Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes Talks ‘White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood’ and Shares Thoughts on Simulation, Society and Sound
Kevin Barnes has released psychedelic pop in regular doses for over two decades with his band of Montreal, wildly hopping genres and mutating into motley, colorful forms. Now, Barnes is back with yet another characteristically ambitious and eccentric offering “White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood.” The album uses a less band-centered approach, and takes inspiration from the extended dance mixes of pop songs that abounded in the ‘80s.
Barnes cites “simulated reality” paranoia as an influence, and explains the new record’s title in reference to author James Baldwin’s idea of a toxic white American identity. Entertainment Voice spoke with Barnes about these ideas, his unique perspective, and the sounds and words of the latest album.
You’re unbelievably prolific. You’ve always have a new album coming out, and it’s always dense and intricate. Is there a secret to your freakish productivity?
I think it may be a bit of an illusion. When you finish a record, it takes so long for it to actually come out, so in that time, that’s kind of when I start working on a new record. I feel like it might seem like I’m working a lot, but in reality, most of the time, it just feels like I’m sitting around doing nothing.
So, when you’re done writing one record, you don’t chill for a while, but just go straight into the next record?
Pretty much. I mean it’s sort of just what I do. It’s my passion, and it’s my primary interest, so it’s kind of easy to stay focused because I don’t really have anything else that I work on.
You have mentioned being “simulated reality” paranoid, and your song “Sophe Calle Private Party” mentions simulation. Perhaps, you’ve heard Elon Musk’s opinion that the chance we don’t live in a simulation is one in a billion.
(Laughs) No, I didn’t hear that.
What do you think? Are we living in a matrix of sorts, and how much does the idea concern you?
Well, it can be very concerning in the sense that no one wants to live a lie. Everyone wants to have the veil of illusion lifted. If it was confirmed, then it wouldn’t be that horrible, because you’re just like, “ok.” You’d adapt, and you’d say, “This is how it is.”
I have to think that it’s sort of a symptom of the digital age. I haven’t really come across ancient writers talking about simulated reality.
Have you read ‘Allegory of the Cave’?
No, what is that?
It’s an allegory by Plato in which these prisoners discover the sun after breaking free from a life of being chained in a cave, only to realize that everything they had convinced themselves was real were just shadows or relections on a wall. I just thought that was fascinating because I think about simulation, and I saw it was something you mentioned.
I need to check that out… [And] yeah, I think it’s a common thing for a lot of, sort of, tuned-in people to just start feeling that way. I feel like now there are more and more situations that feel oddly, maybe like a little bit too synchronicity-ish, kind of. It’s kind of weird for me, almost every day I look at the clock, and see that it’s 4:20, and it happens so often that I’m just like, “God, what the fuck?”
You have also said that you think the concept of the death, of “Whiteness,” might be the only way to save the world. Will you expand on this?
Yeah, well, I mean if you think about imperialism and just the audacity of, not necessarily only white people, but western society. But I mean that’s definitely not 100% accurate because there’s always going to be oppressive groups of people, toxic people that get into power, and it’s not necessarily a white thing. But in this country, especially, it’s definitely a white thing. The concept of “white” as an ethnicity is so absurd, and it’s basically used as a weapon or tool to keep lower class white people in a certain delusional state of mind.
When you say that the concept of “white” as an ethnicity is so absurd, do you mean because it’s such a broad category? For example, both a Swede and an Italian?
Yeah, there are no ancestral roots to just color, like white color. When people are white supremacists, it’s like “What are you even talking about? What is ‘white?’ What does ‘white’ even mean?” because it has no country. So yeah, like you said, is a Jewish person white? Is an Italian person white? Is an Albino African American white? (laughs)
You have a lot of interesting lyrics, such as the opening line of “Plateau Phase,” where you sing “fucked in your driveway, in your driveway.” What’s that about?
“Fucked in your driveway” was the original song that I wrote for Janelle Monae’s album, and we worked on it together for a bit, but it didn’t actually make the album, and so I just kind of kept that as a little relic of the experience.
Later in that song, you repeat “making party.” What was the thought process behind this?
“Making party” is something I overheard when we were on tour in Croatia (laughs.) This woman came up to us and was like, “Do you want to take a beer? Do you want to make party?” And so I thought that was a funny phrase.
Why did you decide to give each song on the new album two titles?
Well, the songs are mostly two or three songs that I pulled together. So I thought, rather than have one title that was supposed to be the umbrella phrase for all of them, it would make sense to shop it up a little bit.
Your voice and singing in “Writing the Circles” sounds strikingly different from usual. Was their any motive or concept behind this?
I was listening to a lot of DJ Screw, and the “chopped and screwed” style of mixing and remixing tracks, and I just realized that when things are pitched down, they just become so much more-interesting sounding. And I sort of experimented with that on my own, just taking my own songs and slowing them way, way down, and seeing if I liked them better than way. So there are a couple of tracks on the record that I did do that too, and I realized that they sounded cooler a lot slower, pitched down more.
The choruses are pitched down. The verses are pitched up. That’s something that I definitely picked up from Prince. He had that alter ego Camille, and he pitched his vocals up so he sounded more like a woman, so that’s a bit of the inspiration too. If you pitch your vocals up or down, it adds new character to it, which can be really interesting.
You wanted the new songs to sound like extended dance mixes, and they indeed have that feel. Will the live versions also sound like extended dance mixes? What can we expect at the shows?
Yeah, so we’ll stay probably pretty true to the album arrangements, but hopefully they will sort of evolve in new ways, and we can expand on some of the ideas that are presented on the album and not necessarily feel like we’re beholden to those arrangements. I want it to have the vibe of good times and party, but also with some emotional dynamic so it’s not just something totally superficial.
“White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood” is available on March 9 on Apple Music.