Kevin Barnes, aka the frontperson for the popular indie band of Montreal, likes when things are unpredictable. For Barnes, life can be too mundane too often. So, their ears perk up when a song, conversation, or some other form of interaction is different, fresh, or even odd. That’s when Barnes tends to thrive. It’s the foundation for the artist’s long career, which includes collaborations with Solange, Janelle Monae, and Talking Heads, along with appearances on late night shows, at big festivals, and more.
To date, of Montreal has released 18 albums, the latest of which is Freewave Lucifer F<ck F^ck F>ck, a seven-song record born of the isolation stemming from the recent COVID-19 lockdown, which raises eyebrows as much as it sets the listener off-kilter with sonic angles and crunches. It’s a delightful album meant to break up internal pain and the predictable pop on today’s Top 40.
“The thing I love most about [music] is it’s very unpredictable,” Barnes tells American Songwriter. “As an artist, you don’t know what you’re going to be inspired to do. I like to think of the Salvador Dali quote, ‘Every morning when I wake up… I ask myself what wonderful things am I going to accomplish today?’ I don’t think I have his level of confidence, but I think that’s something every artist should shoot for.”
As a kid, Barnes remembers first hearing songs in the car—Hall & Oates, Kool and the Gang. From that early age, Barnes knew music was what they wanted to do as they got older. They wanted to be part of the amazing spectrum of what hit their eardrums even then. In fifth grade, when school teachers were passing out instruments for orchestra, Barnes took up the drums. They were the most exciting, Barnes says. In their early teens, they got their first guitar and that’s when songwriting began “pretty much right away.” An uncle helped teach them songs. They listened to a Rolling Stones box set and played along, picking up the chords by ear, and then using those chords to write their own tunes. They got a chord book. They learned about major, minor, sustained, seventh chords, and the whole lot.
“I never had a [formal] guitar teacher, I never went to music school,” Barnes says. “Everything was experimental.”
Barnes figured out what sounded cool to their ear. The musician says they felt like a “pioneer” as they discovered things that worked. They named each discovery and kept going. They immediately took to it. Barnes is one of those people that if they didn’t have a natural aptitude, they would have dropped it. But they had talent and showed acumen. And they wanted to find new ground. They watched jazz players stretch their fingers and play seemingly odd chords. So, they began stretching their own digits, finding what worked and sounded good. But as the venture got more serious, Barnes realized they were essentially clueless when it came to the business of music, and how to get work out into the world.
“I was living in South Florida with my parents,” Barnes says. “I didn’t even know anything about indie labels or indie bands until I was probably 17 or 18.”
A friend showed them how to record on a four-track and Barnes’ world exploded. They realized they could make music at home and so that’s what they did, diving into the equipment in their bedroom. They found fulfillment in doing so. Then, with demos in hand, they were able to send the tapes out to a few labels. Bar/None Records in Hoboken, New Jersey responded—the only one to do so. The company wanted to hear more, so Barnes sent more. Then, the label signed them to a three-album deal. At the time, Barnes didn’t have a band, so they just sent a photo of them with two friends.
“Luckily,” Barnes says, “they didn’t drop me when they discovered the truth.”
Not long after, Barnes moved north to Athens, Georgia. At the time, there was a “great” indie music scene with “tons of bedroom recording artist people” like Barnes working on making music. Not slick recordings, but rough, intimate, and even plucky songs. From there, Barnes launched their career. It was 1996 when Montreal got off the ground. And in 1997 Barnes released the band’s first album, Cherry Peel, followed by seven more albums over the next decade, or so. Since then, of Montreal has experienced fame, but not so much that Barnes has ever felt packed into a corner.
“That’s all part of the tapestry when I look back on it,” they say. “That period was this, this period was that—to be honest, I don’t think about that too much. I’m not really that nostalgic about any past moment. It almost feels like a dream or something when I look back. Even last week feels like a dream.”
For Barnes, to make music that is untraditional or pushes boundaries appeals to them for the playfulness of it, largely. Some might call it “experimental,” others might dub it “psychedelic.” Barnes calls the genre of sounds they draw from “FreeWave.” Whatever it’s named, what’s important is a lack of rules and room to create. One can change keys, tempo, direction, or tone. There are philosophical undertones to the work, a general questioning: Why do we have to act a certain way? The answer, of course, is that we don’t. And the music Barnes makes shows this. However, they note, the idea isn’t to tread in “cynical” territory or areas of the consciousness that put others at risk. Don’t be selfish.
“You have to be careful on some level,” Barnes says, “not to become too inhumane.”
As a performer, Barnes says, they “want to feel what this feels like inside this body, to wear this outfit, or not wear any outfit.” The artist earned some notoriety when they performed naked at past shows in the early 2000s (NSFW). It was one of many times Barnes worked to shed the predictable. And their most recent attempt, of course, is the new of Montreal album. The collection of songs was born from the pandemic. When touring for their 2020 album, Ur Fun, halted for Barnes in 2020, they went back to the studio. The first recording they released for free on Bandcamp was I Feel Safe with You, Trash. Then they wrote Freewave Lucifer F<ck F^ck F>ck.
“On some level,” Barnes says, “the two are sister albums, both born of the pandemic, both born of the same isolation, alienation.”
Barnes’ mother died during the process of making the album, and their dog, too. There was a lot of sadness. So, the music was therapy, in a way. Cathartic. They were in their home studio, exorcising demons and feelings, trying to do something positive with them. Trying to break free from a cycle of pain. All of this contributed to their new release. Also in the mix was Barnes’ philosophical inquiry into ideas of time and how sound, song, and time interplay.
“I want to make something that’s not boring, not predictable,” they say, “and that bounces all over the place.”
Barnes knows, however, that these works may not have “mass appeal.” So what? They’ve already experienced fame, already been a hitmaker. Now is not the time for that. Now is the time to find certainty, of sorts, with their own mind and creative impulses. Then to move on and do it all over again. When they were a kid, it wasn’t fame and celebrity that drove them. No, it was discovery and a sense of personal truth. Barnes doesn’t need to chase “that dragon” of commercial fame. In that way, the music is like a time machine, capable of bringing Barnes back to the early days when art was about the practice, not the product. Now, as they prepare for a fall tour and more music making, they’re balancing feelings of excitement for the unknown with a sense of a renewed, though unplanned perspective on personal identity.
“The cool thing for me,” Barnes says, “is that I feel very much connected to the person that I was when I was 15 years old and first getting into four-tracking and writing songs. I don’t feel very much changed beyond just learning some new tricks and maybe becoming a little better on the instruments.”
North American Tour Dates
9/08: Athens, GA @ 40 Watt #
9/09: New Orleans, LA @ Howlin’ Wolf #
9/10: Austin, TX @ Mohawk #
9/12: Albuquerque, NM @ Sister #
9/13: Phoenix, AZ @ The Crescent Ballroom #
9/14: Los Angeles, CA @ Regent #
9/15: Berkeley, CA @ UC Theatre #
9/16: Eugene, OR @ WOW Hall #
9/17: Portland, OR @ Wonder Ballroom #
9/18: Seattle, WA @ Neumos #
9/19: Missoula, MT@ the Wilma #
9/20: Salt Lake City, UT @ Metro #
9/21: Englewood, CO @ The Gothic #
9/22: Lawrence, KS @ The Granada #
9/23: St. Louis, MO @ Red Flag #
9/24: Atlanta, GA @ Buckhead Theatre #
10/04: Carrboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle #
10/05: Richmond, VA @ Broadberry #
10/06: Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club #
10/07: Brooklyn, NY @ Elsewhere #
10/08: Boston, MA @ Sinclair #
10/09: Philadelphia, PA @ Theatre of the Living Arts #
10/10: Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Ballroom #
10/11: Detroit, MI @ Magic Stick #
10/12: Milwaukee, WI @ Turner Hall #
10/13: Minneapolis, MN @ Fine Line #
10/14: Chicago, IL @ Lincoln Hall #
10/15: Cincinnati, OH @ Woodward Theatre #
10/16: Asheville, NC @ The Grey Eagle #
# w/ Locate S,1
Photo by Christina Schneider / Girlie Action Media