Kevin Barnes is the high priest of intellectually stimulating, cleverly cheeky pop culture-infused lyricism, an idiosyncratic self-trained musical genius who serves as the visionary frontman of Athens, Ga. electro-lush glam-rock and psyche-pop outfit, of Montreal. The band released a Top-10-of-the-year worthy LP in 2010, False Priest, which found them fully exploring their funkadelic and R&B tendencies, along with pumping up the richness of their sound with help from producer Jon Brion (Kanye West, Fiona Apple).
I talked to Barnes several weeks back while he was taking a break before gearing up for the next leg of the band's False Priest tour. Here are some highlights from our lengthy conversation; for the complete (extended) Q&A, visit dailyloafblog.com.
So how are you? Enjoying some time off? Or is there really any such thing as time off for Kevin Barnes?
I've been getting some recording done. It's been good. I feel lazy if I don't anything; just sitting around seems like a waste of time.
Let's talk a bit about False Priest. You've said in interviews that it was pretty much complete when you brought it to producer Jon Brion. What motivated you to work with him?
I had only worked in my home studio and I've only worked in bedroom studios my whole life, so I've never really been to a real classic studio and worked with anyone who had a track record like Jon's. So I wanted to go and see how real records are made, rather than what I considered my little bedroom project. And I was really intrigued by going to Ocean Way, where Frank Sinatra used to record, and all sorts of other crazy people over the years, and then working with Jon, who's a genius, just a total icon. I knew I'd learn a lot and I did.
And you incorporated more live instrumentation on this album?
I've kept a lot of the drum programming and loops, then integrated live drumming onto the tracks as well. But the main thing is, instead of using the software versions of synthesizers, we used actual synthesizers.
Jon has an incredible collection of vintage synthesizers and the most incredible collection of musical instruments you could ever imagine. We had so much at our disposal. He'd listen to something I made using my computer software, piecing it together myself like that, and he'd go, "Oh, you want to use a Mellotron sound, or that Chamberlin sound? I have an actual Chamberlin. We can just plug it in and replace it with that."
We did that a lot, replacing software versions with their actual physical counterpart. And the big thing, too, was mixing. I'd always just mixed the records myself, but Jon has an engineer that he works with and he pretty much mixed the whole thing. I made some suggestions, but he was the one moving the faders and turning the knobs. To have someone else I respected mixing it, after it was all said and done, was really great for me. I kind of just looked at it as an education ...
How does your actual creative process work and evolve into what became False Priest?
A big thing for me was meeting the Wondaland Arts Society, which is the art collective that Janelle Monáe is part of. One of the guys in the collective, Chuck Lightning, he and I became really good friends and he turned me on to a bunch of different things I hadn't really explored very much, like the whole P-funk scene and a lot of science fiction writing. I owe a lot of that inspiration, that spark, to Chuck and meeting those guys.
And Janelle eventually ended up on False Priest ...
Once I discovered what an incredible vocalist she was and how versatile she was, I got to a point where I wanted her just to sing on every track — basically I wanted to make a Janelle Monáe record. But you know, I couldn't be too greedy.
We actually wrote that song "Our Riotous Defects" as a duet, sort of like a he-said she-said — she took the second verse, and we had a whole separate verse that she sang that was more from the female perspective. But it kind of became too campy, so we shelved it and we ended up getting her to sing on "Enemy Gene."
I know that you've been known to incorporate autobiographical experiences into your songs — how much of what you're writing these days is inspired by things that have happened to you as opposed to things you've made up?
It's definitely something I've been thinking about a lot lately. I think it's sort of split. A lot of the stuff — maybe it didn't actually happen, but I don't really differentiate that much between what physically happens or what just happens in my mind. In a way, it's like, if it happens in my mind, then it's just as real as if it happens in real life.
Also, the writers I identify [with], and the writers a lot of other people identify with, are the ones that speak from personal experience, and it just feels more real and more emotive and in a way, more fulfilling to hear stuff like that because it has a universal appeal to it. Someone like John Lennon, for example, and the Plastic Ono Band, is one of the best examples of that, just completely raw and coming straight from his heart, straight from his soul.
That's something you can't really do on every record, necessarily, but it's something I'd like to do more and I think I'm getting in a state of mind where I can do it a little bit more. Because you do have to put yourself in this vulnerable position and really not think about the outside world — at least for me. If I think about someone writing about it, commenting on, hearing it, even, then it takes me out of that space you need to be in where you're just unconsciously doing this thing, stripping it directly from your psyche and not conscious of it. Otherwise, you might just become too self-conscious to even do it.
What about the stage production for this tour?
When we were putting the False Priest show together, my brother [multi-media artist David Barnes] and I were talking about our vision. The Skeletal Lamping show was basically just a collection of all these theatrical moments and they weren't really connected at all.
So for False Priest, we thought it'd be cool if it was more thematic and everything had a narrative to it that maybe wasn't completely linear, but the parts connected together, so it felt more like a contrived piece of work. And we actually tried that for the first couple shows, but became almost a bit Spinal Tap (laughs). It wasn't the way we envisioned it in our heads, it just came off this awkward, sort of pretentious silly way. So we just said fuck it and abandoned it and then we were like, we've got all these components, we've got all these costumes and props, and everything, so what are we going to do?
So we tried to make it more playful and fun. I think we always just naturally gravitate toward that, anyway. Anytime we try to be too ambitious, or try to create some sweeping epic, it never really comes across. It's always better if we have fun and do things spontaneously. To have that freedom, where you don't have to follow any script, is very important.
So what's next? I know you guys have an EP with some more material from False Priest on the way ...
That's due out in April. It's called The Controller Sphere and I'm really excited about it. It's only five songs but there's some different material, it's sort of new territory for us, a bit noisier, a bit artsier. Just kind of bizarre stuff. But that's done. And like you said, I'm not gonna take a break, so I've been working on more new material, working on some new projects ... I'm sort of in a transitional stage right now trying to figure out what I want to do next. I've made so many records, I'm trying to figure out if I should do something different, involve different people ...