For those concerned, Kevin Barnes sings with bizarre vibrato into his answering machine. The day I was originally scheduled to interview the eclectic Of Montreal frontman his phone was off, so that pre-recorded message was the only sound byte I was able to get. I didn’t mind, although it was rather anti-climactic, considering I’d been so anxious that I’d already downed a bottle of wine to calm my nerves. It was adorable.
Fortunately, I got over my fan-boyness and talked to Kevin the next day. And I was surprised to learn (along with some sexy tidbits about his dressing habits) that he’s had experience of his own in overcoming lack of confidence.
PopMatters: I told my girlfriend I was doing this interview, and the other day she said to me, “Oh I was watching the movie High Fidelity and I never noticed it before, but in one of the scenes in John Cusack’s character Rob’s apartment there’s this Of Montreal poster up on his wall,” and I was like, “Oh wow, I’ve never seen that either.” Did anybody come to you beforehand and say they were doing this, or was it just like you saw it one day and were like hey, that’s my band?
Kevin: Yeah, it was a shock. I was just going to see the movie and I was like, “Oh my god, you guys gotta check this out!” Yeah, it was really cool. It was one of those weird random surprises.
PM: So you guys are in L.A. right now?
KB: Yeah, we’re on our way to L.A.
PM: What’s the weirdest place you’ve been on this tour so far?
KB: Little Rock was pretty weird; that was the first time we ever played in Little Rock, Arkansas. That was interesting. We played in Hamilton, Ontario. [Laughs] That was pretty strange.
PM: What was strange about that?
KB: It’s just like a weird little town that I don’t think many bands play in. And so people were kinda like, “Oh I can’t believe you guys are here, this is so strange!” Like no bands ever go through there.
PM: I recently saw you play for the first time, this past February at the First Unitarian Church in Philly. Do you guys usually play smaller, less typical kinds of venues like that, I mean not necessarily designed for a show?
KB: I mean, like actually on this tour especially we’ve been playing bigger venues, like five or six hundred capacity venues and so it’s kind of like that middle ground, you know, not like really huge arenas but not like bars.
PM: It’s a great place to see a show, and not only did the songs from Sunlandic Twins translate really well to the live setting, you were also playing all the really dancey songs from Satanic Panic like “Rapture Rapes the Muses”, so it was so high energy instead of the typical indie-rock kids, arms crossed and just standing there; everybody was really going nuts and dancing. Has that been the reaction you’ve been getting on this tour, have people been opening up to that and just getting down?
KB: Yeah, definitely. That’s what we were hoping for. We didn’t really know if we were going to get it because, like you said, it is sort of atypical of an indie-rock audience to actually get involved in a show and actually… have fun [laughs], you know, so it’s been really wonderful in that way, realizing ok, people are having fun, and you get a lot back from the audience when people start dancing. You kind of feed on it the whole evening—that pushes it forward in a really good way.
PM: And that makes it more fun for you guys.
KB: Oh yeah, definitely, ‘cause I mean we’re having fun obviously on stage or we wouldn’t be doing it, but it makes it so much nicer and so much more exciting when you realize that people are having a good time.
PM: All around you put on a great show; you guys were doing little things like when you came out at the beginning you put on this weird, low, kinda psychedelic music, and you all came out in slow motion and were passing things to each other, and the costume changes ... do you guys script that stuff at all or is it more on the fly, like we’re just gonna have fun, go out there and see what happens?
KB: Yeah, a lot of it is very spontaneous and then some of it we kind of work out beforehand because we want to be theatrical, you know, we want it to be sort of exceptional, so it’s not just like you said, just like a rock show where people fold their arms. We want it to feel interactive and just be something special.
PM: You had that neon green poncho or whatever when you became like an MC for “Wraith Pinned to the Mist”—that was cool. Do you like dressing up onstage?
KB: It’s fun because I just play guitar in most of the songs, so it’s fun to take the guitar off, go backstage, put on a different outfit, just kinda keep it fresh.
PM: And move the crowd.
KB: Yeah. And it’s for short attention spans too, like I have a short attention span, so I like to do a lot of different things to keep it interesting for myself.
PM: Do you like dressing up out in everyday life?
KB: No, I’m pretty conservative in my everyday dress.
PM: What are you wearing now?
KB: Now I’m just wearing jeans and a shirt [laughs].
PM: Oh baby.
KB: Yeah, it’s hot.
PM: Do you guys ever use visual aids in your shows? It seems like it would definitely lend itself to the performance. I know you have in the past, but have you been doing that at all on this tour?
KB: Not on this tour. It was kind of difficult before when we were playing just regular clubs because there was no place to really put the camera and it was difficult to find a place to put the projection screen, so it was kind of more of a pain, it wasn’t really worth it. It was difficult to really get across what we were going for, so we just kind of abandoned that. But it’s definitely something we’d like to possibly do in the future, and a lot of people do with great success.
PM: Does your brother help put those together, since he does pretty much all the artwork for the albums?
KB: My wife does a lot also, but he does like 80% of the artwork. But yeah, he did actually make the film footage that we used at one point.
PM: I read something where you talked about the experience people get from seeing you guys live. You sort of compared your role to that of a house band, because you said people are coming out not just to see music but to drink and talk to their friends, the whole package. A couple weeks ago I saw Ryan Adams play in Philly and he sort of had this breakdown onstage. He came out after his set with the Cardinals and was trying to play acoustic, and he was just freaking out because there was this air conditioner humming in the background and people were talking, so he got all pissed off and called somebody a dickface, and then just played one more song with the Cardinals, poured some liquor on the stage and stormed off. Do you think that’s expecting too much from a crowd?
KB: Well, I mean clearly he’s sort of a prima donna. I mean, I guess it’s not really asking too much but you can’t expect to receive that sort of attention every single night, because it’s not like church; you want to go and you want to have fun and have some drinks, maybe meet a girl or a guy and talk to your friends or whatever, so it’s not like you need to go and kneel down at the altar of whoever the songwriter is. We don’t expect that. I mean, if we were playing a quiet song and people were talking it’d probably make it more challenging for us to get into it on a personal level, but we don’t necessarily expect everyone to totally do exactly what we want them to do because ... people are strange.
PM: [Laughs] Well, you guys were just creating a party atmosphere. Was that the intention when you recorded the album, did you want it to translate that way in the live show?
KB: Yeah, to some extent. I just started really having a lot of fun making these sort of like ... whatever you call them, like ... neo-disco, you know, like sort of dancey music that’s not totally innocuous, that still has a bit of sophistication to it. So definitely, I was hoping when we took it on tour people would actually move around and get down and have a good time. I wasn’t when I first started making the record like, “I need to make a record that will be a party album” or whatever; it was just what I was into at the time, just kind of what I wanted to do. But it definitely turned out really wonderful. Sort of a happy accident.
PM: You were saying you didn’t want it to be innocuous. There’s so much out there now, this whole New Wave revival or whatever that’s going on, a lot of bands trying to emulate that style. Was it in response to that at all, were you trying to say we can do this, too, but, like you said, add that bit of sophistication and make it a little bit more ... tangible?
KB: I think that to some degree I’m definitely influenced by my contemporaries. And I’m definitely a big fan of the stuff like Franz Ferdinand and LCD Soundsystem and funk, stuff like that. Yeah, so I’m sort of feeding off that but I also want to do it in my own way. I think our stuff kind of has more of like an Afrobeat influence or early Talking Heads influence or Prince influence, Queen. So we’re kind of drawing from different places, not necessarily Gang of Four and Public Image Ltd or whatever. We’re more influenced by Fela Kuti and Brian Eno, just different genres.
PM: I read something around the time Satanic Panic came out where you’re talking about the next record, and you were saying it was probably going to be less of a pop record and more of a long piece, and also more of a collaborative effort than Satanic Panic. So what prompted the shift in the opposite direction? I mean, Sunlandic is very much a pop record, and in the liner notes—you mentioned Prince earlier—you have his name crossed off and yours penciled in, sort of emphasizing that this was less of a collaborative effort.
KB: I don’t know, I think that at the time that’s what I really wanted to do. I still really want to make a record that is just ... I always think, ok, this record is going to be the way I [originally] described my vision for Sunlandic Twins, and then a lot of times I just lose confidence or something, and worry that people won’t get into it or they’ll think it’s just like some self-indulgent ego trip or something. So, I guess the problem is just lack of confidence. I do want to make a record that is just like really out there.
PM: More like Coquelicot?
KB: Yeah, but even less song-oriented. Just kind of like really fragmented—[Without a shred of irony, at this point in the interview I accidentally hung up on Kevin]
PM: Hello? [Precious. After some fidgeting around I redialed his number. Four rings later…]
PM: Hey, sorry about that.
KB: Hey, sorry, we’re driving through—
PM: No, it was my fault, I bumped the receiver.
KB: Oh, ok.
KB: [laughs] Yeah. Where did I lose you at in my rant?
PM: More fragmented…
KB: Yeah, I was just saying I really want to make a record like that and I sort of don’t have the confidence to do it, or I just worry that people might think it’s too self-indulgent. But I don’t know, I think I definitely will make a record like that at some point, if it’s not the next record then hopefully the next record after that. But I have a really strong idea for the record that will follow Sunlandic Twins.
PM: What is that?
KB: Well, right now I have like maybe seven or eight songs already written and demo-ed, and it’s a lot more personal lyrically, and it’s a little bit darker than Sunlandic Twins, maybe a little bit less buoyant and sunshiny.
PM: About the personal level, on Sunlandic it seemed like some of those songs were more personal, sort of harkening back to your early days before The Gay Parade, but in a buoyant way they were personal. Like the first song ... what does that actually stand for, “Requiem for o.m.m.2”?
KB: It stands for “Of Montreal Mach 2.” It’s sort of like the period of time when we were all living together and collaborating on everything. So it’s sort of like looking back at that time period and thinking things change, you have to move on. But it was a good time period and it’s really important in my life.
PM: I sort of took that as maybe signifying the end of your original, I guess, inspiration for forming the band [the name of the band is a reference to Kevin’s ex-girlfriend from Montreal], sort of like saying good-bye to all that and letting that go in a way.
KB: Yeah, to some degree, definitely. And with Satanic Panic and Sunlandic Twins I made those records by myself and sort of took the project over and took it over and took it in a new direction, so yeah, to a degree that’s true.
PM: I’ll only ask one more lyrical question. On “The Party’s Crashing Us” there’s this line that I always hone in on, when you say “You free me from the past / You fuck the suburbs out of me”, not because of the obvious use of the expletive but because ... like, I grew up in the suburbs, and when I was 16 I met this girl from the city and she was just so exotic to me at the time, and those lines express that feeling in a really good way for me. I just wanted to see what you were thinking when you wrote them.
KB: Yeah, they say the same thing. Like meeting my wife from Norway it was the same thing, this sort of exotic thing, just getting exposed to this other world, ‘cause when you live in the US and you don’t travel very much your world’s pretty small. So when we started traveling over to Europe and spending a lot of time in Norway it expanded my sense of the world in this really interesting way. So, yeah, it sort of picked me out of this boring world that I was existing in.
PM: Yeah, I can relate. Does having her in the band change your approach at all, does she give you more of the confidence you need to do what you want?
KB: Yeah, she definitely encourages me to get out there to be as creative as I can, push the limits—[from the background: “Stop talking about your sex life!”]
PM: Should we talk about that?
KB: No. [laughs] The peanut gallery.
PM: Other than Scarlet and Grey on “Death of a Shade of a Hue,” I mean they’re not really that fleshed out, but besides them why are there no characters on this record?
KB: Well, I kind of just decided that ... I just am sort of moving away from that style of writing, not for any specific reason, I just sort of wanted to make something that was a little bit more personal. The character thing, I was kind of just using that because I didn’t really want to share my personal life at that time.
PM: It made it easier to have that feeling coming from a character rather than yourself?
KB: Yeah, totally. It’s just sort of a way to hide behind something. The first couple records, we got some bad reviews that sort of affected me in a negative way. They were kind of putting my songwriting down, saying it was too personal or something. It just sort of felt like, “Oh man, I shouldn’t share anything with people because then they’ll step all over it.” That just made me insecure about it. But then like, you know, after a while I sort of matured and became stronger as a person, and now I’m not as affected by negative criticism.
PM: You used to take that stuff really to heart?
KB: Yeah, it would really offend me and really hurt me, because I spent so much time on something and put so much of my heart into it, and then for it to just sort of get dismissed just like that, it was devastating. I was like super-sensitive.
PM: It sounds like you’ve come a long way with that whole issue, though.
KB: Oh, yeah, definitely. It definitely helped meeting Nina, my wife, having her at my side. You become so much stronger when you have that support. It’s like well, if this person doesn’t like it, it doesn’t matter because I know I like it and my brother likes it and Nina likes it and the band likes it, so…
PM: Where do you think you’ll go from here? You said you have eight songs already; I’m not surprised since you come out with an album every 15 minutes. What’s the direction you’re taking this time?
KB: Well, it’s hard to say because when I was demo-ing the songs all I had was a laptop and like a mini-keyboard so the demos are like really super-synthy, and I don’t really want it to be that way, so I need to figure out arrangements and orchestrations. But I have the basic structure of the songs, and production of the song changes everything, so it’s hard to say really. It’s still sort of evolving in my head.
PM: This has become a full-time job for you now, making music, and you’re obviously very devoted to it since you’re so prolific. Did you ever have a day job when you were recording with Of Montreal?
KB: Oh, yeah, we all did. I was working at a video store for a long time, and I actually did just weird temp stuff and telemarketing and all sorts of non-committal, kind of crappy jobs. You can’t really get a serious good job and go on tour, you’d just lose it.
PM: Even though they were non-committal, did that make it difficult to be working all day in this menial capacity and come home and try to be creative? Was it hard to get the process going after that?
KB: Not really, because with the jobs that I did I was able to spend a lot of time with my head anyways, like it doesn’t really require much concentration when you work in a video store. The only thing, it was just a pain because it would interrupt the process, like I’d be working on recording something and I’d look at my watch and be like, “Shit, I gotta go to the video store!” So it just made it more time-consuming, it made it harder to make a record really quickly. But I’ve always been really focused because it’s pretty much the main thing I have, my main focus in life. So it’s not a matter of being distracted by the job because the job is just something I have to go to and deal with, but always I’m thinking about the music and the records.
PM: Are there any good videos I should rent?
KB: Yeah, there’s a million. That’s the one good thing about working at a video store, just getting exposed to all these awesome directors, and all the people that work there are like super into film.
PM: Everybody’s a pop culture addict.
KB: Yeah, totally.
PM: My friend wanted something to rent, specifically something you’d recommend.
KB: There’s this great Bertolucci movie called The Conformist, but it’s kind of maybe a little bit difficult to find, and there’s also a Polanski movie I really love called Cul-de-Sac. But yeah, there’s tons, I could rattle of like a thousand.
PM: So become friends with someone in a video store?
KB: Yeah, it’s important.
PM: Are you guys going to come back to Philly on this tour or are you wrapping it up after you’re done on the West Coast?
KB: We’re definitely coming back in August, late August.
PM: So it’s another leg coming up?
KB: Yeah, we’re going to do like another month starting the 24th of August. We’re going to go up the East Coast and Canada, across the Midwest and then we’re gonna go back and do CMJ. Then we’re actually going to Japan in the first part of October and then we’re gonna do Europe, so we’re gonna be touring for a long time.
PM: You guys have been to Japan before, right?
KB: Yeah, we went in 2001, I think.
PM: Do they appreciate you guys over there?
KB: Yeah, we did really great. We haven’t been over there in a while but it was amazing and crazy, people just freaking out, it was awesome.
PM: Screaming at you like you were Cheap Trick.
KB: [laughs] Yeah, exactly.