'I can see about a year and a half of my life represented in the songs,' frontman Kevin Barnes tells EW

By Dana Getz
August 10, 2016 at 12:03 PM EDT
Ben Rouse

Of Montreal’s discography has long been rooted in nostalgia. Their prolific 13-album collection cartwheels through sunny ‘60s psych pop and shimmery ‘70s glam, morphing into a rock-funk-disco odyssey that resists definition as much as it does a modern spin.

It came as a surprise, then, when frontman Kevin Barnes announced he’d looked to the contemporary for their 14th record, Innocence Reaches. Still reeling from his separation with his wife of 11 years, the indie rock chameleon eschewed the vintage yearning that comprised his earlier work, instead veering toward the avant-garde electro dance of Holly Herndon and Flying Lotus. The stylistic leap was part impulse, part intention, symbolizing Barnes’ urge to reacquaint himself with the present-day.

“This record feels a lot more optimistic,” Barnes tells EW. “The reason why I gave it the title Innocence Reaches was because it had a hopefulness to it, and my state of mind is much healthier. [It] sort of embodies that spirit of not wanting to be in my little bubble and wanting to get out into the world and accept myself and accept everybody else and just connect with people again.”

Its lead single, “It’s Different for Girls,” is more outward than of Montreal’s previous oeuvre, chronicling the one-note gender norms that still loom amongst society. Like of Montreal’s last entry, 2015’s Aureate Gloom, Barnes says Innocence is a thoroughly personal endeavor, but that much of its fabric is tied to his outlook on the current world.

“I think it kind of goes hand in hand with wanting to connect more with the contemporary world and not live in this bubble of fantasy or retro thinking.” Barnes says. “[‘Let’s Relate’] sort of sums up my current attitude towards life, humanity, social issues, everything. It’s just like ‘let’s relate, let’s talk about it, let’s get to know each other, let’s share.’”

For more on Innocence Reaches, due out Aug. 12, EW spoke with Barnes about making imaginative music, how he redefined himself outside of his marriage, and the fantastical stage production he’s plotting for their upcoming fall tour.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: “It’s Different for Girls” was the first single from the album, and it touches on a lot of gender norms at the core of today’s society. What were you responding to while writing it?

KEVIN BARNES: I was just observing how much misogyny still exists, as much as society has evolved. I have an 11-year-old daughter, so I was seeing the world through her eyes and thinking about how far we have left to go. I feel like the song is a little bit naïve. It’s not the most accurate depiction of the female experience, just because there are all different kinds of women, but I think there are some universal truths to it.

Throughout of Montreal’s discography, you’ve played with a number of perspectives. You’ve written from your own point of view and you’ve also written through the lens of a character, but “It’s Different for Girls” sounds more like social commentary. Did you look more outward for Innocence?

Most of the album is pretty autobiographical and confessional actually, so that one in particular is a little bit different. It’s almost like journal entries. I can see about a year and a half of my life represented in the songs, just the relationships I was having and still dealing with the separation from my wife. All sorts of misadventures. It’s sort of this time capsule for what was going on in my life.

Do you touch on any other social issues throughout the record?

Definitely. I think “Let’s Relate,” which is the first song on the record, is sort of topical, especially with the Orlando shooting. I feel like there’s a wave of acceptance, but there’s also a backlash too because some people aren’t prepared to change, so they resist it. It’s really a slogan and a call for people to come together and accept each other. It sort of sums up my current attitude towards life, humanity, social issues, everything. It’s just like “let’s relate, let’s talk about it, let’s get to know each other, let’s share.”

Your last album, Aureate Gloom, was a very personal record for you. How were you feeling coming away from that?

This record feels a lot more optimistic. I feel like I turned a corner at the end of the record where it felt much more positive. The reason why I gave it the title Innocence Reaches was because it had a hopefulness to it, and my state of mind is much healthier. “Let’s Relate” sort of embodies that spirit of not wanting to be in my little bubble and wanting to get out into the world and accept myself and accept everybody else and just connect with people again.

I’d have to imagine the last few years have been very much an explorative period for you, redefining yourself outside of a marriage. What have you learned in the process?

I was surprised by how much my identity was connected to my marriage. When that dissolved, I found myself fairly lost, and I had to piece myself back together. But I also learned a lot about myself and what I need to be happy and inspired and engaged. It’s funny how when you’re in a long-term relationship, everything is sort of bounced off of that energy and the organism you become together. When you don’t have that other side, it becomes more homogenous. On some level it’s scarier because it’s all on you and you’re not sharing it with anybody. When I was in the relationship, things that I thought were problems were actually beneficial for me. For example, if was feeling like “Oh, I just want to be alone,” having the option to be alone and feel like, “Okay, now I’m away from that, now I can focus on this” [was helpful]. If all you have is alone time, then alone time is something completely different.

At the same time, Of Montreal is almost constantly reinventing itself. You’ve touched on electronic, pop, rock, folk. When you announced Innocence, you said you’d been influenced by contemporary music more than you’d been in the past. What pushed you to finally cross that boundary into modern music?

It all happens really organically, the styles that I get into or the styles that I grow out of, and this time it happened to be more contemporary sounds. I was listening to a lot of contemporary dance, like Holly Herndon, Flying Lotus, Health, and Chairlift. I think it kind of goes hand in hand with wanting to connect more with the contemporary world and not live in this bubble of fantasy or retro thinking.

In the past, you’ve said you tend to look toward a particular person as a symbol for the sound you’re trying to capture. Did you have a focal point for this project?

I think it was more a spirit than a specific person or a specific sound, but it’s a pretty eclectic album. There’s some stuff that’s in the more glam rock, Iggy Pop arena, and then some of it is more gay disco. There’s also some stuff that’s sadder and more emotionally intense, so it’s kind of all over the place.

Where do you draw the line between being authentic and being imaginative? Do you think there’s a point where reality can get lost in fantasy?

For a while I thought there was such a thing as authenticity, but I don’t know how that works within art because it is fantasy, or at least an exaggerated version of reality. If you’re writing non-fiction then maybe it’s easier to create something authentic, but if you’re working within the realm of fantasy or fiction, then I don’t think you even need to worry about that.

Your live sets have always been pretty fantastical, too, and you’ve already got a tour slated for the fall. Have you started plotting what this album will look like on stage?

Yeah, we’re pretty deep into it. We’ve always had a pretty elaborate stage show, but it’s never felt as unified or connected as it is this time around. Everybody was off doing their own things before, but this time we’ve had many, many production meetings. There’s definitely going to be a lot of costume changes, a lot of theatrical moments and comedic moments. It’s going to be a lot of awkward magic. The way we’re approaching it is more like avant-garde musical theater. It’s like a trippy off-Broadway thing where every moment is scripted and it’s not really left to random chance.

You have to be on top of it because everything could potentially go unhinged, but it’s also really rewarding because you’re putting on a pretty deep production. It’s a special, not even remotely typical rock ‘n’ roll performance. The beautiful thing about being in Of Montreal is that I can experiment, and I can create an environment where other people can experiment as well.

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