Some artists spend a lifetime chasing their muse, but Kevin Barnes is more interested in mixing things up. “Every four or five years, I stumble upon some new spirit or new spark,” the of Montreal frontman explained over the phone last week from his home in Athens, Georgia. “A couple of years ago, I was obsessed with George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic … I really wanted to make authentic ’70s freak funk. Before that I was really into vaudeville and Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey, and I was obsessed with making twisted children’s songs.”
And now? “I’m definitely on a folky vibe.”
For his band’s latest, 12th record, Lousy with Sylvianbriar, Barnes decided to head west to San Francisco. Far from home and with an acoustic guitar at the ready, Barnes immersed himself in his surroundings, as well as the poetry of Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, and Allen Ginsbourg. The songs that resulted are a gracefully diverse move away from of Montreal’s signature frenetic, synthy soundscapes toward cleaner arrangements and broad, sweeping strokes of psychedelia that highlight Barnes’s lyrics. Recorded to analog tape, often with all band members setting up and tracking their parts live in the same room, Sylvian feels more immediate, intimate, and conversational. Below, Barnes comes clean about the inspiration behind the record, as well as his time in S.F., his songwriting practice, and the importance of suffering for your art.
Tell me a bit about what you were thinking going into Sylvianbriar. Did you have any specific ideas in mind? I knew I wanted to make something very different from the last record, Paralytic Stalks, which was more symphonic and a little bit more sonically ambitious. I wanted to make something that was more stripped down and lyric driven, and more inspired by the singer/songwriter scene of the ’60s and early ’70s, people like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and Neil Young and Gram Parsons, Grateful Dead, a bit of Stones in there, too. Basically, I wanted to make something that felt more immediate. I wanted to write songs on the acoustic guitar and have arrangements that were stripped down enough to pull off with just a guitar and voice. A lot of the songs on Paralytic Stalks were really difficult to perform live because the arrangements were so complex and they required a really large ensemble to even come close. We couldn’t really do it ever. I wanted to do something that was more about the lyrics and the vocal performance than all of the extra stuff.
You ended up writing most of this thing in San Francisco. What led you to the West Coast? I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. I wanted to get out of my hometown and just be somewhere new and exotic and romantic in a way. I love San Francisco. We’ve played a lot of shows there, but I never really spent any time there by myself. I was able to just sort of wander around and explore the city, and that was really great. I rented this apartment near Dolores Park in the Mission and just wandered around the city every day with these books of poetry — Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg — and just observed the world around me. San Francisco is such a beautiful place, and it’s also a really dangerous place in certain parts. It’s a cool juxtaposition of beauty and human terror.
Were you pretty solitary in your time there? I didn’t make any new friends, really, but my record label has an office out there, so if I was feeling super lonely or isolated, I could meet them for lunch and talk about my ideas. And I do have a couple friends out there, so it wasn’t like being completely isolated, but most of the time I did spend by myself in my own head with the sort of internal dialogue that develops when you’re alone for a long period of time. You get a little bit crazy, but it’s good in the sense that there were no real other distractions or responsibilities. I could just focus on the task at hand, which was just writing songs.
You haven’t been shy about the influences for Sylvian — Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen. It’s refreshing to hear an artist cop to his reference points. Definitely. I have no delusions as far as being an original. I feel like everything I do is directly inspired by someone else’s genius. In that way, I don’t care; I’m not trying to pretend that I’m something that I’m not. I’m definitely someone that is extremely influenced by other people’s work. I hope in a way that I’m able to combine these different influences in a way that’s not super derivative or super generic. But I definitely feel like I need to give props to the people that inspire me. With each record there will be a group of people, a group of artists that will create the spark that pushes me in a different direction. A couple years ago, I was obsessed with George Clinton and Parliment Funkadelic and the Ohio Players; I really wanted to make authentic ’70s freak funk. Before that I was really into vaudeville and Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey, and I was obsessed with making twisted children’s songs. Every four or five years, I stumble upon some new spirit or new spark that creates the wave that I ride for a couple of years. Right now I’m definitely on a folky vibe.
What’s it been like to perform these songs just you and an acoustic guitar? For a long time, I just didn’t feel comfortable doing it, because the songs weren’t written that way; they were written with a computer and a lot of synthesizer parts. I guess it could be cool for someone to hear a song on acoustic guitar that they’re used to hearing with all this drum programming and sythesizers, but I always liked the album arrangements. That always felt like the official arrangement of the song, whatever that means. To strip it down to acoustic guitar always felt just kind of weak or just a little bit boring to me. All of the songs off of Skeletal Lamping or Hissing Fauna just didn’t really work that well. With this record, though, they all work really well, and Rebecca [Cash] and I have done a bunch of radio shows and acoustic shows just the two of us, and it’s really cool. It’s a totally different experience because when you’re onstage with a full ensemble you feel very powerful and not as vulnerable. When you’re onstage with just an acoustic guitar, you feel really vulnerable and a bit shy; all of the bravado is gone, and you’re basically just stripped bare. It’s humbling in a way, but it’s also rewarding if the audience is into it and not just talking the whole time. [Laughs.]
I want to talk a bit about your songwriting process. Are you pretty methodical or more embracing of the when-inspiration-strikes mentality? It’s sort of all over the place. Sometimes a song will happen really quickly, but most of the time it’s something I live with for months. I’ll get a rough idea, and it will sort of sit in my mind while I’m working on other things, and slowly it will come to the surface and make more sense, and it’ll have more structure. It’s a very organic process. I’m not the kind of person that has any sort of routine, like, “Yes, I wake up every day at 8 o’clock, and I work for four hours.” I know people like that, and I’m amazed that they can do that, but for me it’s just a part of my life — I’m just kind of floating around, and then an idea will pop into my head, and I’ll write it down, then I’ll float a little bit more. But it’s worked so far. It’s strange; sometimes I think, “God, I never work, yet somehow I have all these albums.” I never feel like I’m putting in this incredible effort. That was the cool thing about being in San Francisco — I was actually focused on writing and reading and observing and absorbing the atmosphere and the energy of the city, whereas normally I will get an idea then I won’t have any ideas for two days. It’s never been as concentrated as it was in those three weeks.
You’ve mentioned that some of the songs on Sylvian were inspired by the dissolution of a relationship. In retrospect I can see so much of what I was going through internally, just in my personal life, comes through in the songs. There’s definitely a pessimistic edge to it. It’s hard to say if there’s one theme to the album, but it’s a lot of me cynically viewing a relationship that I had that dissolved, or devolved, into something really ugly. Then there’s the other side that’s a bit more — actually, no, I don’t know if there’s any positivity on the record, now that I think about it. [Laughs.] But it’s all kind of veiled in a way where it doesn’t feel like doom and gloom the whole time.
Do you feel like you’re in a better headspace now? I think I am. I think I have a tendency to view things in a darker way than I need to. Maybe I just find it more inspiring to entertain those thoughts than just being optimistic all the time. I’ve been reading Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, and it’s very autobiographical. He’s a very tragic figure in that he’s basically killing himself through alcoholism, but he’s putting everything into his book. It took him eight years to write, and he went through four different versions of it before a publisher accepted it. He put so much into it, and combining that with the self-destruction of his alcoholism and the extremes he went to with that … The idea of a really, really slow self-destruction is kind of strangely romantic to me. I’ve been sort of romanticizing that character a bit, and I think that comes through on Sylvianbriar and also on the new stuff I’m working on.
Do you feel like you need to suffer to make good art? I don’t know. There’s was an interesting part of this documentary [on Lowry] where one of his contemporaries, one of his friends, was saying, “I’m still alive, but I haven’t really written anything worthwhile. He’s dead, but he has this fantastic novel.” So yeah, on a certain level, I think you do have to suffer to create something really engaging and powerful and timeless. You can make really trivial things without suffering, though. [Laughs.] But you have to invest everything — all your life, all your heart, all your soul, or whatever — into your work if you want to create something powerful.
Do you feel like you’ve fully embraced the idea? To a degree. I haven’t gone off the deep end yet; I’m still sort of lingering somewhere in between. [Laughs.]
One toe touching the floor. Yeah, totally. I’m a little apprehensive about going all-in. I guess most people are. That’s the sad thing about Malcolm Lowry; he makes this fantastic novel and secures his place in history, but he couldn’t follow it up and basically burned out after that one shining moment. I don’t know what’s better — to have one great thing or a whole bunch of pretty good things.
Well, at the least you’re on your way to the latter. I don’t know. I don’t feel like I’ve really done anything, which is good in a way because it motivates me to keep working. If I felt like I made my masterpiece, then I wouldn’t be motivated, but I’m just embarrassed by my body of work. Every day I wake up thinking, “Okay, here’s my chance to redeem myself and make something actually good.” But it keeps me alive; it keeps me going.
You mentioned new songs. Is there a new album in the works? I’m five or six songs into the next record. I think the plan is just sort of that, to keep working when we have free time or a new song to work on. We’ve been using a tape machine — that was a big difference with the last record, too — and it’s really different. The whole point of working that way is for it to be more collaborative and more communal, so I’m trying to get Clayton [Rychlik] over to play drums and JoJo [Glidewell] to play keys and do more live tracking, so it’s not just me building the songs one instrument at a time, like I had been doing in the past. I want to capture an energy, the atmosphere of the room at that specific moment. That’s what’s special to me now. Chasing that energy is where I’m at. The next album is going to come together in a slower way, I think, just by nature of how I’m working now.
Are you still writing songs on the guitar? Yes. It’s funny because I have a piano in my studio, and I look now at it, and it’s kind of like, “Hmm. That’s a cool-looking object,” but I’m not really drawn to it. The last eight records, I only wrote on the piano. It’s just strange how it goes back and forth.
UCSB’s Associated Students Program Board presents of Montreal at The Hub on Friday, January 24, at 9 p.m. Wild Moccasins open. For tickets and info, call (805) 893-2064 or visit aspb.as.ucsb.edu.