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A musical chameleon: Kevin Barnes and his eclectic pop band of Montreal come to Northampton

  • ”White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood” is the newest album from Kevin Barnes and of Montreal. Photo courtesy of Polyvinyl Records

  • Kevin Barnes, of Montreal’s lead vocalist and songwriter, has explored multiple genres of pop music during more than 20 years in the business.  Photo by EbruYildiz/ Courtesy of Polyviny Records

  • Kevin Barnes and his band, of Montreal, play Pearl Street Nightclub in Northampton April 13. He says the band’s newest album reflects both 1980s dance pop and the “new era” of Donald Trump as the U.S. president.  Photo by EbruYildiz/ Courtesy of Polyvinyl Records

  • Kevin Barnes, seen here in a performance in Sweden in 2005, and his band have released more than a dozen studio albums since of Montreal made its debut in 1997.  Photo by Jonas RiiseHamre/ WikiMedia Commons photo/public domain



Staff Writer 
Thursday, April 04, 2019

For more than two decades, Kevin Barnes — songwriter, singer and frontman for of Montreal, the indie pop band out of Athens, Georgia — has been a musical chameleon. Starting out with psychedelic indie pop, Barnes has embraced multiple genres over the years: synth-driven electronic pop, funk rock, R&B, avant-garde experimental sound collages, indie folk and more.

With nearly two dozen releases and 15 studio albums since the group’s 1997 debut, “Cherry Peel,” of Montreal, which comes to Northampton’s Pearl Street Nightclub April 13, has consistently released almost an album per year. Barnes’ prolific songwriting has been center stage in all those efforts, involving surrealistic musings, alternate personas, and eschewing gender stereotypes.

In a recent phone interview, Barnes talked about his band’s new record, “White is Relic/Irrealis Mood,” catching a past Northampton Pride parade, and his work in the late 1990s when of Montreal was part of the Elephant 6 Recording Company, which included noted other bands such as Neutral Milk Hotel and The Olivia Tremor Control.

Daily Hampshire Gazette: I read that your new record was influenced by a lot of things going on in your life, such as your paranoia about living in a simulated reality, finding new love, and 1980s dance pop. How did these elements come together to influence this new record?

Kevin Barnes: It’s hard to say what the jumping off point was. They all had to be in my brain at the same time. I can’t necessarily say what they have in common.

DHG: What kind of feelings do these things evoke for you, maybe translated into the music itself?

KB: Basically I think we’re all sort of reeling from the [2016] election and slowly finding our footing again. When I made that record, I started it a few years ago and it was the beginning of this new era that we’re in. I think that Trump definitely dismantled reality for a lot of people. 

DHG: One thing that really amazes me about you as a songwriter is how prolific you are. It seems like every album that of Montreal releases is almost a reinvention of what has come before. What genre of music would you like to explore in the future?

KB: There’s always little nuances in certain time periods of music that I know about but haven’t really gotten into. I’ve always been into 1960s psychedelic music, but I’m always uncovering a new lost record [by artists such as ] Annette Peacock … There’s so many things left to uncover and be influenced by. With my new record, I’m about halfway into it now, and the inspiration has been more early 1980s ABBA and Cyndi Lauper — things that I haven’t really been influenced by in the past.

DHG: Could you tell me more about your next album that you’re working on now?

KB: If I was going to compare it to a previous record, maybe it’s more in the ballpark of “The Sunlandic Twins.” It’s like semi-conventional pop templates. I’m not making eight-minute songs. It’s mostly three-and-a-half, four-minute pop songs that are really hooky and really melodic.

I sort of got back into wanting to make something that is sort of in line with Cyndi Lauper and ABBA and something that’s really poppy, with interesting lyrics and a lot of heart and optimism.

DHG: What do you think of some of your older records, like “Cherry Peel” or “The Gay Parade,” now, 20 years later?

KB: It’s interesting because in a lot of ways it’s like looking at a scrapbook of photographs from my youth. I never play those songs. It’s mostly because the spirit is different. I was sort of in this suspended childhood state of mind when I was making those records. There’s sort of a magical realism in there, but it’s kind of a little too sugary for me now.

DHG: I’ve seen Kishi Bashi several times over the years. I know he started early in his career playing with of Montreal. What do you think of his success now as a musical collaborator?

KB: I think it’s really exciting. It’s funny because he’s my neighbor. He lives four houses down from me and our daughters are really close friends. So, he kind of feels like a family member to me.

DHG: I was curious — do you still keep in touch with members of the Elephant 6 Collective?

KB: Some of them I do, yeah. I was at a concert the other night, a Molly Nelson concert, and Andrew Reiger was there and the late B. P. Helium [the stage name for] Bryan Poole was there and we had a good chat. There’s some people from that scene that I talk to — Robert Schneider [of The Apples in Stereo] and I are good friends and meet up a bunch.

DHG: I know you’ve performed in Northampton a number of times over the years. When you’re here, do you have any favorite places you like to visit?

KB: I think it’s really special. I have a really great memory of being there during [the] Pride festival, so I got to see the Pride parade and be part of that. It was really inspiring to see. I love the energy in the city. Massachusetts is funny in that it has a reputation for the whole “Masshole” thing and a reputation for being tougher and hard-edged, but then there’s also really sweet and pure and brilliant people as well.  

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@valleyadvocate.com.

of Montreal performs at Pearl Street on Saturday, April 13 at 8:30 p.m. The band’s side project, indie rockers Yip Deceiver, will open. Tickets are $20 with a $5 online fee; visit iheg.com to purchase. For more information about Of Montreal, visit ofmontreal.net.