You Think It's Easy Being in of Montreal?
With of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes in Los Angeles, hard at work on False Priest, the band's follow-up to the critically acclaimed 2008 album Skeletal Lamping, and his band set to head out on tour in a week, the band's tour press responsibilities have fallen to founding member and Elephant 6 Collective alum Bryan Poole. Though a founding member of of Montreal, Poole had left the band previously for a stint to work with Elf Power and other E6/Athens-based projects.
Fittingly, last week when I caught up with Poole by phone, he was in Athens getting ready to leave for band practice. Not of Montreal practice, mind you; he's gearing up for a special performance in a Wings cover band. 'Cause, y'know, Barnes is in L.A. making the album. And the band is, um, not.
"It's not a normal band now," Poole concedes. "It's not a democratically creative band. It's Kevin's band. They're his ideas. They're his songs."
Basically, Poole explains, Barnes writes and records the songs. Then the band has to learn how to play them.
"In that regard," Poole says, "it can be a bit tricky. Because you're not creatively invested in the project."
Not like he used to be, at least: "The band didn't always work this way," Poole says before launching into an explanation of the creative "arc" of the project known as of Montreal. On the early records, Barnes did everything on four-track himself. Poole says when he and Derek Almstead first met Barnes—before the band even had a name—the future frontman had cassettes filled "front-to-back" with songs. Many of those songs made it onto Cherry Peel, the band's 1997 debut. But as the band added members and the occasional E6 collaborator, the group's songwriting/recording process began to operate under a bit more of a band dynamic, with Almstead eventually taking control when it came to the recording process.
But after a while, Poole says, "Kevin began to feel like the joy of recording was taken away from him." When Almstead left the band after a "falling out" with Barnes, the frontman took back the reins of the writing/recording process. And when it came time to write 2004's Satanic Panic in the Attic, Poole says Barnes told the band he'd be recording it by himself. Then Barnes recorded 2005's The Sunlandic Twins, 2007's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? and Skeletal Lamping in much the same way, with little creative help from the band.
"It's not easy," Poole says, admitting that there were "some battles" as the band transitioned. "But I'm over it now. You have to kind of check your ego at the door, or the process will make you go crazy. You have to understand what you're in for when you sign up for a band like this."
It can be quite the experience, Poole says. It's not uncommon for him to awake in the morning, check his e-mail and find another brand-new song to listen to.
"I'll have an e-mail that's from Kevin at 5:42 a.m.," Poole says, "and I'll be like, 'Oh, OK, he just wrote this last night,' and I'll listen to it, and it'll sound complete—all fleshed out. He's that quick."
And that's why Poole says Barnes likes to work alone.
"He doesn't have to wait for the band to figure out what the hell he's doing," Poole says. And the result may be easier on all of the band. "It's not that easy to just jump into his brain. He likes to maintain creative control over his universe because it's easier for him, and us, to work in that regard.
"That, and it has produced results."
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