Of Montreal

It's one man's band

by Walter Tunis

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

28 May 2010

Photo: Zach Schwartz 

It is perhaps the antithesis of the everyday rock band design.

Onstage, the Athens, Ga., collective known as Of Montreal revels in a vibrant indie sound rich in retro pop, ‘80s flavored pop-soul and a touch of dance-happy funk with songs that think nothing of shifting rhythmic and/or stylistic course multiple times.

On record, though, Of Montreal is a band of one. Its albums are the self-fulfilled vision of Kevin Barnes. He writes, records and produces (at least, until now) all of the music the rest of the band enacts onstage.

If you happen to be one of those mercenary musicians, as guitarist Bryan Poole has been on and off since Barnes formed Of Montreal in 1996, you learn to live with the separation that comes from being involved in only half of a band’s creative function. That doesn’t necessarily mean you like the situation. But you accept it.

“It’s Kevin’s thing,” said Poole. “It’s his band as far as the creativity end of it goes, which I have to say I’m not exactly all that excited about sometimes. But he has his way of working.

“You really could describe Kevin as somebody like Prince. He can play everything and view everything all on his own. I mean, I will get an e-mail with a song from him at 5:30 in the morning sometimes. I’ll listen to it, and it will just be amazing. It will be so fully formed. So I kind of understand where he’s coming from. There’s a kind of magic when you’ve done it all yourself.”

One might think such a recording process would shift when Jon Brion was recruited to produce Of Montreal’s forthcoming album “False Priest.” Brion’s previous clients include Spoon, Rhett Miller, Fiona Apple, Brad Mehldau, Rufus Wainwright and Robyn Hitchcock. So bringing in the big production brass meant Of Montreal became more of a band project when recording sessions began in Los Angeles, right?

Well, no.

“Kevin still recorded the whole thing himself,” Poole said. “He is basically mixing it with Jon Brion. Jon has been going through and helping create more space in the recordings and has been kind of livening up the songs by putting them through some amazing analog gear. That helps hone the songs, too, because Kevin can come up with a million ideas for them.”

Poole said the basic musical ingredients aren’t that different on “False Priest” than on past Of Montreal recordings such as 2008’s “Skeletal Lamping.” There, Barnes references the sleek vocal swell that was a calling card of the Beach Boys (on “Jimmy”), Prince’s one-man-band party soul (“Gallery Piece”) and even a touch of Rolling Stones swagger filtered through post-grunge pop (“And I’ve Seen a Bloody Shadow”). Yet the very singular assembly of such inspirations can’t help but create a hybrid sound of Barnes’ own design.

“The new record continues on the same arc as Kevin’s past songwriting,” Poole said. “It’s still full of soulful, funky kinds of things. It might lean a little more to R&B-type soul than Prince. But it’s all mixed together. Early influences like The Beach Boys, The Kinks and psychedelic bands like The Pretty Things are still there, especially in the harmonies. I mean, if it weren’t for the Beach Boys, Kevin would never have found the kinds of harmonies we have.”

But what of the next step, the one that calls on Poole, keyboardist Dottie Alexander, drummer Davey Pierce and multiinstrumentalist James Huggins so Of Montreal can become a living, breathing touring band? How do four other musicians key into a recorded vision they had little or nothing to do with in order to bring the music to the stage?

“Because Kevin has so many ideas crammed into his recordings, it’s our job to break them down into something we can pull off live,” Poole said. “We used to use a lot of computer backing. But that kind of locked us into this grid of basically playing to a prerecorded backing track. Since the first of this year, we jettisoned that, which is a big relief for me.

“We feel more like a real band now. I know Kevin just wants us to be a band that can express itself in a lot of different contexts rather than getting locked into the same thing. There are spaces for our expression now, room for the rest of us to put our imprint on the music.”

Topics: of montreal
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