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Following a decade of relative obscurity operating in the poppier corner of the indiesphere, of Montreal enjoyed a mid-Aughts breakout with the albums Satanic Panic in the Attic and The Sunlandic Twins, as bandleader Kevin Barnes developed a more idiosyncratic stage presence and songwriting and recording processes.
Concurrently, of Montreal's visuals were developing under the watchful and whimsical eye of Kevin's brother David Barnes, the band's artistic director. The stage show exploded into a panoply of costume changes, video projections, stilts, puppets, ninjas, nuns, and more.
With different themes, stage setups, and costumes for each tour, of Montreal's performances roped in more participants from the Athens, Georgia, scene that birthed the band: Musicians joined on as projectionists, sculptors came along for the ride to perform onstage, and the family circus grew as plays and mini-suites accompanied the tunes. "Kevin's songs are so strange — like, the compositions are so weird already, and they change so much — that I think it lends itself to hitting little beats in performance," David Barnes says.
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While the professional relationship between David and Kevin Barnes started as more of a collaborative effort, David has taken more control over the visual aspect of the band's stage performance. Of their current working relationship, David says, "We're all bringing ideas to each other. Usually. In the past, we had a band meeting with everyone, and we all threw out ideas, and the show came about that way. But the last couple tours — and this one too — I'll start working on something and then share it with people, and someone might throw something onto the skeleton, and we can either go with it or not. And when we're on tour, things will change and we'll incorporate new ideas that excite everyone. We'll run out to the store to pick up this and this and this, and try something new that night. It is pretty improv-y in nature."
When the band plays in Athens and Atlanta, a gaggle of friends are along for the ride and contribute to the madness — they've had Athens' de facto poet laureate onstage in a black spandex body suit throwing balloons at the audience, and retro-futuro R&B pioneer Janelle Monáe working her funkily robotic moves as a backup dancer.
In addition to acting as of Montreal's artistic director, David Barnes can now say he's a published artist — last month, Polyvinyl Records put out a retrospective book of artwork called What's Weird?, featuring Barnes' artwork related to of Montreal and otherwise. In the book's gloriously abstract foreword, Kevin Barnes writes, "Art is not great, any more than air is great, and air is great. My favorite brother is as important to me as air, so, you figure out the math there . . . The fact that this book exists, and that more from the artist might be on the way, is enough to keep us from suicide, which is all one can really ask for from an artist, and a favorite brother."
The book includes sketches, paintings, and commissioned works in which people — usually couples — would send in a photo and a little story, and he'd come up with something based on it. That sort of variety remains in full effect for the of Montreal tour, supporting the new Controllersphere EP.
"With Controllersphere, we are operating with the logic that it needs to be fun for us, and that will translate to the audience in turn," says Paul Nunn, an Athens musician who's worked on several of Montreal tours and is currently touring as a tech, stage hand, performer, and doer of general things. "A lot of ideas will come up minutes before the show, and sometimes even during. I am currently alternating onstage between a referee character and a fancy lad named Fussy, and what I do is defined by the confines of my tech position, the number I play on, and physical restraints of the stage — and sometimes you just react on the fly to things as they happen.
"Each show is unique," Nunn continues. "I don't want to give too much away or make any promises, but I can say that by the time we get to Phoenix, there will likely be something new none of us have even thought of yet, and I think that might be the most special thing about this tour."