just have to accept you, and that’s the best element. Sometimes you annoy each other, sometimes you don’t want anything to do with each other, but you have this really special, magical connection with the people you grew up with and spent so much time with. My mom actually lives behind us at our house, which would probably be a nightmare for a lot of people, but I actually really like it. My dad’s been living down in Florida ’cause he’s still working, but I wish he lived up here with us, too. I like that idea, of being able to spend time together, have dinner together—you do your own thing during the day. These are the people who are as far from strangers as possible, and even though they might not completely understand you, and you don’t completely understand them either, you have such a special connection [with them] and that’s really important.

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