For obvious reasons, of Montreal are one of the most notable bands in music today.
For obvious reasons, of Montreal are one of the most notable bands in music today. By now, millions of words have been written about the band that extol their excellent quality found either on their genre-bending records or their mystifying live performances, but one aspect of the Georgia band that’s hardly ever discussed with real intent is their prolific output over all of these years. What most people don’t realize either is that it’s this constant production of excellent music (never more than twenty-six months apart) that makes of Montreal as notable and relevant in 2015 on their thirteenth album Aureate Gloom as they were back in 1997 on their debut record Cherry Peel.
Discussing this point with us, of Montreal mastermind Kevin Barnes almost scoffs at this idea of the band’s prolific nature being anything but standard. Still, the hard truth is in the eighteen years since the band’s first record, there have been innumerable “buzz” bands quickly enter the public consciousness and exit even faster as their unable to maintain a steady flow of musical ideas.
“I just think that that’s the way it goes. Some people are lifers and others are not. Bob Dylan is still doing it. Paul Simon and Paul McCartney, people who have been doing it for fifty years and they’re still excited about doing it and wanting to do it and can do nothing else. Then there are other people who put out one record and are done. I just kind of do it until I get sick of it or I find something else to do. I just haven’t found anything else I like more than liking music. I just do it for the love of it. I’m always looking for new forms of inspiration and there’s always something new to explore musically. It never gets old. It’s just unlimited what you can do.””
While it can be unlimited for Barnes and artists like he mentioned, it’s extremely limiting for countless bands that burst onto the scene with an aplomb and energy making people think they’re going to reinvent the wheel. Instead, they quickly peter out and either call it quits or limp along offering derivative takes on other genres or worse, their own work. So what is it about Barnes and these artists that makes it unlimited? Barnes himself had an answer, albeit in a twisty metaphorical sense that seemed like it would fit perfectly on an of Montreal record.
“I think I’m like a tick. Like a little parasite who can survive without any type of sustenance or anything for six months just sitting in a tree not moving and then luckily, I fall out of the tree for a second and I find some kind of dog to eat for a while. Then I eat the dog until its owner catches me and squeezes me with tweezers and then flushes me down the toilet. I’m reborn then up in a different tree and I sit there for another six months. I think that’s the answer as to how I do this.”
Still, even the most prolific artists get burnt out after a while and need to take a break. Barnes himself admits that it can happen, but it’s more due to the commitments that unexpectedly come from being a musician as opposed to just being a musician itself.
“Certain aspects of touring can leave you in a weird state of mind, but as far as writing and recording, I’ve never really burnt out. I think people just get exhausted on the road. It seems like a real easy way to earn a living and you think that the more money you’ll have, the easy it’ll be like someone like Lady Gaga or Katy Perry. I actually watched that Katy Perry documentary and it seemed pretty grueling. I wouldn’t want to live her life. It wouldn’t be worth it to me. Being that commercially successful, there’s too much other stuff that goes along with it. It’s too much of a drag I guess.”
Commercial giants of Montreal are not, even if their success and name recognition are things most bands would die for, but it’s clear Barnes has never pined for that level of success or even the level of success to just live comfortably.
“I wouldn’t say I have comfortable life, but I don’t necessarily want that. What I do want is absolute creative freedom to do whatever I want whenever I want artistically. That’s really all I’ve ever wanted. It’s why I’ve never signed to a major label and why I’ve always pretty much worked at home and kept my work very much DIY and in the family.”
That freedom undoubtedly fuels the band’s constant output, one that’s even going on at the moment as Barnes revealed to the surprise of no one that the band was working on a new album, something Barnes is extremely excited about. It’s aiming to be another abstract and eclectic mix in the band’s rich catalogue and one Barnes described as a “weird collage of all these different styles – some folky sound stuff, but also electronica and classic rock sounding stuff.” It’s another in a long line of quick turnarounds for the band, but to Barnes, the album process is anything but quick.
“I feel like the process is so slow. I’ll make a whole album before I’ll realize what I wanted to do with the album and then it’s already done. Then I’ll really push to get it together on the next one and I make another one and its close, but still not there. I always feel like this thing is dangling in front of me that I can’t get to.”
The proverbial carrot in front of Barnes might never be caught, but his perpetual chase of it will continue to yield amazing musical byproducts for fans across the world and that’s not just the band’s records. As the band’s prolific nature continues to thrive, so does their eccentric and boisterous live shows where the theatrics are often more notable and exciting than the top-notch musicianship on display. It’s almost impossible to keep track of everything going on at one given time when the band takes the stage as there could be a hilarious video playing in the background while men in white leotards prance around the stage in front of someone absolutely nailing a particularly intricate song bridge. Like their music itself, it’s hard to lock down just what’s going on and as soon as you did, the show has shifted into something new for you to wrap your head around.
“A lot of stuff we create and then just let evolve over time. Certain aspects of it, the infrastructure, has been fairly similar for a couple of years as far as having the video projections, video mapping, performance artists, and costume changes. We figured out that these things work and they’re modular so you can do them at small stages or big stages, festivals or tiny dive bars. We’ve played so many different types of shows and venues and we just always want to be able to put on a really exceptional performance for people.”
Much like the band’s records, the live show shifts and evolves over time. If you saw Foo Fighters for instance in 2005 and then again in 2015, there are plenty of new musical additions to the set list to enjoy, but it’s still going to be the same basic structure as it was a decade ago. For of Montreal though, after only a few months, their live show has already shifted and evolved so much that it makes it worth it to see them each and every time you can, even if it’s multiple times in one year. New songs are always being plugged in as are new visual aspects and ways to make their shows even more notable than before. Sometimes, it’s new things done just get a laugh from the band itself.
“We’re doing this thing on the new tour that we were thinking would be kind of fun. Just have this moment where it’s a generic rave almost. I created the music for it and it’s a sort of funny, comedic moment. Just a rave parody. I made this little house music song and the performers come out in these rave outfits with glow sticks and all that. They dance around the stage and there’s this big drop. That was one of my ideas, but it’s funny because I barely had the idea and David was already moving ahead with ordering the costumes and then I had to write the song. I spent a couple of days working on the song and looking up YouTube tutorials of how to make a house song because it has to have this and that. Just putting it all together and then just seeing it in action every night. You end up forgetting about its origin. It just becomes part of what we do for a tour. Of course it’s going to be on the set list every night because it’s just something that keeps things fresh and exciting for us.”
Despite the band’s legendary reputation as live performers, they do get a chance to strip it all away from time to time and just perform as of Montreal with the music solely dictating the pace of an evening. For of Montreal, this happens as the band travels internationally, especially Europe, where the logistics of the production side is almost impossible for a band of their stature. Barnes admits it’s a letdown to some degree, but it also offers the band a chance to continue to cut their teeth and ensure that behind all the spectacular visual aspects, their musical performance are still incredible by itself.
“The last couple of tours over [in Europe]–we don’t make that much money over there so we can’t really do the whole production side so we just go over as a band. I feel sad for those fans over there just because they’ve been reading about these amazing visual and theatrical productions we put on over in here in the US and they see photos of that. Then they’re expecting that and they just get this boring rock band. But in a way it’s fun for us to be in just a boring rock band, a conventional one that really has to get down to the music and just be a singer or guitar player without any of the extra stuff to hide behind. It’s very raw in that regard and it’s a very different experience for me as a performer.”
Central Virginia won’t be so deprived though when of Montreal rolls through this weekend, armed with their full theatrical skillset that’s consistently made them one of music’s must-see tours for years now. Whether you’re a first time attendee or someone who’s seen them year after year after year, the band’s performance is almost incapable of disappointing and will surely be a musical revelation for you as you see a show that constantly attacks the boundaries and ideas of what exactly a rock show should be. It’s a complete revelation in this sense and one that never ages making it absolutely mandatory for any music fan to make the sonic pilgrimage to see them play each and every time.
of Montreal plays Charlottesville this Saturday night at The Jefferson Theater with Surface To Air Missile opening. For more information on the show and where to buy tickets, click here.