Solitary Man

Of Montreal, with A Hawk and a Hacksaw and DJ Jester the Filipino Fist
8pm Sun, Jan 21
White Rabbit
2410 N. St. Mary’s

It’s been said that collaborating with a band is like making a film, while recording on your own is akin to painting. Much like Prince in the early ’80s (when the purple monarch made one-man-band albums and then took the Revolution on tour), Kevin Barnes gets to experience both creative approaches, but he definitely prefers the solitary, musical-painter experience.

After seven years as an indie-pop curiosity on the fringes of Athens, Georgia’s Elephant 6 collective, Barnes, Of Montreal’s bandleader, decided that he wanted to take control of the group’s creative process and work alone. In a sense, it was a return to his roots as a musical misfit in high school in South Florida.

Of Montreal, poised for musical battle with Kevin Barnes as diva.

“Music was this sort of escapism for me,” Barnes recalls. “I bought my first four-track and discovered ways to layer sounds and create slightly more elaborate productions. I realized how fulfilling and exciting that was, and it opened up that world for me.”

Barnes’s latest creation, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? (available on January 23) is the eighth Of Montreal album in a span of 10 years, and it might be the most sonically rich and personally revealing work of his career. Barnes has long delighted in stringing together trippy non sequiturs, and he hasn’t abandoned that compulsion with Hissing Fauna, but amid the word puzzles, there are also a few naked diary entries.

The album was conceived while Barnes and his wife Nina became parents of a baby girl named Alabee and relocated to Norway, Nina’s native country, to benefit from that nation’s health-insurance benefits for artists. By his own admission, Barnes experienced an emotional meltdown in Norway, and he leaves psychic clues strewn across his new lyrics: “Are you too depressed to even answer the phone/ I guess you just want to shave your head, have a drink and be left all alone”; “What has happened to you and I/ and don’t say I’ve changed, ’cause man of course I have”; and most bluntly, “I spent the winter on the verge of a total breakdown while living in Norway.”  

Barnes says his personal crisis went much deeper than simply feeling isolated in a foreign land. “I think it was the transition of being totally self-centered to realizing that there’s this other creature that I have to take care of, and also take care of my wife and think about how she’s doing,” he says. “I can’t live in a fantasy world anymore.

“My wife was super-cool and she never really imposed anything on me. It was like, ‘You go into your studio all day long and you don’t have to talk to me.’ There was nothing that would really cause any stress. But when you have a child, the child’s crying and you have to deal with it. It really takes you out of that pleasant fantasy dream world that I was in all the time.”

Barnes says he also worried that parenthood would turn him into a post-modern Kenny Loggins, writing “benign, silly, stupid” songs about his child.

While Barnes’s emotional state was fragile, Of Montreal was experiencing a career breakthrough. Barnes’s first effort at solo recording (made with some resistance from his bandmates), 2004’s Satanic Panic in the Attic, sold what was then a career high of 23,000 copies, and the following year’s much-praised Sunlandic Twins moved 50,000 units. It was an impressive achievement for an indie band perpetually ignored by all but a few plugged-in devotees of flowery baroque pop. Left to his own recording devices, Barnes introduced synthesizers, drum machines, and an overall ’80s ambience to Of Montreal’s palette, and the group found itself with a new — and much larger — audience.         

Simultaneously fascinated with the cool detachment of Brian Eno and the funky warmth of Stevie Wonder, Barnes began to celebrate the possibilities of rhythm in ways that early albums such as The Gay Parade never contemplated. While his soft, wimpy voice won’t make anyone forget Otis Redding, his deep-bottomed grooves on “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” and “Cato as a Pun” are worthy of Fresh-era Sly Stone.     

“For me, it’s all about feeling excited about what I’m working on and having it feel sort of fresh and fulfilling,” Barnes says. “There’s nothing worse than a band that just replicates themselves over and over again, just because they feel like that’s being true to themselves. I feel like it’s important for someone to be untrue to themselves and defy themselves as much as possible.”

Like the Kinks’ Ray Davies, who once remarked that every time his band experienced great success he was too caught up in personal turmoil to enjoy it, Barnes has yet to savor the buzz surrounding Of Montreal.

“I don’t really want to enjoy it,” he says. “In a way, it could be destructive to be too self-satisfied. The whole thing that drives you forward is dissatisfaction: ‘That last record I made is shit, I need to make something a thousand times better than that.’

“I don’t really feel like happiness is such an important aspect of life. It’s more important to feel alive, shook up, confused, and freaked out, and to have goals that you want to reach.” 

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