Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes: The complete Paste interview

Music Features of Montreal

Paste: Now that you’ve been a father and a husband for a few years, how does that affect your life as an artist?
Barnes: I was afraid it was going to affect me in a negative way. I was afraid I was going to turn into Kenny Loggins or something, and write all these sweet, mundane little love songs. But it’s kind of funny, I don’t know if part of my mind has rebelled against that. It’s affected me in a good way, I think; it hasn’t taken the fire out of me. I still feel totally neurotic and freaked out and confused most of the time. I just think it’s cool to have, with Nina, this sounding board, someone who’s in my corner all the time, and she’s not going to sugarcoat things for me and tell me something is great even though it sucks. I trust her and respect her, and if she says something is exciting, I can get excited about it too, and if she doesn’t seem that excited about it, then I’m like, “Maybe it’s not that good.” It’s the same with David. The three of us have this really special connection where we really understand each other, and motivate each other and are really excited about each other’s art. It’s not like pulling teeth to get David to listen to one of my songs; he actually wants to hear it. And he gives me really interesting feedback because he’s not a musician. So he’s hearing different things, he’s not hearing things on a technical level like some musicians might—it’s more of a visceral thing for him. And Nina is the same way because she listens to all kinds of music, and her mom’s an amazing musician, and she grew up with all types of music and she’s a musician, too. She’s turned me on to all sorts of things.

Paste: So what are their creative roles in Of Montreal? Is it ever more than being a sounding board?
Barnes: Nina and David do all the artwork for the albums and T-shirts, and all the merchandise, and both of them listen to the records as they’re being created and help me figure out the identity of the record sometimes. In a way, it’s almost like having a therapist. Talking to them helps me order my ideas and put things in a better context. But they created the artwork for the new album packages and the posters and all that stuff, and we also create all the theatrical stuff together and the different ideas, like the shaving-cream thing. All the ideas you’ve seen [executed] on stage probably have come from either David or Nina, but anyone in the band can contribute ideas, like the 10-foot dress, that was Jamie and Dottie’s idea, and we had our friend in town sewing for us. I realized today that Of Montreal is an art collective—it’s all these artists working together, and it’s all centered around the band, but it’s branching off in different directions and everybody is wearing different hats and contributing different things.

Paste: What was your relationship like with David growing up? Did you guys always make music and art together?
Barnes: We always did things, but we didn’t really do that many things together. David was always drawing. From my earliest memory, he had drawing journals and spent most of his time in his room making these funny little comics, but we didn’t start working [together] in any way until I started putting out records. It just sort of fit with my mentality at the time, which I still have—that it’s cool to create a personality for the band, and I like that David has contributed art to every single record, with the exception of Petite Tragedy. On every single record, he’s done something and I’ve done something, but what we try to do is make it seem like a different person is doing it, so there’s continuity but it doesn’t seem like the same shit over and over again. That’s kind of the fun challenge—how are we going to do something different than we did last time? It’s very rewarding, but also very frustrating when you’re going through the process, going back and forth. It’s funny for David and Nina cause they’ll spend hours and hours, and I’ll go in and look at it and go, “It’s pretty cool, but what if you change this?” And that’s happened a lot of times, where I’ll spend hours and hours playing a song and they’ll be like, “Yeah, it’s pretty cool, but it gets kind of boring at that one part, and I’ll be like, “Goddamn you, fuck you!” but then I’ll think about it and be like, “You’re right, actually,” and then I’ll go back and change it and it’s better. So I think it’s good to have people you respect to throw ideas off of during the development of a project.

Paste: When I talked with your mom, right after your Langerado performance, she said you’d always wanted to be in band since the 6th grade. Now, you’ve been in this national touring band and have had some success. Looking back, how does the reality of it compare to any dream you might’ve had?
Barnes: It’s just as good as any dream I might’ve had, you know? In the early days, I probably wouldn’t have said that. I always wanted to be in a band. I never cared about school. I never thought that I would get anything out of education or really any other career. [Being in a band is] all I wanted to do. It’s kind of funny now, ’cause I was thinking about, having a daughter, I probably won’t push her very hard to be an A student. A lot of times when you’re growing up, your parents will put that on you, like, “If you want to get anything out of life, you have to go to college and get good grades,” but that’s not necessarily true. What you really need to do is find something you love, and find a way to make a living at something you love. And that’s a lot harder than getting A’s. We just had this production meeting this morning, and talking about the different ideas we’re coming up with, it’s so exciting and fun—there’s nothing else I’d rather do.

Paste: You got your first drum set when you were in seventh grade. What was it like getting that first instrument?
Barnes: When I got that drum set, I’ve never been happier in my life. My parents got it for me for Christmas, and we had this half-finished basement, and they set it up down there, and I went downstairs and it was like a miracle. I couldn’t even believe my eyes—it was that kind of moment you see in the movies. It was the most beautiful object I’d ever seen. I was really into hair metal at the time. And it was a black Pearl drum kit, and everyone played black Pearls at that time. And it was just like…

Paste: Like [Poison drummer] Rikki Rocket!
Barnes: Exactly! I was so psyched. But [after a while] I started getting a little, well, not frustrated with drums, but I wanted to do something more melodic, like guitar. For some reason, I took to guitar really quickly. I’ve never really become a great guitar player, but playing chords and doing what I needed to do to write songs came pretty quickly. I never really had lessons, but I had an uncle who taught me how to make bar chords. Then I learned every Rolling Stones song, and that was my musical education. There was this one tape collection I had called The London Years and it was all their early stuff—really simple three-chord songs. So I would just listen to them and figure them out and play along with them. That was around the time we moved to Florida from Michigan, so I had a lot of time to myself. I was like 14 then. I would sit in my room and play the songs and imagine I was on a big stage. I guess I kind of imagined myself as Ron Wood.

Paste: So all the many instruments you play came with time?
Barnes: Yeah. My parents were really cool. I wanted to get a bass and my parents were like, “OK, if you get a B in Chemistry we’ll get you bass.” And then I’d try really hard and get a C+ and they’d be like, “OK, close enough.” I had this really wicked Warlock bass, and I played that in a band for a while. I had a bunch of little bands with my high-school friends. We’d just play covers. My dad very much discouraged me from playing bass. He’d be like, “Nobody wants to be the bass player. Why do you want to be the bass player?” And I’d be like, “Dad, bass is cool.” But that was always my focus—trying to find people to play with, which was really difficult, especially in Florida. I couldn’t find anyone to play with. For some reason, there weren’t that many kids into playing instruments in West Palm Beach at that time. It’s probably different now, but at that time, just to find someone who could play drums was impossible.

Paste: Tell me how you got your first record deal.
Barnes: I had this friend, we were like best friends in Florida, and he was way more in touch—he had an older brother who turned him on to some things, and he knew about the indie scene, about indie labels, which I had no clue about. I guess there was some list that had all the indie labels, and there was this book about how to put out a record on an indie label, or how to start a label or something like that. We wrote songs together, and I wrote my own songs on the side. He got a list of all these labels, so we made a demo. Nobody seemed at all interested except Bar/None who wrote back and said they liked what they heard and wanted to hear more, so we sent them more and they were like, “eh, that’s pretty cool,” but they weren’t that into it. So, in secret, I sent my own tape with my own songs and they were like, “hey this is cool, we like this a lot,” but this put me in a weird position with my friend because they rejected the songs we wrote together and they liked the songs I wrote myself. For a while, I tried to sneak him into the contract, where we’d write the songs together and I’d sing them, but I’d try to sing them in his style, but [the label] wasn’t really that into that, and eventually it was obvious they didn’t want that stuff, they wanted my stuff. After a couple years of trying to work it out, we started to split apart, and I realized I’d be better off working by myself, so I just signed the contract with Bar/None and put my own songs out.

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