This is the Q & A transcription of an interview I did with Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes for the CURRENT issue of Jettison Quarterly.
-How do you define your art? Is each song a separate work of art, or is it more Of Montreal as a whole?
“I like to think of it as a creative journey through my whole life. I want to always find new inspiration to help me grow artistically and change. Change is very important to me. Even though it can be kind of confusing to people because they don’t know what to make of certain mutations. They can think of you as one thing, and it’s what they like and it means something to them, but then you change and they don’t understand it anymore. And they kind of feel like you’ve betrayed them. In some instances, people want their artists to be predictable. If you go to the grocery store and you always get a certain kind of peanut butter because you like it a lot and you always want it to always taste the same, if all of a sudden it’s changed to taste like salsa, you’re going to be upset.”
-When you were a kid, did you want to grow up to become an artist?
“When I was a kid I wanted to be an athlete. I didn’t really have any friends for a long time because I lived in sort of a weird area, so for whatever reason I didn’t have friends my own age. So I’d go a lot of role playing, fantasy games by myself. For football I’d play by myself—being the announcer, being the quarterback, being a defender and tackling myself. I was totally emersed in these weird sports fantasy games.
I guess it evolved into something artistic when I started playing music, but it was the same sort of deal. I didn’t have any friends who played the kind of music I wanted to play, so I just had a cassette four-track and would put songs together one instrument at a time and make something closer to my own vision. I just really really love the creative process of how transportive and empowering it is to take me from someplace mundane and boring to somewhere exciting.”
-Of Montreal’s albums are great, but they could be more like a promotional item themselves. Would you agree that the main Of Montreal event is your live show?
“Not necessarily. When I make a record, that creation is extremely fulfilling. I love recorded music and music history, I don’t really go to live shows very often. To me, the recorded side is the most important part of this, but live shows can be very fulfilling too because it’s more communal.”
-Your concerts are all about spectacle. How big and fantastic do you hope to get? Are you beyond the Flaming Lips in terms of sheer enormity of stage presence yet?
“People compare our live show to the Flaming Lips, but it really has nothing to do with them. It goes so farther back. David Bowie, Alice Cooper and Kiss, so many people who came way before Flaming Lips. But what we’re trying to do is create something. We can’t do this on every tour because we finance everything. We use tons of money, but it’s worth it to us because it’s so fun. It feels more exciting and challenging to put on something magical that has visual elements. When I’m recording I’m all by myself and I feel like I’m not really connecting with the human race, I’m in this sort of bubble. But when we do these live performances it’s very much communal and collaborative. Everyone I work with is my friends and family, like my brother or friends from years and years ago. It’s great for all of us to have something to care about and focus a lot of positive energy into.”
-I think it’s safe to say that Of Montreal, while still on Polyvinyl, has transcended beyond the “indie” bubble. Your band is pretty huge these days, but do you still feel a connection with the independent art scene?
“That’s all it is. Just because it’s a little more successful commercially or whatever, it’s still not like being as successful as Beyonce. It’s still underground. And the underground scene is great now with all the blogs and new ways people can share music and exchange ideas.
When we first started, we were definitely as indie as indie gets. But the only way you’d hear about us was because maybe two or three magazines wrote about this kind of music. Or if someone had the album in their car. It was a word of mouth thing. The music we were into was anachronistic in a way. I mean, we were into vaudeville and the Gershwin brothers, things people our age had no interest in. Maybe there were people back then that would’ve been into it, but now people are able to transfer their interests with others much quicker, and it can spread to further reaches.
We spent six years being completely obscure. We’d only get like 100 people at our shows. We’d play that way for a long time, like six years. Our band kinda broke up, but I wasn’t really done. I still had more that I wanted to explore. I had a sort of rebirth on Polyvinyl, came back to life recording all these new kinds of songs.”
-How important is fashion to you? Or, how important is it to Of Montreal?
“Anybody who creates in a visual art probably has a sense of fashion because they want to create a sort of aesthetic. I definitely don’t want to go out on stage wearing something that anybody could buy at Sears. It’s a combination of things, I want it to be interesting. Everything that we’re doing, we don’t want it to seem too common. I’m definitely interested in fashion, but I don’t really care what other people are wearing. I just want to be wearing something interesting when I’m on stage. I think there’s great potential, and that it’s a really interesting art form. But that other side of it, like people who want to wear Dolce and Gabbana like it matters to them. That’s so embarrassing to me. Designer brands are so embarrassing. I like to wear outfits by designers who are working independently, and are just passionate about what they do.”
-How awesome was it to have your album co-produced by Jon Brion?
“He’s a great musician. He’s totally coming from the right place. He loves music as much as I do. He has such an incredible music memory. He knows how to play pretty much any song he’s ever heard. It’s staggering. So if I ask him, “hey play God Only Knows on ukulele” he will.
It was definitely intimidating, because I’m such a hack. I can barely play any instrument, but he’s such a virtuoso at everything. But not in a superficial or egotistical way, it’s completely connected to his soul. He’s such a soulful player. It’s very eye-opening and inspiring, it motivated me to become a better musician and connect with music in a deeper way.”
-And how about Janelle Monae?
“Definitely one of the greater meetings I’ve had over the past couple years was meeting Janelle and her art collective, the Wondaland Arts Society. There are so many creative people in that collective, and I became very close friends with a lot of them. I’d send them my songs, exchanging ideas and get their feedback. They’re very encouraging and inspiring.
When they were creating Archandroid I was working on False Priest.
I’m an avid reader, and so I could talk to them about people I wasn’t familiar with before. Just a great exchange of ideas.
Janelle is such an amazing performer and vocalist. A lot of indie rock’s attitude comes from the punk rock attitude of “you shouldn’t really be a great musician, it should all come from a spontaneous place.” But it’s all so cynical too. I remember feeling very suspicious of anyone who was a virtuoso with their instrument. Like, instead of playing from the heart they’re playing intellectually. I came from a more cynical place, but Janelle is not cynical at all. It’s all about positivity and empowering one’s self and your audience. And also taking great pride in the production and presentation. So it felt great to meet someone like that who cares so much about their art, and it makes me think, “ok, am I doing that? How can I become a better performer?” Because I’ll be playing shows with her and I don’t want to be upstaged.”
-Of Montreal almost feels like the musical equivalent of sexual liberation. Is that intentional?
“Definitely recently it’s been more connected to sexuality. My early stuff was intentionally asexual. But for the last, like, five albums, they’ve been more sexually inspired. I think it’s because a lot of the music I’ve been getting into lately like funk, R&B and soul music is very much a physical and sexual style of music, so I guess it comes across in Of Montreal naturally.”
-The final lines on False Priest are painfully blunt (“you’re wrong, and you’re ill”). Who are you preaching at here?
“It’s directed to the human race, to myself and everyone. We spend so much time thinking about this abstract concept and giving it a character. But it’s funny, a lot of people think of God as this primitive creature, emotionally. Sort of flawed. We don’t think of him as anything in life. At least for me growing up Catholic. The god of the catholics is not enlightened in any way. It’s very savage and cruel and small-minded. And this thing doesn’t even exist, it’s just this invention. So why don’t we care about each other more? I feel like, even if we do believe in God, it would be honoring to God to care about each other more. If God is creator, of course you care about your creation. You don’t want your creation to be suffering and killing or hurting one another in your name, that’s just absurd. So the message is that we care for each other. That’s the most important thing. The concept of spiritual obligation to some abstract creator shouldn’t be that important.”
-How do really feel about Carl Jung?
“I’ve actually never really read much of him!”