"You're my mousy aesthete," croons Kevin Barnes above a pleasing din of chugging synthesizers, spritely guitars and massed harmonies. "You're my buoyant cherub," he continues, concluding: "I never want to be your little, friendly, abstract failure." The words are from the chorus of "So Begins Our Alabee," which can be found on The Sunlandic Twins, the latest CD by Barnes' entirely non-Canadian band, Of Montreal. The music is every bit as hummable as the words are odd.
"It's kind of my goal to combine the immediacy of pop music with something a little more poignant and interesting lyrically," Barnes enthuses over the telephone from his home in Athens, Georgia. "I love pop music, and I love catchy melody lines and stuff. But one of my complaints with a lot of pop music is that the lyrics are kind of vacuous and...not so interesting. One thing that I struggle with a little bit, though, is just trying to make sense lyrically. A lot of times, the way my creative mind works, it can be kind of difficult to figure out what it's trying to say. I don't wanna just have this, like, rambling sort of verbose..." He trails off.
Of Montreal first gained the collective ear of the indie-rock world in the late 1990s, when they hooked up with the storied Elephant 6 Collective, which included such bands as the Apples in Stereo and the now-legendary Neutral Milk Hotel. "A lot of the core members [of Elephant 6] were from this place called Ruston, Louisiana, and they all went to high school together," Barnes recalls. "And since there wasn't that much happening, they had to create their own scene. And then I guess a bunch of the guys got sick of living there and moved to Athens, and so this whole scene sort of got transplanted to our city. Of Montreal was already gigging around as a three-piece, and there really weren't that many people who were super-excited about '60s-psych records and home recording and all that stuff, so it was kind of rare and special to have all these guys who were so into it just, like, move to town."
There's a certain quality to those original Elephant 6 recordings that can be hard to pin down. Barnes explains that, aside from the aforementioned shared enthusiasm for vintage psychedelia, the main thing that set E6 music apart was production technique. Or, more specifically, the lack thereof.
"Making records in your bedroom on very cheap equipment: That's the way you get that sorta specific sound," he claims. "Like, a four-track machine being overdriven, with the tape being overdubbed-onto way too many times. That's how you get a lot of that hissy stuff. It gives it this sort of intimacy, also."
All that was almost a decade ago. And unlike many of its compatriots, Of Montreal is still going strong, although the extreme lo-fi-for-its-own-sake aesthetic has gone by the wayside. In fact, the band's sound is cleaner than clean, without any apparent sacrifice of intimacy. This might owe to the fact that, like Prince before him, Barnes "produced, arranged, composed, performed, engineered and mixed" the entirety of The Sunlandic Twins all by himself. Hard to get more intimate than that.
"In the past we've definitely been more collaborative," Barnes explains. "There's a pretty strong core group of people that I've been playing with for many years. We have Jamie Huggins, who bounces around from drums to synthesizer to bass to trumpet. And Dottie Alexander has also been in the band for a long time; she plays keyboards and some guitar and percussion and stuff.
"But the way it's been working the last couple records, I've been doing the majority of the composing and recording by myself. Then, when we go out to do it live, the band just kind of tries to reproduce the sounds I've recorded. There are benefits to both approaches, but I kind of prefer to do it by myself just because I'm able to get totally lost in the creative world and it's kind of like my therapy, in a way." Barnes sighs. "It's the one time when everything else is blocked out and I'm not concerned, I'm not worried about, like, the weight of the world; I'm just enjoying my time. Not to say that you can't get into that nice space with other people, but sometimes there's just more tension." Or as he elaborates in the song "The Party's Crashing Us": "I only feel alive when the VU's flashing."
That song is also a flailing funk workout (at least by OM standards) containing hedonistic lyrics along the lines of "We make love like a pair of black wizards." Which brings us to the next point about this band: On the road, they're nobody's indie-rock nerds. At least not if they have anything to say about it.
"On tour recently we've discovered, much to our happiness, that that old, dour, arms-folded indie-rock audience of yesterday is no longer present at our shows," Barnes says with apparent glee. "Everybody's just been dancin' and gettin' down and losin' their inhibitions. And what we're doing live now really lends itself to creating an atmosphere of a dance party."
Say what, Kevin? You mean, like, a sock hop or something?
"No, no, that sounds a bit more wholesome than what's been happening. I mean, it's also way more like '70s glam-disco than like '90s techno or something. Our recent stuff is very '70s in a way, very inspired by bands like Roxy Music and Sly and the Family Stone. There's definitely, like, a funky quality to it, but also sort of a glammy quality," he says. "And we've started to kind of dress up and stuff these days, so there's a theatrical element: We do costume changes. It's definitely not your traditional indie-pop show."
Barnes pauses here, and then drops the bomb: "What we're really trying to do is create something that'll be more like a Queen show."
Mousy aesthetes and buoyant cherubs alike, take note.