Kevin Barnes and his band, of Montreal, seem to be in a constant state of flux. When the Georgia-based group started, they were deeply submerged in whimsical indie-pop. Then they morphed into an electronic-based unit, and then a funk-based one, and then something sort of in between. Now, with the band’s 12th album, Lousy with Sylvianbriar, Barnes has hit the reset button once again, rebuilding the group as a Seventies country-influenced garage band.
While conceiving the album, Barnes retreated to San Francisco, isolated himself and read poems by the suicidal Sylvia Plath. The new album directly references Plath, wallowing in some pretty fatalistic imagery, yet it also has upbeat moments of joy and revelry. Rolling Stone spoke with Barnes about his Plath fixation, burritos and happiness.
On “Colossus,” you have the lyrics “Baby, your family, they are just losers.” That’s one of the meanest statements that I’ve ever heard!
Well, it’s not really meant to be an insult. It’s more of an observation. When you have people who have loser relatives or loser parents, they have to come to terms with that. It doesn’t mean that you love them any less. Some people are just that way, and you have to deal with the repercussions of dealing with loser relatives.
That song references Sylvia Plath. Is that song about Plath’s own troubled family, or is about your own relatives?
It is based on the relatives of somebody in my life. But I don’t want to reveal the person, as it would make them uncomfortable. But it is also a reference to Sylvia Plath’s family. I had been reading a lot of her poetry when I was making this record, and she sort of haunted the album.
Why do you think Plath particularly influenced you on this record?
I can’t really say. It’s this organic thing that happened. With all my records, there is always some bit of a writer or a filmmaker or someone that seems to symbolize the spirit of the thing that I am chasing. For the last few records, we were influenced by Parliament and Prince, but on this record, we were influenced by Sylvia Plath, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, the Stones and Gram Parsons. I was just particularly open to receiving that kind of inspiration and influence.
I wonder if receiving that kind of influence can be dangerous. Plath was extremely depressed and ended up killing herself.
There’s such a strong soul and strong human quality to her work. Her work doesn’t feel contrived. It’s very raw and personal. That’s the kind of art that I gravitate towards naturally.
Along those lines, do you ever feel like you’ve revealed too much?
I don’t really think about the outside world when I’m writing. I basically like to to think that my albums are that I cracked open my head, and all the ideas and fantasies and dreams from that time are spilled onto magnetic tape. It’s like a time capsule from that period. All the things that I was reading, all the voices that I was hearing, all my relationships, all my feelings, all my diary entries, I put onto the album.
The albums that I go back to the most are the ones that feel more confessional and personal. If the artist is vulnerable, it makes it easier for me to romanticize their character and their message. I don’t want to become self-conscious when I’m writing. If I’m imagining an audience, or injecting it, it throws me off my focus. So I don’t really think about “Do I dare say this?” It’s not really positive to do that. I try to block that aspect of the process out.
During the writing of this album, you blocked out the world by taking a retreat to San Francisco. How did the isolation affect you?
Well, I don’t really have any friends that live out there. I just wanted to go somewhere that was interesting. I have this love and appreciation for the late Sixtie’s and early Seventie’s counterculture. San Francisco is kind of the epitome of that, so I had this romantic feeling about that city. San Francisco always seemed like an inspiring and exotic place. When I got there, I didn’t know anybody. I was living in the Mission District, which is near a Hispanic neighborhood, and I was just wandering around taking in the vibe of the city, reading poetry, and working on my writing.
San Francisco is extremely multicultural. There’s a moment on “Hegira Émigré” where you say that you aren’t Caucasian, but gray. The Georgie Fruit character that you portrayed on your earlier albums was black. It’s interesting that you often change your complexion in your songs.
Well, my brother was filling out college entrance papers for Florida State University and they asked what race he was. He put “other” because he said that he didn’t really feel white. He got into the school, I think, because of that. If he would have put “white” he probably wouldn’t have gotten in, because his grades weren’t that great. Sometimes it works out if you don’t say that you are white.
Did you get any of those delicious burritos that they sell in the Mission?
I did. That was great. There were a bunch of cool bars, like dive-y bars. But to be honest, I didn’t go too far beyond the Mission. A couple of times I walked to Golden Gate Park. But for the most part, I stayed within the 15-block radius of the Mission. There’s a really great theater there called the Castro Theater. I saw Taxi Driver there. I’ve also been reading Cormac McCarthy. That has a lot of the darker parts of the human experience in it. For whatever reason, I’ve been writing in that style and finding it inspiring.
But you’re in a good headspace yourself?
I feel that I’m in a good place. I don’t really strive for equanimity or good feelings or balance all the time. I don’t confine myself to that. I’m not looking for happiness or peacefulness or contentment. I’m looking for inspiration. That’s how I want to live. I want to feel a little bit anxious, or even damaged . . . well, not damaged. But I don’t want to be at peace or mellow. I’m finding that with being neurotic or psychotic, as long as I don’t become a threat to myself or other people, then I’m fine.