By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
Of Montreal was once a paisley-pop band on the tiny Athens, Georgia-based Kindercore label. But those days are just a distant memory: The group has spent the last six years erasing its psychedelic pedigree in favor of synthesized, increasingly sex-drenched electro-funk. Kevin Barnes has led the group through this transformation with a growing adherence to R&B- and Prince-worthy falsetto workouts.
The band's share of the spotlight increased again with this year's False Priest. Although the album again features Of Montreal's buzzy, danceable synthpop, Barnes constructed Priest in a very different way: Normally a one-man-band studio hermit, he enlisted beloved producer Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Kanye West) to punch up his home recordings. Barnes also invited rising R&B stars Janelle Monae and Solange Knowles (sister to Beyoncé) to contribute vocals to the record. Reached by phone, Barnes talked about the new recording techniques, the joys of collaboration and his band's now-legendary live shows.
Christian Schaeffer: False Priest sounds a lot more organic and influenced by '70s funk and soul. Did you feel like you had met your limits with what sequencers and drum machines could do?
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Kevin Barnes: Well, I always prefer to have a live drummer, but I'm not very good at recording live drums. So whenever I would record live drums, it would sound too conventional to me, and I felt like I could do more creative things by treating drum loops and drum programming. So that's why I always used them in the past. But [I was] working with Jon Brion at Ocean Way studios, and using all this vintage gear and working with this drummer, Matt Chamberlain, who is just this amazing guy and very able to produce really satisfying results. So that's why we used a lot of live drums. But there actually are still a lot of drum programming and drum loops on the record.
So was that just a matter of coming to Ocean Way and having the tracks mostly done and having Jon [Brion] do post-production work on it?
Yeah, pretty much. I had been working for about a year before I went out there, and I put the record together in the way I normally create records. So by Of Montreal standards it was done, and then we went through and picked out things that we could improve and that wouldn't be that difficult. We kind of got carried away because it was so much fun. The original plan was for me to go out there for a month, make whatever changes we were gonna make, and also mix it during that time period. But after the month was over, we realized that we hadn't done any mixing, and we still had a bunch of things that we wanted to change. It ended up taking three or four months, I think. We replaced all of the bass parts. I just sat there in a room for a week, taught myself how to play them again, and then re-cut them through a better signal chain. We spent ten days cutting drum tracks on every song and a bunch of songs that didn't make the record as well. So we definitely got swept up in the process.
Do you find that the collaborative process is something you look forward to doing again with Of Montreal records? Your process has been so solitary.
It's kind of too expensive to do that on every record, so out of necessity I'll have to work alone.
That's been one of the things that's impressed me the most about your records and your live show: You make the records by yourself but you have such a great live show and a great band that's been with you for so long. In making that translation from record to stage, do you have sort of a boot-camp mentality, where you have to sit down and prepare for the tour based on what you've done in the studio?
Yeah, because when I'm recording and putting the songs together, I'm not really thinking about how we're gonna do it live. It's not really part of the process. And then afterward, that's the great challenge: How are we gonna do this? In the past, we relied on backing tracks a lot, and we had a lot of stuff going through the house that was being played off a computer or triggered by samples. And I sort of became frustrated with following the computer — it became very oppressive. So for this tour we expanded the lineup to be an eight-piece. We're still triggering a few things, but basically all the rhythm elements are live. And that's very exciting, because we can take chances. There will be a level of spontaneity that we haven't had in the past, arrangement changes we can make on the fly. That's extremely exciting just because being completely tied to a specific arrangement night after night after night can be very unsatisfying.
When you look back on the stuff Of Montreal put out in the late '90s, do you even recognize that band, even though it's a lot of the same players?