Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes on divorce, gender identity, and dressing up

Of Montreal

Of Montreal Ben Rouse

If bands had birthdays, Of Montreal would almost be of drinking age.

For two decades, the Athens, Georgia, based outfit has been spearheaded by Kevin Barnes, a frontman who emulates David Bowie and Iggy Pop in his boisterous live performances. Chameleons when it comes to musical genres, Of Montreal infused their 14th studio album, Innocence Reaches, with influences from indie pop, electronica, and EDM. The crowd-pleasing collection of danceable tunes will delight fans of Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem.

Barnes, now 42 and the divorced father of one, spoke to City Pages in anticipation of Saturday night’s Of Montreal show at the Cedar.

City Pages: Of Montreal is 20 years old. That’s a long time to stick with one project. How have you kept it from getting stale?

Kevin Barnes: There’s been a lot of changes over the years: different band members coming in, different musical styles. It’s never really gotten too stale because whenever I get bored with things as they are, I can kind of throw it out and start again.

CP: The new album is said to be influenced by a stay in Paris. How did that change the sound?

When not onstage or in costume, Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes says he's a sports geek.

When not onstage or in costume, Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes says he's a sports geek. Photo by Kelli McGuire

KB: I was working in a studio that only had drum machines and synthesizers, so I got back into working in a dance genre and started making more electronic music, whereas the last couple albums have been a little bit more rock 'n' roll influence.

CP: A review from Pitchfork seemed to imply that you were going in a more mainstream direction because of a need for approval after your divorce. Does that sound right to you?

KB: [Laughs] That’s not very accurate at all. That’s pretty funny actually.

CP: The album is very up-tempo and fun. Is that reflective of your post-divorce experience?

KB: I don’t know if any of that could be focused through the lens of that. Of course, there’s a couple songs that are dealing with the aftermath of the divorce, but it’s all over the place. Some of the songs are more universal, dealing with gender identity and sexual politics and trying to create an inclusive musical environment, encouraging people to feel cool about themselves.

CP: Costumes are a big part of the band. How does that play into gender identity for you?

KB: Gender identity is definitely a subject that we think about, talk about. It informs a lot of what we do. A lot of the costumes that I wear onstage are definitely within the drag arena, sort of gender-bending and role-playing, kind of falling into these different personas with each outfit and with each wig. It’s definitely fantasy-based on some level and it’s sort of this fun, extroverted thing that I get to do when I go on tour.

CP: The South seems like it might be less accepting of such things than other places. What is living in Athens like?

KB: Athens is special within the South. It’s abnormal when it comes to Southern cities. There are a lot of really backwards-thinking people, very uptight, narrow-minded people in the South—I guess all over the country—but Athens is special in that there’s a big university there and there’s been a good music scene there since the late ‘70s on. There’s been a good art community and there’s a lot of support for all of the arts. There’s this place called Nuçi’s Space that gives psychological help to artists in need. There used to be really cheap housing but now it’s gotten more expensive. There’s a lot of places to play. All the bars are really inexpensive. It’s a nice place to live if you want to take your time and get your thing together.

CP: Has putting on a big live show always been important to the band or was that something that developed over time?

KB: In the very, very beginning, we sort of had the punk attitude of “There shouldn’t be any pretentiousness. We should just get up onstage wearing our street clothes, sing our songs, and don’t make too much of yourself. It should just be very raw.” Then I started getting into the theatrical side of performing and realized how fulfilling that can be, and how unlimited. It’s awesome because you can change your persona from song to song and it’s definitely less boring than being yourself.

CP: So how would you describe yourself offstage?

KB: Pretty quiet and reserved. I don’t want to draw attention to myself in my normal life. I kind of just like to be left alone to think and to observe.

CP: Does your daughter get to see you in costume? Does she enjoy that?

KB: Right now, she’s at that age where she wants to blend in. She’s 11. She started middle school. She’s definitely very musically gifted and very smart. She’s always been able to hang with the adults. Even when she was a kid, she got all of our jokes. I’m very proud of her. I like hanging out with her. She’s probably my favorite person in the world. I spend more time with her than anybody else.

CP: What is the future of Of Montreal? Do you think you’ll branch off in another direction at some point?

KB: I don’t know. I’ve been doing this for pretty much for all of my adult life but I’m open to new changes and new developments. If I ever feel bored with music, I won’t force it. I’ll try to find a new career path to explore. But for now, the future is I’ve been working on a new album and the cycle continues.

CP: What do you think you would do if you weren’t making music? 

KB: I think that maybe I would look into sports journalism.

CP: Really? 

KB: [Laughs] Yes. I’m kind of a sports nerd.

Of Montreal
With: TEEN
The Cedar Cultural Center
Saturday, Oct. 15
8 p.m.
All ages