This week sees of Montreal release their eleventh studio album - Paralytic Stalks - and one that marks a distinct change in direction away from the kaleidoscopic schizophrenic funk of recent albums towards what our Andrzej Lukowski describes as lengthy, vaguely musical theatre-ish songs that reference previous Of Montreal musical styles while being based around pastoral whorls of woodwind and strings, spiked with savagely bitter lyrics.”.
One bitter January afternoon (at least at this end of the phone) with of Montreal busy practicing for upcoming live dates (including a four-date tour of the UK in April), DiS caught up with of Montreal main man Kevin Barnes to about the inspirations and influences behind Paralytic Stalks' new sound and darker mood, including, Sufjan Stevens, William Burroughs, modern classical music and the endurance (or lack thereof) of his Catholic upbringing.
DiS: There's been a tendency to draw a line between the last three records as a sort of trilogy. A lot of that seems to centred around the lines “Skeletal Lamping/Controllersphere/False Priest” in 'Faberge Falls For Shuggie' [from Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?]. To my ears they're sonically cut from the same cloth, although Skeletal Lamping took a much different compositional approach. In your eyes is Paralytic Stalks a fresh start in the way that Hissing Fauna... maybe was after The Sunlandic Twins?
Kevin Barnes: Um... I think it's even more of a fresh start just because I think there's probably a bit more of a continuity between The Sunlandic Twins and Hissing Fauna..., but there are still elements... it's not an absolute 180 degree turn from False Priest, but I think that it's probably moving deeper into this other arena or whatever you want to call it.
DiS: It's been interesting to hear how open you are about taking inspiration from your contemporaries. You've mentioned Sufjan Stevens' Age of Adz quite a number of times. I was just wondering what it is about that record in particular that you've taken inspiration from.
KB: Um, The Age of Adz? On a number of levels. I guess initially the thing that drew me to it was how creative and sort of wild it seemed. I hadn't really heard sounds like that, I hadn't really heard compositions like that. Most records are not nearly as ambitious as that, so I think that's what I found initially very inspiring. Then I started listening to it more and really getting into and understanding the back-story a bit. Then I was really touched by how intimate and confessional and personal it is, because I had been writing a lot of songs from a persona and so to hear something that came directly from someone's personal life sort of rekindled the flame for me in wanting to write from my personal life again and not write from a persona.
It's a very courageous and ambitious work and so I think maybe in the way that The Beach Boys were inspired by the Beatles and The Beatles were inspired by The Beach Boys, I think it's that sort of kind of thing y'know. It's almost like hearing Pet Sounds for the first time, but it's even better than Pet Sounds, heh. It's just as cutting-edge and exceptional as Pet Sounds, but lyrically it's way more sophisticated and poetic or powerful.
DiS: Do you think maybe bands nowadays are just a little bit of shy of admitting to taking inspiration from their contemporaries, because they're afraid of looking like they're competing with them?
KB: Are you asking if I'm afraid of competing with them?
DiS: Yeah [although I mean no], do you think bands are afraid to be competitive in case it seems petty?
KB: Oh. No, there's nothing wrong with competition, it's fantastic, especially in this way because something very positive comes of it. It's not like you can destroy the competition, you can't destroy a record like The Age of Adz, it's legendary, it's classic. It will be a classic, right now it's too new to be classic. If you can take inspiration from it and want to make something that is just as fantastic, but is not derivative of it then that's a good thing.
DiS: There was something I noticed about both The Age of Adz and your new record; obviously Sufjan's quite a devout Christian although he's described the church as being “incredibly corrupt”, whereas you were raised a Catholic, but those aren't necessarily your beliefs now. I get a sense from both records of the idea of inner faith being resolute in the face of the potential spiritual crises that trying to subscribe to any one organised religion throws up in this day and age.
KB: Yeah, it's weird. I'm always dubious of anyone who says they are a devout Catholic or whatever just because there's so much you have to just swallow. Y'know, you talk about blind faith and all that, but I still think it's one thing to have blind faith in some sort of invisible deity and it's another thing to have blind faith in a group of human beings. In my mind the whole concept of the Pope and the whole line of Cardinals and Bishops and all that stuff just seems like little boys playing a game, but it's not a game at all it's very serious. So I find it kind of repulsive, but at the same time I'm touched by it because I was raised Catholic so I had to go to church every week and had to go to bible study and all that stuff. I'm fortunate that even though my parents were into it it wasn't like a brainwashing thing necessarily. They wouldn't whip me if I spoke out of line about the church, heh, because I was very cynical at an early age, I could see through it...I think that you're still influenced by it even if you feel above it or whatever. It can still affect you on some level.
DiS: I was going to ask you, although you've sort of answered this yourself, do you think that being raised a Catholic has any bearing on you returning to the topic of spirituality or religion in your music, or is that personal interest that can be totally removed from a religious upbringing? Maybe it's a subconscious impulse?
KB: I think any thinking person is going to spend some time questioning the existence of God and trying to figure is it even possible to have a spiritual connection with anything, to have a connection with something outside of yourself that's not human. It takes a lot of imagination and on some level superstition, insecurity and things like that play into as well. You see some people who seem blissfully happy or blissfully confident in their belief system and I'm always kind of amazed by that. If I meet somebody like that I don't know if I'm impressed or what, but it's just interesting because I'm just riddled by doubt and I can't really see how you could have any sort of certainty in that area. But it's definitely something that I think it's we all need and we don't get it really and some people just force themselves to believe it's all true, to believe their parents religion or to believe their friends' or neighbours' ideas and say “Ok, this must be true, because these people think it”...
DiS: It becomes more of a cultural thing than an actual personal spirituality...
KB: Yeah, I mean some of the songs actually do deal with that sort of longing for a spiritual connection, the first song for example ['Gelid Ascent'] is a really cynical view, well maybe it's more realistic than cynical, but it's a bit sad and a bit dark to think that God speaks to us through acts of terrible violence, but I think on some level it's kind of true. I go back and forth without even saying the word “God” and thinking about the reality of it or the existence of it, but I think that if we were to believe it, if were to believe that we were made in God's image then of course it would make sense that God would be really brutal and savage.
DiS: Back in 2009 you told Drowned in Sound that you want to make something that wasn't pulling as much from your outside influences, but something more personal, something only you could make, whereas before you kind of channelled Prince or Sly Stone or had reference points like Arthur Russell or Brian Eno. Is this something you feel you've achieved on Paralytic Stalks?
KB: Yeah I feel really proud of it in that way y'know. It might not be 100% “original”, but I was proud that I was able to combine these different influences that maybe have never been combined in this way before. The other day I was thinking about how I was putting it together. I didn't know how to put it together and so it was very abstract as far as going into the recording process and not really having a really strong sense, because there was no real archetype to follow for what I was wanting to do. So it's not as easy as saying I want to make a song that sounds like Prince or Sly Stone or whatever. That's easy, but if you want to make something that's more nebulous, and drawing from your psyche or drawing from your dreams it's much more complicated. It's more of a challenge.
DiS: Do you feel that previously you were too clearly under the influence of other artists? I've always thought that you can dabble in different styles and genres in all the arts; I'm thinking of Stanley Kubrick as a director or Graham Greene as a writer who would write gangster novels or romances, but the same themes would come through his novels. I've always thought of Montreal have always succeeded at sounding like of Montreal no matter what different stylistic changes you've been through...
KB: Yeah, I think that's inevitable. I think for everybody no matter how hard they are trying to imitate something it is still going to have a personal quality to it just because of the nature of it. The thing that makes Prince what he is is so singular to him that even if you were trying really really hard and got all the same drum machines and all the same effects units and everything, and try to write exactly like him it would still sound like you were trying to sound like Prince. I think it's really cool in that way that it just can't be duplicated, nothing can be exactly duplicated or replicated. That's the amazing thing about art.
DiS: I guess there's the subjective aspect to it from the listener's point of view as well: in a song of yours you might think a funky strutting bassline is the influence of Parliament, but an eighteen year old might just hear it as being classic of Montreal.
KB: Yeah, exactly, if people don't know the reference point then it sounds like you're truly a genius [laughs], but actually you're just stealing!
DiS: As well as abandoning your alter ego Georgie Fruit and just singing as yourself there are no guest appearances like those by Solange Knowles and Janelle Monae on False Priest. Was that a deliberate move as it was going to be a darker more personal record?
KB: I had never really worked with guest vocalists before False Priest so it wasn't really something that I was expecting to do for every release following. And also, yeah, because the
songs were more personal and more directly connected to my experiences and personal life, and they felt like personal statements so it would feel kind of strange for someone else to sing them.
DiS: Did you start writing the songs then realise they were taking on a darker hue or before you started writing was it apparent to you that because of where your life was it was inevitability going to be a darker record that you were going to release?
KB: I think I just felt the need to do it, but it just sort of happened on its own. I didn't really say “I need to make this dark record.” Like you said it was just directly influenced by where I was at psychically and emotionally and spiritually and all that stuff. So I couldn't have really made it happy or I couldn’t have made it in a different way. It sort had to happen this way. I just let it happen and for better or for worse I always just have to follow that sort of organic spirit.
DiS: So I guess it's sort of a record of necessity or catharsis as Hissing Fauna... was, but it doesn't come with such a clearly defined back-story as that record had.
KB: Yeah, I can't really say exactly. It might be a cyclical thing or something, but I go through these dark times and when I'm in that state of mind I tend to write music that reflects that. And like you said it can be a form of therapy and I was definitely relying on music to help me through this. With the previous records I was maybe in a happier state of mind so they seem happier.
DiS: I understand another contemporary influence is modern classical music, of which I can't say I have any great knowledge, so the most apparent aspect to me is the appearance of woodwinds and strings which make parts of the record sound really lush, but I suspect the influence runs a bit deeper than that?
KB: I think what happened was the first time I heard Penderecki's 'Threnody For the Victims of Hiroshima' that was kind of the initial spark that led me in this direction, because I heard that piece and it hit me so deeply. It made me realise how much you can communicate, how much you can express, with instrumental music and I found that very exciting and it made my want to go down that road and experiment with that myself.
Then I started listening to some Charles Ives and I was really interested in the way he would combine two different kinds of compositions that didn't really work together and weren't necessarily in the same key or didn't have the same rhythmic structure, weren't in the same tempo or anything. It's exciting, because a lot of classical music can sound predictable and you just think of it as just being for old women or something. It made me realise that there's a lot of passion and there are many compositions and many composers that are just as punk rock as The Sex Pistols or whatever.
I think kind of hearing it for the first time in that way and exploring it a bit more I got really excited about micro-tonality and the effect you can have to keep the listener off-balance by working with semi-tones. It's hard because unless you're a real wizard you're not going to be able to make your own instrument. So I was thinking that my voice is the most original instrument I have so I was doing a lot of experimenting with micro-tonal harmonies that would just come in at random times in a song and try to use my voice as a really emotive instrument, but not in a Beatles-esque way.
DiS: Reading your blog you like to keep fans up to date on your latest reads and you did a piece on Woody Allen films for The Quietus. I'm interested to know if there were any other non-musical influences that were present when you wrote and recorded Paralytic Stalks.
KB: Yeah, well I was reading William Burrough's Naked Lunch. It's funny, because everybody knows that novel, but not many people have read it cover to cover.
DiS: Yeah, I read it many years ago and coincidentally was speaking to someone about it the other and we had totally different perspectives on.
KB: Well it's one of the few books that you could easily read about once a month or something and still discover new things about it, because it doesn't follow any linear narrative really and it's just so dense with ideas, and it's very hallucinatory and very psychotic on some level. I mean, god, the imagery is just insane and the rhythm of it is fantastic. So I think I was very influenced by that.
On some level I was reading Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. I think the sort of stark realism, but with a hopefulness too and with a poetry, so it's not something really brutal necessarily, is what I try to do with my art. I don't want to just represent the absolute darkest, most brutal aspects of the human condition. There needs to be some hope and at least a shred of light, a shred of poetry and mystery and some sense that it's worth being alive as there's a lot of beauty to be discovered.
DiS: You can feel that on the record. Even on an experimental composition like 'Ye, Renew the Plaintiff' there are all these fantastic melodies throughout it, which are like all these chinks of light everywhere.
KB:That's the thing, I rarely make music that's as dark as my mood. I usually make music that's an attempt to elevate my spirit and pull myself out of it because I don't want to just revel in misery. I want to get myself out of it, because I know it's wasteful to just stare into the void and feel like shit, haha, you know, because you don't have that much time on this planet, you don't have to do that. Sometimes you're drawn to do that, but it takes effort and a lot of energy to pull yourself out of that and move in a more positive direction. I guess there was a lot of negative energy flowing through me when I was making this record and I was just doing anything I could to use it towards a positive end.
DiS: The one song that is most obviously darker and disorientating is 'Exorcismic Breeding Knife'. It's quite a big departure for you, it's almost musique concrète , a real nerves on edge listening experience. It's like the incidental soundtrack to a horror movie. Is that something you could see yourself taking any further?
KB: Hah, yeah actually. I think horror movie compositions are fantastic. They are definitely my favourite. 'Threnody For the Victims of Hiroshima' is sort of like that, it actually was used for The Shining so it sort of makes sense. It's sort of like the archetypal sound if it's going to try to create tension or anxiety; people have kind of figured out the formula for how to do that and I think it's really fantastic how it works on your nerves like that. Yeah, I'd like to make a soundtrack for a horror movie way more than any other kind of movie.
DiS: Would there be any particular director you would like to work with?
To be honest I don't really watch that many horror movies. I'm kind of a pussy in that way! I'm sort of deeply touched by moving images like that so I could watch twenty minutes of something and then just feel like it's poisoned my brain for months. So I couldn't really say, maybe Argento...is that how you say his name? He made Suspiria, he might even be dead I don't know.
DiS: Hmm, I don't know either actually. [He's not!]
KB: If he's still alive then I'd like to work with him.
DiS: Although I guess it would be more ghoulish if he did it from beyond the grave.
KB: Haha, yeah.
DiS: Are there any plans to try to recreate that song live?
KB: Well... it's probably not going to happen any time soon. It would take a really special ensemble. If we weren't just going to put a bunch of stuff on a backing track I don't think there's anyway we could do. It would take a lot of effort, because it took a lot of effort to compose it. The vocal arrangement alone is just so non-linear it would be really hard, I mean I'm not trained in anyway I can read music or write music. So it would require people who could actually read and write music to do it.
DiS: Speaking of live performances, what can we expect from the Paralytic Stalks live show?
KB: Well it's coming together now. We started practicing a couple of weeks ago and we go in the studio every day about four hours a day to practice the new material and piecing it together it's sounding really good. We have a new musician Zac Cowell who plays the woodwinds and the brass on the record and he's joined the line-up, so it's really fun to have this new element. From a stage production standpoint it's going to be really interesting. Basically what we're trying to do is use all the space on stage for visuals so it won't just be a projection screen against the back wall. So every area onstage will have different projectable spaces. We haven't tried it out yet, but we've created a couple of mock-ups and spent a lot of time creating content for the projections. I think it's going be fantastic, at least the way I envision it right now it will be hopefully really stunning and really emotive and powerful.
DiS: What kind of balance between older and newer material can we expect?
KB: It will be about ninety per cent new songs, just because it's exciting and it feels like a new chapter. We kind of got into this rut in a way, I mean it was a good rut, but a rut all the same, of playing certain songs that we knew people liked and it created a fun party atmosphere, but on some levels it was sort of superficial. What I want to do now is pick songs that aren't necessarily weirder songs, but song that aren't really anthemic songs, not the songs that we felt we had to play every night to get the crowd going. So we're kind of going back and picking the artsier moments from the other records, because I think that kind of fits what we're doing now anyway.
Paralytic Stalks is out now.