Interview for Drowned In Sound
In the second part of our in depth interview (read part one here), Brainlove & Alcxxk met with Kevin Barnes on the eve of the inauguration to talk Barack Obama, lampshade vs CD vs vinyl, 70s funk, dancing buddhas, and what comes next for Of Montreal.
DiS: Are you feeling positive about the new presidency, like there'll be real change, or do you think a lot of it's hype?
KB: "Well it's definitely good superficially, the symbolism of a black man in power, politics has been dominated by wealthy white men and that's not healthy. It might seem superficial, I mean Condoleeza Rice was black but she was as white as anyone in her thinking. Just because you're black doesn't mean you're going to be progressive. But I think Barack... there's a lot of rhetoric and his rhetoric is very positive, so I'm hoping there's something more behind it."
DiS: Do you have a suggested to-do list for Barack Obama?
KB: "I think setting up more accountability in the government and in corporations. Republicans feel like the government should stay out of the private sector, and I'm not sure that's such a healthy thing, because we've proven ourselves to be not the most moral characters. You can do a lot of things if you're protected by it being business. Business ethics is almost like a contradiction in terms, people seem to think they can get away with things that are inhumane because it's the business that's doing it not them personally. I feel like we need watchdogs that are gonna make corporations protect their employees and regulate products so we don't get products that hurt people. We have a lot of crap from China that makes people sick... I'm suspicious of the food and drug administration, and their ability to control quality.
But there's a number of things... obviously it'd be difficult for one man and one administration to change things, but obviously there's ecology and more green policies, that's essential."
DiS: You guys have been around for a long time now and built up slowly. What do you think about the rapid turnover of bands getting signed and dropped earlier and earlier in their career?
"Well we've been around since 1997, and we've never ever really had that much support from labels or from the press or the industry in general, but we kept trucking along because we just love making music. What I get from music doesn't come from the outside world, I get it internally. It doesn't matter that much to me if it sells and if it gets good reviews and people come to the shows. That's not the motivating factor. For me the creative process keeps me going. A label couldn't keep me from making music. I mean, if I wasn't getting support from my label, I'd just say 'fuck you' and go figure out a way to make it work. Forever we weren't selling shit, you know, we had day jobs. I had one operating a spotlight at a circus, but that was an interesting one - we've had miserable stuff. Video stores, telemarketing, soul-sucking non-committal jobs that we could leave and come back in a month from a tour, reapply and just get it again. They need people because nobody can stand to work there for more than a couple of weeks.
If you think about it realistically and you're on a major label, you're an investment. You're like any other product. These people are investing money in it, and if they're not seeing a return on that they don't have a reason to keep you. There's no big artistic ideas about what they're doing. You don't get people thinking "I'm so proud of working at Universal because we get to give the world Christina Aguilera" or whatever, you know? But if you're on an indie and they don't expect you to sell more than five or ten thousand records, and their overheads are so low that you can't really fail as long as you have a good relationship with the label, and they're into it it and you want to keep doing it, you don't have a problem. It's a problem if you really want to strike it rich, that scene is superficial and unhealthy. It's better to be on a label that doesn't really expect you to sell a certain amount and they believe in what you're doing and they wanna be part of it, and it becomes more like a family."
DiS: How's your side-project (Blikk Fang) with MGMT going?
KB: "It's slow going right now, we've both been traveling and touring. I've been building a studio, I haven't had a studio for a while, and he's been out of pocket and doing different things, so hopefully it'll happen this year. It's one of my new year's resolutions to make that happen."
DiS: You've said your inspiration comes from older pop music - how do you think 'hit factories' like Motown, which came out of the soul, gospel and blues tradition, compares with similar things today?
"Not very inspired and not very exciting. But then every once in a while there something great. There are actually a lot of songs that come out of the major label system that are really cool and exciting, like Britney Spears' Toxic, but there's a lot of crap. But there's just as many crap indie bands. Well, I say crappy, but I mean it just doesn't appeal to me, and I don't think it's good. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't put out records or whatever. I think it's easy to romanticise a period that you're not involved in, to fall into that trap of thinking something that happened a long time ago is more interesting, but there were probably kids born in 1968 who hated The Beatles for being so commercial and just were like 'John Lennon, just go away' or whatever.
Production has a lot to with it too I think. I love the sound of the 60s and 70s. You can't ever really duplicate the sound of those old records because technology moves on. You can try but it'll just end up like a retro sounding record. And that can make older records more interesting because nobody's making things that sound like that any more. That's one thing I love is that when you record music it's like a time capsule, it's put down and it can never be replicated.
A lot of what I listen to is because I like the sound of it. I'm listening to Sly and The Family Stone, their record 'There's a Riot Going On' is one of my favourites. And I love Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield's 'Curtis' is one of my faves by him. I listen to Mingus, 60s and 70s. For a long time that was the only stuff I listened to and I didn't wanna listen to anything contemporary, it had no charm. No mystery.
But I'm more in touch with my contemporaries now. I'm really, really excited about what people are doing now - Animal Collective's new record is fantastic, and I love Gang Gang Dance. Now I really wanna make music that's progressive so I'm listening to my contemporaries and drawing from what they do more than I ever have in the past. I mean, The Kinks, Ray Davies' songwriting, John Lennon and Pete Townsend, those are my idols. But I am looking more to my contemporaries now."
DiS: I've seen you play with a couple of different setups, with backing tracks, and with two drummers, which I thought added a lot...
"Yeah? We've actually gone back to one drummer. It was great to have Ahmed, but we're so used to playing to playing to the backing track, and it's so hard to play to the backing track and have a live drummer. So we had a click track in our ears, and it was so demoralizing, you know? It was so hard to get into with this "clack, clack, clack" in the background through every single song. So it's almost better on a personal level to play to the backing tracks just to not have to have the click. But we'd like to eventually have anther full time drummer, having someone actually play the drums is so much more visually interesting than just a CD player or an iPod. But a lot of bands do it, I mean I could just do it by myself and put everything on the backing track, some people don't have any musicians. But I think it's a better experience for the audience to have as many people onstage playing instruments as possible."
DiS: Is the theatrical show with extras and costumes something that you always wanted to do, or did it grow alongside the stages sizes and possibilities?
"It's all kind of learning as we go. We always wanted to do something visually interesting and create these almost photographic moments, cinematic moments that'll just look good. A lot of stuff you have to process so quickly in the audience, we wanted it to be over-stimulating, so that people will talk about later over coffee and be like 'do you remember that part, and what about that part'."
DiS: Do you have a frame of reference laid out for the visual iconography, or is it more free form than that?
KB: "Yeah it's more like the series of wild ideas. We tried to do all kinds of visual things like the golden buddhas, we're like 'can it be done?' and then we take it as a challenge and try to make it happen. A lot of the people in the band are also artistic and crafty, like our sound guy helped build the set, our bass player does electronic and built the fog machines. It's an exciting thing, having an idea and making it happen. It's the same spirit with the collection of objects that go with the records, like the Chinese lantern with my wife's artwork. Polyvinyl helped out and got their interns involved and all these different people involved to make it a reality. It's so awesome to have an idea and then figure out a way to make it real."
DiS: Did the thinking for the equally flamboyant formats of Skeletal Lamping come from the band, or was that from the label?
"Well we were thinking that now that the industry is in a difficult position and needs to rethink everything, artists actually have more power - we can say, let's try this idea or this idea, and they might so okay, whereas before a label might have said the cost was prohibitive or whatever. But now they need to create value in objects again... Polyvinyl were really supportive, another label might have said no. I hope it catches on, it would be really cool if you went in not knowing what the record you wanted was going to be..."
DiS: That would be great! Choosing between the formats of boiler suit or kitchenware...
KB: "Yeah, then there'd be another function, if you're going to download it anyway you might as well get a piece of silverware that you're gonna use every day."
DiS: Do you collect any formats or are you an MP3 person?
KB: "Well, I don't collect anything really. I like vinyl but not an extreme enthusiast, for me it's all about listening. I only have a crappy turntable so I don't even have good stereo. I listen to more on my computer. But I do like the physical weight of the vinyl, it's an impressive physical object. CD I hate, I can't stand the plastic, it drives me crazy. Polyvinyl are great, they release everything on big heavy quality vinyl, it's always gatefold, they spend a lot of time on the packaging."
DiS: How did you feel about the slightly cooler critical reception Skeletal Lamping has had compared to Hissing Fauna?
"Well, I'm a fan of Drowned In Sound, it was one of the few places that really got Skeletal Lamping. Drowned In Sound gave us the review that I kinda hoped Pitchfork would give, it really got the record."
DiS: I've found Skeletal Lamping to be a record I love more and more after struggling with it at first, but then Hissing Fauna was like that too...
KB: "Yeah? I think, some music you don't really get straight away, like Fiery Furnaces or Animal Collective, it's not as easily classifiable and some people get frustrated because they don't get much time or whatever, and they have deadlines to review. I sometimes get people say 'I gave this a really crappy review and now I really like it'. I remember Neutral Milk Hotel In the Airplane Over The Sea got really crappy reviews, but now it's considered a masterpiece. A lot of times people jump too quickly but I guess they come around to it later. I mean, I spend a whole year working on a record, and sometimes a journalist will get like only a few listens or days to create a whole synopsis or description of the record that people can use as a reference."
DiS: You played the Hissing Fauna live show for a really long time, are you planning to do the same with Skeletal Lamping?
KB: "Yeah, we've already done a lot of Skeletal Lamping shows, this is our second time here on this record, we have Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Singapore in March and then the US again in April. We're hoping to come back over here for the summer festivals."
DiS: And are you working on new stuff?
KB: "Yeah I am. It's probably gonna be even less accessible... I wanna make something progressive, maybe not pulling as much from my outside influences, but something more personal, something only I could make, not like genre-hopping pieces where I'm channelling Prince or channelling Sly Stone... a lot of the stuff I've been doing has clear reference points like Arthur Russell or Brian Eno or whoever, you know. And that was the fun thing, doing collage work, pulling from other people and putting into this blend. But what I wanna do now is really create something a bit more esoteric, that's the direction I'm going in, that's what I'm excited about. More textural, more atmospheric, still with lyrics, for me at least it's good to have lyrics, that's interesting, and then musically what has developed so far is like a controlled chaos, things rising up for a moment and taking your attention then being overtaken by something else. In abstract terms I see it like an oceanic storm, but it wasn't water it was all these different kinds of substances, all intermingling or fighting each other, then a wave comes up and breaks, and you see it and get a bit of it's personality, and then it sinks back down into the chaos, and it's gone again."