Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Kevin Barnes, lead singer and founder of Athens, Ga.-based indie pop band Of Montreal about writing more confessional songs, his relationship to the band’s early records and not scaring away listeners.
CP: Of Montreal has such an enormous discography that the learning curve can seem pretty steep for newcomers to your music. What do you recommend as a good jumping on point to get a feel for what the band is about these days?
KB: These days, I would definitely start with “Paralytic Stalks,” the new record, but if you want to get a concept of just an overall view of the project, you probably have to take a sample from all the records. But obviously, “Paralytic Stalks” is the most current thing you can listen to and get a sense of where we're at.
CP: Speaking of “Paralytic Stalks,” that's still quite new. How does the finished product measure up to your intentions when you started working on it?
KB: I feel really, really good about it. It's not the record that's going to make me stop making records forever because I feel like I've said everything I want to say. I hope I never make that record, in a way. But I feel really positive about it because I feel like it has a really strong identity, and it's different from past records. I feel like I've stumbled upon a method of expressing myself, lyrically. It's closer to what I've been trying to attain in having a very direct voice that's coming from straight from the heart and not hiding behind personas or things like that.
CP: Why is that directness important to you?
KB: I just feel like if you're going to make timeless music, that's what you have to do. You can't hide behind a character or a persona. You have to be brave. You have to make yourself vulnerable and expose yourself, not only to the world but also to yourself.
If you're using art as a way of understanding the human condition and your own psyche and trying to create something people will identify with for years to come, you have to check into that state of mind where you're not nervous or self-conscious about expressing something that may be painful or awkward.
I think awkwardness is an essential part of art that a lot of people try and kill. Many people don't want awkwardness in their art work, but I think to be alive is to be awkward, in a lot of ways. I try to keep an awkwardness in my art as much as possible.
CP: Given that “Paralytic Stalks” has been described as confessional and dark, was the creative process for that album painful for you?
KB: I was in a lot of pain when I was making it, and the music was sort of therapeutic, sort of cathartic - just being involved in a project like that where I could immerse myself in something that wasn't so …. so destructive.
When you're just laying in your bed with the curtains drawn thinking hateful, destructive things and suffering, you don't really get anything out of it. When you're able to direct that into something artistic, you're able to get a lot out of it. You also create something that, hopefully, other people who are going through similar experiences can take some solace from and relieve some of the pressure and pain of being conscious human beings.
CP: What kind of connection do you feel, as a composer and a performer, to material from the dusty back shelves of your catalog? Do you still feel that albums like “Cherry Peel” and “Satanic Panic in the Attic” are relevant or do you compartmentalize them as no longer applying to who you are as a musician?
KB: That's an interesting question because I actually had a bit of an almost personality crisis on stage the first time we did a “Paralytic Stalks” song. We were incorporating other songs from earlier records, and I could really feel a division in my head. “Paralytic Stalks is definitely coming from a different place and these other songs felt awkward to me. I couldn't initially confine it [the songs] in a natural way.
Playing it night after night, it's definitely become easier and to allow myself — almost in a schizophrenic way or a split personality kind of way — to just fill myself neatly into each song, even if it came from a different place, a place of happiness or friskiness or depression or paranoia or whatever. Somehow, I've been able to split my personality up in that way and just go with whatever organic spirit is of each song.
CP: Do you tend to road test your material before going into the studio? Prior to Feb. 7, had you been playing the songs from “Paralytic Stalks” in live shows?
KB: No, we never did. The first time we played it was on the [Jimmy] Fallon Show. The first time we played “Dour Percentage” was on that show; we just rehearsed it and did it for the show.
I wrote them all in the studio at a time when we were off the road. Sometimes, we'll put in a new song in our sets, especially if it feels like it fits the spirit of whatever it is we're working on. But the new material is so different, and it was such a challenge to reshape the group and get them pointed in the right direction for the new material.
I've been playing a lot more piano. In the past, I hadn't played piano on stage for many years. I had to restructure things and figure out what responsibilities each band members was going to have. We brought in a new band member for this tour.
CP: Who was that?
KB: Zack Caldwell. He played and wrote a lot of the woodwind arrangements and the brass arrangements on the record. He's play sax and flute, but he also plays guitar and some keyboards. He's an incredible musician. He's helping a lot.
CP: Now that you've been playing the songs from “Paralytic” live for about a month, how have they evolved? Do you or crowds relate to them differently now?
KB: Yeah. Definitely, it was an insular experience making the record. I was living in this bubble of self-indulgence. To take the songs on the road and play them live and see that people are connecting with them takes it out of that little bubble and makes it feel more communal and universal, in a way. It takes some of the pressure off and relives some of the tension and the pressure.
In a psychological way, thinking about it the way I think about it, to go on stage and sing those songs night after night seemed really difficult but is becoming easier and easier because I get the sense that other people can identify with it, so I'm not just a freak, you know? [Laughs.]
CP: Looking at the tracking for the album, you have it loaded very heavy on the back end with seven-, eight- and — in the case of “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission” — 13-minute songs. The first half is closer to the pop standard, 3-minute song. What was the thought process behind organizing it that way?
KB: I guess I didn't really think about it in terms of song length. When I was creating the sequence, I just put the songs in that order. Initially, I was thinking of putting “Exorcismic Breeding Knife” as the first track, but then I thought that might be antagonistic and might scare people. [Laughs.]
I guess maybe on some subconscious level, I realized I needed to put the more challenging stuff toward the end so people have had time to get used to the voice of the new record and not feel confused and antagonized in any way. Hopefully, at that point, if people have committed the time to it, it won't seem really jarring. If you go on an eight-minute voyage or whatever with a song, hopefully, at that point, you're committed to the experience.
All the songs, I wanted them to be really immersive and transportive and not really serving the function that a lot of pop music does, which is to be disposable and fun and sort of vapid. You don't expect much of it, just a catchy little hook.
With “Paralytic Stalks,” I was trying to make something more ambitious, something to serve a different purpose. Something heavier and, hopefully, more rewarding, not superficial. Something slightly more challenging and dense that people can listen to, if they're so inclined, many, many times and discover different things and have different experiences with it.
Especially with the longer instrumental sections, if you're listening to it on headphones or on an airplane or something where you're able to get lost in the music and the spirit of the record, it could be a very cool thing. I think about it in that way. It's definitely not an easily digestible thing, but it is something I think could be very rewarding to people who can devote the time to it.
CP: With that flow in mind, do you tend to play the songs live in roughly the sequence they appear on the album?
KB: Well, yes. To some degree, we do. We definitely insert a lot of older songs in between, but we have been closing with the album closer and starting with the opening track. It's almost like a movie, in a way. That's how I feel about it.
Like a movie, if you were to stop midway though, you would feel like something was unresolved, and you would feel uncomfortable. That's how I feel listening to “Paralytic Stalks.” If I were to stop before the ending, I would feel in an agitated stated of mind or dissatisfied. If I make it to the end, there's a resolution that occurs that cleanses the spirit.
CP: You guys aren't known for sitting still for very long, in terms of new albums. What are you working on now?
KB: Yeah, I've got a couple of songs I've started. I'm starting to think about what I want to do next. I've definitely started the process. It's still pretty nebulous in my mind, but it's slowly coming together.
CP: Do you anticipate that you'll reprise the approach you took in “Paralytic Stalks” with being more confessional and exposed, as a lyricist?
KB: Yeah, definitely that's the direction I'm moving in with the next record. I'm trying to figure that out. A lot of times, we equate the darkness with spiritual authenticity or emotional authenticity, but if it's happy, everyone thinks it's artificial. In my head, I've been thinking that way. I have to get myself out of that.
It's not like it's authentic if it's dark but phony if it's light. I don't want to sabotage my own existence by only trying to always think of the most pessimistic view. I've got a lot to work through, but luckily, I'm an artist, so I can do it. [Laughs.]