The Many Mutations of Georgia’s Of Montreal Keep Audiences Guessing

Thursday at the Columbia Museum of Art
By Kyle Petersen
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Photo by Nina Barnes

When a band’s been around for almost two decades, it typically finds a groove: Audiences know what to expect. The hits have been established. In other words, the group has at least some sense of identity, a collection of reliable traits that keep fans coming back for more. Even for a band like Wilco, whose early records veered in wild directions, there has been a sense of settling, of coming to terms with an established sound.

But that’s never been the case for Of Montreal, which has followed the unpredictable whims of Athens, Ga.’s Kevin Barnes since its 1996 inception.

Despite the precedent set by the group’s more consistent peers, Barnes argues that such fluidity is really a more natural artistic state.

“That’s just the way it goes for any band that’s going to stick around for decades,” he contends. “There’s always going to be a period where they are going to be more popular and commercial.”

What: Of Montreal (presented by Indie Grits)
Where: Columbia Museum of Art, 1515 Main St.
When: Thursday, April 17
With: Mood Rings, fk mt.
Price: $15
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With recordings that stretch from twee-ish psych-pop to glammed-out electro-funk, Of Montreal has always defied categorization. This stark shift culminated in the birth of Georgie Fruit, Barnes’ Ziggy Stardust-aping alter-ego. Like David Bowie’s Ziggy, the persona is vehemently — and polyamorously — sexualized, driving what was an increasingly theatrical and communal performance style. Colorful costumes abounded, even among the audience, forging a weird and welcoming dynamic that became the band’s defining trait. It also bolstered the outfit’s commercial performance, with 2008’s Skeletal Lamping and 2010’s False Priest both cracking the top 40 of Billboard’s albums chart.

But this success wasn’t enough to quell Barnes’ restless muse. Last year’s lousy with sylvanbriar LP threw fans another curve, pulling the plug on the flamboyant theatrics for a convincing batch of Dylan-esque folk-rock.

“[lousy] was just me wanting to do something different,” Barnes says. “I just got really excited about working in that genre, to go in the other direction with something that was a bit more intimate and sparsely ornamented. I can’t really say why it happened at this point — I’m already past this phase and on to something else.”

But despite this eclectic nature, there is an underlying consistency to Barnes’ music. He’s a sharp lyricist, capable of surrealistic character studies, elusive explorations of sexual identity, and biting self-criticism. The experimental and adventurous nature of his genre ramblings still draws from the Elephant 6 collective that gave this project its start. That cultishly beloved contingent of artists — which included Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control, among others — went on to influence a whole generation of indie rock bands with their DIY approach and grandiose interpretations of traditional pop idioms, pursuits that Of Montreal actively continues.

“There’s also that interest in making something that is unpredictable, theatrical, surreal, transportive,” Barnes explains. “That’s all fairly consistent, and I’m still kind of carrying those concepts along through the years.”

But Barnes still craves change. He’s already looking forward to the next album, where he hopes to avoid any sense of it being a “retro piece.” And whatever new sound he pursues, it seems likely that his fans will stay with him. After all, the only expectation Of Montreal has cultivated for itself is to keep delivering the unexpected.

“It’s probably emblematic of the way I view the world,” Barnes offers. “I need things to be up in the air and in flux. I’m constantly changing my perspective of things. I need it that way. I need to be open-minded, need to be corrected or influenced in different ways. I don’t want a fixed perception of things; it would be so boring to be that person.”

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