By Laura Ferreiro
Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes is undoubtedly one of the most colorful characters in indie rock today. The primary creative force behind the band, Barnes has been known to reinvent Of Montreal and their sound often, taking such drastic measures as stripping the band down to its core and rebuilding it again.
He's done this once again on of Montreal's latest album, Lousy With Sylvianbriar. Rather than featuring the twee indie-pop or bizarre electronic disco the band has become known for, Of Montreal's 11th studio album draws on several unlikely sources, including Barnes's favorite music from the 1960s and '70s.
"Whatever spirit I was chasing, the inspiration for the record was coming from late '60s early '70s artists like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Leonard Cohen, and Allen Ginsberg and the Beat poet scene," Barnes says.
The Athens, Georgia-based singer decided he needed a change of scenery to give him a fresh perspective and spark the creative side of his brain when he began to write the new record. Because of the important role San Francisco played in the music and poetry scenes of that era, and to immerse himself in unfamiliar surroundings, Barnes chose to relocate to the Bay Area city for a while. "It seemed like it would be a good place to be," he says. "I had never spent an extended period of time there. I wanted to explore the city a bit more. The whole focus of the trip was to write – it was kind of a writing retreat. I took a chance and I don’t really know anyone out there so I was by myself a lot of the time, writing and reading a lot of poetry."
He found inspiration in Latin culture as well. "I was living around the Mission District, and there's a huge Hispanic population there," Barnes says. "I also spent some time in Mexico. I don't know if you hear that in the music necessarily, but there's a subterranean aspect of the record I can't deny."
The time Barnes spent outside of his comfort zone was very fruitful, and he ended up with an album's worth of material to record. He then headed back home to Athens, where he assembled a completely new team of musicians to work on the album. Prior to Sylvianbriar, Barnes would usually record most of the instruments himself or work out the parts on a computer, and he would only recruit a band to perform the material for the sake of touring. But this time, he did it the old-fashioned way, holing up in his studio with four other musicians and laying down the tracks on a 24-track tape machine. They didn't dilly-dally, and they recorded the entire 11-track record in just two weeks.
"I had a different vision for this record and I knew I needed to get a specific kind of musician to help me realize this vision," Barnes explains. "Some of the people I hadn't spent that much time with before, so it was a gamble, but I had to believe in my instincts."
Barnes's instincts paid off, and the result is an ambitious album containing several tunes steeped in classic rock that showcase his gift for poetic, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. "Raindrop in My Skull" features vocalist Rebecca Cash, who appears on several songs, and sounds like something Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons could have made back in the '70s on a mind-expanding desert journey. Another highlight is "Colossus," which was inspired by poet Sylvia Plath, for whom the album was named, and insightfully delves into the world of a troubled girl whose mother committed suicide.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Barnes is already embarking on a new adventure: writing and compiling a book of poetry. "There's so much I never use in my songs – pages and pages of unused lyrics," he explains. "I never thought of myself as a poet but because I've been reading a lot of poetry as of late, I feel like I should do something with all of these lyrics. I'll probably publish it, but on a small scale. I have this compulsion to share things with the world," he laughs.
Now that the album is finished, Barnes seems in a state of disbelief about how smoothly it all came together. "Everything happened in this really organic way," he marvels. "Now I'm holding the album in my hand and it all seems like a crazy dream."
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