The Weekly Interview: Of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes

Kevin Barnes and Of Montreal play the Fremont Country Club on October 18.

The last time you played Vegas [February 2007 at Art Bar], you performed part of the set totally nude. What inspired you to do that? I think my inspiration or motivation for that was really just me pushing myself to do something that I felt nervous about. Sort of forcing myself to face the great fear of standing naked in front of your peers, a very common anxiety dream scenario people have. So I just had to force myself to face that. The whole show was very sexual. I think we had vintage ’70s porn projected behind us, and the bass player was wearing ass-less chaps. Just having fun with sexuality. It wasn’t any sort of big statement.

Are you surprised that moment stuck with you as much as it has? Not really. With the way rock ’n’ roll mythology works, you know if you do something kind of outrageous or exceptional onstage it will get referenced and talked about for years, like all the crazy things that Iggy Pop did, or David Bowie or Peter Gabriel or Alice Cooper. It’s just kind of following in that line of outrageous stage performances.

It seems like you put a lot of time and effort into live performance, from the outfits to the confetti to what you’re projecting onscreen. I think we just wanna create a sort of exceptional environment and atmosphere that feels more like a holiday, to make our touring experience less mundane. It can be kind of grueling to go on the road and play a show every single day for three or four or five weeks. To have all of that extra Fellini-esque, carnival-stuff happening makes it more exciting for us, and hopefully a more exciting show for the audience.

It’s cool, ’cause it can evolve. We have a template that we work with, but we know that basically anything goes—it’s like a completely free situation where no one’s judging anybody else and there’s nothing anybody could do that would upset anybody else in the group. None of us have any hang-ups in that sense. So it’s fun to be able to live outrageously for a couple of weeks at a time.

I see you’re doing a talk on David Bowie in Chicago. What’s that about? There’s a Bowie exhibition [David Bowie Is] that’s traveling around the world. I’ve heard that it’s really cool. I guess in Chicago, they’re having a lot of different people come out and give some sort of presentation about how Bowie influenced them and impacted their lives. I’m gonna do a couple of cover songs and talk about him.

So how did he influence you? I felt inspired by how liberated he was sexually, and the whole gender-bending thing and breaking down a lot of those walls, a lot of the taboos as far as what it means to be a man and what it means to be a human being. He has so many different dimensions to him. The whole glam thing was extremely important, not only for sexual liberation but also an intellectual and emotional liberation. And also the songs are extremely catchy, but they’re also extremely intelligent and subtly very profound. Also the way he would change from record to record. I’m always trying to become something new with each record and bring a different part of my personality to the surface. Having someone like that blaze the trail was very important for me.

You went through a divorce two months after latest album Lousy With Sylvianbriar came out. Where was your head at while you were making the album? Well, we’re not divorced; we’re just separated. But on some level, maybe I wasn’t even conscious of it at the time, I think Sylvianbriar was dealing more with other relationships that were sort of ending badly. I don’t know if there’s really a song about my wife on Sylvianbriar. It’s kind of about other things.

I went up to San Francisco to work on it, and I was very influenced by the late ’60s, early ’70s—people like [Bob] Dylan and the Grateful Dead, Gram Parsons, Flying Burrito Brothers. I think that was spirit flowing through it. This new record coming out in March [Aureate Gloom], is more mid-’70s New York, bands like Television and Talking Heads. It doesn’t really sound like that per se, but that was the spirit, the sort of abstract spirit influencing it.

I think a lot of times that’s the way it works—I’ll have these reference points, like this is what I’m feeling; this is what I’m excited about; this is the kind of record I want to make. But it’s always gonna turn out differently than that, ’cause I’m not trying to make an homage to those people or imitate them. That’s just sort of the starting point and then from there it becomes whatever it becomes.

It was cool making [Aureate Gloom], because just like with Sylvianbriar I had a band behind me and everyone played on every song and we did it really quickly, which is fun for me. [With previous] records, everything was done as sort of a solo project, painstakingly putting the songs together one instrument at a time. That can be rewarding and fulfilling, but at the same time it makes everything take so much longer and it gets sort of deep into the nuances of the orchestration and the arrangement in a way that’s fun but maybe also makes for a less spontaneous-feeling record. With these last two records I wanted it to be just a band in a room playing these songs together and making a lot of creative decisions on the fly and just having to live with those decisions and keep moving forward. It’s good to not get bogged down too much in perfectionism.

The vinyl version of Sylvianbriar comes with a sticker that reads, “Like a favorite novel, it should become dog-eared and dirty with use.” Why did this album warrant a directive? I think it’s, in a way, a reaction to this sort of iPod shuffle culture that’s developed, where it’s just too easy to just bounce around and have one song from this artist and one song from this artist. The album is sort of dying off, and we’re getting to a point where people just want singles, and singles just make it less fun. A lot of my favorite songs would never get played on the radio, just because something’s five minutes long and has a bunch of different key changes and has subject matter [that isn’t] considered conventional. Singles to me are fun and they’re a fun challenge to try to write, but it’s more liberating in a way to not think about that, to not put those parameters around it and not say, “This song is too weird.” It should be too weird. I think if you’re trying to make things that will never get played on the radio it’s probably a good idea. I wish more people would do that.

I’ve read that your band is like your family. How has that relationship evolved over the years? Well, it’s been a bit of a rotating cast, but there are people like my brother and a couple other people that I’ve been friends with for, going on 20 years. It’s cool to still be traveling the world with those people. I just feel very fortunate that I have this great group of people together that are helping me and contributing so much great stuff to the music. We’re still sort of in the honeymoon period where there’s no baggage or resentment. I just feel like I’m in a good place with the entourage and everyone is positive and pretty cool and open-minded and sort of on the same wavelength. It makes for a fun travel party.

Of Montreal with Turqoise Jeep, Yip Deceiver, Pillar Point. October 18, 8 p.m., $25-$26, 18+. Fremont Country Club, 702-382-6601.

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Leslie Ventura is a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly and Industry Weekly. She’s picked the brains of rock stars ...

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