Interview: Kevin Barnes – of Montreal – Live at the Cox Capitol Theatre – 1/18
The Athens-born band, of Montreal, will bring their new sound to a new place on January 18th when they perform in Macon for the first time at Cox Capitol Theatre with Wild Moccasins. The funky electric-pop band released their 12th album, ‘Lousy With Sylvianbriar’, three months ago. Though their sound seems to morph and evolve with every album, founder and frontman Kevin Barnes says the new one sounds so different that he considered changing the band’s name. He also says he’s excited to visit Macon for the first time and see downtown, instead of just passing through on I-16.
Laura Corley: Tell me about your most recent album, Lousy With Sylvianbriar.
Kevin Barnes: It was a reaction to the last record that I made, Paralytic Stalks, that was more sonically adventurous and influenced by sort of avant-garde classical music and [had] these longer instrumental sections. The last record is just very dense with ideas and very complicated, and this record I wanted to be a little bit more stripped-down and have simpler arrangements so that the vocals really stood out. The vocal performance and the lyrical content — I wanted that to be the focus of the listener… It’s definitely more inspired by people like Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, Neil Young…and people like that that I respect greatly as writers and musicians. When you listen to a Dylan song, you do listen to the music that is happening, but your main attention is on what he’s saying. That’s kind of what I was going for with this record, to make something where the main focus would be the content and the emotion in the voice.
Tell me about making the new album.
We made it in Athens, Ga. in my home studio and we did it more as a live band. We did it to analog tape, so we did a lot of the basic tracking live with everyone in the room together. That was sort of my vision. I wanted to make something that was more in line with the way people used to make records in the ’60s and the ’70s and have it be more spontaneous and more immediate and capture the atmosphere in the room and the energy in the room rather than labor over it over months and months and months.
Most of the records I had done before this one I’d done basically as solo records and, you know, working by myself a majority of the time and building up one instrument at a time. That’s really a cool way to work because you can change anything at any moment with just the click of a mouse and make really interesting arrangements that way. It does lose a bit of spontaneity and sort of becomes a little bit more invalid and homogenous because it’s just one brain creating everything. So working with a group of people and having their personalities influence things and their minds influence things was really exciting to me.
I guess the thing is, as long as you have the right group of people together and there’s no conflict, there’s no hostility or whatever, it’s just everyone working together as one organism. That’s basically what it was like and it was great.
What are the ideas and themes of this album?
It’s a very personal record and there are a lot of references to a relationship that I have in my personal life and just sort of working through things. It’s sort of my therapy, in a way. When I’m struggling with something I’m able to sort of direct it into my art. Some of it is on the verge of being hateful and ugly and some of it is kind of more desperate and some of it is more beautiful. It’s all just almost like an open diary or something.
How did you come up with the name Lousy With Sylvianbriar?
I was reading a lot of Sylvia Plath poetry and she has this one poem that begins something like “Lady, your room is lousy with flowers,” and I guess I hadn’t really heard “lousy” in that way before. Because she was such a big influence on the record, I wanted there to be a reference to her in the title. Sylvianbriar is not a real thing, it’s just something I invented, but I sort of imagine it as like an ivy or some sort of creeping bush… I remember growing up, the briar patch [from the “Brer Rabbit” stories], like, “Don’t throw me in the briar patch”… So it’s like a place that people think, “Oh, that must be a terrible place, he doesn’t want to be thrown in there,” but he does want to be thrown in there because that’s where he lives and it protects him.
Sylvia Plath is a pretty dark poet. What do you take from her?
There’s obviously many different ways you can perceive your reality and one of the ways you can perceive it is in a darker fashion, where you see things in a more cynical way. I think that that world, the world of darkness, is very dense and can be very inspiring. As long as you don’t fall into too much self pity, it can be a good place to reside for a while…
[Plath is] a tragic figure and tragic figures are easy to romanticize, to me, at least, more so than highly successful, healthy, positive people… Maybe I’m sort of inclined myself to being a bit more cynical and darker. I always sort of root for the loser — all my favorite sports teams are the ones that never win. I guess, for that reason, I romanticize those kind of people — the tragic figures and the losers — more so than the really healthy ones.
What’s the significance of the motorcycle on the cover of Lousy With Sylvianbriar?
My wife, Nina, designed it. The idea behind it is basically, you know, the motorcycle is a sort of a symbol of liberation and freedom. I had been reading Hunter S. Thompson’s expose on Hell’s Angels around this time too, so he was an influence… [Lousy With Sylvianbriar] was sort of influenced by ’60s and ’70s music, and things about Easy Rider and the motorcycle culture and how they’re sort of the rebels of the highway.
What has been the response to the record so far?
It’s been great. I didn’t really know what to expect because it’s so different. Stylistically it’s very different from the last couple of records and definitely different from our most popular album, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? …
You know, whenever you do something like this, whenever you take like a 90 degree turn or 180 degree turn or whatever, you don’t really know what’s going to happen. It could kill your career, it could save your career, or it could be nothing, so you never really know. For me, I’m always chasing inspiration and I get bored doing the same thing.
Obviously it would have made a lot of sense for me to just keep making synth-pop until people hated me. You know, that’s what most bands seem to do, like, If they have success with something they just do it over and over and over again until it’s not successful anymore. I never really was driven in that way to be commercially successful. It just happened, you know, when you sort of stumbled upon something that was working commercially. It was just an accident and it wasn’t something that I really wanted to pursue any further.
This one, you know, this is what I want to do. This is what I’m interested in. This is what I’m excited about, and that’s what it has to be because that’s the only way I’ll get any sort of fulfillment from it. So people’s reaction to it is secondary, it’s not something I consider while I’m working on it. But then once it’s done, you have to live with it, and then you have to deal with how people perceive it or how it affects your life or how it affects your career and all that stuff. But, to answer your question, it seems like it’s been fairly positive but we didn’t really make that many, like, end-of-the-year best album lists or whatever.
Have there been any recent lineup changes?
The set up doesn’t really change that much. We still have a video show and a theatrical show and we’re still playing a lot of the older songs. We really just sort of integrated the vibe of the new record into what we had already been doing. So it’s not really that dramatic of a departure, it’s just basically adding this new element… There’s a few more moments that are more intimate and more stripped down but in general it’s still the same circus.
How is your sound on Lousy With Sylvianbriar different from your last record, Paralytic Stalks?
It’s still very poppy and pretty funky at times. It’s not as esoteric or whatever as what you might think of as 20th century avant-garde classical music and it’s also nowhere near as orchestral as that… With this record, it was more influenced by songwriter type of artists… I was writing more on the acoustic guitar. The last couple of records were written on a keyboard or piano and speak together…
If somebody heard this record and then listened to one of the other records they’d be like, “Wait, is this the same band?” I actually even considered changing the band name because it felt so different in my mind. But then, you know, when I realized that I’ve done that through my whole career. These people who’ve followed of Montreal from the beginning, they know now that anything is possible. So I decided it’s cooler, in a way, to have the catalogue be more diverse and not worry about how it fits in with everything else.
Why did you consider changing the name of the band? What made you stick with it?
We had this core group of musicians that had been with me, some of them for like 10 years, and they’re not with me anymore. I mean, they’re still alive, they’re still on the planet, they’re just not working with of Montreal anymore. So, it was such a major shift on many levels, getting these new people in and chasing this new spirit and it just sort of felt like a new chapter in a sense.
Initially, I thought, what would make it easier is I could kind of keep of Montreal, and of Montreal could be a sort of glam, funky pop thing, and then this new project could be a new thing that I could follow, you know, because I was a little bit nervous about alienating people in a way. But when it was done I was sort of realizing, “This could kind of like sink everything that I’ve worked so hard to create.” Then, when I realized I could just integrate it into what we had been doing already … I was able to basically combine the two worlds in a cool way, or a way that made sense to me.
How does playing in Athens stack up with playing in other similar towns?
I think most college towns are fairly similar, but with Athens, it has a great musical history with people like R.E.M. and B-52’s coming out of here, you know, which is extraordinary for a small town to have two extremely influential and important bands come from them.
So I’m guessing Athens is your favorite place to perform?
No. You know what’s funny, I think that because of what a large role fantasy plays in what I do, it’s actually easier to get into the right state of mind when I’m not in Athens, because Athens is where I live. When I’m in Athens, I kind of feel like I’m in this bubble that’s outside of the world… I like to just be totally anonymous when I’m here…
And then, when we go on tour it’s a different thing. I get into a different state of mind. So it’s actually easier for me to get into that state of mind when I’m somewhere outside of Athens. But we do have great shows in Athens. Last time, we played at 40 Watt. It was really fun. We usually have a good turnout and an enthusiastic crowd and all that. But it doesn’t really feel like “Oh, thank God, we’re at home, this is where I feel comfortable.” It’s kind of the opposite.
What makes a good show for you?
It’s hard to say, really. So much of it is just the state of mind that I’m in and it’s really impossible to predict. Usually, I’m in a decent state of mind, and usually the shows are good, but the shows that really stand out to me are great shows. There’s no formula for it, you know, it just sort of happens. Then afterwards you’re like “God, that was great. That was so much fun.”…
A lot of it is the reaction that the crowd has and the enthusiasm there. And if it doesn’t feel like sort of a voyeuristic experience for them, if it feels like people are coming together in this communal way and participating and exchanging emotions and receiving emotions and absorbing each other’s emotions and all that stuff. If it feels more communal it’s usually going to be more fun and more satisfying.
What’s next for you?
Well, we’re doing a lot of touring this year. After this run, we’re going out to California for four shows, then we’re going out to Japan and Hawaii, then we’re going to Europe for about a month and Mexico. So basically we just have a lot of shows on the horizon.
of Montreal will perform with special guest, Wild Moccasins. Tickets are $15 in advance and $18 on the day of the show. Doors open at 7 p.m.
Laura Corley is a journalist working with Art Matters: Engaging the Community through Embedded Arts Journalists, a collaboration between the Macon Arts Alliance and Mercer’s Center for Collaborative Journalism. This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, Art Works. Matching funding provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The journalists in the program will be spending time with arts and arts organizations in the Macon area through June, report what they discover, and foster ongoing conversations about the arts in Middle Georgia.