of Montreal: The Age of Icons - Interview | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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of Montreal

The Age of Icons

Oct 03, 2016 Photography by Ben Rouse Issue #58 - The Protest Issue
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In the 12 years since Kevin Barnes hit the reset button on of Montreal with 2004's Satanic Panic in the Attic, his muses have pulled him in an almost unimaginable variety of directions. But despite detours into neo-prog, avant-garde electronica, and country-tinged Americana, Barnes never completely abandons his foundation: the music of David Bowie and Prince. Like both, Barnes is a prolific musical polymath, experimenting widely with styles, themes, and personas while still retaining the core of his aesthetic with every release. But unlike Bowie and Prince, Barnes has shown little interest in contemporary pop music. With Innocence Reaches that changes.

Half-glam rock, half-electronic pop, the 14th of Montreal album is arguably Barnes' most eclectic release. The chunky riff-rock of "gratuitous abysses" and "les chants de maldoror" don't break new ground as much as they represent the culmination of everything he was doing over his past two releases. But when Barnes goes for reinvention, he goes all the way. The manipulated vocals and purring androgyny of "let's relate" and "a sport and a pastime" mark the first time Barnes has created pop music that features more open space than overstuffed textures. As a writer, he is still drawn to provocation, with the not-so-subtle put downs of "my fair lady" and the stereotype-probing "it's different for girls" providing the album's most striking moments. Here, Barnes explains what drew him to experimenting with contemporary pop styles, why he's embracing minimalism, and how the deaths of Bowie and Prince effected the way he thinks about his work.

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): I read that while you were making this record you were listening to contemporary pop music, which isn't something you had done a lot in the past. What was the reason you did that?

Kevin Barnes: I think that just organically I move in different directions from album to album, and with this one I was moving a little bit further away from the prog-rock, motorcycle-rock stuff that I was listening to. I just wanted to do something different and was getting excited about some of the sounds that I was hearing in contemporary production and electronic music, in general. I wanted to do something a little bit more dancey again and get back into writing in that style.

Was there a particular moment when that idea struck you?

Well, the big impetus for it was mainly when I was in Paris. I was working at this studio that's in an apartment complex, so I couldn't really make too much noise, so I was basically using synthesizers and drum machines. I hadn't done that in a long time, so it was fun to get back into it, and being in that environment was pretty instrumental with me getting re-turned on to that style of production and writing.

What was the first song you wrote for this record?

Well, you can probably hear the thread that connects that last couple records with this record, because some of the more band-in-a-room sounding songs were the first songs that I wrote for the record. And then I started moving more into an electronic phase about halfway through.

So when you started to move in a new direction, which was the first song to come out?

"It's different for girls" was the first electronic song that I wrote.

That's an interesting song, since it's so striking lyrically. Was there an idea that was the impetus for that?

It's just something that I had been thinking about for a long time, because I have a daughter. It gives me some perspective on the female experience and what it means to be a woman in the world and how, as much as we might like to think and as much as things have evolved and gotten better, there is still pretty deep misogyny that exists and some deep phallic-centric energy in the world.

Yeah, that's true. Do you think there is a dominant tone in the writing on this record?

Well, there's a lot of personal content. Like all my records, it's basically an open journal, and as I'm going through these experiences in my personal life, I'm writing about it. I got into a couple different relationships during the course of the album, and I was also still dealing with the separation from my wife and all those things, so it is kind of interesting to me. If I went back through the album, it would be like, "That song's about her, and that song's about her, and that song's about this thing that happened." It's pretty deeply rooted in my personal life.

As a listener, it seems like a song like "my fair lady" is about a specific situation.

Yeah, there's a bunch of songs about this one girl in particular that I had a relationship with. It was very intense but pretty short relationship, but for some reason it was very inspiring, I think because of how vulnerable and unstable I was at the time. But what I feel now is very optimistic. That's why I gave the album the title Innocence Reaches, because it felt like I had passed through a dark chapter and started moving into more positive feelinga positive energy. And even though some of those songs might feel a little bitter, I was trying to be a little bit more generous or less critical of other people and less critical of myself and forgive myself for certain things that I realized I'd fucked up withjust try to let all of the baggage go and move forward.

Since you hadn't made an album this electronic and dancey for a while, had the technology changed very much since the last time you made this kind of music?

There definitely are some interesting new plug-ins and software options. But that's pretty much the only differencejust because I have a more retro style and use the computer as a tape machine anyways. I know that a lot of people use Ableton, but I've been using Logic. This record doesn't feel very futuristic. I tried, but I have to recognize that it's not really pushing any boundaries. It was enjoyable to do it, and it may lead me into something further, some sort of experimenting and hopefully putting me in a place where I could potentially make something slightly more cutting edge.

To me, it sounds different from the previous electronic stuff that you made just because there's more open space in these arrangements.

Oh yeah, definitely. I was listening to different music, like the Arca stuff, and listening to things that feel more spacious and not trying to do a four-on-the-floor, super dancey fist-pumping anthemic music. I wasn't trying to do that but trying to create a slightly more dreamy atmosphere and leaving a lot more room. That's the fun thing about electronic music: you're not trying to pretend that there's a band doing it. It's obvious there is a producer there sitting behind a computer, so it doesn't feel the same as listening to a Stooges record or a Velvet Underground record. They are completely different experiences. So I think in that way it's cool that I feel more free to say, "Okay, I can make this thing six minutes long or 20 minutes long. It's basically up to me what I want to do."

Do you think that freedom pushes you in a direction to be more minimalist, where much of your other work is much more maximalist, with layer upon layer upon layer?

Yeah, definitely. Songs like "a sport and a pastime" and "trashed exes"sections in those songs, like the choruses, at times are definitely more minimalist than I've ever done before. And I think realizing how powerful silence can be within the context of a sound, thinking of silence as an instrument in itselfI hadn't really done that before. You also can't make a mistake if you're not playing anything. [Laughs]

Well, it works. I think this record has an interesting feel to it. The pieces fit together, but if you listen to them one at a time it might be hard to see the overall shape. If you listen to it as a whole, you see that they do fit.

I was kind of nervous about it. To be honest, I was really close to making it two albums, because I had enough material for one electronic album and one more Americana rock whatever album. But then I realized it would feel more exciting for it to be eclectic and to genre hop a lot. And like you said, strangely the styles don't clash that much. There's some thread that connects them together that, to me at least, feels pretty natural. It will be fun playing these songs live, because too much of one thing can get pretty boring. Even if something is really good, after 30 minutes of hearing something in a certain style can get pretty boring. So being able to jump from a glammy thing to a sexy, electronic thing and a playful, colorful dancey thing, it will be hard to get boredat least for me. I'll be able to jump from these different personas. It lends itself to us being able to put on a really theatrical and playful and dark and wild performance. I'm really excited about that, and in a way I feel more engaged in the of Montreal project and the artistic community that circles it than I have in many years. I definitely feel that there's a good energy happening.

In the last year, Bowie and Prince have both died. Do you think that will affect you as an artist?

More Prince than Bowie, just because Bowie was older and I haven't really connected that much with his more recent stuff from the past couple decades, really. When someone like Bowie dies it's obviously very sad and also made me more reflective and made me think about him, but I always thought about him anyway. He was always on my mindhis music from the '70s. His music was playing constantly, and it's still playing. Even though his body is gone, things haven't changed that much as far as the way I think about him. But for Prince it's a little different, because he was so secretive, and he wouldn't allow any of his performances or videos to be on YouTube, so after he died it was this flood of all of this great Prince content that I've never seen. And that was pretty devastating, but also really inspiring to be like, "Oh, my God, I just realized that that performance from the Grammy's in 1984 existed, and I can't believe what an amazing dancer and performer he was." I met him once maybe four or five years ago, and he was really nice to me, so I have that positive memory and a positive physical connection. And knowing how close he was with Janelle Monáe, who is a good friend of mine, it felt more like losing a family member "[with]" Prince.

Looking at his body of work, it's amazing just how much music he created. That's not even counting the supposed 200 albums that never saw the light of day. Since you're the kind of artist who puts out an album almost every year, do you relate to him on that level?

I think he was way more committed to recording than I am, just because of the amount of material that he didn't release far exceeds the amount of outtakes that I have. So I think he was on another level. The fact that he was an incredibly gifted musician as well as a songwriter, for me I feel like I have more limitations as far as what I can do myself. A lot of times I want other people's help, because I think they can do it better than I can, where he probably knew that no one could do it better than he could. If you're autonomous like that, you can work a lot faster. Sometimes I can get hung up, like, "I don't want to do it if it isn't going to be really good," which I think is a stupid attitude. If I'm not feeling really inspired then I don't even mess around with music, where I feel like he was either always inspired or excited about this new idea he woke up with in his head. I don't have as many ideas as he didnowhere near as many.

I wonder if he wasn't a self-conscious person at all. He just seemed to have the confidence that whatever he did was going to be good enough that he could stand behind it.

It seems like it. The fact that if you listen to some of the unreleased stuff, and it's really out there, a lot of it. And it's all over the place. And reading about how some of those songs evolved, like the song "Kiss." He apparently wrote it and was going to give it away to another artist. Then they did a version of it that he thought was so great that he was like, "I'm going to take this back." A lot of the stuff that he wrote around the time of 1999 and Purple Rain, and the stuff he wrote for The Time and Vanity Sixall of that stuff is great. So it's interesting that there are so many songs, like, for example, "Nothing Compares 2 U," which a lot of people thought was a Sinéad O'Connor song, myself included. Or like, "Did you know Prince wrote 'Manic Monday?'" All of those songs were huge hits for people and defined their careers, and he just gave them to them.

When you met him was it difficult not to be awestruck?

Oh yeah, I was awestruck, but he put me at ease pretty quickly. We didn't have a conversation, but he gave me a hug. It was at Paisley Park, that compound. I was with a pretty huge entourage of people, and most of them had met him before and were friends with him. I was with Janelle. It wasn't a fan interaction. It felt more official. It was okay that I was there. I'm sure if I had stumbled upon him at the airport that would have been a different experience.

[Note: This article originally appeared in the digital version (for tablets and smart phones) of Under the Radar's August/September/October 2016 Issue, which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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