For someone whose live antics have included wearing outrageous costumes, performing as his transsexual alter ego Georgie Fruit and riding onto the stage atop a stately white steed, Kevin Barnes is surprisingly reserved during interviews.
He’s a quiet and contemplative speaker — and an extremely intellectual one as well, but that’s to be expected given the deep and eccentric song lyrics found on the 12 albums he’s released as of Montreal since 1997.
Before viewers get an inside look into just who Kevin Barnes is via “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” a documentary by Jason Miller that will be released next month, Highway 81 Revisited chatted with Barnes about the recording of his latest album, last year’s “Lousy With Sylvianbriar,” being the mastermind of the ever-rotating band and the tour that will bring of Montreal to New York’s Le Poisson Rouge Sunday, May 11 and Philadelphia’s Union Transfer May 12.
H81R: What can fans expect from of Montreal on this tour?
Kevin Barnes: We have a lot of tricks up our sleeve, a lot of visuals and theatrical activities that are transportive and psychedelic.
H81R: You’ve done some crazy things on stage, but what’s the most unusual thing you’ve seen a fan do at a show?
KB: Dressing up in outrageous costumes. It makes it feel like more of a communal feel, and I like for the wall to be knocked down between us and the audience.
H81R: “Lousy With Sylvianbriar” was your 12th album. How did recording this one differ from your previous records?
KB: I put a new band together for it. Most of the tracks were recorded live in my home studio into an analog tape machine. I was inspired by records from the ’60s and ’70s and sort of following the way those records sound, like a group of people in a room together.
Tape machines force you to actually practice beforehand, you can’t fake anything or Auto-Tune, and I had been working by myself building one instrument at a time and was able to capture the atmosphere in a room and the personalities.
H81R: You’ve written just about every of Montreal lyric and musical arrangement and played every single instrument. How do you handle being of Montreal?
KB: It’s never hard for me because if I want to work alone, I work alone, and if I want to work with someone it’s because I want them to work with me. It was thrilling to watch this thing form — it was a great departure.
H81R: With so many unusual and complex lyrics, is it hard for you to recall them all?
KB: I think that it’s easy, as long as I practice them a bit; I tend to forget things if I’m not actively doing them. It’s kind of like being in shape.
H81R: With 12 albums since 1997, how deep into the catalog do you like to go?
KB: We don’t tend to go much deeper than (2004’s) “Satanic Panic in the Attic” because I don’t feel like playing (those songs), and they feel like someone else wrote them, and I’m not emotionally connected to them.
H81R: This month, you’re playing 17 shows in 17 days. How do you prepare for that?
KB: That’s what we do; it’s really easy. We just got to get into the groove, it doesn’t feel difficult, we’re not building a bridge manually.
It’s fun to wake up in a new city, drag stuff to the venue and wander around — I don’t really like days off. A lot of times we’ll have days off because the drive is too long to do in one day, and that’s in weird places, we never get days off. We’re not on vacation — this is our job, so that helps as well. It’s always fun, and no one’s going to be high-maintenance or add stress, everyone is mellow.
H81R: So if you don’t like days off, what is downtime for Kevin Barnes like??
KB: I do a lot of reading and writing, and (when I’m) touring I come up with a lot of ideas. I don’t really stop working, I just focus on writing songs, and I have a 9-year-old daughter, so I spend a lot of time with her. I don’t really like stopping.
H81R: Some of your lyrics are, let’s say, not safe for children. How aware is your daughter of her dad’s work?
KB: She’s pretty aware. I wouldn’t say she’s that conscious, and she’s been to a bunch of shows. I have a Lenny Bruce-style of parenting, I won’t tell her she can’t say things, I raise her to be a cool and respectable person.
Photo by Nina Barnes