Kevin Barnes’ Foundations Are Solid
ABOVE: KEVIN BARNES (CENTER) AND HIS OF MONTREAL BANDMATES. PHOTO COURTESY OF PATRICK HEAGNEY
Of Montreal is perhaps the most prolific and consistent indie rock band of the past two decades. You can expect a new album from them at least every two years, and, sure enough, last month they delivered with Paralytic Stalks. Thank Kevin Barnes, the group’s frontman and songwriter, whose sometimes-painful autobiographical lyrics and eccentric pop sensibilities are key to the band’s unique and compelling identity.
In support of the new album, of Montreal is playing two shows at New York’s Webster Hall on March 30 and 31. We spoke with Barnes over the phone, in advance of the shows, about playing new material live, sinking into depression, and reading books to relieve the pain.
JARED LEVY: I guess you’re entering into the heart of this tour…
KEVIN BARNES: Yeah, this is like two and a half weeks, or something. And, I think we have maybe two more weeks and then we’ve got a month in Europe after that, so a lot of shows ahead.
LEVY: How do you feel about the shows so far?
BARNES: It’s been going great. I mean, it’s cool, because we are doing some things differently this time, so it really feels like a new chapter, in a sense.
LEVY: What kind of new things are you doing?
BARNES: Well, I guess the main thing is, visually, the visual production is different. It’s six or seven projectable spaces on the stage. It’s really hallucinatory and transportive and it seems like people are really digging it.
LEVY: Is that a reflection of the new album or is that something you thought of creatively?
BARNES: On some level, it definitely works with the music. There are sections on the album that are more instrumental or slightly more dreamlike or cinematic-feeling so we wanted to present a live production in a way that would sort of appeal to all your senses.
LEVY: How has it been translating the new material live? Is that process challenging?
BARNES: It’s definitely challenging. Initially, it felt really difficult. I wasn’t sure if the songs from the new record would work side by side with songs from the previous record, because with False Priest and Skeletal Lamping, the songs are more buoyant and playful, and Paralytic Stalks is a more personal and confessional album, so there is a bit of a personality crisis, for me, going on between the songs on different albums. I need to get my head around it and just sort of remind myself that it’s all coming from my psyche and there’s no reason to feel awkward about one or the other; to embrace the fact that it’s a sort of schizophrenic experience.
LEVY: I saw that you were at South by Southwest and played The Sundlandic Twins. Why that album?
BARNES: We did Hissing Fauna [, Are You the Destroyer?] in its entirety a couple of times before, so we were familiar with the experience. We were doing it for Under the Radar magazine and they asked us to do something special for the party, so we thought it’d be interesting to do that. It’s cool too, because the club we were playing was the kind of club that we would play on a Sundlandic Twins tour, so it was like going back in time, in a way. It was really intimate and packed and everybody seemed excited to hear the songs again. It was fun to play with them.
LEVY: Does playing those songs bring you back to a different head space?
BARNES: We’ve been playing a bunch of those songs over the past couple of years anyways. There are a handful that we haven’t played in a long time, but at least 50 percent of them are songs that we have in our repertoire, so it wasn’t really jarring playing most of them. Some songs were harder to do, because, on the record, there is a lot of programmed drumming and we’re trying to do it in a more traditional rock format with a lot of drums. But I thought it went over pretty well. The club itself wasn’t really set up for anything, but a straight rock performance anyways. The acoustics weren’t that great. So, we just had to roll with it. It was just like a punk rock show or something.
LEVY: Where do you find yourself now, after having made an album that you’ve described as a bit darker? Do you feel like you’ve exorcised some demons on the past album?
BARNES: When I was writing the record, I was definitely struggling and trying to keep myself in a positive place. It was really difficult. Now, I feel it’s a lot easier to be in a positive place. I’m trying to train myself not to allow my head to go in certain places. Definitely a discipline that requires some effort, [laughs] some energy, but I’ve been working on it lately. I feel like I’ve kind of squandered my life by sinking into that place of depression and neurosis.
LEVY: Do concerts help that? Does being on the road help you?
BARNES: Yeah. Everybody in the group is basically my best friend. Everyone that we travel with I’m super close with. So, I think having these shared experiences and also playing these songs live—they came from a place of great pain and confusion—it sort of gets transformed when we play them live. I realize all these other people are sort of connecting with the spirit of the thing. It makes me feel less alone, less psychotic. It helps it become more positive. I think that sharing it with people night after night, connecting with people night after night, definitely helps my spirit a lot; definitely makes me feel better. Makes me feel more positive. And, also just hanging out with my friends every night. When I get home off the road and I’m working on records, I usually lock myself up in the studio: I don’t really socialize much and it becomes a very insular experience. So, it’s great for me to come out of my shell in a sense and just hang out and just be a normal human being for a few months. [laughs]
LEVY: [laughs] I find that books are a great comfort. Is there anything you’ve been reading?
BARNES: I do read a lot. Reading helps me a lot. It’s easy to get really irritated with the world and think that we’re surrounded by moronic people, [chuckles] and just lose your faith in the human race. Then you pick up some amazingly written book and all of the sudden your faith in the human race is renewed and you’re like, “Well, we’re capable of terrible things, but we’re also capable of this beautiful piece of work.”
LEVY: What have you brought on the road?
BARNES: I’ve never read any Steinbeck before, which is really insane; not even in school or anything. I picked up Cannery Row. It’s really great; it’s the first one I’ve read of his. I’m excited. I’m about halfway through. I just finished a couple of Henry Miller novels.
LEVY: Tropic of Cancer?
BARNES: Yeah, Tropic of Cancer and Quiet Days in Clichy.
LEVY: Did you relate at all with Tropic of Cancer—the frantic, hedonistic energy that sometimes comes out in your songs too?
BARNES: I definitely found it entertaining, though it’s extremely misogynistic. On that level, he calls all the women cunts, which is pretty hard to follow. I found it definitely entertaining and definitely some parallels to this lifestyle, for sure. Before that I was reading [Hubert] Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, which is way more stark and devastating. Sometimes you’re reading a novel and you’re not sure where it’s going to take you. It could take you some place really disturbing, and you’re just kind of left, “Oh shit. I can’t believe that writer just took me there.” And then sometimes you’re reading a novel and you have a little bit of this intention, because you’re wondering if they’re going to take you there and they never do. And you feel kind of relived but also let down. [laughs] With Henry Miller, you never really get too dark, at least not by those standards. I enjoy a book like that.
LEVY: It’s so beautifully written, too…
BARNES: On some level, I can see how there were obscenity trials around the time period, when people were all upset about things like that in literature. You can kind of see that, if you are extremely conservative, where you’d have problems with a novel like that. But, by today’s standards, it’s pretty tame. It’s very poetic and, at times, it can be, actually, beautiful.
PARALYTIC STALKS IS OUT NOW. OF MONTREAL PLAYS WEBSTER HALL FRIDAY AND SAUTRDAY. FOR MORE, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.