By Aoife Barry
Why play by the rules when you can set the rulebook on fire and dance on the flames? For Athens, Georgia-based band of Montreal, music isn’t something that has to be constrained by rules and regulations – who says things have to go verse-chorus-verse? Since the band was first formed by Kevin Barnes back in the late 1990s, they’ve gone from a pretty traditional lo-fi band to an all-out psychedelic group that bring their listeners on a wild trip through a world where the word ‘normal’ is banned. Key to this is the band’s theatrical live performances, which have recently seen Barnes bound on stage naked or astride a white horse. Who knows what we should expect when they play Dublin on January 28th.
It has been a long journey for of Montreal – through more than 20 releases, numerous side projects, the famed Elephant 6 Recording Company collective (which also produced Neutral Milk Hotel amongst other bands), extended stays in Norway, marriage, childbirth, break-ups and make-ups. But through it all, they’ve kept evolving, kept pushing the boat out and creating music that breaks down the notion of what ‘pop’ music really is. Their work was eventually recognised with the release of the dark ‘Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?’ in 2007 – and now, with ‘Skeletal Lamping’, things are about to seriously explode for this close-knit band. They’re currently in the middle of a US tour and will be back in Europe in the New Year – and they’re bringing with them a stage show that’s a feast for the eyes and the ears.
“Our show is theatrical,” explains an ebullient Kevin Barnes backstage before a show in Tampa, Florida. “We have three or four performance artists on stage with us and they’re doing a bunch of different things. We have little skits and things like that. But all the while we’re just playing the songs from the records and stuff. It’s almost like a meta-style performance where there’s all these things happening at the same time. Sometimes the things go along with the music; sometimes they’re just completely independent. We basically just wanted to create a dynamic entertaining visual performance to go along with the music.”
Creating a dynamic entertaining visual performance? If that involves Barnes evoking the spirit of a 40+ year old African American transsexual called Georgie Fruit, the band dressing in eccentric outfits and make-up while acrobats dance around beside them, then of Montreal have got it down pat. It’s interesting, then, that it’s considered pretty unusual for this to happen – for a band like of Montreal to put together a theatre performance rather than a typical live gig. Why is it that other bands don’t do this?
“A lot of bands, they don’t really think about it, you know?” muses Barnes. “Like they’re worried about getting the music right and that’s it – of course you have to get the music right, that goes without saying. But I think we’ve been doing it for so long that it keeps it interesting for us.” But it’s not just interesting for the band. “I’m sure it’s really fun to see this ‘cos, I guess, just because it’s not a static show,” agrees Barnes. “It’s something we’ve sort of been building up to for a while – we’ve always wanted to have interesting visual elements along with the performance, and try to just do something exceptional –something that no one else has done, or something people weren’t expecting.”
Another thing that’s been pretty unexpected, for the band at least, is the sudden interest in them. They’ve gone beyond being a small indie band and onto something much, much bigger. “It’s great ‘cos we’ve been a band for a very long time,” says an obviously delighted, yet bemused, Barnes. “In Europe it’s taking even longer but in the United States it’s taken us seven years of touring non-stop, sleeping on people’s floors and making no money. So finally, after riding it out like that for a really long time we’ve finally reached an audience. And in Europe we’re still building it up, we’re nowhere near as well known in Europe as we are in the states, so it’s another challenge. It’s fun playing in Europe because it’s still exciting.”
It’s exciting too for the band to feel that at last, after eight albums, people are finally starting to ‘get it’. “I feel really fortunate that people are paying attention to what we’re doing now,” admits Barnes. “I know very well what it’s like on the other side – we put out really interesting creative records long before ‘Hissing Fauna’ but no one really bought them, no one really liked them. We always did what we wanted to do, we always did what we were compelled to do and what we were excited about.”
But the years of being relatively unknown have taught the band something, says Barnes. “I think in a way, all those years of being commercially unsuccessful were really positive for us because now we’ve realised what we like about it is the process of creating, and not about playing shows in front of lots of people or selling records or being on TV or whatever – it’s all about the creative process and what that does for you emotionally, intellectually, spiritually or whatever. We have a really good work ethic and that’s really important.”
Although he describes it as “kind of traumatising to struggle and struggle and struggle along and see all these bands becoming popular around you”, there still seems to be part of Kevin Barnes that is always going to be surprised at the band’s success. “It’s really kind of shocking that people like it,” he says incredulously, “because it’s not really in line with what is trendy. I’m always surprised when we play shows that there’s a lot of people there – like “are you people cheering for me? You’re really cheering for us? You really like us?”…I’m just like amazed, really excited and really happy and kind of shocked.”
Barnes generally records the of Montreal albums at home, eschewing studios and the corporate ‘machine’. He says he’s glad to see the record industry “failing” because it encourages bands to go the independent route. “If anything there are a lot of bands like us that are doing this on their own because they love it and not because they wanna sell,” he says. “That’s the worst thing in the world, to make music to sell.” But of Montreal recently sold three of their songs to be used in commercials in the United States. How does he reconcile this with his independent attitude? “I think there’s a difference between creating something because you want to sell it, and then selling something that you’ve already created, in a pure way,” is how he explains this decision. “If someone comes to me and says “I wanna use your song in a commercial”, it’s just kind of like, “great, because I have no money and this is gonna help me make more music”.”
He compares this to directors or actors doing big budget films to make money for art projects: “of Montreal is just like my art project and like any other thing it needs money to survive.” “It’s just an unfortunate aspect of things – if you don’t have money, you have to hustle a bit – that’s a fact of life,” elaborates the musician, who says he will be embarking on some new projects in 2009, including an album with Andrew VanWyngarden from MGMT. “But I agree I don’t like the idea of my song being in a commercial – I would much prefer to not do that. I would much prefer to keep it pure and everyone would have their own personal relationship and it wouldn’t be sullied in any way. But that’s not reality.”
of Montreal, Wednesday January 28th, The Button Factory, Curved Street – Dublin 2. Doors – 7.30pm. Tickets €17 (inc. booking fee) available from Ticketmaster, Road Records, City Discs, Sound Cellar and usual outlets.