While he was growing up in Athens, Georgia, nobody in Kevin Barnes’ immediate family played music. They had a piano in the house and his sisters took piano lessons briefly, but his parents never listened to music unless they were in the car. Fortunately, the Of Montreal mastermind had some uncles and cousins who played music. It was up to him what he wanted to do with it. Taking a few cues from The Rolling Stones led him to the guitar.
“I guess on some level, there was music in my life,” Barnes says in an exclusive interview with Boulder Weekly. “But it was always something I kind of stumbled upon myself, and found that I had a strong interest and passion for. It was my own thing. I had an uncle who taught me some Rolling Stone songs. That’s the first thing I learned how to play on the guitar. I got this collection of Stones singles from the early days. They’re all pretty simple. They were basically blues-based songs. I knew they used the same three chords in every song, so I would be like, ‘OK, what’s the combination of chords this time?’ I would just play along. The Stones were my thing.”
Evidence of classic rock influences, like the Stones, can be found all over Of Montreal’s 13th studio album, Aureate Gloom. From album opener, “Bassem Sabry” to “Like Ashoka’s Inferno Of Memory,” the album soars with incredible guitar riffs, taking the listener on a journey through the deepest facets of Barnes’ mind.
“There’s more guitar and riffing going on,” he says. “There’s more caveman rock ‘n’ roll happening. Hopefully it’s done in a way that’s more sophisticated and not too one dimensional or idiotic,” he adds with a laugh. “I like riff rock a lot, like AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and things like that. I wanted there to be some element with some bad ass guitar moments.”
Since inception, Barnes has always drawn comparisons to ’70s-era David Bowie. Much like Bowie’s alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust, Barnes had Georgie Fruite.
“There’s probably some vestiges of Georgie lingering inside of me, but I’ve moved into something new,” he notes.
With eclectic costumes and a very visual, psychedelic feel, his live shows are much like a 1972 Bowie show. His voice is also eerily similar at times, not necessarily in tone, but in the way he delivers each word. While nowhere near “perfect,” it retains a uniqueness that might take a few listens to get used to.
“I’ve had that many times with bands where initially I couldn’t deal,” he says, laughing. “Then once I got into it, I loved it. Bowie is definitely a huge influence. Not just with music that he made, but his approach to making music and reestablishing himself as something new. He tried to frame it in a different way every time and explore different kinds of music. That, to me, is the most exciting aspect to him that he was able to do. On every record, he almost seemed like a different artist. It was never predictable or formulaic. It was always special.”
Beginning with 1997’s Cherry Peel, Of Montreal has always managed to keep people guessing. With 2004’s Satanic Panic in the Attic, 2010’s False Priest and now 2015’s Aureate Gloom, all have followed 40-year-old Barnes’ evo lution as not only a musician but also as a man. The lyrics are very personal and paint a clear portrait of where Barnes is in his life, no matter how abstract the music behind it sounds. Aureate Gloom was written as his 11-year marriage to his wife, Nina, fell apart.
“It’s definitely a therapy album in the sense I was dealing head-on with what was going on in my personal life,” he says. “I was trying to direct all of that energy into something more positive and creative rather than just sink into misery, or whatever. You can feel the misery, but it’s put into something artistic so you at least have something to show for it. To me, the album is full of emotional power. It’s very much like an open journal. It’s not dark at all right now though. We’re both in a really good place and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
As Of Montreal hits the road on an expansive nationwide tour in support of Aureate Gloom, there’s a sense Barnes is finally at peace with the recent upheaval in his personal life. Music is clearly the one constant in his life that keeps him going.
“My life is geared towards creating things so I kind of just try to stay in a good state of mind where I can be productive and fairly healthy,” he says. “I take life seriously. I’m not a nihilist. I try to live in the present moment as much as possible and just appreciate the beauty around me and be engaged.”
ON THE BILL:
Of Montreal with Yip Deceiver, 7p.m. Tuesday, March 31, Bluebird Theater, 3317 E. Colfax Ave., Denver. Tickets are $15-$18. Visit www.bluebirdtheater.net for more information.