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Teenage lament

Kevin Barnes from of Montreal talks growing up in Detroit, indie crossover and post-race society

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Published 9/15/2010

We recently chatted with of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes, who talked at length about his time growing up in the greater Detroit area. He also talked about working with godhead producer Jon Brion, race relations and getting beyond genre categorizations.

You'll note that of Montreal's star has been in steady ascension, and they've slowly constructed an impressive resume having just released their 10th album, False Priest. What's more, Barnes recently produced tracks for Janelle Monae and Solange, Beyonce Knowles' sister. The mastermind behind of the recent waves of psychedelic indie music took some time to talk shop on growing up outside Detroit.

Metro Times: Hey, Kevin, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. I know you guys are extremely busy right now. I was hoping to start out with talking about your early teenage years spent outside Detroit in the suburb of Grosse Pointe Park?

Kevin Barnes: I had moved there from Cleveland, Ohio, when I think I was about 11. Maybe that was 10 Ö 10 or 11. Then I moved from Grosse Pointe down to Florida when I was 15, so I wasnít there for that long, but my happiest childhood period was my time there. I think for some reason when we were living outside of Cleveland, there werenít really any kids around, there wasnít really any sense of community. When I was living in Grosse Pointe, there were kids in a lot of the houses and I had friends where I could walk over to their houses, or ride my bike over to their houses, weíd hang out. It was just a really great time. I had this freedom which Iíd never had before. Being able to do things in a lot of parks. We could go to Windmill Pointe. I think there was one Ö Three Mile. We used to go there all the time and play baseball and football, just hang out. I used to skateboard a lot, I used to go to the schools, like Pierce, I went to Pierce middle school, we used to skateboard there, and do tricks in the parking lot and stuff. I just have really good memories of that actually.

When I first started playing music ó I was living in Michigan at that time ó I met a bunch of people that were into playing music, a bunch of kids my age. We would practice in our parentís houses; a couple of us were lucky enough to have cool parents that allowed us to rehearse in the garage or the basement or whatever.

MT: So you were starting your early bands here?

Barnes: Yeah, we tried to play shows, I think itís called the War Memorial Hall? We used to play shows there. We played Ö St. Clare church had a basement "teen center," whatever you want to call it, and we played down there. I actually played in a band with this guy Mark Tremonti.

MT: I was actually going to ask you about that because youíre both from Michigan. Did you both grow up together?

Barnes: Yeah, we grew up together, and we played in a band together ó one of my first bands. We were called [Wits End.] I was really into metal, so was he. I was more into the poppier side of metal. Like Ratt, Mötley Crüe and Poison. I was more into the glam side where Mark was more into the virtuoso guitar-playing side of it. Our drummer was into punk rock, our bass player was into new age Ö haha Ö not new age, new wave ó New Order, things like that. Itís kind of a strange collection of influences.

MT: Itís an interesting dynamic, have you thought of doing anything together now?

Barnes: Heís gone in a completely different direction.

MT: Iíd say that itís safe to say Ö

Barnes: I havenít seen him since then. I didnít even know he was in Creed until I ran into some of my friends from Detroit. They were living out in Portland and they were like, "Did you know Mark Tremonti, heís playing in Creed now?" I was like, "What?!?" I havenít been following Creed. I didnít even think about them, and to find out my friend was in the band was crazy.

MT: Do you come back to Detroit all that often?

Barnes: One of my sisters lives there, in Grosse Pointe. She has a family. I go see my nephews and my niece; I like to go visit them as often as I can. I was kind of young when I left. I was, like, 15. That was before e-mail and things like that. If I was going to stay in contact with one of my friends, it basically would be snail mail letters. You know how it is when youíre a kid ó you donít really worry about that ó so I lost contact with a lot of my friends around then.

MT: Were you moving around a lot?

Barnes: Yeah, for some reason my dad was relocating a bunch. He wasnít in the Army or anything; he was an accountant. I donít know why we were moving so much, every 4-5 years.

MT: I really wish we could have spent more time together, maybe on a feature but you guys are all over the place, heading to Europe right after this little U.S. jaunt.

MT: Weíre going to stay busy until the end of the year.

MT: Itís a good problem to have. Letís talk about the working combination of Jon Brion and Ocean Way studios. How did that all come about?

Barnes: I guess he was turned on to our music by a friend. I guess the friend was someone that he respected a lot; someone that you respect a lot is going to tell you that youíve got to check out this band theyíre great; youíre going to take them more seriously. He started listening to us and at first I think he thought, "Yeah, this is pretty cool," but it didnít really strike him. Then I guess he started listening to it a little more and he kind of got excited about it. I think what he also saw was that I record most of my stuff at home, and since he had so much studio experience he could kind of see that he could help me as far as creating a fuller sound. I think he sort of saw a way that he could do something altruistic that could also be creatively challenging and fun for him.

I basically made this record in my home studio by myself, just like I always did, at least how Iíve done for the last five records. Get together one instrument at a time and do it all myself. I would send him these rough mixes and he listened to it and really liked the songs and liked the general direction that I was going in. But he could see that basically it was going to sound pretty similar to Skeletal Lamping and Hissing Fauna, and it wasnít going to be a major sonic leap forward. So he maybe saw himself in me or something, and was like, "Iím going to help this kid."

MT: Right, he has a pretty impressive sonic résumé himself.

Barnes: Thatís the thing, he didnít really benefit at all by working with me. It was just a fun challenge: He knew could help me and he was excited about the songs. He really just made it happen. It was really like I said, an altruistic sort of thing. It didnít really benefit him, itís not like he needs any sort of help with recognition. Heís worked with so many superstars, so for him to work with an indie artist, it would have to be a labor of love.

MT: Are you still seeing yourself in that indie role? It seems like youíre kind of crossing over into this space where pop music and indie-psychedelic music are woven together. I donít know what Iím really asking here.

Barnes: Indie music has become way more mainstream than it was 10 years ago. Iím not going to lie. Itís sort of become Ö hmmm Ö I dunno Ö somehow people are just sort of connecting with it more. Maybe because a lot of mainstream artists are just not doing it for people? They realize that the indie artists have more creative flexibility, and you can take more chances. That makes it more exciting.

MT: Is that how the relationship came about with Solange Knowles? Why the fuck wouldnít I work with Kevin Barnes?

Barnes: I think also thereís a lot of cross-pollination. People donít feel necessarily trapped by whatever genre or whatever cultural group theyíre a part of. People feel like they can pull from other sources of inspiration. If youíre a white person, you donít have to only listen to shoegaze or indie music; you can listen to hip-hop, you can listen to soul music, you can listen to whatever. The same thing if youíre a black person; you donít have to only listen to rap and hip-hop. We are sort of leaning more towards a post-race society where people arenít as hung-up on color and things like that. Everything is open. Things are exploding. People are kind of realizing. Itís kind of Martin Luther Kingís dream, slowly, slowly, slowly.

MT: That feeling really comes through on this album. Iíve seen you talk about Sly & the Family Stone, Parliament and later hip-hop funk like A Tribe Called Quest having a heavy influence on your latest record False Priest, and it has all these different genres running through it. But at the same time, there isnít really one genre on it. It will move psychedelia to grunge to hip-hop, the funky low-end seems to be the tie through the whole record.

Barnes: Itís the driving spirit, I think. Thatís the thing I love about the situation that Iím in now, as an indie artist. The sort of freedom that I have, I can do whatever I want, whatever inspires me. If I want to do a spoken word thing, I write a few tracks if I can. If I want to do something more emotional and darker, like "Around the Way" or "Casualty of You" or the end of "You Do Mutilate," I can do any of that stuff. I would really think all artists should adopt that, and thatís the thing I love about Janelle Monae is sheís definitely on that trip as well. Not limiting herself at all. Thereís zero genre boundaries, just kind of hop all over the place.

MT: Would you ever want it to be like that where you were only limited to only one genre? Every album of yours is different; you canít point out one thing and say theyíre "this band" or "that band."

Barnes: I think that, in a way, could keep someone from real mainstream success. I think that the reason that certain people are extremely commercially successful is that they do just offer one thing. It makes sense to people; they can put it into a category. I think on a certain level to have that level of success you have to become almost a caricature. If you have a lot of mystery, if musically you canít necessarily be pinned down to one thing then youíre only going to appeal to people who love that in music. People who crave that, people who crave unpredictability, people who want a bit of ambivalence. They donít necessarily want to be hit in the face like, "This is a dance song ó about dancing!"

MT: If you wanted to talk about your live performances, and the whole overall packages of album packaging, the red vinyl and False Priest? People are getting something very tangible and unique each time they see you. To put it bluntly: Itís bang for your buck.

Barnes: It just comes from a love of the creative process. We love to create things. We love to be involved. When Iím making a record, I donít just want to make something boring, Iím always trying to come up with something that surprises me, that feels special, that feels different from the things Iíve done in the past. When we take the stage, we have the same attitude. We donít just want to get on stage in our street clothes and just play the songs and leave. We want to stretch out and feel almost like weíre curating an evening at the venue. We donít want it to just be like, "OK, weíre going to play our songs," we want it to feel like, OK, this person is kind of, like, digging in our roots a little bit. Weíre going to use this opportunity to create something, hopefully exceptional, hopefully entertaining, hopefully emotionally powerful. And just kind of celebrate the human condition in a way. It wonít just be all happy or all sad, or all funny or all horrific ó it will hopefully be a combination of all these things. Just to do something special with our lives. Thatís why we go on tour. Thatís why we spend so much time in the preparation of all these things. Also the performance of it, we care so much about it because of what it gives to us, what it does for us, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, physically. We hope that when people come to the shows they feel like itís an opportunity for them as well to do something exceptional or out of the ordinary. We want it to feel like this is something thatís the highlight of the week Ö hopefully. We donít want it to just be a voyeuristic thing either, where people just kind of come and look at the freaks. We want people to be the freaks too, you know? We want it to be a communal experience. So people come to the show and we hope that people dress up, do something different, wear some makeup that theyíve never worn, wear some shoes, whatever you want to do. Wear some crazy outfit that youíd never wear to work or to school. You can wear it to the show because itís fun. Itís like playing dress-up.

MT: Itís like youíre putting on a performance, is that different from, I donít want to say youíre a different person, but you can become whatever you want onstage?

Barnes: It gives all of us a chance to do some role-playing. It kind of just brings some aspects of our own personality to the surface that would normally lie dormant. Thatís kind of like the beautiful side of this theatrical art collective, that everyone involved has a chance to do something really special and really far-out with their lives for a couple weeks at a time.

MT: You were also just in Michigan for the first incarnation of the Land of Nod. How was that?

Barnes: I thought it was really cool. It was great because it was totally in the middle of nowhere. I think there was a Red Lobster; there wasnít anything in that area. We even asked some people in the area that we met, "Hey are you going to this festival?" and they were like, "What festival?" Donít you realize that, like, 10 minutes from you thereís this crazy festival? It was almost like stepping into this alternate reality: The people in that town didnít have any clue what was going on. There were all these people coming from outside. I thought it was great. I love Michigan, especially in the summertime; itís really beautiful. I got to hang out with my sisters and their kids, they joined us onstage for a couple songs. We got to involve them in the theatrics, which is always fun.

MT: I know you guys have a lot of covers and surprises in your shows. Anything you want to tease for the show?

Barnes: Oh, yeah, thereís going to be a lot of craziness, a lot of collaboration between the two groups. Itís going to be a pretty epic event. Janelle has such a theatrical side to her thing, and we have such a theatrical side, so weíre going to combine the two together and make something thatís completely out there. Iím really excited.

At 7:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 20, at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, 318 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-399-2980; $25; all ages; Janelle Monae supports.

Pietro Truba is an editorial intern at Metro Times. Send comments to

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