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Of Montreal doc director on the long, winding road to The Past Is a Grotesque Animal

Kevin Barnes prepares to go on stage.
Kevin Barnes prepares to go on stage.

Give Of Montreal's back catalogue even a casual listen and you'll find a little bit of everything -- glam rock, disco, psychedelia and pure pop -- sometimes all crammed into the same song. The band's main man, Kevin Barnes, is a complex and contradictory figure, creating everything from obscure characters, such as transgender funkster Georgie Fruit, to complex concept albums to raw, confessional songs that reveal some seriously dark depths of the soul. The music and the man behind it get a long, hard look in The Past Is a Grotesque Animal, a new documentary that focuses on one of indie pop's most intriguing bands. Before the film shows tonight, June 20 at the Boulder Theater, we talked with director Jason Miller to find out why the film took seven years to make, how difficult it was getting inside of Barnes's head and how making the movie affected his feelings for the music.

See also: The Source Family is a true story of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll religion

Westword: Is it true you worked on this film for seven years?

Jason Miller: Yeah, I think so. It's a little bit blurry. The truth of the matter is I started with no intentions to make a film. The first three or four years I was trying to do all these other things -- I was trying to make a concert film, trying to make short tour docs that were going to go online. For some reason, every time, there'd be some hurdle or some reason we wouldn't release the things I was making. They were happy with the stuff I was creating but there was just always some hiccup.

It was maybe three or four years into that process when Kevin [Barnes] suggested I make a documentary, which sounded like this gargantuan task. They had been around for over ten years before I even met them, so I guess I didn't jump all over it. The thing that put me over the edge was when I found out there were a few boxes of tapes in their storage unit that hadn't been touched, stuff old band members had shot over the years. Once I realized there was this old footage of them, I started thinking there was a possibility of making this film.

How did you hook up with the band originally?

I think I was in college still. They don't have a manager, which now is a funny thing to me. It makes so much sense that Kevin wouldn't want anybody putting their hands into anything and making decisions on his behalf. The fact that they didn't have a manager made it incredibly hard to get in touch with them. There was an Of Montreal e-mail address on the website and I think I spent a year sending e-mails to that every so often. We lived in the same town, and it's a very small town, and anybody who had been around Athens [Georgia] for a long time, and a part of the music or arts scene, had probably met Kevin, but overall he was reclusive and I was just a 21-year-old college student. I had never met him. I'd never seen him out. I didn't know much about the inner workings of the band at all.

A year into that, thinking that I really wanted to do something with this band, a music video or some sort of live thing, there was another band called Dark Meat. They're a fifteen- or twenty-piece psychedelic rock band that's just a fun project, a supergroup of all these bands in Athens. BP Helium, who was the guitarist for Of Montreal at the time, was playing in Dark Meat. Somehow I got roped into shooting this thing with Dark Meat, and coincidentally Diplo was doing something with them. I met Diplo that day and BP Helium that day, and I told BP I'd been trying to get in touch with Kevin forever. He gave me his number and said to come by and asked me to come by and film their prep for the Skeletal Lamping tour. I did, which was super intimidating, and I finally met Kevin. And after a few days -- I think it was three days -- of filming them in this warehouse, they said, "Hey, why don't you come on tour with us>" And that was the beginning of everything.

So you were just embedded with them on tour after that?

If I had known that I was going to end up making a film, I probably would have quit school and everything else I was doing and approached it a whole different way. At the time, it was pretty casual and I wasn't being paid to be a part of this, so I was just hopping in and out whenever I could. I probably only went ten days of that three-month tour. They had two tour buses and twenty people involved and I had only just met them. They invited me and I was welcome, but I don't think I was welcome to just film them for eternity. It took a really long time to get anybody to get super-comfortable around me and open up. I think for the first two to three years, everything that was shot just ended up being B-roll. I don't think anybody said anything to me of great substance during that time. The trust just wasn't there. It took so long to get people to open up.

Keep reading for more on the new Of Montreal doc.

Kevin Barnes is not an easy man to know.
Kevin Barnes is not an easy man to know.

Kevin Barnes seems to be a pretty inscrutable figure. Was it particularly hard to get him to open up?

It's really hard. I think that he's definitely aware of the camera and there was a switch that flipped when we were filming. But I was surprised at how honest he was willing to be, because of his personality type. He suggested making the film, and I think he's kind of regretted it the last few years. He realized, or something sort of clicked with him, where he was like, "Oh, shit." He's said to me that documentaries shouldn't be made about people who are still living, that he wishes it wasn't made until he was dead or the band was over. He feels like it sort of signifies that the band has peaked and the story has been told and he doesn't feel that way at all. he feels like he's still only at the beginning of the story.

That being said, there was always a little bit of hesitation from him. Knowing what a private person he is in some regards, I was really surprised at how honest and open he was. I was hoping he would be, because he's so honest in his interviews for the most part. In terms of getting to know him, I think he's an incredibly honest person when the camera is off.

You were a fan of the band when you started this, right? How did working with them for so long affect your fandom?

I went through like five or six iterations of feelings toward the band, or levels of fandom or whatever. When I first met them, I honestly didn't know that much about them. I think I just knew a little of Hissing Fauna. Honestly, I was approaching it more from the fact of wanting to be a filmmaker, that was what I wanted to do with my life. In the small town of Athens, what was the outlet? Who could I collaborate with to make something interesting? It's a great music scene, but most of the bands are pretty straightforward rock or indie rock bands with maybe one album under the belt. I think the empire that Of Montreal had already created, with the back catalog and the crazy live shows -- I hadn't even seen one before I went on tour with them! -- I just thought they were really interesting. I thought they were my best potential subject.

When I met them and went on tour with them Skeletal Lamping had just come out. I remember thinking it was so different than Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?. I don't think I immediately fell in love with it, but then we went on tour and by the end of it, I was like, "Holy shit, this is amazing! These people are incredible!" I fell in love with that record, just seeing it performed and all the crazy theatrics. It's still one of my favorite records of theirs.

Then, for several years, it was just trying to figure out who was this band? Who are these people? I saw Kevin as this super-intimidating, mysterious person. I would never try to ask him anything super-personal at that point. I was just trying to become friends with everybody. Then there was a point after so many years where Kevin sort of showed that he respected me. Maybe it was when I came to L.A. to film him recording with Jon Brion. That was the first time I ever spent any time alone with him, so that was when I started to get to know him. I loved the band even more, but it became a much more personal thing, because I was like, "Oh, I actually understand this guy." I was starting to figure out who he is.

And then I think there were some times beyond that where I started to feel some negative feelings about the whole thing. Like many fans, I didn't want to see the band break up or fall apart. I definitely rooted for the old band members and I didn't want to see them gone. I started thinking, "God, why is Kevin doing this?" But I think that was what I really wanted to find out, and that's why I wanted to continue the film. By the end of it, I really saw his side of it, too, and why he would do that. I tried to put myself in his shoes -- you work with the same people for so long, how can anyone blame you for wanting to try something different?

Was there anything you wanted to get for the movie that you weren't able to?

I don't know if this really came off in the film, but being on tour with them is such a...I've been on tour with a handful of other bands and I think this band was really doing it right for a while. One funny thing is, when I went on the road with them I expected drugs and debauchery, and there was none of that really. Of course, they're all drinking a lot. There was just so many fun, weird...it was like being on tour with a drama club or something. They all come off the stage from doing this theatrical thing every night and I think that energy sort of carries over into their personal lives on tour. So many nights they'd be doing the weirdest, craziest shit on the bus. For some reason, it just never worked out that I was never able to capture enough of that aspect. If I would come to my show one night without my camera, that would be the one night that everyone was having the best night of their lives. I kind of feel bad that I wasn't able to show just how much fun they have on tour together. Hopefully that did come across at some point in there. I think if you've ever been to one of their shows, you can tell that they have a good energy together and really do have a lot of fun.

See The Past is a Grotesque Animal at 8 p.m. tonight, June 20 at the Boulder Theater; doors open at 7 p.m. For more info on the movie, read our previous coverage or visit the Boulder Theater website. If you miss it tonight, the film releases to VOD on Tuesday, June 24; find details on the Of Montreal movie website.


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