Three years ago, in the final months of an extended Norwegian vacation, Of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes almost lost his mind. He had finished his ninth full-length album with the band, Satanic Panic in the Attic, before leaving America. In Norway, his wife gave birth to their first daughter, Alabee. Barnes—a new father and a tourist—began his meltdown.
"On one side, things were going really well. On the other side, like my personal life, things were really difficult," remembers Barnes. "It was a lot of things: becoming a father and being on tour all the time and not being able to really help with my daughter, becoming more commercially successful. I had these irresolvable issues that tore me apart in a way."
Barnes poured his issues onto paper in a series of introspective and narrative lyrics. He wasn't writing an album as much as he was putting himself through therapy. But his Norwegian words became the band's 11th album, Hissing Fauna: Are You the Destroyer?, the darkest record in their catalogue. But, three years removed, Barnes looks back on those songs and laughs. In fact, he's doing that right now, sitting in the band's van outside of Lawrence, Kan., chuckling over "Cato as a Pun," an exploration of head games and unanswered phone calls stemming from a busted relationship. "I guess you just want to shave your head, have a drink and be left alone," Barnes sings during "Cato," a scenario that's an unlikely mirror to Britney Spears' recent personal life. Barnes never imagined his song would have this sort of connection to the glitterati, but he think it's funny.
"That's so absurd, the whole concept of my song being connected to Britney Spears," he says. "I think it's amazing how that turned out—that somehow my song would have some sort of parallel to her life. That's enough to make you believe in God, for sure!"
It's ironic that a new Barnes' song has some sort of futurist parallel. For so long now, he's been writing in the past. Of Montreal's earlier albums were full of escapist fantasies. They read like surrealism. Musically, Barnes admits to living in the past for most of his career as a member of the Elephant Six Collective, the seminal Athens, Ga. indie stock-house of the mid-'90s. Alongside collective mates Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples in Stereo and Elf Power, he embraced '60s rainbow riffs and kaleidoscope skies. Of Montreal relished the saccharine pop novelty and escapist fantasies of a different time and place, never getting too close or too personal to anything short of the imagined world Barnes inhabited.
"I ended up romanticizing these artists and the period that they were living in because I was escaping from this reality that I thought was boring," he explains, referring to the Beatles, Kinks, Who and their more obscure counterparts. "It was easier to get into something that was during a time that I couldn't connect with it."
But Hissing Fauna continues Barnes' recent modern push: It's his most personal, introspective album—all depression, drug abuse, broken hearts and anxiety—splayed over a steady stream of dance-ready synth washes and big beats. It's Barnes at his most real and most vibrant, binging and purging his demons. "I got really tired of living in the past," he says. "I wanted to create something that made me feel more connected to things happening in my lifetime."
Wait, didn't Britney say that once?
Of Montreal plays Cat's Cradle Monday, March 5 with Mixel Pixel and Grand Buffet. The show starts at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $12-$14.