Track-by-Track: of Montreal on "Lousy With Sylvianbriar" Part 2 | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Track-by-Track: of Montreal on “Lousy With Sylvianbriar” Part 2

Kevin Barnes on the Tracks 4 - 7 on the Band's 12th Album

Oct 15, 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.

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

"Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit"

Kevin Barnes: 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 [Lewis] was playing mandolin and Clayton [Rychlik] 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.

Check back tomorrow for part three.

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