Track-by-Track: of Montreal on “Lousy With Sylvianbriar” Part 3

Kevin Barnes on the Tracks 8 - 11 on the Band's 12th Album

Oct 16, 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 three days this week 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.

On Monday we posted commentary on the album's first three songs and yesterday we featured the next four songs. Here's part three, where Barnes discusses in-depth the last four songs on the album.

"She Ain't Speakin' Now"

Kevin Barnes: 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 [Lewis]'s mandolin, and I was playing this nylon-string guitar, and JoJo [Glidewell] 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 [Cash] 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 Clayton [Rychlik]the 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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