Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes: The complete Paste interview

Music Features of Montreal

Paste: I had difficult time, when we were listening to the album the first time, trying to figure out where the track breaks were. I took notes, but when I went back and looked at it again, they were all wrong.
Barnes: A lot of times, when it would’ve made sense for it to end in one place, we were like, “No, let’s just include that other thing and say it’s part of the same song.” I wish there could be hyphenated track listings or hyphenated track markers—like, “OK, this is track 6.2 or something.”

Paste: A lot the past records you’ve put out with Of Montreal have been really fantastical, but I feel like this one has almost a space-age vibe to it.
Barnes: I really want to make now music. I want to make music that feels progressive, like it’s reaching toward the future rather than being this sort of anachronistic retro thing. In the early days, I wanted to make something retro. That was the kind of music I was into. But now I really want to push music into this new area it’s never been before, and I haven’t yet, but that’s definitely the motivation. So I think that might give [my recent music] a sense of being more progressive. At least, the intent was to make something progressive. I feel like music is going in a really great direction. There’s a lot of bands that are doing really interesting things—bands like Health and Gang Gang Dance and Deerhoof and Animal Collective. I feel like we’re in the middle of something amazing, that people are going look back on 20 years from now and be like, “Holy shit! All these classic records were being made during this period,” like when I think about The Pretty Things and Pink Floyd and The Beatles, and all these bands making amazing records in 1967. And I hope that this continues, where people are using the technology of the time, the instruments that are there that weren’t before to create something now, something that really feels like this time period. Even if it sounds dated 20 years from now, it doesn’t matter as long as it has a personality and an identity outside of anything before or after. I mean, everything is inevitably going to sound dated. It’s amazing to me how the ’80s—the sound is such a really strong… it has such a strong personality, and the fashion…

Paste: The gated drums, the synthesizers…
Barnes: Yeah, everything. And I think that’s so fantastic. Like, the ’90s, it had that [distinct identity] to some degree, but not on that level like the ’80s. And people joke around about the ’80s—it definitely seems silly, you know, and we kind of laugh about it, but that’s really all you can hope for: to create something that has such a strong identity that it’s impossible to take it out of context.

Paste: Earlier you were talking about the way the tracks on Skeletal Lamping jump into each other and the erratic way the album is sequenced. All that chaos, when I’m listening to it, snaps me in and out of these trance states. What role do you think chaos plays in your music?
Barnes: Well, this is the first record where I really tried to incorporate tension, and tried to build tension in the songs and not just make it as melodic as possible. I tried to incorporate elements of dissonance. I think it’s really exciting to work in that area because that’s kind of a heavier, deeper form of composing, because you’re touching on all these different emotions. In the past, I’ve done a lot of electro-disco pop, which is basically like one emotion, maybe happy, with slightly intellectual lyrics. But this album, musically, I wanted it to have more depth and to create something that’s more mesmeric at times, even anxiety-producing at times, and in a way reflect my state of mind or the human condition ’cause you’re never just happy and you’re never just sad, there’s always varying levels of everything from moment to moment.

Paste: Why did you choose “Id Engager” as Skeletal Lamping’s first single?
Barnes: We felt like it was dancey and fun, but it was hard to pick one song.

Paste: Are you gonna put out a few singles?
Barnes: Yeah. We’ll definitely do a couple, but “Id Engager” seemed like a safe choice because it’s not such a dramatic departure from Hissing Fauna but it’s also kind of representative of the new record because it has so many different sections and it’s sort of out there, sort of like the freak-disco song on the record. I really pushed for “For Our Elegant Caste” because I thought that was a bit bolder of a statement. But, you know, people on the business side were like, “Well, maybe that might be a bit too much for the first single.” [The song’s chorus feature the lyric: “We can do it softcore if you like, but you should know I take it both ways.”] I feel like there’s no real way to ease people into this album—either they’re going to open-minded and cool with it or they’re not. So I felt like there was no real reason to try to dumb it down or pick the most accessible track. But at the same time, I like “Id Engager.” It’s not a totally simplistic love song. There is depth to it. And I think it’s an interesting song because the lyrics in the verse are in opposition to the lyrics in the chorus. The lyrics in the verse condemn this hedonistic, superficial relationship, and warn people against it. But in the chorus, there’s this unapologetic lyric about, “I just want to play with you, I don’t care about having a deep relationship. I just want to have a superficial, noncommittal experience.” It’s like the two voices are sort of fighting each other.

Paste: Sounds like something that goes on in people’s minds all the time.
Barnes: Yeah.

Paste: There was over 30 minutes of material you said you cut from the album. Are you going to put that out as an EP?
Barnes: I’m not really sure what I want to do with it. On some levels I feel like, “Well, these are the songs that weren’t good enough to get on the record, so why would I want to put out a reject EP?” But I feel like it would be OK if it was like a fan-only sort of thing. I feel like there should be some level of quality control—you don’t just put out everything. In the past I have put out everything; [at that point] I didn’t feel like it was important to worry that much about it. Now, I don’t feel like it’s necessary to release everything for everyone. It might be cool to just put out an EP and people could just download it for free if you want people to listen to it. Or we could just use the tracks for B-sides. There’s a couple songs that I like that, for whatever reason, just didn’t work. I didn’t want to make a 74-minute CD. I wanted to keep it somewhat digestible, so you could listen in one sitting, so you could listen to the whole thing without being like, “Goddammit, is this thing still going?” I wanted to make something where people would want to listen to it again rather than get to the end and be like, “OK, I don’t need to hear this again for another month.” There’s a lot of songs that I actually like that my brother [and collaborator, David Barnes] and I went back and forth on, like, “Should we keep that on there? Should we take it off?” And I actually wanted to edit it down even more, but he was like, “No, don’t do that. You gotta keep it there.”

Paste: Are you going to play some of those songs live? Some of the ones that didn’t make it on the record?
Barnes: Maybe. We have so much work ahead of us [with the touring band], just learning the songs ’cause we have a new drummer now.

Paste: Who’s the new drummer?
Barnes: His name’s Ahmed [Gallab], and he plays in this band Sinkane. It’s funny because we’ve done a lot of press photos with him, but we haven’t done a single practice with him, so hopefully it works out. I’m sure it will. He’s an awesome drummer and an awesome guy. So what we’re trying to do now—in the past we’ve had two different kinds of performance, like we would have an aspect of the show that would have backing beats on a CD player and no live drumming, and then the other side would be all live drumming and no backing tracks. And so this time we’re trying to get rid of the CD player altogether and just have drums on everything, but still have the same sounds from the record, so we had to get this MPC player to sample so we can have the actual sounds from the record, but instead of having a little disc playing, we’d actually have a human being playing it, and that way we’ll be able to really expand upon certain ideas and it won’t be as consistent from night to night—there’s going to be room for spontaneity and experimentation, so we’re all really looking forward to that.

Paste: There’s all this really cool packaging for the new record—so many different options. What was the idea behind this? What are these different options giving people?
Barnes: It just occurred to us: “Why does it have to be,” especially with digital downloads, or just packaging ion general, “why does it have to follow the same path that is always has?” Someone established, OK, we’ll have packaging that’s basically the size of a CD, and that’s just the way it’s gonna be.” We realized it doesn’t have to be that way. If you want to do something different, you can. And the only real restrictions are for the big corporations like Borders or Target or Best Buy. For stocking, they want it to fit on the shelves, so you don’t want to have something that’s going to be a specialty item that’s going to have to be stocked inside a glass case, like when you go into an indie store and they have their window or whatever. So there are different challenges we had to work out, but we really wanted to make something very unconventional, to create an object that could stand on its own. Something that wasn’t just a CD protector, or just something you’d have to categorize and put it on your shelf. Like everything that was involved with the release of the record, we wanted to make an object that would be interesting and thought-provoking, and that would blend into your design scheme in a way. You think of lifestyle, of interior-design objects, like the lamp and the wall decals and posters—these are things everyone needs, everyone uses. We go to IKEA because we don’t want to go to Rooms To Go or whatever, we want there to be a design element in our own house. Ecko and different companies are producing interesting objects that are thought-provoking and inspiring. We felt there was a lack of these things—it’s difficult to find interesting objects for your house, so we thought it’d be cool to produce our own. And luckily, [our label] Polyvinyl has been amazing about figuring out how to make that happen. A lot of labels would be like, “Uh, that sounds expensive.”

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