The Fly: “It’s flawed, but it’s charming” – an interview with of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes

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“Lady, your room is lousy with flowers.
When you kick me out, that’s what I’ll remember…”

(Sylvia Plath, Leaving Early)

For his band’s new album, ‘Lousy With Sylvianbriar’, of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes chose to immerse himself in the work of Sylvia Plath.

It’s a weirdly appropriate pairing; the two united by their confessional mode of writing, full of strange allusions and motifs of enigmatic violence.

And, lest we forget, Barnes — purveyor of a brilliantly oddball brand of experimental, verbose and sexually charged pop — has chosen a writer who, over time, has become a sort of poster-girl for mental illness.

It’s a plight that Barnes would no doubt find familiar: ever since 2007’s ‘Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?’, the frontman’s rambling, frayed, phantasmagorical songs with his band have suggested a man trying to pick up the pieces from a long spell in the grip of depression.

“With Sylvia [Plath] the writings I really connect to are the personal ones,” says Barnes, who adopted her use of ‘lousy’ to mean ‘full’ for the new record’s title.

“To a certain degree the lyrics I write are very personal, but I’m not necessarily speaking to anyone. As a songwriter you write something about a certain person and you write it for them.

“But it’s also shrouded in allusions and whatever else. I want the lyrics to feel raw and personal and unpredictable — something only I can make, so I have my own style.”

Barnes’ ‘own style’ is a slippery beast; one that vacillates between gaudy and bright to decidedly dark, shrouding mental torment, fury and anxiety in abstract and complex lyrics.

But on the new record, this vision has changed significantly. Since 2004’s ‘Satanic Panic In The Attic’, Barnes has mostly written and played all elements of his recorded output, with some songs using upwards of 200 tracks. Now, however, some of this scrupulous control has been relinquished to other musicians, though not those who will be familiar to the band’s fans from live shows.

“[My band] have dedicated so much of their time and their life to helping me realise my vision,” says Barnes. “Some of them I’d played with for 10 years, so there’s a lot of baggage with that, and they helped me so much, so I felt really guilty about finding new people.

‘[The former band] are still my friends and I still love them but when you have a specific vision — a new spark or thing that you want to pursue that will only work with a certain type of players, then you have to get those kind of players.”

The new of Montreal line-up comprises Rebecca Cash on vocals; Clayton Rychlik  on drums and vocals; Jojo Glidewell, the band’s former guitar tech on keys, Bob Parins on pedal steel and bass and Bennet Lewis on guitars and mandolin.

Georgia-based singer Cash is girlishly pretty — at times giggly, at times smouldering — and was drafted in through Barnes’s artist wife Nina, who had spotted her at a performance and deemed her perfect for the plaintive, pathos-laden vocals on ‘Feminine Effects’,  released on last year’s ‘Daughter Of Cloud’ compilation.

Speaking with them before we meet Barnes, there’s a sweet yet enigmatic chemistry between the trio — protective and caring, yet also strangely charged.

As well as the changes in personnel, the new record has also marked a huge departure in sound and the recording process, eschewing digital for painstaking analogue.

Following a period Barnes describes as “a self-imposed isolation experiment” in San Francisco, he set about writing songs inspired by the West Coast’s canonical 60s and 70s artists, such as Gram Parsons, The Grateful Dead and Neil Young, as well as John Lennon’s 1973 album ‘Mind Games’. The ideas were laid down back at his home studio on a 24-track tape machine.

Only 23 tracks were used, however. “One of our channels was broken,” Barnes reveals, adding that the limitations of analogue were “really liberating, in a strange way.”

“I sort of got sick of the computer, the computer does so much work for you,” he says. “I wanted to make a record where human beings are playing instruments and singing in microphones and you’re not changing it very much so it feels very direct.”

‘You’re capturing a moment in time with these musicians, these collaborators. I didn’t want it to be super ornamental; I wanted the vocals to be on top and the lyrics to be the main focus.”

It’s been suggested that the two tracks that offer the most helpful anchors to the new record are the intimate, raw and occasionally frightening ‘Colossus’, a title borrowed from a Plath poem, (“Your mother hung herself in the national theatre, when she was four months pregnant with your sister” – a Plathian intimation, if ever there were one), and ‘Raindrop In My Skull’ (“My guitar feels strange in my hands, I have almost no tucked up perceptions”).

The record’s new trajectory, then, has foregone none of the of Montreal pathos, the bitterness, the heavy-lidded, imaginative nihilism.

The familiar paranoia and weird sexuality are all present, played out with the “asthmatic energy” Barnes spoke of with regard to last year’s ‘Paralytic Stalks’, yet tempered with a distance suggesting that perhaps destructiveness is giving way to a new clarity.

Barnes is gentle but intense, with calm brown eyes that are at odds with his rapid-fire speech. Dressed more conservatively than perhaps we’re used to in a buttoned up shirt and grey trousers, he cuts a diminutive, charming character; one soon to be uncovered further with the release of the enthusiastically crowd-funded band documentary, ‘Song Dynasties’. But what is it that makes people so loyal to the of Montreal vision?

“I don’t really know, but I’m happy because it’s like my main focus in life,” muses Barnes. “Maybe if I had to make a guess it’s the DIY nature of everything we do — people can connect with that, it’s very human.”

“It’s flawed, but it’s charming.”

This piece was published on The Fly

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