Sometimes the key to unlocking a band's potential is allowing it to operate fully as a band. That hasn't always been the case with veteran indie-pop fave of Montreal.
For more than 15 years, the band has been a nom de plume of sorts for the music of Athens, Ga., song stylist Kevin Barnes. Onstage, there was a company of musicians who journeyed through myriad pop styles, from party funk to psychedelia to glammed-up Brit pop and more. In nearly all other respects, of Montreal was a singular vehicle. Barnes wrote all the music and, in many cases, recorded all of it on his own.
Now, with a fascination for vintage folk-rock fueling his current songs, Barnes, 39, has decided to relinquish some of that control. For his new album, Lousy With Sylvianbriar, he enlisted a new musical team not merely for live shows but as the basis for a fully functioning band.
"It felt like a new chapter in my career," Barnes said. "I turned over a lot of people that have been with me for a while and just moved in this new direction. I'm very excited about it. I think it has breathed new life into the project."
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"The influences this time are mostly from the late '60s and early '70s. I wanted to make a record that was similar to that in a sense, as far as the way we went about recording and how I went about writing and teaching people parts. I liked the idea of getting other people involved and having it be more communal and collaborative. But I also wanted to work really quickly, as in the course of just a couple of weeks. As a result, we were making all these spontaneous, creative decisions on the fly and just not laboring over it in a way that I have been laboring over the previous records.
"Basically, I just wanted to follow the blueprint of those records that I love — the Bob Dylan records, the Neil Young records, Leonard Cohen records, Grateful Dead records — all the records that were an inspiration for this record."
Getting into the mind-set of that music, however, required some distance: a pilgrimage to San Francisco, the epicenter of late-'60s counterculture.
"I really wanted to get out of Athens and be somewhere new, somewhere that was kind of exotic and mysterious," Barnes said. "I've always been a huge fan of the beat poets and writers and, of course, the hippie scene from the late '60s and early '70s. San Francisco is so interesting and so culturally and ethnically diverse. The architecture is amazing, and just the way the city is laid out is really inspiring. I hadn't really spent that much time in San Francisco before, so I didn't really know exactly what I was going to get out of it. But some sort of voice was calling me there and I just trusted my instincts. I lived for about three weeks in this rented apartment and wandered around and observed people. I read a lot and wrote a lot."
With the groundwork for Sylvianbriar complete, Barnes faced the challenge of allowing his songs to develop with a new lineup for of Montreal — vocalist Rebecca Cash, drummer/vocalist Clayton Rychlik, keyboardist Jojo Glidewell, pedal steel guitarist/bassist Bob Parins and guitarist/mandolinist Bennet Lewis — rather than just himself in a studio.
"It was difficult at first just because the group of people I had been working with ... we were really close. We travelled the world together and had all these ups and downs together. So to basically move on and start a new life without them created a lot of tension and a lot of pain that definitely affected our relationships, which was inevitable. But at the same time, it's exciting to feel like I'm moving in this new direction and dropping all the baggage of the past to move forward. So it's kind of a bittersweet situation, I guess.
"For me, it's all about the present moment and what I hope to accomplish in the future. I don't really care at all about the things I've done in the past. That might seem kind of strange or whatever. But for me, it's all about not looking back and just thinking, 'OK, now what? Now what can I do?' So I'm in a good place right now because I'm discarding stuff. Even Sylvianbriar, in a way. I'm just trying to move forward from that into some new area."