As I heard Kevin Barnes’s voice on my computer (via Skype) in my Jerusalem apartment, I realized just how surrealistic this interview was.
I only recently heard of the band “of Montreal,” after the announcement of its show at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv set for March 10, for what will be its second performance in Israel in just two years.
The group’s song ‘Fugitive Air,’ off its newest album, immediately clicked with some part of my brain, and from there I wanted to learn more about this interesting band. Not an easy task, mind you, with Barnes’s prolific career of 18 years and 12 albums to his name.
The band’s sound has changed quite a bit from Cherry Peel, its first indie, lo-fi pop album in 1997 (along with many personnel changes), but if you had to categorize of Montreal’s sound, it would be psychedelic pop music with electronica and funk influences. Try thinking of an infusion between the ’60s’ Beatles, Kinks and Sly and the Family Stone with David Bowie and Prince’s glam rock.
Before we continue, do yourself a favor and watch this live video of this two-chord power-house song that the band usually places at the end of its sets:
After my quick ear-pleasing introduction to the band’s world, I had the pleasure to speak with Barnes, the mastermind behind of Montreal, just as he was finishing a sound check in one of his touring spots in Europe.
We talked about an array of subjects, from his early musical days in Athens, Georgia, to his writing process and his impressions of Israel from his last visit.
So in which part of the world am I catching you right now?
We’re in Switzerland.
How’s the tour going so far?
So far it’s been great. We’re about 10 shows into the European tour.
Nice, any highlights?
There’ve been a lot of fun shows. London was great, Paris was great and Ravenna in Italy, that was really fun, I mean all the shows have been a lot of fun it’s hard to pick… my favorite, if I had to say, would probably be London.
I always wanted to ask a musician, being on stage must be such an adrenaline boost and a highlight of the night, but what’s it like when the lights are out and the show is over?
Obviously the highlight of the day is the show, but after that it’s fun too, because everyone’s got a lot of energy and are excited – having a few drinks and whatever, so it’s just like hanging with your friends. Everyone in the band is pretty close so the party just kind of continues on through the night.
You have a lot of albums, how do you choose which songs to perform in shows?
Well, we typically don’t go too deep into the early days, there’s six records that we haven’t played a song off of in years… but we still have another six records to pull from, so anything from Satanic Panic in the Attic to the last one, Lousy with Sylvianbriar.
Your last album has more of a rock & roll edge to it, is that a direction you’re looking to explore further?
I’m not sure really, because that was something that was new at the time for me. Since I usually do more electronic, funkier stuff, it was more a departure from that and it was exciting, but I don’t want to do another record that sounds just like Sylvianbriar, I’d rather take another direction. It’s still sort of forming in my head what’s going to happen next.
Your previous show in Tel Aviv, two years ago, was very theatrical, with all these stage props and costumes.
Are you preparing anything like that this time around?
Yeah, there’s going to be costume changes with a strong psychedelic visual production as well.
Any special memories from your previous show here?
Yeah, that totally exceeded my expectations, ’cause we’ve never been to Tel Aviv before and I had no idea what to expect. The show was incredible and everybody we met was so nice, very mellow. We had a great promoter, Eran Arielli (from Naranjah) who’s a great friend, so everybody just bonded. One of the fun memories, we were supposed to have an after-party at this club and there were so many people from the show who just wanted to hang out together, but the cops shut it down and instead we all just went to the beach till the sun came up – it was really, really nice.
Given the theatrical nature of your shows, would you like to see the Israeli crowd dressed up as well?
Yeah, well typically in the US, when people come to the shows, a lot of times they dress up in outrageous customs and make it sort of an event, almost like a holiday… a Halloween or New Year’s Eve sort of celebration.
So we need to start looking for costumes…
Sure, get into the spirit of it, it’s more fun that way. ’Cause I really want it to be a communal thing, you know where the line between the performers and the spectators is sort of blurred. I’d rather feel like everybody’s involved to make it feel more of a gathering of like-minded people.
Are you planning to travel in Israel?
Yeah, we arrive the day before the show and we have the day after the show off, and we only leave the following day after that. So we definitely have time to explore.
So I wanted to ask, what’s it like being from Athens, Georgia, with all the great bands that came out of there?
Well, when I got there in the late ’90s that whole R.E.M., B-52 thing, that ship had sailed. But I was a part of this other scene, the Elephant 6 collective that had bands like the Olivia Tremor Control and Elf Power, and that was great because I came from this small town in Florida where there was no music scene to speak of and nobody listening to any kind of music that I was listening to. All very mainstream, commercial and boring.
So when I went to Athens and met all these crazy artists that were making these 4-track records in their bedrooms, listening to the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Os Mutantes, the Kink, and all that it was so great for me to be around people like that at the time that I didn’t know anybody before. There were a lot of collaborations going on, a lot of parties, it was definitely a wild scene.
Was there any competition between the bands?
Nobody felt competitive at all, everyone just wanted to help each other. If one band started becoming a little more popular then they’d take the other bands on tour with them. We’d share information like, yeah these labels are cool, send your demos to these labels or this booking agent is good and this promoter is good, so we were all sharing information and helping each other out.
So how come you went with a two-word name for your band instead of three like Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control – seems out of line.
Ha, yeah, well I already named the band before and those guys are from the same small town in Louisiana so they go even further back.
All right, well I read an interview where you said how you switched your method from writing songs on acoustic guitar to writing straight while recording. How does that work for you exactly?
Well, to be honest I’ve actually gone back to writing on acoustic guitar. But when I was writing the more electronic stuff like Hissing Fauna and Skeletal Lamping, I did it all on my computer, so there’s a lot of software and midi instruments, at first to get the skeleton of the song down. So I would just mess around with drum beats or piano parts, or just have a melody line in my head, and figure out what the chord progression would be and then write another section. It was just sort of building off the thing that I created before and creating the orchestration and arrangement as I was writing the songs so it was all happening at the same time.
If you’re working by yourself it’s kind of a smart way to work because it’s less of an effort in a way. If you write a song on acoustic guitar you then have to really think how you’re going to arrange it and orchestrate it. So in recording you just sort of dive in and it works faster.
So at which point would you bring other musicians to the recordings?
Kind of never. I mean, the most recent record was very collaborative, but all the ones before that, all the more electronic ones, were basically solo records and maybe I’d ask someone to play one part on one song, but it was almost entirely my own personal labor of love. I was doing all the instruments myself and building tracks up one at a time.
When you write, what comes first, lyrics or melody?
I have a lot of lyrics that I never use, so usually if I have a melody line with no lyric I can go back into my journals or whatever and see if anything works, but a lot of times I’ll just write a melody line and then the lyric will happen pretty quickly.
So the lyrics come quicker to you.
Definitely, I mean I have so many, I probably use only 5 percent of the lyrics that I write, but it’s only because the melodies are harder to come by.
At what moment in your life did you know you were going to do music?
Well, when I was really young at my elementary school, I was probably only nine or 10 years old, we were all supposed to pick an instrument for the school band, and none of them seemed interesting at all for me except for the drums. Looking back at it now I can see that was sort of symbolic, because that meant I was really interested in rock & roll and pop music more so than classical, so I just wanted to get right into rock & roll even as a nine-year-old.
That’s when I started to get into guitar and understand how to write songs. I got a cassette 4-track and learned how to make these songs with one instrument at a time, because I didn’t have really any friends that played music so it was always a very personal experience to work alone and get immersed in that creative process and sort of escape from reality through that process.
I find it interesting that a lot of talented people know from a very young age what they want to do with their life. As if there’s some sort of a connection between them. Do you see it that way?
Yeah, I think I know what you’re saying. It’s almost like it’s just lying in you in a sort of latent state until you reach a certain age and then it’s this inevitability that has to happen. It’s not like you really wake up every day and say “I’ve gotta be a musician, I’ve gotta be a songwriter,” it’s just natural for me to think that way and to be that way. I guess it’s the same for everybody’s passion, it’s just a thing that they’re driven to do in this organic way. It’s not something they necessarily have to struggle with cause it just sort of happens.
Are there ever any doubts?
There’s always doubts, I mean, in the moment when I’m writing something I feel really good about it and really excited about it, but it loses its appeal so quickly that I never feel satisfied. You know, that’s why I never play any of the early songs, because on a certain level, [I’m] not necessarily embarrassed by them, but I don’t feel that good about them and the thing that keeps me going is this sense that I don’t want people to judge me on the value of the things I’ve created up to this point, ’cause I don’t think they’re that great and I keep hoping that I’m going to stumble upon something really great. As long as I keep working there’s a chance that my legacy can still be salvaged [laughs].
Wow, that sounds a little harsh. How come you lose that great feeling after writing the songs?
Well, the weird thing is, for us, because of what we do… we go on tour, play the songs and some of the songs are always going to get a good reaction and some of the songs are deeper cuts for whatever reason, and nobody or fewer people know them. And I can’t really tell the difference between why one has more of a broader appeal than another one has.
I guess the simpler it is usually the broader appeal that it will get, and the more complex or the more unpredictable and bizarre it is then the fewer people will understand it. Because I think, in general, that’s why most mainstream music is really simplistic with just two or three chords and a lot of times it’s the same chords in the verses and the choruses. It’s sort of a linear process in the way it’s arranged and orchestrated.
I don’t like writing that way, I’m interested in chord progressions and how chords work together and how things resolve, and experimenting with tempo changes and key changes and allowing myself to make these 180 degree turns in the middle of a song. It wouldn’t seem logical at all to do it, but it’s exciting to me and that’s the kind of music I like listening to, but that’s not the kind of music that’s going to sell hundreds of thousands of copies.
Do you think that with the new musical reality of the Internet and pirate downloading, does it affect perhaps the greatness of records being put out?
Well, the way people consume music is different now. They don’t necessarily want to get lost in this artist world. The era of concept albums is totally dead. There are still a few people who try to carry the torch, but it seems in general a lot of people want to hear one or two songs so it’s more of a singles culture which brings us back to the 1950s in a way, with Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison. People could just release a single and they would become really popular.
But I miss it, I miss the album format, I miss listening to every song on an album and treasuring it and having a really personal connection with a whole album, because it’s more nuanced and there’s more dynamic and depth of emotions, it’s not just anthemic.
Recently there’s like this strange draw… a lot of artists are making really anthemic and affirmative sounding music. But at some point it becomes cliché. When I first heard Arcade Fire I thought they were fantastic but now there are so many bands that sound like that or influenced by [that], which at some point even makes
Arcade Fire seem less special. I think it’s better for everyone to have their own identity. When things become too homage and people sort of “crack the code” like this is how you make happy-anthemic-positive-affirmative music and these are the chords you use and this is the instrumentation you use…
But this is coming from me who understands and hears the other elements. The average person doesn’t know why the cowbell makes them feel a certain way or whatever. It’s more visceral but when you make music and you hear that, you think “Oh God, are you really going to use that?” I guess I’ve become harder to please and more cynical about it…
Well, isn’t it a thing of authenticity, whatever comes from you?
Definitely, I should be the last person to criticize someone for wearing their influences on their sleeve. Everything I do is directly influenced by someone else’s work.
Right, but I guess every creation is influenced by someone, even The Beatles had their influences.
Well, what are you listening to nowadays, anything new?
The bands that I’m most into right now, like newer ones, I guess would be Foxygen, one of my favorites, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra has done some really good stuff. Tame Impala’s fantastic Lonerism is pretty much the best record I’ve heard in the last couple years. Sufjan Stevens I think does awesome stuff… Deerhoof. There’s a lot of great bands.
Okay, so last three quick questions for you. Beatles or Beach Boys?
Hard choice, but I guess I’d go Beatles.
If you couldn't do music for some reason, what would you do instead?
I think I’d be a sportscaster or a sports journalist.
And would you recommend to Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel) to take a trip to Israel?
Yeah, definitely, I think it would be amazing for him and everybody else.