From the middle of the band’s world tour, Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal found the time to answer a few questions from Jude Clarke, sharing his thoughts on lyric writing, album packaging and his major influences and favourite collaborations. There’s also news of an exciting new project for early next year.
How did you start in the music business/in the band?
I just started writing songs and recording myself on a cassette four track while I was in high school. After high school I started sending out demos to indie labels, a small label out of Hoboken New Jersey called Bar-None signed me to a 3 record deal when I was 20. I’ve been releasing records and touring ever since.
Have you always been involved in music, career wise, or have you done any non-music jobs? If so, what have these been, and if not, then what job outside of music would you do, if you had to?
I was working “day jobs” for a long time before I started earning enough money from touring to quit my non musical jobs and focus all my time and energy on creating and performing music. I worked at a video rental store for a long time, I also worked at a clock factory and a flower shop. my most interesting job was operating the spotlight at this low budget circus.
Your lyrics, choice of words and imagery are always so striking. When you write, do you come up with the lyrics first then fit the music around them, or does it work some other way?
It’s different every time, I don’t really have a consistent method of writing, I do keep a lyric journal with me at all times and I’m always writing down lyrical ideas. I write a lot of lyrics on the road but I usually only write music when I’m at home. I try to spend all of my free time in my home studio, freaking out and getting frisky.
What instruments do you play?
I don’t really play anything very well, but I’m ok on guitar,bass,piano and drums.
Do you prefer writing and recording music, or touring? What are the good and bad bits of both?
I enjoy both, they are totally different experiences, recording is more of a solo/loner experience for me as I tend to work alone most of the time. Performing live gives me the opportunity to create art with my friends. The performance side of the band is very communal and collaborative. Everyone in the band contributes something in addition to just playing an instrument, the live theatrical productions are way more of a group effort than the records are. For instance, my brother David creates sketches for our live productions and then Davey Pierce our bass player, engineers them and then the rest of us help in the building process. We have prop-building parties and everyone gets into the process, it’s a very bonding experience plus it helps everyone feel emotionally connected to the theatrical production.
What is the Norwegian poem on ‘Around The Way’ about? How does it tie in with the rest of that track?
I don’t really know the details of it, my wife Nina is from Norway and the author of the poem is one of her favorite poets. It is an excerpt from a strange love poem, she translated it for me into English and it seemed appropriate for the “feel” of the song.
Could you tell us a bit about the band’s collaborations with Solange Knowles and the wonderful Janelle Monae (both on this album and The ArchAndroid)? ‘Enemy Gene’ is such a great track, and would have fitted well on her album as well as your own. Likewise ‘Make The Bus’. How did you decide which album got which track, for example?
Well, they are both good friends of mine and I’ve done a fair amount of collaborating with them both. We’ve played a bunch of shows together and have become very close over the last few years. I was working on’False Priest’ at the same time Janelle was working on ‘The ArchAndroid’. It was great to be able to play works in progress for them and to follow the development of her record. I sent her ‘Make The Bus’ and she loved it, I was so honored that she decided to put it on her album. I wanted her to sing on every song on ‘False Priest’ but in the end it only made sense to have her on a few songs. I think she did a beautiful job on ‘Enemy Gene’ and Solange did an equally brilliant performance on ‘Sex Karma’. They are my top two favorite contemporary vocalists/artists.
The “characters” in your songs are often so vivid (‘Our Riotous Defects’, or ‘Beware Our Nubile Miscreants’ from Skeletal Lamping). Are you describing a “type”, or are they based on actual people that you’ve met?
They are based on actual people, most of the references are inspired by real life experiences.
How much of a democracy is of Montreal, or how much of it is mainly “you”.
The albums are mostly me but the live production is very much a collaborative effort. Every idea is taken seriously and everyone contributes to the finished product.
What other bands or artists would you class as your peers? What music are you currently listening to, and what are (and have been in the past) your main influences? As your music evolves and changes to you draw on different stuff from the past, or do you have some constant musical touchstones?
I also loved the Beatles and the Kinks, lately I’ve been more influenced by 60′s/70′s R&B and soul/funk music. I listen mostly to Stevie Wonder, Sly and The Family Stone, Parliament…I do listen to some contemporary music though, my faves are Big Boi/Outkast, SaRa Creative Partners, Janelle Monae, Erykah Badu, Deep Cotton, Roman Gian Arthur…I’m always looking for new inspiration, I am an avid music fan.
Do you read your reviews? Do you read music magazines and/or websites in general? If so, which do you particularly enjoy?
I try to avoid reading oM reviews/articles as much as possible. I don’t think they would really benefit me, I get really hurt by negative reviews and the positive ones might just give me a big head ;-)
Having made Skeletal Lamping available in lots of innovative formats, what are your thoughts now on the future ways that music can be provided and consumed? Do you feel that the future of recorded music is robust, or under threat, or something between those two?
The real threat is illegal pirating of music, aside from that, legal digital downloading only affects people’s ability to experience an artists full vision, as the purchaser is deprived of album packaging. I rarely download music, I love album packaging and I feel that it adds a lot to the romantic connection I have with records. Every time I hear ‘Sgt Peppers’ I instantly think of the album art, the same goes for Parliament’s ‘Mothership Connection’ or Stevie’s ‘Talking Book’…
Our vision for the ‘Skeletal Lamping’ art collection was to offer people their choice of album packaging upon purchasing a digital download. We feel that people shouldn’t be punished for selecting to purchase our records digitally, we feel they should still have the option to select a physical art companion for the records. I’ve already seen a number of labels using our idea. I think in the future all labels will have to offer similar art objects with their digital downloads, it is the best way to encourage people to purchase something that they can just as easily steal.
Do you blog, tweet, facebook etc? How has “the net” changed / affected your music / writing and how you relate to your audience (fans), if at all?
I am a sporadic blogger, I find myself only Tweeting very trivial things. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing for an artist to be completely accessible to their fans/supporters. I think a bit of mystery is important.
What in your musical past, to date, are you proudest and least proud of? Would you do anything different?
I’m probably most proud of “the past is a grotesque animal” and “nonpareil of favor”. I’m working on some new stuff that I’m excited about. I’m not really embarrassed of my early work, though I don’t listen to it or perform those songs live. I feel like I was a different person then, to play them would almost be like playing someone else’s song.
What’s next for the band? Are you touring in Europe? Do you already have plans for the next album: anything you want to share with us yet?
Yeah, we’re in the midst of a world tour right now in support of ‘False Priest’. In between legs I’m working on finishing up an EP that will be released in the spring of 2011 called ‘The Controllersphere’. The album packaging will be a board game, developing that is the thing we’re spending most of our free time on now.