Gone are the days of trippy, surreal, all-encompassing soundscapes from the beloved band of Montreal, sounds that called on everything from disco to chamber orchestrations — at least for now. With “lousy with sylvianbriar,” Kevin Barnes left his home in Athens, Ga., and chased some newfound sonic tendencies to San Francisco, where he wrote the bulk of lousy in a matter of three weeks. The resulting record doesn’t even sound like an of Montreal production. The frenetic, experimental dance tracks and funk meditations have been ditched for straightforward guitar and the kind of timeless rock arrangements that put Haight Ashbury on the map back in the ’60s. This shift was an organic one — Barnes wasn’t entirely sure he was writing an of Montreal record while he was working on “lousy” — but it’s a deliberate shift, in that Barnes, more than ever, has turned the focus on a body of work that shows he’s got something to say. Before heading to Boston for a sold-out headlining show at the Middle East tomorrow, we spoke with Barnes about “lousy,” this undeniable stylistic change-up, and how this record could affect future releases from of Montreal.
Q. You spent three weeks writing the record in San Francisco and three weeks recording it back in Athens. That’s pretty quick. Is this the fastest of Montreal’s worked to put out a record?
A. I wanted to make a record in the way that bands used to make records back in the ’60s, when people didn’t have an unlimited budget to work with. You could basically have a couple of days in the studio and then if you were someone that actually sold some records, maybe you could have a couple weeks. Until people started making millions and millions of dollars in the ’70s and everything became a bit bloated, nobody really had that much time. The first Beatles record was made in one day. That kind of attitude was the thing that inspired me: I wanted this record to feel very spontaneous and impulsive, and I wanted it to have this great vibe and energy, basically just capture a moment in time. I didn’t want it to be something that was labored over to the point where all of the electricity of it was drained. I wanted it to feel really raw, and make all the creative decisions on the fly, and not second guess anything, and not be neurotic about perfectionism or anything like that. Just basically knock out a record in a short period of time. I did want the songs to have that kind of energy to them so that the band would be excited to play them. [This tour] is only the first or second time that we’ve ever played this album before and it’s got that kind of energy. When I made the last record[s], I basically made them all by myself. I was tracking one instrument at a time and trying to create something that sounded like a full band by myself. I was doing my best to keep a spark to it, but you can’t really accomplish that as well when you’re working by yourself. Initially, I thought this record would be for a new project, not of Montreal, that I’d be starting with a new band and new band name — and that’s why I have all these new musicians on it.
Q. A new band?
A. I was thinking, “OK, this will be basically something outside of of Montreal, a new thing.” I think that helped me clear my mind and get rid of any sort of baggage or insecurities I might have in going in this new direction and creating something that was a bit more collaborative with other people’s involvement. That whole thing played into it, where I didn’t feel any pressure because this felt like a brand new thing, and I wasn’t bringing in any preconceived concepts as to how it was gonna be. I’m basically inventing it as I go along. I just wanted to work with that sense of freedom, so in that way, I could write songs very quickly and not worry in any way, not worry about an of Montreal song or what this is going to be like for an of Montreal. I was just thinking, “I want to make this new thing.” … The goal was to make [the alnum] more lyric-driven and to focus more on the voice and the emotion of the voice and the presentation of the lyrics in that way, and that’s why the music is slightly less ornamental than in the past. The arrangements are less schizophrenic and fragmented, less jerky. It’s a bit groovier and stripped-down, in a sense.
Q. What are the benefits to uprooting your life and heading to a new city for the sake of your art? Is this an approach you want to take to future endeavors with of Montreal?
A. I think so. I think it was beneficial to get out of my comfort zone and be somewhere kind of exotic and interesting, to just sort of focus completely on writing. When I’m at home, it’s easy to get distracted and involved in domestic things or whatever. It’s good to have nothing else to do, no responsibilities, nobody needing you to do anything for them or anything. Just to be completely self-centered and focused on the creative process every day.
Q. Can you hear San Francisco in the record? Which songs feel more connected to that particular sense of place when you compare them to the rest of your work?
A. I mean, there are some references. [On] “belle glade missionaries,” we had a friend on Dolores Street and there was this beautiful park there, which I went to a lot. There are a couple of references to San Francisco or to that experience. I can see them; I don’t know if anyone else necessarily can. I can feel the influence of the city and the experience of how I was romanticizing being out there, just thinking about the different cultural scenes that happened there, the Beat movement, the psychedelic ’60s scene.
Q. I can see that with a lot of the songs on this record, especially “belle glade missionaries,” where the lyrics are terribly potent juxtaposed with a distinct, psych-rock feel. I think this is one of the most controversial songs you’ve penned, talking about “letting children get blown up in the schools today/so they can get them back into the factories.” Can you walk me through this song in particular?
A. It’s about so many different things. Every stanza is basically about something else. It’s definitely rooted in contemporary society and the politics of today, thinking about the school shooting in Connecticut and how it doesn’t seem to really matter how much gun violence we have. It doesn’t seem like the policies will ever change. And then I started thinking, what’s happening here? We should take steps to change and not to just accept it, not to be like, “Oh, it’s fine that some kids got killed by a crazy person who got a gun that day!” or whatever … I don’t really, truly believe this, but it’s an interesting thought to consider, that the capitalist machine is sort of eating itself. Worker’s rights, unions, they’re seemingly under fire all the time and deregulating industries, and the richest people are trying to get as much power as they possibly can. And to them, they don’t give a shit if a bunch of black people are shooting each other in inner city Chicago or if there’s a massacre at a public space, like at the movie theater in [Colorado]. Or whatever. It’s just that idea, that eventually everything will be privatized and if you can’t afford police protection, then you don’t get police protection. There are people who aren’t really thinking of the future, in that sense. Maybe they haven’t read science fiction or George Orwell. It kind of seems like the events that are moving us in the right direction, you can be paranoid about it, but I think there’s a healthy form of paranoia.
Q. Are there any pieces or artists who move you in the way that “belle glade missionaries” seeks to move people?
A. I was definitely inspired by William S. Burroughs and a lot of the Beats, and Allen Ginsberg. Bob Dylan is a good extremely popular political songwriter, or he was, at one point. In general, I just have this sense of wanting the world to be a bit more caring and compassionate and less money-hungry. And less war-mongering. Just simple progressive, liberal ideas or whatever. Even though we have a Democrat president, it feels like the US has kind of always been seemingly kind of bordering on this fascist state. The whole Occupy Wall Street thing was just really eye-opening with the way it was dealt with in the media, and it sort of created these villains out of the people who were protesting, mainly because there wasn’t this obvious rallying cry, there was just this general feeling of unhappiness with the system. It just seemed like a strange moment in time, because we see police brutality and the opposition is dealt with all over the country. It borders on a police state, a lot of the time. If you push the wrong people too hard, they fight back in ugly ways. There wasn’t a lot of sympathy. It scares me the way unions are being treated. It seems like we’re getting back to this weird, early Industrial Revolution period where individual rights aren’t valued and if you don’t have money, you don’t have power and you don’t have influence. I’m not on a soapbox or anything like that. I don’t expect to change people’s minds about anything.