2014 Artist Survey: of Montreal | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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2014 Artist Survey: of Montreal

Kevin Barnes on Racism and Police Brutality in America, Respecting the Audience, the Questions He's Tired of Answering, and Collaborating with His Brother

Feb 18, 2015 Issue #52 - January/February 2015 - St. Vincent Bookmark and Share

For Under the Radar’s 12th annual Artist Survey we emailed some of our favorite artists a few questions relating to 2014. We asked them about their favorite albums of the year and their thoughts on various notable 2014 news stories involving either the music industry or world events, as well as some quirkier personal questions.

Check out our Best of 2014 print and digital issues for answers from alt-J, Camera Obscura, Chromeo, The Dears, Death From Above 1979, Deerhoof, The Drums, The Flaming Lips, Glass Animals, Hookworms, Sondre Lerche, Owen Pallett, The Rosebuds, Still Corners, Strand of Oaks, Teleman, Sharon Van Etten, The War on Drugs, Warpaint, Woman’s Hour, Wye Oak, Zola Jesus, and others.

Here are some answers from Kevin Barnes from of Montreal.

[A shorter version of this interview ran in Issue 52, the Best of 2014 and January/February 2015 Issue, which is still on newsstands. This is the full version of the interview.]

What was the highlight of 2014 for either you personally or for the band?

Well, we did a lot of touring this year, and we went all over the place. We went to Japan and Hawaii and Europe a couple times. And we went to Moscow and Athens, Greece, for the first time. Probably that trip to Athens was the highlight, because we did a couple nights there, and we had a couple days off and got to hang out on the island. That was definitely the most kickass experience.

What was the low point of 2014 for you?

Just a lot of personal life problems. That’s nothing I want to go into too much detail about, but that was definitely the low point for me. [Laughs]

What are your hopes and plans for 2015?

Well, we’re putting out a new record [Aureate Gloom] in the next year and doing a lot of touring. I’m working on chapbook art project with my brother, so I definitely want to get that happening by next year.

Can you tell me a little more about that project?

Yeah, I’m imagining there will be a couple different issues, but the first one is a combination of my free verse and essay and journal writing, combining that with this kind of abstract collage idea of Cleveland sports heroes of the ‘80s with Mexican faces and squid genitalia. I’ll probably make the collages, and my brother will doctor them in his own special way. We have to decide whether we want it to be zine-y or glossy. We’re still figuring out the aesthetic we’re going to go for before we figure out the concept for the structure.

U2’s new album was downloaded for free into millions of users’ iTunes accounts without their permission. Was it a wonderful gift to music fans or an invasive action that devalues music? Also, which artist, other than you, deserves to have their album automatically downloaded to half a billion people more than U2?

I think that’s definitely crossing the line as far as putting things on your phone that you don’t want. That’s really gross and definitely should not ever happen again. The fact that it’s something as benign as U2 makes it seem a little less threatening, but you don’t really want to think that that could happen at any moment-that the powers that be could put something on your phone or take something from your phone, even though we all know it’s possible and happens all the time. If you commit a crime or they think you’re a terrorist, they can access all that stuff anyway. But it’s still invasive and not at all okay. The fact that it’s U2 is like someone is sending you an emoticon or something. [Laughs] It’s not that terrible or going to ruin your life. It’s funny-I didn’t even listen to it or look to see that it was there. It was so irrelevant to me that it was like, “Oh, that happened. Whatever.” As far as a band-and this would still be stupid if it happened-but I’d rather it was someone like Foxygen or Deerhoof or someone like Marvin Gaye. It would actually be pretty rad if everyone got Chocolate City, the Parliament record, or something that was super funky. It would be like, “Oh, man. I got hijacked! But in the funkiest possible way.”

Did you take part in the ice bucket challenge? If not, why not? Grimes declined due to animal testing issues, was the grief she got for that deserved?

I don’t know. I’m happy that Grimes exists and has a career and fans and all that, but I don’t ever think about her or would ever care about any scandal that she’s involved with, so it’s impossible to have an opinion about that. But I did not take part in the challenge. My cousin sent me that [challenge], and I was just like, “I don’t think so.” It’s just hard to be a participant in those sweeping pop culture movements. I’ve always rejected that stuff, so it didn’t appeal to me, really.

The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri opened up a new national dialogue on police shootings and racism in America. Do you think anything will actually change because of it?

Well, the good thing-if we can call it a good thing-is that it shines a light on the fact that, even though we have a black president, we are in no way in a post-race society, and racism and police brutality are still serious problems. The only thing we can take from it is that it does force us to face those issues again and to think about if that was a white guy with a black cop or a white guy and a white cop, how different would the reaction be? You realize how unbalanced it all is still, that we can pretend racism isn’t a serious issue-at least white people can pretend that. But things like that make us think twice about it. Also, the way the whole cover-up went and the way the press was treated, all that was extremely terrifying. It was the sort of fear that a lot of people have of seeing this militarized version of a police force come in and take your right to free speech and information. It should be a wake-up call to everybody in the United States. It’s weird, because I don’t really watch CNN or read the newspaper or even read stories online that much. I’m never really that up to date with current events. I don’t try to live in a bubble, but I don’t really want to have an opinion about every single thing that happens. I’m not trying to be in tune with contemporary culture or contemporary life. It has to be pretty serious for me to know about it, so that was obviously an important event for this year. Hopefully, people can turn it into a positive on some level.

From your perspective, do you think there’s that sort of racial tension in Athens, Georgia?

Well, it’s interesting, because I have a 9-year-old daughter, and she had been going to this Montessori school for all of her academic life so far, and this year she is going to a public school, which is way more mixed racially. So it’s interesting to see how different it is, if you go from this hippie world to the real world of real Southern living, because it’s very easy to only go to the veggie-friendly places and only to the bars that play cool music. It’s easy to forget that you’re even in the South if you want to. If you don’t go to the frat bar or where the frat kids eat, you’ll never see Fox News on the television or realize how conservative and red this state actually is. Athens has a long artsy history, which makes it different from a place like Macon or Augusta. It feels like a cooler oasis in the South for liberalism and for artistic people, but we’re still a minority in Athens. Nobody I know is racist, and I wouldn’t be friends with anybody who was. So it would be easy for me to think, “Oh, we’re over [racism]. It’s cool.” But then if you hang out in certain places you still see Confederate flags, and there’s still that whole Civil War-slavery issue that’s looming in the background at all times. So my kid is going to this school, and you can see how segregated it is. At least in her class, all of the black kids hang out together, and all the white kids hang out together. At that age, there’s still some intermingling, and it’s not as extreme as it gets in certain ages and certain schools, but I was a little surprised to see how naturally people self-segregate, even as kids.

What’s your craziest theory for what happened to the missing Malaysian Air flight?

Well… I guess I haven’t really formed a crazy opinion about it. I’m going to assume the obvious thing is that it just crashed into the ocean, and the ocean is so massive that they can’t find it. But that’s another one of those interesting moments that people seemed really obsessed with for a period of time. That’s the thing about the news and why I feel so indifferent to it: it’s always totally sensationalized and blown out of proportion, so it’s impossible to say, “This is an important event.” There are so many other things that are equally as important but aren’t considered that way because they didn’t get the same coverage. Or it’s like, “Oh, that’s just a boring thing. Starvation in Africa… yawn.”

Mark Kozelek was criticized in 2014 for insulting his audience (calling them “hillbillies” for talking during his set) and for making fun of The War on Drugs when their sound bled over to the stage he was playing. What responsibility do performers have to be respectful of their audiences and fellow bands?

Well, I think it’s totally up to you if you want to be a dick and say whatever you feel. It’s definitely more entertaining when somebody is that way than it is when they’re just nice and polite. I wouldn’t do it, but I’ve always tried to keep negative opinions to myself, just because I think it’s so lame. The whole concept of a Twitter war is the lamest thing I can imagine, so it’s something I avoid at all costs. But there’s something to be said for wearing your heart on your sleeve and expressing everything that you feel and not being politically correct about it or trying to be overly sensitive about everything. If you listen to interviews with certain people who don’t hold back at all and call people out for whatever they think is bullshit, it can be good. But at the same time you should maybe choose your enemies a little better. Everybody in the indie rock world, you’re all kind of in it together, in a way. You’re not sponsored by Subway and you’re not getting the same support that the major label acts can, so your life as an artist is probably going to be pretty short. You should be mindful of that and try not to alienate people. It’s tricky for me because I’ve spent so much time being completely unknown. For seven or eight years, nobody gave a shit and it seemed like nobody ever would. Then I had a period where I became fairly successful by indie standards. And now it has leveled out in a way that’s cool and manageable, so I can see the ups and downs of it. But I know if you’re just starting out, and you’ve just got your first record and second record, and you’re playing some shows and you care so deeply about it, maybe you lose your head when you start to get a little bit of success. You can lose your concept of your responsibility to your fellow man. You can be a dickhead and start a conflict that is unnecessary.

Would you say most musicians see it as a taboo to attack other musicians?

Yeah, definitely. For me, coming up in the Elephant 6 scene and seeing how Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel and Apples in Stereo and The Music Tapes and Elf Power would help each other, there was never a competitive aspect to it. Everybody was singing on each other’s records and touring together and taking the less popular bands on the road. It seemed like that was the way it was supposed to be. I don’t think it should ever be a situation where you feel like another band is a threat to you. If someone personally is just a dickhead, then they’re not your friend and you don’t care. But if someone is going about their business, it seems absurd to start any sort of negative shit with them, because it’s completely unnecessary. If you’re trying to grab some headlines, it just seems really childish and lame.

How about the idea of being confrontational with your audience?

That I don’t think it is even confrontational. If you have no respect for your audience, that’s one thing. But if you’re trying to present something that they’re not of the mind to receive, it might seem confrontational, but that’s not your fault. You just have to do your thing. Even to say it’s “your” audience-it’s an audience. It’s not the same people every night. It’s a group of people who are in the city you’re playing in who happen to be in the room because they want to check it out. I don’t think you have a responsibility, because it’s kind of random who the people are who are going to come to the show. It’s not like you have a responsibility to your fans or your audience, because it’s always changing, and the person who is a fan one day isn’t the next day. So is your responsibility to them then over? It’s a mercurial thing. I think you just have to be true to whatever vision you have in your mind, if you want to present something that your audience is getting. But, also, sometimes being on stage, you can be overly sensitive. You can look out in the audience and assume that people aren’t getting it or are too sober or are too stiff, and you get upset about it. But afterwards someone will come up to you who hadn’t smiled or danced the whole time and say, “That was fucking great, man!” That has happened to me so many times.

“Weird Al” Yankovic was back in a big way this year. If he were to lampoon any one of your songs, which one would you want it to be? What would the “Weird Al” version’s lyrics be about?

I don’t know if I can answer that one. I heard he had a big record. I remember growing up I thought he was funny, and I liked “Eat It” and a few other funny songs. But it’s hard for me to get too deep into what he does. [Laughs] So I don’t know if I’d want him to do one of my songs. It wouldn’t be a dream come true or anything.

Which common criticism of your music do you most agree with?

I guess I don’t read that much criticism. I have a hard time being objective and stepping back and thinking, “Is there something true in this?” Often, I become a character who chases a certain spirit when I’m making a record, and it becomes all-encompassing. I’m not really thinking about how it works in relation to the other records. I’m just deeply into this one spirit, and I’m not thinking about how people will hear it or react to it. And then it comes out, and people do react to it, and sometimes it’s a bit shocking or jarring or slightly embarrassing. They can never universally accept it for what it is in my mind. It’s always going to be filtered through people’s concept of things that I’ve done in the past or the things that are happening in the present moment with other bands and how it fits into the spirit of the times. I can’t really think of anything I’ve read that hurt because it was true. I can see how someone might perceive something like “Our Riotous Defects” from False Priest that has these spoken word verses that are kind of ridiculous, but at the time they felt cool and made sense. Now I can see how someone could react to that negatively. That would make sense. If I heard it now and it was some other band, I might be like, “Oh, that’s stupid.” [Laughs]

What’s the most uplifting or heartwarming fan interaction you’ve ever had?

Well, there was a recent one that wasn’t heartwarming as much as it made me feel good to help somebody who had lost a child recently. As a family, they would listen to our music, and the child liked the music a lot. So when the child passed, it obviously was extremely devastating, and coming to the show was a heavy emotional experience for them, and they felt very positive about it and like their child was with them in spirit as they watched the show. Usually, it’s just really fun, because we have a fun positive show most nights. But to realize the deeper humanity that can exist at the same time, it was very eye-opening and an interesting, cool feeling.

What’s the topic no one asks you about in interviews that you wish they would? Conversely, if you could get journalists to stop asking you one question, which would it be?

The only question that I can’t stand is “Why’d you name the band of Montreal,” just because I’ve been asked that more than anything ever. “Are you from Montréal?” That’s the one that I wish people would never ask. As far as wishing someone would ask me a question, I can’t really think of anything where I’m like, “I wish people would just ask me this one question!”

Who from your youth (such as a former bully, an unrequited love) do you most hope pays attention to the fact that you’re now a successful musician?

I guess nobody. I’m not really insecure in that way, as far as wanting one specific person to think I’m cool or successful. I’m so far beyond looking for affirmation from anybody in particular. I want my brother to think I’m cool and think I’m making good music, but that’s about it. We’re already really close and collaborating together. But if I do feel like I need to prove something, he’s one of the people I want to impress every time.

Do you ever have times when he doesn’t get what you’re working on?

Yeah, that’s happened. He always gives me the benefit of the doubt, so if there’s something he doesn’t connect with right way, he’ll usually force himself to listen to it and dig it on some level. There’s this song on Paralytic Stalks called “Exorcismic Breeding Knife,” and it’s this unrelenting, really challenging composition that goes on and on and on. I thought he’d really like it, because he likes stranger things like that. But he didn’t like it all, so I was really upset about that. That was one of those things where I was like, “I’m going to force myself to make this extremely challenging piece, and most people aren’t going to like it. But as long as the people who I respect like it, I’ll feel good about it.” But pretty much nobody liked it, and he didn’t like it, either. It was kind of a bad experience, but we got over it.



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