Track-by-Track: of Montreal on “Lousy With Sylvianbriar” - The Complete Interview

Kevin Barnes on the the Band's 12th Album

Oct 21, 2013 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


For our Track-by-Track feature, we go in-depth with an artist about each song on their new album. This week we are featuring of Montreal's Lousy With Sylvianbriar, and for the next three days we'll post commentary by frontman Kevin Barnes on all of the album's songs. Lousy With Sylvianbriar was released last week on Polyvinyl.

Though he has built his career out of a series of unexpected stylistic left turns, evolving from psychedelic pop through electronic funk before ending up at avant-garde classical music, Kevin Barnes was in danger of running out of ways to surprise us when he got around to the task of writing of Montreal's 12th studio album. As such, after a decade of stranger and stranger experiments, it's possible that turning to traditional American roots music is Barnes' most surprising change of course yet, forcing him to strip back his usually sprawling song structures to refocus around the fundamentals of straightforward verses and choruses. Lousy with Sylvianbriar is startling for all the right reasons.

Back to writing on guitar for the first time in ages, Barnes relocated to San Francisco and started crafting a set of songs inspired by the music he was listening to at the timeBob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Neil Youngand assembled a backing band to record them with him. Back home in Athens, Georgia, he and his bandmates, nearly all of them new recruits, embarked on an intense two-week period of 12-hour-a-day recording sessions, and the result is an album that crackles with delirious live-in-the-studio energy and Barnes' usual ingenious ear for melody. Eleven songs, moving through Stonesy slide guitar riff rock to heartbroken balladry and woozy Dylanesque rompsthere's nothing quite like it in the of Montreal catalog. Here, Barnes explains them all.

Last week we posted this interview in three parts, now here's the full Track-by-Track interview in one complete post.

"Fugitive Air"

Kevin Barnes: I think a lot of times when I'm putting a sequence together, I'm thinking of it as a live show, and I'll put the more rocking, upbeat, poppy songs at the beginning. We went through a couple different sequences until we were happy with it, and it felt like it should kick off with something that's kind of sexy and upbeat, because that's, in a way, indicative of the spirit of the record. So I think, in that sense, I was thinking of Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed. Those are my two favorite Stones records, and Sticky Fingers, also. Those three start with a cool, slightly more uptempo song and then go off in totally different directions as the record goes on. So I thought it would be cool to start with something that could grab you right away and then you can veer off in whatever direction you want from there. It's hard, because you realize people's attention spans are short. There's hundreds of records being released, so there's a point to putting a standout track at the beginning to grab people.

When I was in San Francisco making the demo, I had to go track down a slide, because I didn't bring one. I had imagined in my head what it would sound like, so it was cool. Slide guitar is not easy to play, and as I was demoing it, I was like, "God! I suck at this!" But I could get close enough to give Bennett [Lewis] an idea of what I'd want him to play. Keith Richards is probably my favorite guitar player of all guitar players. He's not really flashy. He doesn't really solo, but if he does, it's something interesting, like on "Sympathy for the Devil." It's not technically great, but it has a cool emotive quality to it. So I've always loved the way he plays guitar, and I always try to get that tone with my guitar. I don't know if that has really ever come across in of Montreal shows or whatever, but in my head I'm always thinking that's the best guitar sound. That's what I want to get.

And he's a great rhythm player, just an incredible rhythm guitarist. Almost nobody wants to be a rhythm guitar player. Almost everyone wants to play leads and do flashy things. I'm really into dub and reggae music, too, and the guitar playing in that is so rhythmic and percussive, and it's just a part of the organism, just a part of the rhythm section in this cool way. I think Keith is that sort of player, as well, just really connected to the drums and what Charlie [Watts] is playing. They're just locked in.

A lot of the lyrics on the record are very personal, but probably in a way that isn't obvious, as far as like, "This is a song about heartbreak and blah, blah, blah." But pretty much everything is connected to my personal life or just ideas and musings or whatever. The way I write, my mind is always so scattered, so one verse might be about one thing, and the next verse is total fantasy, and the next verse is a very personal statement, and the next verse is about a dream I had. It's all very fluid. It's rare that there's a song that's about one thing the whole way through. It does happen, but it's not that easy for me, because I think that way my mind works is that it's always bouncing all over the place. I don't really worry about it. I don't second-guess it that much. I just start writing and see where it goes, and if there's something that annoys me, then I'll change it. But, in general, I don't really second-guess it that much. There are a lot of lines that I have where my brother will be like, "God, I can't imagine why you'd write that or what you were thinking." [Laughs] And I can't really say, either. There are a lot of songs that I've written that I'm like, "It's so weird that I wrote that song! I can't imagine what the state of mind I was in when I wrote it." But I don't worry about it. It's always hard for me to explain or define things, because it's not something that I understand, myself.

"Obsidian Currents"

That one is much easier to explain. That one was one of those songs where you're talking to yourselfjust kind of warning myself against being too cynical and detached. That song is one that I started writing before I went to San Francisco, but I didn't have all the lyrics, just a rough sketch. I guess I just wanted to write something that had that intimate feeling to it, that was a very direct statement, more to myself than anyone else.

[John Lennon's] Plastic Ono Band is definitely in my top five albums, and just the way the instrumentation is for all the songs on that record, it's so perfect. It's creating this great atmosphere, but the voice of the singer and the lyrics are in the forefront, so you feel like you're almost inside of John's brain with those songs. So I was definitely trying to create the same sort of atmosphere and vibe. There are a couple songs like that. Plastic Ono Band and classic records like Everyone Knows This is Nowhere and those early Neil Young records that he was doing with the band [Crazy Horse] that were slightly more rocking, those were the big influences as far as the production goes, just creating something that had similar drum and bass sounds. Those records are cool, because Klaus Voormann's bass lines on the John Lennon songs are pretty funky and interesting and are moving around a lot, not just playing the root notes. But they don't really stand out in a way that will distract you. We were trying to create things that were really tasteful but also interesting and not dumbing down everything. I think Clayton [Rychlik] did a great job on the drums for that song, because they are actually pretty funky but it doesn't feel like "Funky Drummer." It's still kind of subtle and in the pocket.

[The vocals are] very dry, mainly because we didn't have any effects to work with. When we were mixing it, we were in this other studio, and they have pretty decent slight reverb units we could have used, but I always felt that they felt better, just very direct and in front of the speakers.

"Belle Glade Missionaries"

I've always loved Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, his Beat period or whatever, where he was using a Beat poetry style of writing. But it also has a very free association quality, as well. It feels like a stream of consciousness a lot of times. So I was inspired by that and kind of wanted to make my version of that, in a sense. On a certain level, I was inspired by the shootings at the Connecticut school where all those little kids were killed, and I was thinking about that and people's opposition to any gun control. After that, it seemed like any healthy, normal society would see that as a warning sign, like, "Okay. We need to have stricter gun regulations. We need stricter gun control. We can't be trusted with guns anymore." But that didn't happen, so I created this fantasy in my mind that there's this nefarious group that really doesn't care at all and wants us to be killing each other more and more, and it has created this dystopian state where little kids are sent back to the factories like at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. There are no more workers' rights, and if you want police protection you have to pay for it. You have private companies that you have to pay, and if you can't afford it, then you don't get it. It feels like it's moving in that direction in our country, not really quickly, but I can see that there's enough people that would prefer to have that. The more fanatic right-wing faction of the country, they would prefer everything to be privatized and for there to be no regulation and no social programs whatsoever. Basically, it would be this Orwellian thing where if you can afford it, you can have this quality of life. But if you can't, then there's nothing you can do. They don't really think. They don't really connect the dots, like "That's only going to create a more vicious lower class." I hate to use the term "class" in that sense, but basically people without money aren't going to just die. Everyone has pride and a self-preservation aspect to their being. You figure out whatever you have to do to provide for your family and yourself. [Having money] doesn't really make life better for the people who have money, I think. It just makes them more paranoid. It creates more challenges. It would be better if everybody were to share as much as possible. [Laughs] But now I'm getting way off topic. To an extent, that's what the song is about, or at least the chorus is. There's always so many different things that are going on in all of the songs.

"Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit"

I had this relationship with a friend, and it got really sour. There's a lot of references on the record to that, and without going into too many details, sometimes you have friendships with somebody and you're really close. They say it's a thin line between love and hate, and some things just get really sour, and you feel really deeply about it, because it wasn't a superficial thing. It was something that mattered to you, and when something you really loved goes south, it's difficult to be objective about it and let things slide. Everything seems so much more serious. So there's a lot of references to that relationship on the record. That song is primarily about that. It's a really negative song, which, for some reason, I'm drawn to write lately or over the last four or five albums. There's always that one little negative guy that pops up. [Laughs] I guess it's just part of life. Sometimes you think about things in a more negative way, and sometimes you think about them in a more positive way. That one is a strange little negative song, but it's kind of beautiful musically. That's one that we recorded almost everything live. I was playing the guitar and JoJo [Glidewell] was playing the piano and Bennett was playing mandolin and Clayton was playing percussion, and we were all right next to each other in the same room. Then Bob [Parins] overdubbed the upright bass afterwards.

It's interesting working that way, because you're playing it with no vocals, and if somebody messes up you have to start again, because you can't really edit. I mean, you could if you want to go deep into it and splice tape together, but we weren't going to go in that direction. So, basically, we had to nail it in the room, everyone playing their part and no one messing it up, and it's kind of a long, slow song, so we had to do maybe five or six takes. There was one take I remember being so perfect; I was so happy with it. And we got to the last couple measures of the song, and someone messed up. I was just like, "Noooo! We have to do the whole thing again!" That kind of stuff is fun, as well. It's painful in the moment, because we were so close to having a finished track, but that's just the nature of that style of recording. I think it's good, because you can't hide behind anything. What you hear is actually someone playing an instrument. What's lost with computer recording sometimes is when someone is moving MIDI notes around you don't get the same feeling of a human playing an instrument.

"Colossus"

That one is probably my favorite track on the record. I was reading a lot of Sylvia Plath when I was living in San Francisco, and for some reason she sort of haunted the album. Not in a negative way, but her spirit looms large, and when I think about the album, I think of the lyrics and the atmosphere. She has a poem called "Colossus" and that's why I named it that, just thinking about her biography and what she went through, and all of the suicides and mental institutions and experimental drugs and all these things that she went through. The song isn't about her, but it's from that perspective of someone who suffered these tragedies. Early on, the mother hangs herself, and [Plath's] father committed suicide. It's changing the story a bit, but it's definitely influenced by her life.

I just wanted to make something that felt very intimate, so I was playing the guitar with just my thumb, because I didn't want to get the sound of a pick, which can be bothersome. It can be too noisy. So I wanted to play everything in a way that would make it feel really mellow and dark and create a sort of dream vibe. And the harmonies with Rebecca [Cash] are really cool on that one. We were very influenced by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, and we were trying on a certain level to reproduce that chemistry that they had with the male and female voices that work really well together. Often, when men and women sing together, their voices are so different that it's difficult to find someone you can harmonize with that feels like one organism and not two very distinct personalities doing their own thing. It's cool, because I feel like our voices become one organism together. She's very good at seeing what kind of style that I'm singing with and getting close to that style herself. So the parts are very much linked together and working together in a way. If I listen to Bob Dylan harmonizing with someone, it doesn't really sound very good. It sounds like two people singing at the same time. His stuff with Joan Baez, I think, is kind of bad, and the stuff he did with Johnny Cash is kind of bad. And he's a great singer. People give Dylan shit about losing his voice, and in the '60s people seemed to think he was not a good singer, but he has perfect pitch and he's an incredible singer. But he doesn't really harmonize well with other people. It's a different art form in a way. Just because you're a good singer doesn't mean you can harmonize with people, or maybe he just needed a different singer to harmonize with. Singing with Rebecca is great, because she's a better singer than me, which makes me lift my game a bit. It's always better to sing with someone who is better than you, just because I'd rather be the one that's a little bit flat than deal with someone else that's a little bit flat. [Laughs]

"Triumph of Disintegration"

That's something that I wrote toward the end of Paralytic Stalks, and I recorded a whole version of it that was very different. It was very electronic-feeling and all programmed drums and drum samples and things like that. I sent it to Polyvinyl, and my main guy, the A&R guy, I always send him my stuff and we have a great relationship. And he said, "Well, it kind of just sounds like of Montreal, and I thought you were going to go in another direction." So I wasn't so sure about it. I was really excited about it, but I played it for other people, and they'd be like, "Eh, it's okay." I wasn't sure if I was going to put it on a record or wait for the next rarities compilation. But I felt good about it, so I wanted to give it another try. So when we had the whole band together I played it for them, and we went through a couple different versions of it and eventually hit upon the version that's on the record. We did that a couple times on the record, that song and "She Ain't Speakin' Now." There's a couple songs that we tried drastically different versions of and worked on them all night and wasted a lot of time going in this one direction before realizing at the end of the night, "Uh... this is not happening," and then the next day [we'd] pick it up and go in a totally different direction. Maybe we'd keep some of the ideas or some of the parts and change part of the rhythm of something or change the tempo. So "Triumph of Disintegration" was one of those that we worked on for many, many hours and went in one direction that was very Motown-y, but I wasn't happy with that. So then we went in this different direction. It still has this '60s R&B vibe to it in the verses, and it slows down and becomes a bit more rock or late-'60s rock or something.

"Amphibian Days"

That one, I definitely wanted to make something that felt kind of druggy, like druggy country music with strange imagery in the lyrics to capture that late-night vibe. That after-hours country song or whatever. There are some cool Neil Young songs that have that sort of vibe, and I know from reading interviews with him that he always wants to wait until the end of the session to do that sort of song, because everyone is a bit burned out and kind of coming down from whatever they were on and is playing music in a semi-zombie state. [Laughs] I wanted to capture that vibe. On a small level, it was inspired by this paranoid thinking of Scientology and the concept of aliens and gray babies and that whole weird version of what's going on in the human race. [Laughs] It's kind of an abstract song in a sense, but it also has the line, "You can defy the defining flaws of your generation," and I was thinking about how I came up during the grunge period and the tail end of punk and everyone was very cynical. It seemed like my generation is very cynical and it's very hard to believe in things. The whole flower power thing was a total joke, and the different youth movements in different generations all seemed so phony. I think that infected me and my mind, and for a long time, growing up, I didn't feel connected to things. I felt like I had to disregard everything because everything was phony. It was like a weird J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye kind of thing. So it was hard to get excited about different movements, because it was like, "Oh, it's just going to pass anyway." It was an Eeyore view of things. I think that people of my generation have to get over that or it could infect you in this bad way where it makes it difficult to feel positive and optimistic.

That's the thing I don't really understand [about early of Montreal albums]. When I think about the kind of person that I was, I was actually very cynical and bitter, but I think I was trying to overcome that and overcompensate in a way by making really sweet, childlike songs in order to transcend that thing that was going on or that feelingtrying to make things that were more optimistic and full of life. But it's funny, because now I can't listen to those songs or think about them. I guess I'm happy that I made them, but I feel so completely disconnected from them, because they were coming from something false. It wasn't the way I actually felt. I was trying to feel that way, but it wasn't real. It's hard to judge your own stuff in that way.

"She Ain't Speakin' Now"

I came back from San Francisco, and my wife Nina and my daughter were both really sick. They both had this terrible flu. Nina came out to visit me for a weekend, and she had the misfortune of sitting next to this woman that was terribly sick and had no business flying. She was coughing and sneezing and leaving dirty tissues all over the place. She was really a monster in a way. But [Nina] got really ill, and it's always scary, with people dying of the flu and all the different mutations that happen. There's always that fear of a flu pandemic, and you never know when someone gets sick and bedridden if this is going to be the thing that actually kills someone. It's a serious thing. So when I wrote that song, they were both really sick. I had this sense that they weren't going to die, but I allowed myself to go to that really dark place, like "What if they did die?"

That one, the verses are really beautiful, with Bennett's mandolin, and I was playing this nylon-string guitar, and JoJo was playing a really beautiful piano part. I like it a lot because it feels so different from verse to chorus. The verses feel more dreamy and beautiful, and the chorus is more frantic and fuzzy and rocking. I like the way the harmonies sound with me and Rebecca on the choruses. That one was something I was thinking could be a good single.

"Hegira Émigré"

That song was kind of inspired by "Tombstone Blues" from Highway 61 Revisited, with a verse and a chorus and a verse and a chorus and a verse and chorus, and there are more than you expected there to be. I didn't go as far as Dylan and have, like, eight verses. That was my take on that. It's cool because Kishi Bashi plays on it at the end, because he did a lot on Paralytic Stalks, so I feel like he helped create what's cool about that album. A lot of it is what he did, so it's cool to get him involved on this, because it's a completely different kind of record stylistically. That was a really fast one to do, too. We only did a couple of versions of it. Highway 61 Revisited is definitely a big influence. That record feels really spontaneous, and they probably only did a handful of takes, and it's all about the guys in the room playing well together.

"Raindrop in My Skull"

That's one I wrote when I came back to Athens, and it was actually after the sessions were over. We basically had enough songs for the record, but "Raindrop in My Skull" and "Colossus" were the two songs that I wrote after the sessions were over, and those were the two songs that I engineered myself. There's slightly different personnel [on that track] because everyone had gone back to their homes. It was just me, JoJo, Rebecca, and Claytonthe people who live in Athens. "Raindrop..." has always been special to me, because I was just fooling around in the backyard, playing the guitar. And my daughter, Alabee, was back there. We've been writing a lot of songs together, just screwing around. She writes a lot of songs, herself. She's only eight years old, but now she probably has eight or nine songs that she has written and that I've worked out the arrangements for. Pretty soon we'll make a record together. But a lot of times, she steals things [laughs], because she doesn't really think about it or worry about it. She was singing this song, "There's a Teardrop in My Guitar," ["Teardrops on My Guitar" - ed.] which, I guess, are the lyrics from a Taylor Swift song, but I didn't know that because I don't know Taylor Swift's music that well. But I was like, "Oh, my God! 'There's a teardrop in my guitar!' That's a great line, Alabee. I can't believe you made that up. I'm going to use that!" But I was somewhat suspicious about it, because I thought maybe it was too good. So I looked it up, and I was like "Oh, crap! It's a Taylor Swift song." So, I changed it to "Raindrop in My Skull."

I liked the idea of showcasing Rebecca on the song, because I think she's got a great voice, and that song, depending on who is singing it, can be transformed in different ways. I've done that a little bit in the past, with Janelle Monáe or Solange, having a female vocalist sing a part of a song. And we'd been doing so much harmonizing together that I thought it was interesting to give her a song that she sings lead on. I knew that she would do a great job with it, because it's in that sphere of the music that she listens to or would write herself.

"Imbecile Rages"

That's another song about the relationship that dissolved in a bad way, and it's a song where I was taking a very negative view of things. Now that I have so much distance from it, I can feel like, "Yeah, that's a really cruel songunnecessarily cruel." But at the time it came from this very pure place of bitterness and anger and frustration. I'm happy that I did it; I'm happy that I was able to capture something so emotionally powerful. At the same time, I kind of wish I was a better person and didn't have to write those kinds of songs. I feel a little bit guilty about it, too, because it's just my perspective on the situation. So it's not really going to open up conversation. It's just my side of it and my view of it.

That's definitely very much an open letter to someone. I like that style of writing. I think of "How Do You Sleep?"the John Lennon song. I don't know if people can get that much out of them, if they are coming from a place of bitterness and negativity. But it's just part of life. There are a lot of John Lennon songs that are like that, but it's not something that I want to listen to if I'm partying or whatever. But I'm happy that they exist, that they are representing that aspect of our psyche. They're not necessarily a nice or good thing, but it's part of being a human being. It's good to have that.

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Nick
September 28th 2014
10:05pm

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