If you take the long view of Kevin Barnes’ output in of Montreal, the Athens-based band formed out of the Elephant 6 collective that also sparked groups like Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples in Stereo, and Elf Power, it’s easy to mark their enigmatic output as one of constant shape-shifting. The outfit has long been trying on different sounds and styles that are consistently filtered through their unique psychedelic pop-song grinder.
This was particularly true through the 2000s as Barnes transitioned of Montreal away from a full band approach and began crafting albums like Satanic Panic in the Attic and Skeletal Laming almost entirely himself. These records had Barnes building sonic worlds that drew feverish connections from the Beach Boys and Zombies affectations of the band’s early years to his own distinctive versions of disco funk and glam rock, replete with the Ziggy Stardust-esque alter ego Georgie Fruit.
The same wandering impulse also marks later records, like 2013’s folk-rock dalliance Lousy with Sylvianbriar, or his exploration into outre electronic dance pop on 2016’s Innocence Reaches and last year’s White is Relic/Irrealis Mood.
For Barnes, though, the zany zigzag of his musical output is never about a conscious narrative arc, but rather that his creative drive never seems to sit still.
“I never really think about it, because I get bored so quickly,” he contends. “The record I just made is the most exciting thing in the world for me for, but only for the next five minutes.”
While some of that boredom is a concern about doing the same thing over and over again, Barnes also believes in staying true to the creative you are in the moment rather than being anchored to his previous musical identities.
“You sort of shed your skin of the past every year or two,” he reasons. “I feel like a new person each time. My older records like The Gay Parade or Sunlandic Twins — they are mine, but I feel like it’s almost a different person who made them.”
Now, a year removed from the release of White is Relic, Barnes is already in the midst of another metamorphosis working on a new record. Inspired by the purchase of a Korg Prologue synthesizer and an abiding affection for ’80s pop, it serves as a kind of continuation of the club-friendly paranoia of his last record while also working toward a new, more joyful aesthetic.
“The ’80s were a really mysterious time. You had Reagan and this new conservative movement, with its obsession with money and greed, but then you also had all this weird post-punk stuff happening along with the New Romantics, Madonna, Prince — all of the things colliding in a really interesting way,” he reflects.
Barnes’ particular focus, though, is on shorter, more concise pop songs than the ones he’s been writing recently, and he cites Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual as direct inspiration.
“Growing up, I always listened to the radio and really dancy stuff like Prince and New Edition — really funny, catchy music,” he notes. “I really love that mid-’80s pop period. I love the innocence of those sounds. I used to think of them as really cheesy, but now I’m gravitating towards them.”
Of course, Barnes’ version of this doesn’t have much to do with current pop reclamation of ’80s synths and sounds present in the music of stars like Lorde, Taylor Swift, and Carly Rae Jepsen. His will be of the decidedly offbeat variety.
“I think the [rise of] vaporwave movement has been really inspiring,” he offers instead, pointing to the internet-based microgenre that has maintained a hazy and dirty DIY aesthetic in its use of those ’80s signposts. “It’s really slowed down and druggy in a weird way, with this psychedelic approach.”
Still, the earnest sensibility of Lauper fits with where Barnes is at personally, too. White is Relic caught him halfway between writing about his divorce from his wife of 10 years and beginning a new relationship, but now he’s writing from a place of “renewal in my personal life.” But he’s reticent to read too much in the correlation of his personal life and his current musical fascinations.
“The whole process is so mysterious and organic to me,” he admits. “I try not to push the songs in any one direction, and let them be what they want to be.”