Guitarist-vocalist Bryan Poole has worked closely with Of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes for more than a decade. But it wasn’t until last year that he felt he had a real clue why Barnes would often compose and complete songs and albums with almost no input from other members of the band.
“I found out sitting next to him on an airplane that he never had real friends until he was 10 or 11 years old, people he could watch cartoons with or roughhouse with,” says Poole just hours before Of Montreal is to play at Oberlin College in Ohio.
“He had to create his own playland. He had to make up characters to keep himself entertained. He was able to explore his mind. To me, that’s a really great insight, and he just offered it up.”
Poole, who also has been part of pop experimenters Elf Power and The Olivia Tremor Control, admits that Athens, Ga.-based Of Montreal has had its “ups and downs and periods of drifting,” partly because of the way Barnes works. “But Kevin is kind of like Prince,” says Poole with admiration. “He can play and do everything himself, and he never has writers block.”
So although Of Montreal is still officially touring behind its fascinating late January release, “Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?,” a dizzying, autobiographical account of a crumbling psyche that Barnes recorded virtually by himself while living in Norway and Athens, Ga., the band already is shifting gears.
Barnes, Poole, drummer-keyboardist-trumpeter James Huggins, keyboardist Dottie Alexander and bassist Davey Pierce are already playing several new tunes that will be part of the band’s next CD.
Poole offers a few song titles and brief commentary:
“Our Last Summer as Independents”: “Lyrically, it’s pretty straightforward. The music is influenced by the current Swedish pop bands, Belle & Sebastian and The Cure.”
“Georgie’s Confession”: “Georgie Fruit is one of Kevin’s creations, one of his alter-egos. He’s a 50-year-old black she-male who has been in and out of prison. He loves Prince and all that older soul stuff, like Sly and the Family Stone, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Funkadelic. He always tells it like it is.
“He turned up on a couple of `Hissing Fauna’ tracks, including `Faberge Falls for Shuggie’ (which is sung in an unnerving falsetto).”
“Softcore”: “That’s another Georgie Fruit song. (Sings) `We can do it softcore if you want/We can do it both ways’ ... It has a weird pop edge to it, but it’s definitely funky with a lot of cool harmonies that (sound like) Prince, Bowie, whatever.”
“Mingusing”: “It’s got some different sections. It’s not dour or nihilistic - or necessarily by Georgie Fruit.”
Poole says that because of the personal nature of the material on “Hissing,” Barnes has a hard time performing it live. Barnes’ inspiration for the record was a self-described “insane year” he spent with his pregnant wife in her native Norway to take advantage of the country’s health-care benefits, his subsequent culture shock and problems after the birth of their daughter that almost sundered the marriage.
Thus, “Hissing’s” exuberant-sounding, Human League-tinged “A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger” has been sidestepped on this tour, and the 12-minute space-pop epic “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal” has been played just once because it puts Poole and Barnes “in a negative head space.”
Poole notes he has lobbied for the song “No Conclusion,” but that it, too, has remained absent from the set list. “`No Conclusion’ is a 10-minute song on an EP (`Icons, Abstract Thee’) we put out as a companion record to `Hissing,’” explains Poole. “It’s awesome and it rocks.
“But when it came time to tour, Kevin said, `I can’t do it.’ He couldn’t sing the lyrics. They were too depressing, with no hope. I can understand, because the songs were a purging of all these things ... a terrible awfulness that exploded out of him.”
Poole, 37, was born and reared in Nashville, Tenn. “Chet Atkins babysat me one afternoon when my mom was cutting radio commercials and voiceovers,” he says. “I was like, 2 years old at the time.”
Poole remembers “always liking music,” although he preferred the late `70s and early `80s funk his sister listened to over the Frank Zappa and Chick Corea albums favored by his brother.
Eventually he discovered punk rock. “The Dead Kennedys were the first band I really liked, and toward the end of high school I wanted to start a band,” he says.
So he moved to Athens “and started playing and playing and playing.” After a time became part of Elephant 6, a musicians collective that would spawn such well-regarded indie bands as The Apples in Stereo, The Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel and, of course, Of Montreal.
“I met Kevin in 1995, or early 1996,” says Poole, who was then a member of Elf Power. “He had come to town from Florida a few times before to find like-minded musicians to play with.
“A friend told me about him and said, `You two would get along.’ That he was already signed to a record label (Bar None) piqued my interest. And after I heard his demo tape, Kevin and I started hanging out.”