A Rocky River native who's still a lifelong fan of Cleveland sports teams, Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes moved to Athens, Ga. more than 20 years ago because he 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 Athens musicians who shared his sensibilities. He moved there in 1993 and successfully launched the band that's still going strong.
"Athens has grown a lot since then, but it was a small Southern city back then," says Barnes via phone from New York where the band was preparing to appear on the Comedy Central show The Opposition with Jordan Klepper
. The band performs with Mega Bog at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, March 30, at the Beachland Ballroom
. "The majority of the people living there were affiliated with the university. It was easy to find cheap old houses to live in. It was a transient city for musicians and artists. I lived in a house that was like a commune. I lived there with musicians and artists who would live there for a few weeks and then be gone. It was cool."
After forming Of Montreal, he quickly befriended Athens-based indie rock acts such as Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel, groups that were part of the Elephant 6 collective. Even though Of Montreal used the Elephant 6 logo on a record, it was never officially part of the collective. But then, the collective was never really that well-organized, either. Barnes has described it as an "unofficial collective."
"Elephant 6 was initially friends who lived in Louisiana, and they made home recordings and pressed cassettes and 7-inches. They invented their own label, but they didn't have any distribution," he says. "It was an art collective, but then, it became more popular and an official label. We were part of it in the sense that I was friends with them, and we played on each other's records. I was trying to ride on the coattails of what they were doing. They were older than me and had more experience. It was about trying to be associated with something I thought was really cool."
Of Montreal initially began playing the kind of neo-psychedelic rock for which the other bands in the collective were known.
"I didn't want the band to sound contemporary at the beginning," says Barnes. "I was really into the Beatles and the Kinks and Os Mutantes. I wasn't interested in contemporary music or production. That was our aesthetic. I wanted it to sound analog, which it was. I didn't want to mess with computers."
A few years after the band formed, Barnes changed his approach and started listening to more electronic dance music.
"I had hit a wall with the '60s revivalist thing," he says. "I just wanted to venture into new territory. I got more into drum programming and synthesizers. From a songwriter perspective, I still come from a '60s standpoint, but I incorporate more contemporary production styles."
Barnes wrote the material on 2016's Innocence Reaches
during an extended stay in Paris where he was heavily influenced by contemporary electronic music. With last year's Rune Husk
, he continued to explore those influences but decided to go in a different direction yet again with the just-released White is Relic/Irrealis Mood
"It's an organic thing that happens," Barnes says when asked about the shift in direction. "I tend to get really into a certain style of production, and then, I get bored with that want to do something new. With Innocence Reaches
, I got more into electronic music. Rune Husk
was the songs that were kind of like the outtakes. Even though it came out after Innocence Reaches
, it wasn't where I was at. It was just emptying the vaults. This is more of a continuation of what I started with Innocence Reaches,
and it's expanded more."
Barnes took inspiration from the extended dance mixes that pop music artists released in the '80s.
"When I discovered all these extended versions of 'Purple Rain,' it made me realize the potential in that," he says. "You can create something longer and more transportive. If you're working with an extended mix, there's so much you can express. The inspiration was wanting to make something that could be a three-minute song and expand on those ideas and create something new out of that. It's like discovering hidden chapters in your favorite book."
The themes about identity found in works by James Baldwin, Angela Davis and Kathy Acker inspired the lyrical content.
"I was doing self-educating at the time and discovering the United States in the real sense and not the way it's presented to you as a child," he says. "As a child, you're taught that we love equality and love the underdog and we never exploit anything and everything we do is in the name of Christ. When you realize that's totally untrue, you realize there's so much fabricated reality presented to people."
Drone-y tunes such as the album opener, "Soft Music/Juno Portraits of the Jovian Sky," feature electronic bleeps and blips while Barnes evokes David Bowie with his brittle vocals. As much as the studio versions of the songs call for improvisation in the live setting, Barnes say the band will aim to duplicate them live rather than turn them into jams.
"We've started rehearsing the songs, and they're pretty different from songs from the past," he says. "I wouldn't have anticipated but hearing how they feel next to the other songs, they feel very sophisticated in the sense that there's so much going on musically and lyrically, but they're also very fragmented. We've been staying true to the arrangements on the album. It's a fun and interesting challenge to reproduce them live. It's not easy to do that, and I'm not playing any musical instruments on this tour, so I'll just be singing. It'll be fun for me to be in the eye of the musical storm."
Of Montreal, Mega Bog, 9:30 p.m. Friday, March 30, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $18 ADV, $20 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.