There are many things that Kevin Barnes’ wife might prefer he not talk about. For instance, when she became pregnant a few years ago, the idea of becoming a father so terrified Barnes that he considered committing suicide. Or that after his daughter was born, his misbehavior on the road nearly destroyed their marriage. Or that he suffers from chronic depression, which he treats with the powerful antidepressant Cymbalta in a haphazard regimen. “I take it every three days or so,” says the 34-year-old leader of the cult-fave psychedelic pop group Of Montreal. “I should probably take it more, but I kind of like that it messes up your mind. Every day is like a roller coaster — sometimes I feel really good, and sometimes I feel all tingly.”
Today is a Cymbalta day, which makes Barnes feel “introspective and weird.” In the Athens, Georgia band’s industrial rehearsal space, downwind from a chicken-processing plant, Barnes stands quietly among his cheerful, PBR-drinking bandmates, with a purple Vitaminwater at his feet and a glossy Rickenbacker stapped to his slight frame. Dressed like Ziggy Stardust on a casual Friday — skintight red jeans, octagonal clear-framed sunglasses, a jaunty blue scarf adorned with tiny white stars — he absently noodles on “Day Tripper” before calling the song “Triphallus, to Punctuate!” from the band’s new album, Skeletal Lamping (out October 21st). Three of his bandmates grab basses and pick out complex, strangely melodic lines as Barnes lets loose with an effects-heavy series of “ooh-ooh-oohs” that sound like Freddie Mercury on helium.
As with the last two Of Montreal records, Barnes recorded Skeletal Lamping (the title came to him after reading a Dylan Thomas poem) at home on his computer. An idea-packed pastiche inspired by Brian Wilson’s Smile and Prince’s Sign o’ the Times, Lamping boosts the group’s oddball pop with its polyperverse, sexed-up lyrics and kitchen-sink range —— from hip-hop and disco to freaked-out soul and Stones-y blues. It arrives just a year after Barnes inadvertently introduced himself to the masses by allowing Outback Steakhouse to use his 2005 song “Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games” in its ads. (The Australian-themed chain added didgeridoo and changed the lyric “Let’s pretend we don’t exist/Let’s pretend we’re in Antarctica” to “Let’s go Outback tonight/Life will still be here tomorrow.”) “They told me it was just going to be a radio jingle,” he says. “And of course it wasn’t —— it became the anthem of Outback Steakhouse. The reality is it’s definitely not good to sell a song to a commercial, as far as allowing people to have their own memories of a song.” Barnes posted an anguished essay, “Selling Out Isn’t Possible,” online, writing, “The pseudo-Nihilistic punk rockers of the ’70s created an impossible code that no one can actually live by.”
But looking back, Barnes says the fear that he’d damaged his credibility fueled Lamping‘s adventurous spirit. “I was like, ‘If you’re going to call me a phony, I’m going to prove that there’s nothing about me motivated by record sales,’ ” he says. Take Georgie Fruit, a character Barnes introduced on Of Montreal’s 2007 album Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, and in whose voice he sings much of the new record. “He’s an African-American man who was in an R&B band called Arousal in the Seventies,” Barnes says. “They didn’t go very far, and he ended up in prison, where he had a lot of weird experiences and decided to be a woman. So he had a sex change. He’s very free — I think of him as a genderless superhuman, untouched by taboos or the boring parts of our culture.” (Barnes is considering an Arousal “reissue” as a side project: “It would be totally fun.” He’s also working on an album with MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden under the name Blikk Fang.)
Of Montreal’s live shows have evolved into over-the-top glam spectacles involving surreal props, whimsical sets and multiple costume changes —— and, on one occasion, a fully nude Barnes performing against projected clips of Seventies gay porn. As the tours have grown increasingly baroque, Of Montreal have developed a reputation as kind of a Grateful Dead for arty, sexually ambiguous kids (plus David Byrne and Bono, who have both been spotted at gigs) who use the shows as an opportunity to dress up in hypercolorful garb, apply liberal amounts of makeup and glitter, and get supremely elevated on boose and drugs. In a few weeks, the band is heading off on its biggest tour yet, a theatrical production complete with elaborate costumes (drag, mythological creatures, giant kimonos), Madonna-size video screens and a cadre of “performance artists” who will act out choreographed scenes, including a brawl in a Deadwood-style saloon. “The inspiration is very Michel Gondry,” Barnes says. “Or the kid in Rushmore that puts on those productions.”
At rehearsal, Barnes’ five bandmates appear to have been sent over from Indie-Rock Central Casting. Guitarist Bryan Poole has a Neil Young look involving bushy sideburns and an awe some tricked-out art project of a car (with a complicated back story about an artist friend’s attempt to assemble a militia to capture a mysterious local known as the 8-Track Gorilla); bassist Davey Pierce lives in a garage next door among at least a dozen vintage mopeds in various states of operability; synth player Dottie Alexander sports a pink cheerleaderish skirt and polka-dot tights; and multi-instrumentalist Jamey Husband has an ascotlike scarf that recalls Fred’s from ScoobyDoo. Rocking a cool straw hat and an unbuttoned cardigan without a shirt is drummer Ahmed Gallab, the latest addition. Gallab (who’s been in town for less than a month and lives in the loft above the rehearsal space) emigrated from Sudan when he was a kid, and is eagerly waiting for rehearsal to stop so he can break his Ramadan fast. “There’s two sides of Of Montreal,” Barnes explains the next day. “There’s the recorded music, which I’ve been predominantly doing myself. But the performing band is collaborative, and everyone is deeply invested emotionally and financially.”