Pop music not Prozac
Songwriting cures depression for Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes
“The past is a grotesque animal,” sings Of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes, and it’s true we all have either skeletons, demons or used sports equipment in our closets. Barnes met his grotesque animal in Europe.
“I spent the winter on the verge of a total breakdown while living in Norway,” he intones on his new album, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, of gloomy days with his pregnant Scandinavian girlfriend. They had no health insurance in the States and the daddy-to-be was unequivocally despondent. So he started writing.
“A lot of songs were written during a really heavy depression period for me,” Barnes recounted of the new record. A cloud of despair and irascibility looms over the album, but you wouldn’t know it if you heard it at, say, Lipstick. It’s the band’s most soulful and dance-friendly release to date.
Writing for the album was “a therapeutic and cathartic thing,” Barnes said, though his curative prescriptions are unorthodox. “There’s the girl that left me bitter,” he laments on “She’s a Rejecter.” “Want to pay some other girl to just walk up to her and hit her.”
He’s joking, of course.
“Everyone’s sort of gone through that and everyone can identify with that,” the soft-spoken Barnes said of the vindictive thoughts that cross one’s mind when heartbroken and miserable. “If you can’t laugh about it, then you’re really fucked.”
Hissing Fauna was Barnes’ remedy for depression. Like being jacked up on meds, the album is paranoid, sweaty-palmed and all over the place. That’s to be expected from Of Montreal, the indie-rock outfit with an eight-album, four-EP track record of impulsive melodies and avant-garde glam-pop arrangements—Brian Eno meets Prince meets Bright Eyes.
“I’m in a crisis. I need help / Come on mood shift back to good again,” he sings on “Heimdalsgate like a Promethean Curse.” It’s another downer, lyrically, but the song’s high-pitched synths, ’80s party bop and Richard Simmons backbeat trump Barnes’ morose chants. This dichotomy of wild arrangements and libretto-like lyrics is omnipresent, as is Barnes’ unexpected electronica fetish.
“In the past, I had written a lot of stuff on guitar or piano,” he said. “I don’t really do that anymore. I just turn on my computer and plug in some instruments and just see what happens.” Picture Barnes alone, sans guitar in his European apartment, tooling away on a Mac and hoping the right triad of notes might summon sweet of sour.
“I think to some extent this new electronic phase I’m in right now is somewhat influenced by the time I spent over [in Europe], just because it’s so ubiquitous—dancing is so huge over there,” he said.
Of Montreal’s experimentation translates to its live act, which stops this Monday at Sacramento State. “We definitely have a theatrical flair,” Barnes said of the band’s reputedly outrageous live show, which took two months of rehearsal to choreograph and features costume changes and a “three-headed tiger bull.”
“We probably have more in common with a Christina Aguilera performance than a Shins performance,” he joked.
Fans at a recent show shouted “Steak! Steak! Steak!” at the band, referencing the Outback Steakhouse commercial where Barnes’ lyrics “Let’s pretend we don’t exist / Let’s pretend we’re in Antarctica” are bastardized as “Let’s go Outback tonight.” Barnes shrugged off the heckling: “You have to suck a little dick to get by.”
“I definitely have more in common with the laid-back, Kings of Convenience Norwegian lifestyle,” he said of his nonchalance, suggesting that the bad of shilling for steak can be outweighed by the good of the unbridled creative freedom resulting from said compromise.
Consider the results, like the sluggish 12-minute track “The Past is a Grotesque Animal.” Barnes’ tipping-point purge-all slumpbuster splits Hissing Fauna in two—first half melancholy, second half release. “Project your fears onto me / I need to view them,” he sings. “See there’s nothing to them … We’re always touching by underground wires.”
For Barnes, Prozac is the scam: A casual reassurance of togetherness is all it takes to get by in this meat-market world.