Having performed in a ten-foot dress adorned with hallucinatory projections, completely nude, and with everything in between, enigmatic and eccentric frontman Kevin Barnes has guided of Montreal through a kaleidoscopic 18 years, 12 albums, and countless reformations in cast, spanning genres from vaudevillian twee pop, acid-soaked electronica, glam rock, and funk.
In their newest incarnation, a unique take on Dylan and Stones-esque 60-70s psychedelic Americana, Lousy with Sylvianbriar is anything but. Eschewing the glitter-covered, other-worldly, and androgynous sex-charge of their past few records, Barnes and co. have returned to their roots, recording without the use of computers on the 24-track in his home studio and emerging with yet another undeniably successful left turn.
Known for their flamboyant and high-energy live shows, of Montreal have incorporated elaborate stage acts, costumes, fruit, and once even a real-life, all-white horse into their musical performances as they convey Barnes’ meandering and shocking narratives articulated in his characteristically voluble diction and delivered in his simultaneously jarring yet soothing croons, shrieks, and falsettos.
Transverso Media spoke with Barnes about his beginnings, the new album and more.
TRANSVERSO: What was it like starting out in the Elephant 6 Collective in Athens, Georgia?
KEVIN BARNES: It sort of came together very unexpectedly when I moved down to Athens. I just knew one person who happened to connect me with all those other people, so it was really fortunate the way it happened. [It was] basically just a bunch of people who were making cassette four track recordings in their bedrooms and listening to Beach Boys’ Smile and [other], at that time, sort of obscure 60s music. Young people weren’t really listening to that stuff, so I needed to find a bunch of people my own age that were listening to those classic 60s records. It was great because, where I was living before in south Florida, there was nothing like that, basically everyone just listened to what was on the radio and dance music and things like that, so it was cool to meet all these likeminded people and to be inspired by each other and kind of create this new alternate universe together.
But you created the new record more or less isolated in San Francisco. What motivated this move and how did it affect you?
I’m not sure really what motivated it besides just wanting to get out of my comfort zone and go somewhere that sounded sort of exotic. I didn’t really know that many people but I knew enough people that I wouldn’t feel completely alienated in the new environment and [I] just sort of wandered around and spent a lot of time by myself and in my head thinking of ideas. I did a lot of reading, writing, and all that, so that’s cool, just to be focused to have nothing else going on other than focusing on writing. I think it inspired me because I was sort of romanticizing the concept of San Francisco and the different important cultural movements and events that happened there over the decades, [thinking] about the beat generation, the feminist movements, gay rights movements and all the important events that went down there. It’s cool because it’s a very culturally diverse city as well, so there’s so much ethnic diversity and cultural diversity and all these new places to discover, [whereas] in Athens, Georgia it’s a small town and there is not much mystery there. I’ve been [in Athens] so long that I kind of know everything, so it was cool to be in some new place that I could just go explore and discover new things.
of montreal is a bit of a revolving door in terms of members. How does it feel to be the solitary mainstay? Does that give you that sort of freedom you need to go to these places and do these things on your own?
Yeah, it’s cool to not have to answer to anybody because I’m very restless creatively speaking, and so it’s hard for me to really be attached to people in that way. I kind of need to be free to make decisions to help me go in different directions and realize different visions and so it’s just the way it is.
Your lyrics seem to fluctuate over a blurred line between personal and fictional. What can you tell us about that?
I think if you only write about yourself and your personal life it feels maybe a bit narcissistic, but I think it’s inevitable that there will always be some aspect of your personal life or your personal emotions or whatever coming through, even if you write about something that would seem like fiction. I guess I just made a decision early on that I wanted songs to be directly connected to my personal life and to reality, but I’ve gone through phases, like early on where I got kind of I got some bad reviews, and so I freaked out and [thought] well, I don’t want to put any of my personal life in there ‘cause it makes me too vulnerable. Then I’ve come back around to writing from a more personal perspective over the last six or seven records. If you write from a personal standpoint it’s likely to have a more timeless quality, just because you’re writing about universal themes that everyone can kind of identify with and they don’t really disappear.
Most of your early work is absent from your live shows, though. Is it because of those negative reviews? How do you go about picking a set from such an extensive discography?
No, I wouldn’t say that my decision making is affected by negative reviews of the early work, just because I’ve really sort of moved on, you know? I’m happy [those records] exist, but they don’t make any sense to me anymore; they came from a part of my psyche that’s either in hibernation or in a coma or dead or whatever. I don’t identify with them anymore, but the songs from the last six or seven records I still identify with, and it doesn’t seem foreign at all to play them. It’s really just wanting to play songs that I can connect with, ‘cause otherwise it’s just like doing some cover song or something. As far as putting a set together, it’s usually just a matter of thinking about what would be fun to play, what would feel good to play or would be therapeutic to play.
Drugs and other chemicals are often mentioned in your lyrics. How have these substances affected your artistic process?
Everything affects the creative process and your reality and your day-to-day outlook on things. I’m so focused on writing and everything it’s sort of centered around that, everything I do is gonna influence that on some level, but I’m not really a recreational drug user or anything like that so I don’t really have that same sort of relationship with recreational drugs that maybe some people have. I don’t really use drugs as an inspiration. If I do drugs, which I don’t that often, it’s normally just to see, okay, how’s this gonna feel, but it doesn’t usually make me more productive. I tend to be more productive when I’m just genuinely excited about the thing that I’m working on. I don’t really need anything artificial to boost that because the whole thing happens organically, and its not something that I can make happen through this combination of different things, it’s just something that kind of mystically happens without much effort, or it doesn’t happen at all.
What can you tell us about the upcoming of Montreal documentary “The Past is a Grotesque Animal”?
Well it’s basically done. I think that now it’s at the point of post production, [going through] color correcting, making sure the sound is solid throughout and little things like that, but yeah, it’s basically done. It just got picked up by Oscilloscope, so it’ll have a decent distribution. I’m not sure exactly when it’s coming out, but I’m assuming sometime this year.
Is it more of a documentary on you or the band as a whole? What exactly does it cover?
Well it’s not so much about the music. I had no real involvement with the way it was edited or put together or directed or anything, so it’s definitely not my project. It’s probably more about me and [my] personal relationships over the last 15 years or whatever more so than the music and the live show and the artwork and things like that. It’s slightly more behind the music than something that would be more objective.
Speaking of the artwork, Lousy with Sylvianbriar has the first album cover in a while that wasn’t done by your brother, David Barnes. How do you go about selecting the visuals to accompany your music and what is the relationship there?
Growing up I always had a strong connection with albums and album art. Whenever I hear a song I instantly have the album cover in my head if its something that’s like a classic album that I loved. It’s a weird thing, just staring at the album cover while you’re listening to the album and having that really strong memory connection with the music. I always wanted the album covers to have some presence of their own but also to feel like a visual embodiment of the spirit of the record. The new record [with] the motorcycle on the hill represents a sort of wildness and freedom ‘cause I was reading a Hunter S. Thompson book about the hells angels when I was writing the record. [The] motorcycle represents, maybe not so much anymore, but what it represented in the 60s and 70s, [was] that sort of outlaw culture. The record, to me, is sort of hearkening back to that time period, [and] it seems to be a sort of icon for that time period.
What are some of the album covers that made such a strong impression on you growing up?
Well a big one is the Prince album Sign o’ the Times where he’s on the cover with his big, kind of, like, Randy glasses, or whatever, and just looking very androgynous. That one, and also the cover of Lovesexy. Prince album covers I’ve probably stared at the most, just ‘cause he was so serious and perplexing, this strange, androgynous, beautiful creature that was so talented and so versatile and different; each record he was a completely different person. Same with David Bowie; [I spent a lot of time] staring at the cover of The Man Who Stole the World and Ziggy Stardust and Low, and things like that.
What ever happened to your rumored collaboration with MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden?
We’re still close friends and we still talk about it, so I think it will happen eventually, it’s just a matter of finding a moment where were both open and available.
What’s next for you and of Montreal?
Well I started work on a new record and we’re talking about getting together in a country house out in Tennessee this summer, so basically just sort of collecting ideas and chasing different inspirits and trying to find some spark to create a new wave for me artistically. I think I have actually discovered it, but I don’t really want to talk about it yet because it’s sort of in this vulnerable state right now. I just keep looking and keep touring; we have a lot of shows happening over the next couple months. We’re going to Europe, we’re going to Moscow in June, which is the first time we’ve ever gone out there. Yeah, I’ll basically just keep looking and keep producing things.
Lousy With Sylvianbriar is out now on Polyvinyl