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Rock critics can't resist calling Of Montreal "sunny," and there's plenty of truth to that description. Since 1997, the Athens, Georgia-based band has put out seven albums of whimsical pop psychedelia that plays with shimmering, sophisticated layers of guitar and keyboard melody, over-the-top vocal harmonies, surreal lyrics, and unpredictable arrangements, piquing the attention of indie rock fans, college radio DJs, and yes, music scribes ready with the easy adjectives. Even on the newest release, The Sunlandic Twins -- which welcomes '70s prog and Afro-beat, as well as '80s electro, into a sonic laboratory that was once the exclusive domain of '60s influences -- there's an irresistibly danceable, upbeat current running throughout.
But if you squint hard enough and look beyond the glare, Of Montreal has a dark side, too. Singer/guitarist Kevin Barnes, the creative force behind the group, admits as much himself.
"To a lot of people, at least maybe on the surface, Of Montreal seems extremely happy, and really sweet and gentle music," he says from his cell, stuck in a traffic jam in Athens. "But I always thought, 'You guys are missing the subtleties,' because even on The Gay Parade[the band's critically acclaimed 1999 concept album], a couple of songs have this underlying sadness. It was funny from a personal standpoint, because if people had a sense of my personality through my music, it was always way off base. People would assume, 'You must be the happiest person in the world,' and it's like, 'No, I'm actually miserable.'"
Barnes says making art is a way of creating a perfect reality, of making things better than they really are. So listen for the darkness in his music, and he'll reveal glimpses of autobiographical truth -- fear, insecurity, romantic obsession -- that resonate long after the songs' immediate pop sugar rush wears off. "Far away from all the violence, safely flying in our own orbit," he sings on "Forecast Fascist Future," which kicks off with a Stonesy guitar strum à la "Jumpin' Jack Flash," morphs into a harmony-driven chorus, and concludes with a funky refrain: "May we never go-go mental, may we always stay-stay gentle."
While Of Montreal started off as a collaboration between Barnes and other musicians from the Elephant 6 collective (which includes members of Neutral Milk Hotel, Elf Power, and Apples in Stereo), who used to live together in one big house in the countryside, it's evolved into somewhat of a solo project, except on tour. Along with last year's Satanic Panic in the Attic, The Sunlandic Twins was single-handedly made by Barnes, who wrote all the songs, played all the instruments, and did all the engineering and mixing. The bonus EP that accompanies the full-length has one song with guest credits.
"I enjoy working that way because I can get immersed in that world -- there's no outside distractions. Not like I'm calling my bandmates distractions, but you're creating a really personal piece if you're just working on it by yourself. So it's really rewarding to work that way, but you also lose spontaneity by doing it by yourself because it's all coming from one head. And I almost never rerecord. When I start a song, it's kind of like having a kid. You just go with it, and as it develops, it's kind of organic -- when it's done, it's done."
Finished last October after six months of studio experimentation in both Athens and Oslo, Norway (where Barnes' wife/bandmate Nina is from), the resulting album is dense and complex, and sounds great on headphones. From the ominous, crowlike "Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-baaaa" chorus on "Oslo in the Summertime," to the crisp, Devo-does-Modern English synth of "So Begins Our Alabee," Barnes has managed to balance his passion as a musician with his precision as a producer.
He's just as detail-oriented about playing the songs live, and that's where he finds his biggest challenge. "I always wanted the live experience to be pretty close to the way the album sounds, but sometimes we just can't do it," Barnes says. "But at the same time, I feel bad when some people approach the recording process like that, like, 'Oh, if we can't do it live then we shouldn't do it in the studio,' because the live thing is a fleeting moment in time, and the album has more of a shelf life."
For the current tour -- two months on the road split into East and West Coast legs -- Of Montreal is using programmed drums as the backing track. "Jamey [Huggins], who plays drums for us, is also playing bass on half the songs now. We have two bass players. Some of our set is no live drumming at all. There's live percussion, but it's two bass players, a synth player and two guitarists," Barnes explains. Nina's sitting out this tour to watch their daughter Alabee, who was born December 29.
At that time, the couple was living in Norway for a few months, to be close to Nina's family. And along with the natural nerve-racking experience of becoming a father, Barnes was on unfamiliar emotional ground as not just a tourist, but an expatriate. On top of it all, the Norwegian winter was incredibly gloomy.
"The sun comes up at 9 and goes down at like 2:30. I'm so used to Athens, where it's so mild and there's sun, and the sun goes down at 6 in the winter," Barnes says. "But Norway affected me deeply -- like a profound, devastating effect on me. I was totally messed up emotionally."
Not one to waste this uncomfortable source of creative inspiration, Barnes wrote another album's worth of songs, which he's eager to record. He says his time in Europe messed him up but gave him lots of new ideas.
"Now I can laugh about it, but at the time it was really difficult. But it was kind of good, too, because it shook me up emotionally. You know how you get sort of stagnant if you're comfortable in your environment -- I said comfortable as if it was this negative thing -- but you're so comfortable in your environment and things get dull and you stop paying attention?" he asks. "I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm feeling things that I'm not used to feeling!' I'm just used to sort of being kind of like a bland man. Like, nothing attracts me, nothing hurts me, nothing brings me joy -- I'm just on this steady level of mediocrity or something. So being out there was like, 'This is insane! People are insane! This is a crazy world!'"
Chances are, the next Of Montreal album will be anything but sunny.