mastermind Kevin Barnes has worn many musical hats over the past two decades: twee-pop tunesmith, indie-funk performance-art diva, electro-prog provocateur. On his band’s last LP, 2013’s Lousy With Sylvianbriar, he veered in an earthier, more intimate direction—channeling The Grateful Dead, Dylan and the tortured poetry of Sylvia Plath. Another year, another creative U-turn.
The ever-prolific Barnes is currently hard at work recording the band’s 13th LP, an eight-track release with an overall heavier sound in the “prog-pop” vein. The songs came together this summer during a two-week writing retreat in New York City, where he took inspiration from a romanticized vision of the city and many of the bands who dominated its late ‘70s CBGB scene.
Earlier this month, Barnes took some time out from the sessions for a quick Google Hangouts chat with Paste, reflecting on his latest sonic shift—one he jokingly labels “dude-rock.”
: So how are the sessions going so far? You’ve only been in the studio for a week or so, right?
Kevin Barnes: It’s going great—we’re three days in now, and we’ve done a song a day.
: Are you recording at your home studio in Athens, Georgia or somewhere else?
Barnes: We’re working at a studio outside of El Paso called Sonic Ranch. A bunch of cool bands have recorded here: Animal Collective, Yeah Yeah Yeahs…
: So if you’re three days into the recording, I assume you have quite a ways to go. Then again, the last album was recorded in two weeks. How far along would you say you are in the sessions?
Barnes: The songs are all fairly long, and there will only be eight songs on the album. We’ve pretty much completed three songs so far. We did a lot of pre-production/demoing the material, so we’re just knocking it out really quickly. We’re only gonna be tracking for another week and then we’re gonna mix it here.
: Wow, that’s efficient. But I know you generally demo stuff and have things ready to go.
Barnes: It’s cool to be able to work that way, ‘cause then I can keep moving forward and start thinking about the next project.
: I was going to say that you’ve been on a really prolific streak in the last few years, but really, you’ve always been prolific: I counted 12 albums in 16 years, not including collaborations and compilations. Do you write music constantly, and it’s just a matter of getting in the studio? For this album, did you immediately start working on new songs after you finished touring Lousy With Sylvianbriar?
Barnes: It takes so long for an album to come out after it’s finished; often it feels like old news to me when it’s finally released because I’ve had time to get involved with a new project. I have a home studio, so I don’t really need to wait around for anyone else to work on things. In that way, I can stay focused on experimenting with new ideas/directions.
: So did these new songs come in a specific amount of time? When’d you start figuring out that they belonged together as an album?
Barnes: I started working on it around last December. I did a two-week writing retreat in New York City in May, as well. I guess it came together pretty quickly.
: For the writing of Lousy, you went on that retreat, or “isolation experiment,” in San Francisco. Was this NYC retreat intended as a similar kind of thing—just to put yourself in a specific setting to get inspiration? Or was it a more practical?
Barnes: It was a similar thing as the San Francisco retreat. I was very influenced by New York bands from the ‘70s like The Patti Smith Group and Television and Talking Heads.
: That’s super exciting. Were you already thinking you wanted to explore that kind of style, and that’s what led you to NYC? Or did you just end up in the city and gain inspiration while you were there?
Barnes: That’s why I went up there, although the NYC of 2014 is probably nothing at all like the one in 1977. I rented an apartment in Chelsea and just sort of wandered around and wrote songs. I didn’t see any concerts, but I was able to see the newest Jodorowsky film.
: I know you can’t get into specifics, but I’d love to know more about the songs: what they sound like, what inspired them. Obviously Lousy was a very stripped-back, folky, psychedelic album. I haven’t heard the new one, but since you say you have longer songs and were inspired by Talking heads/Television, is it moving into a more art-rock direction? New-wave?
Barnes: It’s definitely way more sonically adventurous than Sylvianbriar, sort of prog-pop. There are a lot of heavy moments inspired by early King Crimson/Black Sabbath/Led Zeppelin. T. Rex was also a big influence.
: That’s awesome. The mention of prog and early Crimson makes me nerdily giddy.
Barnes: It’s definitely got a dude-rock vibe at times.
: Hopefully more Led Zep than Nickelback, as far as that’s concerned.
Barnes: Ooooh, yeah, definitely.
: You also stripped down the music a lot on Lousy, allowing for a more full-band approach in the studio as people contributed to and recorded their own parts. Has that been the general set-up for this album? And what’s the line-up?
Barnes: Yeah, we’re recording it as a band, so everyone is contributing ideas. It’s great to work this way—takes a lot of pressure off me, and plus, it feels great to have this communal art project with my friends. The line-up is the same as the last album, minus Rebecca Cash—she left the group to focus on her own music.
: Lyrically, Lousy was pretty intense and dark, especially with the inspiration from Sylvia Plath. You like to vary your subject matter—sometimes it’s personal, sometimes it’s fictionalized with personas you’ve created. Have you found a lyrical focus for this new album, or is it all over the place?
Barnes: These songs are all very intimate. I don’t really want to go into it, but there have been a lot of changes in my personal life, and it’s reflected in the new album.
: So it’s fair to say there’s a specific theme?
Barnes: The life and times of Kevin B. It’s basically me navigating through all of the changes and experiences from the last year.
: Would you be willing to share the album title—or at least some track titles?
Barnes: It’s all pretty tentative at this point—some of the titles will probably change once it becomes time to get the packaging together. Here are a few working titles: “Aureate Gloom,” “Estocada,” “Virgilian Lots” and “Last Rites at the Jane Hotel.” I should probably get back to work—the dude rockers are waiting on me.