Regarding of Montreal’s latest record, White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood, Kevin Barnes cites two major life events at the helm of his inspiration – simulation hypothesis paranoia, and L-O-V-E. I was able to hop on the phone to him on Tuesday morning to talk about the LP; during our conversation, we somewhat skirted the aforementioned simulation hypothesis issue (a bit too heavy for AM banter), but we did talk about the magic of extended eighties mixes and how they played a role in this latest track list, as well as about how perceptions can change over the course of a release cycle, how to keep calm and carry on in this political climate and MORE! Internet-eavesdrop on our full chat below, grab a copy of the album, and catch of Montreal live at DC’s 9:30 Club on Sunday (3.25), NYC’s Knockdown Center on Tuesday (3.27) and/or Chicago’s Thalia Hall on 4.5!
You’ve said that simulation hypothesis was a significant source of inspiration in the making of White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood. When did you really get into learning about that? It’s something I personally think is very interesting; a lot of the ideas start to make more sense to me as the rest of the world increasingly makes less.
[Laughs] Yeah, well, to be honest I find it really upsetting, so I actually try not to think about it. I’ve tried to flip my perception of things, because it has sort of a nefarious quality to it, right? If you think about everything being totally unreal and being controlled by some outside alien force, it makes life feel really creepy. It’s not a comforting thought, really, so I’ve decided to change my view of things now, and think of there being synchronicity in an interesting way, rather than thinking about someone behind the curtain that’s just toying with us.
Yeah, I get that. It’s a little paralyzing to imagine a sort of futurist version of Calvinism, or predestination, you know? But anyway, I also read an interview you did a little while back where the predominant theme of the questions was death and the afterlife, and the interviewer asked what you thought those things would entail. You mentioned that at one time you felt that all life energy would be recycled back into the universe, but that your feelings had shifted towards the idea that maybe nothingness was more realistic. Have your perceptions changed at all in the year or so since that Q+A ran?
Well, sometimes I feel like death doesn’t actually…I mean, because if you get into the simulated reality thing, then it makes death seem like something completely different from the way I viewed it as a child, or even within the last ten years, you know? It’s almost like being decommissioned or something, you know what I mean? [Laughs] It’s like, “Okay, you’re not on the grid anymore. You’ve been decommissioned. You’ve been erased from the functions of reality,” or whatever. I’d rather think of it as the transfer of energy. I’m sort of in a transitional period. I’m rethinking about a lot of things, so it’s a weird time to be asked questions like that, because I haven’t really formulated my view of it, necessarily.
That’s fair. Do you feel that state of flux affects the way you relate to this latest collection of songs now that the record has come out? Is there a disconnect with some of the words or sounds?
On some level there always is, because when I’m writing it I’m so deeply immersed in the creative process. But you also have to factor in whatever’s going on in my mind at the time of making the record, and just the nature of existence after a couple of months – you change your perceptions about certain things, and so you kind of get to sort of evolve and change, and sometimes that’s not reflective of where you’re at by the time the album comes out. It usually takes about five or six months for a record to come out, and you definitely go through different thought processes in the meantime. So this record is reflective of where I was six months ago, but not necessarily reflective of where I’m at right now.
Cool. Now, I know you did some remote collaborations on this record, which was (and correct me if I’m wrong) a bit of a shift from the more live-band-in-the-room vibe of previous albums. How did you find that process to be?
Well, I wanted to work a lot by myself, and construct the majority of the arrangements and all that by myself, but I reached a point where it felt too homogeneous, and like all the ideas were coming from one place, and I felt that it’d be cooler to have some other people contribute ideas, to help create something new that I wouldn’t be able to. That’s the thing – when you work alone, you just sort of have your own methods, and your own ways of constructing harmonies, layering instrumentation and things like that, but it’s cooler to have other people whose ideas you really love contribute as well, and to transform it into something much cooler than I would’ve been able to by myself. The nature of how I work is very laborious, and I get into that zone to the point that it becomes a very meditative process for me – I lose track of time and space, and I’ll spend hours and hours and hours working on something. It’s very fulfilling to work that way, but at the same time, I do like having other people’s input and ideas on the songs. So it’s sort of the best of both worlds to be able to do a lot on my own, and not have to necessarily be in the room with somebody to have them be able to contribute to it. Especially someone who’s in another place, like Zac Colwell, who contributed a lot to the record, and who lives in New York. I was in Athens, GA, so it’s just really cool that I could email him the songs, he could add parts and email them back to me, and then I could put them into the project and work that way.
So tell me about how you work when you are just by yourself. Is there any sort of ideal environment that you find you have an easier time getting things done? Or is it always fairly sporadic in terms of when and how you’re able to work on your ideas?
It’s pretty sporadic, but usually once I get into the groove of working on a record, it’s sort of all-consuming. I go to bed thinking about it, wake up thinking about it, and then work on it all day. I have a home studio, so I have the luxury of not worrying about paying for studio time or anything like that. I can just totally immerse myself in the process of creation, and just sort of live and breathe it for a couple of months.
Are there any drawbacks to that? Does having the extra level of freedom make it more difficult to know when something is truly finished?
I’ve never really had that much of a problem completing things, because I guess I’m not really a perfectionist. I get to a point where I feel like…well, I mean, maybe on some level it’s difficult to know when to stop, because there are so many ideas and options and ways that you could produce a song or arrange a song. I just go through so many different ideas until I get to the point where it feels good, and then I say, “Okay, I never want to hear this again.” [Laughs] It’s really fun and fulfilling while I’m making it, but then I always get to a point where I’m just kind of done with it, and I want to do something new.
Well that’s a pretty good thing to have as a musician, that’s for sure. Alright, I’m also super interested to hear about how extended mixes of the eighties played a role in the dual titling of the tracks on this record. Were you listening to a bunch of 12-inches at the time or something, and that’s what inspired you? And if so, may I ask which one(s) you were playing when the idea hit?
I was listening to the extended versions of a bunch of the songs that are on Purple Rain, like “Computer Blue”, for example. Growing up I heard Purple Rain a million times, but in the last couple of years, I realized there are these extended versions of the songs that he edited down for the record. Hearing the extended versions and all the extra parts I’d never heard before was really inspiring; I realized you could take the song and it could be three minutes or whatever, but then if you extended it, used some of the elements of that three minute song and made it a six minute song or an eight minute song or whatever, it was just a really fun challenge. I tried to figure out a way to extend the songs in a way that felt cohesive, so that all the parts sort of went together, but so that it felt like it was moving in a way that was organic, and felt like an evolution from the original idea or top part of the song that could be extended into something engaging.
That’s rad! And you certainly had some room to voice a variety of topical issues of the moment as far as narrative goes on these tracks, which I think is really cool. I guess thinking about that in the larger sense, how have you been dealing with the current political climate, and the state of the world in general? I think that’s a question that a lot of us are trying to navigate right now, so I’m always interested to pick others’ brains when it comes to keeping calm and carrying on.
It’s definitely been a very educational experience for me. I think that as horrible as the political climate is right now, I can see that there are some positives in that it’s woken a lot of people up, has shaken us up in ways that might not have happened had Hillary been elected. It’s brought a lot of things to the surface that maybe we didn’t want to acknowledge or accept about contemporary society, and I think shaking things up on that level and bringing darker aspects to the surface could potentially in the long run be good for us as a society, provided we stay woke and active and make sure our voices are heard. I think we’re encouraged to be delusional from when we’re little kids all the way through our lives; we’re not really presented with reality, we’re not presented with truth, you know? We’re presented with this phony version of America, phony version of our place in the world, and what it is to be an American. This sort of phony democracy. There are all these things that (in theory) would be really great, but in reality, just aren’t really practiced, and it’s not how things actually are. Everyone needs to educate themselves and have their eyes open to how things actually are, not how things could be, you know? If we want to get to that point of where things ideally could be, then we have to know where they are in order to be able to move forward. It’s funny, because we could potentially view time in terms of “Oh, we can’t do anything until the next election cycle comes around again,” but that’s not true. There’s so much that can be done. It’s not just that we need the right legislators, either, in order for things to be fine. Every day we have to be working on creating a more equal society. I’m sure I’m not the person to lead that battle, but I’m trying on my level to do what I can.