Kevin Barnes of Of Montreal

by Carl Wiser

We want it louder
Loud enough to destroy the talismans of our depression

- "Get God's Attention by Being An Atheist"

Of Montreal is what would happen if your most culturally sophisticated friend was also a songwriter. On their latest album, Ur Fun, we had to look up "Cucurrucucu Paloma" (a Mexican song from the '50s), Liquid Sky (a 1982 sci-fi film) and Carmilla (vampire novel from 1872). It's the work of Kevin Barnes, the creative engine in the group, which these days is essentially his solo project.

Raised in Florida, Barnes hopped around before settling in Athens, Georgia (like Austin, a progressive enclave in the South, but with more vegetarians). He formed the group in 1996, and a year later they released their first album. As they grew a following, Barnes' life got more complicated. He married a Swedish woman named Nina in 2003 and soon after went into a suffocating depression. That relationship plays out on several Of Montreal songs, including the 2007 track "The Past Is A Grotesque Animal," where he sings about bonding with her over the French author Georges Bataille. His new girl, fellow musician/visionary Christina Schneider, shows up a few times on Ur Fun, including the song "Gypsy That Remains," where "going mental brings us closer to God."

Over the course of the 16 Of Montreal albums, Barnes has tried on characters and dabbled in the avant-garde (see: "Exorcismic Breeding Knife" from 2012). Ur Fun comes from the voice of his true self and is more scrutable: musically buoyant with lyrics that start to make sense with a little explanation, which Kevin kindly supplies in this interview. He also explains his stance on religion, a topic that shows up in many of his songs.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): What writing exercises do you do to help generate lyrics?

Kevin Barnes: Well, I do a lot of stream-of-consciousness, exquisite corpse type of writing and I sort of cultivate a potentially unhealthy level of racing thoughts in my day-to-day life. So if I'm in the bath or lying in bed or doing the dishes, I don't really let my mind rest. It happens organically, but I allow it to happen and cultivate it a bit. I'm always trying to think of creative combinations of words and to string these interesting sentences together.

Songfacts: At what point do you know you have a song?

Barnes: The archetype I follow is often a pop template, sort of Beatle-esque, Ray Davies style of writing, or David Bowie or Prince - people I admire and have been influenced by. It changes a lot, but it's always different.

Songfacts: Have you ever set out intentionally to write a hit song?

Barnes: I'm occasionally inspired to make something catchy and infectious, and I love pop music, I love catchy music. I don't ever try to make a hit song in the sense that contemporary producers might because I'm not trying to make something that feels like 2020, but I definitely am often trying to make something that is catchy and poppy.

Songfacts: One of the songs on Ur Fun that sounds very catchy to me but also has a lot of lyrical depth to it is "Get God's Attention By Being An Atheist." Can you talk about that song?

Barnes: Yeah. It's a cheeky song playing with these different ideas of whether or not you can have blind faith or whether you need to antagonize God into believing in you. We're always worried about us believing in God, but it's more important that God believes in you. So it's playing off that idea, and also with the carpe diem chants in the choruses it's about not being afraid of life: not letting society or conventionality prevent you from exploring your psyche, exploring your sexuality, exploring all levels of your human experience.

Songfacts: What is your take on religion?

Barnes: I can see how it is potentially therapeutic for some people and it's potentially very toxic for other people. I think we would be better served as a species if we would look after each other more and not expect some invisible thing from space or wherever to come and solve our problems for us, or even authenticate our delusions. So I feel like, even though it's a little bit scary to be on our own, it's actually healthier than keeping mythologies alive.

Songfacts: You touched on that on "Gronlandic Edit" from way back when [2007]. Is that the same concept?

Barnes: Yeah, it's something I've been struggling with or toying with for a long time because I was raised in the Catholic church and a lot of the members of my family are still involved with the church, so I've had first-hand experience with that form of religion and I can see how there are many toxic aspects to that, especially the way the more uptight sects of Christianity deal with things like homosexuality and women's rights to choose. In general, I see how religion is used as a manipulation tool by the state to create a patriarchal society with individuals who are unable to make their own personal decisions and are often oppressed by the patriarchal hierarchy. So, I can see how it's extremely toxic in this country or any country that has any sort of official religion because it's always used to oppress people. There might be some other side-effect where people have an easier time sleeping at night, but I don't think it's worth what you give up for it.

Songfacts: "St. Sebastian" doesn't sound to me like an overtly religious song, but there is an interesting line in there where you sing, "zeros and zeros is the Lord's work, but if you do it, He gets annoyed." Can you elaborate on that?

St. Sebastian, a famous martyr, is often depicted tied to a tree, pierced by arrows. (Edmé Jeaurat)St. Sebastian, a famous martyr, is often depicted tied to a tree, pierced by arrows. (Edmé Jeaurat)
Barnes: There's a tricky sort of logic happening in that line where it's basically saying that God does absolutely nothing, but if you try to take responsibility for your life, there's almost nothing you can do to control your destiny in some ways: You could wake up one day and have cancer, or you wake up one day and everyone you love is dead, and there's very little you can do.

So it's a cheeky way of pointing out that you have just as much ability to control your own destiny as this mythological deity, but people have superstitions and fear taking control of their own lives. They'd rather just put it in the hands of something that doesn't even exist.

Songfacts: What inspired that song?

Barnes: Well, it's a pretty hateful song about a person in my life that was making all these posts about me on social media and spreading all this bullshit about me, so it's a very personal song about that person. St. Sebastian has been popping up in a couple of movies I've watched and some books that I was reading, and the idea of St. Sebastian as this martyr - a sort of saintly, angelic human that's martyred by these evil people - it seemed relevant to what I was imagining.

Songfacts: You were making music even before the Internet, let alone social media, so you have grown up with the whole gamut of that digital transition. Can you talk about how the Internet and social media affected you? I'm surprised that at this stage in your life you let somebody online affect you to that degree.

Barnes: Well, it wasn't just a random person, it was somebody that at one point was very close to me. I wouldn't really be that upset if just some random person was writing things about me - that just goes with the territory. It wouldn't be something that's triggering enough for me to create a song about it.

But as an independent artist, back when I first started making music in the early '90s and when I first started putting out records in '97, '98, there still wasn't the Internet that we know of today, and it felt like there were two worlds: There was the mainstream world, and then there was the underground world, the indie world. The mainstream world was completely impenetrable as just a regular person living in Athens, Georgia. It seemed like you had to live in New York or LA or Chicago to have any hope of actually entering into the mainstream world and having your records sold at the Sam Goodys, the Peaches, the Tower Records of the world, and then everybody else was just completely on their own and would have to self-manufacture their records and maybe create zines or just cultivate an underground scene if you wanted anyone to hear your music. Now that people can make a record on a laptop, you can just push a button and make your songs available to the whole world, whereas before you'd do a 4-track cassette recording and you'd have to individually hand them to people, so it was way slower and way harder to get people to hear your music.

The strangely titled "Wraith Pinned to the Mist (And Other Games)" from 2005 is one of the most popular Of Montreal songs, with a simple-yet-profound refrain (Let's pretend we don't exist, let's pretend we're in Antarctica) and a melody so pleasing, Outback Steakhouse used it in commercials. The title echoes the title of a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem called "A Wraith In The Mist."
Songfacts: In the song "Wraith Pinned To The Mist," how does the Longfellow poem connect?

Barnes: Well, for "Wraith" I was making a few literary references in the verses to create an atmosphere that was a little more interesting to me than just a typical pop song, because the chorus is pretty simple. I have a tendency to include the things that have been inspiring me or add interest into my lyrics. I have a lot of literary references, film references and music references in the lyrics, and it's usually things that just happen to be on my plate at that time, like things I was reading, things that I was watching.

Songfacts: So the song might not necessarily be about a Longfellow poem, but you can make it the title and have that influence be there.

Barnes: Yeah. It's funny, because I've written so many songs over the years that I can't really remember what inspired them. Especially if I go back more than four or five years, it's hard for me to remember exactly what made me want to say the things I said. I guess I follow Bob Dylan's advice and I don't look back, just leave it all in the past.

Songfacts: Well, you're certainly very prolific - it seems like you're constantly moving forward, which keeps you from certain tendencies other artists have that prevent them from getting work done.

Barnes: Yeah, I'm not sure if it's a strength or handicap, but I can't spend too much time on something. I spend a lot of time initially obsessing over the creation of the song or the production of the song, but then it's really easy for me to just let it go once I feel like it's done. But it never fulfills me. It's only a temporary fulfillment so I'm still seeking that thrill I had for just a moment when I'm finished with something.

The first single from Ur Fun is the outcast anthem "Peace to All Freaks," which had the working title of "Hush" when Of Montreal performed it in 2019. Barnes sings:

Hush, hush, don't let's be negative
Hush, hush, don't let's be cruel
Songfacts: Tell me about the song "Peace to All Freaks."

Barnes: It's definitely a song borne from 2016 to 2020 in the sense that the political climate is extremely divisive and extremely toxic and negative. Being in that atmosphere has affected my mentality, affected my perceptions and worldview, so I wanted to create a song that was a call to my community to stay healthy, stay positive, and try not to get too beaten down even if our parents have shown this horrible side to them. Let's stick together. There are other people out there fighting the fight.

Songfacts: I love how you phrase the "don't don't let's be negative" line. It's like what They Might Be Giants did with "Don't Let's Start."

Barnes: I was thinking about how it's so easy to get eaten up by the negativity and forget that if you just throw your phone or laptop in the ocean, life is what it was when you were a child: trees are growing and earthworms are moving in the dirt and birds are flying overhead. There's a lot to feel good about and you don't need to completely immerse yourself in this negative other side of existence.

Songfacts: In your song "Deliberate Self Harm" you have a line, "Catherine says having boundaries is abuse." Can you talk about that song and where that line comes from?

Barnes: I actually flipped that line because my friend Catherine said the opposite - that having boundaries isn't abuse - and I thought it was funnier to say having boundaries is abuse. Any cognitive therapist will tell you it's an extremely toxic way of thinking.

Sometimes I like to flip things like that in a kind of role-playing, like, what if you thought the opposite was true? You can see how if you were an extremely self-centered person, you would have a problem with somebody else having boundaries because you'd want to access every aspect of them. So it's thinking about it from the perspective of a completely narcissistic asshole, which Catherine isn't - she's really a sweet person.

Songfacts: And what is the song generally dealing with?

Barnes: I had a friend that cut herself. I feel like cutting has always been a thing, and I've done it a bit myself, but it's becoming more and more prevalent. The reason I put "Ha Ha" afterward [the song's full title is "Deliberate Self-harm Ha Ha"] is because in a lot of ways, this society we've created is responsible for the need to cut ourselves. It's acknowledging that it's not just individuals who are really fucked up and sick, the society is sick and in a lot of ways it's what's responsible for our neurosis and our anxieties. I don't think it's just the individuals' fault for being "broken" or whatever.

Songfacts: This has been bothering me for a while: What are the "nihilists with good imaginations"? [The opening line in "Gronlandic Edit"]

Barnes: It's a reference to the Dadaists. I was thinking about this other art group and how they are basically nihilists with good imaginations. I was wondering if I should be a part of that crew in my mind or look for something that's deeper and less empty emotionally speaking.

Songfacts: What is your input on the music videos?

Barnes: Sometimes almost nothing, and then sometimes I'm the person that comes up with the concept. The last video that we shot with the dogs as the actors [for "Polyaneurism"] was my idea, and then we actually made a video of "Get God's Attention By Being An Atheist" last weekend, which was an awesome idea. But some of them I just let other people create the concepts.

Songfacts: Can you talk about the song "Polyaneurism"?

Barnes: Yes. I have a friend who it's written about who has a polyamorous relationship. It's seeing the perspective of the other person in the party of three.

It seems like polyamorism is becoming more common and more accepted. When I wrote it I was just starting my relationship that I'm in currently, which I'm happily monogamous in, but I never knew that I could be happily monogamous - I always felt like I would lean toward polyamorism. But from other people's experiences and through my own dabbling in it, I realized it's very problematic and it actually requires more work, more emotional labor than just a conventional monogamist relationship. That's why it's a bit more critical of it: because if you are the third person it could be frustrating if you feel like you've got to spend the night alone because your girlfriend is going out with her girlfriend or her other boyfriend. So it's a song about that.

Songfacts: What is it like performing an older, very intense song like "The Past Is A Grotesque Animal" these days?

Barnes: Literally, I still get a therapeutic charge out of it. It feels to me like a very powerful song, and I'm very vulnerable in the song, so I'm not just going through the motions. I'm still transported back to that time period and to that emotional state when I wrote the song.

Every time I play it, it changes a little bit, but it's still a very powerful song for me. It's not a song I'd want to do every night, but some nights I'm really happy we have it in our repertoire because it often feels like a very cathartic experience for us in the band and also to the audience.

Songfacts: What's the song by another artist that you spent the most time trying to figure out?

Barnes: "The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker" by Prince is my favorite song as far as songs I wish I could write, but it would never happen - I'm not sure even Prince knew how he did it, and I don't think he could have done it twice. It's just one of those songs that feels supernatural, like how does this thing even come about? Maybe someday I can talk to Prince about it ;)

Songfacts: Is there something structurally or lyrically about it that you really hear something special in?

Barnes: I love him ordering a fruit cocktail at a restaurant because he's not that hungry. Like, why are you going to the restaurant if you're not hungry? And who just orders a fruit cocktail - it's so hilarious. The narrative arc is him ending up at this woman's house and them hanging out and having fun, listening to Joni Mitchell, and then saying, let's take a bubble bath, but I'm keeping my pants on because I'm dating somebody else. The whole thing is so colorful and so cinematic, but then so funky musically. It's real interesting with all the changes that are happening musically and his style of singing changing from verse to chorus throughout the song. It was very influential for me from the first time I heard it.

Songfacts: How do you curate the books, movies, TV shows and all this stuff you draw inspiration from?

Barnes: I guess it just happens organically, just talking to people. We're all seekers, so I surround myself with other seekers. People are always searching for other forms of inspiration, so I benefit from that. My girlfriend, Christina, is very much a seeker and is very interested in different things that are happening in cinema and literature and music, and my brother is the same way, as is everybody around me. So it's just keeping my ears open when I'm having a conversation and somebody drops a reference. It happens organically because of the people that are around me.

Kevin and ChristinaKevin and Christina
Songfacts: So, if you want to be exposed to interesting things, hang out with interesting people - that makes a lot of sense. What is the song you've written that best represents you?

Barnes: That's hard to say because every song represents a different aspect of my personality or my imagination or whatever it is that makes up me, so I don't know if I've written one song that I would say defines me as a human being because it's a very complicated web of various ideas and positive and negative aspects. Some of the songs that I write that are maybe more negative or hateful are definitely representative of a part of who I am, but then the songs that are more hopeful and loving are equally as representative, so it's hard to say. I don't know if I could point to one song.

Songfacts: Is there one that connects with fans more than you expected it would?

Barnes: The things that connect with fans are songs that people identify with and relate to, so in a weird way, we connect with things that speak to us and our life experience, so it's almost more of a narcissistic thing. It's not, "this person is so cool and so different from me and that's why I like them," it's usually like, "this person is saying what I'm thinking but I don't know how to say myself." So if someone is like, "I really identify with that song because I've also struggled with anxiety and depression and mental illness," it's more about them than it is about me.

Songfacts: Very interesting take.

Barnes: Does that make sense?

Songfacts: Yeah, it does, because it's a very selfish thing listening to a song and drawing meaning from it. But it's also therapeutic and it's important.

Barnes: I'm the same way. The John Lennon songs I identify with are the songs that seem to be coming from a place of pain and frustration and anger, and then there are other songs that seem to be coming from a more hopeful place. So, the thing that I love about John Lennon is that expressive, emotive quality to his songs - the same as Nina Simone and other people I connect with and identify with because they make me feel less alone in a way. It's like we have something in common.

January 16, 2019
Ur Fun is set for release on January 17, available at ofmontreal.net
photos: Christina Schneider
Further reading:
Cindy Wilson of The B-52s
Justin Hawkins of The Darkness
Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Go's

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments

Be the first to comment...

Editor's Picks

Sam Hollander

Sam HollanderSongwriter Interviews

The hitmaking songwriter/producer Sam Hollander with stories about songs for Weezer, Panic! At The Disco, Train, Pentatonix, and Fitz And The Tantrums.

Marvin Gaye

Marvin GayeFact or Fiction

Did Marvin try out with the Detroit Lions? Did he fake crazy to get out of military service? And what about the cross-dressing?

Meshell Ndegeocello

Meshell NdegeocelloSongwriter Interviews

Meshell Ndegeocello talks about recording "Wild Night" with John Mellencamp, and explains why she shied away from the spotlight.

Steve Cropper (Booker T & the MG's, Blues Brothers)

Steve Cropper (Booker T & the MG's, Blues Brothers)Songwriter Interviews

Steve Cropper on the making of "In the Midnight Hour," the chicken-wire scene in The Blues Brothers, and his 2021 album, Fire It Up.

Peter Lord

Peter LordSongwriter Interviews

You may not recognize his name, but you will certainly recognize Peter Lord's songs. He wrote the bevy of hits from Paula Abdul's second album, Spellbound.

Gary LeVox

Gary LeVoxSongwriter Interviews

On "Life Is A Highway," his burgeoning solo career, and the Rascal Flatts song he most connects with.