Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes: The complete Paste interview

Music Features of Montreal

Paste: Going back to the new album’s sexuality—why do you think so many Americans are so uptight about sex? And were you consciously trying to challenge these people?
Barnes: I definitely wasn’t trying to challenge people. When I’m making music, I don’t really think about people listening to it. The process is very organic and very insular—I’m just in this bubble, experimenting with different ideas, and I’m not really thinking about how it’s going to be perceived. That never really enters into it. Luckily, because I think if it did, it would freak me out and would be kind of paralyzing. But, yeah, I think I was just in that state of mind where I was pushing myself. Like, I went to a couple parties where I actually took off all my clothes and was masturbating in front of people, and I was really pushing myself to break down all these taboos we have. It’s so strange that we’re like, “OK, we have these bodies, but we have to cover them up, and we have to feel ashamed or awkward about our sexuality and about our physical vessel.” It’s just this human vessel that we’re inside of. And, of course, you feel naturally connected to it or responsible for it in a way, but I kind of like the idea of being irresponsible with your body, you know, like allowing your body to be exposed or doing things with your body that might be considered irresponsible—as if you’re the parent of your body, like your mind is the parent of your body.

Paste: Your body rebelling against your mind?
Barnes: Exactly. So I tried to do a lot of body rebellion on the last tour. Like, we go to parties and it’s funny because, when you break it down—especially if everyone is in that state of mind—then people are OK with it. If people can connect on that level then they realize, “Yeah, it is silly that we have to be uptight about the body.”

Paste: These are things everybody does in private, so it’s like, “Well, what’s the big secret?”
Barnes: Yeah, everybody does, so it’s a universal thing. Yet we have to somehow cover it up. I think about that a lot. It’s really interesting. Especially when you start drinking and you lose your inhibitions; is that a natural state of mind, when you have no inhibitions or is it more natural to have inhibitions? It’s hard to say. And then, you can also think about, “What are the protective elements of the inhibitions. Are they protecting you, or are they hindering you?

Paste: When we were over at Dottie’s house that last time, I can’t remember how it came up in the conversation, but you said you’ve always been attracted to women but you feel like you have a lot in common with gay men. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
Barnes: It’s interesting, I mean, I can’t really say that I like—I mean, I like it all, you know? But I just like acting really fruity—it’s fun. I guess I just don’t really have a sense of, “This is the proper way to be.” Sometimes I feel like acting butch and sometimes I feel like acting fruity. When I was younger, like when I was in high school and stuff, I used to wish I was gay because I thought gay men were—it just seemed nicer in a way. I thought it’d be a better world, maybe, if all men were gay. There’s so much negativity around the male, butch mentality—they’re so uptight. Gay men seemed more open-minded, tolerant and just cooler. And it seemed like this like magical, arty world I wanted to be a part of. I was so disappointed when I realized I wasn’t attracted to men physically! It’s like, I could just be an honorary fag, but I could never really be truly gay. But, I mean, that’s the funny thing about sexuality—it’s like the cultural thing, too. You know, there’s the gay community and there’s the straight community, and there’s these little cliques, and you can join the gay community if you like having sex with men, or you can just be an honorary member of the gay community if you’re open-minded and cool and don’t care. But, like I said before, I really like playing sports and a lot of artists aren’t into sports. Most of the guys on my baseball team are straight, so obviously I’m OK with straight people, too. I guess I fall in between gay and straight. There’s probably a lot of people who feel that way. It’s really clichéd, the parameters we put on it.

Paste: Looking at it as being clearly one way or the other doesn’t really capture the subtleties of it—it seems like there’s got to be a whole series of points in between.
Barnes: Men and women both have testosterone and estrogen in their bodies—we have the same elements, it’s not like we’re just male or just female. We are this nebulous object, this combination of femininity and masculinity. And it’s really tragic that the straight world is so uptight about femininity. There are so many men that are really butch, and you have to be super-butch or else there’s something wrong with you. And I felt that way growing up—in high school, I was like, “Well, I’m not like these guys, these jocks. They’re so uptight, they’re always really stiff—always spitting and trying to be tough. Always frontin’, you know? And I didn’t really feel that way. That’s probably why I thought that I was gay, just because like I wasn’t like that.

Paste: You felt different from them.
Barnes: Yeah, it wasn’t natural for me to be like that. I spent a lot of high school in Florida—my parents were down in Florida, and people were like chewing dip and Confederate flags and pickup trucks. So that was a weird scene to be exposed to ’cause when I was living in Michigan, it was a cooler scene, like everybody was growing their hair out…

Paste: When was that?
Barnes: That was like, late ’80s. I graduated in ’92. So I was living in Michigan and I went to freshman and half my sophomore year outside of Detroit. And that felt better to me ’cause I was a skateboarder, I was sort of a skate rat, and I grew my hair out, and I was listening to metal and punk music, and that sort of fit me better. And then when I went down to Florida, I went to this Catholic school and all these kids were into country music, which was so uncool. You know, in Michigan, nobody listened to country music.

Paste: Like hot-country radio stuff?
Barnes: Yeah. Country music is very straight, very butch, you know? I don’t think there are any openly gay country singers. [laughs]

Paste: I don’t know if they would make it or not.
Barnes: No, that’d be a good genre. Gay country. [laughter]

Paste: Yep, flamboyant country. Well, man, think of all the stuff those guys used to wear. I mean, it’s funny because you look at all those suits on display at the Ryman in Nashville—and those are pretty gay suits, you know?
Barnes: Yeah, it was very flamboyant, especially in the ’70s, with the rhinestone-cowboy scene. But now it’s, you know, cut off.

Paste: “We’ll put a boot in yer ass!”
Barnes: Yeah.

Paste: On the song “St. Exquisite’s Confessions” on the new record, when you say you’re “tired of sucking the dick of this cruel, cruel city,” are you talking about any city in particular or is it more of an imagined, kind of made-up situation?
Barnes: That’s kind of about Oslo. I have this really special relationship with Oslo because my wife’s from Norway and my daughter was born in Norway, and I spent a lot of time there, and I set up a little studio there and started recording that song there. And you know, it’s weird when you’re in a foreign country. Even though most people speak English there, it’s their second language, so you automatically feel like an outsider. And I’ve had really weird anxiety attacks and bad mental episodes in Oslo, but I’ve also had like some really great experiences. It’s a beautiful city and Norway is a beautiful country, but there’s a darkness there. There’s a real heavy darkness. There’s a lot of super-depressed people. When you have really strong experiences, they stick with you—they’re imprinted on your mind all the time. You walk down a street where you’ve had a weird experience and it kind of happens again; it’s like it never stops happening. So I wrote that song, in a way it’s that feeling of—when you feel beaten by your environment, and you’re trying to push on. Curtis Mayfield sings about that a lot, like when you’re beaten down by your surroundings and your experiences, but you gotta keep on pushing and staying positive. I actually changed the original lyric [to “St. Exquisite’s Confessions”]. It used to be, “I was so used to sucking dick while I was in prison.” I thought that was funny—I liked the idea of this character: It would be like, “I got so used to sucking dick while I was in prison, I’ve forgotten what it’s like to please a woman, or what it takes to please a woman.” It’s kind of a funny idea, like if you’ve been in prison and you have to adapt to that world—you know, just suck some dick or whatever. It could be metaphorically speaking or actually sucking dick. Ad now you’re in the straight world again, and you’re free and you’re like, “OK, what’s it like? What do you have to do again to please a woman?” But I changed that because it just seemed too jokey, and I think the idea of sucking the dick of a city is more universal.

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