Of Montreal was once a paisley-pop band on the tiny Athens, Georgia-based Kindercore label. But those days are just a distant memory: The group has spent the last six years erasing its psychedelic pedigree in favor of synthesized, increasingly sex-drenched electro-funk. Kevin Barnes has led the group through this transformation with a growing adherence to R&B- and Prince-worthy falsetto workouts.
The band's share of the spotlight increased again with this year's False Priest. Although the album again features Of Montreal's buzzy, danceable synthpop, Barnes constructed Priest in a very different way: Normally a one-man-band studio hermit, he enlisted beloved producer Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Kanye West) to punch up his home recordings. Barnes also invited rising R&B stars Janelle Monae and Solange Knowles (sister to Beyoncé) to contribute vocals to the record. Reached by phone, Barnes talked about the new recording techniques, the joys of collaboration and his band's now-legendary live shows.
Christian Schaeffer: False Priest sounds a lot more organic and influenced by '70s funk and soul. Did you feel like you had met your limits with what sequencers and drum machines could do?
Kevin Barnes: Well, I always prefer to have a live drummer, but I'm not very good at recording live drums. So whenever I would record live drums, it would sound too conventional to me, and I felt like I could do more creative things by treating drum loops and drum programming. So that's why I always used them in the past. But [I was] working with Jon Brion at Ocean Way studios, and using all this vintage gear and working with this drummer, Matt Chamberlain, who is just this amazing guy and very able to produce really satisfying results. So that's why we used a lot of live drums. But there actually are still a lot of drum programming and drum loops on the record.
So was that just a matter of coming to Ocean Way and having the tracks mostly done and having Jon [Brion] do post-production work on it?
Yeah, pretty much. I had been working for about a year before I went out there, and I put the record together in the way I normally create records. So by Of Montreal standards it was done, and then we went through and picked out things that we could improve and that wouldn't be that difficult. We kind of got carried away because it was so much fun. The original plan was for me to go out there for a month, make whatever changes we were gonna make, and also mix it during that time period. But after the month was over, we realized that we hadn't done any mixing, and we still had a bunch of things that we wanted to change. It ended up taking three or four months, I think. We replaced all of the bass parts. I just sat there in a room for a week, taught myself how to play them again, and then re-cut them through a better signal chain. We spent ten days cutting drum tracks on every song and a bunch of songs that didn't make the record as well. So we definitely got swept up in the process.
Do you find that the collaborative process is something you look forward to doing again with Of Montreal records? Your process has been so solitary.
It's kind of too expensive to do that on every record, so out of necessity I'll have to work alone.
That's been one of the things that's impressed me the most about your records and your live show: You make the records by yourself but you have such a great live show and a great band that's been with you for so long. In making that translation from record to stage, do you have sort of a boot-camp mentality, where you have to sit down and prepare for the tour based on what you've done in the studio?
Yeah, because when I'm recording and putting the songs together, I'm not really thinking about how we're gonna do it live. It's not really part of the process. And then afterward, that's the great challenge: How are we gonna do this? In the past, we relied on backing tracks a lot, and we had a lot of stuff going through the house that was being played off a computer or triggered by samples. And I sort of became frustrated with following the computer — it became very oppressive. So for this tour we expanded the lineup to be an eight-piece. We're still triggering a few things, but basically all the rhythm elements are live. And that's very exciting, because we can take chances. There will be a level of spontaneity that we haven't had in the past, arrangement changes we can make on the fly. That's extremely exciting just because being completely tied to a specific arrangement night after night after night can be very unsatisfying.
When you look back on the stuff Of Montreal put out in the late '90s, do you even recognize that band, even though it's a lot of the same players?
For some reason, recently I've been thinking about it a little bit. Just this morning I was thinking about [2002's] Aldhils Arboretum and wondering where it came from, because I'm in a completely different space then I was back then, mentally and emotionally. I couldn't even imagine writing any of those songs anymore. It's almost like they were written by somebody else. We never play any songs that were recorded before [2004's] Satanic Panic [in the Attic], just because it seems so foreign, in a way.
I would assume you've become a lot more popular in the past five years, but I wonder if the makeup of your audience has changed as your career has transformed.
Back in the day, we were so unpopular, it's hard to say what kind of fan we had, because we had so few. [Laughs]
How did the vocal collaborations with Janelle Monae and Solange Knowles come about for this record?
Janelle and Solange and I have just become good friends over the last year or so and started collaborating with each other. I've worked with them on their projects, so it just sort of made sense to have them involved on False Priest as well. The whole thing came about organically, just hanging out and realizing that we had a lot in common. It's always great to collaborate with someone you really respect, and I think both of them are great vocalists and performers, so it was a great honor, in a way, to have them on the record.
You've always been, nominally, an indie-rock band. It's a dumb phrase anyway, but the past couple records have moved so far away from that. But since you're so used to making Of Montreal records by yourself, what was it like sharing the mic with somebody else? Was it a hard thing to learn to sing with somebody else?
Not really. The three of us have been doing a lot of live performing over this year, so we already had that worked out. It's easy for me to work with them because they're so gifted, and I don't have to give them direction. It's just exciting to hear my song come out of their mouths.
Janelle will be opening the St. Louis show, and she's obviously been on the rise as well. Is it tough picking opening bands that could potentially blow you out of the water?
She has a very theatrical side of her performances as well, so what we're trying to do is to create a really complex evening of art and entertainment, where the lines between the two performances are sort of blurred. We're viewing this tour as if we're curating an evening at these venues, so right from when doors open, we're going to have performance art and some spontaneous musical performances within both bands; there will be a lot of cross-pollination between both groups. And in between Janelle's performance and our performance there will be some other art events. Basically, we'll be controlling the environment from the very beginning, so you'll never walk into AC/DC or anything. keywords: janelle monae, of montreal, interview, kevin barnes, the pageant, false priest