Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Patrick Stolley
An open letter to an androgynous muse would be confusing, surely, and it would be a mess of uncertain pronouns and potentially unwelcome advances. It would crescendo near the bottom with the one requisite line that a letter of such purpose must ask: Who are you...really? It would bluster and ramble, with the writer going on and on about who he or she thinks you are. It would raise twice as many questions as could or ever would be answered by the addressed. A muse, like a magician, never reveals its secrets. Most of the time, said muse will refuse disclosing its intentions, its motives and its hand. It's just smoke, the sprite of a crystal chandelier - a ghost of fair-weather vigor and ruminative valor. It throws the gunpowder into the bottle and boils up all of the pressure behind the cork. It throws itself out onto the floor with the part of the drink that springs itself over the rim first, and then it is as gone as two days ago.
The author of a letter such as this would be Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes, largely seen as the closest example of the guy that wears the genius pants in the household of indie rock. With each new album, Barnes and his collection of wayfaring Georgian bandmates/bad dressers, become more feminine and more masculine, trading blurry insinuations for blurrier ones and making gender of the gaiety unable to be placed. Barnes streaks his songs with such sophistication and melodic buoyancy as would make the jewelry of the gods look like fool's gold. He takes his cues from some netherworld cursor, which allows his choices in every way to reflect delirious infallibility, where no decision feels out of place. He can be man, woman, freak, philosopher, disco dancer, chic, collusive, fragmented, whatever he needs to be to feed the fertile urge to always be resplendent, always be mysteriously shifty and as of late give everyone more than enough reasons to consider his band crush-worthy. An Of Montreal album - a Kevin Barnes album to cut right to the jib - is no dog and pony show. You'll need your visa to get to that place somewhere over the rainbow.
Barnes validates the androgyny when he explains that he's lately been writing music - much of which will appear on Hissing Fauna: Are You the Destroyer? -- the band's January release on Polyvinyl Records - as a black she-male named Georgie Fruit. The name and the description immediately bring to mind the housekeeper from Billy Madison, telling the penguin-seeing Billy that he can help her shave her arm pits if he stays home from school with a temperature. There's a lot of bootie in Barnes' music and it's not readily identifiable where he could possibly get that from, though we're not at all of the same parties. We can't really put a feather to anything he's absorbing, but we are able to corroborate an explanation of how he got so delightfully, dementedly funky in such a relatively short amount of time. It's this Georgie Fruit women, who exists only in his mind, who gives him the foresight to be as queenie, Queen, Shaft and ambiguous as he wants to be. The muse, as it turns out, isn't trailing some make believe wing dust behind it like a Halley's Comet. He/she's just a jittery mirage that smells of the fragrance flapper's coat their breasts with before dollar dances and has no time for complacency.
The band's catalog has been spent extolling the trials and tribulations of the male and the female of the species. He's fallen in love so many different ways that it's hard to count. He's fallen out of love the same number of ways. He's been conflicted. He's wished that certain male friends had been born girls so he could have been their fiancÃ©s and cooked them chicken soup to help them overcome illness. Lately, he's been writing about the end of the world. He's been writing about our out of control vanities that make us check our hair and makeup in the mirror on the way out of a burning building. And he does it all with a cinematic flair that crushes certain modernistic themes with the age-old glamour and flamboyant splendor of a Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn picture. The wounded man and the gleeful man come together in ways that show that they're still living, they've still got some rose in their cheeks. They're still fun to be around. They're still quirky as all get-out and probably watch Project Runway religiously. What makes Barnes' characters in each and every record remarkable in a different way is that sometimes you don't know whether to think of them as girl ghosts or boy ghosts. It can be confounding and that's half Georgie's fault, half ours.
The Daytrotter Interview:
*How have you progressed in your songwriting from where you started to where you are now? It's a considerable shift and I'm wondering how you got here from point A. What kinds of things triggered your interest for the songs you're currently working with?*
Kevin Barnes: It is a very organic process for me. I don't think about it too much. I just do what feels right at the time and try not to second guess things. I get bored pretty fast and so I need to keep moving and changing styles to keep it interesting for myself. Right now, I am writing songs as a black she-male named Georgie Fruit. His/her style is a bit dubious though.
*Did you ever envision being a three-wardrode-a-show performer?*
KB: I've always loved the theatrical side of performing. I never really got into the whole indie rock approach of taking the stage in your street clothes and just playing the songs. That isn't fun for me. I really want to put on a performance that people will remember. That means considering the visual aspect of things. I hate going to see shows that just have this static image. I think it's important to have lots of movement on stage, lots of changes in the images you present to the audience.
*How would you define your fashion sense?*
KB: Derivative. I don't really think of myself as a smart-dressed man. I like to just have fun and pick up whatever is laying around, usually from my girlfriend's closet.
*You're an old pal of Danger Mouse? Is that correct? When is Brian going to fuck with some of the Of Montreal tunes?*
KB: I wish I was friends with him. I am an old friend of an old friend of his. I think he rules and I would love to work with him.
*This is a broad question, but how do you see life? More good than bad?*
KB: It's all circumstantial. If you are born poor in Sri Lanka or something, then it is probably not so rad, but if you are born in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, to kind middle class parents that buy you musical instruments, don't molest you or force you to go to military school and buy you a car for your seventeenth birthday then things are pretty sweet.
*How do you occupy yourself on the bus?*
KB: Mostly sleeping and watching movies. If the bus is not moving, I tend to avoid being inside of it.
*Where are you this week? Someplace glamorous and overseas?*
KB: Not so glamorous unless you consider an attic in Athens, Georgia someplace special.
*What's something you've read recently that got you thinking?*
KB: The novel "A Man Without Qualities."
*Are you at all surprised how far you taken this band -- to a point where "Hissing Fauna..." is one of the most anticipated releases of 2007?*
KB: A little bit surprised. I always had faith that eventually people would get turned on to our thing. I guess what we're doing now is pretty different from what we were doing five years ago, so in a lot of ways, it is almost a different band. It's fun to reinvent yourself.
*Is there a general idea to "Hissing Fauna?"*
KB: It's just a feeling of being divorced from the world and trying to find your footing in the confusion. The first half of the album is all about fighting anxiety, depression, paranoia...and the second half is just riding the wave of acceptance and the calm that follows an emotional meltdown.
*Do you have a lot of fans who can't help but ask you, "What does (this line/album title) mean?" Do you have to explain yourself much?*
KB: People don't usually ask me specific questions about the lyrics. I guess everyone knows they are best left to the imagination.
*What are the best qualities of your band members?*
KB: They all have a very strong character of their own. We are a very nutty group of people. Sometimes I find it amazing that we can get along at all. We have shared so many experiences together and have spent so much time together that we all have this bizarre bond that keeps us connected somehow.
*How have you remained so dedicated to touring constantly? Isn't a real chore and sometimes not worth doing?*
KB: I enjoy it and it pays the bills. The only way to earn a living in music is to tour non-stop. It is such a big part of all of our lives. We get very bored staying in one city for too long. My main thing is just wanting to stay at home long enough to record some songs and experiment with some ideas. I'm pretty happy touring for seven months out of the year.
*Who do you wish was still making music?*
KB: Syd Barrett, Arthur Lee, Sly Stone.
*When Tilly and the Wall was in here a few weeks ago, they said that you played Jamie and Derek's wedding. How did you land that gig and what was the wedding like? We heard Daytrotter was brought up...*
KB: They just asked us and we of course said, 'Hell yes.' It was a very special experience. We all love those two so much and it was a real thrill being a part of the ceremony.