Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes on Patreon, Elephant 6, and the Truth Behind the Outback Steakhouse Commercial

Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes on Patreon, Elephant 6, and the Truth Behind the Outback Steakhouse Commercial
Photo by Shervin Lainez

This is a free post from Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter. Paid subscribers also receive a Baker's Dozen playlist every Friday with music I've been listening to along with some thoughts around it.

I've been listening to Kevin Barnes' music for the entirety of my adult life, ever since discovering The Gay Parade in high school. They're someone in the world of indie who is always on their own wavelength, which I very much appreciate; I've interviewed them previously, but ahead of Of Montreal's latest album Lady on the Cusp coming out this Friday, I wanted to do a deeper dive into all things past, present, and future when it comes to their creative mind. Hope you enjoy the convo:

You moved from Athens to Vermont last year. How much of the record was made outside of Athens?
None of it. I was still living in Athens when I wrote and recorded it. There's a few references to Vermont because we'd been coming up here for about a year. My partner Christina went to high school and college here, so she was already very comfortable with it, but it was a pretty big change for me going from the South to New England. I wanted to like see it all the different seasons to see how it felt.

Tell me about what that shift has been like after so long in the South.
I was born in the Midwest, in Ohio, and then we moved to Michigan. Until I was 15, I lived in the Midwest, and then my parents moved the family down to South Florida. I lived there for a few years, and then I moved to Athens where I stayed for over 20 years. Athens was the place that felt like home, but I was born up north, I never really felt at home in the South. I never really felt that comfortable with Southern culture—it didn't feel like my place, necessarily.

I hit a wall with it when I was like, "Man, I just don't want to live here anymore around all these conservatives. It's just embarrassing to be from Georgia. So I just gave up on Georgia, basically, and I was looking for someplace else to live when my daughter got accepted to college in Manhattan. I wanted to be closer to her anyways, so Vermont was the perfect choice, because Christina had all these great experiences here, and I had a lot of friends here. So it wasn't going to be like moving to the middle of nowhere and knowing no one. 

It was a lot easier of a transition than it would've been if we just moved to a more random place. But we live out in the forest, 20 minutes away from civilization of any kind, so it's definitely more rural and out of the way from everything. That's different, because when I was living in Athens, I was surrounded by people all the time—no privacy in that sense. Here, it's nothing but privacy and silence. So that's been a little bit of a transition. But I go to New York at least once or twice a month, so that balance is cool.

I'm really a city person, so any time I spend time away from a city, I'm like, "This is nice for a bit, but I'm about to tear my skin off if I don't get back to the city." Maybe there's something wrong with me. I need the constant noise.
This is probably going to sound really pretentious, but it's never quiet in my head.  I'm not, like, at peace or anything. I've always got this rambling internal dialogue going on, so I feel like the city is always inside my head always anyway. When I'm in New York, it definitely feels more overstimulating than being here—but you just get used to it, and then it becomes normal. It is kind of wild to go from the forest into Manhattan, though.

Tell me about sending your daughter to college. That's a momentous occasion for any parent.
It's very scary initially, and every day it's still kind of scary to think about. With Manhattan, there's way more to worry about than there would be say if she was going to University of Georgia or whatever. But I'm also very happy that she's able to pursue her dreams and start her life, because she was feeling really bored and uninspired in Athens—in high school, especially. It seems like she's really taking off right now. So I'm excited that she gets to begin this journey and feel activated.

Does it feel like the end of an era, parenthood-wise?
Not really. It feels like a continuation, because I'm definitely a worrier, so I was worrying about her when she was in Athens. If anything, I kind of worry a little less now, or in a different way, especially for her mental health. In Athens, it was more of a struggle because she felt restrained and bored. Now that she's in New York, she's pursuing film, which has always been her dream. So she gets to make movies, and she never could before—she could only write movies and imagine how they'd look. Now she actually gets to physically use all this stuff.

I don't really feel like she's leaving the nest, because the nest is always there. Her childhood's over and she's an adult, and I kind of always wanted to relate to her on a more adult level. I never romanticized when she was a kid, which I'll probably feel sad about at some point in my life. But I always really wanted to be able to share things that I was excited about with her. I had a parental role, but I wanted to think of her as more of a peer. So I never really treated her like a child necessarily. I wasn't really thinking, "I need to shelter her."

Tell me about when you were younger and started feeling the need to stretch your creative legs.
The difference for me was, when I was 16, 17, 18, I really wanted to be in a band—but everybody, for the most part, was into different things. I couldn't find a group of people who were on the same wavelength as me—especially people that played instruments. It was really hard to find people that were really good on the drums, but also really liked Ringo Starr and were into like the '60s. Everybody was more into whatever was happening contemporarily, but I was more into retro things. So I had to rely more on myself.

When I started writing and recording on the cassette four-track, I had a snare drum and a ride cymbal. So if I was going to have drums, there's going to be those two things. If I wanted to have a bass sound, I didn't have a bass guitar, so I'd just roll the treble off of my guitar and that had to be the bass part. I just had to be flexible—but it was also really fun and exciting to create music that way, to create songs and make albums and not have to rely on anybody else. I never really felt like, "I've got to move to New York or LA so I can begin my dream." I was able to start living my dream in my parents' house in South Florida. 

When I was in my early twenties, I moved to Athens because there wasn't really anything happening in South Florida—no music scene that I could be a part of. I felt very alien. Moving to Athens was amazing, because all the Elephant 6 people were there. Julian Koster of the Music Tapes was my connection to all the people from Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Elf Power. All of a sudden, I had these amazing friends, sources of inspiration, and people that were motivating me to keep going.

We just created our own little bubble, so I still didn't need to move to LA or New York, get signed to a major label, or make expensive music videos. The vibe was basically that you didn't do that shit. Only lame people do that. The cool people are just making records in their bedrooms, which is way easier, but also way more practical because you don't have to rely on someone else to allow you to do the things that you want to do. You just do them yourself. That was very empowering for me, and it was the continuation of what I had started in my parents' bedroom. 

Music is different in that you don't really need a bunch of people to help you necessarily. But with film, you're most likely going to need other people to help you. It's more complicated and involved.

The lore around Elephant 6 has deepened a bit over the years, to the point where I think some people see it as the type of thing we don't have anymore. I personally think it's always about where you look, but for a certain set of listeners there's a very specific nostalgia for that era now. How do you feel about that?
It's different for me, because because my involvement with the scene is...we weren't, like, one of the more important [acts], I never felt like.

I would dispute that. I think of Montreal were pretty important.
Well, I feel like we branched off on our own and kind of established ourselves more as our own thing. But in the context of Elephant 6, it was definitely Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples in Stereo. They were the big brothers. I was probably really annoying, because I just wanted to be a part of it, you know? They were very awesome to me, very supportive, but I always felt like I wasn't really fully a part of Elephant 6 because it was more the people that were from Ruston, Louisiana. If you weren't from there, then you can't really be, like, an OG. You're kind of just someone who's popping in to be a part of it. So I don't really feel like I was a central character in it.

After I wasn't really a part of that scene anymore, that's what I think of as our high watermark. So I can be nostalgic about that time period, but it doesn't feel like my glory days or anything. It's just my early days. I was just starting to make records on labels, find booking agents, and go on tours. It was like my college in a way. It was very educational.

Something I appreciate with of Montreal, and have since the "My Favorite Boxer" days, is that as a listener I never know what I'm gonna get with one of your records. How do you view risk-taking in your music, and where do you draw lines, if any?
I never really have an agenda or rules. It's very organic as far as what I'm interested in at that moment. I'm pretty intense about not wanting to just repeat myself, so I'm always looking for some new spark of inspiration, some new genres to play with, some new sources of inspiration to work with. I made those whimsical, Vaudevillian, Edward Gorey-type story songs around The Gay Parade and Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies—then I wanted to do something a little bit different and more rock, so I made Aldhils Arboretum. Then I wanted to add some electronic elements, so Satanic Panic was more like that.

From there, I started getting into more dance-y and funky stuff, and Hissing Fauna was more inspired by that. For Skeletal Lamping, I wanted to take some of the elements that I had worked with on The Gay Parade and Coquelicot—songs that have very distinct sections and don't necessarily flow together in a conventional way. So Skeletal Lamping is more chopped-up, but not necessarily sonically. Then False Priest is like, "I'm going to take this funk thing even further."

I always like chasing some new thing, and it's often inspired by what I just made. Sometimes I'll just be like, "Oh, I don't want to do that kind of thing anymore." Or sometimes it's like, "I like this one part of that last record, but I want to develop that a bit more." I think of it all as a work in progress—every song is kind of the same song, but it's me trying different angles, taking different perspectives, and going after it from a different state of mind. That's how I stay excited about continuing to make records.

I'm almost 50. I started when I was 17, so that's a long time, but I've never felt really bored. I have no extended periods of writer's block. I just allow whatever organic thing is going to happen, happen. I don't have a preconceived concept of, "This last thing was successful, so I need to do that again. This is what people expect from me, so I need to give them that." To me, that's just not fun.

So I have to just accept that some of these records will only appeal to a handful of people—and that's fine, because that's how it was in the very beginning. I never even thought anybody would listen to it. That wasn't a part of it. It was just about the fulfillment that I got from working on music, and that sense of well-being is how I maintain some sort of equanimity in my existence.

Tell me about how your Patreon has been going.
It's great as far as supplementing my income, it's been incredible and has kept engaged with the world. It's very easy for me to float away and not interact at all with my fellow humans. Every week I share a song, so I have to be thinking, "OK, what am I going to do this week?" I can go through my unreleased songs, I can write a new song, or I can do a cover of something. It's kind of fun, and it keeps me engaged musically. In a weird way, it keeps me rooted on the planet.

But I don't really like communicating with people I don't know. I'm not good at creating a community around the band or whatever. During COVID, I definitely was more involved with that. We'd do Hangouts with the people on Patreon, and Christina and I would talk to people and play music. For some reason, it makes me really uncomfortable. I'm definitely way more introverted than extroverted, and I like to keep this shield around myself. If I just meet somebody at a party and I'm just talking, I feel pretty comfortable doing that. But if I know somebody is like a fan of my music, sometimes they'll put me in a weird headspace where I can't really be myself. I feel like I have to perform or feel self-conscious.

So interacting on that level is very challenging for me, and I feel badly about it, because I feel like people who meet me who are excited to meet me, if they have a bad experience, they're like, "Kevin was so awkward, he didn't seem like he wanted to talk to me." But I don't know how to get past that. I should talk to my therapist about it.

I think that feeling is shared amongst a lot of musicians who have to use social media to promote themselves these days.
Yeah, it's always a weird thing if someone's paying for a service or whatever. You're grateful, obviously, but it's also a little bit awkward, you know? You're grateful that they're supporting you, and you want to show them your gratitude—but I'd rather show my gratitude by sharing a song than by talking one-on-one with somebody.

You mentioned Hissing Fauna before, which was a big breakout moment when indie rock was having a bit of a crossover into mainstream culture in general. How do you reflect that era of your career, especially in context of where you are now?
It was definitely very strange and different, because up to that point I felt very much like an underground artist. Never in a million years did I think that the mainstream world would include me. So it was very much a novelty when things like the Outback Steakhouse thing happened, or the T-Mobile ad—or any time that our songs were played on The OC or some other TV show. It didn't feel like selling out, because it just felt like this weird novelty that I knew was temporary.

In retrospect, it's kind of cool, because I can have a perspective that I wouldn't have had otherwise—an understanding of how the industry works. When you're going through that, you kind of feel like, "Whoa, this probably will never end." But, of course, it always ends—and then you look back on that time period and you're like, "Should I try to sustain that somehow?" It's funny, because Hissing Fauna was, commercially speaking, a high watermark—and then it just went downhill from there.

But I never really felt comfortable. I feel like it was probably the time period where I felt the least comfortable. On some level, I think I made Skeletal Lamping as weird as possible was just to be like, "If you guys will accept me for who I am, then maybe I'll be okay with fame." I started realizing that people just want you to be a cartoon character with no room to grow or evolve, so I wanted to test that. "If I make this more overtly sexual and problematic record, will you follow me there, mainstream world?"

The answer was "No," which was fine. Of course, when you're a kid, you dream about being famous and playing in front of like thousands of screaming people,  and I got to experience that, and that was cool—but I didn't necessarily want it to get bigger. I can see how fame is probably the worst thing that can happen to an artist. Financial stability is not necessarily the worst thing, but when you have too many people with their hands in the project, too many people that you're accountable to, too many people that you're responsible for—it becomes more like a business, a corporate feeling. DIY just felt more comfortable to me.

I didn't want to be recognized everywhere I went, and I never got to that point. But the taste that I got was enough to see that that's not what I want to do. I just want to make out-there, artsy records.

At the time, though, the media attention you attracted verged on overkill. There was a concert in Las Vegas that you performed nude during in 2007, and it was covered in a way that I don't think publications would've covered now.
In that time period, I was definitely pushing myself to be more outrageous—pushing the envelope. It was a very fun time, but because the backlash from the Outback Steakhouse thing was in my head, I was like, "Wait, now I'm experiencing a backlash and people are being really mean, calling us sellouts or whatever." Whereas, up to that point, everything we did was cool because it wasn't commercial. In my head, I thought we had a coolness factor that was untouchable —but once you dip your toe in the corporate world, then you're like, "This isn't punk anymore. This is lame. This is Coldplay."

So performing naked was a reaction to that. I wanted people to start talking about something else. I didn't want people to just think of me as the Outback Steakhouse person. It was a way to change the narrative a little bit, or just add another weirder element to it.

Did the backlash to the Outback commercial stick with you for a while?Yeah, it definitely messed with my sense of self. Being a part of Elephant 6 and the whole DIY thing, no one ever sold songs to commercials. It wasn't like Neutral Milk Hotel had already done it. Nobody in Athens had anything to do with it. R.E.M. were hugely famous, but I didn't really think of them as, like, a part of our clique or whatever. The whole punk aesthetic and approach to making music and presenting yourself influenced what we did, too.

Selling the song for the commercial—the way that played out—was weird as well. It wasn't like they were like, "Hey, we want to make a jingle of your song and it's going to be on television for years." That's not how they presented it. They presented it like, "We want to make a radio jingle that's influenced by that specific song. You don't have to sing on it, and it's probably only going to be played in these small markets" So, okay, a radio jingle, and you want to give me all this money—cool, take it.

I didn't have any legal representation at that time, so it was very much just them telling me what they were going to do and then sending me this really complicated contract that I didn't really understand. At that point, I had never made any money—so how can I say no to $30,000? We just had our daughter. She was, like, one year old at that point, maybe not even. My wife didn't have a job. I very much couldn't say no to this. It was like the universe helping us, basically—and it doesn't seem that problematic, because it's just going to be this radio jingle.

So I signed the contract, and then the woman was like, "Hey, actually, it's going to be a TV thing." And I was like, "Oh, I don't want to do that." And she was like, "Oh, but you signed the contract." I was like, "Yeah, but you said it was gonna be a radio thing. Now this seems much bigger than that." And she's like, "Well, you're gonna get me fired if you change your mind on this." So I was like, "I don't want to get you fired."

Obviously, I couldn't predict what the fallout was gonna be, so it was really hard. I had to just make the decision where I didn't want this person to get fired. "It probably isn't gonna be that big of a deal, and it's a lot of money." So it happened, and it's funny, because it was really impressive to my parents and extended family. "Wow, Kevin, you got a song that's on television." "Well, it's not really my song. They just took my melody line and changed the lyrics." "Still, that's incredible." But then it made me seem extremely lame to my actual people. I did realize that it's a very privileged place to be—where you're like, "I can't believe you sold a song, I would rather starve." Only people who are in no threat of starving would say that.

Do you feel like you've faced any other misconceptions over the years?It's really hard for an artist to have any influence on how people perceive them, and I've definitely tried to control the narrative as much as I can—or, at least, to create a narrative that people tune in to. It's weird, it's almost easier for people to make sense of something once it's dead. Anyone who knows who you are is going to have a different sense of who you are. I worry more about my own sense of who I am than I do about other peoples'.

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Jamie Larson