Kevin Barnes Wet Sweatsuits Loop Forever

Published on July 5th, 2013

kevin barnes, david barnes, of montreal

photo copyIf– as the old nursery rhyme goes– an old woman can live in a shoe, then Kevin and David Barnes would have grown up in a kaleidoscope. Considering the ever-shifting moods, dynamics and genre-bending that loosely define Of Montreal’s phantasmagoric sound and album covers, one imagines the Barnes brothers having popped forth from a world defined by a limitless combination of shapes and colors. Kevin, the 39-year-old elder brother, is the musical mastermind behind Of Montreal. David, three years his younger, has had a hand in designing the band’s album art from the start, with 1997’s Cherry Peel(See this months poster and cover of PureHoney!)

To hear the younger Barnes explain it, stimulation was key to the younger versions of themselves. “At a very young age it was lots of sports and cartoons and acting out both in our yard and in the woods,” he writes via email. “Our parents kept us in a state of constant dampness. Wet sweatsuits served as our school uniform as we learned to be men acting out the feats of our heroes. When we were good we would get the hose. When we were bad our sweatsuits were allowed to dry and we were put out to pasture. And we would turn to dust.”

And there lies the rather surrealist humor that defines both these artists. On stage, the elder Barnes appears in flamboyant outfits and makeup that appears hastily wrought. His public persona seems as slapped together and shifting as his band’s music, which began as a solo project with a name dedicated to a young woman from Montreal he once loved but spurned him. The music is a celebration of possibilities and the unfinished but also the vibrant and alive.

Barnes the musician would probably delight to comparisons to David Bowie, but the world explored by Of Montreal is far more earthbound than the elusive icon-shifting alien person of Bowie. If ever a glitter philosopher existed, it would be Kevin Barnes. He throws around names like the French intellectual George Bataille (“The Past is a Grotesque Animal”) and the French surrealist Paul Eluard (“An Eluardian Instance”) while also bringing them down to earth in references to his elusive, mysterious attraction to love and relationships that’s both humorous and tragic.

Though passion and sex often appear as themes in Of Montreal’s lyrics, there are also statements of living life (and sometimes death) to the fullest. There are cautionary tales, as well. In “I Was Never Young,” he sings: “You have a mind full of a wonderment I’ll never find/cause I was never young.” Then there’s the prayer/warning that closes the band’s overwhelming 2010 masterpiece album False Priest: “If you think God is more important/Than your neighbor/You’re capable of terrible evil.”

As wide-ranging as Of Montreal’s lyrics are, complimenting those themes is a downright schizophrenic sort of music. The band formed in Athens, Georgia at a time when the indie scene started to embrace its roots in 1960s pop, particularly the Beach Boys (and especially a then still only-bootlegged Pet Sounds sessions album) but also the Beatles in their psychedelic phase.

Of Montreal’s psychedelic indie pop sound matured most impressively to include disco and funk elements in its middle period. Prince comes to mind. False Priest featured contributions by Janelle Mon·e and Solange Knowles that cannot be relegated to only soulful, but a mélange that defines Of Montreal’s hyper-kinetic, neo-progressive sound.

photoSealing it all up is a package worth the purchase on vinyl for the younger Barnes’ artwork. The covers have evolved alongside the music, growing more intricate as the years went on. Early albums recall the colorful psychedelic art of Peter Max but later grew busier with more characters and then creatures that look like the work of Hieronymus Bosch. They also evolved with input from the elder Barnes’ wife, who also plays in the band, Nina Barnes. “The music inspires the art but the art never ever, ever inspires the music,” notes the younger Barnes. “Kevin takes a very hardline with that.”

To hear the younger Barnes explain it, he had little choice to work with his elder brother. He says he began designing the albums after “hanging upside down out a 63rd story window by one of Kevin’s goons.”

If his responses to the working relationship seem comical they also speak to the power of a close sibling bond of love and hate. He offers one more allegory to explain his creative relationship with his elder brother: “Imagine an old man who wants to spend his time feeding pigeons old bread, and then there is a pigeon and all he wants to do is be fed old bread. That’s a perfect pairing, and they could stay in a loop forever, and it would be heaven. But maybe it would be an even better heaven if the man stayed at home and ate the bread, and the pigeon ate worms.  I think that uncertainty is something that keeps both of us interested.”

Pick up a copy of David’s book titled What’s Weird? It features over 100 personally selected paintings, sketches and doodles accompanied by commentary. Download Of Montreal’s cover of Buffalo Springfields “Expecting to Fly” on this months free PureHoney promo comp! Lastly, peep a few pre-Of Montreal videos we recently resuscitated of Kevin performing live on Resident Noize in 1995!
~Hans Morgenstern | The Independent Ethos