Searching for the Human Side of Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes
It's noon on a Friday and I'm sitting in my living room. Laptop is on my lap, my phone is plugged in, and Garage Band is open as I begin to type the project's title: Kevin Barnes. I'm not ready. It feels like my blood has been put through a SodaStream and pumped back into my body carbonated.
If you don't know, Barnes is the singer and songwriter of the Georgia band of Montreal, which began as Barnes' solo project but quickly added members. Of Montreal's performances became increasingly opera-like, with elaborate visual art setpieces, and Barnes quickly made a name for himself such stage antics as cross-dressing and performing naked. However, it's his heart-wrenching, bookish lyrics set contrastingly to funky, danceable music that gives the band its enduring appeal.
I can't do this. I run to my kitchen and pour a shot of mezcal. I go outside and chain-smoke three cigarettes. My hands are shaking more than their typical mild tremor. I take another shot. Maybe that was a bad idea. Maybe this was all a terrible idea. What did I sign up for?
They say you should never talk to your heroes because of how your conversation will only humanize them (or some such nonsense), but it's what I think of as I dial Kevin Barnes' number.
"So, I know you're touring, and I'd heard rumors of a new album in the works. Is that true?" I ask.
It's a stupid question on several levels because I know Barnes is nearly finished with a new album and I know that he is a man with an insatiable need to create music (a dizzying 12 full-length albums in 16 years), so of course he's making an album right now. Stupid.
"It is true," he says. "Well, we finished it, but we're still working on the album artwork and stuff. But it should be coming out in March."
"Oh, cool. What'll it be like?"
"I've been very influenced by bands like Television and the Patti Smith Group and the Talking Heads -- sort of '70s New York. Maybe like rock 'n' roll or punk rock and sort of like an intelligent disco."
"I feel your music, in general, is pretty intelligent and, like, literary," I stumble, with an awkward upward inflection that oozes with insecurity. Good one, Hoch. "Are there any books you're reading right now that are influencing you?"
"Well, I'm reading The Rosy Crucifixion by Henry Miller," he starts.
I interrupt, beaming, "I love Henry Miller."
"Yeah . . .," he says, almost sarcastically, placating me with congratulations. I don't blame him. He continues: "That's been an influence. Also, this book by Malcolm Lowry called Under the Volcano, which is a pretty big influence on the record."
The upcoming record also will be different from the band's 2013 album, Lousy with Sylvianbriar, because Rebecca Cash, known as much for being a muse and she is for her harmonies, no longer lends her voice to the band.
"So, I heard Rebecca Cash won't be on this album. What happened?"
"Oh, nothing. I was sort of looking for an Emmylou Harris for my Gram Parsons . . . She's too talented, though, to play a backup role in a band."
"Do you feel like there was kind of a Yoko thing going on, though?"
"I guess that was happening without me being conscious of it. When Rebecca showed up and, then, slowly the band members who had been in the band a while left . . . If anything, it was me organically wanting to do something new and it included Rebecca . . . No one is going to make any decisions as far as the ensemble is concerned or the direction of the band except me."
Regardless, it might seem to some that the abrupt lineup change the band underwent between 2012's Paralytic Stalks and Lousy had something to do with the woman who, if nothing else, at least took the vocal reins in certain songs for the first time in the band's history. It especially might seem that way if you've seen this year's The Past Is a Grotesque Animal, a documentary about which you fairly could say portrays Barnes as "a heartless artist who doesn't consider other people's emotions," as he puts it.
"The documentary lands on the possibility that your constant need to create music might sully your legacy. Do you feel that's true?"
"Maybe, just because [the of Montreal catalog is] so diverse. To become a truly iconic pop culture figure, you kind of have to be one-dimensional . . . For the most part, bands sort of get to the point of self-caricature, and that's what the world likes and that's what the world gravitates toward -- some known entity."
"Do you feel you've effectively combated that, though?"
"I always try to become a new person or a new writer on each new record. I don't want to think about my legacy or any of that bullshit . . . I want to take chances, and I want the possibility of failing."
"In terms of your legacy, I've heard Hissing Fauna being called of Montreal's Pet Sounds. Why do you think Hissing has such a persistence for people?"
"It might have just been a time and place sort of thing. It was a time when that electronic, dance, glam thing was becoming popular again. Pet Sounds is a true masterpiece and Hissing Fauna is just a bunch of pop songs."
Barnes says he wishes his other albums would be celebrated in the same way as Hissing, but he knows it doesn't happen like that. Maybe it's because the appeal of Hissing is its focus on healing rather than on depression, he conjectures. However, each album is there for him like a journal, he says, to reflect on the past and the people who were such a big part of it.
"Do you think the documentary gave those people the chance to tell their side of it?"
"The documentary is interesting because it isn't completely accurate. Of Montreal as a touring group is so different from of Montreal as a recording collective or project. The people who were involved back in the day were in the band for a really long time, but they hadn't really contributed very much to the recorded songs . . . If it were to be made now, it would have a completely different vibe."
"Do you feel like the[band's lineup] is more fluid now?"
"Whoever can [play in the band] when they want . . . It's healthier this way. I don't think anyone will resent anybody else. Everybody understands their role."
"Do you feel, in terms of the band, that you are of Montreal?"
Barnes pauses for a second for the first time in our free-flowing conversation. "I mean, I can't do it by myself. I can't really say I am of Montreal, but I am the person who puts it all together."
"So do you think you'll still be going 10 years from now? What will of Montreal be?"
"My whole life is centered around the creation of music, and my identity is based off of that. I feel good about myself if I'm working and making something that I think is interesting or legitimate art. I guess it helps me feel like I'm not a loser or something."
"What is it about you that makes you have that need to make music constantly?"
"I don't know. Maybe it's a terrible insecurity. Maybe it's just the way I'm programmed."
If there are two sides to any story, a songwriter like Kevin Barnes' story has at least three: There's the more immediate and one-sided personal story told in lyrics, there's the lyrics' subject's side of the story, and then there's both stories plus time -- a version that rarely gets told. Add in a documentary and a director's portrayal of all those stories and things get messy.
In the end, you don't have to know Barnes' personal life, and I don't have to know it, either. Just know that for the past 18 years, he's poured it all into some of the 21st century's best pop music.
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