Of Montreal mines its experimentally-tinged psychedelic pop from the insular mind of bandleader and only constant member Kevin Barnes.
Barnes has crafted much of the last decade of Of Montreal material on his own, often building songs piece by piece on a computer.
But the band’s new album, Lousy With Sylvianbriar, sees Barnes reinventing and reinvigorating the band by embracing a collaborative and rock-classicist approach for recording the album.
As Barnes began working with his band, he says he didn’t even view it as being an Of Montreal project.
“I kind of approached it as if I was starting a new band,” he says.
That enabled Barnes to free himself from the baggage of having to create work that carried on Of Montreal’s lineage. With the idea that it was a wholly new band, it allowed Barnes and company to take new chances.
“It enabled me to think about it with a new perspective,” Barnes says.
Actually working in a recording room with bandmates turned the collaborative key for the entire process of making the album. It’s the first live collaborative Of Montreal effort since 2002’s Aldhils Arboretum.
The time in between that album and Lousy With Sylvianbriar saw Barnes disappearing down an increasingly solo process. If Barnes wanted input, he’d reach out to a contributor and those parts would often be exchanged and worked on via email.
Barnes admits that the process lends itself to seeming very homogenous. All the sounds are coming just from one person’s brain. Building songs one instrument at a time while staring at a computer screen just became a boring process, Barnes says.
“I was getting kind of lazy,” he admits.
So all of those crutches had become barriers so Barnes tossed them all out. This time, a 24-track tape machine, running gloriously analog strings of two-inch tape replaced the dull glow of computer tracking.
Email collaborations were ditched for the flesh-and-blood reality of living and working in a studio as a full band.
“I wanted to make a record that was a more communal experience,” Barnes says.
Barnes specifically was culling inspiration from his favorite 60s and 70s rock records. Albums made by humans and recorded on equipment with its own quirks and imperfects.
“They create this organism together,” Barnes says of many of those recordings.
So Barnes built his own recording organism, culling together a backing band of past collaborators and two people he had never even played with before.
“I just followed my instincts on who I picked to be in the group,” Barnes says.
Then the band embarked on 12 and 14 hours days as they crafted Lousy With Sylvianbriar, while living in a shared space.
Barnes still came in with demos of everything, with most of the skeletal song structures in place. However, the working band added flourishes and grooves to bring the songs alive. Key tracks like “Triumph of Destruction”, a song that will ultimately rank as one of Of Montreal’s finest, and “She Ain’t Speaking Now” both underwent several versions before the band found a definitive version.
Barnes says the process ended up being an easy-going and fun break from how he had been crafting his music.
“I haven’t enjoyed an album on that level production wise in forever,” he says.
Barnes even embraced the imperfect element of analog recording and working as a live band in the studio. Unlike computer tracks, tape reels are not an unlimited and forgiving format. Flaws that can be covered up with digital editing are laid bare on tape. But that organic element is what Barnes sought.
“You can’t hide anything. I like that there are flaws,” Barnes says.
Nor are there any shortcuts or repeating a groove so it sounds right with each repetition.
“You have to be playing on every moment of every song,” Barnes notes.
The process too carried a lot of surprises, especially on how well the collaborators got along. Most of the recording band is now playing on the band’s current tour.
Barnes too was surprised at how well the group understood and contributed to his vision for the record. After working on his own for so long, simply grabbing his band and hitting the studio wasn’t exactly the most familiar thing for Barnes to do, he admits.
“It was definitely an experiment,” he says.
But Barnes says the influence from classic rock records was the guide there too. He wanted to feel connected to that lineage and more importantly, he wanted music that stood up when broken down into its simplest components.
“What I really wanted was a record that would really work on an acoustic guitar,” Barnes says.
That idea of having a vocal and lyric-led song in the vein of Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen comes through though Barnes says he knows his own stamp on it shines through.
“I just have my style of writing,” he says.
The album is marked both by a retro-tinged style and the distinct trademark of Of Montreal’s best psych-pop nuggets. Barnes is more direct here lyrically than some of his more verbose songs in the past. Synths are tucked away and in its place is a 60s-indebted collection of songs that show that Barnes has rediscovered wrinkles in his songcraft that have not been explored for nearly eight years.
Barnes says he still keeps an eye on being true to his voice even in the collaborative atmosphere. Part of that involves not taking stock in outside influences despite his band’s sizable fan following.
It’s all about making something that Barnes feels excited about in a given moment without being self-conscious about what’s being created.
“I want it to be just this pure form of expression,” he says.
Of Montreal w/ La Luz play the Waiting Room Lounge, 6212 Maple St. Saturday, November 2nd. Tickets are $18 in advance and $20 day-of-show. For more information, visit onepercentproductions.com.