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Being Kevin Barnes

of Montreal's front man gets honest about his process, what it means to be an artist, and Lousy With Sylvianbriar.
From L to R: Bob Parins, Bennet Lewis, JoJo Glidewell, Kevin Barnes, Rebecca Cash, Clayton Rychlik

From L to R: Bob Parins, Bennet Lewis, JoJo Glidewell, Kevin Barnes, Rebecca Cash, Clayton Rychlik /Nina Barnes

Kevin Barnes

Kevin Barnes /Nina Barnes

From L to R: Rebecca Cash, Kevin Barnes

From L to R: Rebecca Cash, Kevin Barnes /Nina Barnes

It's the eve of the feverishly anticipated, sold-out of Montreal show at the Pyramid Scheme, and they're here with their newest album: "Lousy With Sylvianbriar." Here front man Kevin Barnes talks authenticity, 24-track tape machines, and what it means to be an artist.

Musically, they've evolved with each album, previously experimenting with a wide range of sounds – lo-fi, funk, glam, psychedelic folk and "hipster R&B," to name a few examples. As a band, of Montreal recently evolved rapidly with an entirely new lineup of musicians.

"We were sort of going through the motions, and it didn't seem to have the potential to grow. That's just what happens when you're working with people for a really long time and people get complacent, so it's good to shake things up," says Barnes.

When he brought new people in, Barnes says, everything kind of exploded and transformed into something fresh. The impetus behind "Lousy With Sylvianbriar" was to make a "band album" where lots of different musicians contribute ideas, unlike their last six records, which Barnes crafted mainly by himself.

"'Lousy with Sylvianbriar' is kind of inspired by the record Bob Dylan made in the late sixties, 'Blonde on Blonde.' I knew they didn't do 20 takes of anything – their vision was just to capture something quickly and have it feel alive, and electric and raw," says Barnes.

To capture something similar for "Lousy With Sylvianbriar," of Montreal recorded on a 24-track tape machine, which Barnes used to work with back in the day.

"With a tape machine you can't hide your inadequacies. You have to have your shit together and be able to sing, be able to play the guitar, be able to play the piano and the drums and everything. So it's fun in that way because of the challenge. All my favorite classic records were recorded that way, for the most part," he says.

When asked what he hopes to do with his music, Barnes says it's definitely about the fulfillment he gets from it personally, and about the sense of identity it gives him to be an artist, writer and musician. Art helps him make sense of the world, his psyche and his place in things. And in a way, it helps him romanticize an often-brutal reality – maybe an essential survival tactic for someone so self-aware.

"So even if I'm going through a really dark period of depression, anxiety, paranoia, whatever – I'm able to channel that into something more positive. It's therapy. It's basically everything. It's how I communicate – how I show the world I'm not this maggot-brained creature, that I have something special to offer," says Barnes.

His honesty permeates even of Montreal's dancier tracks, especially 2007's "Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?" which he wrote while dealing with depression, isolation and a strained relationship with his wife and daughter. In "Gronlandic Edit" he speaks of "hiding in our friend's apartment/Only leaving once a day to buy some groceries." In "A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger" he sings about being disgusted with himself, and "trying to restructure [his] character" all winter.

Despite the deeply personal content, Barnes says performing these songs are really easy, possibly because he's compartmentalized them.

That isn't the case with all the songs he's written, though. A handful of songs are just too difficult to play, he says, because they aren't something he wants to relive. "Miss Blonde, Your Papa is Failing" is one of those. Written after "Hissing Fauna," it laments how he tried to keep his family together and, at the time, it felt like he had failed.

That's not an unfamiliar feeling for Barnes.

"I always have this chip on my shoulder and never feel like I've accomplished anything. I don't feel that good about the things I've created, and I always think, 'This next record I'll be able to do something really special,'" he says.

Although of Montreal has released 14 albums and a handful of EPs, Barnes always feels compelled to create.

"For me," he says, "it's all about the present and feeling connected to the world through what I'm working on at the moment. As far as the things I've made in the past, they might as well be buried underground or something."

When asked if he had any advice for aspiring artists or musicians, Barnes laughs like he'd been asked how to be a great linebacker.

"The thing is: if you are an artist then you'll be an artist no matter what, and if you aren't then you won't be no matter what. There's not much you can say."

He went on to correct himself; saying the one thing to pass along was not to get discouraged if you don't encounter commercial success.

"Don't even let that enter into the process, because it's just vanity and ego anyway and, as far as a sense of affirmation from the outside world, you can't hope for any of that to happen," he says. "You have to do it for the right reasons."

He was lucky of Montreal was unpopular for so long, he says, although it didn't feel like luck at the time. Their lack of commercial attention let him establish creative routines around personal fulfillment, rather than meeting a deadline or pleasing fans.

"I just need to do it," he says. "It's never ending. Everything is sort of wrapped around it – my sense of identity and self worth – and that all lead to being productive and creating good work."

If you're lucky, you can catch Kevin and of Montreal this Thursday at the Pyramid Scheme. If not, you can keep up with the band's shenanigans on their Facebook page.


"Lousy With Sylvianbriar" was originally released October 8, 2013 on Polyvinyl Record Co. and is available on CD, LP and through digital download. A cassette version is available through Joyful Noise Recordings.

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