Kevin Barnes’ Monolithic Egress: An Interview with of Montreal

Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes explains why it's OK to make music that's ugly, why he loves Os Mutantes, and why he can't recreate his most hated song ever.
Of Montreal
Aureate Gloom

Kevin Barnes, leader of Of Montreal, creates some of the most complicated pop music around, and sometimes people complain about this.

Even his most accessible songs may sport titles like “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse” (hint: it helps if you know Kevin’s life story and a little Norwegian), but he’s got an arguably unmatched ability to take mold wildly creative chord progressions and song structures into catchy tunes. So why would someone who could write perfect pop hits choose not to do so?

Over the course of a wide-ranging conversation at the time of the release of his latest album, Aureate Gloom, Barnes offered a robust defense of his approach to art. Initially skeptical, soon I found myself sharing his frustration at the mundane, the repetitive, the derivative nature of so many pop songs. Barnes wishes to make emotionally deep music that reflects the fragmented nature of real experience, and this is a battle worth fighting.

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How did you find yourself using chord progressions and chords that aren’t usually used in pop songs?

I guess I just had an interest in jazz chords from an early age. I saw some videos of guys playing the guitar in the ’20s and ’30s and liked the way their fingers looked playing those chords and wondered what they were, because they obviously weren’t traditional bar chords or singer-songwriter chords. They were more complex and sophisticated. I was drawn to that and went kind of nutty on it, and our first couple of records are very chordy. There’s 40 different chords in every song and they’re all over the place, but I just became enamored with that style of writing. I didn’t have access to music teachers or anything like that. I just had to figure it out just being curious and exploring things and experimenting.

When you first started writing songs, did you have friends or people that you wrote with or talked to that knew the things that you do or were you the one person in the room who said, “Hey! Let’s try out a ninth chord! An augmented chord!”

Early on, there was nobody that was interested in those chords. People thought I was crazy. It took a long time to find people that would follow my chord progressions and make sense of my fragmented way of writing songs.

You’ve gone back and forth between writing songs that repeat the choruses in a conventional way and songs that go from section to section and don’t have that progression toward the catchy chorus.

Often I feel like I want to write a great pop song, and so I’ll incorporate some of the cliches of repetition that you have in pop songs, because I do enjoy a well-written pop song and it’s a fun challenge. But sometimes I feel like, why is everything so formulaic? I don’t have to follow any rules if I don’t want to. I can make a song that has no repeating parts and that feels more in line with real life, where things can be fragmented and have no resolution. I like the collage style of writing because it’s very free. You can change keys, change styles, change tempos at any moment. It’s fun to write that way.

When you put it that way, it makes a lot of sense. Real life doesn’t follow this proper narrative arc. But you can do that in art. You can make art where things have this satisfying narrative and structure that makes perfect sense. But you don’t have to do that. You can create this fragmented experience.

It’s more liberating to not have any sort of boundaries or restrictions, to not even give a shit what the listener’s experience is going to be. Just do it in a way that’s gratifying and fulfilling for yourself!

I know that a lot of things I write will never be appreciated because people have small minds about what a song is. Some people aren’t excited about exploring all the possibilities of music. Lots of people just want a song to be a song. They want a chorus to repeat. They want it to end in a way that makes sense. There want there to be a logic to it.

Yeah, it’s harder to grasp a song with six different sections, where you can’t always remember what came after what. It’s harder to get it into your head in one piece, to get that coherent grasp the mind seems to crave.

Yeah, but I like that kind of song. I love Os Mutantes for that reason. Often you don’t even know if it’s the same song. You say it’s the same song because it’s in the same groove, even though they wrote four different songs. It’s fun to experiment with that, to basically write four different songs and say, no, it’s one song.

I was thinking about them and more psychedelic bands, like Pink Floyd in their first album. Then there are songs that have different sections but try for a symphonic unity, like Bohemian Rhapsody.

It’s funny because in classical music, in instrumental music, there really are no rules. But for some reason in pop music people are like, it’s one song with four different sections: how pretentious! But how is it pretentious? You wouldn’t say it was pretentious in the classical world. For some reason people have this hangup about pop music having to be simple, and if you’re trying too hard then it’s a bad thing. But people should be trying too hard. They should be trying really hard to create something special and exceptional

I feel like in general people are super lazy. In pop music, indie rock, and hip-hop, everything is following this archetype that someone else has established. Of course it’s easier to live within those parameters and not take chances. The more you challenge people, the more hate you receive. I don’t know why. It should be the opposite.

I taught college classes for a couple of years, and I’d introduce the students to contemporary classical music, even things from a hundred years ago like Schoenberg. And they had this visceral, strong angry reaction. They were upset that this existed.

It’s very strange because if I hear something that seems jarring and complex and challenging, my first reaction wouldn’t be, “I want to kill this thing. I want to set it on fire.” I would be drawn to it, because most things don’t touch me at all. Most things are so benign and pointless, and you wonder, why does this thing even exist? It’s things that bring out strong emotions that have value.

I guess people seem to like music that gives them either an easy emotional reaction or a comfortable ambiance. So you hear Top 40 music, and it’s surprising how some of these songs have the same chord progressions, even the same lyrics. And that doesn’t really hurt them.

It’s weird. It’s kind of maddening. I am such a freak about chord progressions that I can’t listen to mainstream radio. So, what’s the pattern here? All right, there’s four chords, and those are going to be the four chords they use in the whole song.

I’ve heard the whole song now in 20 seconds. I can now turn the radio off!

Yeah, pretty much. There are no surprises, really. Some things in contemporary production, I find interesting and exciting because I couldn’t do it myself. Some of the sounds they get are kind of wild, these creatures that were invented and now they walk the earth. But you really have to turn off the part of your brain that is trying to become engaged on an intellectual level because there is no intellectual level. It’s completely visceral and mindless.

It’s funny, what you were saying about people reacting negatively. When you read an album review, the people aren’t really digesting the music, they’re not becoming emotionally invested at all. It’s very much a surface experience for most journalists. They put a record on and think, “How does it make me feel?” They don’t think, “Musically, is this special? What’s happening here musically? What’s happening in the chord progression, arrangements, orchestration, lyrics?” It’s just, “How does this make me feel right now?” A lot of times you read a review and you think, “This person’s so grumpy.”

Before, you were talking about classical music, and I mentioned the music of the last 100 years. Do you know 20th-century classical music?

I went through a phase a couple of years ago where I was very much into Schnittke and Ligeti and Penderecki (all the “i” names) and Charles Ives, and I did incorporate that. Paralytic Stalks has a lot of the wilder side of 20th-century classical music, with dissonance and tension and extended instrumental moments that were intended to be very jarring and emotionally complex. I wrote a song, “Exorcismic Breeding Knife”, which is one of my most hated songs. There’s probably like five people in the world that can see any value in it. I really like it a lot because I think it’s symbolic of my psyche, my life experience. Of course it’s ugly and terrible and strangely beautiful at the same time.

I think that reflects an experience of life. But it hasn’t been a hit with the fans and the critics?  

No, everyone pretty much hated it, and it’s an impossible song to perform live anyway.

If it encapsulates a sense of yourself and it was a challenge, it seems like it was a worthwhile thing that people might come to appreciate at some point.

Yeah, I think that the few people who do appreciate it appreciate it on a deeper level.

Is that more exciting, when someone can get a song that’s not a simple song, that’s got more of you in it?

Definitely. If you make something that’s very accessible and people like it, it’s not that rewarding. If you make something that you think is kind of ugly or strange, and you’re not really even sure how you feel about it, and someone else can see the beauty in it, then it’s exciting.

It’s a true accomplishment, a thing that no one else would have made. And they got it for the right reasons.

Yeah. But that’s not to say that I don’t listen to the Beatles all the time. I’m not always listening to Harry Partch or trying to find something that is completely esoteric and atonal. I still love pop melodies, and I still love catchy songs too.

The Beatles are a fascinating case. For seven years, they tried some pretty outlandish experiments that seemed to still work as pop songs.

Yeah, definitely. But their level of experimentation, even though it was very adventurous for the time, like you said, it’s really not that far out. It’s still very much within the box of pop, with the exception of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, which is a pretty out-there composition, and “Revolution #9” of course. Even Sgt. Pepper’s is supposed to be so experimental, but it’s pretty much a straight pop record. People hadn’t really heard Frank Zappa or White Noise or things that were truly experimental. And so the Beatles were this super-mainstream thing that was showing the masses, yeah, this is what you can do.

Also, they lucked out that it didn’t destroy them like for the Beach Boys. If they would have put out Smile, it might have destroyed them even more than whatever happened.

I wonder if Smile would have been appreciated by anybody or just dismissed as the ramblings of a crazy person.

I think that if Smile would have come out around the time of Sgt. Pepper’s, then it would have been probably hailed as a masterpiece. It was a really strange period of time where Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Sgt. Pepper’s were coming out that were more experimental. And people were somehow open to it; it wasn’t something that would ruin someone’s career. Everybody wanted to make their Sgt. Pepper’s. It became a really exciting period of time for music as an art form. I think that Smile actually would have blown everyone’s mind and probably would have made Sgt. Pepper’s look ridiculous. In 20 years, people would say, “We should make our Smile” instead of “We should make our Sgt. Pepper’s.”

There’s a wonderful progression I’ve never heard before in a punk song on your new album called “Chthonian Dirge”. You use an augmented chord there. And no one ever uses augmented chords in pop music, especially not punk bands. But the augmented chord sounds very punk to me in this context. I’m wondering how that came to you, to use that very thorny sound. [sings main riff]

I do use a lot of augmented chords. I just like the way they sound. That’s the interesting thing: if the attitude is in place, and some of the other complementary instruments are in place, then you can play whatever chord you want. The early punk, like Television and The Voidoids, is actually pretty sophisticated musically. It’s not power chords like punk became.

The Ramones won the war, basically.

Yeah. I was reading Richard Hell’s autobiography, and he was talking about how The Ramones and Blondie were like these novelty bands, and nobody on the scene thought of them as defining the movement. They were the bubblegum version, and everyone was so surprised that they became the most well-known bands. The Ramones are musically more recognizable than Television, even though musicians will always go to Television and be knocked out by the guitar parts and the lyrics. Whereas the Ramones are just the Smurf version.

I wish that Television and Talking Heads had become the ones that a thousand bands imitated. But I guess it was easier to imitate the Ramones because you didn’t have to try quite as hard. I wish I didn’t have to watch so many punk bands copy the Ramones and not do it as well as the Ramones.

You really didn’t have to be as talented, to practice or be as inspired. It’s easy to play a three-chord song about sniffing glue. Anybody can do it!

I can’t really think of any song that has a chord progression that doesn’t work. You can say, “I wish they used a minor there.” In general, every chord progression works and you can’t make a mistake. The only mistake is being boring or predictable. You can make anything work. Anything’s possible and there’s no rules.

I’ve heard bands that try to get really far out there and use strange chord progressions, and I feel like sometimes they don’t fit. They make the song lose energy. But I agree they could have worked with a better tune that smoothed over the chord progression or made it make sense in the song.

Yeah, but our concept as the listener is going to be different. You might think, “Oh, you didn’t make it work”. But that’s just your opinion. For them, they might be like, “That’s the most beautiful chord progression that I’ve ever written, and I love it.” And I feel like that happens to me a lot, where people criticize something as if it’s fact. But it’s not fact. It’s just their opinion. You know, “Where Kevin Barnes fails, blah blah blah blah blah.” Like, no. There’s no failure.

It’s not mathematics! Especially in contemporary art or contemporary music, it’s the composer’s choice.

Yeah, totally. And if someone else doesn’t like it, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong or a failure. They just didn’t like it.