“I bring it upon myself,” says Kevin Barnes, sighing, “by airing my dirty laundry publicly in my songs.” The idiosyncratic singer/songwriter, mastermind of ever-shifting Georgia outfit of Montreal, is referring to the tumult of Aureate Gloom—the band’s 13th LP, and easily his most painfully personal work to date. Barnes constructed the album in a reckless and disillusioned state, following his separation with graphic artist Nina Grøttland, whom he married in 2003. Broken down literally, an “aureate gloom” is an aesthetically pleasing ugliness, a magnetic repulsiveness. And the album reflects that dichotomy, as Barnes traces the raging wonder and horror of an intimate longterm relationship.
The details of that fracture are shrouded in the frontman’s reliably verbose prose. (“Stealing form his oration of filth, I repeat the wickedness to force reactions out of you,” he sings on the seductive psych-pop centerpiece “Empyrean Abattoir.”) But Barnes’ pain is unnerving and immediate, underscored by the newly reinvigorated muscle of his band, which veers from stormy CBGBs art-punk (“Monolithic Egress”) to Kinks-y hard rock (“Apollyon of Blue Room”). And unloading that misery was healthy for the frontman, even if he questions the transparency of his approach.
“I don’t really want to talk about it,” he says of the split. “I kinda regret even mentioning it initially because it’s a weird thing to talk about. My personal life definitely has an immediate impact on my work in general, and in a way I’m sort of documenting everything in my life through music. And it helps me get a perspective on things that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to obtain. It’s interesting how that works, how it is very therapeutic. The weird thing is that it sticks around because I’ve released it, and it’s not like I can just erase it from the world after I’ve released it. It’s still there rotting on the vine in a way.”
Barnes’ personal life has directly informed his songwriting for “the last 10 years,” roughly the span of his old relationship. Indeed, though the of Montreal discography is populated by outlandish personas and alter-egos (like the gender-bending Georgie Fruit from 2008’s Skeletal Lamping), exploring the albums in sequence feels mostly like reading a decade’s worth of diary entries. “So Begins Our Alabee,” a rapturous funk-pop odyssey from 2005’s The Sunlandic Twins, is named after the couple’s daughter, a symbol of blooming hope. Two years later, Barnes wrote about a temporary separation from his family on Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (On the epically loopy “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse,” he buried lyrics about chemical dependency and mental instability under rays of pop sunshine: “Nina Twin is trying to help,” he sings. “And I really hope that she succeeds.”) The band’s most recent LP, 2013’s Lousy With Sylvianbriar, chronicles a period of extreme depression.
Even without knowing the backstory, Aureate Gloom’s lyrical themes resonate clearly—like on the elastic rocker “Last Rites at the Jane Hotel.” “I need to spend more time alone,” asks the narrator in near-monotone over stabbing guitars. “What gives us the right to be so depressing?”
For the writing of Lousy, Barnes relocated from his Athens, Georgia home base to San Francisco, inspired by the city’s freewheeling Summer of Love heyday. The foundation of Gloom was conceived this past May during a songwriting retreat in New York City, where Barnes hoped to soak in the essence of ‘70s art-punk acts like The Voidoids, Patti Smith, Television and Talking Heads. He rented a small apartment in the Chelsea district for a couple weeks, demoing songs with an unplugged electric guitar (in hopes of not disturbing the neighbors).
“I basically just hung out in this room—it was furnished—just working on songwriting ideas, taking a walk and strolling around the city,” he says. “In a way, it was kind of bad because I know a lot of people in New York, so it was easier to get distracted. There’s a lot to do. But in San Francisco, I didn’t really know anybody and was lost in my own little bubble, didn’t really have much interaction with the outside world. I was mainly just living in my own head for a couple weeks. But the New York one was cool. With everything that was going on in my life, it was good to get out of Athens for a bit. It was definitely a very positive experience, but I only ended up writing maybe three songs while I was there.”
Compiling material written before, during and after the retreat, Barnes worked with drummer Clayton Rychlik to flesh out eight tracks in demo form. Then, gathering the same crew that worked on Lousy, they ventured to famed El Paso, Texas studio Sonic Ranch, adhering to a tight deadline and banging out one track per day. The vibe was loose and primal, keeping with Barnes’ original goal.
“A lot of it was the attitude,” he says. “Going into this record, I wanted it to be very spontaneous and very quick. I didn’t want to labor over things too much. I wanted it to feel sort of like [John Lennon’s] ‘Instant Karma!’ Just wanted to write it and record it as quickly as possible. So when we were in the studio, we weren’t doing too much experimenting because a lot of the experimenting had already been done in the pre-production period. So it was like, ‘Let’s do it for real with all of us in the room.’ Now it’s more rare for a band to record a song a day, but in the ‘60s, you probably had to make an album in a day. I think it’s cool that if you have to work really fast, you do work really fast. You don’t screw around, show up wasted.”
That manic energy cuts through in “Apollyon of Blue Room,” a track “very much straight out of [Barnes’] journals” from that summer. “I was writing a lot about different things happening in my life and different experienced we’d had,” he says. “We went to Greece for the first time this summer with the band and played a couple shows, so there are some references to that. But musically, it’s very Kinks-inspired, I guess. Ray Davies is a huge influence on me.”
With its references to “masturbating your father’s pain,” “Empyrean Abattoir” exemplifies the album at its darkest. “I’m not disappointed in myself, but I feel that I often use things in a negative way and am not very generous in perceiving other people’s sides in the story,” Barnes says. “It’s a very one-sided story and very hateful and mean-spirited. But that’s a part of being human.”
After the public exorcism of Aureate Gloom, Barnes has “moved on”—in fact, he’s already halfway finished with his next album. But even if it’s been awkward airing his dirty laundry with Gloom, it was a process he needed to endure.
“I was kind of cured of those issues on a pretty deep level just by making the record,” he says. “Just to express those things and bring them to the surface. So then it’s just kind of done. You wouldn’t go into another therapy session and cover the same ground over and over again. I could come to terms with things and come to another resolution and just move on. It’s like, ‘That’s cool that we did that.’ But we just have to keep moving forward.”