From Dylan to Modernity: An interview with of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes

Posted November 4, 2013 in
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Kevin Barnes won’t let of Montreal get pinned down. Photo: Nina Barnes

Trying to describe what of Montreal is all about is nearly impossible. Attempting to confine almost 20 years of musical exploration and theatrical live performances into mere words is an enormous task in itself—my iTunes library even lists some of their work as unclassifiable. They range from avant-garde classical compositions to wildly catchy psychedelic-pop anthems and they are now diving into more folksy waters with their latest album, Lousy with Sylvianbriar. The only constant between albums is singer/songwriter/instrumentalist Kevin Barnes’ exceptionally poetic lyrics. SLUG recently had the opportunity to pick Barnes’ brain about the new album, Sylvia Plath, the creative process and of Montreal’s future (for now).

Anyone who knows anything about of Montreal knows that their sound changes more than the seasons. Like caterpillars changing into butterflies, their sound consistently becomes more colorful, yet matures with a natural fluidity—even amid seemingly chaotic projects. The reason it sounds natural is because it is natural—“Every creative decision I make happens organically and I don’t question it. I don’t think, ‘Is this good for my career or bad for my career? It’s whatever I’m just naturally interested in and just sort of driven to do, in a way. I don’t really question it,” says Barnes. It is Barnes’ avid interest in the world and lack of musical inhibition that has allowed of Montreal to experiment with a spectrum of different sounds and ideas that would make most musicians jealous. It is this kind of unbridled passion for life and music that makes of Montreal so unique.

Barnes suggests that the difference between albums lies not only in the inspirations but also in the recording technique and attributes most of the change in sound on the quick paced nature that comes from recording in a studio with other people. He says, “I think it’s because of working with the 24-track tape machine. So you have 24 tracks and that’s it, and the machine tells you when you’re done basically. But all the other records I did on a computer, so the computer is basically limitless in what you can do. You can have hundreds and hundreds of tracks and go through thousands of different arrangement ideas and transform a song and with one click of a mouse it can be a completely different kind of song. … So it was fun to get back to having those limitations, and going into recording, because tape is very expensive so you can’t really experiment too much. You have to have a pretty good concept of what you want going into it and have the arrangements worked out, the band has to know how to play, and you have to be able to sing, and like everybody has to actually be able to play everything because there’s no faking it. You basically get what you record and that’s it” he says. Barnes also mentions that he is looking forward to continuing and further developing this style of sound. When asked whether we could expect the next album to be in the same vein as Sylvianbriar, he says, “I know that I have some other ideas, I have about three or four more fragmented ideas that I’d like to develop a bit, so it won’t be, you know, an identical replication of Sylvianbriar but it’ll probably be kind of in the same ballpark.”

Even within the name of the album, Lousy with Sylvianbriar, there lies room for interpretation and inspiration. In deconstructing the word Sylvianbriar, one comes across the name Sylvia, which leads most people to Sylvia Plath. When asked whether the famous poet played a part in the album process Barnes says, “Yeah, for some reason she sort of haunted my life for a period of time—not in, like, a negative way, but in a very inspiring way and I became sort of obsessed with her life story and with her work. And one of the songs I used the title of one of her poems, ‘Colossus,’ and she was just somebody I was reading a lot and sort of obsessing over during the time of the writing and the recording process.” While Plath may have been a lyrical influence, it was Bob Dylan who was the driving instrumental influence for the album. Songs like “Hegira Émigré” and “Belle Glade Missionaries” make the listener forget they’re in 2013 and not 1965 counterculture America, with the former resembling a Dylan protest song, and the latter about gun control. “‘Belle Glade Missionaries,’ to me is more about wanting stronger gun control measures and, you know, thinking how fucked up it is that children can be murdered in their schools and it doesn’t make any difference, it doesn’t change anything, doesn’t change the public consciousness in any way. From a political standpoint, no new laws were passed, so you know it’s frustrating in that sense, that it doesn’t really seem to matter what happens,” says Barnes. But Barnes makes it clear that he doesn’t have any political aspirations or agenda, and that in that sense he really isn’t a Dylan or Joan Baez or Pete Seeger.

Be sure to catch Kevin Barnes performing his new deconstructed style as of Montreal take the stage with La Luz tonight, Monday, November 4 at the Urban Lounge. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets are $18 in advance, $20 at the door.