Kevin Barnes has spent the last eight years in the thrall of David Bowie, Roxy Music and Parliament/Funkadelic, His band of Montreal have put out eight releases in that time, most of which defy description in their ungovernable brilliance. Now he's taken inspiration from Blonde on Blonde era Dylan, Neil Young, and Gram Parsons. Lucky us. Hacks are already calling the new album, lousy with sylvianbriar, a return to the waltzed-out acoustics of his late 90s output. But Barnes' artistic compass only points true north. A change in aesthetics is always sure to wrongfoot critics, but fans who have come to listen and learn will be delighted. Who can say what this direction will ultimately give rise to? Well, the man himself gives us a few clues below...
You've said something about believing you haven't made a great album. Is lousy with sylvianbriar it?
When I make a record I'm always really excited about it, and I do think it's great- that's the whole reason I want to release it, you know? But then when I look back on other records there's maybe one moment that I feel good about, and then ninety percent of the rest is just ok. I think that's probably healthy. If I thought everything was great I'd either be a dreadful person, or I just wouldn't really be motivated. The part that motivates me is feeling like I can be better.
Do you think it's possible to set out with the intention of making a great album?
I think great records are accidents a lot of times, like someone just happens to be in a perfect state of mind. I don't even mean a healthy state of mind but the right state of mind. I can't think of a perfect album- cause even Ziggy Stardust has “It Ain't Easy”, which isn't even his song. Bowie comes the closest, or he did in his heyday. The Golden Years or whatever.
Have you got artists and individuals who are benchmarks for you, that you think: “I want to get as good as this person”?
Oh definitely. To an extent artists will inspire me. For this record I would say big inspiration was Bob Dylan, Neil Young... like legendary songwriters. And kind of imagining myself living in 1971. We were joking around like, what would the Eagles think of this record?
The 70s seems to have a lot to do with this album. Was this change prompted by something specific, or was it just where you were heading anyway?
All of these creative decisions happen organically. I've never really thought that I need to make this kind of record. A lot of times I'll want to make a certain kind of record and it just doesn't happen, and it just starts to take on its own lifeforce.
And is that ok?
Yeah it's totally fine because for better or for worse all these things are inspired, and the inspiration might be very un-commercial, so it doesn't always help my career. With Paralytic Stalks I was trying to make something that was inspired by avant garde classical music and... funk music [laughs] and combined those two in a way. With this record I really wanted to make lyric-driven songs, because its all about the voice, it's all about the delivery of the message. That's why I wanted to make it less ornamental and less schizophrenic from an arrangement standpoint.
Was there something specific you were trying to communicate more directly?
I think I wanted to make something that felt like someone was speaking to you directly like through your ear into your head, in the way that Dylan did on Blonde on Blonde, with records like that it feels like a companion or entering into someone else's consciousness.
Like an author almost?
Yeah exactly. With an album like Paralytic Stalks, there's so much that your brain is trying to connect with and absorb, and with this album I wanted it to feel more like a band in a room, which it was.
Do you think that some of the modern focus in music is a lot more on sound and the particularities of sound production, because that's where the innovations have come from and new genres have come out of that? And songwriting itself has maybe been left behind a bit?
Absolutely. ...sylvianbriar is a reaction to that. I like electronic music and I think it's interesting, but there's no real place for a song in that because it's all production. It's funny that it almost feels dated, to write a song on acoustic guitar it's like “God you're like a dinosaur what are you doing?”
For the benefit of our readers who might not be familiar with you, I thought we could play a game of “Explain The Song Title," starting with: “Micro University”?
I don't know, “Micro University” was definitely Roxy Music inspired... there might be something there. “I look at you and I see, micro university” doesn't really mean anything- that's the fun aspect of being creative with language, you're like this vessel for absurdity. If it means nothing to the author it doesn't make it less legitimate. In a way, what it means to the author is irrelevant. I was thinking about how what the artist receives from creating the art is in no way connected to what a listener is going to receive.
The transaction is unbalanced?
Yeah. It's strange in that way if you make something that's really complex and bizarre and esoteric, and it could mean a lot to you, but everyone who hears it thinks it's shit, it doesn't matter that it meant so much to you. It matters in a personal sense but not a global sense.
Ok, let's try “Godly Intersex”?
The first verse is about what my perception of the transgender experience would be, not being something that's fully established as male/female, Intersex being a sort of nebulous sexuality.
What about “There Is Nothing Wrong With Hating Rock Critics”?
Oh yeah well that's pretty straightforward.
“Dustin Hoffman Thinks About Eating The Soap”?
That was my brother and I, we made a compilation of all these four track songs I had, and I couldn't remember what I'd titled them at the time. I was like: “What if we pretended it was this concept album about Dustin Hoffman?”
Was it a desperate cry for his attention? Has he ever written to you?
No but I heard he was asked that question in an interview. “Did you know there's this indie-rock band that did a concept album about you?”
“Erroneous Escape Into Eric Eckles”?
Eric Eckles was a friend of my brother's when we were in high school. I was really into alliteration at that time, and you know how growing up you have childhood names you remember forever where you weren't necessarily friends with the person but their name just sticks in your brain? It must have been so weird for him like, “Why did my friends' brother write a song about me?”
Well it's all part of the ouvre now. And finally how would you sum up the title of lousy with sylvianvbriar?
It's basically an homage to Sylvia Plath, she has this poem called Leaving Early and the first line is something like “Lady your room is lousy with flowers,”. So sylvianbriar is something I invented to imagine as a weird flower or nettle, but if you're lousy with sylvianbriar that's a good thing.
lousywithsylvianbriar is out now on Polyvinyl. You can buy it here