“Hi. Is Kevin available?”
“This is Kevin.”
It’s Kevin Barnes, answering on ring two, speaking in a soft, reserved voice a day before starting Of Montreal’s current U.S. tour. In stark contrast to his on-stage persona, the mastermind behind Of Montreal, one of those ever-changing, slightly psychedelic, persona-driven indie rock bands, is polite and calm and well-spoken. He’s nothing like the costume-changing, over-the-top character on stage. But his actions are driven by the song and the moment, he says. And, in fact, he’s been calmer these days. Paralytic Stalks (2012) was more personal and introspective, not boding well for the “superficial party scene” he’s helped cultivate over the past 16 years. Of Montreal shows are nothing if not a spectacle. So now he faces a dilemma. How do you stay true to the music while appealing to the devoted? He’s confident he can do it. And playing Turner Hall Dec. 8 should help. “If people can’t sit down,” he says. “They’re more likely to dance.”
How has Of Montreal transformed since its inception in 1996?
We’ve gone through many different phases and explored many different musical directions. A lot of lineup changes. It’s hard to encapsulate all of that into a sentence. It’s been a journey. … An odyssey.
How has your style changed since 2007’s Hissing Fauna, your most commercially successful record to date?
Hissing Fauna was really poppy and accessible on a certain level, but it also had an emotional level that people could connect with. It sort of worked with the trends at the time. In general, I feel Of Montreal has been fairly anachronistic. … Bedroom recordings influenced by vaudeville and Broadway musicals, which is super unhip. More recently being really influenced by Parliament and Sly and the Family Stone. I am somehow able to block out the outside world when I’m writing and recording and live in this weird little bubble where my fantasies are real, so I’m not self-conscious when I’m producing these things. It’s only after the fact when I realize them and take them on the road, and I think, “Oh wait, reality is nothing like my fantasy world. Why are people resisting this thing?”
How do you handle that resistance?
I think it’s inevitable that there are certain people that are going to like certain periods more than other periods. And there are certain people who are going to be more recreationally interested in what you do and some who will be more obsessive about it. The people who really appreciate what we’ve done over the years are probably similar misfit weirdos.
Why is it so important to change styles with every record?
On a certain level, I don’t want to repeat myself. I always think it’s so boring when you like a band and they put out a record that sounds just like another. The artists I really love and stuck with throughout the years are Prince, David Bowie, Velvet Underground, The Beatles. Bands that took a lot of chances and evolved from album to album. Those are the guys that I look to and want to emulate.
When do you find time to write and record?
I write a lot of lyrics on the road. Usually when I’m off the road, I start writing more music. I’m always working on new songs. So when a record is almost finished, I’ve already started working on a new record. It never really ends.
How do you describe 2012’s Paralytic Stalks, your most recent studio album?
It’s more personal and intimate. There was no songwriting persona. I was trying to write from my personal life. It’s not as much fun really. I realize that. It’s kind of a form of therapy. I was going through a difficult time and using the creative process as a way to escape it. That’s not for everybody.
I saw you last March in Chicago on the Paralytics Stalks tour. You seemed uncharacteristically subdued. What’s the deal?
What we were trying to do is balance the thing that we had developed, which was a sort of wild glam party concert experience, with the new material that’s more introspective. It’s hard not to feel completely fragmented. I’m not a clown. I can’t just put on the makeup and dance around and all that. I am actually invested emotionally in the performance. If the song is darker, I’m transported into that place. There was some side of me that wanted to connect with something denser emotionally, something more complex. At the same time, I understand. It’s hard. When you’ve established something and some people are into it, you don’t want them coming to the shows and thinking it’s a total downer. There is some pressure on that side to want to put on a sort of higher energy, colorful show.
What’s in store for this tour?
I’m a little bit torn at the moment. My brother has created all these new theatrical and visual elements for the show. We have new costumes. We have floor performance artists on stage. We’ve written all these scenes for them. We’ll use a lot of the projection techniques that we used on the Paralytic Stalks tour. It’s still going to be a very theatrical event. It’s definitely going to be fun and fulfilling … something wild and free.