For the uninitiated, an Of Montreal show might look like some sort of a bizarre parallel universe instead of just a concert. Complex instrumentation and cryptic vocals come from stages often featuring elaborate sets, and even the audience gets in on the action, mimicking band leader and lead singer Kevin Barnes’s outlandish costumes.
“It’s definitely become more of a communal thing,” Barnes said. “It’s not really just people coming as voyeurs to watch the freaks onstage. I feel like people are using it as a good opportunity to dress up and have a special evening, something out of the ordinary.”
Of Montreal consists of Barnes (vocals), Bryan Poole (guitar), Dottie Alexander (keyboards),
Davey Pierce (bass),
Clayton Rychlik (drums) and Nicolas Dobbratz (multiple instruments). Barnes describes Of Montreal as more of an artist commune than a band, and his friends and family make up the bulk of his artistic collaborators. For instance, his wife, Nina, and his brother David helped turn 2008’s album “Skeletal Lamping” into a multimedia art experiment which substituted paper lanterns and tote bags for traditional CDs.
Barnes said he enjoys working with those close to him, despite the emotional pitfalls many would expect from such relationships.
“Because we have such a history together, we can say whatever we need to. We don’t have to worry about necessarily hurting someone’s feelings. If I have something that I want to see realized, then I don’t mind pushing people to make it happen. I’m not working with these people just because I want to be nice. I’m working with them because I respect them and think they’re fantastic,” he said.
Formed by Barnes in 1996, Of Montreal garnered mainstream attention with the critically acclaimed “Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?” The concept album featured Barnes’ transformation into Georgie Fruit, a Ziggy Stardust-like alter ego with a checkered past. However, more recent work, like 2012’s “Paralytic Stalks,” reads more like a confession than a conjured-up character.
“The first album, ‘Cherry Peel,’ is very personal and confessional, and then I kind of withdrew a bit on a personal level, just not feeling strong enough to share that with the world directly, so I sort of hid behind character sketches,” Barnes said. “I was really into Roald Dahl and wanted to make something that was kind of childlike and make these semi-twisted children’s stories and play them to music at that time period. Maybe on a certain level some of my personal life might shine through unintentionally. In general, with the last three or four records, they’ve become more rooted in my personal life.”
While Barnes’ alter egos make for interesting lyrics, the most celebrated aspect of the band’s sound is their complex instrumentation and unexpected musical transitions. Barnes cited the Beatles and the Beach Boys’ album “Smile” as inspiration for the band’s explorative sound.
“These compositions are very pop, but they’re also densely orchestrated and interestingly arranged. It’s not like the traditional Buddy Holly-style of pop rock. They’re taking it to this other level that maybe has more in common with classical music, and that appealed to me because I do like complex arrangements,” he said. “I find it more interesting when there are layers and a lot of movement and genre-hopping within a song. There’s a freedom in that.”
Characters, costumes and complex songs might be fun in the studio, but many would think that all those elements could get overwhelming during live shows. Barnes said he feels that all that extra effort actually makes performing live easier.
“I think the variety is sort of invigorating. Like, if you know that you’ve got to run over here and play a different instrument for this one song or you’ve got to do a costume change real fast between songs it keeps you on your toes. To just come onstage in my street clothes and play 13 songs and be done doesn’t really appeal to me. I would find that more exhausting,” he said.
Eleven full-length albums later (with a 12th coming later this year) and the members of Of Montreal are still giving it their all, combining art, theater and music into glam-riddled indie pop festivals of color and concept.
“I like the variety of having all these different things going on in a performance and having all these other people involved and the costume changes and the visual and theatrical element and all that stuff,” Barnes said. “It creates a more fulfilling experience for me, and hopefully for the audience as well.”
Of Montreal and opening band Wild Moccasins will play at the Varsity in Baton Rouge on Sunday, May 5. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show starts at 8. More information about the band can be found at http://www.ofmontreal.net/