It’s a bit misleading to say that the latest offering from indie rockers Of Montreal is the band’s most eclectic release to date. The band tends to take an eclectic release on all its albums; it often doesn’t even sound like the same group could have performed all the tracks on any given release.
“I’m very into collage arrangements,” says frontman Kevin Barnes. “One song could have three or four different movements within it. I don’t worry about staying in the same key or tempo. I think it’s exciting when songs are unpredictable and take crazy detours along the way.”
A Rocky River native who still thinks of himself as a lifelong fan of Cleveland sports teams, Barnes moved to Athens, Ga. nearly 20 years ago because he consciously wanted to embrace the city's rich musical history. Inspired by watching Athens, Ga. Inside/Out, a documentary film about the music scene that featured performances and interviews with acts such as R.E.M., Pylon and the Flat Duo Jets, he sought out the kind of camaraderie he lacked in previous bands.
After forming Of Montreal, he quickly befriended indie rock acts such as Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel, groups that were part of the loosely formed Elephant 6 collective. Even though Of Montreal used the Elephant 6 logo on a couple of its records, it was never officially part of the collective. But then the collective was never really that well organized, either. Barnes has described it as an “unofficial collective.”
“It was extremely beneficial on many levels,” he says of having been associated with the Elephant 6 collective. “If it wasn’t being connected with them, I don’t think that may people would have heard of us. They were really good about teaching me how to do it on a DIY level and how to be strong when you’re on the road and not be discouraged or frustrated for a lack of attention or acclaim and really doing it for the right reasons. Everyone was doing van tours and car tours and sleeping on people’s floors. I learned from them how to be tough. I hear bands complaining about how rough it is on the road is. When you travel like that and you’re all sharing everything together, it’s kind of a beautiful experience.”
Of Montreal initially began playing the kind of neo-psychedelic rock for which the other bands in the collective were known, but the band then went in a different, dance-oriented direction on 2002's Aldhils Arboretum and has dabbled in a bit of everything since.
Prior to recording the latest album, Aureate Gloom, Barnes spent some time listening to old punk and classic hard rock albums. Those influences seep into the songs on the album, the band’s 13th effort.
“I was listening to a lot of early- to mid-'70s punk music like Patti Smith and Television and Voidoids and stuff like that,” he says. “I was also listening to early Sabbath and Zeppelin and King Crimson. I was in between those two worlds — the early prog rock and early punk scenes. Those are the reference points that we were going for in general with the production and the arrangements.”
So does he see a connection between the types of music?
“I don’t know if I can draw a line between them easily,” he says. “The thing I liked about both those movements is that they were both very raw and spontaneous. It felt like the musicians involved were really excited about what they were creating and there’s an immediacy to it.”
The opening track, “Bassem Sabry,” starts with a cool blast of noise. Barnes says he intended the album to open with a bang.
“That’s the idea of a record starting like that,” he says. “It’s like getting punched in the face. Then, it settles into political disco.
“It’s basically an anti-fascism song,” he continues when asked about the inspiration for “Bassem Sabry.” “It’s dealing with the Arab Spring and the people who stood up against the oppressive regime. Bassem Sabry was a political writer who was very brave in that he stood up against the system and knew that he would be crushed in the end because they don’t tolerate that type of thing. It’s a love song to him and to the brave people who go up against fascist regimes around the world. I have an appreciation for the underdog and imaging what life would be like on a day to day basis when you’re faced with that. People you know and love are affected by it everyday. It’s difficult for us in the U.S. to appreciate the struggle they’re faced with every day.”
To record the album, the band sequestered itself in a studio outside of El Paso, Texas. Barnes says he wanted to go to a place that was outside of his comfort zone.
“Bands as different as Ministry and Yeahs, Yeahs, Yeahs have worked there,” he says. “Mexican bands record there to because it’s right across the border from Juarez. We went out there and basically spent three weeks recording and mixing. It’s all analog. The room was big enough that we could be in the same room together and do a lot of live tracking. We could work quickly. We did pre-production and the songs were in place. We didn’t do too much second-guessing. It was very spontaneous, just like those records I was inspired by.”
Songs such as “Last Rites at the Jane Hotel” feature brittle guitar riffs that sound like a cross between T. Rex and Gang of Four. The album might be the band's most adventurous yet. And that’s saying a lot since the band tries to make each album sound different from the previous one.
While the band is coming up on its twentieth anniversary, Barnes says he has no plans to mark the occasion. Given the fact that the group has had a revolving lineup, it makes sense that he wouldn’t want to acknowledge something like an anniversary.
“It’s been such a windy road and the band is really just me,” he says. “I’m the only consistent part of the whole thing. I could have a little me party or I could bring everybody who ever was in the band. I don’t give a shit about anniversaries like that. I could care less if it’s 20 years or 20 seconds. I just want to keep working and not think about that stuff or pat myself on the shoulder. I still feel like I have so much to prove.”
Of Montreal, Deerhoof, 8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 12, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $18 ADV, $20 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.