of Montreal: Wild Mood Swings

After several universally lauded LPs, psych-pop outfit <b>of Montreal</b> unleashed the divisive <i>Skeletal Lamping</i> on the public late last year. Jason Morton steps into the expressive world of Kevin Barnes.

Feature by Jason Morton | 06 Jul 2009

Soundcheck isn’t going well for psychedelic popsters-cum-performance artists of Montreal. Kevin Barnes, mastermind of the oft-brilliant group, calls off the testing of the waters with An Eluardian Instance – a new single from 2008’s Skeletal Lamping, which, with its emphatic, brassy sound, would take pains to not sound enthused. But the rapture ends prematurely and the warm-up session at Òran Mór grinds to a halt as the tour manager leaves to scout the West End’s music shops for a proper adapter to cater for one of the group’s myriad musical implements.

When he returns empty-handed, it’s up to Barnes to rework the section of the song for which the equipment is necessary, eating away time for rehearsal, relaxation, make-up and, well… eating. Giving testament to the band’s prolific nature (they’ve released a seven-inch/DVD combo and a remix EP since November’s Lamping), he wraps it up quickly, ready to talk about one of last year’s most divisive records, the follow-up to the acclaimed Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?

“I think it’s kind of funny when someone says ‘Oh, it’s too schizophrenic, too fragmented…’” Barnes says. “But yeah, that was the point. It’s like collage music, genre-hopping – some stuff is pretty progressive and some is extremely derivative, but intentionally so.”

With wild mood swings taking the record from depressed acoustic introspection to the sexed-up electro-pop of closer Id Engager - whether bad or good, the LP certainly keeps a listener on their toes.

“It can be rewarding to listen to something unpredictable: That was the goal, for better or worse. Obviously it’s not the best record ever, but it’s an interesting record.” Barnes sounds like neither plaintiff nor defendant when talking shop; rather than an apologist, he comes off more like a true believer: “It’s sort of indicative of the time we’re in right now, where people are looking for more creative music and artists are taking more chances.”

According to Barnes, sessions for the record started off in practical mode, applying a verse-chorus-verse theory, but this soon collapsed. “I abandoned that approach and just made one piece at a time. I was trying to make them, and it didn’t really flow - it sounded awkward. I felt like there’s no real reason. So many people are trying to do it the other way: write the perfect pop song. I would rather make awkward pop music than predictable pop music.”

The album's 'narrative' – a term used loosely here – could be described as equally erratic. While previous albums have woven stories or confessionals to the melodies, the emergence of his transgendered, middle-aged alter ego Georgie Fruit as a vocal character marks a step in a different direction for Barnes.

“I think the whole Georgie Fruit thing is sprung from my depression period," he says. "I didn’t really think about it at the time, but looking back on it, I think that maybe I just needed an escape from that: the darkness of the Kevin Barnes reality. When I balanced things out a little bit, this other character just rose to the surface.”

While this unleashing of an alter-ego has occurred throughout pop culture's androgynous past, perhaps most prominently with Ziggy Stardust, it’s not exactly common in the indie community. But this is something Barnes describes as getting out of his “comfort zone”, though he indicates that it was a natural process.

Their leader’s songwriting methodology seems to have paid off for the Athens, Georgia outfit, with increased sales and graduation to higher-profile venues, at least in their native US, coming with the new record. Barnes doesn’t dwell on this long, however, preferring instead to highlight the opportunities afforded to the band by the exposure: “This last tour that we did we actually played good-paying festival shows. We squirreled the money away, knowing we’d need a big budget if we put on this production.”

The ever-evolving of Montreal live show – which has recently included the singer being led to stage on a white horse or being hung from makeshift gallows – incorporates video and dramatic performance, at a level of production that has been building for years.

“At the very beginning, we were driven by the indie rock/punk rock mentality of ‘Don’t dress it up. Be as real as possible’." says Barnes "Ever since [2004’s] Satanic Panic in the Attic, we decided we were going to try something visually interesting, and it built up from there, tour by tour, adding new elements.”

With the time and thought put into each tour’s production – mostly by Kevin's brother David, who designs much of Montreal material (albums, posters, lamps) – the band thinks of it as “two separate productions that are lopped on top of each other. It’s not just throw a bunch of people on stage and goof off for three minutes; it’s definitely a planned skit.”

Barnes concedes that in the US, the larger crowds create an easier setting for stage play, but hopes the band creates a similar experience for UK audiences as well: “Over here, we’re still building something, so we still play smaller places and we’re bumping into each other. There are people falling off the stage, bumping over keyboards. But we want to do something visually cool, so even if there’s no room for it, we’ll do it anyway.”

And while for the band’s past four albums Barnes has been the principle songwriter, he maintains that in performance and many other aspects, it’s a cooperative approach with everyone pitching in: “Of Montreal has become like an art collective. Everyone’s invested, everyone wears a bunch of different hats. Everybody is involved. You’re not just going to do one thing.”

This is why, in Barnes’ world, you might be scouring music stores for equipment one minute – or investigating the phenomenon of Neeps & Tatties - only to be cavorting around stage in a pig mask or skin-tight red bodysuit the next. And when the dual performance finally comes, you can tell even though it may take a lot of work and coordination, the band’s getting as much out of it as the fans are.

of Montreal play the Futures Stage at T in the Park on Saturday 11 July.