Kevin Barnes won't play along.
I'm trying to break the ice with Barnes, Of Montreal's idiosyncratic leader and auteur, with a game of word association I've created by cherry-picking some of his striking lyrics, adding words that are often used to describe his band and, just for kicks, tossing in a few more that came to mind while listening to the outfit's latest effort, Satanic Panic in the Attic.
But things aren't working out as planned. When I say "vaudevillian," he responds with "toothache." When I say "hallucinogenic," he says, "taco matter."
Clever as I'd thought my ploy was, it's clearly too conventional and predictable for a mind as inventive as Barnes's. Since 1997, this native of Athens, Georgia, has made Of Montreal an outlet for delightfully poppy and phenomenally creative musings inspired by Brian Wilson, the Beatles, Ray Davies and the Apples in Stereo, who were fellow members of the Elephant 6 collective. While Of Montreal's dozen or so releases during that time have explored a number of musical styles, they have always stuck close to the '60s psychedelic pop that occupies a special place in his heart.
Most Of Montreal recordings were sponsored and released by Athens indie-pop stalwart Kindercore Records, onetime home to similar acts such as Denver's Dressy Bessy and the Essex Green of Burlington, Vermont. But when that label encountered financial difficulties, the band found a new home with Polyvinyl Records, and Barnes couldn't be happier. "Towards the end, Kindercore kind of changed their focus, and we felt a little alienated," he says. "Polyvinyl has been very supportive."
The logo stamped on the back of the new disc isn't the only thing that's changed. After a few releases that gave longtime collaborators Dottie Alexander, Jamie Huggins and others a chance to contribute their ideas to the Of Montreal mix, Satanic Panic represents a return to Barnes's roots as an almost-solo creative force who used his home-based studio as an instrument itself, creating complex, ever-changing layers of sounds. Those who associate the term "solo" with a whiny guy and his guitar will be surprised by the new album. And fans who associate a sunshine-pop style with Of Montreal will find the music spiced up with disorienting time changes, stunning a cappella harmonies, dashes of electronica and even some new-romantics-style '80s pop.
"I try to explore different styles with each record," Barnes explains. "I'm always trying to do stuff that's unpredictable, because it's more exciting to make and to hear. You try to make music you'd want to hear. The last couple of records have been more democratic. This was the first record in a long time that was done by myself. It was very liberating."
Still, Of Montreal is more than just Kevin Barnes. In fact, he approaches the group as an artistic collective. Hitting the road to support Satanic Panic, he's even brought along a half-dozen close friends, most of whom have played and lived together for years on the Of Montreal ranch outside Athens.
The artistic collaboration isn't limited to music. Album art created by Barnes's wife, Nina, and his brother, David, is just as important to the Of Montreal experience. The act's extraordinarily ambitious 2001 work, Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse, included a sixteen-page, full-color booklet of artwork by David that accompanied its 22 tracks. And on stage, the musicians often sport outlandish costumes designed by David, performing songs in front of David's sets.
I throw out a loaded word -- "brainchild," which is how many people connect Barnes and Of Montreal. He answers with "saddlebag."
In addition to being a gifted songwriter, Barnes is also an extremely talented storyteller. His tales are peopled with unique and interesting characters who expose themselves willingly to scrutiny. The vulnerability and ingenuousness of the characters on each track might seem a bit twee at first, but Of Montreal is far more than wide-eyed bedroom pop. Lyrically, the content veers wildly from the safe and innocent rolling hills of gleeful adolescent love -- on tracks like "Your Magic Is Working" -- to the dark crags of vaguely necrophiliac sentiments on "Chrissy Kiss the Corpse." Friendly and familiar territory is explored on "Erroneous Escape into Erik Eckles," but influences from surprising and less accessible sources, like Os Mutantes, Brazil's groundbreaking psychedelic rockers, are mixed in on the unpredictable "Lysergic Bliss."
Listening to the multi-layered, complex euphony of an Of Montreal record while perusing the intricately designed liner notes is a bit like reading the EEG of a mad genius. The blips, the jagged lines, the colors and patterns all seem to hint at a wellspring of unparalleled intellectual and imaginative activity. Even in conversation, Barnes seems to be bursting with creativity, nearly unable to staunch the gushing flow of ideas. For him, this is simply a way of life. "In a lot of ways, [making music] is my reason for existing. Being creative gives me a sense of purpose."
Yet with all that originality, Of Montreal got started in an almost cliched way. The story stars Barnes as the stereotypical loner, a troubled teen whose parents moved often, allowing him few opportunities to form real friendships. Because you know how the story ends, you can probably guess the rest. First a guitar and then a four-track recorder provided focus for adolescent angst; insecure and lonely, Barnes found refuge in music, spending hours alone in his room, playing his guitar. Blissful pop was still a few years away, however. Initial attempts at songwriting were influenced by his early musical heroes: Poison, Ratt and Mtley Crüe. Later he would discover the Beatles, followed by the Kinks, the Who and Frank Zappa -- and Of Montreal would be born.
I take a chance and offer up two more words: "Sergeant Pepper." Barnes gives me "ugly mustache."
"For a long time, I only listened to records made in the '60s, mostly psychedelic pop," he recalls. "But in the past couple of years, I've realized there are so many great bands making music right now. Touring has exposed me to indie music from all over the world."
In addition to the many musical influences that Of Montreal absorbs, Barnes nourishes his innate desire to innovate and create with stimuli from literature and film, from visionaries like Welsh author Roald Dahl and pioneering surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel."Last night we were in New York, in this really great bookstore," Barnes explains. "In a good bookstore, I get overwhelmed by how many incredibly creative people there've been throughout history, and I'm just feeding off that energy."
The inspired Of Montreal feeding frenzy is now so enormous that it threatens to overtake the boundaries of the usual CDs-and-tours paradigm. The artistic collective is considering branching into other media."We're talking about starting a very ambitious animation project," Barnes says. "I'm really excited, because it seems like you can do everything at once, and the possibilities are limitless." They're already envisioning the distribution of this latest project over the Internet.
"The hardest part is getting started with the first image, the first sound," Barnes concludes. "A record is much easier. You just write fourteen songs and string them together."
If putting together a record as impressive, masterful and enjoyable as Satanic Panic is "easy" for Barnes, I can see why he's ready for the challenge of a new medium. Most artists toil for years attempting to create an album as rich and complete as Panic, and most never succeed.
As it turns out, there's only one word that can truly describe Kevin Barnes and Of Montreal: brilliant.
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