Founded in 1996 after a failed romance with a woman “of Montreal,” the Athens, Georgia-based band has released 12 studio albums and 9 EPs, in addition to working alongside contemporaries like Janelle Monae, Bright Eyes and Solange Knowles. In the midst of their European tour, we met up with frontman and head songwriter Kevin Barnes at Berlin’s Lido to learn more about their latest album, ‘Lousy with Sylvianbriar.’
Seated in front of the stage of Montreal would play on later that night to a sold-out crowd, Barnes initially strikes me as shy, which is surprising given his intensely confessional lyrics and extravagant onstage persona, not to mention his prolific body of work which ranges from twee-pop to Scandinavian black metal. That quickly wears off though once we get into the creation of Lousy with Sylvianbriar. Inspired heavily by late American poetess Sylvia Plath, the album’s title uses the word “lousy” in a way Barnes had never heard before coming across Plath’s poem “Leaving Early” where she writes, “Lady, your room is lousy with flowers” “Sylvianbriar,” on the other hand, is entirely Barnes’ creation, which he describes as a “vine that’s sort of infused with the spirit of Sylvia Plath. Kind of like if there’s a witch’s curse and she died and became this poem.”
The presence of other artists’ work is felt, too, something Barnes is not afraid nor hesitant to admit. He lists among others Cormac McCarthy, Gram Parsons, Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and the Rolling Stones. Drawing heavily from this mix of ‘60s and ‘70s rock, Barnes is quick to point out that although he feels the best records from those genres have already been made, he’s only taking the “best elements of those genres” and making “an old-school Americana record, before the term Americana even existed.” Besides the swung rhythms laying the backbone to several songs, that influence is felt most prominently through the use of steel guitar lingering from track to track.
While recent of Montreal records have been chock full of eclectic instrumentals, Barnes once again brings his lyrics to the spotlight, a testament to his obsessive writing habits. Seen on paper, the words read like poetry with many lines written about himself, such as the tragicomic opening of “Triumph of Disintegration” where Barnes lets out, “The last ten days have been a motherfucker / I didn’t know if I’d survive.” Asked about the event that spawned those lyrics, he gives me the gist of it without getting into any particulars, describing, “periods of mental illness, when you don’t even realize it, and it sort of recedes a bit and then you have a better perspective on things, like ‘Jesus Christ, how did I ever survive that period?’” He’s clearly overcome this particular incident but this sense of manic depressiveness has been present in of Montreal’s work from Day One and is sure to continue into the future, for better or for worse. Other tracks, meanwhile, are written about loved ones, including the harsh observation of “Baby / Your family / They are all just losers” to the warming acceptance of “Your folks / They are such lovely people.” With lyrics across the spectrum, Barnes assures me the subject of these musings are two entirely separate people.
“Periods of mental illness, when you don’t even realize it, and it sort of recedes a bit and then you have a better perspective on things, like ‘Jesus Christ, how did I ever survive that period?’”
Detailing the creative process, Barnes relates his excursion to San Francisco where he wrote all of Lousy with Sylvianbriar before returning to Athens to record the tracks in full. Although he’s toyed with the idea of a writing retreat before, it’s something he’d never done before with the exception of the situational isolation brought about by living in Oslo, which resulted in the critically-acclaimed album Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? Asked if he’d do it again, Barnes is more than enthusiastic and mentions spending time in Seville or Morocco. There’s no need to explain this desire either given Lousy with Sylvianbriar’s reception with critics and fans alike.
In anticipation of the show, I ask about the theatrics, another component the band is known and appreciated for. Careful not to ruin anything, Barnes describes a “cool psychedelic visual show with costume changes,” making sure to fully exploit their impossible-to-pin-down range of music which now spans from “country-sounding and intimate songs” to “synth-pop dance-party glam shit.” As I would discover just a few hours later, Barnes remained true to his word and delivered yet another stellar performance using tracks from his decades-long career.
- Photography: Ryan Hursh for Highsnobiety.com