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Interview: of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes

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of montreal feature Interview: of Montreals Kevin Barnes

Today, of Montreal releases its latest collection of pop cacophony, Paralytic Stalks. This time around, musical brewmeister Kevin Barnes mixes things up, intermingling the influences of 20th century classical composers like Partch and Ligeti, experimenting with through-composition, and using session players for the first time. Paralytic Stalks also marks the first time in quite awhile that Barnes has written or recorded without the use of an alternate persona or character. Consequence of Sound‘s Research Editor Len Comaratta caught up with Barnes while he was at home in Athens, GA as he and the group finalized preparations for their upcoming tour.

We can just jump right into it if you want. I assume you’re down in Athens right now.

Yeah.

The tour begins… in two weeks?

Well, we’re starting… our first show is in Athens on the 17th, I think, of February, but then we have a couple of weeks before the tour kicks off for real.

Okay, so you’re just doing a hometown show to kind of kick things off, see how it goes?

Yeah, kind of… well, the record will have already been out. We’re attempting some stuff that we’ve never tried before visually, so it’s good to get one run through.

Visually, do you mean like the theatrics that you have or like in a new light show?

Yeah, it’s new. What we basically are doing is we’re trying to have as many projectable spaces onstage as possible, so basically, visually it’s going to be sort of a sensory overload. It’s going to be all these different layers of different kinds of animations and different kinds of lighting. At least that’s the way we visualize it; it’s going to be really extreme at times and really powerful.

So are you going to have warnings regarding seizures?

That’s a good idea, actually.

With the sound of this album, you have all these strings. Are you going to have the string players on tour with you, or are you going to do that via different methods?

It’s going to be a combination ‘cause we do have the guy who actually played all the parts on the record, Kishi Bashi; he’s in the band, too. So he’s going to be playing parts, but they’re so densely orchestrated you can’t really pull that off just as one person, so there will be some things in the backing tracks, or some things will be played by other instruments. Yeah, that’s kind of a challenge that we’ve been working with right now. We’ve been in rehearsals for two weeks now just trying to figure out a way to reproduce those arrangements live. It’s been a real challenge, but I think it’s going to sound really cool. I’m excited.

A lot of people may have felt that you “changed directions” on the last few albums, but I’ve always kind of felt like you have this direction you’re going in, and the albums are the albums as they are; you’re not going back or forward or anything like that. It’s just this new… a new album. I don’t know what people were worried about with this one.

[chuckles] Yeah, I don’t know. I’m definitely incorporating some elements that maybe I haven’t in the past. But as far as the songs being structured in this way, it’s definitely something I have done with records like The Gay Parade and Coquelicot [Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse] and Skeletal Lamping, as far as having songs that contain different movements within one song, so it’s not just like an obvious pop arrangement. That’s definitely something that I’ve been interested in for a while just because when you’re writing songs, when you’re writing pop songs, there’s a tendency to follow the template that other people have already established as far as having verses repeating and choruses repeating and all that stuff. It’s not very challenging. Once you’ve written the verse and the chorus, then the song’s almost done. So, there’s not that much you can say beyond that. I like the approach of writing a section of music and then using that as inspiration for the next section and then using that as inspiration for the next section but not really worrying so much about having things come back, not worrying so much about repeating sections.

And that was your experimentation with the through-compositions?

Yeah. That’s something that appeals to me just because I find it more challenging and more exciting and more fulfilling. I have worked with the typical pop template a lot just because sometimes I’ll try to chase that idea trying to write the perfect pop song. But with this new record, I’ve been more interested in extending the songs and having it be more transportive, more a journey of sorts.

of montreal paralytic stalks cos Interview: of Montreals Kevin BarnesFalse Priest marked you returning to organic instruments. And Paralytic Stalks takes it even further now with the inclusion of session players. Why did you decide to bring in session players, especially considering that you’ve been pretty much a one-man band in the studio for the better part of this decade? And how come you never bring in the live touring band to record the albums?

Well, I guess what it really comes down to is that the people that I got to play on the record play instruments that I can’t play, whereas the touring band has had fairly common instrumentation as far as keyboards and basses and guitars and drums and things that I can play. I like to do the bulk of the work myself. So when it comes to something… when I hear something that I just can’t produce on my own or I can’t realize on my own, then I’ll bring in other people. Getting Kishi Bashi involved and getting Zac Colwell involved was great because they were able to contribute something that I could have never contributed on my own, and they were able to help steer the songs into a direction that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own. They’re in the band now, so I guess it is like having band members involved.

With that in mind, were those parts strictly written out, or did you leave room for the players to move within the framework? For example, “Wintered Debts” sounds a bit more structured than the avant nature of “Exorcismic Breeding Knife”.

Yeah, those, “Wintered Debts”, “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff”, and “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission”, those three have extended instrumental sections that were definitely more collaborative in nature as far as I maybe have a concept, I want it to be this length of time, and I want to have this sort of vibe, and then I would send it to K, or I would send it to Zac. K is Kishi Bashi. So, I’d send it to them to see what they heard or what they could contribute. Then they’d send me their parts, and then I would use that to help create a structure, and then I would add my own parts to that and affect the things that they sent me. It was definitely a lot of back-and-forth and collaboration for those moments.

So was that after you’d written the song, or was that actually during the songwriting process?

It was within the songwriting process just because I had written the first couple sections and then got to the point where I knew I wanted to have a certain musical emotion or whatever. I wanted to have something in these sections that was different from the other sounds I had created. And then from there, like with “Wintered Debts”, for example. And then I wrote that tag at the end, the piano thing at the end. I mean, I could have just kept writing. The songs didn’t ever really have to end. I could have made each one of them 30 minutes long or whatever. But I sort of, I guess, got to the point where I was at seven minutes or eight minutes or 13 minutes or whatever, and it could just be done. I could just work on something else now.

spotify Interview: of Montreals Kevin Barnes

Wondering what Kevin Barnes has been listening to on Spotify? Click here and find out!

I noticed the last four songs on the album are almost 2/3 the album length. You’re not a stranger to having long songs. “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal” is over 12 minutes long. But it’s usually one song that stands out, whereas on this album, it seems to be all weighted towards the end there. When you were sequencing the album, were you conscious of all that? Was there a method to your madness?

No. And actually most of the songs are sort of alphabetical as far as their working titles went, the sequence of them for the most part. I changed all the titles after the fact, but the working titles pretty much placed them in that order, in that sequence. So it was almost alphabetical. I did experiment a little bit. Initially, I was going to put “Exorcismic Breeding Knife” as the opening track, and then I thought better of it because I thought maybe it would alienate some people and they wouldn’t really get to that point. They’d just listen to that one song and throw the CD in the trash.

That’s not much faith in your own work is it?

No, but I understand how people are. I understand that certain people, some people aren’t interested in that they don’t really look to music to provide that kind of stimulation or whatever it is. So, I can appreciate that there’s some people like that… it’s not for everybody obviously, and I don’t really want to antagonize people. I just want my art to communicate with people, and hopefully it does.

341 Interview: of Montreals Kevin BarnesLet’s go back to “Wintered Debts” real fast. Parts of that and parts of “Exorcismic Breeding Knife”… I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the piano player Sakis Papadimitriou…

Uh-huh.

You know Nosferatu?

Yeah.

…A few years ago, they did a contemporary soundtrack to it, where they had the movie playing, and then [Papadimitriou] and his avant European jazz group did a contemporary soundtrack to it. It’s very haunting like some of the elements that you’ve been incorporating, like in “Wintered Debts”. I noticed that “Wintered Debts” was also released on Soundcloud back in the fall rather than releasing it as a single. Because of the fact that song is so different, so dark and so complex… is that why you released it on Soundcloud? To sort of test the waters? “Dour Percentage” is being released as an official single. And when you listen to “Dour Percentage”, it makes sense. It’s a poppy song. It sounds like a single. But what was the logic or the reasoning behind the Soundcloud release?

I think we just wanted to give people a taste of the new direction that we were going in. And that seemed sort of more indicative of the overall album. I guess with “Dour Percentage” the label is in the business to sell things, so I guess they want to release it as an official single or whatever and charge… I don’t know… it’s just a strange, murky territory now because you can get anything you want musically for free anyways, so it’s kind of just like wishful thinking in a way to even officially release anything or charge anything ever. You just kind of hope that maybe some people still care to buy it, or maybe they’re like intimidated enough by their cable company to resist stealing things.

With that in mind and, I guess, with the decline in sales, in recent years, of Montreal has lent its songs to other commercials and television shows and whatnot. In the age of dwindling sales, I find it totally understandable, and considering in the past much of your proceeds you’ve actually used to funnel back into your own tours. It’s not like you guys are just trying to sell out and makes tons of money. How do you choose whom you’re willing to work with when it comes to that?

I haven’t really done much of that over the last couple of albums. Maybe it’s because the songs aren’t as commercial or something. But what initially happened… I had been so broke for so long, and no one had ever even asked me if I wanted to have a song in a commercial or anything. I was so green. I had no idea what any of that stuff was about. I didn’t realize how… what a big effect it can have on people’s perception of your music, because it always just seemed kind of absurd. You feel like you live in this world, this small little indie world or whatever, and that things that are on television don’t have any sort of connection to that world at all, and then when somebody from some big mainstream company contacts you and asks you to use one of your songs, it almost feels totally surreal and totally unbelievable. Like, why in the world would that company want to use one of my songs? That doesn’t make any sense.

And it’s really hard I think for artists to say “no” when they’re offered more money than they’d make in a year just for allowing them to use your song for however many commercials. I kind of was on the really extreme side of it because I had the Outback Steakhouse commercials that lasted for like four years because I had no idea what kind of contract I was signing. With no representation, I just got totally fucked. But most artists, I think, are a little bit more savvy and can weigh it in their heads, the pros and cons. Like, there’s gonna be this Taco Bell commercial with my song in it, and I’m gonna get a lot of backlash, but I am going to be able to keep making music for the next year without having to go back to my telemarketing job or whatever. The backlash is coming from a strange place because people don’t really realize that even though they own the record and they’ve seen the band play and they seem like they’re pretty popular, most indie bands, they can’t really survive more than three, four, five years at best, and then everybody has to go back to their day job or whatever.

Well, how do you account for your success? You’ve said with this album you weren’t necessarily trying to make a commercial album. In my opinion, you’ve never tried to make a commercial album. I don’t think any of of Montreal’s stuff, though it is successful and you have a really good following… I’ve never seen any of your albums as intentionally commercial. Maybe The Sunlandic Twins, probably could be, in my opinion, the most available commercially. But I never really thought that that’d be an issue for you. I thought that you’d be more like that you were going to go out and play your music and do what was in your heart, in your mind, and in your soul. With that said, how do you account for of Montreal’s success?

I guess just good fortune and just luck, because everybody for the most part is doing it for the right reasons. There aren’t that many people unless you’re part of the major label machine, and they sort of handpick people because they look a certain way and they might appeal to a certain demographic or whatever. But most, I would think like 99.9% of musicians, people in bands, are doing it because they get some fulfillment out of it and because they love it, and it’s coming from a pure place. As far as us being successful, we were so unsuccessful for the first six or seven years of our existence. We know firsthand. We know all too well.

It’s really traumatizing in a way to spend six years driving around in a van and sleeping on floors and eating McDonald’s because that’s all you can afford and just dealing with that world for so long and caring just as much about your music and wanting to reach an audience and not feel completely irrelevant. And then it sort of turned around for us around Satanic Panic [in the Attic] and Sunlandic Twins and Hissing Fauna [Are You the Destroyer?]. We sort of were able to pay our dues; I mean, we paid too many dues in a lot of ways because it can be kind of really traumatizing to live that life as long as we did it. But we did it because we’re so passionate about it, and I’m so passionate about making music. I’m just driven to do it; there’s no real reason for me to do it other than I just get so much fulfillment out of it and because my whole life is centered around that – the creative process. But I can’t really say why we’ve been successful. We could easily just be still just as unknown as we were in 1997. Luckily, thank God, something clicked, and people started paying attention.

You said, speaking with New Music Express, “Paralytic Stalks is different from my previous few albums, in that none of the songs were written from the perspective of a persona, all of the songs are directly inspired by my personal life and my psychic/emotional/spiritual state.” What was it this time around that allowed you to express without the need of a mask, especially considering you yourself said that you were going through a “really fucked-up period of mental anguish and self-hatred” during this time?

I think it was one of those situations where I just couldn’t even get into the state of mind where I could write from a persona. I guess it came to be a more therapeutic process. I was trying to redirect this really heavy, really intense depression, anxiety, psychosis, whatever you want to call it, into something more positive, and I couldn’t… I wasn’t in a light enough mood to even create a persona. It had to come directly from the core of my being. I think that usually when I write from persona I’m usually in a happier state of mind.

Why is that?

Maybe I’m feeling a bit friskier and more lighthearted. Most of my personas, all of the personas I’ve created, have been really kind of light and more positive figures.

ofmontreal Interview: of Montreals Kevin Barnes

So does that mean on this tour we won’t see Georgie Fruit?

[chuckles] Well, you know, I don’t think so. I don’t even know what that means, though. [chuckles] We’re definitely going to try… we’re definitely doing something different. It’s not going to be as glammy, or it’s not going to be what we were doing in the past. It’s not going to be like False Priest, the False Priest tour; it’s going to be different.

Regarding Georgie Fruit and his “history”, if you will, has there ever been any serious contention of actually doing an Arousal album?

Yeah. I think about it a lot actually. I’d have to be in the right state of mind.

Yeah, obviously to get into the character, and to do it right, it would definitely be a process, but I think that that would be an awesome side project.

Yeah. And I think that I have the right people to help me do it, too.

On many of the tours, you seemed reluctant to play older songs. Now, I understand most tours promote current releases, but do you have a personal expiration date as to when you play songs live? For example, is it too late now to hear “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal”? Is that too old of a song?

No, actually we’re going to play it on this next tour. But really it just comes down to if I still feel connected to it, personally connected to the song. Because a lot of stuff, a lot of the older stuff like The Gay Parade-Coquelicot-era stuff, even Aldhils and things like that… I just feel so disconnected from it. I feel like it’s almost a different person, and maybe I’ll come around; maybe in like 20 years I’ll be nostalgic for that time period and feel good about playing those songs. But now I feel just really charged and really excited about the present moment, and the things that I wrote eight or nine years ago I don’t really feel as excited about, so I don’t just want to get up there, and there’s only like a small handful of people anyways that would even recognize a Gay Parade song or care about it. They’d just be, “What the hell is this goofy song they’re playing?”

With the through-composition featured a lot on this album and how you were saying that you could have written these songs forever and they could have just gone on and on and on, will that be taken into account when you are playing it live? Will you allow for the freedom of the jam, if you will, to just take a song, or are you going to try and maintain some kind of control around that?

It’s hard to say where things will go once we’ve been on the road for a couple of weeks, but at least as a starting point, we’re sticking pretty much with the general arrangements of the record.

box with tapes Interview: of Montreals Kevin Barnes

In an interview with NPR, you revealed that the concept of the CD could be going the way of the 8-track in favor of mP3 downloads. With that in mind, what was the logic behind the Cassette Box?

It’s funny how things like cassettes have more value now just because, I guess, it’s a bit of a novelty or maybe it’s a nostalgic thing for people who grew up with cassettes. Or maybe it’s people who didn’t grow up with cassettes, so they have some sort of romanticism or whatever.

I still have crates of cassettes in my closet.

Yeah. The label that put out the cassette box, that’s what their thing is. They’re sort of a boutique label that does these limited runs, interesting packaging. It’s cool just to see all the records like that in cassette form; it’s really kind of cool. My brother designed the box. I met the guy who handmade all the boxes. For them, it’s like a total labor of love. They just want to do something; they just wanted to contribute something special to the world.

Since your brother is involved with a lot of the artwork, will he be involved with a lot of the visual aspects of the tour?

Yeah, he and my wife, Nina, the two of them are working on all the animation and all the visual content. And Nick Gould, who’s our video guy, the three of them are working 10-hour days. They’ve been working 10-hour days for the last month and a half or so just trying to create all the content and figure out all the logistics of it. It’s definitely a very ambitious endeavor, and we’re very excited about it. The music is very visual, I think, and so to create a corresponding element that will hopefully draw people in and make it a more engaging sensory experience.

I’m always impressed with how you make your music come alive. Off topic a little bit. How did the collaboration with Os Mutantes come together, and what was it like working with those guys?

I just worked with Sergio [Dias]. He was the only one that was really involved. I guess it came about because the compilation was pairing up Brazilian groups, like tropicalia groups mostly and indie artists that were inspired by them. I’m a huge Os Mutantes fan. I definitely think of their first three records as easily in the top 10 greatest records of all time, so it was really a great thrill to work with him. It wasn’t really… like I didn’t even meet him. I created the basic track and did everything. I did the vocals and stuff and then emailed it to him. He went into another studio and did the guitar solo. We did have a short email correspondence back and forth, which was very exciting, but as far as that goes, it didn’t go any further.

Any thoughts to throwing in an Os Mutantes song in your set?

It’s hard. I don’t speak Portuguese to sing their songs.

You produced Solange Knowles’ album, right?

You know, it’s funny. A lot of people are under that impression, but I don’t really know why. I haven’t produced really. I worked with her. We spent like 10 days at my studio working on some of her material. I think maybe she’s going to use some of the stuff that we worked with, but I am definitely not the official producer of anything. I kind of just helped her get her ideas out. I guess she’s working on her record now, but I really don’t know any of the details. It’s definitely an exaggeration to say that I produced her record.

I read a rumor that you may be working with Phoenix. Care to confirm or deny that?

That’s another false. I wish. I’d love to work with them.

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