An Interview with Kevin Barnes
In the winter of 2006, in a scene that repeated itself at venues across the country, Kevin Barnes of the band Of Montreal ascended the stage at New York’s Bowery Ballroom dressed in a wedding gown, announced his upcoming divorce, and asked the audience to join him in holy musical matrimony.
Barnes has since reconciled with his former wife, Nina, who is also the mother of his daughter, Alabee. Their separation, however, is the subject of Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, a late-career masterpiece from a band that has been putting out magnificent records since 1997.
Of Montreal takes its name from the home city of another woman who long ago had a failed romance with Barnes. The band is actually of Athens, Georgia, home of the Elephant 6 collective, which spawned Neutral Milk Hotel, the Olivia Tremor Control, the Apples in Stereo, and many loosely affiliated bands.
Barnes, now thirty-two, has only heightened his well-known theatrical antics with age. On the Hissing Fauna tour, he has appeared in a kimono, gold booty shorts with fishnets, and a ten-foot dress, which he enters through a ladder onstage. He also famously played naked at a winter show in Las Vegas, though he says that stunt will be reserved for the rare twenty-one-and-over show.
When I went to meet with the band in Seattle, they were playing a set at the radio station KEXP, during which they were threatened with having their tour van forcibly removed from the lot adjacent to the station’s studio. Later that day, I spoke with Kevin Barnes over coffee before that night’s sold-out show at the Showbox (the van was safely—and legally—stowed in the venue’s lot).
I.“IT MIGHT BE SORT OF A TABLOID-Y THING.”
THE BELIEVER: The people in your life—especially your girlfriend, Nina, and your daughter, Alabee—have been reference points in your music. You’re not talking about “love” or “breakups” in general but creating characters and storylines out of your life.
KEVIN BARNES: Ray Davies [of the Kinks] did that. He would use his sister’s real name, or sing about his cousin. In a way, it might be a bit unfair to the people in your life, because you’re writing about them and it’s not an autobiographical thing for them; it’s your impression of them. Maybe they aren’t necessarily too psyched about having a song written about them. I believe that art should be intimate; that it should be directly connected to your life and reflect your life. You shouldn’t feel the need to put up a wall separating your “real” life from your artistic life. The part that resonates the most with people is confessional, very intimate, and very personal. That’s the part people can identify the most with. I’ve written many songs in the past that have been more fantastical, short-story writing à la Roald Dahl, Edward Gorey—those were my big influences during that period. But even though I find the music we made during that period very interesting, or at least I felt that at the time, it hasn’t really reached a very large audience. The music we’re making now, which is more personal, has. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. People can identify more with that personal, confessional style.
BLVR: The last three albums—Satanic Panic in the Attic, The Sunlandic Twins, and now Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?—have the quality of serial fiction—or serial nonfiction, perhaps.
KB: It might be a sort of tabloid-y thing too.
BLVR: Thank you for saying that! I definitely noted an Us Weekly quality to the frequent updates on the state of your relationship with Nina, in the press and in your songs. Is it also a wee bit complicated that when people are talking about your music, they may also appear to be gossiping about the state of your marriage?
KB: I can’t say I’ve actually come across that so much. People who are interested in the band are going to be interested in my personal life and the lives of the people in the band, and try to figure out what the references are and inspirations for things, just like I do. Reading about David Bowie, I get so fascinated about every little aspect of his life. What was he doing during the recording of Heroes? What was he reading? What was he eating? It doesn’t really freak me out or bother me. If anything, I feel flattered that someone would be interested in knowing about my personal life. You know, mythologizing me like I’ve mythologized all these heroes of mine.
BLVR: You just nearly quoted yourself! [In “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal,” Barnes sings,“Sometimes I wonder if you’re mythologizing me like I do you.”]
KB: It’s something I think about—the idea of mythologizing the people in your life and kind of romanticizing their existence or your relationship with them and people’s own perceptions of things, how skewed they can be; how false they can be or how true they can be. It’s interesting how from day to day your perceptions can change and how your image of someone can change. Through me and Nina’s breakup—the events that led up to that and then afterward, getting back together—I got a richer understanding of the human condition, the way we function and the way we relate to each other.
BLVR: Not to get super tabloid-y and personal, but since the relationship is the subject of the record, I’m curious to know what was happening in your life when you wrote specific songs and records. Sunlandic Twins was a love letter of sorts to that relationship. Obviously, your daughter, Alabee, is mentioned on it (“So Begins Our Alabee”). How do those three records go together?
KB: Satanic Panic in the Attic is the beginning of the story. We got married in Norway. It’s kind of a funny situation, because neither of us is into the idea of marriage. But if we wanted to live together legally, we had to get married. So we got married. She moved to Athens and abandoned her life in Norway, left all her friends and her family, moved to this country, where she hadn’t really spent any time before, other than just traveling around with me. She would sell merch on the tour, just so we could stay together and she could see the country. This is actually at the end of this period when I had been living in this house out in the country with every member of the band out. I went from this insular band environment—with us all living out in the country together, living on top of each other, driving each other crazy—to moving in to a house with my new wife and my brother [artist David Barnes]. We had this really supportive, really great relationship between the three of us. It was this new chapter. It was really exciting. It had become kind of destructive living with the band. This one guy, Derek [Almstead], who had been with the band a long time, left the band. It was a transitional period on many levels. We didn’t really know what was going on with the band. People were trying to figure things out. We’re wondering who will replace Derek. So I just set up my studio in my bedroom and started recording. In a lot of ways, I made an early widow of Nina. I spent all my time in the studio.
BLVR: Mythologizing her in song, no doubt…
KB: Yes, while meanwhile not spending much time together.
II.“I’M PROUD OF YOU. YOU DID A GOOD JOB. DON’T DO IT AGAIN.”
BLVR: And while you’re fooling around in the studio, you are finishing the record that will become Satanic Panic in the Attic.
KB: Since we had first solidified the lineup as a band I hadn’t really been able to make a lot of things on my own, because everyone would be really unhappy with that. They’d be suspicious. You know: “Aw, man, why are you playing drums? I’m the drummer. I don’t want to play your drum parts.” So we were sort of reassigning people’s roles as far as what they were going to be contributing in the band for the next couple years. But I didn’t know that at the time. It just felt like a natural desire to be creative. I was feeling really excited about life and feeling that I had all these ideas I wanted to get out.
BLVR: This period is what? Four years into the life of Of Montreal?
KB: More like six. We had gone through so much together. All of us paying some serious dues and not really getting anywhere. We had been playing the same clubs for years and years and years and playing to the same hundred to three hundred people a night. If we had three hundred people at our show, we’d freak out. Like, “Oh my God! This is insane!” All of us had day jobs.
BLVR: What was yours?
KB: I had a couple, actually. I worked for a long time at a video store—a nonchain, locally owned video store. It was pretty cool. Very Clerks-esque. I also did temp work, the random stuff people do to get by. Noncommittal.
BLVR: So you finish the record.
KB: So I finished the record. I played it for the band. And they were like, “Whoa. You’re done with the record? How can you call it Of Montreal? We didn’t have any participation in it at all.” Then, when they listened to it, they were like, “This is actually really good. I’m proud of you, Kevin. You did a good job. Don’t do it again.” So we went on tour. Nina was playing bass. Then she got pregnant during that tour. We realized she should probably take a break, because we heard really low frequencies, especially, could be bad for a fetus. So we took care of the fetus and she dropped out—much to her chagrin, because she really wanted to stay. She really missed being involved. In lots of ways, that really led to our collapse, because we were living these separate lives. But I guess I can go back to that. When the touring for Satanic Panic was over, even though we had sold more records than we ever had before, it wasn’t really something to freak out about. We couldn’t live off the royalties or anything. But we could see there was a progression in a positive direction. It was exciting. For the first time, it was like,“Oh my God, it’s movement! We’re reaching a larger audience.” Things from a commercial standpoint, at least, seemed to be improving.
III. “THIS THE VERGE OF THE NERVOUS BREAKDOWN.”
BLVR: So you’re back from tour and Nina is pregnant.
KB: We didn’t have health insurance in the U.S. She’s Norwegian, and they have socialized medicine. So we thought, OK, if we’re going to have a child, we need to do it there. We’re broke, we don’t have health insurance, it would ruin us economically if we tried to have Alabee in the U.S. We went to Norway. It was kind of crazy.
BLVR: So we’re approaching the summer you spent “on the verge of a total breakdown while living in Norway”? [from “A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger”]
KB: Yeah, yeah. This is the verge of the nervous breakdown. Before we went to Norway, in the middle of Satanic Panic touring and before we left, I was working on Sunlandic Twins. It was a weird situation; the past couple records, I haven’t really been thinking about making a record; I’ve just been recording and having fun in the studio and experimenting, getting these ideas together. Then I realized, Wow. I have fourteen songs and they all kind of go together. It’s a record! What do we call it? Oh, let’s call it Sunlandic Twins. Somehow, I had managed to write, record, and finish Sunlandic Twins, by myself again, without involving anyone else in the band.
BLVR: Did the conversations with the rest of the band get easier or more difficult?
KB: Oh, more difficult, for sure. With Sunlandic Twins, it was very difficult, especially with Jamie [Huggins], who was very much involved in the recording and the arrangements and the orchestration for the previous set of records that lead up to Satanic Panic, and very much wanted to be a part of it. He felt really let down that I would do it again. I think it was really difficult for him to come to terms with that.“Am I in this band? What’s my involvement going to be in the future?” He had to figure all of this out. It was a bit easier for Bryan [Poole], I think, because he has his own project, the Late B. P. Helium. Jamie’s a great songwriter and he’s recorded a lot of stuff, but he hasn’t been able to find a good label to put it out.I think his creative involvement meant a lot more to him. He was very upset. I really got the sense there was a lot of tension and hostility. I respect him and love him. He’s one of my best friends. It hurt me. At the same time—it’s a bit messed up—I always put art in front of personal relationships. Even though I knew I was hurting him, I wasn’t going to stop. It was a positive thing for my life. It’s not my obligation to please everyone and involve everyone at all times. I don’t really think it’s fair for anyone to ask me, or anyone, to alter their methods just to be nice and involve someone. I think it’s more important for someone, on a personal level, to be able to receive that fulfillment and do whatever they feel like doing. I’m not saying I would never work with any of these people again. It’s not planned out in that way. Whatever happens, happens. If it feels right, I just do it. Especially with the way I’ve been working lately, just fooling around in the studio and experimenting. It’s not like there’s this song that we’ve worked on as a band and then I go in the studio and make it all myself. That almost never happens. It’s usually just me tinkering around and the song develops in its own way.
BLVR: What you are doing right now sounds more like how a novelist works. It seems unusual, though, for a musician. Most musicians either aren’t capable or aren’t interested in doing all the parts. How did you get to that point, and when did you realize that?
KB: For me, it became a sort of meditative experience, like therapy. I first caught the bug when I was in high school, with a cassette 4-track recorder and a pair of headphones. It was a form of escapism. I wasn’t happy living with my parents, living in south Florida, going to school with these rednecks. Going into my bedroom, putting on my headphones, and getting lost in the creative process was extremely beneficial and healthy for me. Producing something of value in some way sort of justified and validated my existence. I felt like there’s no point in me sitting around watching TV and feeling bitter and miserable. If I can turn these ideas, emotions, and internal conflicts into something more poetic and romantic and interesting that can affect other people’s lives as well as my own, then I should do it. Of course, I didn’t intellectualize it in that way. I just have all these ideas and I work very fast. When I’m working, I just shut off. I have no sense of time or hunger or having to go to the bathroom. I’m so off in this other world, and I really love it. I feel so fortunate to have something like that. I think a lot of people— novelists, painters—have a similar experience. In that way, it’s easier for me to get into that kind of state when I’m by myself. You don’t have the tension of other people with other ideas coming at it from a different place.You don’t have people having to compromise in this way that makes everyone unhappy. Maybe Bryan has this idea, so if we’re really going to be a collaborative band, Bryan’s idea has to be thrown into the mix—and Jamie’s and Dottie’s. If I already have what would be Bryan’s part in my head and I already have what would be Jamie’s part in my head, and I can’t do it, because I have to let them have their input as well, then that takes me out of that special mental space. In that way, I feel the value of making records by yourself outweighs the negative aspects of alienating yourself from the rest of your friends.
BLVR: And thus far, they’ve gone along with it, because these records are amazing? Because they love you?
KB: I think it’s also this weird addictive thing. I don’t know if we are more insecure, so we need that kind of affirmation all the time. But being onstage and performing just makes you feel so special. It’s an amazing feeling to have people applauding you. It is addictive in a weird way. You go onstage, and you just feel excited about life. It’s not always going to be great, but nine times out of ten, it is.
BLVR: From the way you are describing how you work, you sound extremely introverted. Obviously onstage, you’re extremely extroverted. Your stage presence especially stands out in indie rock, which is often about being cool, aloof, blank-faced, not acknowledging the audience. What’s up with the introvert/extrovert thing?
KB: Somehow I’m able to just turn a corner. When I’m working on the music, I’m not really thinking about how it’s going to be received. I’m not thinking about an audience at all. I’m just having fun. Then I say, OK, now it’s time to perform. It’s not really me. It’s not Kevin Barnes. It’s Georgie Fruit, or Claudrie Bear, or whoever I’m pretending to be.
BLVR: So what are the names for all your personas?
KB: Well, mostly I’m Georgie Fruit. Then there’s one called List Christie. List is more positive and optimistic. And Georgie is just a freaky guy. I like being Georgie. He’s my favorite.
BLVR: And he shows up in lyrics too. [From “Labyrinthian Pomp”:“I’ve got my Georgie Fruit on / He’s my dark mutation / for my demented past time.”]
KB: Well, he’s the new one. Basically, he was born after “The Past is a Grotesque Animal.” That song sort of gave birth to him.
BLVR: It seems like the sort of song that would give birth to something. I remember the first time I listened to the CD, with an audience. They were all saying, “What the fuck is Kevin thinking, writing a song this long?”
KB: It’s one of those songs; if you’re ambivalent about it, you probably can’t listen to it, and if you like it, it would be one of those special songs. It’s so long and draining, emotionally. It’s not one of those songs you put on and just cook dinner.
IV. “ARE YOU MY BREED OF ANIMAL?”
BLVR: Then there’s the Georges Bataille reference [“I fell in love with the first cute girl that I met / Who could appreciate Georges Bataille / Standing at a Swedish festival / Discussing Story of the Eye”]. Did you and Nina really meet at a Swedish festival? Did you really discuss Georges Bataille?
KB: Yeah, I was thinking about that the other day. For some reason, that was the barometer for me. It’s extremely rare for me to find someone who I was attracted to who was also cultured and had an appreciation for literature and cinema and had an education—that wasn’t totally pedestrian.
BLVR: Because Athens is all redneck groupies?
KB: Athens has rednecks. But I’ve always wondered, Am I ever going to find someone who is on my wavelength? You have these questions: “What’s your favorite book? What’s your favorite band?”
BLVR: What was her favorite band?
KB: OK, I probably wasn’t like, “What’s your favorite band?” I was just really impressed. She knew more about literature than I did and art history and classical music, all these things I was interested in, but was a bit too lazy to explore on my own. I always like it when people introduce these new characters to me. Like, “Have you heard Ligeti?” “No, I haven’t.” “Oh you’ve got to check him out, it’s awesome.” It’s so boring being the most interesting person in the relationship. I’d much rather be the most boring. You benefit a lot more. I was looking for someone who could appreciate somewhat subversive literature— Georges Bataille, Jean Genet, people like that.
BLVR: Genet is one of my favorites from high school and college. I can see how he might fit into your music.
KB: He’s been an influence for sure—this idea of confronting taboos and dismantling them or translating them into this other language that becomes more poetic and less grotesque. There are elements of the grotesque in his writing, and in Bataille’s writing for sure. Somehow they are able to turn the grotesque into something fabulous and fashionable and interesting. They might be describing a really heinous murder, but they can do it in a way that makes murder seem romantic.
BLVR: Bataille is an interesting choice for a pickup line. He is beloved by a college sophomores everywhere— along with Anaïs Nin—but his sexuality is, shall we say, rather alternative.
KB: Yeah. It’s like, “Are you my breed of animal?”
BLVR: As long as we are talking about that song, the end reminds me so much of the Cure’s “Disintegration.” Robert Smith talks about babies and stains on the carpet; you talk about “dodging lamps and vegetables.” It all seems so domestic horror–y.
KB: Yeah, marriage is not a hip subject. Marriage is associated with adulthood and adult subject matter is avoided at all costs, it seems, in pop music, especially indie pop music. Certain things are more fashionable. You can sing about death and relationship woes. But the whole concept of marriage—and I sort of share this idea—is thinking that it’s bourgeois and boring and cliché. But the thing we’re sort of grappling with is: What is our role? We were married; we split up; we’re still together. What do I call you?
BLVR: Tell me if we are veering into territory that is too personal. You are officially divorced, right? But you are a couple, you are together, you have a child. So you are also in some weird legal and social limbo too?
KB: Yeah, totally. And we’re not really doing anything about it. We filled out the separation papers. I guess it becomes legal—I think it’s already legal. In Norway, you have to wait a year after you file papers. They want you to think it out; so it’s not just something you jump into.
BLVR: Presumably, there aren’t too many people who actually think it out and say, “Hey, wait. I think we do want to be together after all.”
KB: She was my first real love and my first real relationship, which is insane. I was totally celibate almost all through my twenties. I had a few girlfriends; a few really brief relationships. I never, ever fooled around. There was no groupie love or anything like that. I was so serious and I was looking for someone specific. I didn’t want to just fool around with something trivial and phony. I just wasn’t drawn to anybody until I met her. But then we faced obstacles other couples didn’t face—being from other countries, getting married, having a child almost right away. We’d only been married six months, eight months, when she got pregnant.
BLVR: And relationships when one partner is on tour are, of course, notoriously difficult.
KB: It may have been OK, but she was at home with Alabee by herself, living in a foreign country, with no brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts—she didn’t really even have any friends.
BLVR: Was your brother still living there?
KB: He was, but he was totally immersed in his own world, working on his art. He had a new girlfriend and his own friends. It was an extremely isolating experience for her. That definitely led to a lot of tension between us. On one level, my life was going pretty well. Sunlandic Twins was a big success, by our standards. We were reaching a lot of people and playing these sold-out shows at venues we’d just dreamed of playing. Venues Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control had played before us. We’d thought, Oh God, if we could ever play those venues, that would be a big step up, we’d be so excited. Then to sell out those venues, we couldn’t believe it. So my career was soaring, but my personal life was sinking further and further into the depths of hell. It was really impossible to resolve that issue. If I go on tour, I’m leaving her alone. If I leave her alone, our relationship is going to fall apart. But I have to see this thing through. I’ve been working toward this goal for so long without seeing any results, and suddenly things are changing in a really positive way. I really wanted to dedicate myself to touring and to making that happen, to realize the dream, which is supporting myself through music; leave my imprint on the world; leave a body of work that has value and that people care about.
V. “I’M JUST WEARING THIS SCARY SUIT FOR NO REASON.”
BLVR: OK, basic question—Heim-dals-ga-tah—that’s how you pronounce it, right? I heard you were berating someone the other day for mispronouncing it—
KB: Oh, I wouldn’t berate anyone. Heimdals-gate— that would make sense. But in Norway, they say Heimsdalga-tah.
BLVR: And the reference? I Googled it and the only thing that came up was the name of your own song. [“Heimsdalgate Like a Promethean Curse,” the first single, also known as “Chemicals”]
KB: That was the name of a street in Oslo where we lived. And Prometheus was the god forced to sit on the rock and have his liver eaten by the eagle for eternity, or whatever. We kept going back to this street, Heimdalsgate, and living with this friend of ours, who was extremely sweet, a wonderful person. But just thinking of having to go back to this apartment where I felt sort of uncomfortable, just because it wasn’t our own personal space. The street played this large role in my life. It represented this sort of difficult period.
BLVR: The first time I heard that song, I read it as being about the fear of going on antidepressants and being terrified that it would fuck you up creatively. But then I keep reading reviews that interpret it as being about hedonistic rock and roll drug abuse. I didn’t see that anywhere in the lyrics. Is that a total misread, or is there a double meaning buried somewhere in the song that I didn’t see?
KB: The only line I can think about that would support that reading is “Nina Twin is trying to help me out / I really hope she gets me straight.” But it has nothing to do with substance abuse and everything to do with feeling like you are being betrayed by the chemicals in your mind; being betrayed by your body and not understanding, like,“What just happened? I should be totally normal. Physically, nothing has happened.No bones are broken; I don’t have high blood pressure. I should be totally healthy and fine, but there is this other thing going on inside my body that is crippling me and making me want to die.” You know,“Get it straight. Work it out. Whatever forces are going on here, you’ve got to help me.”
BLVR: Also, is there the classic idea that if you see a therapist or take medication or whatever that it will make you “normal” and take away your creativity?
KB: That’s what I thought before I got on medication. But it was so bad, I was like, “I’ll do anything. Even if I have to be a vegetable, it’s better than what I’m experiencing right now.” I was trying to make music that would change the direction I was going. I made happy music because something had to change, so I wouldn’t just keep reveling in this sadness. It’s really twisted and bizarre that I was making music this happy sounding when I was in my darkest period. It was really just an effort to create something buoyant and happy and positive, because I felt so opposite at the time.
BLVR: What’s up with the video for that song? You’ve got a lobster claw, you’re performing onstage in front of your family and friends, you’re wearing what looks like a spermatozoa suit….
KB: To be honest, most of it is unintentional. The original idea was that I would be a line drawing. There’s that one part where Bryan has the pencil and he’s drawing me. That was the original idea and the only reason we got that space-skating outfit.
BLVR: So you didn’t intend to look like a sperm?
KB: No. I would never have worn it, except they told me that to do this thing, I needed to be all in white so they could block me out and animate it in postproduction. I wear the suit for the whole video, then they tell me,“Oh, we really don’t have time to do that.” So I’m just wearing this scary suit for no reason. It’s one of those unintentional things that happens a lot in art. You fail at doing one thing, but you end up doing something else that’s interesting in its own way.
BLVR: Was it Flaubert who had the pet lobster? Maybe it was a surrealist? Some French guy used to walk a lobster on a leash. Whoever it was, I’m pretty sure it showed up in a Benjamin book. [Allegedly Théophile Gautier created the story of Gérard de Nerval walking a lobster as a hoax to “shock the bourgeoisie.”]
KB: I think Salvador Dalí had a lobster phone. That was another random thing. We just thought, What if we have a lobster claw? The people that did the video have a website called homestarrunner.com. They knew someone who did puppetry and they made us this clawhand. It was basically my brother’s ideas, realized in this high-school production style. I’m supposed to be flying through space. So what do we do? We make this one-dimensional backdrop, with a few props. Like in Rushmore—all those productions he would put on.
BLVR: And you are literally onstage, performing your psychoses and neuroses for friends and family.
KB: It’s a bit comic. I wanted it to be more serious. But for some reason, I’ve never been able to create something serious. There’s always something sabotaging me.