Kevin Barnes is the founder of of Montreal, an experimental indie rock band from Athens, Georgia. of Montreal is known for a kaleidoscopic sound that pulls from a multitude of genres into eclecticism at its best. The group hails from the Elephant 6 Recording Company, a musical workshop from Athens in the 90’s that saw the creation of several important indie rock bands. Like their counterparts, of Montreal’s sound is rooted largely in 60s psychedelic pop. However, over nearly two decades, they have used pop, punk, glam, funk and electronic sounds to create their own kind of patchwork music that doesn’t fit into any category. Kevin is the group’s vocalist and songwriter, and has a penchant for weaving colorful, intricate, and often strange lyrics together with more conventional pop sensibilities. I spoke with Kevin about genres, 2015’s Aureate Gloom, and his relationship with waxing poetic.
SP: Your most recent album Aureate Gloom, released last March, is all about raw emotion funneled through the band’s signature complex sound. You’ve said the album is largely a response to the changes and upheaval in your personal life. Does it feel any different to play these songs now that some time has passed?
Kevin Barnes: Yes, I think that many of the songs on the record were very personal and I kind of found it easier to form a kind of healthy detachment from them. Some of the songs we don’t really perform live because it’s sometimes too heavy for me, or a place I don’t really want to revisit night after night. It’s interesting how that works with music, when it’s something directly connected to your personal life, coming from a very pure place. You can feel proud of what you’ve made, but still not really want to perform it. Some of the songs are, for the most part, pretty personal, and others are fairly universal, so it’s not just, you know, bringing up my diary.
SP: What do you think is your favorite track to perform from the album?
Barnes: The last song is called “Like Ashoka’s Inferno of Memory.” It’s really fun because it’s pretty challenging musically and it’s kind of all over the place. There are parts that sound kind of like Led Zeppelin, and then other parts are a little bit folkier, and then some sound like 70’s glam rock. It’s fun to do that much genre-hopping in one song.
SP: Over almost twenty years, it’s clear that one of the band’s top priorities is eclecticism. As you transcend genres, what are some themes you like to hold on to throughout?
Barnes: Pop hooks, like, memorable, hummable moments in songs, are important. It’s a fun challenge for me to write a catchy hook, but do it in a way that’s not too predictable or too cliche. So many beautiful pop hooks have been written and they’re kind of just sitting there, and you can make variations on them. It’s kind of unlimited in what you can do. I’m not afraid to wear influences on my sleeve and use reference points, making kind of a collage of music. Lyrics are especially fun because I can have a lyric that is abstract or just kind of weird and put an infectious melody to it. Pop music in general is very lyrically simplistic, and people aren’t trying to get too poetic with it.
SP: Poetry is present in of Montreal’s music. One of the band’s albums, Lousy With Sylvianbriar, referenced Sylvia Plath, and Aureate Gloom has a track referencing Virgil. How important is poetry to you?
Barnes: I love reading and writing poetry, but I think lyrics have so much more power. Writing poetry can be more challenging, but It’s harder to touch people with just poetry I think. It’s easier to draw people in when you add music. I love that music can be more raw and visceral, and appeal on a more subconscious level, and then lyrics can draw you in on a more intellectual level. I’ve never really gotten that into writing poetry. I don’t even have a chapbook or anything! (laughs)
SP: You recited a poem at a solo Chicago show last year. You should do that more often!
Kevin Barnes: (laughs) It’s funny you say that because in that kind of setting, it makes more sense to do something like that because people are paying attention, and there to experience that kind of performance. But with of Montreal, with the full circus of of Montreal, the theatricality and visuals and everything, it’s harder to do something quiet like that, something that’s asking a bit more from the audience. You can’t really be in the middle of all that madness and stuff and then be like, ‘Now I’m gonna read a poem!’ But for us I wouldn’t really want to play in front of a more quiet, polite audience anyway, you know? It’s more fun when everyone’s dancing and getting wild and stuff.
SP: The band’s shows are always a sensory assault. They’re very striking and fantastical, and very audience-participatory. Why is it important to you to put on that kind of show?
Barnes: I think we decided early on with a lot of the other Elephant 6 bands that we wanted to make an evening feel exceptional and not just a typical rock and roll experience, like with just the band on stage and you want to hear their songs. We wanted to put a little more effort into it. Of course we were inspired by people like Bowie and Prince and Kate Bush and Zappa who put on interesting stage productions and we just wanted to kind of fall in line with that stuff.
SP: What was it like to be a part of Elephant 6?
Barnes: It’s just one of those organic things that happened and I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, but the funny thing is none of the bands were really that popular at that time. It wasn’t really like this overwhelming thing for everybody. It was more like an art project. You learn about stuff with the independent music scene, and you realize like okay here’s the things you need, here’s the things you don’t need. Like, you don’t need a bitchy manager and you don’t need A&R people, you need people that are just going to encourage you to do your thing, and not try to control what you’re doing and give you a hard time about not having singles or not having something that’s contemporary. I think that autonomy that everybody had was the coolest part of all of it.
SP: So are you working on any projects right now?
Barnes: Yeah we have a new album that we’ve been working on. A lot of the songs have been written and we’re just kind of tinkering around with it and figuring out exactly how to present them. I really want to spend the rest of the year working on it, because I kind of feel like with the last couple records I made, the point was to kind of work really quickly, get them out and sort of not look back. I think with this record, I kind of want to spend more time on it and just sort of live with it for a little bit longer, and let it evolve at its own pace.
SP: Great, we can’t wait to see you in Champaign.
Barnes: Yeah, our label is based out of there. It’s a cool town.
of Montreal is playing Wednesday, September 9th at Highdive in Champaign with Surface to Air Missive. Doors open at 7 p.m., and tickets are $20.