Interview: of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes discusses his new band and the influences behind his latest LP

of Montreal w/ Ark Life, Dylan Sires & Neighbors

Blue Moose Tap House — Thursday, April 3 at 6:30 p.m.

Kevin Barnes interview
Illustration by Jacob Yeates

With 12 studio albums in less than two decades, of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes could easily be named one of the hardest-working musicians in the Indie-rock scene, especially considering the fact that he wrote and recorded nearly every track on the band’s last six albums, including its most recent release, Lousy with Sylvianbriar.

“I played everything myself and just pieced songs together one instrument at a time and really entered the very laborious process of ‘now I’m gonna add the bass, now I’m gonna do percussion.’ It’s very fulfilling to build something up out of nothing and hear this pretty complex arrangement.”

Even more impressive than Barnes’ prolific output is how complex and diverse each record sounds. Whether it’s the earlier folk pop of The Gay Parade or the Prince/Bowie-infused electro pop of False Priest, there is some essential “spirit” running through of Montreal’s discography. A “restless creative spirit” that Barnes says sends him searching for new inspiration.

“I get bored with things quickly, and so I’m always searching for the next wave to ride in a way. Then I sort of ride it until it gets boring and then I look for another one.”

Much of Barnes’ creative and artistic decisions stem from following this restlessness. In the case of Sylvianbriar, his instincts led him to San Francisco where he spent a few weeks roaming the city or holed up in a Mission District apartment writing music and reading Cormac McCarthy or Sylvia Plath.

“It could have ended as a totally failed experiment,” Barnes says about his move to California to work on the new record. “It was, ya’ know, going out on a limb to go to this other city, spend a lot of money, invest a lot of time, and if I didn’t write anything, then it would have just been kind of a waste. But I was able to develop something that was sort of nebulous and abstract in my mind—ya’ know, as far as the direction I wanted to go for the next record.”

Lousy With Sylvianbriar, as a whole, is a testament to Barnes’ intuitive impulses. In order to fulfill his artistic vision, Barnes had to dismantle and rearrange the band’s scaffolding. “I felt, maybe, a little frustrated with the way that things had been going and just wanted to shake things up and inject this new spirit into the project.”

The latest record includes a cast of musicians that are as equally new to each other as they are to of Montreal. According to Barnes, none of the musicians had ever played together, and some had “never been in the same room before.”

Besides playing with new musicians, Barnes decided to record the Sylvianbriar on an analogue tape machine that he bought and installed in his home recording studio. And, unlike the previous six of Montreal albums, all the musicians on Sylvianbriar played live together as opposed to Barnes tracking the songs one instrument at a time.

“I was trying to use techniques that people used to use in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when you’d get a band together and they’d have their songs pretty well rehearsed, and you’d just put them in a room for a couple of days and record everything and make all of the creative decisions on the fly—don’t second-guess things, and just live with the artistic decisions you make. The vision was to make something that feels very spontaneous and raw and that has good emotive quality to it.”

Influenced by Bob Dylan, early Rolling Stones, The Kinks and Gram Parsons, Lousy with Sylvianbriar calls to mind a blend of early garage rock and folk. Barnes manages to pull off an album that is totally unique, yet still in conversation with his musical forebears.

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“All of the things that I’ve really loved the past 10 years or so influenced the new record, [as well as] wanting to make something that, at least on a more surface level, was focused on the vocals and the lyrics.”

Besides the subtle nod to Sylvia Plath in the title, Sylvianbriar, Barnes integrates the author into the album through songs like “Colossus,” which channels Plath’s biography: “Your mother hung herself in the National Theater when she was four months pregnant with your sister who / would’ve been 13 years old today / does that make you feel any less alone in the world?”

“I was haunted by the story of Plath, of her life and her work as well,” Barnes says. “It just became a bit of an obsession for me, and for some reason I felt like her spirit was helping direct where I went creatively.”

Of Montreal is renowned for lavish, yet lovely, theatrical showmanship—Barnes’ alter ego, Georgie Fruit, riding a white horse on stage comes to mind. When I ask Barnes’ what Iowa City can expect for the show at this year’s Mission Creek Festival, he boasts that the video projection for the Lousy with Sylvianbriar tour is both “very psychedelic and transformative.” Barnes says that of Montreal’s theatrical performances come from “an interest in doing something out of the ordinary, different than other rock shows. It doesn’t feel jarring at all to go on tour and do theatrical things on stage. It’s in our DNA, I guess. It’s just natural for us.”

Come see of Montreal’s performance for yourselves, Thursday, April 3 at Blue Moose Tap House, 211 Iowa Ave. Doors: 5:30 / Show: 6:30 $18 – $22.

Randal O’Wain is a fiction writer and essayist from Memphis, Tenn. whose work appears, or is forthcoming, in The Oxford American, BOOTH, Crazyhorse, Redivider and Hobart, among others. He now lives in Iowa City where he is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at the University of Iowa.