Of Montreal, from Athens, comes to N.C.
(originally published in Bootleg Magazine January 2008)
By Joseph Carr
I sat down with the band Of Montreal, an eclectic group of musicians from Athens, Ga. This past October, they stopped in Carrboro, N.C., fresh off the European leg of their tour, to perform at the Cat’s Cradle. After the show, I talked to the band while their elaborate stage, full of projectors, lights, screens, costumes, and other props, was packed into vans. We discussed their roots, today’s music, and music as art. We also discussed maintaining integrity as the band’s popularity grows, and how the internet has affected them.
The band is fronted by one of a few remaining rock showmen, Kevin Barnes, who carries himself with the same confident bluster as David Bowie, Prince, and other genuine front men of the past. He’s surrounded by a core of talented musicians who helped steal the show at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago this summer, distinguishing them from other indie acts. They specialize in electro-synth pop that has an existential despondency lurking just below the surface.
Bryan Poole, gliding around the stage with his customary angel’s wings, crafts crunchy yet subdued guitar riffs that give the band their sometimes ominous sound. Dottie Alexander and James Huggins push the band’s intricate rhythms, playing a variety of instruments throughout a show, helping to stretch the boundaries of pop music. The rhythm section is augmented by a new member, bassist Davey Pierce, who made his first live appearance with the group.
Throughout the evening, different band members would jump in and out of the conversation. Kevin seemed almost standoffish, but was open to talking once approached. This was surprising considering his confident, flamboyant stage presence. Poole was by far the most accessible. He had a lot of knowledge about the roots of American pop music, and a deep appreciation for music as an art form. Dottie and James were very easy going people, relaxed and comfortable in their own skin.
The group is friendly toward one another, and seems to genuinely care about each other. They speak of Kevin with intense admiration and respect, and they trust whatever direction he wants to take the music. The group took time after the show to mingle with the crowd and sign autographs, not projecting a “rock star” attitude. I was surprised at just how genuinely nice all of them were. Pierce, who was new to the band, kept to himself mostly and I did not get a chance to talk with him.
They come from the music Mecca of the south – Athens, GA. But some have roots in North Carolina too. Poole lived in the Charlotte area, which he described as “fucked” and attended school there for a short time. He found the “good stuff” among flocks of hair bands at places like School Kids Records and ANTiSEEN, inspiring him to play the brand of music you hear today. Dottie stayed in Fayetteville for a time, and spent her first year of school at UNC, where she played tennis. They talked about how there used to be a rivalry between Athens and Chapel Hill, as they were the only two places safe for expression in the Bible Belt of the south. They compared Cat’s Cradle to 40-Watt in Athens as venues that “care about music and not robbing bands.”
They say they were inspired by early funk like Parliament and Prince, and moved by bands like the Dead Kennedys and Minutemen. Poole was inspired by the Minutemen’s deconstructionist philosophy, which called for short songs and eschewing guitar solos. This influence shows in Of Montreal’s music, which meanders and has numerous movements, but the focus is rarely on one musician, but rather on a sonic wall of funky interplay between varieties of instruments. James’ biggest influence, according to him, was Guided by Voices, that he dubbed “best American rock band ever.”
As they get older they claim you “have to keep your ears open.” When they got started, they were into psychedelic, melodic sounds, drawing inspiration from The Zombies, The Beatles, and The Kinks. They got stuck in a zone of “not growing and not creating new sounds or breaking new ground.” Kevin realized that to take the next step they had to embrace sound, and they decided to incorporate more technology, expanding their songs and “relying more on noises as opposed to traditional music.”
Kevin writes all of the songs. He writes reflections on what it’s like to be human in an inhumane world. Sometimes the songs reflect the darker side of his subconscious, culminating in their most recent album Hissing Fauna, are you the Destroyer? This album is a purging of all of the negativity in Barnes’ life; a failed marriage, missing his child, and trying to balance a life on the road while maintaining order in his own life. The band’s new material delves even deeper into this subject though the examination is less literal and more aural.
“People crave a live representation,” Poole said. Of Montreal embody this yearning, and they make a living by performing. They like to think of their art as vaudevillian, incorporating showmanship, comedy, emotion, and music.
“How many bands are out there doing this?” asks Poole. Today, bands are under great pressure to simply make money, or they’re gone. They claim they cater to “laid back, cool people. No fighting, no throwing shit.”
As a modern rock band they feel that their sound and vision have not been compromised. Some critics question this, with the band selling the rights to “Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games” to Outback Steakhouse for a commercial. The company took the song and changed the words, a massacre. The band regrets this decision. They say “people throw it in our faces and it hurts” and approach the issue with an accusatory tone of “selling out.” They admit that they made a mistake. They say that many of their fans are teens or in their early twenties, and may be a little too idealistic to understand. Of Montreal, even now, aren’t in a position of excess. They are doing what they can to make money to support their music.
When asked about the Internet, they had mostly positive responses. “At least someone is distributing,” was one response. The group claims they don’t even consider CD sales to be a boost or to generate income anymore, and they’re okay with that. With the internet, people “are hearing things they’d never heard before, which is a good thing.” Poole added, “Anyone can get heard and the big labels are falling.” They feel that digital music is the natural evolution of things, and they support it.
Of Montreal don’t hold back when they set up a stage. They have lights and props they use and the mood of the show is festive. Dancing is mandatory. They alter and distort sound, bending it at times so that it surrounds the audience. They bring theatricality to performing, incorporating costumes and masks that add an almost surreal quality to the performance. Songs seem to just fit together into a larger whole, and each set is more of a movement than a group of hits from their albums. As the show progresses, Barnes changes his clothing multiple times, challenging stereotypes and societal norms by his choices in wardrobe (or lack of clothing). Whatever they do, it doesn’t take away from the music, but becomes a part of it.
These guys don’t front. They care about the music they are making, and they care about their audience. They put on a great show, where people can get together and dance and have a genuinely good time. Their songs can cause you to give pause and introspect, or it can put you into a melodic trance where the lyrics are just sounds with the music. Either way, there are many aspects of their music that you can appreciate. They don’t deal in bullshit, and have a true artistic vision that they adhere to and expand on with every album. Simply put, they have personality and passion.