For an alt-pop icon who has performed in a 10-foot dress and stage dived into a confetti-covered audience, of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes comes across surprisingly introspective during his chat with Clash. This makes it all the more intriguing when he explains that the kaleidoscopic country-tinged folk of the band’s 12th album, ‘Lousy With Sylvianbriar’, was partly influenced by the life of Sylvia Plath.
“The damaged psyche that produced all this great art was also the thing that led to her destruction,” he ponders. “I think about that a lot in general with artists.”
Becoming bewitched by the revered writer’s work and wanting to revisit a time when lyric writing was a considered an “art form” (he declares that “all songs on the radio have terrible lyrics”) aren’t the only aspects of ‘Lousy With Sylvianbriar’ (Clash review) that are influenced by a bygone era.
With the title referencing Plath’s name and poetry as well as a classic Br’er Rabbit story, the tracks recall the melodic, lyric driven songs of late ‘60s and early ‘70s bands like Jefferson Airplane and The Byrds. The album was also a response to the laboured recording process of 2012’s densely arranged 11th set ‘Paralytic Stalks’, where emailing band members to record their parts began to frustrate Barnes due to the lack of “human connection”.
“I just got sick of working that way and wanted to go back to making something that felt more communal by having a group of people in a room and capturing a moment in time.”
The fact that the new album was recorded on an analogue tape machine in his home studio, with the band and Toro Y Moi engineer Drew Vandenberg, adds an organic, uncluttered feel to the album’s psych-pop dreaminess.
“Things have become too easy for people, sort of like the Instagram culture where you don’t actually have to have any concept of how to take a photograph,” he says. “It’s going to look great every time. The same thing is true in music with auto-tuning and drum replacement software.”
While he acknowledges that digital methods have the ability to create a “great sounding record”, Barnes also believes the process “should be hard” with people depending on their actual skill.
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‘Fugitive Air’, from ‘Lousy With Sylvianbriar’
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Barnes also stepped out of his comfort zone to write ‘Lousy With Sylvianbriar’. Getting rid of the distractions of his hometown of Athens, Georgia, he followed his “organic spirit that evolves with every record” and relocated to San Francisco. Living in the “culturally diverse and architecturally beautiful” city gave rise to the free-flowing, evocative lyrics found on The Kinks-style strut of the opener, ‘Fugitive Air’ (“Now his grandson swings a little rabbit by the leg/ While his mother plays two wooden flutes”).
Barnes was particularly inspired by The Beatles and late-‘60s California and LA-based acts like the Grateful Dead, who were a part of “the cultural revolution in the United States”.
“San Francisco, LA and New York were sort of the centrepieces of that as far as a congregation of young people rejecting the bullshit of their parents and making something new that was special and free and wild,” he says with the enthusiasm of someone who wishes he’d lived in the city’s bohemian community during the 1967 Summer of Love.
Ditching the introspective environment that helped him create of Montreal’s genre-bending manifesto of glam-funk and nightmarish krautrock, 2007’s ‘Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?’, also didn’t faze him. Talking about the fact that the record is considered the band’s masterpiece, he says: “I don’t feel like I’m in the shadow of that. I’m happy that I have a record people like, but I don’t think it’s better than (2008’s) ‘Skeletal Lamping’ or this one.”
Compared to the increasingly fragmented soundscapes of band’s recent albums though, the chirpy blues-rock highlight ‘Belle Glade Missionaries’ – which includes the almost comical lyrics “where you post naked GIFs of your epileptic fits” – feels refreshingly upfront.
Elsewhere, Barnes’ favourite track on the record is the Plath-inspired ‘Colossus’. Beginning with macabre lines – “Your mother hung herself in the National Theatre / When she was four months pregnant with your sister” – the foreboding verse gives way to a blissful psychedelic chorus featuring vocalist Rebecca Cash’s haunting harmonies. “It feels very intimate and it’s not all about my personal life, but it feels like it sort of exists in this interesting plain,” he shares.
More autobiographical is the early-‘70s Elton John-like twang of ‘Obsidian Currents’, where Barnes criticises himself for being “detached and intellectualising things”. It’s also a warning “to engage and empathise with the outside world and the people in your life,” which becomes difficult for him outside of Montreal’s prolifically creative bubble.
Having listened to a podcast by comic writer David Sedaris who is “always interested” in what people have to say during his book tours, Barnes admits that he’s more “withdrawn and shy” about talking to strangers. On stage however, these feelings of vulnerability and self-consciousness fade away, even when performing his most personal songs to an audience.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable if they were in the room when I was writing it, but I think there’s a disconnect that happens once the record comes out and I have a group of musicians on stage with me.”
Despite a recent intimate acoustic show at London’s Electrowerkz, of Montreal’s future touring plans return to the band’s wildly theatrical performances. These have previously included silent movie projections, Barnes’ transsexual alter ego Georgie Fruit, and witnessed the frontman riding a white horse onstage.
Comparing touring with a huge entourage to “a Fellini film, where everybody’s so eccentric,” it’s no surprise that, when discussing future ambitions (which includes recording the next record in a similarly “communal” way), Barnes mentions another unexpected performance idea.
“Being in a bathtub of eggs is something that I’ve wanted to do for a while. So maybe I’ll do that.”
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‘Gronlandic Edit’, from ‘Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?’
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Words: James Evans
‘Lousy With Sylvianbriar’ is out now on Polyvinyl and reviewed here. Listen to the album in full via Deezer, below.
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