In Conversation with Kevin Barnes, Of Montreal
Kevin Barnes, leader of the band “of Montreal,” is not your typical musician. His interests, methods, and opinions speak of someone who is highly intelligent, clearly well-seasoned, and unapologetically quirky — all while still possessing a universal sort of charm. With the release of his new singles “it’s different for girls” & "my fair lady," and with the approach of his upcoming album “Innocence Reaches,” (August 12) we caught up with him to engage in a rich discussion about his life, art, fascinations & concerns.
Skye Grayson: You’ve typically stuck to genres belonging to previous generations, but with your new album “Innocence Reaches,” it’s apparent that you’ve utilized more contemporary styles. Although you’ve mentioned that being in Paris helped you with this shift; was there a particular moment, experience, person, song or artist that caused it?
Kevin Barnes: Well, to be honest, I think I just got bored with looking to the past for inspiration, and I wanted to create something that felt more in pace with the climate of the times. I started to feel a little like a relic or a dinosaur; only pulling inspiration from dead scenes; like I wasn't challenging myself enough. I was listening to Holly Herndon and Jack Ü and Flume and just a lot of electronic/remix/collage-y stuff, and I was very inspired by their style of contemporary production. I like the way these modern art/pop/electro composers sculpt sounds to create compositions that feel futuristic and cutting-edge. I like how they use minimalism and maximalism, in varying degrees, to create a sense of tension and release. It feels like a very cerebral and visual form of music. I'm in the state of mind now where I want to be present and aware and tuned into what's happening, and not feel like such an anachronism.
Skye Grayson: Your single, “it’s different for girls,” meditates on the positive and negative features of the female experience. What would you say are the most positive and most negative features? And what are the most positive and negative features of the male experience?
Kevin Barnes: The most negative thing for women could be having to deal with so many parasitic and predatory men; not knowing who you can trust and how much access you should allow someone into your life and your body and your heart. Men don't really have to worry as much about physical abuse, but it is a serious problem for a lot of women. I think the tyranny of gender binarism affects us all in a very profound way. It's almost like the fuel for contemporary culture. Even in the most progressive and culturally diverse cities you still find misogyny and phallogocentrism. The best part of being a woman could be their inherent, intuitive power; and their connection to the Earth and celestial forms. Men have great potential to be just as intuitive and cosmic; unfortunately they are not really encouraged to connect with their feminine side at all. I guess I can't really say what I feel is the most positive or most negative about both genders, just because I don't wanna generalize.
Skye Grayson: You’ve mentioned that you think most of us naturally transition between the female and male identities, psychologically; and that society should acknowledge this, consequently obsolescing the need for gender labels. What do you think are some real obstacles standing in the way of this?
Kevin Barnes: Close-minded people are the biggest obstacle. The vast majority of people never allow themselves to question their own sexuality or gender identity. Their minds just don't operate that way, and they can't really step outside of themselves enough to really empathize with a transgender person or with anyone who feels/acts in a way that's foreign to them. I think all societies would benefit from a more fluid gender concept. We don't need these strict rules for what it is to be a man or what it is to be a woman. We should be allowed to be anything and everything and nothing and something and all things. We should be encouraged to be bi-sexual. Strict heterosexuality should be considered taboo; it's like a bad trait of an extremely selfish person.
Skye Grayson: You’ve mentioned in a previous interview that a song explicitly about politics (say, an “anti-Bush song”) isn’t really new or interesting or romantic to you. In light of your new single, what sets the politically charged issue of sexism and sexual identity apart?
Kevin Barnes: Although the song is very much about those who are biologically female, it is also inclusive of anyone who is on the more feminine side of the gender spectrum. I guess I find the politics of government to be boring and prosaic. Gender politics are more interesting to me. I feel like we're in the beginning stages of a "LGBTQ Spring." I'm happy that the gender binary debate has become a mainstream, hot topic and that it has entered into the corporate/consumer world. The NBA recently moved it's All-Star game out of North Carolina in protest of that state's completely discriminatory anti-LGBTQ legislation. I was so encouraged and pleasantly surprised when I found out about that. In a capitalist society, one of the greatest weapons is consumer power. Once one's politics start affecting their bank accounts, they usually become less dogmatic in their views.
Skye Grayson: Your music often chronicles past romantic relationships. And your band, after all, is named after one woman “of Montreal,” whom you dated. And your new single reflects a deep understanding and sympathy for the female identity. Why do you think there is a strong female influence in your art?
Kevin Barnes: I guess I’ve always felt more of an affinity towards women. I've always been a bit repulsed by 'macho' behaviour. Sensitivity and empathy are considered more feminine traits, and they are essential for anyone involved in the arts. I've always been fascinated by women, how unpredictable and volatile their natures often are. Growing up, my mother was extremely moody and mercurial; it always kept me on edge. I was torn between wanting to please her and wanting to upset her. I'm sure it can all be blamed on my mother, ha ha.
Skye Grayson: Your musical progression is generally synchronous with where you are in life (as your press release mentions, it is an “autobiographical ‘fetishization of reality’”); and your album’s opener is titled "let's relate,” implying a sort of openness to others and the overall human experience. So, how would you sum where you are in life right now, and what experiences and realizations led to this?
Kevin Barnes: I've been feeling very optimistic as of late. I think I'm finally getting over the separation from my wife. It took a long time—it's been over two years now, but I feel like I've finally started to forgive myself and to feel OK about moving on. That’s why I titled the new album "innocence reaches;" it's emblematic of this new feeling of positivity and openness. I like what 'let's relate' conveys; it's a very nice slogan and it embodies my approach to interfacing with the world.
Skye Grayson: Your musical style famously shifts with time. What would you say, other than you, is alternatively immutable about “of Montreal?”
Kevin Barnes: Nothing really—I'm always looking for new ways to expand and evolve the project and the creative experience. I need to have the freedom to blow everything up and start anew at any point. It keeps the project exciting and flexible and artistically & emotionally fulfilling.
Skye Grayson: One of the lyrics in “it’s different for girls,” says, “Though some women are demons all of them are God." This is one of the less obvious lines in the song. What is the meaning and significance of this line?
Kevin Barnes: Women, with a little help from a man, can bring life into this world—in a way that makes them godlike. Basically, every one of us arrived on this planet through a maternal egress. For that reason alone we, as a species, should deify women.
Skye Grayson: You are famously well read. Who are your strongest literary and academic influences?
Kevin Barnes: I tend to go through phases with authors/time-periods/literary movements. As of late I've been reading a lot of autobiographical novels like Eileen Myles's Chelsea Girls, Patti Smith's Just Kids, Andy Warhol's The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, John Rechy's City of Night, Yukio Mishima's Confessions of a Mask.... I feel that reading autobiographies helps me view my own life experiences like a novel and gives my life the magic and power of the written word.
Skye Grayson: French literature, avant-garde cinema, and Greek mythology are among your interests, so you’re arguably familiar with the elements of tragedy and that famous French sort of cynicism. How would you say this translates into your music?
Kevin Barnes: It's hard to say really. I try not to be overly dramatic or indulge too much in the darker sides of the human experience. I try to keep my cynicism in check and not use it as a crutch or protective shield. I do appreciate the vociferous void of writers like Celine, Camus, Sartre and Genet. I'm sure a bit of their ennui and emotional detachment have crept into my work a little.
Skye Grayson: You’ve mentioned that your music has a “schizophrenic” style; one that is split and unpredictable, often combining dark lyrics with beautiful melodies. Playing off of that psychological theme—how would you say your early life affects you and your art now?
Kevin Barnes: I feel like my approach to creating music hasn't really changed that much since I first started as a teenager. I've always embraced awkwardness and unpredictability. I've always followed my vision blindly and without self-consciousness. I've been a loner all of my life; I feel comfortable alone and I almost never feel lonely. Sometimes my inner voices get too loud, and I start feeling claustrophobic in my body, and that's when I try to get out and socialize a bit. I enjoy awkward juxtapositions. I like placing two incongruous things on top of each other. That's one reason why I'll write a happy sounding melody and sing depressing lyrics over it—not to be overly clever, but just to force the antipodal sides to resign themselves to each other. Often the happy music will represent the way that I wished I felt, and the more somber lyrics how I truly feel. I'm trying to lift my spirits through the creative process, though I also want my art to be connected to my reality.
Skye Grayson: If you weren't leading a musical group, what would you be doing as a career?
Kevin Barnes: I might try to be a poet or a playwright, and dissolve into the milieu of academia; or I might want to become a sports journalist (I'm a closeted sports fan); or maybe try to become a comedian; or a humble greengrocer who runs an illegal Kiriki ring in the storage basement...so many options!