of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes, The TVD Interview

of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes is a highly accomplished musician. Each album he releases contains lyrics that represent a part of his emotions—heartbreak, depression, bitterness, whimsy, and joy. He attracts a large amount of fans due to his sincere, personal lyrics combined with catchy and danceable tunes. As former band member Dottie Alexander says in the trailer for of Montreal’s upcoming documentary The Past is a Grotesque Animal, “Either you’ve never heard of us, or we’re your absolute favorite band.” 

Each show is special and unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before. Seeing of Montreal live is like stepping into Kevin Barnes’ mind and experiencing the power of his imagination. It’s a psychedelic, theatrical experience. of Montreal’s show at the Ottobar over the weekend quickly sold out. The small venue was crowded with college kids who most likely grew up listening to Hissing Fauna, which is the ultimate of Montreal masterpiece and soundtrack to modern teenage angst.

Kevin Barnes was introduced onstage by David Barnes, his brother, who appeared wearing a luchador-type outfit. The rest of the show was filled with people onstage dressed as skeletons,  a lizard woman, stage diving, and feathers shot from cannons into the audience. It’s hard to realize that although most of the songs the band performs have a joyful tune and can turn the show into a huge dance party, the lyrics reveal a harsh reality of despair and madness.  

The band is currently finishing up their North American tour after being on the road since the beginning of the year. Before their stop at Baltimore’s Ottobar, I was fortunate enough to be able to speak to Kevin about the band’s documentary The Past is a Grotesque Animal, Georgie Fruit, and their most recent album, lousy with sylvianbriar

Jason Miller’s documentary The Past is a Grotesque Animal is screening in June in which you document your personal struggles. What made you decide to share such a personal aspect on film? 

Well, I think everything is basically available anyways, you know, because I sort of expose my personal life in my music and I don’t really have that many secrets. I guess I don’t really feel like I have to hide it anymore.

It seems like there’s a common theme about failed relationships in your albums. Is it easy for you to open up about your personal issues, especially when it involves talking about other people’s as well?

I think that how my music relates to life is a way for me to sort of work on things, so if I’m going through a difficult period in my personal life or psychologically or whatever, it’s put into the music, and when I’m writing I’m not really thinking about the outside world or thinking about how, you know, what they may think about the song being released or anybody listening to it and playing it.

And so, when I’m finished, I feel good about it. I feel like it’s a well written piece of music and there, the lyrics are in some way engaging or powerful, or whatever, you know I tend to just release them without really worrying about how, uh, it might affect someone else’s life. Which I guess I not very nice of me. But, at the same time it’s just the way it goes, ya’ know.

Looking back to Hissing Fauna [Are You the Destroyer?], what has changed with the influences in your writing and sound for lousy with sylvianbriar

Um, well the sound is completely different. You know, Hissing Fauna [Are You the Destoyer?] is  more electronic and, um, and more dancy and, uh, sylvianbriar is more folkey and like rock, for lack of a better word. I made Hissing Fauna by myself, so most of it’s done on my laptop and sylvianbriar was made as a full band and we recorded it like over three weeks and it was more collaborative and it was more a communal thing.

How did Rebecca Cash end up joining of Montreal? It seems like you two are paired perfectly. 

Yeah, it was a beautiful, unexpected thing in my life. She and I have a such a great working relationship, and it’s great to be able to find someone who you can harmonize with. She lives in Athens, and I live in Athens too and we met through other people and we hit it off right away.

You created an alter ego, Georgie Fruit who’s an African-American cross-dresser—how was he created? What part of you does he represent? 

Georgie Fruit, I think, was a writing device that I created to help me be outside of myself because everything had become too insular with my depression and anxiety and psychological problems, so I created this character who could bring me some of that frisky way of thinking and being more socially and sexually liberated, and being frisky and playful  to shake things up in a way because I just felt like I was caught in self-loathing. I just wanted to escape from it and make something out of what I had.

You mention self-loathing, and you’re a man who is idolized and praised by so many people. Is that ever overwhelming for you?

Well, it’s the kind of thing that you don’t really know that some people idolize you. You know, I don’t even really know if people idolize me, but if they are—people who appreciate my work, it definitely makes me feel good, uh, but it doesn’t really save me from—from that kind of ugliness and negativity that sort of happens organically. So it’s really kind of a struggle, you know. So like, keep my head together, stay on a positive mentality because I feel like I’m sort of naturally drawn towards negative thinking.

“The Past is a Grotesque Animal” is one of your songs in which you express that feeling in a very raw and extensive way. What was the process of writing it like? Did it help with how you felt?

I think so. I think that being able to express what I was going through in a way was very therapeutic and that’s the thing I love about writing and about the arts. You could be going through a really terrible, damaging experience and transform it into something that is more positive and create it in a way that helps you grow. It helps you deal with things instead of internalizing everything. It helps you get it out.

You’ve said before that you don’t enjoy performing some of your much earlier work, especially from Cherry Peel. Is there a particular reason why?

I just don’t feel emotionally or intellectually connected to a lot of those earlier records. At the time, I loved them more deeply because they were emotional and all that, but as time went on everything just became different. I don’t really connect with the feel of those records anymore.

Your albums have been released on vinyl. Do you appreciate the format?

Yeah, I think that vinyl is great because having a physical object can be very beautiful, just like any work of art. I always have a really strong relationship with album covers, and I feel to have a larger version of the artwork of my work makes me feel more connected.

I feel comfort in having this physical object that’s so fragile that you have to take care of it. You can listen to it whenever you like or whenever you want to. It’s sort of like a ritual. You have to take it out of the sleeve and put it on a turntable. It’s a process that is more complicated; that way you can engage a bit more with the music.

What’s your favorite record from your vinyl collection if you do have one?

I do, yeah. I have a bunch of kind of strange, psychedelic, obscure records from the ’60s from Israel that one of my friends gave me and a lot of it is like military records, which are pretty obscure and cool. I think you can find just so many random, unknown artists that are pretty interesting, and it makes you listen to the whole albums and listen to the complete work and not just one song. I think it’s much easier to have a superficial relationship if you don’t listen to albums that way, you know, in the computer or whatever. With vinyl, you’re more inclined to listen and dig deeper into the record and listen to more of the songs.

You’ve been touring since January. Is there a place from your tour that you have enjoyed playing in the most?

I usually enjoy playing in San Francisco because the audience is very connected to the music, and everyone’s dancing and partying and it’s really fun. It’s special whenever we play there.

What are your plans for of Montreal after the tour?

I’m gonna go up to New York for a writing retreat and start working on songs for our next record. I’ll basically be working on making this record, and also we’re doing a couple of European tours, world tours in June and July, but that’s pretty much it.

of Montreal’s documentary, The Past is a Grotesque Animal, will be available to download on June 24.  

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