Interview with Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes

Barnes performing in Gothenburg, Sweden

Last week DJ Kirsten spoke with Of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes about his new album, dramatic stage shows, and getting his start in the 90s with support from the Elephant 6 Collective. Read below to find out the inspiration for the album’s title and more.

Kirsten: We saw you guys in Philadelphia at both of the shows that you did a couple weeks ago; they were awesome! Did you have a good time here?

KB: I did, those were fun shows. I wasn’t expecting so many people to come to the afternoon thing [WXPN’s Live at Noon session]. I was pleasantly surprised. I guess I didn’t really know what to expect, but I definitely didn’t expect it to be as crowded as that, so it was awesome.

Kirsten: Yeah it was great. So Lousy with Sylvianbriar just came out and is much more relaxed than your funkier stuff from Paralytic Stalks and Daughter of Cloud, what was your writing process like for this album?

KB: Well, it kind of came from a different place of inspiration. I was really inspired by people like Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan. The last couple of records were more influenced by people like George Clinton, Parliament, Sly and the Family Stone, Prince, people like that – so definitely coming from a more funky source. This record is definitely a bit more introspective. I really wanted the lyrics to be the main focus; I didn’t want the orchestration to be as phonetic and schizophrenic as previous albums, so that might also be playing a role in the kind of more mellow vibe.

Kirsten: Where do you find inspiration for your stage shows?

KB: Well, that is mostly my brother who comes up with all the theatrics.

Kirsten: Oh, really?

KB: Yeah. I kind of just let him do whatever he wants and come up with different concepts. I’ve had a handful of ideas that I pass on to him and he figures out the logistics of it. But for the most part, it’s his project, or his side of it.

Kirsten: You’ve been working under the name Of Montreal since 1996, how do you keep each album sounding fresh?

KB: I guess I always get inspired by different things. So, I just kind of stumble upon some new inspiration, get really excited about it, and want to make songs in that genre or influenced by a certain group of artists and then all these interests have this new spark developed, inspired by something new. In that way it’s always very much influenced by other people. A lot of what I do is basically just pulling from these different sources of inspiration and hopefully it doesn’t sound completely derivative of one particular thing, but coming from all of these different kinds of places. I’m not really trying to make something extremely original, just trying to make something that I find exciting in the moment. I want to work really quickly, I don’t want to necessarily labor over something. I feel like it’s more important for me to just keep producing things and have it be a part of my life, my daily life, the creative process.

Kirsten: Cool. So how did you come up with the name for your latest album?

KB: Well, sylvianbriar is a word that I made up that’s basically a nod to the writer Sylvia Plath, who I thought was a very influential spirit for the record. I was reading a lot of her poetry and fantasizing about her, her life, and her work. For whatever reason she was just this important figure in my mind when I was writing and recording the record.

Kirsten: “Hegira Emigre”is probably my favorite song from this album. Can you tell us what it’s about?

KB: Yeah, in a way it’s following the template of things that Bob Dylan did on Highway 61 Revisited and songs like maybe “Tombstone Blues” would be a good one to say, “Oh yeah, that’s my take on that kind of song,” where you have a bunch of verses strung together and then you have this chorus that just repeats. But the thing that I really like about Dylan is that he’d go so overboard with verses, like he’ll have as many as eight verses in a song whereas most people would stick to maybe two verses. I think it was crazy just having four, but it’s sort of following that template and that concept of having something that’s a little bit political. You know, the lyrics, “They’re up on the hill, they’re having a white riot with no violence or protesting;” it’s sort of a reference to the top one percent and the influence that they have, and that feeling of powerlessness. In the face of that, you wonder how much influence and power you have and there’s people that seem to be pulling the strings and you can’t really say much about it. There’s a lot of lines in that that have some sort of personal or political significance.

Kirsten: I know you were involved in the Elephant 6 Collective, how was it working with all of those different, creative minds and how has it affected you as an artist?

KB: It was great in the early days because I hadn’t really established myself at all and I was trying to get something together, and to see bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control going out on tour and getting record contracts with indie labels and making their own records; that was something that I wanted to do and had started doing when I was in high school working with my cassette four-track in my bedroom, still living at my parents’ house and going to high school and stuff. To see, oh these people are basically doing the same thing I’m doing on a slightly bigger level, but they’re able to reach an audience and they’re able to establish themselves in a really grassroots way. To see how they did it, in that way, was very inspiring and helpful. A lot of times when you’re first starting making music you don’t really understand how the machine works, how you can get your name out there or even how you can get your records released. I mean now it’s much easier, this was like pre-internet so it was more dependent on finding a record label, finding a publicist, there wasn’t that much that you could do by yourself, you kind of needed the help of other people in the industry. But not wanting to go to the major label route and wanting it to stay indie and DIY and all that. But that was really helpful for me. Also to establish a support group of like-minded people that were doing similar things, so yeah that was great.

Kirsten: Do you still keep in contact, or have you done anything recently with them?

KB: Not really, Of Montreal has sort of become its own collective within itself with all of these people contributing ideas, and working together like I said with my brother and my wife that does a lot of the album artwork and animation that we have live. Everyone is performing different roles within the group. I haven’t really felt the need to… I’m kind of just off on my own now. I haven’t really been looking for that kind of support because it’s already there in Of Montreal.

Kirsten: Are there any future plan for the band as of right now, or are you kind of just playing it by ear?

KB: Yeah, I’ve kind of started working up some new songs and starting to develop a concept of how I want to approach the next record. We have a ton of shows ahead of us over the next four or five months, so we’re definitely going to stay busy.

Lousy with Sylvianbriar was released on Polyvinyl on October 8th, and has charted #1 at WKDU for three weeks straight.