Of Montreal’s new direction
“Alabee Barnes, this is your lucky day. Your father is going to sing Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’!” announced Kevin Barnes as that song’s instantly recognizable opening rang out behind him. It was the end of a long dress rehearsal for the indie- pop band Of Montreal, and Barnes and his mates were a little punch-drunk.
Props and costume pieces — sequined fish claws, flame-trimmed monster masks, a massive stuffed golem everyone called “God” — lay scattered around the stiflingly hot warehouse where Of Montreal had been camped for the past few weeks.
Five-year-old Alabee was actually at home with her grandparents, but Barnes’ wife and artistic partner, Nina, stood behind the soundboard taking mental notes. His brother David, wearing a Lycra body sock, huddled in conversation with three other dancers; he’s the concept artist for Of Montreal, responsible for the abstract narrative reminiscent of both the fine artist Matthew Barney and the glam-rock of Alice Cooper that had just unfolded onstage.
As the band continued its King of Pop jam — which will serve as an occasion to collaborate with tour mate Janelle Monae when Of Montreal plays the Palladium on Saturday — it left “Thriller” behind for “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and “P.Y.T.” Kevin jumped on a nearby bicycle. Singing, he slowly circled the space. He was tired, but he knew that this particular trip was just beginning.
Most indie-rock bands don’t need dress rehearsals, but Of Montreal isn’t your normal anything. For more than a decade, Barnes has used the name to describe his musical outpouring, which he has mostly recorded as a computer-assisted one-man operation. As the band’s sound evolved from fey pop to psychedelic dance-rock to slippery R&B, Barnes enlisted a core of musicians to realize his visions onstage. Recent years have seen the addition of those costumed, free-form dancers, now a troupe of four members who embody and expand upon Of Montreal’s music in ways matched by few other performers on the indie music scene.
The band, whose dress rehearsal I witnessed in September, is promoting its 10th album, “False Priest.” That recording took Of Montreal in yet another direction. Barnes crafted the songs by himself, then worked with the famed producer Jon Brion (an old hand working with prickly auteurs such as Fiona Apple and Kanye West) to make the sound more open and adaptable during live performance.
“I was hitting a wall the way we were doing things,” said Barnes during a chat after the rehearsal. “I hated being totally trapped by the computer. The computer would dictate what the tempo was, how long the song could be. It felt oppressive.”
Barnes also felt that the band was losing steam. “We just got lazy in a way,” he said. “After a while there was no fulfillment. Even if we had a perfect show, it didn’t give me anything. That’s why I wanted to expand the lineup and do as many things live as possible. There is room for improvisation and to change things. To make it more energetic and exciting.”
Brion and top studio drummer Matt Chamberlain worked together to enhance the version of “False Priest” that Barnes had completed.
“What he was looking for from me was to enhance his programming, which meant to try and match the sonics, but with acoustic drums,” Chamberlain wrote in an e-mail interview. “I would say 95% of what I played was what he had programmed. Of course, I tried other ideas to see what would work around his programming, and there were many tracks that fused things he programmed with what I came up with at the studio. He is very open to experimentation and Jon is a master at recording and mangling drums, so we tried tons of things.”
Working quickly, Brion, Chamberlain and Barnes rebuilt “False Priest” as what R&B futurist Monae, a close friend of Barnes and co-headliner on the current tour, would happily identify as an android. Old-fashioned musicianship coexists with bedroom-auteur innovations.
Barnes cites classic soul music as his inspiration. “It’s easier now to seem like you’re good. Back then you had no Auto-Tune, no MIDI, no sampling,” he said. “We want to combine the two worlds, using some of the technology they didn’t have then, but also following the spirit of that.”
On songs such as the hysterically soulful “I Feel Ya’ Strutter” and the lush “Enemy Gene” (a duet with Monae), rhythms pulsing with blood balance out the chrome sounds of Barnes’ alien-lover vocals and keyboard hooks. At first listen, it sounds a lot like early Prince. But Barnes hopes fans hear the artists who inspired the Purple auteur.
“People hear a high-pitched scream, and they think Prince,” said Barnes. “They don’t think Sly Stone or James Brown. I’m a huge Prince fan but also a huge fan of those earlier artists. Sly’s a great influence too just because of what he can do with his voice.”
In the past, Barnes has worked with alter egos — notably the African American transgender funk musician Georgie Fruit, who took full form on Of Montreal’s 2008 album “Skeletal Lamping.” That record was idiosyncratic to the point of illegibility; with “False Priest,” Barnes has come back to himself, recognizing that any persona is simply an aspect of his own sometimes feverish dreams.
“There are all these different kinds of people inside me,” said Barnes. “Everyone has that. And so you can never be phony. You can never put something on. You’re just bringing something to the surface that already existed. I could name these characters, but that takes me out of it emotionally and seems to make it more of a fiction. I don’t want that. I want it to be very connected to my heart.”
As for the show’s intense visual side, David Barnes, whose expressionistic artwork adorns most of the group’s album packaging, has encouraged his brother’s innate theatricality by building a truly mind-boggling stage show. He oversaw the construction of myriad life-sized puppets and costumes, worked with Nina Barnes and wrote a script, which he then put aside in favor of spontaneity.
“It’s designed to change,” said David, sitting in with Kevin. “After every show someone’s going to be like, ‘Why don’t we do this instead?’ The puppets will be the same, but what they do won’t be the same.”
The current production has made its way across the country to mixed reviews. At first, Kevin Barnes said in an e-mail after a month on the road, the production lacked humor. “We quickly realized that having an element of playfulness and fun was essential,” wrote Barnes. “Now I feel that we’ve struck a good balance between ‘serious art’ and slapstick.”
Touring with Monae and trying this new level of theatrical excess has made Barnes even more eager to try new things. “This has been, without question, the most fulfilling tour I’ve ever been a part of,” he wrote. “Every day I feel born again. I think that’s because both bands are trying new things every night. The tour feels like a work in progress or like a celebration of the imagination.”
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