Genius in the Glitter

Photography by Patrick Heagney

ITEMS PURCHASED/CONSTRUCTED FOR THE OF MONTREAL, SKELETAL LAMPING FALL TOUR: One giant foam rock, four ready-made cowboy costumes, 100 cans “Great Stuff” insulating foam sealant, one fake upright piano, one Centaur costume, one custom-fabricated rotating steel riser, 24 breakaway bottles, one gilded roman litter, one 300 pound steel gallows on wheels, one human-sized pig costume, three feather cannons, 1000 cans Barbasol shaving cream…

Kevin Barnes, Of Montreal’s lead signer and songwriter, sits shotgun as guitarist Bryan Poole drives across state lines between Georgia and Tennessee to the 2009 Bonnaroo Festival. Thunderstorms are on the horizon, they are 30 minutes outside the backstage gates, and when asked over the phone what kind of car they are driving, Barnes says, “A yellow Lamborghini.”

In exactly 51 hours, Barnes will hold his guitar over his head, as mascara and paint smear down his face, and bring it crashing down in a funeral of feedback. He will then dive headfirst into a roaring crowd as the rest of the band—wearing tiger masks, war paint, and elaborate thrift shop accessories—follow his example and leave the stage looking like a party store crashed into a Guitar Center at high speed.

Performances like these have come to define Of Montreal as one of the most inspired rock bands of their generation. After nine studio albums, and arguably more trips to Home Depot then any other group in contemporary pop, the Athens-based musicians are redefining the visual and artistic elements of a live performance. While the inception of this insanity has evolved over time, Of Montreal’s desire to push creative boundaries seems as natural as Brer Rabbit in a Briar Patch.

Barnes reflects on this, speaking from his imaginary Lambor-ghini and says, “To be honest, I don’t think that the music is more important than the theatrics and I don’t view myself or the other musicians as more important than the performing artists. For me, it is really exciting to be part of something that is not just one-dimensional.” He adds, “I really get bored watching other bands perform live. It’s not because they are not good, but I need and want more. I think that we want to touch on that with our live performances, and I find it fascinating how things develop organically.”

The idea to make a concert more interactive and participatory seems fitting in an age when mainstream music outlets like MTV cater to meta-scripted reality shows like “The Hills,” and the most creative visual innovations of the day are often viewed from a computer screen. Again, Of Montreal relies on their DIY approach and unhinged imaginations to re-think the possibilities, and their shows play out like modern-day live-action music videos. Barnes’ older brother, David, who also illustrates the band’s album covers, serves as a conceptual director and invents many of the “scenarios” acted out on stage. For example, at the Bonnaroo performance, Of Montreal’s tour manager danced around in a pig costume, three kids ran out from backstage and received gas masks under a Christmas tree, and two savages covered in war paint had their demons exorcized by a demented Catholic Church figure. Depending on one’s perspective, the show could be interpreted as playful or grotesque. But in the end, the band has seen significant dividends as the crowd nearly doubles each time they return to a city.

For keyboardist Dottie Alexander, the positive response speaks volumes about a new generation of fans. “It’s really a credit to our audience, who is usually younger than us. Teenagers are generally underestimated, but we just keep seeing an increasing hunger for what we are doing.” She takes a moment and says, “ I remember living in Europe, and one day, a friend got their hands on a pirated Michael Jackson Thriller video and it was like a coveted thing. It kind of feels similar to that shared experience we have when we are on the stage. Sure there are our ninjas, weird creatures, tiger-men and stuff. But we are just trying to see what we can get away with and, most importantly, we try to have as much fun as possible.”

“Fun” for Of Montreal happens to be synonymous with spontaneity, and the performances have always retained a homemade aesthetic. As their budget grew, their ideas became more grandiose. Drummer and multi-instrumentalist, James Husband, remembers how things have evolved since he started playing with the band a little more than a decade ago. “We have always had this working-class mentality. Out first van was totally shitty, then someone gave us another van and by any standards it was still incredibly shitty. But we always thought that we were making it.” He laughs and says, “I used to juggle on stage, play blindfolded, and just do all of these cheap parlor tricks. Yet, we have never done the same set or tour twice and we always have a different group of actors, dancers, or visual work. And as long as that keeps changing, we will continue to grow as musicians.”

This organic evolution is reflected in the music as well, and there is a significant difference between the songs Barnes wrote when Of Montreal was associated with the Elephant 6 Collective and his most recent work. Their last album, Skeletal Lamping, as well as Of Montreal’s next project titled False Priest, consists of arrangements and tones that change with the velocity and care of a pinball ricocheting off of a flipper. It’s pop music, but it simply does not follow any of the unspoken rules and formulaic verse- chorus-verse transitions. Barnes seems to absorb the different personas he creates into his own life. And it is as if, through this constant re-invention, he has liberated himself and his band. A song will be written, recorded, discarded and revisited. Theatrics will be envisioned, choreographed, performed and deserted.

Around this time last year, Barnes destroyed a guitar he had been playing for seven years during an encore. He remembers the moment fondly and says, “I was just sick of it. I’m kind of bad in that way, I get bored and I like change. I’m not sentimental towards things. It’s like that old saying, ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’ I was sick of this fucking thing, it’s time for her to die, and I killed her.” Of course, the band gathered all of the pieces, made a distorted monument out of them, and gave it to him on his birthday. It was just another chapter in Of Montreal’s evolution.

– Patrick Knowles