We recently chatted with of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes, who talked at length about his time growing up in the greater Detroit area. He also talked about working with godhead producer Jon Brion, race relations and getting beyond genre categorizations.
You'll note that of Montreal's star has been in steady ascension, and they've slowly constructed an impressive resume having just released their 10th album, False Priest. What's more, Barnes recently produced tracks for Janelle Monae and Solange, Beyonce Knowles' sister. The mastermind behind of the recent waves of psychedelic indie music took some time to talk shop on growing up outside Detroit.
Metro Times: Hey, Kevin, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. I know you guys are extremely busy right now. I was hoping to start out with talking about your early teenage years spent outside Detroit in the suburb of Grosse Pointe Park?
Kevin Barnes: I had moved there from Cleveland, Ohio, when I think I was about 11. Maybe that was 10 … 10 or 11. Then I moved from Grosse Pointe down to Florida when I was 15, so I wasn’t there for that long, but my happiest childhood period was my time there. I think for some reason when we were living outside of Cleveland, there weren’t really any kids around, there wasn’t really any sense of community. When I was living in Grosse Pointe, there were kids in a lot of the houses and I had friends where I could walk over to their houses, or ride my bike over to their houses, we’d hang out. It was just a really great time. I had this freedom which I’d never had before. Being able to do things in a lot of parks. We could go to Windmill Pointe. I think there was one … Three Mile. We used to go there all the time and play baseball and football, just hang out. I used to skateboard a lot, I used to go to the schools, like Pierce, I went to Pierce middle school, we used to skateboard there, and do tricks in the parking lot and stuff. I just have really good memories of that actually.
When I first started playing music — I was living in Michigan at that time — I met a bunch of people that were into playing music, a bunch of kids my age. We would practice in our parent’s houses; a couple of us were lucky enough to have cool parents that allowed us to rehearse in the garage or the basement or whatever.
MT: So you were starting your early bands here?
Barnes: Yeah, we tried to play shows, I think it’s called the War Memorial Hall? We used to play shows there. We played … St. Clare church had a basement "teen center," whatever you want to call it, and we played down there. I actually played in a band with this guy Mark Tremonti.
MT: I was actually going to ask you about that because you’re both from Michigan. Did you both grow up together?
Barnes: Yeah, we grew up together, and we played in a band together — one of my first bands. We were called [Wits End.] I was really into metal, so was he. I was more into the poppier side of metal. Like Ratt, Mötley Crüe and Poison. I was more into the glam side where Mark was more into the virtuoso guitar-playing side of it. Our drummer was into punk rock, our bass player was into new age … haha … not new age, new wave — New Order, things like that. It’s kind of a strange collection of influences.
MT: It’s an interesting dynamic, have you thought of doing anything together now?
Barnes: He’s gone in a completely different direction.
MT: I’d say that it’s safe to say …
Barnes: I haven’t seen him since then. I didn’t even know he was in Creed until I ran into some of my friends from Detroit. They were living out in Portland and they were like, "Did you know Mark Tremonti, he’s playing in Creed now?" I was like, "What?!?" I haven’t been following Creed. I didn’t even think about them, and to find out my friend was in the band was crazy.
MT: Do you come back to Detroit all that often?
Barnes: One of my sisters lives there, in Grosse Pointe. She has a family. I go see my nephews and my niece; I like to go visit them as often as I can. I was kind of young when I left. I was, like, 15. That was before e-mail and things like that. If I was going to stay in contact with one of my friends, it basically would be snail mail letters. You know how it is when you’re a kid — you don’t really worry about that — so I lost contact with a lot of my friends around then.
MT: Were you moving around a lot?
Barnes: Yeah, for some reason my dad was relocating a bunch. He wasn’t in the Army or anything; he was an accountant. I don’t know why we were moving so much, every 4-5 years.
MT: I really wish we could have spent more time together, maybe on a feature but you guys are all over the place, heading to Europe right after this little U.S. jaunt.
MT: We’re going to stay busy until the end of the year.
MT: It’s a good problem to have. Let’s talk about the working combination of Jon Brion and Ocean Way studios. How did that all come about?
Barnes: I guess he was turned on to our music by a friend. I guess the friend was someone that he respected a lot; someone that you respect a lot is going to tell you that you’ve got to check out this band they’re great; you’re going to take them more seriously. He started listening to us and at first I think he thought, "Yeah, this is pretty cool," but it didn’t really strike him. Then I guess he started listening to it a little more and he kind of got excited about it. I think what he also saw was that I record most of my stuff at home, and since he had so much studio experience he could kind of see that he could help me as far as creating a fuller sound. I think he sort of saw a way that he could do something altruistic that could also be creatively challenging and fun for him.
I basically made this record in my home studio by myself, just like I always did, at least how I’ve done for the last five records. Get together one instrument at a time and do it all myself. I would send him these rough mixes and he listened to it and really liked the songs and liked the general direction that I was going in. But he could see that basically it was going to sound pretty similar to Skeletal Lamping and Hissing Fauna, and it wasn’t going to be a major sonic leap forward. So he maybe saw himself in me or something, and was like, "I’m going to help this kid."
MT: Right, he has a pretty impressive sonic résumé himself.
Barnes: That’s the thing, he didn’t really benefit at all by working with me. It was just a fun challenge: He knew could help me and he was excited about the songs. He really just made it happen. It was really like I said, an altruistic sort of thing. It didn’t really benefit him, it’s not like he needs any sort of help with recognition. He’s worked with so many superstars, so for him to work with an indie artist, it would have to be a labor of love.
MT: Are you still seeing yourself in that indie role? It seems like you’re kind of crossing over into this space where pop music and indie-psychedelic music are woven together. I don’t know what I’m really asking here.
Barnes: Indie music has become way more mainstream than it was 10 years ago. I’m not going to lie. It’s sort of become … hmmm … I dunno … somehow people are just sort of connecting with it more. Maybe because a lot of mainstream artists are just not doing it for people? They realize that the indie artists have more creative flexibility, and you can take more chances. That makes it more exciting.
MT: Is that how the relationship came about with Solange Knowles? Why the fuck wouldn’t I work with Kevin Barnes?
Barnes: I think also there’s a lot of cross-pollination. People don’t feel necessarily trapped by whatever genre or whatever cultural group they’re a part of. People feel like they can pull from other sources of inspiration. If you’re a white person, you don’t have to only listen to shoegaze or indie music; you can listen to hip-hop, you can listen to soul music, you can listen to whatever. The same thing if you’re a black person; you don’t have to only listen to rap and hip-hop. We are sort of leaning more towards a post-race society where people aren’t as hung-up on color and things like that. Everything is open. Things are exploding. People are kind of realizing. It’s kind of Martin Luther King’s dream, slowly, slowly, slowly.
MT: That feeling really comes through on this album. I’ve seen you talk about Sly & the Family Stone, Parliament and later hip-hop funk like A Tribe Called Quest having a heavy influence on your latest record False Priest, and it has all these different genres running through it. But at the same time, there isn’t really one genre on it. It will move psychedelia to grunge to hip-hop, the funky low-end seems to be the tie through the whole record.
Barnes: It’s the driving spirit, I think. That’s the thing I love about the situation that I’m in now, as an indie artist. The sort of freedom that I have, I can do whatever I want, whatever inspires me. If I want to do a spoken word thing, I write a few tracks if I can. If I want to do something more emotional and darker, like "Around the Way" or "Casualty of You" or the end of "You Do Mutilate," I can do any of that stuff. I would really think all artists should adopt that, and that’s the thing I love about Janelle Monae is she’s definitely on that trip as well. Not limiting herself at all. There’s zero genre boundaries, just kind of hop all over the place.
MT: Would you ever want it to be like that where you were only limited to only one genre? Every album of yours is different; you can’t point out one thing and say they’re "this band" or "that band."
Barnes: I think that, in a way, could keep someone from real mainstream success. I think that the reason that certain people are extremely commercially successful is that they do just offer one thing. It makes sense to people; they can put it into a category. I think on a certain level to have that level of success you have to become almost a caricature. If you have a lot of mystery, if musically you can’t necessarily be pinned down to one thing then you’re only going to appeal to people who love that in music. People who crave that, people who crave unpredictability, people who want a bit of ambivalence. They don’t necessarily want to be hit in the face like, "This is a dance song — about dancing!"
MT: If you wanted to talk about your live performances, and the whole overall packages of album packaging, the red vinyl and False Priest? People are getting something very tangible and unique each time they see you. To put it bluntly: It’s bang for your buck.
Barnes: It just comes from a love of the creative process. We love to create things. We love to be involved. When I’m making a record, I don’t just want to make something boring, I’m always trying to come up with something that surprises me, that feels special, that feels different from the things I’ve done in the past. When we take the stage, we have the same attitude. We don’t just want to get on stage in our street clothes and just play the songs and leave. We want to stretch out and feel almost like we’re curating an evening at the venue. We don’t want it to just be like, "OK, we’re going to play our songs," we want it to feel like, OK, this person is kind of, like, digging in our roots a little bit. We’re going to use this opportunity to create something, hopefully exceptional, hopefully entertaining, hopefully emotionally powerful. And just kind of celebrate the human condition in a way. It won’t just be all happy or all sad, or all funny or all horrific — it will hopefully be a combination of all these things. Just to do something special with our lives. That’s why we go on tour. That’s why we spend so much time in the preparation of all these things. Also the performance of it, we care so much about it because of what it gives to us, what it does for us, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, physically. We hope that when people come to the shows they feel like it’s an opportunity for them as well to do something exceptional or out of the ordinary. We want it to feel like this is something that’s the highlight of the week … hopefully. We don’t want it to just be a voyeuristic thing either, where people just kind of come and look at the freaks. We want people to be the freaks too, you know? We want it to be a communal experience. So people come to the show and we hope that people dress up, do something different, wear some makeup that they’ve never worn, wear some shoes, whatever you want to do. Wear some crazy outfit that you’d never wear to work or to school. You can wear it to the show because it’s fun. It’s like playing dress-up.
MT: It’s like you’re putting on a performance, is that different from, I don’t want to say you’re a different person, but you can become whatever you want onstage?
Barnes: It gives all of us a chance to do some role-playing. It kind of just brings some aspects of our own personality to the surface that would normally lie dormant. That’s kind of like the beautiful side of this theatrical art collective, that everyone involved has a chance to do something really special and really far-out with their lives for a couple weeks at a time.
MT: You were also just in Michigan for the first incarnation of the Land of Nod. How was that?
Barnes: I thought it was really cool. It was great because it was totally in the middle of nowhere. I think there was a Red Lobster; there wasn’t anything in that area. We even asked some people in the area that we met, "Hey are you going to this festival?" and they were like, "What festival?" Don’t you realize that, like, 10 minutes from you there’s this crazy festival? It was almost like stepping into this alternate reality: The people in that town didn’t have any clue what was going on. There were all these people coming from outside. I thought it was great. I love Michigan, especially in the summertime; it’s really beautiful. I got to hang out with my sisters and their kids, they joined us onstage for a couple songs. We got to involve them in the theatrics, which is always fun.
MT: I know you guys have a lot of covers and surprises in your shows. Anything you want to tease for the show?
Barnes: Oh, yeah, there’s going to be a lot of craziness, a lot of collaboration between the two groups. It’s going to be a pretty epic event. Janelle has such a theatrical side to her thing, and we have such a theatrical side, so we’re going to combine the two together and make something that’s completely out there. I’m really excited.
At 7:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 20, at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, 318 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-399-2980; $25; all ages; Janelle Monae supports. Pietro Truba is an editorial intern at Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org