Blazing Its Way to Greatness
By Simon Weedn
One of the greatest differences between the indie and pop worlds is the amount of room artists are allowed to explore. In the pop mainstream, once an artist develops a sound that can be mass marketed, he, she or they are generally encouraged to make the same type of record over and over again in an attempt for the labels and publishers to maximize profits. However, within the world of independent musicians, one is more likely to find artists with dynamic visions for their music that cross an array of genres and styles.
Buoyed by equally dynamic, smaller indie labels, many of these artists are lucky enough to attract a rabid, cult fan-base who enjoy hearing these performers venture out and blaze through new musical territory to push their own, as well as their relative genre’s boundaries over and over again.
Perhaps one of the greatest modern examples of one of these aforementioned interesting and diverse independent acts is of Montreal from Athens, Georgia. Since the group’s founding in 1997, of Montreal has released a dozen full-length records, and even more singles and EPs. While all are firmly grounded in the group’s indie rock roots, each album pushes the band’s sound into new territories and incorporates unique ideas and styles.
Once Upon A Time
The band’s debut LP, Cherry Peel, and its 1998 follow up, The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy, both have more minimal sounding folk rock qualities with flares of 1920s and ’30s vaudeville and New Orleans’ jazz influence. However, by 1999 the band was pushing into even grander and fuller sounds, with more expanded, lush arrangements and harmonies in their record, The Gay Parade, which one Allmusic.com reviewer described as “indie pop’s very own Sgt Pepper’s.”
Since then, across almost two decades and nine more albums, the band has continued to delve into, explore and incorporate artistically, an unbelievable variety of influence. Records like 2008’s, Skeletal Lamping, 2010’s, False Priests and 2012’s, Paralytic Stalks, marry Prince styled R&B funk with ’60s psychedelic rock for an unbelievable effect, creating songs that are both mind-blowingly textured, and ornate, as well as also being incredibly danceable and fun. While other albums like 2004’s, Satanic Panic In The Attic, 2005’s The Sunlandic Twins, and 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, see explorations of more vintage garage rock and classic pop styles, blended with psychedelia and occasionally sort of Talking Heads’ Remain In Light inspired afro beat.
One possible explanation for such overwhelming sonic diversity might be found in the band’s sole constant member, Nick Barnes, whose tendency to immerse himself in the music of other artists prior to and during the writing phase of each record. “I usually fall in love with a certain kind of music or a certain artist and become really inspired by them and that will be the spirit of the period,” Barnes explains.
Most recently of Montreal released its twelfth record, Lousy With Sylvianbriar. “I recorded it with the band that’s touring with me,” says Barnes. “It’s the first really collaborative, full band album, I’ve made in forever.” The record sees the band stepping out of its most recent phase of more production intensive, synth-based funk and into more stripped down, vintage sounding, straight ahead rock and roll. “The last couple records have definitely been way more funk and soul influenced; bands like Parliament, Sly & The Family Stone and Stevie Wonder were what I was in love with,” says Barnes. “Then I slowly started getting into 20th century avant-garde classical and tried to incorporate that into the last record I was doing, Paralytic Stalks. I think because that last record was really dense with ideas, every song had 150 or 200 tracks or something, and I got really deep into every little moment of section of every song, with this record I wanted to work with a 24-track tape machine because it’s great to have those limitations; if we haven’t done what we set out to accomplish with those 24 tracks, then we should just start again and re-think it.”
In addition to the tape machine, Barnes utilized other vintage style recording techniques such as having the band record the basic tracks for each song live. The results of using of all of these classic production methods is nothing short of amazing with Sylvianbriar being one of the most rich and vibrant works by the band to date.
Shiny and New
An additional interesting tid-bit about the new record is that was written during a three-week period of seclusion in the San Francisco Bay Area. “It was an intention journey for me,” exclaims Barnes. “I wanted to go out there and remove myself from my comfort zone and be somewhere where I could focus on my writing everyday all day long. I didn’t know a lot of people out there so I didn’t do a lot of socializing, so I was just kind of wandering around and observing.” During this time Barnes also found himself immersed in the tunes of classic artists of the ’60s like Neil Young, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead. “I like the rawness of those bands on their recordings,” says Barnes. “You can feel that it’s just a band in a room together, the chemistry of the musicians involved is great and that’s what I was hoping for when I put together this new band.”
Barnes use of his classic rock influences is particularly noticeable on the record in its use of gorgeous, full, vocal harmonies, simple yet spirited instrumental arrangements and the use of traditional organ and piano over the synthesizers that were all over his previous records. From a production stand-point, the record fluctuates an open, Neil Young-esque sound, where you can really hear a lot of space between the instruments and a more Beach Boys/Beatles wall of sound, style which envelopes the listener in beautiful, lavish sonic landscapes. Throughout it all however, remains the underlying warmth and fullness that only albums recorded on analogue tape seem to have, filling in any possible cracks and really adhering the recordings together.
However, it’s important to note, as Barnes mentioned from the outset, that much of Sylvianbriar’s magic comes from collaboration. Much like Neil Young found inspiration with Crazy Horse or Bob Dylan with The Band, Kevin Barnes has found a wealth of talent and ideas with the brilliant set of musicians he’s enlisted to help wave of Montreal’s wild flag high. “I definitely couldn’t have done it without each member, each person contributed something very specific and special,” Barnes explains. “And that’s what I was hoping for, that everyone’s style, even if I was playing a similar guitar and keyboard part, still wouldn’t feel the same, it wouldn’t be a part of the organism that this group of people is.” Even recording engineer Drew Vandenberg added to the collaboration by helping to provide and maintain the tape machine, place microphones to dial in the perfect, organic, sounds and lastly, mix the record down into its awesome final form.
Into the Future
For listeners impressed by Lousy With Sylvianbriar, of Montreal, complete with all of the musicians who appeared on the record, will be hitting the road in mid-January for a string of national and international dates, which will have several Southern California stops including one at The Barn at UC Riverside. While the band has an enormous amount of material from its back catalogue, as well as an obvious wealth of new tunes, that many musicians might find intimidating when trying to plan out a set, of Montreal remains un-phased. “I’ve played all of the songs many, many times so I have a good concept of which songs work live and which ones don’t for whatever reason,” comments Barnes. “Usually, I just go through and look at all of the albums and all of the songs and think of, basically, what I feel like playing and if I know there are songs people really enjoy, I try to put some of those in the set as well.”
As the band looks beyond its tours that will take up most of the first quarters of 2014, there is only ambition. While many artists would look to take a break or even rest on its laurels for a bit, Kevin Barnes and of Montreal continue to move forward and yearn to explore and create. “I’ve started working on a bunch of new songs and we’ve actually recorded two of them already, so we’ll keep working whenever we can,” says Barnes.
In addition to his work with of Montreal, Barnes also plans to continue collaborating with singer Rebecca Cash, who has appeared on a number of the band’s recorded works. Though Barnes only hints at the details, it’s definitely something he’s excited about. “Rebecca has a project, well, she and I have a project together, and I definitely want to pursue that,” Barnes exclaims. “We’ve started it and we’ve got one song pretty much done.”
Looking even further into the future, Kevin Barnes hopes for of Montreal, in its time to come, are both simple and artistically perfect. “I just hope to stay excited and inspired by the process and get fulfillment from it,” Barnes explains. “I’m really obsessed. I feel exactly the way I did when I started. I don’t feel at all burned out or disenchanted. It’s still very fresh, very alive, and very exciting for me and I hope it stays that way.”
With Kevin Barnes continuing to both create tirelessly, as well as listen to and fall in love with new things, there can be little doubt that of Montreal will remain active in coming years. The only question will be where it decides to go next with its music and what new adventures it will take us on.
of Montreal w/ Wild Moccasins at UCR’s The Barn, 900 University Ave., Riverside, (951) 827-2276; www.rside.ucr.edu. $17.