Ever since the golden days of R.E.M. and the B-52's, Athens, Georgia, has been a hotbed for diverse and forward thinking music, one that often benefits from a tight group of musicians, sewn together with the common idea of pushing the envelope of pop music. In the mid-1990s a group of musicians called the Elephant Six—consisting of bands like Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel and Elf Power—began producing a mixed bag of swirling psychedelia and straight-forward power pop, that snapped and crackled under the umbrella of their tight-knit collective. One such anomaly, however, is Kevin Barnes and his cartoonish, carnival-esque pop outfit Of Montreal. Though Barnes is connected to many of his Elephant Six brethren (even playing with other bands like the Marshmallow Coast and the Great Lakes) Of Montreal has always functioned as their own entity within the context of the collective—Barnes makes wildly weird pop music, but he does it on his own terms. Highly prolific, Of Montreal has released a number of albums, EPs, and singles for labels like Kindercore, Bar/None, and Polyvinyl, all containing Barnes' distinct kaleidoscope of pop influences, moving from Beach Boys-esque kitsch to bouncy and eclectic pop-tronica, filled with expressive harmonies, a toy chest of instruments and Barnes strange, story-like lyrics.
If there is one thing Barnes is unable to do, it is settle in one place for too long. Originally from Athens, his worldly trek led him to Montreal, Quebec, in Canada. After a failed romance with a woman from Montreal, Barnes picked up and moved to Florida, where he began making home recordings and demo tapes under the moniker Of Montreal. The strength of these tapes caught the attention of indie label Bar/None Records, home to the Mendoza Line and Epic Soundtracks, amongst a gaggle of others. After signing to Bar/None, Barnes moved to Cleveland, and then to Minneapolis, searching for the right people to round out the Of Montreal lineup. His search was coming up empty, so he decided to move back to Athens, where the Elephant Six collective had begun to gain momentum (thanks to the release of the Olivia Tremor Control's Music from the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle, released in 1996, and Apples in Stereo's 1997 album Tone Soul Evolution). Back in Athens, Barnes hooked up with bassist Bryan Helium, also of the Athens-based band Elf Power, and drummer Derek Almstead. Once their lineup was complete, the band recorded and released their debut album, Cherry Peel, for Bar/None in 1997.
In a bio written for Bar/None, Barnes laid out the simplistic recording technique, as well as explained a little bit about himself, saying, "We tend to do everything at home. We write at home, record at home and have our friends come over and play on our tapes. Sometimes we'll get together on Sunday nights have pot luck and play stuff we've been working on for each other. Of Montreal gives me the ability to live a more romantic life. Through my songs I add beauty and mystery and happiness and love and new landscapes and sadness and laughter to a life that's not very interesting by itself. My life is elevated to a better place through my songs."
The world that Barnes enters when making music as Of Montreal is nothing short of colorful and catchy, almost representing the musical equivalent of the Candyland board game mixed in with only the best influences from the '60s—the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Kinks. After the release of Cherry Peel, Barnes issued an EP for Athens indie-pop label Kindercore—home to bands like Japancakes, Masters of the Hemisphere, and the Essex Green—called The Bird Who Continues to Eat the Rabbit's Flower, released in 1998. Following this short EP, Of Montreal's lineup evolved, after Helium left to concentrate more of his time on Elf Power. Almstead took over his bass duties, while they added keyboardist Dottie Alexander and drummer Jamie Huggins to the mix. Although the lineup was more concrete, Barnes took much of the Of Montreal's second full length on himself. Released in 1998 for Kindercore, The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy was essentially a Kevin Barnes solo album under the Of Montreal moniker. Splendidezine.com 's Noah Wane said, "It may not be a little bit of country or a little bit of rock 'n' roll, but what it is is a little bit of McCartney/Lennon and a little bit of Brian Wilson. If you ever wondered what a mating of The White Album and Pet Sounds would spawn, then The Bedside Drama A Petite Tragedy will be like a response to a long unanswered question... Tender pop music fans...this one is a must!"
Not one to stop or settle, Barnes revived his relationship with Bar/None for what would be his most critically acclaimed album yet—1999's The Gay Parade. Joined by his bandmates, as well as a new member, multi-instrumentalist A.C. Forrester, The Gay Parade furthered Barnes carnival-esque take on pop music, prompting Popmatters to say, "With a treasure trove of loopy Yellow Submarine and Sgt. Peppers characterizations, Beatles/Small Faces/Ray Davies/Brian Wilson musical references, and a vaudevillian sensibility, The Gay Parade comes across as nothing short of a brilliant lost 1960s concept album." With Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge, 1998) and the Olivia Tremor Control's Black Foliage: Animation Music (Flydaddy, 1999) causing a stir in the press, the time was right for Barnes to release such an ambitious and exciting slice of pop under the Elephant Six imprint. Nudeasthenews.com said, "The record shares many features with those of E6 mates Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control. For starters, The Gay Parade utilizes the junk-orchestra assemblage of instruments often found on those band's albums, and of course the recording features guest appearances from E6 notaries (NMH's Jeff Mangum is credited with 'holding hands while jumping on the furnace'). The mere appearance of 'The Marching Theme For The Gay Parade' should seem familiar to fans of E6 records. [But] Of Montreal revels in more straightforward pop than some of its compatriots. Songwriter and principal musician Kevin Barnes' voice controls the record, much like Mangum's holds NMH's records together, providing a consistent theme for the melodic lines, even though scores of different instruments might pop up on any given song."
After the success of The Gay Parade, an interest started to amass for Of Montreal's harder to find material. A collection of the band's singles, called Horse & Elephant Eatery (No Elephants Allowed): The Singles & Songles Album, was released by Bar/None in 2000; Kindercore followed up a year later with The Early 4-Track Recordings, as well as Earworm Records' An Introduction to Of Montreal. But, demand for new material prompted Barnes and company to return with Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse, released by Kindercore in 2001. Pitchforkmedia.com 's Matt Lemay said, "When the record's at its best, the group incorporates more diverse elements into their music than ever before. 'Good Morning Mr. Edminton,' Coquelicot 's opener, is a typical Of Montreal song in prime form. Fuzzed-out guitar, bouncy piano, and multitracked harmonies by front man Kevin Barnes set the stage for a demented tale of kidnapping and working class struggle as told, of course, from the kidnapper's point of view. 'The Peacock Parasols,' which features a truly unforgettable, cryptic, and quite possibly misspelled lyric referring to 'P.P. icycles,' goes from a pop song in warp drive to a dense, orchestral middle, and back."
With the release of Coquelicot, Barnes started to pull away a bit from the sunshiny backdrop he'd created for Of Montreal, as well as from the niche he'd established as part of the Athens scene, stating to Chicago Inner-view Magazine, "I could care less about Athens's past. It is just the place where I happen to be living at the moment." He started to branch out musically, incorporating creepier and more twisted pop elements, as well as inject some more worldly influences, such as the work of Os Mutantes. For his next full length, Aldhils Arboretum (released on Kindercore in 2002), Barnes started to further explore his knack for writing dark lyrics that accompanied hyperactive, major-key pop songs. Stylusmagazine.com said, "Delivered in a culture that is hungry for black humor, these musical stories would lead one to believe they are sung in jest. But Kevin Barnes' career-spanning use of dark subject matter makes you wonder: is it presumptuous to assume sadness can't be expressed through major-keyed, richly textured musical medians?"
For the Record . . .
Members include Dottie Alexander , keyboards; Derek Almstead , bass, drums; Kevin Barnes (founding member), vocals, guitar, songwriter; Nina Barnes ; A.C. Forrester ; Bryan Helium , bass; Jamie Huggins , drums.
Group formed by Barnes in Athens, GA, 1997; released Cherry Peel on Bar/None, 1997; released first album on Athens-based label Kindercore The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy, 1998; continued to release albums on Kindercore and Bar/None, late 1990s-early 2000s; signed to Polyvinyl Records and released Satanic Panic in the Attic, 2004; released The Sunlandic Twins on Polyvinyl, 2005.
Addresses: Record company—Polyvinyl Record Co., P.O. Box 7140, Champaign, IL 61826-7140, website: http://www.polyvinylrecords.com. Booking—Kork Agency, 1501 Powell, Ste. H, Emeryville, CA 94608, phone: (510) 658-4455, fax: (510) 658-4456, website: http://www.korkagency.com. Publicist—230 Publicity, 625 Broadway, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10012, phone: (212) 253-2559, website: http://www.230publicity.com. Website—Of Montreal Official Website: http://www.ofmontreal.net.
However, it was in the years 2004 and 2005 that Barnes started to flip the Beach Boys and Beatles comparisons upsidedown, recording two albums of fun, slightly dark, but all together unpredictable electronic pop on his computer. After marrying his wife Nina (who would eventually join Of Montreal's touring outfit) in 2003, Barnes set to work on crafting his version of dance music, mostly by himself at home. He told Aversion.com, "Before I was limiting myself (and) thinking it was funny, but it's really not funny," he says. "You have many different levels of your personality and it's good to explore all those levels. I wanted to do something that was kind of like if Brian Eno produced a Prince album." And so, with a host of new influences, including the folktronica of Four Tet and Caribou, the hip-hop work of Jay-Z, OutKast, Missy Elliott, and Timbaland, and a newfound interest in dub music, Barnes released Satanic Panic in the Attic for Polyvinyl Records in 2004. Appealing to a whole new audience, Satanic Panic was a critical smash, with Pitchfork-media.com 's Sam Ubi giving the album an 8.3 out of 10.
He followed the album up with The Sunlandic Twins, released by Polyvinyl in 2005. Prefixmagazine.com said, "this album offers enough pop hooks, vocal harmonies and sudden key changes to make it perfect for the beach. The most danceable track, 'Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games,' will, like so many others on the album, stay in your head for days. With all that The Sunlandic Twins offers for delightful consumption (at least until next year, when a newly transformed Of Montreal will release another album), this is one history and philosophy lesson likely to make starving artists shake their booties."
Cherry Peel, Bar/None, 1997.
The Bird Who Continues to Eat the Rabbit's Flower (EP), Kindercore, 1998.
The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy, Kindercore, 1998.
The Gay Parade, Bar/None, 1999.
Horse & Elephant Eatery (No Elephants Allowed): The Singles and Songles Album, Bar/None, 2000.
The Early 4-Track Recordings, Kindercore, 2001.
An Introduction to Of Montreal, Earworm, 2001.
Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse, Kindercore, 2001.
Aldhils Arboretum, Kindercore, 2002.
Satanic Panic in the Attic, Polyvinyl, 2004.
The Sunlandic Twins, Polyvinyl, 2005.
"A New Trip: Of Montreal," Aversion,http://www.aversion.com/bands/interviews.cfm?f_id=288 (September 1, 2005).
"Aldhils Arboretum," Stylus Magazine,http://www.stylusmagazine.com/review.php?ID=2542 (September 2, 2005).
Bar/None: Of Montreal, http://www.bar-none.com/bios/of_montreal.html (September 1, 2005).
The Elephant Six Recording Company, http://www.elephant6.com/ (September 1, 2005).
"Of Montreal: The Gay Parade," Popmatters, http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/o/oliviatremorcontrolofmontreal.shtml (August 29, 2005).
"Of Montreal," Nude as the News,http://www.nudeasthenews.com/reviews/931 (August 29, 2005).
"Of Montreal: The Sunlandic Twins," Prefixmag, http://www.prefixmag.com/reviews.php?page=A&a=1&rt=cd&rf=Of_Montreal_Sunlandic_Twins_042605 (September 2, 2005).
"Pitchfork Reviews," Pitchforkmedia,http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/o/of-montreal/coquelicot.shtml (September 2, 2005).
"Review: Of Montreal," Splendid e-Zine,http://www.splendidezine.com/reviews/oct-19-98/of.html (September 2, 2005).
"Satanic Panic Keeps Alive the 'Pretty Tune,'" Chicago Inner-view,http://www.chicagoinnerview.com/archives/sept04_of_montreal.htm (September 2, 2005).
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