It's no secret that some of the most creative and talented artists have also harbored intense feelings of anxiety and depression. (See Whitney Houston.)
Kevin Barnes, lead singer of Athens-based indie rock group Of Montreal, has managed to channel his depression in to spontaneous whirlwhinds of creativity. Barnes found himself in the midst of depression once again last winter, and responded by returning to the intimately personal songwriting style of previous successes, such as 2007's Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?
On his latest album Paralytic Stalks, he touches on the topic from the evolved perspective of a husband and father. Still, his lyrics often manage to evoke vivid and occasionally painful imagery. I talked with Barnes recently about how depression has affected his career over the years, why he thinks Skrillex is important, and the ambitious new stage setup he'll be bringing to the Wiltern tonight.
Can you tell me about the new members of the band and what they contributed on this latest album?
Yeah, the two guys that worked with me on the record and collaborated with me on some of the songs have joined the group. One guy, the violinist, is named Kishi Bashi and he plays strings and guitar and synthesizer, and he does backing vocals. The other guy is named Zach Caldwell and he's the one that did the brass and woodwind arrangements on the new record, so he's playing those instruments plus guitar. So everyone's basically a multi-instrumentalist and wears a bunch of different hats.
What type of creative influence did they have on the album?
They were definitely very hands on and artistic in their contributions and I basically just gave them free range because I trusted them, and what they came up with totally exceeded my expectations every time, so I was very happy. This record definitely sounds different than the previous record and a lot of that has to do with what Zach and Kishi contributed I think.
Do you think electronic and dance music had a bigger influence on this album?
Yeah, I've always been interested in it and there's definitely some new production that I find really interesting. People like Skrillex and Diplo are doing things that are really cool and interesting and feel very fresh. They aren't trying to be retro and it's not really an homage to something that already exists. It feels really new, which is exciting, so I've definitely had an interest in that area and it's just sort of become a part of everything that I sort of throw together as I'm creating.
That's interesting you mentioned Skrillex. I think the way you both arrange your music, the quick time changes and nothing ever quite staying the same for too long, is actually quite similar stylistically.
It's kind of interesting to me. You'd think that we'd get to that point naturally. I mean, Skrillex just makes sense to me in that way, just because that's the way the modern mind works. You need constant changes because people get bored so quickly, but it's weird because a lot of music is still very predictable and linear, so it's kind of cool. I guess if everybody was making music like Skrillex things would get kind of intense, so it's good that you have people still writing songs on acoustic guitar.
The music and the lyrics seem to be going back to a much more personal place this time. After working with Jon Brion on the last album, do you think you were more comfortable writing on your own again?
He wasn't really involved in the writing process that way, but I do think I was sort of swept up by the strange fascination with funk and soul music and I sort of created this songwriting persona with False Priest and Skeletal Lamping. With this record, I definitely sort of shed that and started focusing on writing more intimate and more confessional, personal songs and I can't really say why necessarily other than just this compulsion or this need to express something more personal. I think some of the persona-based songs could be considered superficial on some level just because they're coming from a place of fantasy, whereas, the new material is sort of stark realism.
The lyrics seem a lot darker than the previous albums you mentioned too. Would you say there is any overarching theme on the new album?
I was just going through a really difficult period for some reason. I suffer from depression and neuroses and I get in to these weird states of mind from time to time. I just happened to be in the throes of one of those negative spirals for a period of time throughout the record, so I was just trying to deal with that through the creative process, trying to deal with all the pain and frustration and confusion. And I think in that way, probably lyrically, it seemed to be coming from a place of pain or sadness or whatever.
Depression and mental illness have been pretty common themes in your music. Do you think you've dealt with your depression in different ways as you've gotten older?
Well, it's hard. Sometimes when you're just buried underneath a cloud, it's really difficult. I think I've definitely experienced it enough times to where I don't let it destroy me. I try to just work through it, but you never know if there's something there. You never know. That's the thing that drives you crazy. It's like, is this the one that's going to kill me? Or is this the one where I'll just get over it? So you never know, but when you're in the thick of it, it's difficult to even remember the good times.
How do you think it's affected your songwriting over the years?
Well it definitely gives me a strange energy, like a mad energy. But normally I'm able to direct it in a positive way, where I'm actually able to create something powerful out of it. Luckily it's not that sort of numbing depression where you just lay there and you have no feelings. It's kind of the opposite. I have too many feelings. I'm just too charged, but it's all just impossible to deal with.
On “Wintered Debts” in particular, is that about depression from kind of a seasonal perspective?
It's like what I was saying about that feeling of “How am I going to survive this?” or “Is this the end?” so there's just a lot of confusion in “Wintered Debts” and “Ye Renew The Plaintiff” especially. My point of view on those songs are definitely addressing that question and “Wintered Debts,” I gave it that title because most of the record I had been working on during last winter, so it felt like a very winter-y record in a way. I wasn't really thinking of some sunny, summer disco happiness record. It's definitely on some level reveling in that aspect of the human condition or the human experience.
Has it been a struggle to balance touring with spending time with your wife and daughter?
It's definitely something that factors in to my state of mind for sure, but it seems like they almost belong to two different worlds. Everything has just sort of been accepted. I know when I go on the road, I have to leave my family behind, but at the same time, it's good for me artistically to get out because I can get pretty restless sitting around in Athens. It's good for me to get out and travel and meet people and have experiences. It definitely helps me creatively to come up with new ideas and to shake the dust off in a way.
Especially to go out on tour in support of a record, it's kind of just something that's part of the process of creating something and bringing it to the people and then setting it aside and working on something new. I can't really even think about that. If I didn't get to go on tour and was just sort of making records and that's it, it would feel like half of the experience was taken away because a big part of it is sharing it with people. It transforms it in a way. It might come from a dark place, but then once I take it on tour and see people touched by the music, then it sort of transforms and often becomes more positive, even with the songs on Hissing Fauna that were really dark.
The funny thing though is musically, it never sounds dark. It almost always sounds buoyant and colorful and positive, but then lyrically it's coming from some other place, so it's a strange juxtaposition. But when I go on tour, it's almost like the darkness dissipates and all the positivity in the music rises to the surface and becomes the dominant force. So it's kind of cool in a way that it could come from a dark place, but once I take it on the road, it usually becomes something more positive.
How has your live show changed for this particular album?
The subject matter of this album is a bit darker and didn't really lend itself to the broad comedy theatrics we incorporated on the previous couple tours, so we decided to make something that's more emotionally powerful and of the same spirit. We've created a visual production that's definitely the most ambitious thing we've ever attempted. It's hard to describe but there are maybe about 20 projectable spaces on stage and it creates a really dense visual landscape. There's a lot of really intense animation and video work and it definitely sucks you in almost like a dream or a hallucinatory transportive dream experience. On some of it, the animations are actually seizure inducing. It's pretty intense visually, but it's sort of difficult to explain. It's definitely very powerful though.
How important is your brother David to the setup and theatrics on stage?
He and my wife Nina did all of the animation and the video content, so the two of them worked hand in hand, along with Nick Gould who does a lot of our live video stuff. It's insane to even think about now, but basically they worked 10 hour days for three months straight getting all the content together. It was just an incredible labor of love because we have no budget for any of this stuff. Everything is self-financed so you just have to do it because you love to do it and it's satisfying to make something fantastic.
Your live shows are always very vibrant and theatrical though. Is that something you take in to consideration when you're writing songs or do you think your brother influences that visual element in your music?
I'm not really thinking about how we're going to represent it live when I'm creating it, but I think he definitely inspires me. He pushes me to be creative and he pushes me to do things that I've never done before.
When I'm trying to make records, I'm usually trying to make something that he'll find interesting and exciting, so he's the audience that I'm really thinking about. I'm not really thinking about just random strangers who happened to like the last record. I'm thinking about him and I'm thinking about Nina and I'm thinking about my close friends, but mostly the two of them. I want to make something that surprises them and makes them say “Oh, this song's fantastic.” or “Oh, that's crazy. I got stoned and listened to it in my headphones.”
How many people are you currently touring with?
I think there's like twelve of us. We basically just maxed out the bus. Like every possible bunk is filled and there are two people in the back. It's totally crazy, but it's fun because everybody gets along really well. Everybody enjoys traveling and playing music, so there's not really drama or anything. It's just a bunch of friends traveling and playing music together. It's like a dream come true in a way.
I could see how that would be a lot more fun than the typical three of four person indie rock group though, where you're with the same people all the time.
And the production is fairly complex, so it takes a lot of energy to put it on every night, but I think that makes it a lot more fulfilling. If it was just, like you said, jump on stage in street clothes, play your songs and then you're done, I don't think we'd get the same satisfaction out of it. Because the whole point of it is thinking what can we do this time? How can we make it feel different from the previous tour? It's gotta be great and it's gotta be a big production, but we also have to work within the limited budget that we have. So it's always a fun and interesting challenge and it's definitely very fulfilling.
Are you excited about playing the Wiltern for the first time?
I'm really excited because it's a big venue, which kind of freaks me out a little bit, but our presales have been pretty good so hopefully it will feel pretty packed and people will have a good time. It's been interesting because we've been playing some smaller clubs and some bigger clubs, so we've had to have sort of a modular stage set up. So it's always good to play a stage like the Wiltern where we can actually do our full production.
Of Montreal performs tonight at the Wiltern with Deerhoof and Kishi Bashi.