of Montreal – Kevin Barnes on “Aureate Gloom” and Why He Doesn’t Get Taylor Swift | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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of Montreal – Kevin Barnes on “Aureate Gloom” and Why He Doesn’t Get Taylor Swift

After the Flood – of Montreal is Playing Under the Radar’s SXSW Day Party Today at 5 PM

Mar 19, 2015 Web Exclusive
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The indie rock culture wars are finally over. That’s the only real conclusion you can draw when indie bands win Grammys and underground music publications routinely give their most glowing reviews to Top 40 pop stars. For anyone who came of age in the post-Nirvana era of Pavement, Guided by Voices, and Yo La Tengo—bands that could flirt with mainstream approval but never quite escape being placed in the “other” category—this is a strange watershed moment, one that seems to have washed away a whole culture with its arrival. Count of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes as one who is still getting used to the new terrain after the flood.

Though he has benefited greatly from living in our genreless present, finding a loyal audience despite the fact that he reinvents his band’s sound every 18 months, Barnes admits that he longs for indie rock’s divisive past. Perhaps that’s why he revisited one of music’s most subversive epochs for of Montreal’s 13th album, Aureate Gloom, turning his ever-shifting focus to the New York underground scene of the 1970s. It was that brief moment, before punk became codified into leather jackets and safety pins, that it seemed possible that a new generation of outcasts would rebuild rock and roll from its foundation. In reality, that’s exactly what Patti Smith, Television, and Talking Heads were doing, even if they wouldn’t be the ones to reap most of the rewards, and it’s this reactionary spirit Barnes attempted to channel during a chaotic three-week recording session at the Sonic Ranch in El Paso, Texas.

Having recently separated from his wife and longtime muse, Barnes could hardly have chosen a better template upon which to build his new set of songs. Where previous record, Lousy with Sylvianbriar, dipped into the American roots rock canon, here Barnes has made his most deliberate rock album, with glammy guitars and strung-out arrangements establishing a darkly chaotic mood. Heavy with grief and confusion, it’s also Barnes’ most unguarded effort as a lyricist, addressing the dissolution of his relationship with uncomfortable directness. Today, however, Barnes seems to have pushed all of that aside, and he’s more interested in talking about the spirit of New York punk, the banality of Taylor Swift, and why he is willing to sacrifice everything to pursue his craft.

[Of Montreal are also playing Under the Radar’s SXSW day party at Flamingo Cantina today (Thursday, March 19) at 5:00 PM.]

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): Since you took a lot of influence from the New York punk scene of the ‘70s, did you set out to make an album that would reference that era or did you find yourself using those references in the album-making process?

Kevin Barnes: It usually works that I’ll start with an idea that slowly gets bigger and bigger in my mind, as far as what new direction I want to go in. That’s why I made Lousy with Silvianbriar, which was tough, folky, and—I hate to use this word—but “Americana” inspired. I wanted to do something different from that but sort of use that as a launchpad, because there were things that I liked about making that record, which was mainly getting a band together and recording it as a band in the studio with a tape machine and doing it the way all my favorite records were made. So I wanted to continue on in that direction, but musically I wanted to do something that was more adventurous and take more chances sonically. So that was where my head was at, and I always gravitate toward these things organically, and then move on to the next thing. So I was in that state of mind, thinking about Patti Smith and the early punk scene that was happening in New York in the early and mid-‘70s and how it all came out of The New York Dolls and Patti Smith and Television and Richard Hell and The Voidoids and Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers and all that stuff. I was really getting deep into that mythology, and I got the Richard Hell biography, which was really great. Basically, I was smitten and deep into that world.

But, musically, I don’t know how much it sounds like that stuff. It’s very much collagey, in that this one section sounds like T. Rex and this other section sounds like Television and the next section feels like something else. It’s not really an homage to any of those bands. If I didn’t say it, I don’t know if anyone would even pick up on the influence.

Listening to the record, I was thinking about whether I could actually trace that influence, and I think where I can hear it most is in the attitude. A lot of the ‘70s New York music has a defiant swagger to it, and I heard that in this record.

Yeah, I think that’s what appealed to me—that rock and roll swagger that was backed by a poetic sensibility. It’s not how punk evolved into this screamy, bratty thing. Its origins were in people like Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell, and all of them probably consider themselves poets as much as musicians. So it’s not just about people getting fucked up and wearing ripped up clothes; it’s sophisticated thinkers who were making this music. If anything, that was a big inspiration for me. How do you make something that has the cool aspects of rock and roll? That’s a weird word to use anymore, but I feel like the spirit of rock and roll is this rebellious and sexual and dangerous spirit that can still exist. So I wanted to use that but also combine it with these other elements that could be more intellectual or academic or funky or whatever it is. That’s the wild thing—there’s so many different ways that you can shoot off into these other directions, but the source is still the same.

On a certain level, it’s kind of a reaction to the direction modern music is moving in. I feel like it’s becoming more and more detached and vapid and stylistic in a way I can’t really identify with very much. It feels like male estrogen is dominating. [Laughs] That might seem like a strangely misogynistic thing to say, but I don’t think it is. Patti Smith is every bit as powerful as Johnny Rotten, even more powerful in my mind. She’s more of a hero in my mind than so many dudes. But the spirit that is behind the creation of things…it’s very interesting.

When I was growing up and getting into music, there was a very definite us versus them mentality, as far as cliques would form and music would be a defining characteristic of the clique. “We’re the kind of people who listen to this kind of music, and those are the kinds of people who listen to that kind of music.” For me, because I’m obsessed with music, it would be hard for me to hang out with a bunch of jocks who only listen to country music. They might be nice, but I wouldn’t do it. I wanted to hang out with people who liked the kind of music I liked, and I wouldn’t take seriously mainstream things that seemed like products. So now Taylor Swift’s record comes out and people seemingly take it seriously, like it’s any other thing that’s good. But it’s obviously not good; it’s terrible. But people I know and respect will listen to Taylor Swift, and she’ll be just another thing they listen to. They don’t have this violent reaction to her, like, “Fuck her! She needs to go away!” [Laughs] They’re like, “Oh, cool! A Taylor Swift song! That’s fun.” I feel like we, as a culture, are becoming so strangely homogenized that people can accept everything and nothing is bad. We have no concept of authenticity or good or bad or phony or legitimate—it’s all just blending together. Things that not that long ago would have seemed campy…there’s almost no concept of camp anymore. So it’s a strange time to exist.

I did this thing in Chicago at this art museum for a David Bowie exhibition, talking about Bowie and playing some of his songs. And I was thinking about how you can compare Bowie to Lady Gaga, and you could say on some level they are similar. But what Lady Gaga does is in no way subversive—at least I don’t think so. I think she’s way more of a cartoon and safe. I don’t think there are that many parents who say, “You can’t listen to Lady Gaga! She’ll make you gay.” But thinking about Bowie in the London in the ‘70s, it must have been dangerous to be Bowie or to be a Bowie fan. I imagine people got beat up all the time. But no one is going to beat you up because you like Lady Gaga.

So it’s strange how things have evolved, and on some level, it’s great that no one is getting beat up because they like Lady Gaga. But on the other side of the coin, that must mean music isn’t as important. It’s not as divisive and it probably won’t have the same cultural or historical impact. I was reading some stupid article on Kesha and how she’s suing her producer because he treated her badly and gave her an eating disorder. But people like Kesha will pop up, and Iggy Azalea is the Kesha of the moment. Now those people can pop up, become a sensation, play Saturday Night Live, get on the radio, do some big tours, and do a big collaboration with some other established artist, and then disappear. But it doesn’t matter because there’s no real soul in it or intellectualism in it. It doesn’t create any real sense of community. The one thing about Lady Gaga is that she has been able to establish a sense of community, so she has established an us versus them with her Little Monsters or whatever. But with the other people, they’re just like a new product that’s exciting, like the new iPhone or whatever. But it’s very disposable and has almost no lifespan potential. It just needs to be somebody, and it could be anybody.

That’s an interesting point, especially in regards to Taylor Swift, because if everything is celebrated it’s almost impossible to be subversive. If all music is more or less legitimate, how can you subvert expectations?

Yeah, and the more commercially successful you are, the harder it is. But someone like Taylor Swift, I don’t even know if she’s real. She kind of seems like a cyborg with her willingness to just become a brand. It’s so bizarre to me the way corporate America has gotten behind music. I saw that Usher is releasing a song at the bottom of a cereal box, like he’s sponsored by Honey Nut Cheerios or something, and he’s releasing his new song as the prize at the bottom of the box. [Laughs] And it’s like how Taylor Swift life-size cutouts are in Subways all over the country, and you walk into Target and all the TV screens have Taylor Swift on them. And then you watch a music video, and you’re like “Wait. Is this a Target commercial or is this an actual Taylor Swift video?” But it doesn’t really matter which one it is. So it’s weird in that the blending of it is so confusing, but it’s so wildly successful.

I don’t think I would have heard any of her music without having a nine-year-old daughter that is super excited about contemporary things like that. She can listen to it and watch the video and be like, “Wow! It’s cool!” She doesn’t have the same hang-ups that I have, which is interesting to me. It forces me to potentially have a different perspective on it and see it through her eyes and why she likes it. Is that why it’s popular? I grew up in a different time and these things were seen as a threat to what I do. These things can’t be celebrated, because if we’re numbing ourselves with garbage like this…it must be how a chef feels every time he passes a McDonalds. “We can’t allow this. If people are accepting this and celebrating this, how can they possibly get into what I do?” But on the other hand, it’s good that so many people like that [kind of music], because naturally there’s going to be a reaction to that, where people say, “Oh, I hate that shit. There’s got to be something better,” and they’ll look for something that is not that. On a certain level, you need something terrible that’s not you to make you seem better. [Laughs]

I remember reading a lot of the Taylor Swift reviews, and the point that turns up over and over is that the songs might not have a lot of depth but they’re extremely well crafted, which seems like a strange way to praise them.

Totally. Because then it’s not really about art anymore, it’s kind of an imitation of art, like, “You’re really good at imitating this thing that we like,” but it’s not coming from an organic place necessarily. It’s like a bunch of scientists cracking a code, like, “What do people react to? There are certain beats and melody lines that people like. And you can’t go minor too long, but it’s probably good to go minor for just a little bit so the major moments feel more uplifting.” The thing that blew my mind from the two songs that I heard from her was how self-referential it was, like a wink the whole time, like “Everybody knows my backstory.” I’m always listening to lyrics, and I wish I didn’t know this, but I know she has a lot of songs about famous boyfriends that treated her badly, like John Mayer. And this record has a lot of references to that, like, “They say I can’t keep a boy” and then looking at the camera with a wink, because we’re all privy to her personal information. It’s creepy in a way.

This new of Montreal record has some of your most personal writing, given the subject matter. Was it hard to know where to draw the line for exposing too much about yourself or for the people involved?

Yeah, I totally crossed the line. I shouldn’t have said the things I said or exposed. I’m going to make life difficult for a couple people, so on a certain level I can see it was sort of reckless and irresponsible of me to sing such personal lyrics. Hopefully nothing too terrible happens. [Laughs] On a certain level, I can’t see how else to write. If I want to write about my personal life, which is the most natural thing for me to do, I need to expose certain things. I don’t want to be censoring myself, and I don’t want to be self-conscious about the process. It’s kind of a fine line between exposing too much and trying to hide too much.

When you’re writing these songs, do you have a sense of how vulnerable you’re being as an artist, or do you only see that in retrospect?

I think that’s where my head is at when I’m working on it; I’m not thinking about other people hearing it. That’s essential for me to be in that state of mind, because if I’m self-conscious I won’t be able to make very good work. So I need to not care or think about other people’s feelings or how they’re going to react to it. But, at the same time, I should. I haven’t really figured it out—if I’m being an asshole or breaking these social laws by doing what I’m doing—and I’m possibly going to alienate myself to the point where nobody wants to hang out with me or have a relationship with me. I don’t think I’d like it very much if someone was exposing me to the world the way I expose other people. But it hasn’t happened yet, so I don’t know how I’d feel. [Laughs]

It seems like other people could also interpret your writing as at least partly fiction, and in that regard you might push boundaries and say things you wouldn’t say in everyday life. These are your private thoughts but channeled into your work.

Yeah. Also, I’m seeing the big picture when I think about more confessional songwriters, like Leonard Cohen, for example. If he had felt like “Famous Blue Raincoat” was too personal or intimate or exposed too much, and he felt like he couldn’t release it, it would have been a tragedy because the song is so beautiful and has touched so many people and has been important to so many people’s lives. For the one or two people directly involved, it’s a bummer, but for the rest of the world it’s a treasure. So even though I’m not making anything as good as that, that’s how I can justify it.

Was writing these songs cathartic?

Definitely. To be able to frame it in a poetic, artistic way—these things I was going through—and to live in that electric state of mind, where I’m not just becoming super depressed about what was going on but to be able to make it feel cool and romantic and poetic, that was very therapeutic and helpful.

It seems that an experience like that offers you access to a depth of emotions that few other experiences really could.

The thing I’m realizing, too, is that I chase that and try to bring that into my life, which makes my personal life very unstable and makes my relationships difficult. But I think I need that to feel alive and excited about waking up in the morning, the potential for anything to happen. If things become too predictable or nice, I start to go crazy. So I need that chaos to exist, and I chase it and force it into my life. [Laughs] I can see now how I’m committed to creating and writing and making music at all costs, even the cost of important relationships. I’m willing to sacrifice them all to feel inspired and get that fulfillment out making something I think is interesting or poignant or worthwhile on some level.

You went to New York City to write these songs, right?

I did. I didn’t write them all there, but I did write a handful of them. All of the songs were written lyrically, for the most part, as I was traveling. Then when I got to New York I was putting them together a bit.

When you say you were traveling, were these songs written on tour?

While on tour. I was writing about the experiences I was having on tour and the people I was meeting and all these changes that were going on in my personal life and keeping track of everything and trying to massage it into something interesting and something I could use artistically. We traveled so much I was on the road I probably played more shows in 2014 than I ever played, which was intentional. I wanted to be moving. I wanted that sense of movement and, on a certain level, of escaping and living a transient lifestyle.

Does that lend itself to the creative process? Being on the move constantly and, I assume, being a bit disoriented?

Well, there becomes a lot of predictability, as well, when we’re traveling and touring. You have this focus every day of getting to the club, setting up the gear, soundchecking, and then you have time off and play the show. Then, the next day you do the same thing. There’s a lot of structure there, so it doesn’t feel as chaotic as seems it would if you were in the same place every day and you didn’t have any familiar surroundings and it was always new. But there’s a lot of familiarity and predictability in that you’re traveling with this group and people and you all your goals every day. You’re pushing the boulder up the mountain every day, and it falls back down, and you push it up again. It’s fulfilling in a weird way to have the boulder in the first place. I don’t really feel the weight of the day passing, it always feels fresh because it’s always exciting.

So out of this set of songs, which was the first to emerge?

“Bassem Sabry” was the first that I wrote for the record. And it’s the least personal, really. It’s probably the most political thing I’ve written. It was inspired by the Arab Spring and totalitarianism and fascism and rebellion. I knew Bassem Sabry because he was a blogger and political activist in Egypt, and he died mysteriously. So I was paying tribute to somebody who was trying to give voice to the people and fight evil fascist regimes that are such a problem in the world, especially in the Middle East. There are so many great people in places like Egypt and Iran, and it’s terrible to think about not being able to feel comfortable or not feel like you can stay in your home country. There are so many people who have to escape because this terrible grip the government or military or religious entity has over society—these oppressive forces. So my heart goes out to people like that. I think about how I’d be one of those people, too, and how if I was born in Egypt I’d probably try to emigrate. People who are courageous enough to stay and fight for democracy and human rights and are willing to sacrifice everything and potentially be murdered and imprisoned and tortured—they’re so much more courageous than I can ever imagine being myself.

When you started recording these songs, did you have a particular sound in mind?

We went to this studio called Sonic Ranch, which is just outside of El Paso. Initially we were going to record in my home studio, and I have a tape machine and some decent gear. We made the last record there, and I was worried it would sound the same. So I was able to convince Polyvinyl to throw the extra money into sending us out there, and the reason I wanted to be out there is that they have different machines and mixing consoles and gear and microphones. They have tons of guitars and synths and drums and all this stuff I don’t have. I knew it would be a different sounding record. But I wanted it to be as close as it could be to these albums I was listening to, like Horses and Marquee Moon and early Talking Heads records. And they have this Neve console we found out was from 1978 or 1979, so we knew it was a good start. Some people are interested in that, but a lot of people don’t realize how much the gear impacted the production and sound of the records they like from back in the day.

Nowadays, almost everything is done on ProTools and it doesn’t matter. But I like the fact that the equipment played a large role in the making of the records and the way everything turned out. It’s interesting because I’m such a geek about music and recording gear, so I like knowing this song was made in this studio with these musicians with this kind of gear, and that’s why it sounds like that. When you’re making records with tape machines, you have to think about all this, because you can’t replace things. Nowadays, with ProTools, there’s so much software that you can replace anything, like “I don’t want my guitar to sound like a Vox. I want it to sound like it came out of a Fender amp.” Well, there’s a plug-in to make it sound that way. But with machines, it just sounds like it sounds in the room, and even that is an effort. You could have a band that sounds huge in the room, and then you listen to the recording that you’ve made, and it sounds tiny. It sounds like crap, because it doesn’t necessarily translate like that.

Recording is such an insane science on its own. Luckily, a friend of mine, Drew Vandenberg, who has been my engineer on the last couple records, he is a disciple of people like Andy Johns and Glyn Johns and Tony Visconti and all the cool ‘70s engineers and producers, so we have a shared language and things we both like. I’ll mention a song from some record, and he’ll get it and say, “Well, it was probably this kind of mic and this kind of compressor.” For this record, I was hoping it would sound as cool as Marquee Moon. It sounds like an of Montreal record; it doesn’t sound like Television. But that’s what we were going for. [Laughs]

Was there a certain feel you wanted for this record?

Yeah. I wanted it to feel live. We did most of the tracking live, like we did with Lousy with Sylvianbriar, as well. We had the band in the room playing together and feeding off each other, and then we went back and did some overdubbing and the vocals. But I wanted each song to have this really strong live aspect to it, so I was always pushing everything to play just a little bit faster to make it as exciting as possible. I definitely wanted it to feel like an exciting rock and roll performance but also have a lot of dynamic and lots of twists in the arrangements, some songs more than others. Some almost feel pieced together in a way, which was intentional, like “This part is going to be fuzzier and slower, and this part is going to be more chaotic and wild, and this part is going to be pretty and quiet.” It was like how The Beach Boys approached Smile, like, “This is a song, but almost all of the sections could almost be a song on their own.” If this was a GbV record, each section would be its own song. It was like writing suites in a way, which was fun for me, because I get so bored with things that are feeling too conventional, like, “I’m not trying hard enough. What am I doing?” Even though my most popular songs are the ones that are the most conventional. I don’t know why; I guess people like familiarity. For me, personally, I like the surprise, like, “Holy shit! I can’t believe they changed the key and the tempo. They’ve totally gone off into this other sonic world that I wasn’t expecting.” I love when that happens, and it doesn’t happen enough. So I wanted to think about that or have that state of mind when I was arranging the songs.

Since this album is quite a bit different stylistically than your last one, your backing band must consist of a pretty versatile group of players.

That’s the great thing about this group of musicians. Everybody listens to a wide variety of music and everybody is a multi-instrumentalist, so they understand why Television is great and why The Kinks and David Bowie and T. Rex and Prince are great. We all love so many different kinds of things and play different kinds of music, and the challenge of doing that is what propels us forward and to get better on our instruments. It was cool for me, because my previous six records before Sylvianbriar were basically solo records, and I reached this point where I wanted to collaborate with other people and get other people’s musical personalities involved and see how that would change the music that I made. I was sort of in this creative loop, where I could create this bassline that I wanted to hear, and I’d just create that. But it was harder for me to do something that felt fresh and exiting to myself.

But this record, I cheated a little bit, because I demoed everything beforehand and, for the most part, wrote everything—all the basslines and guitar parts and worked out the drum patterns with Clayton [Rychlik], the drummer. So I did a lot of pre-production stuff, which was necessary for the speed we had to record it, because we only had three weeks to record and mix the record. So I was able to say to them, “Here’s the basic template.” They didn’t play exactly what I wrote, but they knew what I was looking for. There was definitely still a spontaneous aspect to it, but it wasn’t like me showing up with an acoustic guitar, like, “I don’t know. What do you think?” We just didn’t have the budget to do that. The whole thing was very instant karma, as far as I set up the recording dates before I even had the songs written and penciled in a release date before the record was even finished. So everything had to be done, because I had set these deadlines. It was like, “You have to reach these deadlines or you’re fucked.” When I didn’t have enough songs, I just had to write one. I pushed myself to do it that way, and it was cool to challenge myself. It was cool to see the clock ticking and be like, “Fuck! I have to get this together. I need to focus!”

It seems like that comes across in the spontaneity of the record.

That was another thing. We had 10 days to record all those songs, and if we fucked around and didn’t accomplish it, we’d be screwed. That was the good thing of being out there with nothing else to do. We were living on this ranch and every day we’d wake up, and there were these awesome women who would cook breakfast or lunch for us, and we’d work all day and night, then go back to the ranch and sleep. And we’d get up the next day and do it again. There were no distractions. It was a great experience.



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