When Of Montreal front man Kevin Barnes, a Rocky River native who still thinks of himself as a lifelong fan of Cleveland sports teams, moved to Athens, Ga. some 15 years ago, he consciously wanted to embrace the city's rich musical history. Inspired by watching Athens, Ga. Inside/Out, a documentary film about the music scene that featured performances and interviews with acts such as R.E.M., Pylon and the Flat Duo Jets, he sought out the kind of camaraderie he lacked in previous bands.
"That film was one of the reasons why a lot of [musicians] moved to Athens from smaller towns around the way," says Barnes via phone from his Athens home. "It's because it seemed like a cool atmosphere and environment to be an indie artist in. We were searching for that mythology."
The band quickly befriended indie rock acts such as Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel, groups that were part of the loosely formed Elephant 6 collective. Even though Of Montreal used the Elephant 6 logo on a couple of its records, it was never officially part of the collective. But then the collective was never really that well organized, either.
"It was an unofficial collective," explains Barnes. "We were considered a second- tier Elephant Six band because we weren't high school friends with any of those guys. They were a little bit older than us and we were trying to ride on their coattails to a certain degree. We were hanging out with them and looking up to them and getting an education from them. They hit the road and got publicists and we learned how to do it on a DIY level. I remember begging them to let us use the logo because it would give us more recognition."
Of Montreal initially began playing the kind of neo-psychedelic rock for which the other bands in the collective were known, but the band then went in a different, dance-oriented direction on 2002's Aldhils Arboretum.
"There was this whole period of a '60s psychedelic pop revival thing that we were involved with," says Barnes. "I reached this point where I got bored with that musical direction and wanted to do something new, and the band was splintering apart anyway."
So Barnes didn't renew the lease for the house he shared with the other band members. He got married and set up a studio in the bedroom that he and his wife moved into and took the opportunity to pursue the musical interests that existed well outside the band's parameters.
"I wanted to start exploring new kinds of music and funkier types of music and get back to working by myself again because the band had become democratic," he says. "I had all these ideas I wanted to explore on my own. Prince was the first artist I connected with on a deeper level and fell in love with and became mildly obsessed with. There's an accessible side to every record. Each album has at least two or three singles, but there's totally weird songs like 'Computer Blue' or 'Lady Cab Driver' or 'Something in the Water (Does Not Compute).'"
Barnes wrote most of Of Montreal's next album, 2004's Satanic Panic in the Attack, without any help from his bandmates. He would continue to experiment with new sounds and dabble in funk and soul on a regular basis, and the approach has earned him well-deserved comparisons to David Bowie.
"I think on a certain level that's a good comparison [to Bowie], just because he is semi-ADD like I am and wanting to change everything from record to record and willing to take on new personas without feeling like he's phony. I wouldn't say I'm in the same class, though."
Produced by pop mastermind Jon Brion (Kanye West, Fiona Apple), 2010's False Priest represented another shift for the group.
"It was a really prolific time for me," he says. "I wrote all the songs for False Priest and the Controller Sphere EP and five songs that made it onto [the rarities collection] Daughter of Cloud, tons of material. I started hanging out with [soul singer] Janelle Monae and that group of people and reconnecting with that funk influence and getting really into Parliament and Sly and the Family Stone and all this stuff. There was this persona that I didn't give a name to that I felt like I was under the spell of. I was writing all these songs that weren't relevant to my personal experiences. I was role- playing, and I found that inspiring."
That sense of role-playing continues on the band's latest album, Paralytic Stalks, which came out earlier this year. A culmination of the band's many influences, it features electronica flourishes and brainy percussive workouts, all the while retaining sharp pop sensibilities.
"I think because False Priest was persona-based and I was going through this difficult time psychologically and emotionally, and I wanted to use music as a form of therapy, so I wanted to make a record that was more direct and emotionally raw and relative to my personal life," Barnes says of Paralytic. "So that record isn't as much fun. It's coming from a darker place, for sure. I think that's good in a way. People look to music for support, like I do. There are John Lennon records that I adore because he made himself so vulnerable and was expressing something complex and presented songs about suffering and anxiety that we could all identify with. I take a lot of support from those records."
In addition to releasing Paralytic and Daughter Cloud, Barnes has been busy contributing to a documentary film about the band that's due out next year. And he says he's ready to go in yet another musical direction on the band's next studio album.
"Oddly enough, I've been listening to a lot of outlaw country music and folk music, so I think the next album will be less dance-y and less glam and more raw and it's hard to say, really," he says. "When I think about it now, I just want the new songs I want to be very personable and intimate and approachable. The band is at this new crossroads in trying to create something different artistically. It's good with the documentary and compilation to close the door on a chapter and open up a new one."