Named after a former gal pal from Canada’s French-speaking capital, Of Montreal is the nom de plume for brainchild Kevin Barnes’ fascinatingly prolific Athens, Georgia-based indie pop combo. Initiated in the late ‘90s, Barnes soon recruited Derek Almstead and Bryan Poole, two likeminded artists that helped anchor Elf Power (a nifty Elephant Six collective whose crucial underground brethren included Apples In Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, and Beulah).
After Of Montreal’s ambitious ’99 breakthrough, The Gay Parade, gained college radio attention, Barnes settled in with fellow multi-instrumentalist James Huggins and keyboardist Dottie Alexander for the next decade, creating an eclectic blend of eccentric British Invasion knockoffs, spirited Vaudevillian vagaries, spiffily giddy ditties and spunky funk gunk. But while Gay Parade’s naïve childlike whimsicality engendered more complicated romantic compulsions and skewed schizoid cynicism, joyous piano-strolled euphony, “Old Familiar Way,” Farfisa-driven psych-punk bop, “Fun Loving Nun,” mellifluent Beatlesque twee-pop sop, “Tulip Baroo,” and novel gypsy cabaret spoof, “The March Of The Gay Parade,” proved perfectly incipient.
Following three more rendezvousing long-players, Of Montreal reached another pinnacle with ‘05s uniformly upbeat The Sunlandic Twins. Barnes puts an extra bounce in his step on a few easily accessible tunes, including the rubbery disco-pop getaway “Wraith Pinned To The Mist” (differently-worded for an Outback Steakhouse jingle) and sensational new wave seduction, “The Party’s Crashing Us.” Strangely, Barnes’ most recognizable advertising gimmick, the catchy paisley pop posy, “Everyday Feels Like Sunday” (an affable B-side stuck at the end of a bonus 4-song EP), helped promote NASDAQ through TV ads a few years hence.
More often than not playing the convoluted naïf who’s tangled up in blue with a ‘fractious heart,’ Barnes nonetheless began ‘07s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? on positive terms as per love-smitten adulation, “Suffer For Fashion.” Still employing contorted titles as confounded descriptive metaphors, he constructs several bohemian rhapsodies full of spry twists and clever turns. On hooky Squeeze-like new wave detour, “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse,” he derides the insufferable antidepressant chemical dependency felt firsthand.
One year later, the re-energized and soberer Barnes, perhaps inspired by Hissing Fauna’s apoplectic “Labyrinthian Pomp” or abstruse closer, “We Were Born The Mutants,” went for broke with baroque Epicurean suite, Skeletal Lamping. A complex maze-like patchwork consuming bittersweet manifestos, flippant laments and wry asides that’d scrape the ‘darkest corners of his psyche,’ its flush with heightened emotional anxiety and multifarious moodscapes that dug further into Barnes’ insecure subconscious being. As usual, Barnes loves playing with sexuality in an off-handed manner, going ‘both ways’ on the surrealist soft-core sashay, “For Our Elegant Caste.”
When Barnes’ troupe returned in 2010, our convivial host had hooked up with respected producer Jon Brion, showing off newfound vocal confidence and utilizing a real studio to open up the sound of the surprisingly conventional roundabout, False Priest. His typically downcast confessional allegories reap deeper discontentment while the cheerier counteractive exaltations gain effervescent fervency from gorgeous Prince-like falsetto flights of fancy.
On jaunty opener, “I Feel Ya’ Strutter,” Barnes confesses to being “so freaked out and depressed/ but now I see I was blessed,” singing the blithe mid-verses in a giddily conversational David Bowie-via-Anthony Newley English accent. Hilariously snubbing spoken word stanzas bash a “crazy girl” on “Our Riotous Defects,” where he laughingly hooks up with her commiserating cousin (for spite?). Resoundingly trippy constellation, “Coquet Coquette,” rises out of the ashes with stammering 6-string bursts, soaring above synthesized intergalactic oscillations in a brilliant display of lustful teenage urgency.
Endearingly moping escapist teen-dreamed epics seem to suit Barnes fine (even if he’s presently married with children). He’s willfully sympathetic when it suits him to be. But not when he’s the casualty getting marginalized and sabotaged by some miscreant libertine during “Famine Affair.”
A glossier textural sheen covers the entire easier-to-grasp 13-song set, making False Priest more appetizing to mainstream tastes than Of Montreal’s previous cinematic full-length ventures. These maddeningly deranged odysseys are the work of a truly gifted composer whose piquantly puzzled peculiarities and prodigiously expansive catalogue shouldn’t be ignored or short-changed.
Who were some early influences?
I was living outside Detroit before moving to West Palm Beach to finish high school. At the time, ‘60s pop interested me. I was a big Beatles, Kinks, and Pretty Things fan. Initially, I home recorded. All I could afford was a cassette 4-track. Then, I was able to get a half-inch 8-track reel-to-reel machine. The fidelity was lo-fi and I was experimenting with mic placement but didn’t have a compressor. I tried figuring out Beatles-Kinks arrangements.
Since The Gay Parade, I’ve noticed the arrangements becoming more complex, colorful, and multi-textural.
I realize there’s rules people follow composing pop songs. I decided not to follow the rules because it was boring. It’s more exciting not having typical pop templates as the Holy Grail. There are many great non-traditional arrangements the Beatles and Kinks used. You may not catch it unless you have your ear to it. Some Kinks songs, especially during the Arthur-era, were pretty complicated. I don’t stay with the same groove, key, or time signature for every song. I fuse them together one part at a time. I get the skeleton of a song and intentionally rework predictable parts to make it exciting to me.
How does the live band keep up with all the changes? Are they Classically trained?
It’s deceptively complex. You just gotta get the arrangement down. By now, they understand my style. None of us are classically trained. Only a handful could read music. It’s intuitive.
How’s the post-REM/ B-52’s Athens scene?
When I first moved here there were a lot of great local bands home recording. Most had a theatrical element that attracted me. I got more into electronic music with programmed drums, breaking unspoken existent rules in the Elephant 6 scene, where everyone was very much anti-commercial radio. They wanted to be esoteric, obscure, and do their own thing. When I got into glam-electro-disco freaky things, that alienated me from their ethic. We were still friends. But everything has a life cycle. There’s definitely an Athens scene I’m not part of. The Whigs are best known.
How do you move so easily from wrist-slitting depressives to sunny uplift within the course of a song?
Love’s very complex and relationships are sunny one day and challenging the next. I may be emotionally bipolar. It’s natural to look for escape and give voice to that human experience. It’s organic. When I’m composing, I feel captured by another spirit. I don’t think about it from an outsider’s perspective.
You enjoy working dichotomous titles into album and song titles. You go from a gay parader to a skeletal lamper to a false priest.
(Laughs) False Priest came from a writing exercise. I was reading these Dylan Thomas poems and then closing my eyes to let that influence me and do some automatic writing. I wrote a bunch of titles. I had this vision after Hissing Fauna that I’d have three records using those titles with no deeper meaning behind it.
You seem to have temporarily stepped away from the collage-like settings previous LP’s relied on for the more straight-ahead False Priest.
After all these years, I feel more relaxed. I’m trying to connect more with mind and body. When I sing, I wanna feel the things I’m singing about. In the past, I’ve been distracted or lacking confidence in the studio. I put my heart into trying to emote better.
How’d producer Jon Brion help out?
I made the whole LP in Athens and went to California, replacing certain things. He basically produced the mix from rough mixes. He likes the songs but didn’t think I was getting the most of them. He added instrumentation to make it sound fuller. I only cut two vocal tracks in California. There’s something magical about your own home studio; a place you’re comfortable with to do certain things. But we couldn’t use my California vocal sessions. For me, it’s being able to lose myself in the recording process in a little bubble, maintaining security.
I believe the stress track for indie radio is “Coquet Coquette,” a hard-driving rocker with Who-like guitar flanging.
Yes. It’s the first single. I wrote that at a friends’ studio outside Athens. He had Orange amps, a sitar, and vintage gear. I used instruments lying around and put them to use. Jon Brion played a bunch of synths and keyboards. That was a great contribution.
“Hydra Fancies” has an irresistible lounge pop faux-Jazz feel reminiscent of obscure ‘70s pop icon Andrew Fairweather-Low.
It’s a love song to the Wonderland Arts Society – a group of artists, like Janelle Monae—whom I met when I started writing False Priest. I had a great collaborative experience with them. That song’s about discovering these inspiring people. But the bridge is more fantasy. I wasn’t gonna put it on the record, but Jon loved it. I had 18 songs and figured which ones to work on. He campaigned for that song and put funky synth action to it and changed my mind.
The carefree glissando strings accompanying the whimsical “Sex Karma” reminded me of Todd Rundgren’s dramatic ‘70s synth-pop.
It’s hard to talk about the songs. That was the first song written while working in my attic studio at my former house. I was listening to Estelle and Kanye West’s “American Boy.” That was a big inspiration for “Sex Karma.” I like Todd Rundgren’s collage pop. It’s influence is less on this album, but more on Gay Parade or Skeletal Lamping. I discovered that initially from Brian Wilson’s Smile—what he did with the parts. Every 16 bars were a complete change and feel like a different song. I realized the exciting potential. If you get bored after the verse-chorus, you piece together different elements. That’s very liberating. But you can’t do that all the time because every record will sound the same. I like bouncing back and forth between writing that way and then trying to be more conventional.
I’ve noticed the eye-grabbing kaleidoscopic artwork donning each album. That contradicts trendy MP3 downloads, where visual art gets blind-sighted.
We thought it was important early on. My brother, David, before I got signed to a record label, made art for my little cassettes. We had a natural connection and it’s great we’re involved with each other’s lives. When he’s making the art, he’s dedicated to listening to the record. My wife, Nina, has a cool original style that differs from his. She cares just as much about the music. So the last two records they got together. I love looking at crazy Parliament-Funkadelic and Sly & the Family Stone art. It always connected with the record. When I remember the Beatles’ Revolver, the cover image comes to mind. Sgt. Pepper it’s hard to think about without recalling the colorful military jackets and packaging. Even Bob Dylan’s artwork. The Elephant 6 collective wanted the artwork to have a force that connected with the musical experience.
How have laptops helped make your music more dynamic?
I started recording digitally up ‘til Sunlandic Twins. Then, I used a computer. Once you go to computer, there’s no limitations except the processor. Like if Todd Rundgren had a computer, God only knows what he’d done. It’s scary. The computer allows more experimentation and editing. It makes the Beach Boys’ Smile that much more insane to image as well as Pet Sounds and Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow or Os Mutantes’ early stuff. Back then you had to do it with tape splicing and studio manipulation.
You’ve always seemed more connected to soul music than your former Elephant 6 brethren.
R & B, soul, funk. That’s definitely a driving influence for False Priest. I’ve immersed myself with it and embraced it. I’m naturally drawn to the classic records. It’s also helped me vocally. Sly Stone’s got natural emotive instincts. There’s no self-consciousness getting swept up by the musical moment. Let it take you wherever it goes.
Are you an avid record collector?
I’m a music collector. But I never had the vinyl bug. You really need a good turntable to make records sound better than CD’s. But I do listen to music all day long.
Catch Of Montreal September 17 and 18 @ Terminal 5, Manhattan, NY