Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes: The complete Paste interview

Music Features of Montreal

Paste: You touched on this in a post on your website this past summer, but, in regard to the title Skeletal Lamping, what skeletons are you spotlighting and have you gotten any further with the question you posed about whether you want to shoot them or capture them?
Barnes: [laughs] I just want to let ’em go. I always want to change and evolve and reject the past and not really worry about it so much. I don’t feel the need to inspect my motivation for things I’ve done; I just want to continually move forward. But I think, when you make art, like a record or whatever, it’s sort of frozen in time, so it’s like turning the light on in a room and leaving it on forever. But you can also walk away from the room with the lights on—or keep paying the electric bill, but move into a new house.

Paste: How, if at all, did the negative reaction you got about the Outback Steakhouse commercial affect your approach to the new record?
Barnes: The backlash from the Outback commercial really motivated me to push myself, to make something bold and different so people couldn’t marginalize me. When someone calls you a “sell-out,” they’re basically saying you have no value; that you’ve given it up for your bank account—”well,” I thought, “I’m going to prove you wrong.” It filled me with a great energy, the desire to show these people, even though they’re sort of invisible. Like when anyone writes on a blog they’re called like AJJohnson622 or whatever [laughs], it’s like they don’t really exist. But I think what they’re saying, the thought they’re posing—if it matters to you like it matters to me, I wouldn’t want people to think I was a sell-out. But then, I have a complicated relationship with that concept, the idea of selling out. I [eventually] realized that selling out isn’t possible—I can’t sell out because I don’t make music to make money; I make music because I feel compelled to do so. I never sit down and say, “OK, I haven’t written a song in a while. I gotta do this.” It’s never like that. I want to do this. This is what gives my life meaning, what gives me a sense of fulfillment. I’m not really trying to sell records. I mean, I’d like to sell records because it makes life easier when you do sell them, but that’s not the fundamental motivation behind it. I also can understand how people get upset ’cause [when you sell a song to a commercial], in a way you’re sacrificing the song, potentially forever. You know, if it develops negative associations with people, or if it deprives people of having a romantic connection to the song, because you can’t really have a romantic connection to Outback Steakhouse. Or you can, maybe, but it probably wouldn’t be on the same level.

Paste: Like, “Man, that Bloomin’ Onion was so good!”
Barnes: [laughs] Yeah, I’ll never forget that time I spent… But I can really understand both sides of it. It still kind of hurts me though. No one had ever really said that to me before, no one had ever called me a “sell-out.” It would’ve been impossible, really, unless they would be like—I mean, some people are actually like, “You were on Conan O’Brien, you’re a sell-out.” Some people are actually like that; it goes that far. Like, “Oh, I can’t like this band anymore because they were played on the radio.” I mean, some people are like that. But the sad reality is that—if you’re an indie artist—you have to look to other avenues to earn a living. And either it’s going to be a day job that has nothing to do with music, or you can try to find some way to use your talents to earn a living. And that was actually the first time I had ever been offered anything like that, and I was so broke, and I was like, “I can’t say no to this.” I couldn’t project into the future and imagine what the ramifications were going to be, or how it would be different, and I think that if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t do it again, but only because of the scope of it—only because it’s been like their ad campaign for like three years and it’s not going away. Most bands, maybe they do a commercial and it’s there for like a month, two months, tops. And this thing has been like [McDonald’s’] “I’m lovin’ it.” And so, [if I’d known it would be like that], I definitely wouldn’t have done it. But I was so green at the time—I didn’t have representation and I had no previous experience to put it up against. So it’s the price of an education on some level. But it also really helped me financially. I was like, “Well, let’s put some more money into this next production. And now I sort of compare it to an actor or director that will make like a big-budget film in order to fund their pet project, their art project. Like I said, sometimes you have to suck a little dick to get by, just like everyone else has to suck dick, you know? Everyone has to have this other job or this other thing that allows them the freedom to do other things. But now, whenever I’m doing [anything commercial], I try not to incorporate Of Montreal songs in that world. If I’m gonna try to do something for hire, I don’t want to use any Of Montreal songs. I want to just make something new.

Paste: Well, now you can be like, “I’m the guy who wrote the song for the Outback commercial.”
Barnes: It’s a funny thing, too, ’cause other people—people who aren’t at all connected to the indie world, like my dad’s friends, you know, people like that,—they’re so impressed. They’re like, “Oh my god, that’s so great, man! That’s so wonderful!” Like for them, it’s like validation. And if you’re applying for a loan, and someone’s like, “What do you do?” You say “musician.” “Oh really? Have you written any songs I might know?” And then you can say, “Well, have you heard the Outback Steakhouse commercial?” [laughs] And then they’re like, “Yeah, I’ve heard that! Aw, that’s fantastic! I can’t wait to tell my friends that I met the guy who wrote the song from the Outback Steakhouse commercial!”

Paste: Tell me about how Dylan Thomas influenced the lyrics on Skeletal Lamping.
Barnes: He’s one of those writers that he has such an interesting—almost like a self-produced lexicon. His style of phrasing things and putting words together is so original that it bends my mind. A lot of the song titles from Hissing Fauna and Skeletal Lamping were results of reading a Dylan Thomas poem and then trying to stay in that spirit, that frame of mind, and just write whatever comes to mind. Just sort of automatic-writing style, where you just turn off your mind and write whatever comes out. It’s great; it’s almost like a drug, like a really quick drug. You just like read one poem and try to absorb it and be influenced by it, and see what comes out of you after taking the drug. I mean, I don’t really do drugs like that, but if drugs did that for me, then I would because it’s always good to bend the mind, to gets it out of the grocery-list mentality. You know, you make lists—these are things I have to do today, and these are the people I’m gonna talk to and it’s always situation-appropriate. But if you bend your mind, you can get out of the trappings of that. It can help you think really creatively.

Paste: Have you ever done any kind of trance writing in the past? Written songs where you let go like that?
Barnes: Yeah, I do that a lot, at night usually, when everyone else is asleep and I can just—almost like a meditative state, where I try to shut everything off and just let the stream of consciousness flow, and I come up with some things that I find really interesting. So I do a lot of writing like that. And it’s also good [to try that] if you have music [already]. I think a lot of hip-hop artists do this, where they just sort of ad-lib and don’t really know what they’re gonna say next, and maybe do 10 tracks of ad-libbing, and then pull something interesting together. I definitely do that.

Paste: Where do you think the collagist aesthetic on the new album comes from?
Barnes: I guess it comes from the desire to create something unpredictable, and so it’s things that are seemingly out of place with each other, which helps create that unpredictability, ’cause if you’re listening to a song, a lot of times you can predict where the person’s going to go—you know how they’re gonna resolve the melody line and when the chorus is gonna come, and to me that’s not that exciting. I wanted to make something that was really unpredictable because that’s the kind of music I like listening to, and I want to make the kind of music I want to hear. So what I’m trying to do is make something that’s really unpredictable, but also has an immediacy to it—something that’s not completely out there and so impossible to follow that it hurts the brain. I don’t want to hurt the head too much; I just want to create something interesting that has unexpected twists. When I listen to the first two Os Mutantes records, I can listen to them all the time because they’re speaking a language I don’t understand, so it has a mystery. Musically, if you’re not following along, and you’re not looking at the CD player and seeing, “OK, this changed from track 4 to track 5,” you don’t even know when one song starts and the other ends.

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