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Of Montreal Frontman Kevin Barnes Talks Isolation, Producers, and The Cost of Happiness 

Wednesday, Jun 15 2016

It's been over a year since Of Montreal released its last album, Aureate Gloom, but leadman Kevin Barnes isn't much for taking time off.

When he's not relentlessly touring with the indie quintet or releasing albums — he's put out roughly one album every year and a half for the past 19 years — he's booking solo shows, such as his upcoming gig at Swedish American Hall on June 21.

Speaking by phone from his home in Athens, Ga., the 42-year-old Barnes shares right away that a new Of Montreal record, Innocence Reaches, is due in August. He also explains that his upcoming solo shows in San Francisco and New York City were booked because they fit in between the dates the band is playing shows in Canada and shooting a music video in New York. Free time appears to be the enemy for Barnes.

The singer is laid-back but careful with his words, a marked departure from the shirtless, glitter-bombed musician who has been known to perform on stage riding a live horse.

"It's definitely a different side of me as an artist," says Barnes of his solo shows. "It's more intimate, and all of the carnival aspects of it are stripped away. I love the [Federico] Fellini-esque psychedelic experience of the live show, but it makes me feel more vulnerable to be on stage by myself."

Of Montreal started in the late '90s as part of the legendary Elephant 6 Recording Company, a group of musicians that included Neutral Milk Hotel, Elf Power, The Apples in Stereo, and San Francisco's own Beulah. These indie rock acts all shared an affinity for 1960s pop music and frequently collaborated on each other's releases. However, Barnes ultimately decided Of Montreal needed to find a new sound and break from the aesthetic that characterized Elephant 6.

Over the years, Barnes has tried a number of tactics to shake things up. There have been more than a few genre changes for Of Montreal, which began in indie rock, switched to electronic, evolved into glam-rock, and more recently, transitioned to prog-rock.

For the band's 2010 record, False Priest, instead of producing it himself as he had the previous nine albums, Barnes decided to bring in producer and composer Jon Brion. Barnes says he felt intimidated by Brion during the three months they worked together at Los Angeles' legendary Ocean Way Recording — "I felt so inferior because I'm just not as good at anything," he says. "He's so much better at everything" — but in the end, he learned a lot about the art of assembling an album, from framing a mix to visualizing things in a way that gave more space for each instrument.

"I had this style of just throwing everything at the wall and just leaving it there," he says. "It was like an education really."

In the spring of 2013, while working on Of Montreal's twelfth album, Lousy with Sylvanbriar, Barnes again made the choice to reject the comfortable and start fresh. He placed himself in what the album's liner notes describe as a "self-imposed isolation experiment," renting an apartment for three weeks in San Francisco near Valencia Street.

Not knowing many people in the area, Barnes spent his time reading books, writing songs and poetry, and walking around the city. Given that Of Montreal has always touched on psychedelic elements in its music and performances, it's little surprise that San Francisco's bygone days of flower children held immense appeal to Barnes.

"I'd always romanticized San Francisco and what it meant as far as the [counterculture] revolution that happened in the 1960s," he says. "Thinking about that time period has always been an inspiring thing for me. When you go to these cities decades after that moment in time, it's not the same, obviously. But if you use your imagination, you can almost go back in time and try to imagine what the vibe was like back then."

While Barnes may be one to dwell in the past, he is also willing to look towards the future. He says he'd be happy to have another 13 records to his name 20 years from now.

"I don't carry the weight of the other records. That's the great thing about music: It's limitless and it's endlessly fulfilling and frustrating."

He may be up to the challenge, but Of Montreal's frontman makes it clear that making music and being satiated should not be confused as synonymous endeavours.

"I don't really strive towards balance or equanimity," Barnes says. "I'm happy when I'm feeling wild inside. One of the big things that motivates me is imbalance and frustration. I want to keep working, so I don't want to be happy."


About The Author

Zack Ruskin

Zack Ruskin

Zack was born in San Francisco and never found a reason to leave. He has written for Consequence of Sound, The Believer, The Millions, and The Rumpus. He is still in search of a Bort license plate.


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