Bronte Naylor-Jones chats exclusively with Kevin Barnes. The mercurial man behind the enigmatic band of Montreal speaks about the new album, Barnes’ inspiration and the loss of one of the greats; David Bowie.
of Montreal delight their fans with a kaleidoscopic catalog spanning two decades, thirteen studio albums, and the exploration of innumerable genres; all threaded together by a constant: inimitable leader, Kevin Barnes. This Monday the band makes their triumphant return to London at Shoreditch’s Village Underground as part of the 2016 Convergence festival.
of Montreal’s last record, Aureate Gloom, showcased a tumultuous unfurling of Barnes’ emotions, cemented to audio with a 70s New York flair. With just over a year since the album’s release, Far Out asked Barnes to reflect on the deeply personal nature of the album, its cut-throat lyricism and the calm after the storm.
Barnes is well-versed in the art of self-expression, writing songs since the age of thirteen: “I guess it’s pretty typical for me to write autobiographically and expose that side of my personal life through the music. Everything I’ve ever written has been rooted in my personal life and founded by my experiences as a human… I guess it’s just the way it always has been.”
As for the no holds barred approach to the album’s subject matter, time has softened Barnes’ outlook, “I’m used to looking back, things aren’t as intense as they were when I was writing the songs; I don’t feel as strongly about them. I wouldn’t write those songs now but I’m happy I wrote them then. They just sort of exist in their own space and time and it’s okay, it doesn’t bother me.”
The catharsis is clear in Barnes’ raw honesty citing its place as part of the creative process: “It’s my own personal expression… instead of going to see a therapist I have art. It’s important to be in the state of mind where you’re not self conscious and you’re not questioning things and just living in the moment and writing in the moment.
The artist confides that, as expected, things can get pretty awkward when people realise that songs are about them. “I’ve written some pretty mean songs,” Barnes admits, “I’m like, man, I probably shouldn’t have done that or said that because then I get past it all and feel a bit silly about my anger. It’s silly because I’m not angry anymore.”
Where some songwriters aim for the vague catch-alls of emotional mass appeal, Barnes’ direct, autobiographical approach to songwriting has still resonated deeply with fans. “I think it’s great because I’m sort of contributing to the forum in the way that others have,” Barnes relates back to the same feeling he gets from listening to the likes of Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake and Neil Young, “there are so many people who I feel connected to in that way emotionally… of course I don’t know them at all but they’re able to kind of bridge that gap through the music. It doesn’t really matter that the person isn’t actually in your intimate sphere, they’re just sort of out there with this material floating around and somehow you connect with it and treasure it.”
From the art-punk, prog-rock wake of Aureate Gloom, come teasers of the next record found on Barnes’ instagram, which have fans chomping at the bit. “There’s an electronic element to this record, as well as some more glam-rock Iggy and Stooges influence. It’s all over the place in a way, it’s really representative of the eclectic interests I have musically. I feel like with last couple of records I was trying to stay true to a certain archetype, in my mind I wanted it to feel like it had a continuity to it and that it felt like it all came from the same place; with this record I’ve been more open to being way more diverse and incorporating all these different kinds of genres and influences into one album.”
Unlike the straight to tape, analog recording process of Aureate, Barnes says the new record exists in a far more digital landscape, “Its fun because I really like electronic music, I really like dance music. I haven’t been working too much with that genre for many years now, but I’ve been getting back into it and realizing how exciting it can be sonically.” Barnes goes on to liken to the process of chopping and changing tracks and adding different beats to playing God, “You’re surveying the land like, ‘I want to put a building here, I want to put a mountain there, I want to make the sun a different colour today.’ It’s really fun to work that way, doing a lot of stuff by myself and really getting into a tweaky state of mind has been very fulfilling.”
Experimenting with sound and texture in song-writing is well-charted territory for Barnes, composing everything from catchy, more linear psychedelic-pop ditties to the twelve minutes opus “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” from the 2007 record Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? With a prolific thirteen studio albums and one on the way, Barnes discusses the importance of creating art that still feels fresh. “I find it a really fun challenge to try and make something that is hooky but also not predictable… the music that I sort of gravitate towards is like that so music that I make is sort of organically more like that. I love melody lines but I don’t like it when you can finish the writer’s sentence, you know? I always try to push myself to make creative choices that seem a little bit awkward at times because I think that it could make them stand out more.”
Away from the creative solitude of the studio, Barnes revels in the atmosphere of touring. He describes the experience as a “Fellini-esque communal art experiment” combining music with visual spectacle and performance artists. “There’s so many people in the touring group, we have all these different characters and personalities, and we have so much fun together. Its great to connect and meet new people and have new experiences through the music. When you’re at a show, you’re in the room and you’re completely a part of the organism, you can’t replicate that same energy and excitement.”
It would seem just plain wrong not to ask about the passing of David Bowie, given both artists shared affinity for genre-defying reinvention and a glorious dose of showmanship. “I love David Bowie, but [his passing] doesn’t really change anything for me. I still love his music, I still listen to his music all the time. That’s the beautiful thing about art and music… you never really lose anybody. You always have that thing that they contributed to your life, it’s always going to be there. It’s so sad that he’s gone, and it’s sad to think of the Earth without him, but he’s probably having some really crazy adventure somewhere right now.”