“I Don’t See a Therapist, I Write Music”: Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes on ‘Aureate Gloom’ and Confessional Songwriting

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Of all the bands to emerge from the now-defunct Elephant 6 collective, Of Montreal is the strangest. But then, Of Montreal is also probably the “strangest” “indie” band to have blown up in the ’00s.

Strange, too, for a band that began with the low-key, barely heard Cherry Peel to reach No. 72 on the Billboard 200 with the funky, gender/genre-bending Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, released in 2007 — exactly ten years later.

Part of the success of that album — and the entire identity of the band, really — was thanks to Kevin Barnes, vocalist and sole constant member. Since Hissing Fauna‘s success, Barnes has continued pumping out albums, shredding and reforming his psychedelic influences into unwieldy, fragmented sounds. That stops with Aureate Gloom, his band’s 13th release, on which Barnes finds himself being typically confessional over atypically straightforward rock ‘n’ roll grooves.

It’s his best album in years, thanks in part to it being one of his most confessional — which is saying something, given that the whole basis of Of Montreal’s output for the past ten years has been his personal life. Flavorwire had a chat with Barnes, who was at home in Athens, Georgia, prior to the album’s March 3 release via Polyvinyl.

Flavorwire: Your last albums have been influenced by all kinds of artists, George Clinton and Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Who were you looking to for Aureate Gloom?

Kevin Barnes: The mid-’70s CBGBs punk scene, when punk was still very influenced by people like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, and then poets that were influencing people like Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell, before it became just really guttural, and almost sub-human. I wanted to make something that felt unguarded, very confessional, but also poetic.

Was the CBGB/Patti Smith influence something you had in mind before you were walking around Chelsea?

I was attracted to that time period and that scene, and so that’s why I went to New York. But that’s stupid, because, of course, New York in 2014/2015 is a completely different city.

In “Last Rites at the Jane Hotel” you talk about 224 W. 16th Street.

Yeah, that’s where I was staying where I was writing. I wanted it to be very autobiographical and very direct, and maybe to a fault I was just exposing everything in my music, in the lyrics especially.

Right — and you had done an AMA on Reddit that referenced that kind of directness, saying that people had been upset at you for it before. Has that kind of response dissuaded you from being ultra-personal, or using [Barnes’ ex-wife] Nina’s name?

I mean, it probably should. She’s always getting pissed off at me for exposing too much of our personal life. I can understand where she’s coming from, for sure. It’s just my perception, or just my experience of the relationship. People might feel like I’m misrepresenting them, being too critical of them or not critical enough of myself.

Do you ever have the impulse to use a pseudonym for Nina?

Well, sometimes. But I just think it’s weird to do that. I don’t really see the point. If you’re going to use a name, you might as well use an actual name.

As far as other people getting upset, is there any other sort of specific instance you can think of?

I mean, I’ve definitely had people come up to me and say, “Hey, Kevin! Obviously this song is about me, what the fuck?” I get in trouble a lot for that. I think that’s why I have a bad reputation on a certain level. I really only feel it in Athens, where I live. I think people in general think I’m a cocksucker, and not a good person.

Your writing is very dense. Is that something you do to kind of distract from the juicier stuff you’re saying?

I always want to avoid clichés, too. I just try to have my own style, my own way of phrasing things. I want to be excited about the ways I express universal themes.

In the press release for Aureate Gloom there’s a quote: “The best albums are those that help people connect with the artist on a deep human level.” Does it just happen that you’re writing about your life, and it’s stuff that could piss people off?

Yeah, I feel like in general it’s impossible to live without hurting other people. Unless you’re a simple creature. I think that maybe I’m so restless and always searching, so I’m never really content. And if I was content I’d be really suspicious of that feeling. “What’s wrong with me, why am I happy?” I don’t want to be some dumb cow that’s just happy all of the time. I’d rather be troubled — well, I wouldn’t really rather be troubled, it’s just in my nature. And I don’t think it’s very enlightened. I’m trying to evolve as a human, and as a writer.

Your earlier albums were super personal, but a lot of was very lighthearted and very bare.

That was me escaping reality, and trying to avoid adult existence as much as possible and just live in this bubble of false adolescence.

Hissing Fauna’s “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal” was kind of this turning point for a lot of listeners and critics as far as realizing that you were mining your life for these personal lyrics.

It was an emotional and intellectual evolution — a very slow evolution. Coming out of that sort of naive simplicity of the earlier records and becoming more and more influenced by outside sources, coming out of my shell and being exposed to real life and having these adult experiences (getting married, having a child) and becoming a part of the universe in that way.

On Aureate Gloom it’s the opposite, with opener “Bassem Sabry” focusing on political events in Egypt. Were you forcing yourself to look beyond your personal life, or did it just happen?

I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and consciously said, “I’m going to be topical for a moment!” It just happens organically. When it does, it’s very mysterious. At this point, on this day, I wouldn’t really feel compelled to write about the Arab Spring, but at some point it was.

Was there a specific aspect of Bassem Sabry’s story that inspired you?

I’m a champion of the underdog. I’ve always romanticized that sort of challenge: to be the underdog and to be up against the face of fascism. When someone is brave enough to stand up to that demon, like Bassem Sabry was, and like a lot of other people were and are — you know, it’s difficult for us to even fathom what life must be like in places like Egypt, especially during periods of turmoil.

Do issues like that ever make it seem like your own problems, personal or otherwise, are trivial?

No matter what, you have problems. Even if you’re in an ideal-seeming situation, you’d still find a reason to be unhappy. Or, at least I’d find a reason to be unhappy.

It’s definitely one of the default state for humans. Which is sometimes a good thing if you’re trying to create music.

Exactly. A lot of what fuels me is this chronic feeling of dissatisfaction with myself and with my relationships and with my past and always feeling like I have so much more to prove and so much more to experience.

Do you perceive yourself as an underdog in the music world?

On some level I do. I don’t know if anyone would be satisfied with the amount of acclaim they receive, or fame or credit or whatever. I’ve been through varying degrees of anonymity, being completely unknown for six or seven years when we were starting out and just getting either not reviewed at all or getting dismissive reviews and nobody coming to shows. There wasn’t really a reason for me to feel like I should continue to make music, you know?

And then we had the sort of high-water mark in popularity where we were more commercial and the mainstream was sort of coming out and supporting us and celebrities were saying they like our music and blah blah blah. Now, I feel like I’m in a different place where some people might still care, but we aren’t trendy. We’re not a hip band. We’re kind of just like this band that won’t go away.

It’s good to have gotten to that point of massive popularity, though, right?

I just don’t really think about it. I feel so fortunate that we have a fan base that supports us. I feel so lucky that we’re able to do this, and still able to go on tour and put out records and that anybody cares and anybody still thinks that we’re relevant.

We’ve put out so many records. The funny thing is that I know that if there was a brand new band that just came out this year and put out Aureate Gloom, it would have a completely different impact on the music scene. It’s always compared to the past work. But I feel like people have become, on some level, fatigued by a body of work that’s too massive.

At the very least yours is diverse. Is that a result of your restlessness?

Yeah, I think I’m sort of wired to always want to make something different. And I sometimes think that it would be cool if every record would sound like a different band. I do find it really boring when bands have a formula or a specific sound. It’s kind of like, what’s the point? You’re just making the same record over and over again, and it’s probably getting worse.

Is there a mission statement for Aureate Gloom, or anything you’d want people to know about it?

I think that, like all other albums, it’s capturing a moment in time, a period in my life. It’s a document of what I was going through, what I was listening to, sort of like an open journal.

Is that one of the benefits of being so prolific, capturing things so specifically?

Yeah. Because my creative world is so deeply influenced by my personal life and things that are happening in my life now, it’s almost like a form of therapy. I don’t see a therapist, I write music. By putting the emotion, or feeling, or experience into a song, it sort of leaves my body, leaves my spirit, and I don’t have to carry it with me anymore.