For the 16-year life of Athens, Georgia–based of Montreal, singer-songwriter/kingpin Kevin Barnes has kept the gears of his creativity well-lubricated. Since 1997, his output has been constant—with 11 full-lengths, the latest being Paralytic Stalks (February 2012). Now Barnes's only concern when making music is satisfying his muse. When he has an idea, he records it. If he likes it, he builds on it, rinsing it into more ideas. Paralytic Stalks is a challenging, sectionalized album. The corridors of some songs devolve into cacophony. But Barnes isn't trying to make pop hits with Stalks. He's fashioned a bleak conglomeration of pop disparateness that's meant to be heard as a whole. Psychedelic, electronic, glam, twee, and R&B antennae are raised. Much of the lyrical content is unhappy and forlorn. Barnes, who admits he suffers from depression, lets it show.
In "Wintered Debts," Barnes laments with lilac, opioid, Elliott Smith–tinged vocals, "Can't survive another comedown day, when my spirit houses so much pain/I can't deal with mourning at the carcass of my failures any longer." To his credit, though, Barnes channels his drabness and neurosis into song. The 13-minute "Authentic Pyrrhic Remission" begins with operatic electro glee, "I love how we're learning from each other/You're such a positive, you're so empowering." At the four-minute mark, it embarks into a horrifying deluge of dissonant Krzysztof Penderecki–inspired strings—the string sounds that were used for the snowy, ultimately disturbed climax of Stanley Kubrick's movie The Shining. It's unpleasant, and Barnes means it to be.
Paralytic Stalks is more art than listenable. Like it or not, it's pure, with the valve from Barnes's creative cortex being wide open. Barnes spoke from Athens. I imagined him to be underground in his studio den, a place away from sun and windows.
Is there something you consciously do to maintain creativity?
No. I'm just wired that way in my head, to always try to keep my ears open for new things and to stay open-minded. I definitely don't have limitations that way, I don't want to ever be shut off to anything. If I feel inspired by something, even if it could be career suicide, I don't really care.
When you're writing songs, do you feel pressure to come up with catchy elements?
No, because it's always something I've naturally gravitated toward. I actually wish I didn't write such poppy songs [laughs]. But it seems like everything I write is sort of catchy-sounding, or has an infectious aspect to it. Whatever that means. It's a weird thing for me. Often, I'll make music to try to lift my spirits. If I'm in a bad state of mind, I won't make really depressing music, because that won't help me, it would just make me more miserable. I'll be in a shitty state of mind, and will try to make something colorful and positive-sounding in hopes that it will lift my spirits. It's like spiritual music. Paralytic Stalks is esoteric.
You don't necessarily have reference points, sometimes. For most people, they might not have ever heard of "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima" by Krzysztof Penderecki, which was a big influence on me. Or the whole avant-garde classical musical influence—it's not exactly trendy, or something all the kids dig. Like Harry Partch or György Ligeti, or whoever. It's coming from a slightly more obscure place that's not really in touch with contemporary trends.
What is a paralytic stalk?
It's open to interpretation. It's nothing that actually exists, just something from my imagination. It could easily be considered a negative sort of thing. I had this thought that if you saw these paralytic stalks growing in your backyard, you'd probably panic. It wouldn't be a good omen.
You have a song called "We Will Commit Wolf Murder." What is "wolf murder"?
A lot of my lyrics come from my unconscious state of mind. I don't really question them. That one just sort of popped into my head, "We will commit wolf murder." I thought, Okay [laughs]. It's almost like automatic writing, like the surrealists used to use. I write and put stuff out there with no real intended meaning. Sure, there can be interpretations.
So it's not about you being in the grocery store standing in the meat section and all of a sudden needing to kill someone? That's my interpretation—you're next to the prime rib, and you start foaming with murderous want. Right?
It's not about being in the meat section and needing to kill someone, no [laughs]. You can say that though, if you want. That's the beautiful thing about interpretation. I don't foam often.
Much of the lyrical content on Stalks seems dark, and dreary. Seems like you're saying not to trust people, or the government.
Yeah. I was definitely in a disenchanted, frustrated, angry, negative state of mind while I was making a lot of it. And struggling with neurosis and depression, and madness. I was just trying to keep my head together and work through it. To me, that's a beautiful aspect of art. You're able to take something that's disgusting and negative and unhealthy and try to turn it into something that's positive or useful. Or create something that people can connect with and feel less insane. Maybe someone out there can identify with it who is going through the same thing, someone else on the edge. And maybe when they listen, they don't feel so alone or freaked-out or whatever.
What brings on your neurosis?
I don't know. I think it's hereditary. I guess life brings it on? [Laughs] Some people are naturally happy all the time. And some people are naturally brooding and frustrated. I think it's depression. I'm up and down. I'll go through periods where I'm really happy and think the world is a great bright place. And then sometimes I'll go through periods of darkness. I think it's fairly common. People go through emotional phases. I don't think I'm unique in that way.
Your songs can get out there, compositionally. Sections transition into abstract runs and weird turnarounds. Do you write, or compose, as weirdly as some of your songs sound? I have this image of you writing where you have odd rituals, like touching a raven feather seven times before you press record.
The weirder songs on this album, like "Exorcismic Breeding Knife," "Ye, Renew the Plaintiff," "Wintered Debts," and "Authentic Pyrrhic Remission," the longer songs, they had a strange genesis. I didn't have an agenda or a vision for what those songs would be. They just sort of happened on their own. It's difficult to describe. No raven feather. I'll have to try that. It's been finished for a couple months now, and it feels like this strange dream. [Laughs] How did I make that thing, anyway?
I'll have an idea for a section of a song. I'll write other sections for it, too, that I might not like, so I throw away. Maybe I'll take one moment from a thing I threw away and make another couple sections off of that. Or take something else that I'd worked on and put that at the beginning. Basically, I just create a bunch of movements, then piece them together in a way that I find interesting. I'll make a two-and-a-half minute section that I don't know what I'm going to do with. For "Ye, Renew the Plaintiff," I laid down the basics, then started adding to it. Or I'll get Kishi Bashi or Zac Colwell to collaborate with me, get them to lay down flute or violin, then base my next decision off what they recorded. So the album came together in an organic way, but now looking back on it, it's hard to remember the details.
What's changed in the 16 years you've been doing of Montreal?
For me, influences change. The motivation to make art remains the same. I want to make things that I'm genuinely excited about. I think it always comes from a very pure place—the joy of the creative process, or the joy from fulfilling that creative process. Or the therapeutic aspect of the creative process has always been sort of a driving force.
What are your favorite parts of Athens?
The botanical garden is cool. If we go out, we usually go to the Flicker Bar or Little Kings down by the 40 Watt.
When's the last time you saw Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel?
You know, I just saw him at the 40 Watt here in Athens. It was fantastic. I hadn't seen him perform in like 10 years. To see him at the 40 Watt, where I saw so many Neutral Milk Hotel shows and shared the stage with him. To get to see him from the audience, in the back of the club, and see all the people, totally packed out, everyone singing along. It was such an intense experience. Afterward, I was talking to him, doing that thing that everyone does, telling him he needs to make another record. I was buzzed and was telling him, "I wanna produce you, man. Come on!" He was very cool about it and didn't kick me out of the backstage or anything. I'd love to work with him. I think the two of us could make something really interesting.
Was he responsive to your wanting to produce?
Not so much. I didn't get the sense that it would ever happen. But it felt good to get to talk to him and pester him.
I'll go ahead and announce that now: The next Neutral Milk Hotel album will be produced by Kevin Barnes.
Okay. And I'll get my raven feather ready.