As the chief songwriter and creative force behind of Montreal, Kevin Barnes has built a career out of following his own instincts. His band’s 11 albums have been full of sometimes jarring U-turns – moving from psychedelic twee-pop to decadent glam-funk to nightmarish electro-prog, often within one disc. Lousy with Sylvianbriar, the next of Montreal album (slated for release this fall), is a sonic surprise of a different variety: 11 intimate tunes built on Summer of Love grooves and country-folk dreaminess.
For this record, Barnes’ intuition led to an “isolation experiment” in San Francisco. Away from his comfort zone of Athens, Georgia, he rented an apartment and soaked in the city’s cultural stew. Inspired by acts like the Grateful Dead and Flying Burrito Brothers, he wrote most of the album during a highly fertile three-week span in January.
“With me, the way I operate creatively, if I get an idea in my mind, I just sort of follow it without questioning it too much,” Barnes tells Rolling Stone. “If it just seems right, I just follow it regardless of what it might mean to my career or the popularity of the band. For some reason, I just got in mind that I should go to San Francisco. I’ve done that a little bit because my wife’s Norwegian, and we’d go to Oslo to hang out for periods of time. I didn’t know anybody, so I would just spend that time writing. It can be really inspiring, and of all the cities in the U.S., the one that had the strongest pull to me around this time was San Francisco.”
Part of the attraction was historical, even sentimental. Being in San Francisco – the hub of the late 1960s counter-culture movement – made sense for Barnes, who aimed to write a more organic, collaborative album.
“The thing I’ve been really inspired by is getting back to recording on an analog tape machine and getting back to making records like people used to make records,” he says. “Back then, you were really reliant on your talents and really limited by what kind of gear you have and what kind of effects you have – not unlimited, like when you work with Pro Tools.
“When I think about musical movements in the U.S., the most important to me was that big explosion of bands that happened in the mid-to-late 1960s in San Francisco,” Barnes continues. “I just wanted to be there at the source of that, and not necessarily be on some nostalgia trip since I’ve never actually experienced that myself. I didn’t want to fetishize that, but I still feel like San Francisco is a really wild city and has a really wild spirit. As Disneyfied as so much of this country can be, it still retains that sort of wildness and unpredictability, and it’s also staggeringly beautiful.”
Back in Athens, Barnes recorded the album over a rapid-fire two-week sprint, working with a tight-knit crew of frequent collaborators (vocalist Rebecca Cash, keyboardist Jojo Glidewell, drummer Clayton Rychlik) and fresh faces (pedal-steel guitarist/bassist Bob Parins, lead guitarist Bennett Lewis). Working on music with a full band was a new approach for Barnes, whose typical recording style is labored and introspective – overdubbing all his own vocal harmonies and most instrumentation. In contrast, there’s a palpable live-in-the-room warmth to Sylvianbriar.
“I think maybe that’s because we didn’t live with it for a year or anything. The last couple records I’d been making in off time in between tours, sort of laboring away at them for long periods of time,” Barnes says. “This record was really quick and spontaneous. I’d demoed all the songs so that people were familiar with a rough arrangement, but everybody wrote their own parts in the studio.”
The recording process was a “communal experience,” with some of the band members living in the Barnes household, gathering around the kitchen table every night for dinner. That spirit is evident throughout Sylvianbriar‘s gentle sprawl. Where recent of Montreal albums (including 2012’s Paralytic Stalks) have often felt like kaleidoscopic patchworks, Barnes’ new songs are built on tuneful verse-chorus structures, enveloping vocal harmonies and rich instrumental interplay (particularly Parins’ ethereal steel guitar).
“I kind of felt like on the past couple of Montreal records that I put too many distracting elements in the recordings that took away from the lyrics,” Barnes says. “People are naturally going to focus on the thing that’s the brightest and the loudest, so I thought, ‘Why work so hard on the lyrics if you’re not going to showcase them?’ So on this record, I wanted to strip down the music to a degree. It’s not boring, but it’s not too distracting. And [I] focus more on actually delivering statements or intellectual concepts or spiritual or emotional concepts.”
One highlight is the breezy “Colossus,” which was inspired by the tortured poet Sylvia Plath. “I wrote that song when I was under her spell, in a sense,” Barnes says. “I know her father committed suicide, and I know she tried to commit suicide many times and finally did so successfully, so it’s sort of inspired by her life and musings on her life and my imagination. It’s hard to explain – sometimes you get kind of bewitched by somebody or obsessed with somebody.”
The album’s true heartbeat is “Obsidian Currents,” a twangy drift down Barnes’ dark subconscious. “It’s definitely autobiographical,” Barnes says. “It’s one of those songs where you’re singing about yourself but you’re singing it from a different perspective, or it seems like you’re singing it about somebody else, but it’s actually just me criticizing myself, the way I can be – detached and sort of wanting myself to not continue down this dangerous path. My brother had a funny vision for that one. He said it was a superhero who got beat by his arch-nemesis, and the arch-nemesis has him tied in this dark cellar, and he’s saying these things to this superhero and forcing him to come to terms with his flaws.”