Of Montreal was one of the seminal bands of my adolescence, squeezing their way into my life shortly after my musical horizons broadened beyond Britney Spears and mainstream hip-hop, and before the psychedelic underpinnings of their sound was given, ahemm, substance. Satanic Panic in the Attic and Sunlandic Twins remain one of the best back-to-back release combos to exist in my life.
A fan for about ten years of their twenty year tenure, my fervor has waned in recent years. Still, with curiosity piqued by the new album Innocence Reaches, and with the tour closing in on its D.C. date at 9:30 Club, the opportunity to interview lead singer Kevin Barnes reinvigorated all the tingles. Even a semblance of impartiality is hard to come by here; I wanted this one badly.
Hoping I had the questions to highlight the man behind that boisterous stage persona, I found Kevin to be considerably more soft-spoken and unassuming, contemplative in most of his answers and far from crazy. I felt obliged to get the timely stuff out of the way, so we discussed Innocence Reaches and the tour, but we also talked nudity, Outback Steakhouse, and the stylistic merits of capitalization.
So I’ve been reading a little bit of the press about the new album here, everyone’s saying it’s the first time contemporary music has had a big influence on you, but mostly speaking in generalities. What kind of stuff in particular, songs, artists, really got you going?
Well to some extent, producers like Flume, Diplo, just basically contemporary electronic people like Holly Herndon for example. Just a lot of people I was listening to.
Why do you think that’s the first time that’s happened? Were you just naturally averse to anything current?
I mean, I wouldn’t even really say it’s the first time. To me it doesn’t feel that, I don’t know, I mean there’s definitely some contemporary influences but it’s still very eclectic. I’m pulling inspiration from so many different artists, different time periods, different musical styles. It’s not one of those records that feels like every song was made the same day. It definitely feels like a pretty just kind of bizarre collection.
I’ve heard a bit of push back on the album not being the same, which is kinda crazy to me, because there’s been 14 albums, like you said, very eclectic. But “it’s different for girls,” when you released the single, I was immediately swept back into my love for you guys. So is it that different? In what ways can it be seen as a departure?
We don’t ever really do anything that consistently so it’s not like we have one specific sound that has been consistent throughout our whole career. We’ve been making records for like 20 years now so you could point to different periods and say with this record, maybe it has some similarities to some moments on Sunlandic Twins or Hissing Fauna just because I was using drum machines and getting back into a bit of electronic music. But then there’s also song like “les chants de maldoror” and “gratuitous abysses” that feel kinda more like 70’s glam rock or something.
So it’s definitely kind of all over the place. And I know that makes it a difficult thing to consume, and difficult for a listener to really appreciate or understand, because people don’t make music like that very often. There aren’t that many bands that genre-hop as wildly as we do. So I kind of understand why people might potentially be confused by it or just not really know what to do with it.
Especially now, we’re sort of like in a playlist culture or playlist state of mind. Most people wanna just listen to one or two songs. I think it’s kind of funny that people even bother reviewing albums anymore because so few people really listen to a whole album anyways. So they could just focus on one or two songs that they like, and those are the ones people might listen to, and leave it at that.
Yeah I’m one of the few going the whole album route. Only had a couple play-throughs but I can definitely see similarities to the older stuff you pointed to. That bassline on “my fair lady” is reminiscent of “Gronlandic Edit” to me.
Yeah a little bit, having a really prominent bassline that sort of drives the song, you can see “Gronlandic Edit” or “Wraith Pinned to the Mist” also has that sort of thing.
I was an of Montreal fan before I was a fan of electronic music, but now I’m a huge fan of both. I feel like that progression is, for me at least, pretty logical. Maybe we all just like to dance?
I feel like with electronic music and dance music it’s exciting because it’s a new palette. It doesn’t sound dated. It sounds new. It sounds futuristic, refreshing. That’s one thing that appeals to me about it. Just working with a new sonic landscape and making something that doesn’t necessarily feel retro or backwards-leaning. Trying to make something that’s within this time period, or semi-futuristic, or could potentially lead to something new and different.
I was listening to Lysergic Bliss which is one of my favorite songs of all time, and I was like…I could see how I went from listening to your stuff to electronic music, because that vibe is still there.
Definitely. I think with this record too, I was thinking a lot about just how music nowadays, with technology and speaker systems, the fact that you can have a lot more sub bass and a wider spectrum for audio in your mixing. So thinking about wanting to create something that feels very full. It’s really very hard to compete with mainstream pop because those records sound so incredible. But you can get kind of close even if you never went to school for it or whatever. You can just teach yourself or use your intuitive ability to create something that can be listened to next to a Rihanna track or a Drake track.
So fourteen albums, never more than a year or two between releases, almost exclusively written and arranged by you. So how is that work rate even possible?
Well it’s not really that crazy if you compare it to people like Prince or Bowie or even like, Guided by Voices. There’s so many people that were more productive, and better, so I don’t think it’s impressive at all. If anything, thinking about it like, “Woah. Twenty years and only 14 albums? That’s actually pretty pathetic.”
Oh. Okay. I see that side too. Just sounds like you’re not giving yourself enough credit.
Maybe, but who needs to give themselves credit?
True. And Bowie is Bowie, Prince is Prince, there’s that.
More generally then, like who are you? Are you actually of this planet? Some sort of androgynous superhero alien? Or are you actually quite normal?
Honestly, I’m extremely normal. I’m terribly boring, actually. I’m flipping through a Helmut Newton book of photography.
Do you ever get tired? You said fourteen albums ain’t that hard to do over twenty years.
Nope. Never tired. If anything I feel like I need to be working more, focusing more. It’s hard. It’s weird. It’s kind of mystical in a way how the creative process works. I feel like I never do anything, or I’m never working, but then I do occasionally produce something or make a song, or make an album. For some reason in my head when I think about myself and what I do on a daily basis, I feel like I’m just floating all the time, never really accomplishing anything. So I don’t know, but I guess I have done some stuff.
So on this album, all of the tracks are uncapitalized. And am I supposed to really leave the O in of Montreal uncapitalized? Why you tryna wreak havoc on my OCD like that?
Haha. Well that’s just sort of an aesthetic thing for me, I like the way it looks. For some reason when the O is upper case, it seems sort of obese, y’know? It doesn’t look balanced. It looks like it’s going to topple over. For some reason when the O is lower case, I like the way it feels better. I like the way it looks. I guess I do have a connection between the visual side and the literal side.
Does it bother you, then, when it gets capitalized? Like if you Google it…
Yeah it annoys me for sure. If all the letters were capitalized or all the letters were lower case then it’d be fine. But I hate seeing the O and the M capitalized.
Several years ago I read an article where you said you wanted to play a show completely nude. Have you gotten to do that yet?
No, I’ve only done the one show in Las Vegas where I was nude for a couple of songs. But even then I had a cummerbund on so I wasn’t completely nude.
In terms of artistic expression, what’s the significance behind that?
Really that was just something I thought about because as an artist, as a performer, you do sort of strip yourself bare or just make yourself so vulnerable anyways. So why not go all the way with it? I feel like it could be very therapeutic to make yourself completely vulnerable, completely expose yourself on every level. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually. All of it. It’s sort of like a purge.
On that note, how have your live shows developed over the years?
They’re sort of different every time. This tour is gonna be very theatrical and we’ve done months and months of pre-production work and everyone caught the bug again. We’ve had definitely a strong visual element to what we’ve been doing over the last couple years, but we swept away a little from mapping things out before and scripting things beforehand. I guess the last time we did it was the False Priest tour which was four or five years ago, as far as creating new props and coming up with new ideas just for this tour that correspond with the music.
We’re sort of approaching it almost like musical theater. It’ll be fairly consistent night to night. Everyone will have their cues and costume changes and persona changes and it’ll all be very planned out. So it’s not at all random. Everything has been sort of scripted down to the second. So that’s going to be really exciting, and fun, and challenging for us.
The musical side of things will be interesting too because we’re doing a lot of medley-style versions of songs. We’ll do like a verse and chorus of one song that leads into a verse and chorus of another song. A lot of the songs will be full songs, but a lot will be edited together, collaged together. So that’s different. The whole thing flows almost like a through composition where there’s never a moment where it stops and we sort of break character and, “Hey, how you guys doing? Having a good time tonight?” None of that shit. It’s just gonna be presented like a full piece of work. Almost like a movie, almost like a play.
Does that mean the setlist is presented in the same order as well across every show?
Yeah, so it’ll be like if you went to go see Rocky Horror Picture Show or something. It’s always gonna be in the same sequence, and of course, it’s gonna be open to experimentation. We can talk about how different theatrical things worked or didn’t work. Maybe I’ll try a different costume change at a different moment. But musically it’ll probably be pretty consistent night to night. It sort of has to be if you’re going to hit all those cues. Because everything has been so planned out, so if you were to just mess with that, the whole structure would collapse.
Do you think of it almost like a movie? What with like Beyonce’s Lemonade and Frank Ocean doing the whole extended music videos, the performance aspect of music is so huge now, is that the way you think of it?
Yeah, I mean, it’s something we’ve been doing for a really long time so definitely has nothing to do with Beyonce or Frank Ocean, but it’s sort of in that vein, as far as wanting to think beyond just the songs as individual compositions, but think of them as part of a greater whole. When you go on stage and you have another layer to work with, the visual side of things, and wanting to enhance the music through the visuals, you can accomplish something much deeper, much more engaging and transportive than if someone just closed their eyes and had their headphones on and was listening to the record.
So over the past twenty years, what are you most proud of?
Hmm…pride. I guess I don’t really think about that. I mean, I’m proud that we have been able to keep at it as long as we have, and stay engaged and excited and motivated and positive. Like we’ve never really taken much time off and it’s been a pretty wild ride, a pretty wild adventure, and doesn’t seem to be slowing down at all, so I feel good about that.
Hmm…so not the Outback Steakhouse commercial then?
Uhh, what do you mean?
So you’re not most proud of that? (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that this prototypical “sell-out” moment wasn’t one of my favorites. But I think he knew what I meant.)
Ohh. No. Not most proud of that. But that was a part of the learning experience because everything that’s happened, this whole trip, I’ve learned from it. Even if certain things were not the way I would’ve scripted it, it sort of was what it was, and I experienced it, learned from it and moved on.
Yeah, that’s about it for me man. Any thoughts on Donald Trump?
Haha yeah, a whole lot of thoughts. I don’t even know where we would begin with that. It’d be like another hour conversation.
We didn’t have the extra hour. Maybe we’ll resume when of Montreal hits 9:30 Club Wednesday, September 7. Innocence Reaches is out now on Polyvinyl Records.