Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes: The complete Paste interview

Music Features of Montreal

Paste: Are you from Athens originally?
Barnes: No, originally I’m from Cleveland, Ohio.

Paste: After Florida, you ended up in Cleveland and Minneapolis for a bit. Tell me what was going on in your life then, and about what made you come to Athens.
Barnes: The funny thing is, the guy I was telling you about, my friend from Florida, he was a huge R.E.M. fan. He got his hands on a copy of Athens, GA Inside/Out, the documentary. We were trying to find a place to move, to get a band together, and Athens seemed like this fantasyland. We really romanticized it. Julian Koster [of the Music Tapes] lived in Athens at the time and was also signed to Bar/None with his band, Chocolate USA. I was talking to Bar/None, saying I was trying to get a band together, “Where do you think I should go?” And they were like, “we have this other artist who’s kind of in the same position you guys are, he lives in Athens and he seems pretty happy, you should go meet him.” So I called him and talked for two hours, and it was like, “this guy’s awesome, he’s totally on the same page.” My friend and I moved to Athens together, but for whatever reason, he decided he didn’t want to live there anymore and moved away, but I stayed. I ended up living in the same house with Jeff Mangum [of Neutral Milk Hotel] and Will Hart and Bill Doss [both of Olivia Tremor Control]. It was amazing. All of a sudden I realized, “I’m not a freak! There are people who are into the same kind of music, and four-track recording and the DIY ’60s-psych-pop thing.” I think that was super-important for my development, to give me the support to keep going. I’d felt like I was the only one doing this thing, so it was so exciting to meet a group of like-minded people—it’s like, “holy shit, you’re doing the same thing and you’re 10 times better than me, this is so exciting!” But after a while, sometimes when you’re a kid—I was 18 at the time, and I had saved up money to move to Athens, but of course I spent all my money in a couple of months. I couldn’t really manage to support myself so I had to move back to my parents’ house in Florida. I should have just moved back to Athens when I had the money again, but I decided to try a couple of different places. I tried Cleveland because my sister lived there, and tried Minneapolis, but that didn’t work out. Eventually, I came back to Athens and have been here ever since.

Paste: Since it took so long for Of Montreal to have any kind of commercial success, did you ever doubt yourself and doubt the music you were making?
Barnes: I never really doubted myself. It’s kind of like that thing—when you believe in it, even though it’s not selling, you can always say, “well, people just don’t get it.” It definitely was frustrating as hell. I wasn’t very happy during the early years. I hated working at these non-committal jobs and having to spend so much time doing that.

Paste: What kind of day jobs did you have?
Barnes: I worked at a video store forever, and I did some telemarketing—all sorts of jobs you can’t really get any fulfillment out of. It seemed really impossible to earn a living playing music. It was like this code I just couldn’t figure out how to crack. How are these other people doing it? Are they more talented than I am? Are they smarter than I am? Why can’t I do it? But I never gave up because there was no reason to give up. Making music was the only thing that fulfilled me. I wasn’t going to give up just because people weren’t buying my records because that would’ve deprived me of something super-important in my life, of my whole focus of existing. It was definitely frustrating and depressing, and I almost feel like I paid too many dues. I’ve been kind of scarred by the amount of dues I paid. I was so emotionally invested in every show, and you go on tour for years and play to 50 people, and you’re like, “What the fuck, this is our third record, our fourth record, our fifth record and we’re still playing to 50 people. What the hell’s going on? Why isn’t it clicking with people?” You just can’t figure it out. And then, like magic, all of a sudden people start caring and you’re like, “What happened? Why is it different now?” But I’m happy. I’m psyched people care now because I know all too well what’s it like to play when people don’t care.

Paste: I interviewed you before a show at the 40 Watt in Athens right before Sunlandic Twins came out, and you seemed like you were in a pretty good place at the time. You told me, “I got married and I felt really emotionally strong. I was stable and happy and using that energy to make music.” But between then and Hissing Fauna you went through a difficult period—some depression and you and Nina split up for a while.
Barnes: Yeah, we split up for 3 months.

Paste: What was this time in your life like, and what do you think brought on this depression? How was your mindset when making Hissing Fauna?
Barnes: When I look back on it now, I think that it all centered around having [my daughter] Alabee. Being married is one thing, that sort of connects you to the world on one level, but there are so many anxieties that come with being a father that I wasn’t prepared for. I was living in this fantasy world inside my head, in this sort of bubble, and having a child roots you to the earth on such a huge level. It really slaps you in the face, like, “I am mortal, I am not going to last forever, I am responsible for this little thing, I have to take care of her.” It puts you in this strange, fractured state of mind, especially when you’re so used to being self-centered and egotistical all the time. That was really difficult for me. Also, the scenario around her birth—we were in Norway and we didn’t have a place to live, didn’t have a house of our own. We were couch-surfing, which is so insane when I think about it now. Nina’s eight months pregnant and we’re couch-surfing in a foreign country. Even though Satanic Panic had done well, we didn’t really have any money to speak of. There was no way we could’ve had Alabee in the United States because it would’ve ruined us, we would’ve been so far in debt. But in Norway, they take care of their citizens—they actually give you money [when you’re having a child]. You don’t have to pay for anything; they give you money to help out. So we decided to do it over there. We took everything out of our house and put it in storage, and went to Norway—without a home, without a country, just floating around, waiting for this child to be born and freaking out. Sunlandic Twins was done but hadn’t come out yet, and I knew I was going to have to go on tour once the record was done. It was a really weird transitional period, and that transition was really difficult for me. It took me a long time to find my footing again after that. I think that was the cause of my depression, but also, a big part of it was being on tour and Nina has this two-month-old baby back in Athens, living in this little apartment. I’m on tour, which is like a party. I’m having fun and she’s got all the responsibility. I wanted to be there with her to help her, but this is my dream, this is what I’ve wanted to do forever and things are really evolving in a positive way: We’re playing bigger shows, selling more records. But, at the same time, Nina is at home and suffering, and there’s nothing I could really do about it. So I was torn. I couldn’t satisfy everyone and I couldn’t satisfy myself. Eventually, it came to a head, and that’s why we split up. It was like, “Well fuck this, I can’t do this anymore, it’s driving me insane. I’m not going to quit music, [and I’m] not going to stay home. I can’t do both, so you have to go away.” It was really fucking hard for her. It’s so like a man to be, “OK, you take the kid and go.” And [she] takes all the pain and responsibility, and it’s so like a woman to be able to handle it. I would’ve totally lost my mind, but she’s so strong. She’s a fantastic person. And for her not to hate me after that, I think proves how strong our bond is. I couldn’t think of being with another person, and I don’t think she can either, so she just forgave me and we got back together. All that happened while I was touring for Sunlandic Twins and writing and recording Hissing Fauna. “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” is about our breakup. And that was difficult once we got back together—here’s this record documenting our hard times but it’s only from my perspective. The world only knows my side of the story; they don’t know her side. I think for a while that was kind of hard for her too, me airing out our dirty laundry for the whole world to see. But then, she’s like me, she’s an artist as well, so it’s like, “I understand, that’s what it’s about, you’re an artist.” There are tons of examples of people going through these breakups or tough times and writing about it, and the other side has to deal with it being out there.

Paste: How was your mindset while working on Skeletal Lamping as opposed to the more turbulent times that led to Hissing Fauna?
Barnes: I’m slightly more stable now because I’ve been on anti-depressants for a couple years, and things are a little bit less insane—still insane, but less insane. I think I was in a happier state of mind because I don’t have to worry about money as much, and don’t have to worry about doing my part with Alabee because things have worked out, she’s in school and my mom’s there to help. I just focus on making music. In a way, it’s sort of established now too—it’s a silly thing, until you start making money with music, some people are always going to be like, “Don’t quit your day job.” When [playing music] becomes your primary source of income, people give you more respect and give you more space to do what you need to do. So I take advantage of that and spend as much time as possible working on music.

Paste: The word ‘whimsical’ has been used to describe Of Montreal. It’s even in one of the band’s album titles, and I’ve heard you use that word to describe the music before. What does that word mean to you, and do you think it’s still the best word to describe Of Montreal’s sound and approach?
Barnes: It’s definitely still a pretty good description of the band. When I think back on the earlier records, people would always say we were twee. At the time, I was super annoyed: “How can they say that, it’s not twee; it’s really emotionally heavy and blah blah blah.” But now when I look back, I’m like “Yeah, it is twee, it was twee, that shit was extremely twee.” At the time it really offended me, I didn’t really understand it, which is insane because it just shows how delusional a person can be. Obviously, now, things are a bit heavier emotionally but it’s funny how people have this perception of emotions like, things are light if they’re happy and dark if they’re sad. It’s not necessarily that cut-and-dry. It’s not like something has less value because it’s happy. But for a while I got into that state of mind: I don’t want to make super-happy music because it might seem like it has less legitimacy. [2002’s] Aldhils Arboretum was actually the one record I was more influenced by the outside world. While I was writing that, I was trying to make something that seemed slightly more mature than the past records had been. I abandoned that with Satanic Panic and just did what I felt like doing. And now I’m still in that state of mind. [Aldhils] was just a brief departure into that world. It was also at a time when we had been a touring band for a long time, and we were trying to crack the code in a way: How can we do something that we still find creatively interesting, but that doesn’t make people disregard it as twee or preschool music, music for babies.

Paste: You’ve been making music under the name Of Montreal for almost a decade now. When you look back at all these different records and this body of work, how do you feel about it?
Barnes: I never listen to the old records, but I’m happy with them. I’m proud of them. I’m proud of the packaging and the personality of each one. I’m also really happy that each record has its own individuality, but it all works together. I kind of toyed around with the idea of changing the band name for Satanic Panic and closing that chapter and moving on. But I decided it’s cooler to have it all under the same heading. It’s interesting that it’s pretty diverse. When we first started getting [a lot more] people into the band around Satanic Panic and Sunlandic Twins, I knew they weren’t going to like Gay Parade or Coquelicot. It’s very unlikely they would listen to that and be like, “This is awesome.” I think in 20 years time, hopefully, I’ll still be putting out different kinds of records, and still developing as an artist and trying different things. Hopefully, Sunlandic Twins, Hissing Fauna and Skeletal Lamping will be just as foreign to what I’m doing 10 years from now as The Gay Parade is to what I’m doing right now.

Paste: When I was listening to the new record, I was thinking, “you could play a lot of this in a club.” But I bet [Coquelicot’s] “Good Morning Mr. Edmonton” would really clear a place out.
Barnes: Yeah, definitely.

Paste: The name Of Montreal came from a relationship you had with a girl from Montreal.
Barnes: Yeah.

Paste: How much do you still relate to that name? Or is it just something you picked and stuck with?
Barnes: At the time, it made sense, but it was very shortsighted of me to pick a name that was always going to be connected to this relationship I had. At the time, it was the most important thing in my life, but I should’ve known 10 years from that point it wouldn’t really have the same value. [But] I think just the fact that the impetus for calling the band Of Montreal was centered around a life experience—I think that’s still true. Everything I do is centered around my personal experiences. Each record is a time capsule for what I was going through at the time—what I was listening to, what kind of films I was watching, books I was reading, people who were in my life. So I think the name is still appropriate in a way, if you think of it in a broader sense than just a failed relationship.

Paste: Have you ever considering producing records?
Barnes: I’m actually doing my first production job in a couple weeks, with this French band. I’ve never really produced anybody before. I’m kind of excited, but also a bit nervous. I feel kind of like a charlatan even though I’ve self-produced and engineered all [the Of Montreal] records. I feel like I’m not really proficient enough to call myself a producer/engineer. At the same time, I guess I am, I am producing and I am engineering, and if people think it’s OK and they like it, then there’s no reason not to try it. I would really like to do it as long as I’m on the same wavelength with the person. I would want to collaborate with people and be creative in it, and not just sit there and say, “Oh, you want to record guitar now?” and then get up and move the microphone to the guitar. I definitely would want a more hands-on relationship with the band. But I think it would be a lot of fun.

Paste: I heard you were going to be in a new Joe Swanberg film. I guess it starts shooting in September?
Barnes: That has actually been postponed for a while. Originally, I was supposed to do this film with him and then he called me—“Hey, I want to do this other thing.” He’s been working with Noah Baumbach a lot, and he’s like, “We want to do this project that’ll be a bit different.” And then this production job came up with this French band, and I’d rather do that. But I’d definitely like to get into acting at some point, if it was a good role. I’d really like to do something where I could be really freaky, like a Crispin Glover thing.

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