After several gleeful electropop albums, a brief romp into psychedelic funk and a journey through twisted R&B, where do you go?
The ‘60s, baby.
After 2012’s overly complicated digital jungle Paralytic Stalks, Kevin Barnes abandoned his computer and holed up in the breeding ground of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s counterculture––San Francisco. There, settled into a state of isolation in the Mission District, of Montreal’s chief mastermind studied the dark, confessional poetry of Bell Jar author Sylvia Plath. The words and melodies of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Graham Parsons, and the Rolling Stones flowed through Barnes’ rented apartment, returning the guitarist to simpler melodies and recreating his songwriting. The result is lousy with sylvianbriar.
Barnes’ gifts for metaphor, vocabulary and snarky comments mesh well with lyric-focused folk rock and, somewhat surprisingly, the grooving rhythms of late ‘60s rock‘n’roll. Barnes is the man who brought you the intro line “I’m so sick of sucking the dick of this cruel cruel city” on Skeletal Lamping’s “St. Exquisite’s Confessions;” he doesn’t hold back on this album, either. Encouraged by Plath’s poetry and Dylan’s songwriting, Barnes unleashes a crop of beautiful, dark images rife with disillusionment and cynicism. In the world of lousy with sylvianbriar, missionaries steal your cocaine, your pregnant mother hangs herself in the National Theatre, and you have great talks with your dead best friend.
The album’s semi-novel approach doesn’t end with its lyrics. Barnes recorded lousy on a 24 track tape machine, a much more limiting and exciting choice than the modern route of digital recording. The decision was the right one––the music feels warmer and simpler than previous of Montreal records. A new cast of musicians grooved together, which is best in the Stones-esque track “Fugitive Air” and the slow-paced, roving “Obsidian Currents.”
The frontman’s nutty onstage escapades might mislead you into expecting an egomaniac or a madman on the line. The reality was quite the opposite: a considerate musician completely open to a 30 minute conversation with a total stranger, despite the pressure of a newly launched tour and an impending live show. Four days into the lousy tour, the eclectic Barnes and I discussed the creative process, lyric writing and tropical paradise.
Will it be your favorite ten years from now or is it an of-the-moment thing ?
Typically if I connect with a song, I keep that connection for awhile.
What song on this record was the most difficult for you to write? None of them are really difficult because… it’s not any more difficult than anything else. It’s just what I do. It’s my main focus in life. It’s a very organic process. It’s sort of mysterious. You can’t really predict it. It’s not, “If I try harder, I’ll write a better song.” All songs happen in a mystical way. It’s not necessarily that it’s difficult to write. Not that it’s easy to write, either. It’s just something that I focus on and work on a couple weeks or a couple months or however long it takes until it feels like it’s done.
Your lyrics have a very unique, individualistic tone not often seen in contemporary indie music. How do you approach songwriting ?
When I’m writing, I try to avoid cliches, platitudes, sayings, and things that are kind of common. In songwriting, and in speech in general, I want it to feel more singular. It’s kind of like how the dialogue in movies is not really what you hear normal people say. In novels it’s the same thing. It’s writing in a way that you wish you could speak or that you wish you heard other people speaking. If you could stop time and say things just so. I read a lot of poetry and I like that more tightened form of language. You can say things in a way that you normally couldn’t, unless you were extremely eloquent––which I’m not. You can communicate things in a way that’s more poetic and more interesting.
While you wrote this album in an isolated situation, you recorded it with a live band. What was it like bringing a live band into this deeply personal material?
I’ve done it in the past where it’s been a collaborative project. I’d write the chord progressions and the lyrics and give some direction to the other musicians, as far as this kind of bassline. I also demoed a lot of the songs so I had a pretty good idea of how I wanted things to happen. Then the other musicians just took that direction and added their own unique sounds to it.
When you brought in a live band, it probably changed the way you saw some of the material.
Yeah, there were a bunch of songs like that. I guess the big one would be “Triumph of Disintegration.” That one had a really dense arrangement with a digital element to it with programming and all sorts of effects. So we had to do that using the formula that we had for the other songs, which was basically five musicians in the room playing together. We had to have a different arrangement and approach it in a different way. That one we tried a couple different styles. Like, “Okay, we’re going to do it more like Motown,” or “We’re going to do it like The Pretty Things.” The idea that [we] came up with was a cross between ‘50s R&B and soul and then going into this country ballad rock in the chorus. I remember just playing musicians as references. Like, “This is how I want the groove to feel in the drums” and playing a Pretty Things song. And then someone might say, “You mean like this song?” We’d play each other other people’s songs as a way to get on the same wavelength.
Was the experience of recording without some of the advantages of digital recording technology a bonding experience for you and did it bring you closer to the material that inspired you?
Well, our first five records we made on an analog machine. Sunlandic Twins was the first one that was made on a computer. So I had experience working with tape machines and I knew what we were getting into. It had been awhile since I had done it but it was fun. It’s a completely different way of working. You have to actually play everything well. You can’t just cut it and copy it with software in post-production. It’s all there on the tape. In a way, it was a fun challenge because we had to be creative in the moment. Whatever we put down, that was the way it was coming out. We had to be on top of our game when we were recording. It’s fun, too, because we did a lot of the basic tracks live and together. You can work really quickly that way. That’s why we were able to do the whole record in two weeks. We finished a song a day. Whereas when I was doing it on a computer, it would take me sometimes months to make a song because I was doing it one instrument at a time. I’d be working on it and getting bored with it, debating whether to change something or not change something and tinkering. You can’t really do that on a tape machine. It makes you make decisions faster and it helps you capture a moment in time––these two weeks with this group of people in this room and this is what we make together. It’s very special in that way.
So the tape machine prevents you from over-thinking your work?
Yeah, definitely. You can still be a perfectionist if you wanted to but that wasn’t my state of mind. I just wanted to make something that felt really alive and spontaneous and raw. I feel like we’re getting to the point where we’re trying to take the human aspect out of our recording, trying to make everything perfect and flawless. It loses that sort of magic that recording had in the ‘60s and ‘70s. You feel so much more of the artist coming through. Not just the vocalist but the drummer, percussionist, the bass player, the brass section––everybody. It’s incredible to think that most of those recordings were done with everybody in the room together. They could probably make the whole album in one day.
Recording it live must make it an easier transition to play it live.
Definitely. I mean, that’s why when we were booking this tour I realized I needed to bring the musicians who played on the record on the road. That meant breaking up the live line-up that we’ve had for almost ten years. That was a big decision I had to make. But like you said, it’s true that how the song sounded on the record was exactly how we wanted it to sound on the road.
How did that go? Are you still in touch?
Yeah, we’re all still very close friends. It’s kind of cool because everybody in the band (when we had the other line- up), they all had their own projects which they had to kind of put on the side because they were so busy with of Montreal. Everybody’s still good friends.
Every album of yours is a radical departure from the last. Is that a part of maturing as a songwriter?
I don’t view it so much as a growing process as much as it’s connected to what is going on in my personal life. Wherever I’m at in the moment gets put into the songs and the albums. I have a restless, creative spirit. I get bored with things quickly and I try new things. That’s why a lot of [of Montreal] albums vary stylistically. [On this album] I wanted to make something that’s more intimate and confessional and slightly less organized. That’s why this record is inspired by people like Steve Earle and Bob Dylan and Neil Young, who can carry a song just with a guitar and their voice. It’s all about the lyrics and the vocal performance and not as much about all the extra stuff.
It’s stripped down. was it hard when you were writing it to think about what was just in front of you and not thinking, “Oh, I’ll add this in the studio” or “I should put this there?”
Paralytic Stalks was incredibly dense. I made a lot of very crowded formations. There was so much happening and so much going on. So I wanted to make something that felt a bit less ornamental in that way. Like you said, something more stripped down and more direct. Working on the 24 track helps because you just run out of track. When you work on a computer, you’re not limited in any way. When you work on a tape machine, the machine tells you you’re done. When you work with those limitations, you have to be very resourceful with the package you have to work with.
I was watching the video for “Fugitive Air” and recognized Isla Mujeres, which is a place I used to live. It’s pretty much paradise. How did you wind up taping that video in that location?
A couple of our friends had been there before and [Barnes’ wife] Nina and I went there just because the friends recommended it so highly. We stayed at this bed and breakfast and the guy who owns the place was this really cool ex- pat. He’s been living there for I-don’t- know how many years, like ten years. We just went down there and it was so cinematic. We’d wander around and it has such a cool feel. It has this really great, romantic energy. It’s in Mexico, so it has these Mexican qualities as well. I have this very romantic notion of Mexico. So just being there… It’s touristy, but it’s not Cancun touristy, you know? There’s this dangerous and interesting feel, not like a Disney park. It’s a good combination of actual life and vacation life.
Did you plan on filming clips for the video there or did that happen naturally?
Nina brought her camera and we had our smartphones as well. We don’t know how to take a vacation really, like the kind where you sit around and do nothing. Even on our vacation we wanted to have a creative project.
How’s this tour been going ?
It’s great. Like I said, there’s a new line- up. Two band members I’d never played a show with before, so we’d only had studio experience together. It’s cool to go on the road and travel and play onstage. Hanging out before and after has been fun.
You’ve toured a few times through New Orleans. what’s your impression of the audience here?
It’s always a very wild audience. Everybody comes with a great energy. They want to participate. They don’t want to be voyeurs. It feels very communal. That’s what I love about it.
Of Montreal plays at the Howlin Wolf on Saturday, November 26th at 10pm. For more info, check out www.ofmontreal.net