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Of Montreal talks Bowie, breakups and getting the band back together

Written by
Bill Murphy

Relationships are hard work, but for Kevin Barnes, that work has fueled almost two decades’ worth of aggressively original art pop. As the flamboyant founder of the Athens, Georgia–based band Of Montreal, the 42-year-old singer-songwriter has crafted a sprawling oeuvre of surrealistic and often confessional music that draws from glam, prog, psych and punk rock, with overt nods to the Beatles, Queen, T. Rex, David Bowie and Prince.

The passing of those last two giants made 2016 a rough ride for an entire generation of music fans, Barnes included. “The world feels weird without their physical presence,” he says. “But at the same time, I still have their music, and they continue to influence me in a really positive way.” It’s an upbeat observation from a guy who’s spent the last two years wrestling with the fallout of separating from his wife, a breakup he began deconstructing on 2015’s raucous, cathartic Aureate Gloom.

“There was a long process of finding my footing again,” Barnes admits. “I had to reestablish myself as an individual outside the organism of that relationship.” The next step took the form of a self-imposed exile early last year in Paris, where he fleshed out the broad strokes for what would become Of Montreal’s new album, Innocence Reaches.

“I’ve been trying to do that for the last couple of records—just go somewhere and isolate myself and try to be influenced by the surroundings,” says Barnes. “I’m able to disappear from the normal world that I live in and completely focus on creating art. It’s inspiring for me to get into a new city—especially a place like Paris, where I don’t speak the language and I haven’t really spent much time as a tourist, so it’s still very exotic and romantic.”

Like Bowie in Berlin, the isolation yielded strange fruit. Barnes had to write in the quiet of a residential neighborhood, relying on headphone-friendly synths and drum machines. Those tools give Innocence Reaches an electronic dance sheen on songs like club-ready “A Sport and a Pastime” and the catchy, cautionary single “It’s Different for Girls” (which Barnes wrote with his 11-year-old daughter in mind).

But first and foremost, the album features a rejuvenated band, with bassist Davey Pierce and multi-instrumentalist Nicolas Dobbratz, both of whom departed in 2013, rejoining the troupe. For the tour, Barnes says, “We’re approaching it more like a musical and less like a typical rock concert,” promising a glam-rock spectacle that will bend genders and fly freak flags in outré Of Montreal style. “We can’t wait to finally hit the road because it’s been existing in our imaginations for months.”

Of Montreal plays Webster Hall Friday, September 9 at 7pm; $22.

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