Of Montreal Interview

By shane

So, we all know Britpop’s dead, right? Limp Bizkit and the Backstreet Boys rocked and popped their way all over the charts, effectively killing off the lackluster Britpop genre. And then… along comes salvation. And it’s a salvation that comes from, of all places, Athens, Georgia – the famed home of REM, and now the famed homebase for the critically lauded Elephant Six Collective, a loose grouping of friends and bands who live and breathe by pop hooks and funny noises. Though there are only a few bands who actually carry the Elephant Six imprint on their sleeves, some of the more interesting sounds to emerge of late are from the bands on the fringe of the E6 mini-culture. Among that lengthy list is Of Montreal. Owing more to the Kinks and Blur than to Sonic Youth or Dinosaur Jr., Of Montreal are helping to redefine the American indie soundscape. Purveyors of complex songs that sound simple, every track by the band is a mini-epic in itself. It’s pop with BRAINS, with a discography of character studies and concept albums aplenty. Excellent Online was able to conduct an exclusive phone/e-mail interview with Of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes, as the band was rehearsing for their June 2000 tour (and yes, you should go see them.)

Interview by Shane Brown

S:  When did you first start playing together, and how did the band form?

K:  Me and Derek are the original members.  We met in the summer of ’96 at a party, and then we started playing together.  And then we met Bryan Helium – from Elfpower – and he was playing bass with us for awhile.  And that outfit lasted for about a year.

S:  That was the line-up for “Cherry Peel” [the first Of Montreal full-length], right?

K:  Yeah, it was the line-up for “Cherry Peel” and the first EP.  And then, somewhere in the middle of “A Petite Tragedy,” [the band’s second album,] Bryan decided that he just didn’t have enough time to dedicate to two bands.  He’d been in Elfpower a lot longer than with us, so he just decided to stick with Elfpower. 

S:  He still maintains your official website, though, right?

K:  Yeah, we’re still really good friends.  So, we didn’t have anything resembling a touring band for a long while.  We finished the second album, and started recording “The Gay Parade.” [the third Of Montreal album.]  And then, during the middle of “The Gay Parade,” Andy, Dottie, and Jamie joined the group.  And I guess that brings us up to speed.

S:  As long as I can recall, your name has always been associated with the Elephant Six Collective, yet you don’t put the logo on your releases.  Does the association bug you, or is it a good thing?

K:  Well, we’re all friends.  It’s kind of cool, ‘cause it gives exposure to all of us.  But it’s also kind of weird, because we don’t really have anything to do with it – we weren’t a part of the creation of it or anything.  I don’t know – it seems like sometimes people have pre-conceived notions of us.  There’s a lot of myths floating around about Elephant Six.  A lot of people come up to us and are like, “So, do you guys live in the Elephant Six mansion?  Do you guys go to meetings every week?” and we just go, “Umm.. nope.”  What it started out as was Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, and Apples in Stereo.  They didn’t really have a label to put out their stuff, so they just went, “Well, let’s start our own thing and release our own records.”  But it’s just kind of like – it’s like the whole Guided By Voices thing, like how Robert Pollard used to make up band names and stuff, even though he wasn’t in the band.  It was just that sort of thing.  And then all the bands started getting recognition, and people were like, “What’s this Elephant Six thing that’s on all your records?” and it was just like, “Oh, it’s a label… sort of.”  For a while, it was like… we put the Elephant Six logo on “A Petite Tragedy” because we thought it would be really good for people to take notice of it.  Cause there’s so many releases, so many bands, who are just starting out at our level, and it’s kinda hard to really stand out, and so it was kinda cool that they said we could go ahead and do it, cause it helped us get a little bit more recognition than we would have gotten if we wouldn’t have put it on there or weren’t associated with them.

S:  A lot of the articles written about Elephant Six spend most of the time talking like, “Look at the little bands bringing back the retro sound.  Yay for the 60’s revivalism.”  Whereas it seems to me that there’s an awful lot more going on than just derivative pop. 

K:  Well, it’s not like we’re on a crusade to make people more aware of the Sixties or anything.  But we are all heavily influenced by it, among other things.  It’s more about the spirit of what was there in the Sixties, as far as trying to make music as an art, and not just as an ego trip or something, and making it really involved and really creative and conceptualized and everything. 

S:  So how do you write?  Are the songs all formed on acoustic guitar?

K:  Yeah, for the most part, either that or piano.

S:  The difference between the first two albums is really impressive.  From a musical standpoint, “Cherry Peel” is pretty much straight-forward guitar pop.  But the second album ended up being straight out of Brian Wilson’s sandbox.  Was it a natural progression towards experimentalism, or more of a concentrated sudden effort?

K:  It started on “Cherry Peel,” actually.  The first song that I started writing that seemed to be in a new style for me was “Everything Disappears,” the first track on the album.  It was the first time… See, I always respected the style of jazz guitar players, like the guitar players that would play with Cab Calloway or Benny Goodman or whatever.  I just love to watch them play, I just think they’re sooo impressive.  And it made me realize there was a lot more to a guitar than bar chords, and it made me try to experiment more and just learn more about the instrument.  I started spending a lot of time just learning how to play these new chords, even though I didn’t know the names of any of them. [laughs.]  I just kind of started going crazy, trying to put as many chords as I could into one song.  Now, I sit down and write a song, the melody line is like – I don’t know, for some reason it always seems to change every ten seconds or something.  So instead of strumming a chord for like four measures, I want to change the chord each measure. [laughs]  It started on “Everything Disappears,” and I’ve been doing it ever since.  A lot of the songs on “Cherry Peel” were written before I started getting influenced in that kind of thing.  And so a lot of songs like “Sleeping in the Beetle Bug” and “This Feeling” and “I Was Watching Your Eyes”, those are all more simple rock songs, but when I started “Everything Disappears” I also wrote “Little Viola Hidden in the Orchestra” and that was the start of the busy, chord-y songs.

S:  One of my friends says his favorite thing about Of Montreal is how when you listen to your songs for the first time, you never know where the vocal line is heading.  You expect the song to do a certain thing, but it turns around and freaks you out.

K:  Cool [laughs].

S:  When you went from the first album into the second album, you also abandoned traditional pop songs in favor of tying the whole piece together into a concept album.  [“A Petite Tragedy” tells the evolved story of a doomed love affair, from its start to its inevitable conclusion.]  What helped you make the move in that direction?

K:  I think that the Athens influence was pretty heavy there, hanging out with Julian Koster from the Music Tapes and Neutral Milk Hotel.  We were always talking about making music that was a little more involved, so that it wasn’t just like a pop record.  I’ve always written short stories also, when I was in high school and stuff, and I just wanted to combine the two.  I really enjoy doing that, and I just wanted to combine the music with the short stories.  “The Gay Parade” is like that more so than “A Petite Tragedy.” That album’s just one theme, but “The Gay Parade” is a whole bunch of little themes together into one. 

S:  It’s more vignette-style writing, which immediately brings to mind The Kinks or “Parklife”-era Blur.

K:  Definitely Ray Davies is a big influence on me.  When I first heard “The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society,” that was what made me realize that all these short stories I’d been writing, I could also put them to music, just like he does.  So that was really inspiring.  But I think now, with “The Gay Parade,” in some ways I feel like it’s not really as personal anymore.  Like with “Cherry Peel,” I used to express more of my own personal feelings.  But now, I’ve just been inventing characters and stuff.  So maybe a little bit of my own personal emotion is coming through, but for the most part, it’s just me writing about these characters.  It’s kind of cool in some ways, but sometimes I worry that maybe I’m kinda too detached from it, like I’m not putting enough heart into it, but I don’t know.  [laughs]

S:  Is the new record going to follow in the same vein?

K:  Um, for the most part, it’s another sort of thematic album, with a whole bunch of character and story songs.  But there’s also a few, or at least one or two, love song type songs.  I wanted to combine my favorite elements from “A Petite Tragedy” and “The Gay Parade” into one album. 

S:  Looking at your lyrical topics, there’s obviously a lot of songs about love, but that’s pretty common.  What really interests me is the fact that you’ve also written a lot of songs about death, which seems pretty strange coming from someone like you.

K:  I kind of went through a phase where I was thinking about death a lot.  Songs like “Scenes From My Funeral” and “Buried With Me” were written when my uncle was dying, and that got me thinking about death.  So… I don’t really dwell upon it too much [laughs], but I was going through a phase where I was thinking about it an awful lot more than I do now.

S:   I read that you came up with the idea for "The Gay Parade" while staring at traffic. Is this true, and could you comment on that?

K:  That was just something I made up for the press bio.  The Gay Parade idea was developed over time by me and my brother.

S:  What's the fundamental difference between Kevin Barnes and “Claude Robert” [Barnes’ fictitious “narrator” who steps in at the end of “The Gay Parade” to thank the listeners and wrap the album up]?  Why not just say, “Hi, this is Kevin Barnes, and I'd like to thank you...”?

K:  Me and my brother are always making up different characters for ourselves and each other and Claude was one of the characters. Claude is one of the main characters in the next album. We have him falling in love with coquelicot and traveling to a new home on a frozen island created by lecithin emulsifier. I
imagine Claude to be very suave and handsome. I would like to be more like Claude.

S:  What's a coquelicot, anyways?

K:  Well, coquelicot means poppy in French. She is one of the main characters in our next album, entitled
“Coquelicot Asleep in the PoppieS: A Variety of Whimsical Verse,” which will be released in late fall.

S:  Are any of the names used in “The Gay Parade” [many of the character studies are named: Claude Robert, Nickee Coco, Jaques Lamure, Hector Armano, Tulip Baroo, etc.] references to real people you know? Are any of the character studies inspired by anything more than imagination?

K:  Nickee Coco was very much inspired by one of my best friends. Her mom called her that when she was a baby because her head was so big. None of the other characters were inspired by anyone I know.

S:  So what’s the weirdest studio story you have?  Some of the sounds on your albums really make you sit back and go, “What the hell IS that?”  What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done in a studio to get a certain sound?

K:  Well, I had this clothes dryer that was super, super noisy.  There was something wrong with it and it sounded like a train.  I was gonna get a new one, or get it fixed, but then I decided to record it instead.  We used it in the song “The Problem With April.” [featured on the new compilation.]  It’s not really discernable, but it’s there over the line that goes “the blues keep piling up.”  So yeah, we recorded my dryer, that was kinda fun.  Then for the same song, we wanted to have party noises in the background, so we went into the bathroom with champagne glasses and a microphone and pretended to have a party.  [laughs].  Yeah, we had a party in the bathroom.

S:  How long does it traditionally take you guys in the studio to put out an album?

K:  I don’t know how accurate I can be.  With “The Gay Parade,” it took like two years to make.  But the bulk of it was recorded in about seven months.  Oh yeah, because we were having problems with Bar-None, we didn’t really do anything more, we kind of shelved it for a while, and then six or seven months later, we started working on it some more, mixing it and finishing it up.  So they say it took us two years, but really, if you count the amount of time we actually spent working on it, it took about six months.

S:  Your choices of covers are particularly intriguing...  I'm mostly fascinated with why you chose the Yoko cover.  [“I Felt Like Smashing My Face Through a Plate Glass Window” featured on the band’s “The Bird Who Continues to Eat the Rabbit’s Flower EP.”]

K:  We chose to cover the Yoko song because we all have a deep respect for her art and love the song. She sent us a postcard last year saying Sean played it for her and that she liked our version.

S:   On the new compilation that just come out, you guys include a cover of a song called “Spoonful of Sugar,” which was originally recorded by a band called The Gants.  Call me naïve, but I’ve never heard of them before.

K:  The Gants were a band from Mississippi in the 1960's. Furu from 100 Guitar Mania turned us on to them. They aren't really that great, but we thought the song was pretty cool and we initially recorded it for the Gants tribute 7" that came out in Japan on the 100 Guitar Mania label.

S:  Since we’re talking about the new compilation, what's the title [“Horse and Elephant Eatery (No Elephants Allowed): The Singles and Songles Album”] mean? Is it any type of reference to E6?

K:  No. Dave, my brother, came up with the title. It was originally the title of one of his paintings.

S:  When you guys go on the road, what’s it like trying to convert the intricate studio sounds of the albums into the live setting?  Does it translate well?  A lot of your bigger songs, I have to sit back and think, “My God, there’s no way they could pull that off live.”

K:  Well, we have to use samples.  There are a lot of things that are, like you said, just plain impossible to do live, unless you have the best sound guys in the business who could add reverb and stuff like that.  Of course we don’t have that.  So it’s just like certain sounds that we have sampled.  Most of it we can actually pull off live.  Like when we did the Gay Parade Tour, it was really cool, ‘cause I bet a lot of people weren’t really expecting us to be able to do… like, a lot of people kept coming us to us and saying, “I didn’t think you guys could do it, but you did a pretty good job.”

S:  You’ve also got a penchant for adding a theatric element to your live shows.

K:  Sometimes.  Usually not.  But with The Gay Parade Tour, we tried to do something more theatrical to make it more of an event.  I don’t know why, it just seemed like it was more appropriate.  I had a little speech that I would say before… we’d play the music to “Old Familiar Way,” and I’d come onstage in face paint and be like, “Thank you, gentlemen and ladies, blah blah blah.”  That was kinda fun, but then we just went back to your basic rock tour.  But this upcoming tour, we are gonna try to make it a little more theatrical – my brother David is a huge influence…

S:  He does all the artwork for your records, right?

K:  Yeah.  He’s like the idea man, he’s got tons of ideas, and he’s totally into putting on a show.  We’re gonna do something a little more interesting this time, for sure. 

S:  I’m sure the Julian Koster friendship doesn’t hurt, either.  [Koster’s side project, The Music Tapes, is known more for their live shows than their recorded material.]

K:  (laughs) No, that’s for sure.  Julian and I actually did a Music Tapes tour together one time, I played banjo and stuff, and my brother David was with us, too, so that was a lot of fun.

S:  In your own words, what IS your definition of “POP” music?

K:  I guess any music with lots of color. I imagine pop music to be very vibrant and beautiful. To me the band that best captures the essence of pop music is Os Mutantes from Brazil. I love them.

S:  So what are your thoughts on the current pop music scene?  In the mainstream world, is there room for Of Montreal among the N’Syncs and the Korns?  Would mainstream success be a bad thing, or are you happy on the indie scene?

K:  Well, we’re definitely not happy having to work. I’d like to be able to focus on writing and recording.  So we’re definitely not satisfied financially.   It is kind of depressing, but, I don’t know, born at the wrong time, maybe. [laughs]

S:  What’s been the reaction to you guys among the traditional indie scene?  Do the Pavement or Built to Spill fans have a hard time getting into you guys, or do you find those folks easily adapting to indiepop like Elephant Six?

K:  I would imagine that the people who like indie pop like Built To Spill and Pavement could also get into what we are doing because it is basically the same sort of thing. I'm sure we all have basically the same influences. It seems like the indie community is pretty open minded and can enjoy a variety of musical

S:  Since we are a website, I ask this of every band I interview.  What’s your take on the Internet?  Future of communication, or evil corporate tool?

K:  [laughing]:  It has its possibilities.  It’s pretty cool.  It’s just like anything else, it has its good and its bad points.

S:  Do you think it’s helped in terms of the size of your fanbase?

K:  It’s cool, because we have a message board.  There’s people that we’re talking to on there that normally we wouldn’t be able to have any kind of real interaction with.  In that way, it’s cool.  But in some ways, it’s kind of scary.  You read certain things and are just like, “What?  I can’t believe that person would say that.”  It exposes you to so many different ways of thinking.

S:  What’s the timetable like on the new album?

K:  We’re in the middle of it right now.  It’ll probably be done, hopefully, by like… mid-Autumn.  It probably won’t be released until late winter.  We’re working on it right now, but soon we’ll have to stop recording and start rehearsing for the tour in June.  We’ll be out for three weeks, then take a week off to relax after the road, then we’ll head back into the studio.  It’s a pretty time-consuming deal.

Of Montreal’s new compilation, “Horse and Elephant Eatery (No Elephants Allowed): The Singles and Songles Album,” is out now on Bar-None Records.  You can learn more about the band by visiting their website at http://www.angelfire.com/ga/ofmontreal, or the Elephant Six Collective’s site at http://www.elephant6co.com, or at Of Montreal’s new label, http://www.kindercore.com