Of Belief and Warm Breezes | Of Montreal

They have always been experiences in fantastic construction—like little cabins nailed together with confetti and funny bones, roofed with water slides and mythical beasts and held together with kaleidoscopic windows—where the illogical fits and the implausible roosts.

 

 

For a more idyllic spot to start a winter tour, you’d really have to out-do yourself. It would take a concerted effort to improve on the half-week of days that Kevin Barnes and his Of Montreal mates had in Hawaii, the 50th and final state added to the union and the first considered when vacation, pineapples, or free-wheeling, sun-smacked effervescence is made a topic of discussion. There he was, the heir apparent (though he’s already written something like half a trillion rapturous albums worth of glimmering pop diamonds to make it more than apparent) to the entire legacy of 1960s-era pop geniuses, cave-diving and snorkeling his afternoons away, walking around in flip-flops and Bermuda shorts the likes of which he could never get away with in mid-January strolling into, say, any bar in Missouri. This wardrobe and this scenery—one can only fantasize the smells of citrus and sunblock—sure beats the fuck out of starting a three-month tour in Bloomington, Ind., among the snow-capped Hoosiers.

“We told our booking agent, ‘Get us a show in Hawaii. You can do it,’” Barnes said last month with an ocean-blown breeze hissing into his cell phone. “Everyone around here keeps telling us, ‘Oh yeah, no one ever comes here. It’s so hard for us to find out about new bands.’ But you wouldn’t think it would be that much different than being in the Midwest. They still have the Internet. Now that we’ve done this, I think we can play anywhere. It’s really not that hard. You just post something like, ‘Of Montreal wants to play in Thailand. Can anyone get us a show there?’ on a message board somewhere and someone will get you a show.”

Since he released Cherry Peel on Bar/None, Barnes has been a master of unconventional whimsy, the half-blown idea, and the sweeping rush of dizzy invention. Over those years, he has taken his music—soft with a bedroom glow’s pallor—through different incarnations, all of which has approximated itself into a boil of schizophrenic glee. Songs would come to screaming halts when wacky bridges blindsided into verses or when refrains erased the rules, flopped down and did snow angels right in the middle of them. They have always been experiences in fantastic construction—like little cabins nailed together with confetti and funny bones, roofed with water slides and mythical beasts and held together with kaleidoscopic windows—where the illogical fits and the implausible roosts.

“Music was totally free [on the first few records] and I was able to do whatever I wanted to do,” he said. “I thought that music shouldn’t make sense. If it makes sense, then it’s really boring. Then I got interested in style—bands like Air. They seemed more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than the Sex Pistols, which is much more visceral. I liked my songs to have an alien element like, ‘Something’s not right here.’ Now, I want to do something different.

“The thing that amazes me about looking back at my old songs is how sweet they were. Somehow, I became way more cynical and pessimistic. At first, it was a novelty like, ‘I think I’m going to be more cynical,’ and it then suddenly came true. They were so sweet. It was like I got mugged and created Satanic Panic in the Attic.”

Living on the fuzzy side of life, where no imagined direction in which to take a song is a wrong one, has turned the way Barnes looks at songwriting on its head. He stopped churning out worship sessions to the sugar-squeezing songsmiths that worked with drug buzzes and dreamed up potent numbers that were overburdened with hopeless romanticism and a nerdish attention to fanciful details. Most of the time, these things are pleasing and they make for entertaining listens, but Barnes had had enough of them. He drifted into beat-centric, R&B-flavored realms, writing songs that bump so much they can cause dance floors to cave. He’s gone from doing it all himself—in simplistic four-track mode—to working with a collective of Athens-based friends and musicians, right back to doing it all himself—writing, recording and playing every instrument on Satanic Panic in the Attic and last year’s hit-fest, The Sunlandic Twins.

“I’m approaching songwriting in a totally different way. I used to write everything on a guitar or piano. I’m working with different lyrics and discarding whole sets of lyrics. I sort of hit a wall with the whimsical, psychedelic records. I just said, ‘I can’t do that anymore,’” Barnes said. “It’s still a similar process, but when I first started writing songs, I was trying to cram as many ideas into the smallest space possible. It was getting really claustrophobic. I got really tight. I kept thinking that it’s got to have a million chords and a million tempo changes and a million key changes. I still write some songs on guitar first, but I mostly think of what it’s going to sound like when I remove the guitar from it. I still want to make pop music, but I want to write more interesting songs. When I’m writing something, I know when I kind of pussed out and made it commercial. I’m constantly thinking, ‘Oh, no, it’s got to be really complicated and complex and esoteric. I don’t want to write OK songs, though I have plenty of those.

“My last few records have done really well. Now, I’m making music that people like and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, that’s what people like. Oh, people like what I’m doing now.’ You don’t want to think those things. God knows where your music will go if you start thinking that way.”

A big lifestyle change over the last year and a half has Barnes writing differently. He’s already completed the next Of Montreal record—entitled The Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?—for which he anticipates a January 2007 release, saying that the very personal songs are a different him than what’s been heard on the past few albums. He’s burying the pessimist inside.

Said Barnes, “I think I’m sort of over my cynical phase. I want to believe in things again and be excited about things.”

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