Just two weeks ago, the effervescent, ever-changing pop collective that is (currently) Of Montreal was parked outside Lido, the pavement already peppered with fans anticipating the evening’s sold-out show, just another stop on an enormous tour in promotion of new album “Lousy with Sylvianbriar.”
Incongruous with his bouffant blue faux-fur coat, Kevin Barnes is softly-spoken and surprisingly slight. Fresh from a “family dinner” with the rest of the band, he loaded brown sugar into his cappuccino and warned that you really can’t ever trust fried shrimp. Despite a ridiculous schedule, which saw the band covering five countries over the course of five days, Barnes was relaxed and focused–and already excited to return to Berlin in summer, for a ‘proper’ visit.
It’s near impossible to summarize Of Montreal’s colorful, chaotic past. Since the band’s first album in 1996, Barnes has remained the only constant member and the driving artistic force. Although, as usual, Barnes wrote and composed the entire album in isolation, it actually marks a more democratic turn in the band’s creative process. This first draft was expanded and improvised over during the recording process. The whole thing took just three weeks and saw the full band in attendance (again, unusual for Of Montreal). And this time, the band recorded completely analog–surrendering the painstaking editing procedures that more modern technologies provide.
“I was inspired by recordings from the 50s and 60s,” Barnes enthused. “The talent that went into those recordings is incredible. I wanted to challenge myself. Holding guitars up against walls, whatever. Trying to find new ways of making interesting sounds, rather than adding in the sparkle afterward with a laptop.”
The result is an album that sounds and feels more instinctive, or “less mechanic […] less synthetic.”
Looking over a lengthy back-catalog, it’s clear that Of Montreal has had many different incarnations, shape-shifting in both sound and aesthetic from one album to the next. As the differences between the albums are so pronounced, it’s interesting to hear Barnes describe this metamorphosis as entirely organic. He compares the movement between albums to a break-up, saying, “you know it happened, that you felt a certain way, but you can’t get back to that exact same place–even if you want to. I feel completely disconnected from our first albums. It was me, but it was a completely different version of me. I used to be so sweet!”
A fixation on characterization and identity runs throughout the conversation: Barnes writes from an intensely private place, on a never-ending hunt for something other. Sylvia Plath was a huge source of inspiration, as the album title and tracks like “Colossus” would suggest. Themes of familial tragedy and artistic paralysis, influenced by Plath’s writings and personal struggles, underpin the entire album. Speculating on how these feelings are largely universal, if not as intensely felt, Barnes explained: “I feel connected to her on some level, how she was never satisfied, always wanted more, to be better.”
“Lousy with Sylvianbriar” is rooted in a broad and eclectic collection of influences. The fixation with the 60s continues, with The Grateful Dead, Neil Young, and The Byrds, among many, cited by the band, pre-album release. Barnes nodded, beaming, explaining that “it’s just where I am at the time [of writing], what resonates with me. I wear my influences on my sleeve, because you can try and copy a sound or an aesthetic, but it’s never going to work. It’s never going to be the exact same thing, because it’s coming from inside of you.”
These stylistic borrowings are a means to an end, used to provoke himself into writing something he might not otherwise have found. Several albums past, he used an alter ego–Georgie Fruit–to “bring out a side of [his] psyche that was always there,” and likens the experience to dreaming: “people think these thoughts come from some other place, but it’s all from somewhere within yourself.”
Telling tales from the artistic to the personal, Barnes’ verse is academic and introspective. Even attempting to unpack it is fruitless, and fraught with half-hinted clues and veiled references. He resists this, though, insisting, “I don’t write to be obtuse, or for the lyrics… verse…. to be treated as poetry. I’m not a writer. I don’t write to be read.”
Although, in the next breath, he excitedly described the reams of scrap verse that he’s yet to use, and his plans to release a poetry collection in future.
Barnes is complicated and contradictory, and by association, so is Of Montreal. “Lousy with Sylvianbriar” is a discourse on identity, twisting and shaking and evading definition. It’s so dense that there’s no chance of solving it, and even Barnes himself doesn’t want to. But, more importantly, it’s glittery and strange and brimming with energy. It’s an album that will make you laugh out loud, then wait until you’re dancing before tripping you up on verse so sharp and cutting, you’ll bite your tongue.
The show later that evening was riotous and carnivalesque, including nudity, silk shirts, and a whole lot of dancing. The flow between songs was seamless, especially for a set which drew from five albums of material. For a man who says he doesn’t want to write any more party songs, Barnes appeared to be having a whale of a time shimmying through favorites like “Girl Named Hello” and “Gronlandic Edit.” There was a mid-set shout-out to Plath, an entrancing slowed-up 10 minutes (to let everyone catch their breath) and a downright NSFW performance of “Plastis Wafers.” Finishing with a storming, relentless “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” there were only sweaty, happy faces left in the venue.
And that’s it. Another beer, and back on the bus, bound for Denmark. Barnes said, brightly, just before leaving: “Being on the road allows you to run away from a lot of things. I love being on the road.”