You might not catch it from his buoyant, celebratory records, but Of Montreal's bandleader Kevin Barnes is kind of a depressed guy. While recording his most lauded record--2007's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?--Barnes created the flamboyant alter-ego/sexpot Georgie Fruit as a way to cope with his personal difficulties.
"Georgie Fruit was a character I needed to create to get through a horrible depression period I experienced--to live in and create a false reality where I could exist on a happier level and not be so devastated and crushed by my internal suffering," Barnes said. "So I created that character and sort of got swept up by that character and had a really good time as that character."
This strange being persisted throughout the band's next two full-lengths, often testing the patience of longtime fans, before finally making an exit on Of Montreal's most-recent release, 2012's Paralytic Stalks.
"Now I think I've realized, slowly, that there's no future in that. I need to keep moving forward and developing as a human. I don't want to become a Lady Gaga character. I don't want to be something that's totally fabricated and not something based on my personal life. I think all my art needs to have a direct connection to my personal experiences and not just be some caricature of a cartoon or something that I created."
Nonetheless, Barnes' music is a reflection of his personality and where he's at in a given head space or time.
The band started out in the late '90s as a member of the Elephant 6 Recording Company, an influential music collective that included Neutral Milk Hotel, The Olivia Tremor Control and The Apples in Stereo. In those days, Of Montreal was a minimalist freak-folk act, heavy on barroom piano, circus noise and dainty vocal harmonies.
Sometime around 2004, the band went electric. That pissed off a lot of old fans but many argue it resulted in Of Montreal's best work to date. 2004's Satanic Panic in the Attic and Hissing Fauna saw the group turn its rickety, innocent parade music into a psyched-out electronic tour de force. The songs from this era are infectious, funky and envelope-pushing. They move in random directions, shunning traditional formats and are full of beaming synths, maniacal, jarring vocals and bright, electronic freak-outs.
On the band's last couple of records, most notably 2010's False Priest and Paralytic Stalks, Of Montreal ratcheted up the production, favoring bombastic orchestral arrangements, over-the-top antics and attempts to cram as many colors as possible onto a single slab of vinyl. This was quite different from the calculated, thoughtfully composed tunes of 2005-2007, and Barnes is well aware of these differences.
"To be honest, I'm in a weird place right now--mentally, emotionally, everything," he said. "And the last couple of records that I made came from a very different place. I realized that when we played a recent show where we did Paralytic Stalks songs and then we played Hissing Fauna songs. It felt really kind of bizarre to me, because I could totally feel that the spirit of those two albums was so different, and it was so jarring in a way to sing Hissing Fauna songs after Paralytic Stalks songs."
On the surface, Paralytic Stalks comes off as an upbeat party record. But underneath the layers of glam and glitz are sincere expressions of Barnes' sorrow and depression. Paradoxically enough, the record's apparent happiness is indicative of Barnes' sadness.
"If I'm in a really terrible state of mind, I try to make happy music to elevate my spirits, to elevate my consciousness and not just revel in the sadness of life," said Barnes. "But at the same time, there is a lot of sadness and there is a lot of pain. And I needed to express that lyrically. That's always a strange combination of me trying to lift my spirits through the music I'm creating but also trying to express what I'm going through lyrically."
Although Barnes struggles to maintain a positive state of mind, he's still excited for his band's final-night headlining spot at the Treefort Music Fest. To make the show happen, Of Montreal's booking agents had to go out of their way to pull some strings.
"Early on, when I reached out to them, they weren't available," said Treefort promoter Eric Gilbert. "They were planning a bus tour and you can only drive so many miles before a driver gets burnt out. So they had to work out actually flying in an extra bus driver to Montana to help with the driving. They basically made a huge exception to make it happen."
Over the years, local fans have grumbled about Of Montreal's tendency to skip Boise. When the band takes its massive colorful production to Treefort's Main Stage, all of this neglect will hopefully be forgotten. And if enough people show up with enough energy, the unexpectedly depressed Kevin Barnes might even crack a smile.
"This whole tour is really special," he said. "What we're doing visually is extremely complex and I hope the whole experience will touch many people. It's a big production. And we're really excited, because hopefully there will be a lot of people and they'll be excited about what we're doing.
"You know, we're excited about it for sure. Just to finally get to play Boise after all of these years of driving through it."