Wordsmith

A game of artful dodgeball with Of Montreal

Kevin Barnes won't play along.

I'm trying to break the ice with Barnes, Of Montreal's idiosyncratic leader, with a game of word association I've created by cherry-picking some of his striking lyrics, adding words that are often used to describe his band and, just for kicks, tossing in a few more that came to mind while listening to the outfit's latest effort, Satanic Panic in the Attic.

But things aren't working out as planned. When I say "vaudevillian," he responds with "toothache." When I say "hallucinogenic," he says, "taco matter."

The elliptical mind of Kevin Barnes (third from left), Of Montreal's eccentric leader, works in mysterious ways
Courtesy of Polyvinyl Records
The elliptical mind of Kevin Barnes (third from left), Of Montreal's eccentric leader, works in mysterious ways

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Clever as I'd thought my ploy was, it was clearly too conventional and predictable for a mind as inventive as Barnes's. Since 1997, this native of Athens, Georgia, has made Of Montreal an outlet for delightfully poppy and phenomenally creative musings inspired by Brian Wilson, the Beatles, and Ray Davies. While Of Montreal's dozen or so releases have explored a number of musical styles, they have always stuck close to the Sixties psychedelic pop that occupies a special place in his heart.

Past Of Montreal recordings were sponsored and released by Athens indie-pop stalwart Kindercore Records, onetime home to similar acts such as Denver's Dressy Bessy and the Essex Green of Burlington, Vermont. But when that label encountered financial difficulties, the band found a new home with Polyvinyl Records, and Barnes couldn't be happier. "Towards the end, Kindercore kind of changed their focus, and we felt a little alienated," he says. "Polyvinyl has been very supportive."

The logo stamped on the back of the new disc isn't the only thing that's changed. After a few releases that gave longtime collaborators Dottie Alexander, Jamie Huggins, and others a chance to contribute their ideas to the Of Montreal mix, Satanic Panic represents a return to Barnes's roots as an almost-solo creative force who uses his home-based studio as an instrument in itself, creating complex, ever-changing layers of sounds. The new album will surprise those who associate the term "solo" with a whiny guy and his guitar. And fans who associate Of Montreal with sunshine pop will find the music spiced up with disorienting time changes, stunning a cappella harmonies, and dashes of electronica.

"I try to explore different styles with each record," Barnes explains. "You try to make music you'd want to hear. The last couple of records have been more democratic. This was the first record in a long time that was done by myself. It was very liberating."

Still, Of Montreal is more than just Kevin Barnes. In fact, he approaches the group as an artistic collective. The album art created by Barnes's wife, Nina, and his brother, David is just as important to the Of Montreal experience. The act's extraordinarily ambitious 2001 work, Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse, included a sixteen-page, full-color booklet of artwork by David that accompanied its 22 tracks. And on stage, the musicians he tours with often sport outlandish costumes designed by David, performing songs in front of David's sets.

I throw out a loaded word, "brainchild," which is how many refer to Barnes's role in Of Montreal. He answers with "saddlebag."

In addition to being a gifted songwriter, Barnes is also an extremely talented storyteller. His tales are populated with unique and interesting people who expose themselves willingly to scrutiny. These characters' vulnerability and ingenuousness might seem a bit twee at first, but Of Montreal is far more than wide-eyed bedroom pop. Lyrically, the content veers wildly from the safe and innocent rolling hills of gleeful adolescent love on "Your Magic Is Working," to the dark crags of vaguely necrophiliac sentiments on "Chrissy Kiss the Corpse." Friendly and familiar territory is explored on "Erroneous Escape into Erik Eckles," but influences from surprising and less accessible sources, like Os Mutantes, Brazil's groundbreaking psychedelic rockers, are mixed in on the unpredictable "Lysergic Bliss."

Listening to the complex, multilayered euphony of an Of Montreal record while perusing the intricately designed liner notes is a bit like reading the EEG of a mad genius. The blips, the jagged lines, the colors, and patterns all seem to hint at a wellspring of intellectual and imaginative activity. Even in conversation, Barnes seems to be bursting with creativity, nearly unable to stanch the gushing flow of ideas. For him, this is simply a way of life. "In a lot of ways, [making music] is my reason for existing. Being creative gives me a sense of purpose," he says.

Yet with all that originality, Of Montreal got started in an almost clichéd way. The story stars Barnes as the stereotypical loner, a troubled teen whose parents moved often, allowing him few opportunities to form real friendships. Because you know how the story ends, you can probably guess the rest. First a guitar and then a four-track recorder provided focus for adolescent angst; insecure and lonely, Barnes found refuge in music, spending hours alone in his room, playing his guitar. Blissful pop was still a few years away, however. His early musical heroes Poison, Ratt, and Mötley Crüe influenced initial attempts at songwriting. Later he would discover the Beatles, followed by the Who and Frank Zappa, and Of Montreal would be born.

Now, the inspired Of Montreal feeding frenzy is so enormous that it threatens to overtake the boundaries of the usual CDs-and-tours paradigm. The artistic collective is considering branching into other media. "We're talking about starting a very ambitious animation project," Barnes says. "I'm really excited, because it seems like you can do everything at once, and the possibilities are limitless." They're already envisioning the distribution of this latest project over the Internet.

"The hardest part is getting started with the first image, the first sound," Barnes concludes. "A record is much easier. You just write fourteen songs and string them together."

If putting together a record as impressive, masterful, and enjoyable as Satanic Panic is "easy" for Barnes, I can see why he's ready for the challenge of a new medium. Most artists toil for years, attempting to create an album as rich and complete as Panic, and most never succeed.

As it turns out, there's only one word that can truly describe Kevin Barnes and Of Montreal: brilliant.

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