The Charming Incongruities of Kevin Barnes
After 20 years and 15 albums, Kevin Barnes, founder and leader of the indie rock band Of Montreal, is still as much an enigma to those close to him as he is to his fans.
Kevin Barnes is a multi-instrumentalist songwriter, best known as the founder and lead singer of indie rock band of Montreal.
Born in Athens, Georgia, in 1974, Barnes founded of Montreal in 1996, initially as a solo project. After recruiting several members of the Athens music scene, the band released its first album, Cherry Peel, in 1997. With a changing line up of backing musicians, of Montreal has since recorded nearly 20 full-length albums, including The Sunlandic Twins (2005), which featured the group’s best-known song “Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games.”
Barnes’s songwriting often juxtaposes driving, upbeat melodies with gloomy subject matter. On stage, the singer incorporates theatrical elements into live shows, adopting numerous personas and playing with gender-fluid identities.
It’s easy to misconstrue Kevin Barnes as a mass of contradictions. He’s the leader of the band of Montreal, though he’s not from nor has he ever spent much time in Montreal. His gender identity is fluid, but he’s steadily heterosexual. His shows are fabulously flamboyant, though he himself is shy and reserved.
Kevin Barnes: I was sort of a really lonely teenager, and what I discovered through the creative process was that I could get this sort of fulfillment through working, that maybe other people would get through just hanging out and having close relationships. And, I tend to, you know, not really try to cultivate deep relationships with people. I do appreciate people, and I don’t think, you know, I’m a sociopath or anything, but I definitely am more focused on the creative process and making things. And hopefully, as a side effect you know, sort of bringing other people in to what I do. And through that I’m able to interact with people and have relationships with people. But everybody pretty much is within the circle of Of Montreal, everybody in my life is pretty much, on some level, involved in the touring circus. So, I just want to put everyone to work basically.
And of Montreal on tour is indeed quite a circus. A myriad of costume changes and outrageous props are how Barnes explores the limit of what is possible on stage. He even once played a gig completely naked, but for a garter belt. All this to try to reduce the exposure he feels by the emotional vulnerability of his lyrics.
Barnes: You can say whatever you want if you’re covered in glitter and you’re wearing like women’s lingerie. Whatever you could be singing, a song about a girlfriend who’s sending you photographs of her cutting herself, or whatever, it’s like. Then it doesn’t seem quite as criminal. I mean, I have done solo shows where it feels more raw and more connected, but when I’m doing something like that at a solo show, it’s painful actually, it’s really uncomfortable.
AJC: Who’s the music for primarily, is it for you or for the audience?
Barnes: Oh, definitely for me. Yeah, I mean, ’cause an audience, it’s like, how could you even know what the audience is and it’s always changing. So I never think about that, like as far as wanting to accommodate or please anybody else, because, they might not even be paying attention anymore. Like they were paying attention three albums ago, and they had stopped paying attention. Or like, so what is an audience member? It’s whoever’s listening in the moment, so you can’t really even think about them.
It’s different for girls
They don’t spit on the street
They don’t piss on the seat
They don’t have to size up
Every person they meet
Or create an elite
Or poison the game
So no one else can compete
They are chaos
AJC: Let’s talk about “It’s Different For Girls,” then. What have been the responses to that song, from, I don’t know, women who’ve read the lyrics, and have listened to it carefully.
Barnes: Through writing the song and through talking to people about gender inequality I learned a lot. And I don’t know why I wrote the song in the first place, you know it’s just like the mysterious thing, when people write songs. It wasn’t something I’d been thinking about for years and like finally I have the courage to write it, you know. Like, it just sort of happened out of the blue. It’s like, hey I’m writing this song. And I spent some time on the lyrics, but I didn’t obsess over it, and I didn’t like do a lot of research. Wasn’t in the library like, “But how is it really different? You know, historically speaking.” It just sort of happened, and then after it was done, you know weeks later, months later, thinking about it and putting it into more contemporary context, and you know just talking to other people about it, and like realizing how deep the issue really is.
Barnes: I’ve always definitely felt very connected to my femininity. In high school especially, I started realizing, like okay well I’m still attracted to women, but I’m not like those dudes at all, and I don’t want to be like those dudes, I don’t even want to hang out with those guys. Those like macho, sporty dudes are just a drag. So it’s an interesting place to be when you are very feminine but also not gay.
Talk to me talk
talk talk to me
Amalgam I think
that you’re great
I already like you
I like that you like you
I think that you’re great
I want to let’s relate
Readings of scorpion collage
In my Menilmontant atelier
AJC: You’re incredibly prolific. I think we’re around album 14 now, in less than 20 years. I have a suspicion you don’t ever suffer from writer’s block.
Barnes: I don’t really think 14 albums in 20 years is that impressive. I mean, there’s something to say about quality over quantity. I mean—
AJC: You haven’t put out a bad record yet.
Barnes: I haven’t put out a great one either, so.
AJC: Really, you think that?
Barnes: Oh yeah, definitely.
AJC: And what will it take?
Barnes: I don’t think I ever will. I think I’m too old. You have to do that when you’re like 22 or something. I mean, I’m still gonna try, and I’m so excited to make it, I don’t feel discouraged, but great albums are just really magical.
I just watched my hero fail
Now I’m in a dark
and violent funk
Every leader is
a cellophane punk
If you hear me say yeah
Yeah yeah yeah
yeah yeah yeah yeah
AJC: What happens when you listen back to the old records? Are you able to, or can you remember who made those records, or do you want to know ’em anymore?
Barnes: No, I still remember. I mean, there’s a bit of nostalgia, but I try to avoid nostalgia as much as possible, ’cause I’m not ready for it yet. Like maybe when I’m like 70 or something, then I’ll tear up about The Gay Parade or something, or tear up about one of the earlier records. But, right now I just want to move really fast. I want to like stay engaged and stay excited and motivated and not reminisce. It’s not time to reminisce yet.
How do you identify
How do you ID
Are you something fashion wild
Talk to me talk
talk talk to me