Kevin Barnes founded the Athens-based indie pop/psych outfit of Montreal in 1996 after a failed romance with a woman from Montreal, Quebec. Of Montreal is part of the indie record collective Elephant 6, including other acts such as Elf Power and Circulatory System. The group released two albums on Bar/None Records and three albums on Kindercore before that label folded and the band moved on to Polyvinyl Records to release Satanic Panic in the Attic in 2004, which would go on to be one of the group’s most successful albums. Of Montreal would go on to release five more studio albums on Polyvinyl, including their most recent record, and eleventh to date, Paralytic Stalks in 2012, which the band is currently supporting with an international tour. The group’s current lineup consists of Barnes (vocals, guitar), Bryan Poole (guitar), Davey Pierce (bass), Dottie Alexander (keyboards), Clayton Rychlik (drums), Nicolas Dobbratz (keyboards, bass, percussion), K Ishibashi (violin, guitar), and newest recruit Zac Colwell (horns, flute).
In 1997, groups like the Spice Girls were in constant rotation on my Walkman. I was completely oblivious to the fact that, the same year, a band called of Montreal was just planting the seeds of what would later grow into a fruitful music career. The Athens, Georgia-based group had just released their debut album, Cherry Peel, with sweet indie pop tunes like “In Dreams I Dance With You” and “Baby.” Fifteen years later, and of Montreal have established themselves as one of the most well-known and respected contemporary indie bands (and have officially been played much more than the Spice Girls in my iTunes library). Early 2012 saw the release of their eleventh album, Paralytic Stalks. It's perhaps their most musically complex album to date, and the first time that frontman Kevin Barnes chose to work with session musicians on his arrangements. Lyrically, it delves deep into some of the rawest, darkest places of Barnes' psyche. “Spiteful Intervention” deals with themes of self-loathing, while “Dour Percentage” is about falling out with a long-term friend. But as dark as the lyrics can be, of Montreal ultimately makes wonderfully melodic pop music. Before their sold-out show at Slim's in San Francisco, we spoke with bassist Davey Pierce to find out more about his career with of Montreal. Read on for the transcription, or head over to the video section to watch the interview.
Band of the Day: Question: For someone who’s never listened to of Montreal, and considering Paralytic Stalks is the eleventh album, where would you suggest starting?
Davey Pierce: Well it all depends, because every album's so different. If you're into the weirder, more orchestral pop sort of stuff we're doing now, if you like Animal Collective and stuff like that, this [Paralytic Stalks] might be a good record to start with. If you like synth pop stuff, really catchy synth pop stuff, maybe go to Hissing Fauna [Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? from 2007]. Every record's totally different so it's just kind of choose your own adventure, really. Pick one and go for it. If you don't like it, there's probably one you will, hopefully.
Band of the Day: What would you say is one of the biggest misconceptions about of Montreal?
Davey: People tend to think that we are a synth pop band. A lot of times people will just hear one record and think that’s what the band sounds like, like Hissing Fauna or Sunlandic Twins [from 2005] and they think we’re just this kind of upbeat synth pop band. But in reality, the whole arc of the band has gotten so much darker over the last couple of albums so it couldn’t be further from what it was. People kind of try to pin us down to one particular genre, and it’s not necessarily true because we’re kind of all over the board.
Band of the Day: What is your favorite part of the recording process?
Davey: You know, with this band I don't actually record anything. All the recording is done by Kevin [Barnes, of Montreal’s frontman]. He has a recording studio he's built next to his house so he goes in there for months at a time. Just hammers away and comes out with a full record. It's kind of amazing, really he's so prolific. We'll get off a tour and three weeks later we'll have almost a completed record, almost ready to go. For me it's more of the anticipation seeing what he comes up with next [laughs].
Band of the Day: What’s the first show you ever played with of Montreal?
Davey: The first show I ever played with of Montreal was to ten thousand people at Pitchfork Festival, but it’s funny, you get used to it pretty quickly. A thousand people or two thousand people ends up feeling the same as fifty people or ten people ‘cause you’re putting on the same show every time, hopefully.
Band of the Day: Do you prefer playing to smaller crowds or larger crowds?
Davey: I personally like small venues, I like the intimacy of the crowd. When we’re in larger venues there’s such a disconnect, a lot of room between you and the crowd that it’s hard to feed off them. Or for them to feed off of you. Those wind up being the more, not tedious, but you have to put so much more into it just to get the same amount out. ‘Cause in a venue like Slim’s [in San Francisco], it’s very intimate and everybody’s right on top of you. It’s so much more fun. It’s funny how much the song dictates how you’re feeling onstage. If it’s an upbeat, crazy song I just have to jump around and go crazy or whatever.
Band of the Day: Do you feel like you’re a very different person on stage versus off stage?
Davey: The second you get on stage, no matter who you are are what you’re doing, there is a different part of you that comes out. It’s pretty much impossible to walk down the street and then be that same person when you’re on stage in front of a bunch of people.
Band of the Day: If music is a form of therapy, which bands/artists would you say are the best therapists?
Davey: Personally, I take a lot out of Elvis Costello and older kind of stadium rock like Journey and Foreigner. For some reason they always just make me happy. For me just like 90s and 80s R&B stuff like LaVert, Cameo, that stuff is the best for me, it always puts me in a good mood. I'm always down to listen to it.
Band of the Day: What is it about that music that you think speaks to you?
Davey: For me it's just that they're not overthinking it. They're not going in there and trying to make something to impress someone else. They just wanna write a really good song, a really catchy song, that means something to them. I can really get behind something like that. Every single part of the song complements another part of the song. And it's not like five dudes trying to make sure they get their guitar solo in there.
Band of the Day: What’s your favorite song to blast and sing along to while driving in the car by yourself?
Davey: I listen to [N.W.A’s] Straight Outta Compton a lot while I’m driving, but there’s parts of it that I just don’t feel comfortable screaming in the car [laughs]. My friend Dobby and I have another band that we go on tour all the time with, and every time we get to a new city we roll in and go, “yes, let’s listen to this!” So yeah, we roll into Compton with Straight Outta Compton.
Band of the Day: What would you say is the best music-related decision you've ever made?
Davey: That's hard, they all turn out to be pretty terrible after awhile! In general, just starting to play was a huge thing for me. I started playing drums when I was five, and it all snowballed from there. Instead of going to college I was in a bunch of bands and worked in record stores. And I got really lucky because it worked out, and I'm making a living at what I was training to do my entire life. But as far as the best decision? Maybe just starting to play the bass, 'cause now I have a job playing the bass and that works out very well!
Band of the Day: What about the dumbest music-related decision you've ever made?
Davey: Oh, there's so many of them! Pretty much every decision other than playing the bass has pretty much been terrible. No, I dunno, you make so many stupid decisions in this business that it's hard to keep track.
Band of the Day: You mentioned you started playing the drums at five. How did that come about, and what did your parents think?
Davey: I think they thought it was a really good idea, and then I started playing and they started regretting it immediately [laughs]! 'Cause I was one of those kids who'd just get home from school and lock myself in my room and play for hours and hours and hours just with a metronome. Doing a backbeat for hours trying to get my timing right. So it was probably pretty annoying for them to have to listen to. Plus at the same time my brother started playing guitar, so he's like squealing in one room and I was banging on things in the other room, so I think it just drove them insane!
Band of the Day: I saw on your Facebook page that you have this George Foreman Skrillex meme going on. Can you tell me more about that?
Davey: People tend to really like the George Foreman Skrill. Clayton Rychlik [of Montreal’s drummer] and Michael Wheeler our tour manager came up with that when we were in Tucson. Every time he has five minutes he photoshops something embarrassing and sends it to you. ‘Cause we’d just gotten a sandwich press, and somebody said something about a George Foreman grill, and then it just went from there. Apparently it’s doing really well!