We’re definitely hired guns. Of Montreal is Kevin [Barnes], no doubt. So [band members] have to find other things, like playing in other bands, too. Of Montreal has certainly become our job. It sucks that we have to think of it in those terms, and it’s not quite that black and white. But we’re friends with Kevin, so it’s not that bad.
story by Derek Wright
photo by Jason Thrasher
A lot of great music has been recorded since 1967. But until a fundamental shift in his own group only a few years ago, Of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes hadn’t noticed.
“[Barnes] finally began to listen to music made after 1967 about the time he was making [2004’s] Satanic Panic in the Attic,” Of Montreal guitarist Bryan Poole said. “It’s like he always had this idea that, until then, everything was pure and happy and about love. And then ’68 hit, and it became chaos.”
Poole’s history with the eccentric singer gives him a unique perspective on the Athens, Georgia, ensemble. He was there in the mid-’90s as one of three original Of Montreal members. And he’s here again today, amidst a prolific series of releases and increasingly extravagant live shows that have vaulted the Elephant 6 act to the height of its critical and commercial success. The musician’s candid speculation shines a light on why this year’s Skeletal Lamping (slated for an Oct. 21 release on Polyvinyl Records) is a distant take from Barnes’ Pet Sounds- and Sgt. Pepper’s-style arrangements from the band’s early days.
Skeletal Lamping — Of Montreal’s ninth LP, and fourth in as many years — is a disco-fueled romp through the songwriter’s sexuality. Dark and gender-bending (if not gender-breaking), the 15-track album explores the same post-’68 hedonistic bedlam that Barnes once avoided. But it does so at the expense of teamwork; and the Elephant 6 collective so often associated with incestuous member-sharing and band-to-band support has seen arguably its most recognizable act become a one-man show.
“Back then, it definitely was more democratic,” said Poole, recalling the pre-Satanic Of Montreal. Although Poole was not a member of Of Montreal during the transition, performing with other Athens acts such as Elf Power kept the guitarist intimately familiar with the E6 goings-on. “[Barnes] was writing all this music, and [he] was tired of having to wait for people to come and record their parts, even though the whole band was sharing a house at that time. So one day, he just packed up his stuff and moved out, and took their recording equipment with him.”
That equipment included Barnes’ personal computer on which he had begun the framework for what would become Satanic Panic in the Attic. That Polyvinyl debut would be the first Of Montreal album written, recorded and engineered entirely by Barnes, with the exception of a few handclaps and notes here or there. It was a freedom the group’s previous dynamic had not offered and one that the singer has not relinquished on subsequent releases for the label such as 2005’s The Sunlandic Twins, last year’s Hissing Fauna Are You the Destroyer?, and its follow-up Skeletal Lamping.
Yet Barnes’ autocratic rule over Of Montreal has unveiled a confident showman who was absent during the group’s psychedelic-tinged period. Before, the singer masked his insecurities on abstract concept albums. But by locking out collaborators en route to Lamping, he discovered the courage to unabashedly sing of his innermost fantasies, fears and frustrations with a vaudevillian knack for theatrics. His lavish onstage costumes compliment his twisted, soul-baring lyrics that blur the lines between the introverted songwriter and extroverted performer.
Of Montreal concerts have become such an exhibition that Barnes and his road band (which includes Poole) began production meetings in April for the fall tour and have been rehearsing in a space big enough that, at times, it’s shared by fellow Athens natives R.E.M. “Of Montreal bleeds money. It’s all about making it a spectacle now,” Poole said. “We’re not going to make any money on this tour. We’ve spent months figuring out how we’re going to do this, how we’re going to pay the performers and get everything together so the shows actually work.”
Part of making it “work” for Poole is determining how to split time between his other ventures. It’s a choice he’s not alone in making. “We’re definitely hired guns. Of Montreal is Kevin [Barnes], no doubt. So [band members] have to find other things, like playing in other bands, too,” he said. “Of Montreal has certainly become our job. It sucks that we have to think of it in those terms, and it’s not quite that black and white. But we’re friends with Kevin, so it’s not that bad.”
Maybe not, but being locked away has certainly done the songwriter some good. The past four years are proof of that.
Of Montreal :: with Sinkane :: Riviera :: October 27.