Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes on EDM-Influenced New Album 'Innocence Reaches'

Robin Little/Redferns
Kevin Barnes of Of Montreal performs at Village Underground on March 14, 2016 in London.

“I’m moving in a new direction,” the Athens, GA, singer-songwriter says of his 14th release.

Over 13 albums and nearly two decades, Kevin Barnes, the 42-year-old frontman and founder of Athens, GA, indie rock outfit Of Montreal, has molded his career on the throwback sounds of 1960s psychedelic pop and the individualistic flamboyancy of two artistic icons, David Bowie and Prince. But on his 14th release, Innocence Reaches, Barnes takes on a new muse: EDM.

The integration of electronic beats and flourishes feels both wholly appropriate and long overdue. It’s certainly a fit for his colorful, bright sound, and with Innocence Reaches, Barnes crafts his most approachable release in years. “I wanted to create something that feels like it makes sense in our times,” Barnes tells Billboard of the new 12-track LP. But classic Of Montreal hallmarks persist: Here, as on 2015’s Aureate Gloom, Barnes — who named his band for a failed relationship with a woman from the Canadian city — is reeling from the damage of his divorce and the failed relationships that immediately followed it. The man who debuted a gender-bending alter-ego, Georgie Fruit, is also wrestling with modern femininity. On the disco anthem “it’s different for girls,” Barnes, now the father of an 11-year-old daughter, sings: “though some women are demons all of them are God.”

Barnes discusses EDM influences, relationships, gender, and recording in Paris with Billboard.

Congrats on the new record. You recorded the album between Athens, GA, and Paris, France. How was Paris?

It was great. I was there about three weeks. It was in the summer and the weather was perfect. I have friends there, too, so whenever I wanted to socialize I could get out of the bubble that I get into when I’m working hard on a project. I was working by myself in Paris and I did a lot of work by myself in my home studio, too. But half the songs have other people playing on them. In Paris, I’d typically get up in the afternoon, leave the apartment, walk around and get coffee or lunch and people watch. Then I’d eventually go back to the studio and work all night until around six or seven in the morning.

This is album No. 14. How does Innocence Reaches stand apart from your other releases?

It feels special because it’s more connected to the climate of the times, more connected to what my contemporaries are doing. I feel more engaged. I feel way more turned on to the energy of the moment. So many of my other records have been retro and backwards leaning. This one feels more forward-leaning. It’s a new chapter. I’m moving in a new direction.

While still distinctly an Of Montreal album, Innocence Reaches experiments with new EDM sounds. What sparked your interest in electronic sounds?

It was all organic. For many years I was only listening to music from the 1960s and ‘70s and fantasizing about that time period. But this album became attached to this idea of making music that sounds more contemporary. I wanted to create something that feels like it makes sense in our times.

What are some of the major musical influences for Innocence Reaches?

I was really into Disclosure. Flume. Holly Herndon. There are a lot of great electronic composers right now that are using today’s technology in ways that are exciting. That’s what turned me on the most: the idea of making an album that you couldn’t have made 20 years ago. I go back and forth: sometimes I want to make music that sounds like it was made 20 years ago. But lately, I want to make music that couldn’t have been made 20 years ago, because we didn’t have the effects and the technology. Or we hadn’t thought about the techniques, like using the voice as an instrument and chopping music up. The cooler aspects of remix and mixtape culture have entered mainstream songwriting. This collage aspect is present. Making computer music is so different from an analog tape machine. You look at the landscape of all the sounds. It’s very visual. You see that the blue rectangle is my bass line. The tiny circle is my symbol. You look at it all and move the pieces around like a puzzle. You can approach it in sections, like, ‘I’m going to make this 30 seconds as interesting as I can.’ Then you can step away for a week and return with new ideas. What you can do compositionally is unlimited.

Why call the album Innocence Reaches?

When I started writing I was still going through the withdrawal symptoms of breaking up with my wife. Then I went into a couple of other disastrous relationships. It took a while to get my equilibrium back and start feeling positive again and forgive myself for what went wrong. I eventually hit that point while I was working on the record. I started feeling more optimistic. I started feeling a positive energy and I wanted the title to reflect that. All my records are some form of therapy. Exercising those demons has helped me gain perspective. I’m not the vessel for those negative feelings anymore.

There’s certainly a lot about women on the album—the cover is even a painting of the female reproductive system by your brother David.

I definitely was thinking about femininity and the women in my life, maybe even to an obsessive degree.

What inspired “it’s different for girls.”

I wrote it in Paris. I have an 11-year-old daughter, so I try to see things from her perspective.  I try to relate on her level. It gives me a special perspective on the female experience. You see how misogynistic the world is. It’s nowhere near as bad in the United States as it is in the Middle East, or other areas of the world, where it can be so oppressive towards women. We need to address this as a species. We need to have a dialogue.

The album opens with the question, "How do you identify?" You’ve experimented with gender identity onstage and this has become a national topic with the North Carolina gender bill.

I couldn’t care less how someone categorizes me. I totally support anybody that feels trapped in the wrong body, or feels like it’s more complex than just being a man or woman. Maybe because of what I do with my music and in performances, I’m able to experiment with my feminine side and explore that in a healthy, friendly, and positive environment. When I’m at home, I want to be anonymous and invisible. But when I’m on tour, I’m this exaggerated version of connecting and communing with my fellow humans. I’m in a special situation. I don’t understand the fascism of it: ‘No, you’re not allowed to identify as something else because it’s too hard for me to understand. It’s too hard for me to envision myself being in that situation, so I don’t want you to do it.’ I don’t understand that mode of thinking. The logic is totally flawed. I’m super anti-religion, too. It’s a disease. It’s terrible for humanity. It’s joke, a division. I’m sick of people pretending to be religious controlling things, making policies and decisions for other people. We need to get religion out of politics and the legal system. It’s absurd. You can have your fantasy world and believe in this god or these prophets. You can believe that the Greek myths are real and that Medusa is in the basement. That’s fine. But you shouldn’t be making policies that affect everyone.

The track “chaos arpeggiating” is interesting—it has numerous directions and shifts, from a dusty guitar riff to psychedelic drifting…

Compositionally, “chaos arpeggiating” is one of my favorites. But that’s the song people won’t listen to as much as the others. That’s the way it goes. The songs I find the most interesting are the ones people pass over. But then the songs I think are too simple are the songs people get attached to. I like songs that are more complicated and challenging. That said, I also appreciate a pop song that connects with people instantly. It’s an interesting challenge to try to create something that’s deceptively complex, but also natural and easy to get into.

Which song was the most challenging to write or record?

We recorded “les chants de maldoror” a couple times to experiment with different tempos and styles. That one made me crazy. There are so many ways to approach a song. Then you think, ‘Now it’s time to record: should we add drum programming? Live drums? What kind of groove? What are the reference points? Reggae style? Let’s try this fast. Let’s make it a pop song. Let’s play it like the Violent Femmes or the Stooges.’ We tried all that, but ended up using a song by the band War as inspiration. It had an energy and vibe that worked. It’s putting all the pieces together, in a collage, and pulling all these different reference points and styles together.

Of Montreal launch a world tour in Asia this month. Between shows, how do you pass the time on the road?

I read a lot and work on music. I like to wander around the cities. It can be strange living a transient life on tour. You wake up every day in a new city and new environment and every place has its own personality. If you just go from the bus to the club to the hotel, you don’t experience much. It can be like Groundhog Day. You roll the boulder up the mountain every day, then it falls back at night and you get up and do it again. So it’s important for me to have a different experience in each city, so I stay present and connected. It helps me see just how special all this really is.

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