Track-by-Track: of Montreal on "Lousy With Sylvianbriar" Part 1 | Under the Radar - Music Magazine

Track-by-Track: of Montreal on “Lousy With Sylvianbriar” Part 1

Kevin Barnes on the Tracks 1 - 3 on the Band's 12th Album

Oct 14, 2013 Web Exclusive
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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.

Here's part one, where Barnes discusses in-depth the first three songs on the album. Come back tomorrow for part two and commentary on the next four songs and again on Wednesday for part three and his thoughts on the final four songs.

"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.

Check back tomorrow for part two.

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Abel
October 14th 2013
9:43am

I really like this. He gets sidetracked easily, but it’s cool to hear about what the songs mean to him and what emotions they evoke from him.

Steve
October 14th 2013
3:12pm

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Kevin Barnes open up so much about his songwriting process, and I’m an of Montreal fanatic. It’s really cool to hear his thoughts on all this stuff.

Joann
October 16th 2013
12:59pm

Thank you for these long, unedited quotes; Barnes is infinitely revealing when discussing his inspirations and, not being a person with any musical experience, it’s fascinating to learn all of the subtle decisions in his creative song-writing process. The end results are always so consistently catchy, moving, and LWS is no sleeper: it’s alive and fully-formed with intention and clarity and its got hooks to burn.

Jack
February 24th 2015
10:46am

It is very good feature.