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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes talks about, Blade Runner, cassette tapes and Georgie Fruit

  • Polyvinyl Records

This week saw the release of False Priest (Polyvinyl Records), the latest album from Athens' art-pop ensemble Of Montreal. This time around the group leans on a more soul-infused direction with it's typically baroque approach to the twee, theatrical and avant-garde side of indie rock. The result is an undeniably catchy, and sometimes odd collection of songs that sidesteps Of Montreal's legacy of dense and conceptually driven albums to rely on straight-forward soul and R&B songwriting channeled through the group's trademark sound.

Chad Radford: When I wrote about False Priest I called it Of Montreal’s soul record. Does that seem like a fair assessment to you?

Kevin Barnes: Yeah, I would say it’s influenced by soul music, for sure.

Throughout the record I was focusing on your lyrics and vocal style when I started thinking about the soul influence. I think it's a bit jarring at first, but I don’t think it’s ironic or insincere.

That’s kind of been a thing I’ve heard throughout my whole career. I don’t feel like there needs to be irony in music necessarily. For me it would seem contrived and not coming a genuine or sincere place. There’s comedy there but that’s not the same thing as irony.

Of Montreal came into being during the early ‘90s when indie rock was defined by bands like Pavement who were all about irony as an aesthetic. But also, the sound of your voice is kind of spry, which could be part of that misconception as well.

Well, I love Stephen Malkmus and I love Pavement, and I definitely came up listening to that kind of music, Nirvana too. But I always thought of it as being their trip. That’s how they were reacting to the world that they saw around them, and how they were disenfranchised, and maybe they didn’t think they had anything to feel positive about. Or maybe it just wasn’t their thing. Personally, I haven’t gravitated toward artists like that for the last ten years or so. I’ve been looking for something with a more hopeful message, and soul music is definitely the place for that.

I wrote that this is Of Montreal’s soul record, but it is unmistakably Of Montreal. I don’t think anyone will hear False Priest and say “who’s this soul band?” But because it came out around the same time as Janelle Monáe’s record, and Big Boi’s record, I’ve kind of connected the dots between those three records…

I’ve definitely been influenced by the Atlanta sound: Wondaland Arts Society, Big Boi, Outkast and R&B and hip-hop in general. There is some truth to it that what Wondaland has been up to and what Of Montreal has been up to is kind of in the same spirit; trying to make something that has some soul elements to it but is also a bit more far-reaching. It’s not just an homage to one genre of music but something that pulls influences from all kinds of strange places.

How did you get to know Janelle Monáe?

We met at our Tabernacle show a couple years ago. We hit it off and started hanging out and listening to each other's songs. When she was working on the The ArchAndroid I was working on False Priest, so we were both involved with the development of each other's records.

I did an interview with her back in '06 where we talked for almost half-an-hour about Blade Runner, and the Philip K. Dick kind of imagery is a really strong part her stuff.

Yeah, Chuck Lightning at Wondaland Arts Society turned me on to Philip K. Dick. I hadn’t really read any of his stuff, but Chuck said “you’ve got to read this, it’s great…”

Did you read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Yes, and I love it. I kind of hate Blade Runner, actually. Maybe if I hadn’t read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep I would like it more, but I love that story so much, and Blade Runner is just the violent interpretation of the book which isn’t that violent. ...And the book is much more intellectual.

I love Blade Runner, but there’s a lot from the book that didn't make it to the film, like the whole thing with real animals…

The animals are the best part of the story. They make him seem so much more sensitive and much more human.

False Priest is the first record that Of Montreal has done in a while that doesn’t have an over-arching concept to it like what you had with The Sunlandic Twins, Hissing Fauna and even with Skeletal Lamping in it’s own way.

There probably is some sort of abstract theme that connects all of the pieces together. I’m sure my brother can do it. He has a very interesting way of perceiving things. For the tour we’ve created a theatrical production and he created visual events that are inspired by the songs, giving them a meaning, and creating a story line out of them. So it’s possible, but I can’t tell you that I had a theme in mind when I wrote the songs. I was just writing a lot of songs in a short period of time and put them all together.

Sometimes these kinds of things have a tendency to take on a life of their own, and maybe not reveal a theme until you’re finished and can take a step back.

Yeah, that happens a lot. Also, things like album titles, song titles and certain lyrics can do that too. I have heard people say that they didn’t understand the meaning of a certain lyric until a couple of years later.

Can you tell me about the title, False Priest?

It goes back to the Hissing Fauna song, “Faberge Falls for Shuggie. I said those three lines “Skeletal lamping, the controller sphere, false priest.” Since then I’ve always known that the next three albums would be called that. I’ve finished The Controller Sphere which will be out in the spring.

In the song “Sex Karma” that you sing with Solange Knowles, it sounds more like the voice of Georgie Fruit than Kevin Barnes.

Yeah, but I think Georgie has sort of become integrated into my normal consciousness; there’s not really a division there. He’s all over the place on the record. Georgie Fruit is kind of more of a mood for me, not so much a split personality kind of thing.

You have also made False Priest available as a cassette. Are you digging the whole cassette resurgence?

Yeah, it’s cool. I guess it’s somewhat of a novelty but for a while it seemed like vinyl was dead and then it became a sort of a novelty to have your music on vinyl, and now you kind of have to do it. Cassettes are definitely not as cool as vinyl, but they’re cooler than CDs for sure, even though they don’t sound as good. CDs are these little plastic circles, which are kind of irritating, but to my mind they sound really good. And the truth is, unless you have a really good turntable and stereo setup, just because something is on vinyl doesn’t mean it sounds better.

Is this the first Of Montreal album to come out as a cassette?

Yeah… I mean The Early Four Track Recordings and all of those things, before they were officially released were made as cassette tapes. I definitely created my fair share of cassette-only records back in the day.

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