Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes Finds His Muse in the City by the Bay
“Boring,” “mainstream” and “conservative” may be the last words that would ever be used to describe an of Montreal record, though Kevin Barnes is certain that his descriptions of his forthcoming album Lousy with Sylvianbriar — a Sylvia Plath reference, because it wouldn’t be an of Montreal album without labyrinthine nuance — might make it seem that way. The principal behind the Athens experimental-pop and performance-art group is bracing his fans for a neck-snapping left turn with its 12 th album, due out this fall. Following the dark, sometimes abrasive electronic tones found on 2012’s Paralytic Stalks, Barnes sought a more organic concept amidst the metropolitan wilderness of San Francisco. When of Montreal visits Greensboro this Friday night, their set will draw familiar material from their six most recent albums in creating their usual bizarre theatrical spectacle, and even if the unrecorded material they’ve been occasionally teasing on the current tour doesn’t find its way in, it will be anything but boring.
Y!W: Based on what little information is available about Lousy with Sylvianbriar, I’m imagining it to be as stylistically distant from Paralytic Stalks as can be.
KB: I wouldn’t say it’s as far as it can possibly be, but definitely a move in a new direction. The terms that I would use to describe the sound could easily make it seem really boring and really mainstream and conservative. It definitely has country elements just in the fact that there’s pedal-steel guitar on a bunch of songs, and it has more moodier, atmospheric qualities. It’s not super anthemic or synthesizer based. In that sense you could describe it as songwriter-y, but at the same time I hadn’t picked to use words like “songwriter” or “roots” or “Americana” just because in my mind I think those terms describe boring things. You know like, things like James Taylor or the Eagles, things that could go really wrong. It definitely has more in common with early ’70s, Grateful Dead and the Flying Burrito Brothers; country rock, but druggy and psychedelic.
Y!W: Did those bands in particular lead you to San Francisco?
KB: I just wanted to go somewhere else to write the album. I thought it would be inspiring to be to be somewhere other than Athens, just get out of my comfort zone and be somewhere exotic, a little more interesting and inspiring. San Francisco is a place I’ve always loved. We’ve played there many times, but I’ve never lived there. I was just drawn to it, and I think also because of the music scene that was there in the late ’60s. That was a lot of the inspiration for a lot of the songs and it was good to be surrounded by that. Even though it’s totally different now, it still has a danger, unpredictability or magic to it, kind of scary quality that I was attracted to.
Y!W: Were you a fan of the Grateful Dead before you started writing it?
KB: I’m not a Deadhead or anything, and I never saw them play, and there’s a lot I don’t like about the Grateful Dead. It’s mainly a small period of their career, Workingman’s Dead or American Beauty, not so much the fusion stuff. What I like about them too is this rebellious, pirate spirit that they had. Those records in particular are more country and more intimate sounding, before they got into that crazy, psychedelic -ock phase. I always liked those lyrics a lot, and the vibe of it.
Y!W: Was what you found there like an astronomer looking at the Big Bang through a telescope, or was it more evolved in your mind?
KB: The Haight-Asbury scene still was basically a lot of stoned runaways on the street begging for money, and it kind of had a gnarly quality to it. That doesn’t appeal to me very much, but the natural beauty of the city is staggering. I was in the Mission District, which is pretty diverse with a huge Latino population — lots of people, schizophrenic, homeless, hipster — this mash-up of all kinds of people in this beautiful environment. I didn’t know anyone, so I didn’t have any kind of social life. I’m fine with that because I like to have a lot of time alone. I did know a handful of people so I could have some conversations in the day-to-day, but most of the time spent thinking about what I wanted to work on.
Y!W: If there’s a common thread to you albums, it’s that they typically require multiple listens to finally break through what you’ve created. Is this going to be a more accessible work?
KB: I think of it more of a lyric driven album. The music is interesting, and I think of it as not quite densely orchestrated and not as collage-y. Songs are slightly more linear than Paralytic Stalks, which was very eccentric lyrically. I was definitely trying to create something that was extremely unpredictable and kind of jarring at times. I wanted this more direct and more intimate, not fragmented and fractured.
Of Montreal will perform at the Blind Tiger on Friday with Wild Moccasins in support.