“I take pieces of other people’s genius and blend them together in a way that’s interesting to me.” -Kevin Barnes, of Montreal
An ever-evolving group from Athens, Georgia, with only one consistent member, Of Montreal has put out yet another album this year, which can be added to the long list of records in their back catalog. After a long talk with bandleader Kevin Barnes, and exploring the common thread through all twelve albums, it’s clear that Of Montreal has been and always will be his own little project.
Of Montreal has been around for years; they’ve always been a group that people have heard of, but in an exclusive interview with the man who makes it all happen, Performer had the chance to learn about the writing processes, the group’s association with the legendary Elephant 6 Collective, and even heard a mention of another album due out next year. With such a wide range of music to choose from and such an eclectic sound, it will be more than interesting to see how the group’s latest LP, Lousy With Sylvianbriar, connects with the music-buying public.
It changes depending on what I want it to sound like, and a player’s skills are hired based on that. It’s always been my project.
Do you enjoy being the only consistent member of the band?
I like being the only one. I don’t have to get other people’s permission. I don’t have arguments with anyone, as far as changing directions and styles. I can do whatever I want. I definitely work with people but I don’t have a partner on the musical side or a consistent creative partner, which has its positives and negatives. There’s something cool about the bands that have more than one songwriter, kind of like The Beatles. Those bands have so much diversity. I just haven’t met anyone that I really want to consistently work with.
Now, you guys have a very interesting sound, so can you tell me who you consider as your influences?
I feel like what I do is take pieces of other people’s genius and blend them together in a way that’s interesting to me – sort of like a collector of other peoples’ ideas. Someone else’s songs inspire almost all my songs. I always listen to music and if I hear something that’s cool, I try to do my own version of that. The records I like the most are the ones from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. I listen to some contemporary stuff, though. There were a lot of bands that were “lifers.” Maybe back in the day people had a better work ethic. There were the people who would just play and play until no one bought their records or went to their shows anymore, and those are the people I always look back to.
When did you buy your first guitar and what model or brand was it?
At 14 I got my first acoustic guitar. I think it was a Washburn; I don’t still use it now.
Martin acoustic, Yamaha piano, Gibson… I have a lot of guitars. My favorite guitar is the Gibson SG; I tour with it and play it in the studio.
Tell me a bit about your artistic approach to writing.
I write a lot of lyrics and if I get a melody line in my head, often I’ll go back and see if any of the lyrics fit the melody. I generally just write lyrics but I don’t use 99% of the things I write. I’m always writing and always playing, but I don’t force it. Sometimes I don’t even go back to the old lyrics, I just want something new. If I get an idea, I’ll write it down. I don’t think I’ve ever tried; I just keep my mind open to it.
Tell me a bit about what it meant to be in the Elephant 6 Collective.
It was mainly just this nebulous thing. It wasn’t a situation where people were signing contracts, or record deals. The whole thing was very fluid all around. They were like-minded people making similar records, playing off of each other’s records and played at home. We were always on the periphery, just friends of them, and we were kind of E6 “wanna-be’s” – almost like a big brother thing. Of Montreal wasn’t there at the beginning of it, we were just on the fringe side. I’m still friends with them, though.
How would you classify your genre?
We don’t have a fixed genre. The most recent one, though, is definitely a combination of words that are dead because they’ve been abused. Americana, outlaw country, folk, rock. It’s definitely more of a confessional album.
You guys have put out so many records. Do you expect to continue this high volume of music production?
I’m actually working on a new record right now, hopefully [we’ll] have it out by next year.
I know that you’ve been featured on a lot of different songs. Can you tell me who was your favorite person or group to work with?
A few people like Kishi Bashi and Zac Colwell. It’s fun playing with them. They play instruments I can’t play; they’re excellent musicians, skilled arrangers, they added something big I couldn’t do on my own, especially now that I’ve moved away from the digital world and have moved back into the analog world. It’s cool to know people who can play classical instruments.
For me, writing is a thing I do because I have an obsession with it. We went through periods where nobody knew or wrote about us or went to our shows but I kept working, and you’ve just got to have it inside of you. It can mess with your personal life, but if you’re naturally driven, you’ll do it.
photos by Nina Barnes