Of Montreal: Singer-songwriter Kevin Barnes ready to write a new chapter
Some 15 years ago, indie rockers Of Montreal coalesced in Athens, Georgia and quickly became part of a loose collective of neo psychedelic bands dubbed Elephant 6. Led by singer-songwriter Kevin Barnes, the group stands poised to enter a new era. Barnes spoke to us via phone for a shorter feature we’re writing for a weekly paper, discussing what it’s been like visiting the archives for a forthcoming documentary about the group and the band’s new album, the rarities collection, Daughter of Cloud.
I see that there’s a documentary film about the band in the works. How’s that coming?
We’re still working on it. We’ve been getting a lot of footage together the past couple of days. The director is going to jump on the bus for this tour to get some more stuff. We’re still adding content.
What have been some of the more interesting things you discovered while going through your archives?
There’s a lot of stuff that I haven’t seen in many years. I’m excited to see it all compiled together in that way. I want to see the footage from the early days. Some of the footage is just of us fooling around at home.
When the band started, were you hyper-aware of the music that had come out of Athens, Georgia?
Yeah, definitely. [The film] Athens, Georgia: Inside Out was one of the reasons why a lot of us moved to Athens from smaller towns around the way. It’s because it seemed like a cool atmosphere and environment to be an indie artist. We were searching for that mythology. I didn’t see all the guys from R.E.M., but you would see Michael Stipe and Mike Mills around. I moved from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. My family moved around a bit. I was born in Rocky River, Ohio and lived in Mentor, Ohio until I was about 10 or 11 and then we moved to a suburb of Detroit and then we moved to Florida.
Were you into music at that time?
I was more into the sports. I’ve been a lifelong Browns, Indians and Cavs fan. I remember watching games with my dad. I still follow sports. I’m probably one of the few indie artists who is really nerdy about sports.
When did you start getting into music?
Around 11 or 12. I don’t know exactly what it was. It was just the calling. When I was in elementary school for the school band you had to pick an instrument and I picked drums because that was the most rock ’n’ roll of all the instruments. It started there. I then got into playing guitar and taught myself to play piano. I had my first band when I was 14 in Michigan. I was in a middle school band with the guitar player who would go on to play in Creed. We fell out of contact, but we were good friends then. We were in this weird band together. It was one of those bands where every member wished it was a different kind of band. [Creed guitarist] Mark Tremonti was more into shredding and virtuoso guitar playing style. I was more into hair metal like Motley Crue and Ratt and Poison. The drummer was into the Misfits and Minor Threat and punk stuff. We were more on the rock side. I was the singer. It was a weird band for sure. We used to practice in my basement or wherever we could set up.
Did you start another band in Florida?
Yeah, I tried to start a new band in Florida but the drummer wished he was playing country and I was getting into the Cure and moodier stuff. It wasn’t until I moved to Athens that I could find like-minded people and that whole Elephant Six collective happened at that time. I was fortunate to be around people who were into the same things.
Was the band officially a part of the Elephant Six collective?
It was an unofficial collective anyway. We were considered a second tier Elephant Six band because we weren’t high school friends with any of those guys. They were a little bit older than us and we were trying to ride on their coattails to a certain degree. We were hanging out with them and looking up to them and getting an education from them. They hit the road and got publicists and we learned how to do it on a DIY level. I remember begging them to let us use the logo because it would give us more recognition.
At some point your music became more “danceable.” What was the turning point?
Yeah, definitely. There was this whole period of a ’60s psychedelic pop revival thing that we were involved with. I reached this point where I got bored with that musical direction and wanted to do something new and the band was splintering apart. I had just gotten married. We used to live in this big house in the country and we decided not to renew the lease. Everyone was going their own ways. It was perfect timing. I wanted to start exploring new kinds of music and funkier types of music and get back to working by myself again because it had become democratic. I had all these ideas I wanted to explore on my own. My wife and I and brother got a house together and set up a studio in one of the bedrooms and started experimenting with different kinds of music. The band had a renewal in a way. That was around 2002 or 2003.
Were you always a Prince fan?
Thinking back upon it now, he was the first artist I connected with on a deeper level and fell in love with and became mildly obsessed with. I was probably 12 when I first saw one of his videos. When VCRs started becoming more popular, my dad used to record things all the time. He recorded this block of MTV videos that included ten Prince videos from his first video to “Purple Rain.” I wore the tape out watching that. I was amazed at his moves and the androgyny of his style and how talented he was. I would dance around the room with a tennis racket pretending to play guitar. There’s an accessible side to every record which has at least two or three singles but there’s totally weird songs like “Computer Blue” or “Lady Cab Driver” or “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute).” Every record has these super oddball songs. That added to his mystique, like Michael Jackson who was much more popular. But Michael Jackson never exposed that much of a dark side.
There was this persona that I didn’t give a name to that I felt like I was under the spell of. I was writing all these songs that weren’t relevant to my personal experiences. I was role playing and I found that inspiring.
False Priest seemed like it represented another shift for the group. Talk about the recording process for that album.
It was a really prolific time for me. I wrote all the songs for False Priest and the Controller Sphere EP and five songs that made it onto Daughter of Cloud . . . tons of material. I started hanging out with Janelle Monae and that group of people and reconnecting with that funk influence and getting really into Parliament and Sly and the Family Stone and all this stuff. There was this persona that I didn’t give a name to that I felt like I was under the spell of. I was writing all these songs that weren’t relevant to my personal experiences. I was role playing and I found that inspiring.
How does the new album, Paralytic Stalks, fit into the band’s repertoire?
I think because False Priest was persona-based. I was going through this difficult time psychologically and emotionally. I wanted to use music as a form of therapy, so I wanted to make a record that was more direct and emotionally raw and relative to my personal life. So that record isn’t as much fun. It’s coming from a darker place, for sure. I think that’s good in a way. People look to music for support, like I do. There are John Lennon records that I adore because he made himself so vulnerable and was expressing something complex and presented songs about suffering and anxiety that we could all identify with. I take a lot of support from those records.
You’re often compared to Bowie. Is that accurate?
I think on a certain level just because he is semi-ADD like I am and wanting to change everything from record to record and willing to take on new personas without feeling like he’s phony. You could make that leap. I wouldn’t say I’m in the same class.
Talk about Daughter of Cloud. What was it like putting that album together?
It was cool because there were a lot of songs I wanted to release but couldn’t figure out the best way to do it. We could have put them out one by one, but it was good to empty the vault. It seems like a good time to do that. The band is at this new crossroads in trying to create something different artistically. It’s good with the documentary and compilation to close the door on a chapter and open up a new one.
What do you anticipate that new chapter will be like?
Oddly enough I’ve been listening to a lot of outlaw country music and folk music so I think it will be less dance-y and less glam and more raw. It’s hard to say, really. When I think about it now, I want the new songs I want to be very personable and intimate and approachable.
Is this just a tour for the sake of a tour or in support of the rarities release?
Both. We get really restless, so it’s good for us artistically to hit the road.
11/28 Miami, FL
11/29 Tallahassee, FL
11/30 Orlando, FL
12/1 Mobile, AL
12/2 New Orleans, LA
12/3 Houston, TX
12/4 Austin, TX
12/5 Dallas, TX
12/6 Oklahoma City, OK
12/7 Omaha, NE
12/8 Milwaukee, WI
12/9 Chicago, IL
12/10 Cleveland, OH
12/11 New York, NY
12/12 Boston, MA
12/13 Philadelphia, PA
12/14 Washington, D.C.
12/15 Carrboro, NC
The Plaza Live
Alabama Music Box
Paradise Rock Club