An Interview with Kevin Barnes

At a multitude of music venues around the country in 2006, Kevin Barnes of the band Of Montreal took to the stage at the Bowery Ballroom in New York wearing a wedding gown.

He made an announcement to the audience that he was about to get divorced and requested them to join him in a special musical wedding ceremony.

After reconciling with his ex-wife, Nina (the mother of his daughter, Alabee), Barnes’ separation from her is the focal point of Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, an outstanding work of art from a group which has been producing fantastic albums since 1997.

The band Of Montreal pays homage to the city of its namesake, the hometown of a woman who had an ill-fated love affair with Barnes.

However, the group itself originally hails from Athens, Georgia – the birthplace of the Elephant 6 collective, which was behind the creation of Neutral Milk Hotel, the Olivia Tremor Control, the Apples in Stereo, and other related acts.

As Barnes has grown older, he has become even more flamboyant in his performances. During his Hissing Fauna tour, he’s been seen wearing a kimono, gold booty shorts with fishnets, and a dress that’s ten feet tall that he climbs a ladder to enter onstage.

 He also once famously played a show in Las Vegas while completely nude, although he’s said this will now only happen at shows that are strictly for adults.

When I visited the band in Seattle, they were performing at the KEXP radio station, where a risk of their tour van being taken away from the lot beside the broadcaster’s studio was looming.

Later, I had a chat with Kevin Barnes over coffee before the completely sold-out performance at the Showbox (where the van was properly secured in the area of the venue).

–According to Amy Benfer


In your music, you have been using those close to you, such as Nina and Alabee, as the inspiration for your compositions. You don’t just talk about concepts like love and breakups in general, but rather create characters and narratives which stem from your own existence.

Kevin Barnes mentions that Ray Davies of the Kinks often wrote about real people in his songs. He reflects on how this can be seen as unfair to those mentioned, as the song is not from their point of view.

Barnes argues that art should be intimate and connected to the artist’s life. He believes that this is the type of art that resonates with people the most.

While he does appreciate the fantastical music he has made in the past, he states that it has not reached a large audience compared to the more personal music he produces now. He suggests that this is because people can identify more with the confessional style.

BLVR: All three of the most recent albums–Satanic Panic in the Attic, The Sunlandic Twins, and Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?–possess the same characteristic as serial fiction or nonfiction.

KB suggested that it could be something that could be seen in a tabloid.

BLVR: Appreciate your words! It was quite clear that there were regular reports in both the press and your songs about your connection with Nina. Is it a bit challenging when people are discussing your music, but it might seem like they’re also talking about your marriage?

KB commented that they haven’t encountered much of people being curious about their personal life due to their interest in the band.

They find it interesting to learn the details of David Bowie’s life while listening to his music, such as what he was doing while recording “Heroes”, what he was reading, or what he was eating.

As opposed to being embarrassed, KB feels honored that someone would be so interested in their own life and want to “mythologize” them, like they’ve done with their own inspirations.

BLVR: You almost repeated yourself! [In the song “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal,” Barnes vocalizes, “I sometimes ponder if you’re constructing a myth around me the same way I am around you.”]

KB has reflected on the concept of idealizing the people who are close to us and the way our view of them can be distorted. He has come to a greater understanding of the human experience and our interactions with one another after his separation and eventual reunion with Nina.

BLVR: While the relationship between you and your partner is the main focus of your record, I’m interested in learning what was going on in your life when you created each song.

Sunlandic Twins was a kind of love letter to that relationship, and “So Begins Our Alabee” mentions your daughter. Could you tell me how these three records are related?

The start of our story was Satanic Panic in the Attic. We decided to wed in Norway, even though neither of us was enthusiastic about the idea. We had to marry in order to stay together legally. Then, she moved to Athens and left her old social circle and family behind. To make ends meet, she sold merch on tour with me, giving her the chance to explore the country. After that, I relocated to a house in the country with my wife and brother, David Barnes. That was a period of transformation for us, as Derek Almstead, who had been with the band for a while, had left. We weren’t sure who would take his place. As a result, I set up a studio in my bedroom and devoted most of my time to recording. This caused a certain degree of loneliness for Nina.

Musicians have no doubt immortalized her in their compositions.

KB: Yes, despite not having a lot of time together.


BLVR: While having fun in the studio, the record that would eventually become Satanic Panic in the Attic was being completed.

Once the band had solidified its lineup, I wasn’t able to take many creative liberties due to the members’ possible distrust.

We were in the process of redefining each person’s role within the group for the upcoming years, though I didn’t realize this at the time. Despite this, I was filled with a strong need to express my ideas and enthusiasm for life.

What time span has been covered in the career of Of Montreal thus far?

KB recalled there were around six of them that had journeyed through a lot in the past. They had each made significant sacrifices with no real returns.

As a result, they had been performing in the same venues for multiple years and had a crowd of roughly three hundred every night. If they managed to gather three hundred spectators, they were overjoyed. Each of them held a day job at the same time.

BLVR inquired about the speaker’s experience.

KB mentioned that they had had a few jobs. One of them was at a small, locally owned video store which had a distinct “Clerks-esque” atmosphere. Additionally, they had done temporary work to make ends meet. This type of job was non-committal.

BLVR: And that’s the end of the album.

KB: I had finished the record and played it for the band. They were flabbergasted that I had done it without any of their input and were pleasantly surprised when they heard it.

So, we went on tour with Nina playing bass but had to take a break when they found out she was pregnant. This was a major blow to her, as she wanted to stay involved, and it eventually led to the collapse of the band. Even though we had sold more records than ever before, there weren’t enough royalties to live off of. Still, we could tell that there was a progression in a positive direction and that we were reaching a larger audience. This was a very exciting moment for us.


BLVR: You returned from your tour and Nina is expecting a baby.

KB explained that since they did not have health insurance in the U.S. and his wife was Norwegian, they decided that if they wanted to have a baby, they would have to do it in Norway because of their socialized medicine system.

He acknowledged that their decision to have Alabee in Norway was a bit crazy given their financial situation.

BLVR: As the summer approached, the narrator found themselves on the edge of a nervous collapse while they were living in Norway? [from “A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger”]

KB recalled how they were nearing a nervous breakdown before they toured Norway.

During this time, they started working on Sunlandic Twins. This was a peculiar situation as the previous albums were recorded without any intention of making a record; they were just having fun in the studio, experimenting and getting some ideas down.

Unexpectedly, fourteen songs were put together and it was then that the realization struck that it was an album. With no help from anyone in the band, KB had managed to write, record, and complete Sunlandic Twins.

Was it simpler or more demanding to communicate with the other members of the band?

KB mentioned that it was harder to make Sunlandic Twins than the prior records, mainly because Jamie Huggins had been heavily involved previously and felt let down that KB was once again taking the reins.

Bryan Poole, on the other hand, had his own project, The Late B.P. Helium, so it was easier for him to accept. Jamie was very hurt by the situation and KB recognized this, but said he had to prioritize his art over personal relationships.

He also noted that it wasn’t his responsibility to ensure everyone was involved, and that if it felt right he would just do it, as he had been experimenting with music lately and had not been working on any particular song with the band.

BLVR: The way you are creating music at the moment appears to be more like a novelist’s approach.

It is uncommon for a musician to do this since most of them can’t or simply don’t want to tackle all the aspects. What was the journey like for you to reach this point and when did you first become aware of it?

KB discussed producing music as a form of escapism. While in high school, he used a 4-track recorder and headphones to get lost in the creative process. This was beneficial for him because it took his mind off his unhappiness.

Making something of value, he felt, validated his existence and provided justification for not sitting and feeling bitter. He works quickly, shutting off from the outside world and losing track of time.

KB suggested this is not unique to him, as other artists such as novelists and painters may experience something similar. Recording alone eliminates the need to compromise and allows him to remain in this special mental space.

He believes the benefits of producing music solo outweigh the negatives of alienating himself from friends.

BLVR: The people involved in the project have been cooperative due to the quality of the work and the fact that they like the artist?

KB commented that there is something strange about the addiction to performing. Uncertainty about ourselves could be the cause of why we need so much approval.

Nonetheless, being on stage and getting the audience’s applause is an astonishing experience. It is mesmerizing in a strange sense as it gives one a feeling of exhilaration. Even if it may not always be perfect, it usually is.

BLVR: You appear to be quite introverted from how you talk about your work, yet your stage presence is exuberant. Indie rock usually follows the concept of being distant, uninterested and expressionless towards the audience, yet you seem to differ from that.

What is the cause of this split between introverted and extroverted you?

KB states that when he is creating music, he doesn’t contemplate how it will be perceived by other people. He just enjoys the process. Then, when it is time to perform, he transitions into his different personas, such as Georgie Fruit or Claudrie Bear, instead of being himself.

BLVR: Could you tell me what you have labeled your personas?

KB: Primarily, I am Georgie Fruit. Another character I portray is List Christie, who is much more upbeat and hopeful. I prefer being Georgie as he is my favorite.

BLVR: His presence is also captured in song. [“Labyrinthian Pomp” contains the line “I’ve got my Georgie Fruit on / He’s a warped transformation / for my twisted leisure.”]

KB commented that the new artist is a product of “The Past is a Grotesque Animal”, referring to the song as the one that gave rise to him.

BLVR: I recall the first time I played the CD to a group of people, and they were astonished by the length of the song. It was almost as if the track had given birth to something. They were wondering to themselves, “What on earth was Kevin thinking when he wrote this?”

KB mentioned that if you don’t have a strong opinion about the song either way, it’s not something you can just put on in the background. It’s pretty long and can be draining emotionally. It’s not the kind of song you can just put on while you’re doing something else.


BLVR: Is it true that you and Nina ran into each other at a Swedish festival and talked about Georges Bataille, as mentioned in the lyric [“I fell in love with the first cute girl that I met / Who could appreciate Georges Bataille / Standing at a Swedish festival / Discussing Story of the Eye”]?

KB: Yeah, that occurred to me recently. For me, that seemed to be the standard. It’s not often I find someone who I am drawn to and who is also cultured, has an admiration for literature and movies, and has a good education–not just average.

BLVR: Is it because the population of Athens is mainly composed of country music fans?

KB muses, “Will I ever come across someone who really understands me? The type of person who can answer questions like ‘What’s your favorite book?’ or ‘Who’s your favorite band?'” in the context of Athens, which is known to have rednecks.

What musical group was her favorite?

KB: All right, I didn’t exactly ask, “What’s your favorite band?” I was simply quite surprised. She had a deep knowledge of literature, art history, and classical music, which were all subjects I was interested in, but hadn’t dedicated much effort to exploring.

I like it when people introduce me to new people and ideas. For instance, when they say, “Have you heard Ligeti?” and I answer, “No, I haven’t.” Then they say, “You need to give him a listen, he’s incredible.”

It’s not fun being the most fascinating person in the relationship. I’d rather be the least interesting. That’s how you get the most out of it. I was looking for someone who could appreciate slightly unconventional writers like Georges Bataille and Jean Genet.

I have been a fan of Genet since I was in high school and college, and I can understand why his work might be relevant to your music.

KB commented that this person has had a major impact, taking awkward topics and transforming them into something with a poetic nature and not as distasteful.

Although, this individual’s writing still contained some grotesque moments, they were able to make a terrible situation more beautiful and captivating. For example, even when describing a heinous murder, they were able to make it seem romantic.

BLVR: College sophomores everywhere adore Georges Bataille, just like Anais Nin, yet his sexual preferences are unconventional. This makes him an unconventional choice for a pickup line.

KB: Yeah, it’s kind of like asking “Are you my type?”

BLVR: When mentioning that song, the conclusion brings to mind the Cure’s “Disintegration.” Robert Smith references babies and spots on the carpet; you allude to “evading lamps and vegetables.” It is all so frightful yet homely.

KB commented that marriage is not a fashionable topic in the world of pop music, particularly within the indie genre.

They suggested that death and relationship issues are more accepted, as the concept of marriage is perceived as bourgeois, dull, and unoriginal.

They continued to question their role, as they were married and then separated, yet still remain together. They asked, “What do I call you?”

BLVR: Let me know if I’m asking something that is too intrusive. You and your partner have gone through a divorce, but you are still together and have a child. Does this mean you are in a peculiar legal and social situation?

KB indicated that they had already gone through the process of filling out the separation papers, making the divorce legal. He then went on to explain that in Norway, people have to wait for a year after filing for a divorce to make sure that it isn’t something that is being rushed into.

BLVR: It’s rare to find someone who has actually taken the time to consider and then conclude that they would like to remain together.

KB recalled his first real love and relationship as being “insane.

” He admitted that he had been celibate for most of his twenties and only had a few girlfriends and “really brief relationships,” but that he “never, ever fooled around” as he was searching for something “specific” and “not just something trivial and phony.

” Until he found her, he felt disconnected from people, however, the couple had to battle challenges that other couples did not, such as coming from different countries, marrying and having a child soon after.

They had been married “six months, eight months,” before they became pregnant.

BLVR: It is no secret that relationships can be arduous when one of the partners is away on tour.

KB commented that the situation was not ideal, since Alabee was with her alone in an unfamiliar country; she had no relatives or friends to rely on.

BLVR: Was your sibling still inhabiting the same place?

KB described his situation as extremely isolating and the source of a lot of tension. Despite this, his career was on the upswing.

His musical project, Sunlandic Twins, had become a success and he was playing sold-out shows at venues he had once dreamed of playing. However, his personal life was in decline, making it hard to resolve the issue between his career and his relationship.

He felt that he had to choose between the two, but was determined to continue and see his dream through; to support himself financially through music, leave a lasting imprint and create work that held value to others.


BLVR: So, a fundamental inquiry–correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it’s pronounced Heim-dals-ga-tah? I remember hearing you scolding someone recently for mispronouncing it–

KB: No, I don’t think anyone needs to be hard on themselves. It makes sense that Heimdals-gate is how it’s pronounced in English. However, Norwegians say Heimsdalga-tah.

BLVR: What was the reference? I did a search on Google and the only thing that showed up was the title of your own song – “Heimsdalgate Like a Promethean Curse,” the first single, also referred to as “Chemicals”.

KB: Heimdalsgate was a street in Oslo where we stayed on and off. It corresponded with the Greek god Prometheus who was punished for eternity with his liver being eaten by an eagle.

We kept returning to this street and living with a friend who was so kind, yet I never felt comfortable being in that apartment as it wasn’t ours. This street had a big significance in my life, symbolizing a tough time.

BLVR: When I first heard that song, I interpreted it as being about the apprehension of taking antidepressants and being afraid it would damage my creativity.

However, I then noticed that reviews were stating it was about reckless rock and roll drug use, which I did not detect in the lyrics. Is there a dual interpretation to the song that I am not aware of, or is that an incorrect assumption?

KB: The only line that seems to fit with the stated interpretation is “Nina Twin is trying to help me out / I really hope she gets me straight.”

This, however, has nothing to do with substance misuse and everything to do with feeling like the chemicals in one’s mind are betraying them; feeling betrayed by their body and not understanding why they are not feeling normal. It’s as if they are thinking “What is going on? I should be fine physically, but it feels like there is something inside me that is making me want to give up. Please help me sort this out and make it right.”

BLVR: Is there a belief that if a person seeks therapy or takes medication, it will make them “normal” and inhibit their imaginative capabilities?

KB: I had been so desperate to get relief that I was willing to do anything, even if it meant becoming a vegetable. I thought that creating some music that was happy and positive might help change the direction I was going.

It seemed strange to me that I was making such upbeat music while I was in my worst place, but it was my attempt to make something that was cheerful and upbeat, as opposed to how I felt inside.

BLVR: How did you come up with the video for that song? You had a lobster claw, you were on stage with your family and friends as an audience, and you had on a costume that resembled a spermatozoa…

KB: Frankly, the bulk of it was an accident. We initially thought of having me as a sketch; you know, the bit where Bryan had a pencil and was drawing me? That was the original plan and the sole cause of us obtaining the space-skating clothes.

BLVR: Was it not your goal to resemble a sperm?

KB reported that they had been instructed to wear all white for a video shoot, in order to be blocked out and animated in postproduction. But, unfortunately, there was not enough time to complete the animation.

Hence, they were left in a scary suit for nothing. However, this was seen as an unintentional blessing, because it created something unique and interesting in its own right.

BLVR: I’m fairly certain a French individual was walking a lobster on a leash, and it was documented in some Benjamin book. I’m not sure if it was Flaubert or a surrealist, but it’s a story that has been around.

[Reports have it that Theophile Gautier fabricated the tale of Gerard de Nerval strolling with a lobster to “surprise the upper classes.”]

KB recalled the idea of a lobster phone brought up by Salvador Dali, and how it was made a reality through the website

The person they knew who did puppetry was responsible for the clawhand. The originator of the idea was his brother, with a production style resembling that of Rushmore. The backdrop he was flying through space with was one-dimensional, with just a few props.

BLVR: You essentially display your psychological issues and mental disorders while on the stage, in front of those close to you.

KB commented that the outcome of their work was somewhat amusing, yet their intention was to make it more serious. Unfortunately, they had been unable to take a solemn approach, as something kept obstructing them.

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