By Kyle Lemmon; photos By Trompe L'Oeil Photomagique; clothes Provided By Agora on October 12, 2012
Kevin Barnes wants to be alone right now. He contemplates his next aesthetical move like a chess player hunched over the battlefield. “I want to imagine myself on this island where I don’t have to engage with anybody else,” says the Athens, Georgia, native of his current situation. “The process becomes so much more meditative and therapeutic in that way.” Barnes recently woke up from a creatively fertile six-year period, or his “zombie state,” which exploded outwards from 2007’s depression-addled concept album, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? Personal strife at home, audacious rock-opera tours (2008’s Skeletal Lamping) and time spent under the tutelage of Los Angeles composer/producer Jon Brion (2010’s False Priest) dot of Montreal’s recent timeline. It’s a variegated résumé that is unique amongst most indie-pop musicians, but Barnes wants to clear the high bar he’s set for himself.
Polyvinyl Records’ fall release of the 17-track of Montreal odds and sods compilation Daughter of Cloud is seen by Barnes as a great crossroads, a place from where the artist can reflect on past laurels and restructure a mind that’s always bubbling with volcanic activity under its surface. Ten of the album’s songs are previously unreleased, while the other seven were originally issued on limited, rare or out-of-print CDs and seven-inches. Let it not be unsaid that of Montreal knows how to provide unequivocal fan service.
All this hand-wringing over a new musical chapter is warranted, considering of Montreal’s 11th full-length, the self-produced neo-prog suite Paralytic Stalks, which was released in February of this year. It’s a Princely sequence of shifting musical compositions that play with method like a house cat bandies a terrified mouse. When presented with his recent dalliances in cosmic outlaw country as a potential escape hatch from his typical psychedelic experiments, Barnes is diffident about tossing yet another country release into the public arena. “I feel discouraged, even though I know I could do it. I could do it on a weekend and the music could touch a lot of people or no one. I want to make something more original. Everything is slowly evolving in my head… Up to this point, every musical change has happened organically.”
Such a prolific artist needn’t worry about writer’s block (Barnes says he writes roughly 30 songs every year). He tends to let his mind drift and soak up anything around him before he starts writing. As of late, he’s been on a “real Ingmar Bergman kick,” visiting the local Athens video store where Barnes used to work called Vision Video to scoop up as many of the Swedish filmmakers’ films as he can get his hands on. That director, producer and screenwriter captured the fractured philosophies and internal panic of everyday people; it’s no wonder he’s a muse for Barnes.
Bergman lived on the Baltic Sea island of Fårö, making several of his films there. In a world free of distractions, Bergman’s brazen bid for solitude would be a Paradise Lost for the of Montreal frontman. His Sunlandic home studio in Athens will have to suffice for now. The Guide peered into the anxious mind of Kevin Barnes before his band’s headlining appearance at this year’s Culture Collide festival. His musings on a new chapter in his life may surprise, provoke and enlighten.
Last fall, you released a cassette box set through Joyful Noise Recordings that featured the first 10 of Montreal LPs. This fall, you’re dropping the outtakes compilation, Daughter of Cloud. Do you feel like the band has reached a milestone and this is a time for reflection and reinvention?
Kevin Barnes: Yeah, to some degree I feel like a chapter is closing and a new one is beginning. That’s what I like to think. Creatively, I’m in a strange and transitional period. I don’t really want to do the same thing I’ve been doing. I feel a lot of familiarity with the type of music I’m creating. About five years ago [during the recordings of 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?] I went off in this electronic and funky new direction. It was very dance-y. Now I feel like I’ve kind of ridden that wave to the end and I want to start something new. I haven’t started it yet. It’s a strange creative period in my life.
The disparate tracks on Daughter of Cloud make for an interesting listen. On “Our Love Is Senile,” a lyric stuck out: “Now it’s time to play the socialist and protect our little chick from our problems and confusions.” Is that about your daughter, Alabee?
I wrote that song about the struggle that I was going through with Nina [Twin, Barnes’ wife] around 2006. There’s the difficulty of having a kid and being responsible. You have to leave that life of useless folly. People who don’t have children don’t understand. They think that everything is blissful all the time with a happy family and all your problems will disappear. In reality it’s not an archetype of happiness. It’s complicates everything and turns everyday things a little insane. That song is very much autobiographical.
“Feminine Effects” and some other songs you’ve made recently have this great cosmic country sound to them. Have you ever thought of expanding upon that aesthetic?
I’ve always really liked outlaw country—The Flying Burrito Brothers, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. I guess what’s handcuffing me at the moment is this feeling that so many records are made within a certain genre that we know and accept. Everything fits into these categories. I just feel really uninspired adding yet another country record to the vast catalog of great music from the past. It seems so unnecessary. I’ve made so much music over my career and I want to keep it fresh. Up to this point, every musical change has happened organically. There was that musical explosion that happened six years ago and I wasn’t thinking about what I wanted to make because I was too busy making it. Now I feel like I’ve been slapped in the face and woken up from a dream or something.
Are you the Christian son whose mind couldn’t be fucked on Daughter of Cloud’s “Kristiansand?”
It’s called “Kristiansand” as kind of a joke or play on words. That’s about my life in a way. I was raised Catholic and my parents were nowhere near as oppressive as that. They wanted me to go to church every Sunday, but I always thought it was just my mother’s faith. It bothered me at the time. Your mother is an important person in your life; when she says “this is your faith” and you don’t agree with any of this stuff, it takes awhile for you to eventually say, “No, fuck you! It’s not my problem for not wanting to believe it.” You have to become strong enough to be able to overcome that challenge. I wrote it four years ago, so I wasn’t struggling with it at all. I was thinking about those kids today who deal with that type of brainwashing. There’s so much superfluous stuff attached to religion. The Golden Rule is a beautiful thing. I agree with a lot of Christ’s teachings, but then the other side is humans making things more complicated than they need to be. It comes down to mind control. They don’t want you to feel spiritually or intellectually empowered. They treat you like children.
What have you learned so far about being an artist?
I was recently talking to my dad about it because he’s not a musician. He was asking me what it was like to be a “professional musician.” I was thinking that being a professional, on a certain level, is to be an actor. You have to know your lines and do it every single night really well. You can’t be a performing artist without being a bit of an actor. You have to know how to get into the right state of mind. You’re basically doing the same thing every night and you might be in that place; you have to do it anyway. It takes a certain ability to remove your personal troubles from the performance. Otherwise, you’ll go crazy when you’re playing songs that are more intimate or emotionally attached to you. You might feel really insecure about sharing that unless you have some sort of defense in your psyche. My point is that you just can’t be a natural human being with all this baggage. You have to play this role that you’ve created. F