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May 25th, 2005 Dave Clifford | Music Stories
 

Of Course

It's a dance party in Kevin Barnes' head, and everyone's invited.

     
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Kevin Barnes is, in a word, idiosyncratic.

From the origins of the name for his home-recording one-man band Of Montreal to the Willy Wonka-esque sugar-tweaked puerile pop he writes, performs and records mostly by himself, it's clear that Barnes lives in a world of his own. Or, at least, it's a large French-Canadian city of his own.

"This woman who took care of me when I was a kid used to tell me about Montreal, because that's where her family was from," Barnes says. "I pictured it as some kind of mystical, magical world. I wanted the band name to evoke that image." Like the origins of the band name, Of Montreal's music has an exploratory innocence that gives the band a special place in the Monkees-go-Beefheart neo-psychedelic pop stew of the Elephant 6 collective-which also features the Apples in Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control.

"We're coming from a different direction from the E6 and bands like the Shins," Barnes says. "We're shaking people up a little bit. We're going for more of a Sly and the Family Stone kind of thing than a Pavement thing." Of Montreal (actually of Athens, Ga., and actually a full band when touring) just released The Sunlandic Twins, somewhat of a departure from the straight-up '60s psych-pop conventions of the band's associates-but the apple certainly hasn't fallen far from the tree. Despite the relative success of the band's previous album, the sprawling epic Satanic Panic in the Attic, which landed a video on MTV and gathered considerable critical praise, Barnes, in E6 fashion, still records at home. But while the process has remained, the band's sound is shifting. "There's still the same love for '60s music," Barnes says. "But we're definitely moving more toward 2005 than some of the other bands."

While Satanic Panic, Of Montreal's sixth album, heralded the band's newfound interest in booty-shake, the Sunlandic Twins album and bonus EP sound much more fully realized in their vision. The strange minor-major-minor chord changes and Barnes' chirpy harmonies of earlier efforts remain intact, but the churning bop of-dare I say it-funky songs like "I Was Never Young" sound closer to The Lodger-era David Bowie than the Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society. "For this record, we wanted to create more of a crazy dance-party atmosphere," Barnes elaborates. "A lot of indie rock hasn't been the kind of music that you go to dance to-people mostly go to watch, cross their arms and maybe bob their heads a little bit."

Elsewhere, songs like "So Begins Our Alabee" and "The Party's Crashing Us" cross that dance-party rhythm with elements of Krautrock, '80s synth-pop and Prince-style psychedelic R&B. "It's sorta funky, intelligent disco," Barnes says. "It's very rhythmic."

But does this combination of reference points to Of Montreal's music mean that it's stuck in the past, just like its '60s-worshipping E6 peers? "I wouldn't ever consider us a retro pop band," Barnes argues. "We're taking things from combining Os Mutantes with Duran Duran. It's different from what we were doing before and what other E6 bands are doing."

Indeed, the ubiquity of Internet music file sharing and the popularity of pastiche artists like Beck and the Beastie Boys in the mainstream have made the art of intertextual reference points in music a much more acceptable idea than it was when Barnes first began collaborating with Elf Power bassist Bryan Poole and drummer-vocalist Derek Almstead in the early '90s. "I don't think it's a bad thing to be slightly derivative, or borrow from other genres," Barnes says. "The real challenge is to take the basic pop structure and make it into something different. Writing the song is only the first step-the production and recording in the studio is what really gives a song life."

The studio is where Barnes is most comfortable, and, since Of Montreal's inception, he has brought several musicians into this world (occasionally without crediting their contributions, as he did with members of Neutral Milk Hotel who played on the third album, 1998's The Bedside Drama). "In my opinion, the studio is where the real artistry is," he says. "It's where the songs take shape."


Of Montreal plays with IQU and Kanda on Saturday, May 28, at Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., 231-9663. 9 pm. $10. 21+.
 
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