Indie-rock chameleons Of Montreal have cycled through plenty of styles over the years. On their latest album, the sprawling White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood, the Athens, Georgia, band takes cues from extended eighties dance remixes on tracks like the Prince-goes-goth "Paranoiac Intervals/Body Dysmorphia" and the dreamy new-wave sugar fog "Writing the Circles/Orgone Tropics."
White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood comes with an introspective essay by Of Montreal majordomo Kevin Barnes about the album's backdrop. There's a lot to chew on: he forgave himself for his divorce, fell in love again, and came to some seismic realizations about race, culture, the media, and oppression. Barnes writes that he's turned to a variety of great minds and strong voices—including Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky, and Ta-Nehisi Coates—for inspiration. But despite the essay's hints of turmoil and change, Barnes says Of Montreal is in a healthy place, thanks to a solid lineup and a cooperative mentality.
"It's almost like an art collective now," he says of the band, adding, "There's so much love coming from the stage and the audience as well. It hopefully is a very communal experience, and not just a voyeuristic one."
We caught up with Barnes last week, while he was out walking his dog. The wide-ranging conversation covered music and Of Montreal's two-plus-decades on the road and Barnes' approach to pushing the band toward the future.
INDY: Of Montreal has always been very synth-oriented. What drew you to eighties extended dance mixes for this record?
KEVIN BARNES: I think rediscovering that concept of editing songs for clubs and for dance halls. It's cool because it's less focused on the lyrics and the vocals and more focused on a groove. Reading about the songs that Arthur Russell used to make for the dance club that he used to d.j. at, I guess it helped me focus in on how beautiful music is, and how fun and exciting music can be instrumentally, and then trying to incorporate that into the pop structure.
I like working with longer arrangements because it gives me more opportunities to expand the vision and keep it unpredictable and interesting for the listener, and also for the composer.
You worked on your own or remotely with other musicians for White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood. How did that change the sound and execution of the album?
I used to sit in my parents' house in high school. I had a cassette four-track, and I would basically go straight home from school and just work. It's kind of the same approach I've had forever. But working alone definitely has its upside and downside.
The upside is that I don't have to compromise at all, as far as letting other people contribute to something if I don't really like what they want to do. That can be a problem with bands if people aren't all totally on the same wavelength. No one's really happy because everybody has to compromise their vision on some level.
On another level, it's definitely more work, which I don't really mind, because I think of it as going into my laboratory, losing touch with time and space. It's almost like a meditative process. But I still like working with other people because they're able to contribute things I wouldn't have thought of. I like the idea of the situation [where] I do as much as I can by myself, and then when I start to hit a wall, [other people] can contribute something that is really special and totally different from what I would do.
Sometimes you get so in the weeds on something, you lose all perspective. It helps to get that outside opinion.
Definitely. And working with [multi-instrumentalist] Zac Colwell, he's just an insanely good musician. I basically just said, "Here's all the songs, I want you to do something, anything. Something small, something big. Whatever you want to do." He added a lot of things I think are the most exciting moments of the record.
Of Montreal's first tour for White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood kicks off this week. In light of the fact you have so many issues and topics on your mind, is there anything in particular you want to convey with these songs and concerts?
We never really want to be heavy-handed about anything. I never felt like that was my role. We definitely try to create an atmosphere of inclusion and love and positivity and support. What we try to do with our live show is create an atmosphere that's fun and exciting and gives people an opportunity to role-play and experiment with gender-bending and dressing up and wearing costumes. It's sort of like a holiday. I think of it as something in between Halloween and New Year's Eve.
At this point, how do you choose which songs to play? Of Montreal's catalog is so huge.
We try to mix it up every tour. What we've been doing for a couple tours is to create almost like a Broadway musical or something. We'll do basically the same set every night, but it's all very choreographed and sketched out with the theatrics and props, the costume changes. It's almost like running a rock opera or a musical.