Who knew breaking up with your wife could sound so happy?
This January, ten years after their first effort, the brainy indie-pop group Of Montreal released Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? to critical acclaim and the biggest audience of their career. The album is intensely confessional and sometimes cringingly direct, dealing with front man Kevin Barnes’ split from his wife (they eventually got back together) and his isolation in Norway, where he lived while making part of the album.
Despite the somber subject matter, Hissing Fauna is insanely poppy and catchier than the plague – like being punched in the face with cotton candy. And people have responded.
“This is the best-selling record we’ve ever had,” says Seth Hubbard, publicist for Of Montreal’s label, Polyvinyl Records.
Of course, for a long time, few noticed Of Montreal. The Athens, Ga., fivesome toiled for years in relative obscurity, releasing album after album, starting with 1997’s lo-fi tour de force, Cherry Peel.
Nine albums followed, with fanciful (read: long) titles like Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse, and Horse and Elephant Eatery (No Elephants Allowed): The Singles and Songles Album, garnering the band a cult following, but not much else. So, 2004’s breakthrough album, “Satanic Panic in the Attic,” might as well have been the work of a brand new band, as far as pop culture was concerned. And, except for the fact that Of Montreal already had 10 albums under its belt, it was.
With “Satanic Panic,” Kevin Barnes took complete creative control, writing, playing and recording all the instruments himself, save some strings and a flute. 2005’s The Sunlandic Twins continued in the same vein, with Barnes as mastermind.
The album’s first single, “Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games,” found its way into an Outback Steakhouse commercial, albeit with changed lyrics. “Everyday Feels Like Sunday,” a song from the album’s free bonus EP, was used in a Nasdaq commercial.
Of Montreal, it seemed, had officially made it.
On Hissing Fauna Barnes continues to take the lead, with minimal help from his band members. Musically, it is the logical next step, perhaps even a perfection of the style staked out in the last two albums. In a way, there are really two albums in Hissing Fauna. One is full of thumping indie-dance-hall beats, maudlin synthesizers and soaring falsetto harmonies. But beneath that shiny veneer lurks a man in personal hell.
Barnes recently took some time away from his breakneck touring schedule to talk about the new album and his winter of discontent.
At this point in your career, you’re probably playing to the biggest audience that you’ve ever had. Is it weird to be putting out something so personal to such a large number of people?
All my life, my songs have been to varying degrees about my personal life. It might be sometimes masked behind some character I’ve created, but this record is more personal and is kind of more confessional.
I’m really proud of the fact that it’s very genuine and it’s not phony at all. I’m really happy that people have responded to it because it shows that I’m writing about these things that are more universal that people can identify with.
"The Past is a Grotesque Animal" is maybe the most intense song you’ve written. How did it come about?
It was written when I had broken up with my wife. We had split apart and the song is about trying to put in perspective the last couple years and understand what went wrong and try to sort of patch things up in my head – sort of like an open letter to myself. And musically I wanted to create something that was representative of the anguish I was going through, so there’s all these mysterious sounds, kind of growling sounds, to give the sense of being in danger, the feeling that my life is collapsing all around me.
The actual song, when I recorded it, was closer to 25 or 30 minutes long and I edited it down to what it is now, 11 minutes or whatever. The vocals were basically just one take.
What about "Gronlandic Edit?"
I was writing it in Norway, in Oslo. I was in this old lumber factory – an art space – and a friend of mine had rented me a room in there. There was a little organ and I had borrowed a bass guitar and I had my laptop. It was a very small, minimalistic recording setup.
So I laid the bass track down and put a simple beat down. It’s really a super simple arrangement. Lyrically, I was going through this really difficult culture-shock period of living in Norway and having to get used to that and in a way, feeling super isolated and out of my element. The subject matter of the lyrics is representative of that, being ironic, saying, “I am satisfied hiding in our friends apartment.” It’s obviously ironic. I wasn’t satisfied.
"Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider” is the most pointed song on the album. Where did it come from?
It’s about a real experience I had in Athens, Georgia. There’s a bar called “The Go Bar,” where the scenesters hang out. That’s the one place people go and actually dance and hang out and pick each other up and have fun. So it’s about that experience, because when I separated from my wife, I’d go out and do that. To some degree, it’s sort of criticizing that lifestyle. Realizing that you have these superficial relationships with people and that they aren’t really fulfilling at all.
In the song, you sing, “Eva, I’m sorry but you will never have me. To me you’re just some faggy girl and I need a lover with soul power.” Is Eva a real person?
She’s a real person. To say this girl has no soul power, it’s pretty cruel, and I knew I was being cruel and I was kind of playing with that, because I actually am friends with Eva. She’s awesome. She does have soul power.
"A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger" is one of the catchiest songs on the album, but the lyrics are very dark. Was that intentional?
Lyrically it’s very autobiographical, kind of following along the same subject as “Gronlandic Edit.” It’s about feeling isolated in a boring country and trying to keep your head about you. But musically, I was trying to create something that would lift my spirits. Rather than just revel in this melancholy or this anxiety that I was experiencing, I wanted to create something that was more positive and upbeat to pull myself out of that downward spiral. So that’s why there’s a pretty strong contrast between the lyrics and music. It’s the same too with “Heimdeslgate like a Promethean Curse” and some of the other songs that sound really happy, but lyrically are a bit harsher.
You’ve been doing a lot more with the show in terms of theatrics. Was that inspired by anything in particular?
We want to do something more visual, so we have some big projection screens and we have some different photographic moments where someone puts on some crazy outfit or does something theatrical. We just want to make something that has a lot of dynamic on all levels – musically dynamic and visually dynamic – something that is sort of exceptional, that’s not just the usual Indie rock performance.
Is it hard to keep a family life and the life of a traveling musician together?
That’s the biggest thing in my life right now, trying to keep that under control and keep everyone happy. It’s the hardest on my daughter because she doesn’t understand, like, why my dad’s not here now. You can’t really explain it to her – she’s too young. It’s harder now than it probably will be when she gets a little older and she can understand, but right now that’s definitely the biggest source of stress in my life.
I talked to you after the release of The Sunlandic Twins, and you said you had already started “Hissing Fauna.” Do you always have the next one in the works whenever an album gets released?
Yeah. It could be like four or five months from when I turn in a record until it’s put out. During that time, I’m working on other things. A lot of times I’ll just be kind of getting into the rhythm of recording at the end of the one record, so I still have that excitement to do something else.