Operating just under the radar of the commercial pop landscape, Athens, Georgia, band Of Montreal nonetheless makes undeniably catchy — if not truly mass-market-oriented — pop music. Originally part of the Denver-based Elephant 6 Collective that also spawned Neutral Milk Hotel, Elf Power and the Apples in Stereo, the band has moved beyond that scene to develop into a vehicle for leader Kevin Barnes' artistic excursions.
The group's 14th and latest studio album, Innocence Reaches, marks a return to the dance- and synthesizer-focused sounds of the group circa 2004. But Barnes says that direction was as much a product of necessity as anything else. "The studio I was working at in Paris only had synthesizers and drum machines," he says. "From there, I sort of caught the bug again, and started working more with those instruments."
Barnes' songs are consistently hooky and memorable, but he insists that he never sets out to make commercial-sounding music. "I never think about how things will be perceived," he says. "You can't really worry about pleasing people, giving people what they want or anything like that. Just do your own thing; do what feels exciting in the moment. Don't question it."
Although his band's current live set list features occasional forays into the back catalog — recasting songs from, say, 2005's The Sunlandic Twins in a more dance-oriented style — Barnes isn't especially interested in the past. He acknowledges his Elephant 6 origins only "to put that into some sort of historical perspective," noting that he hasn't done any projects with other Collective members in over a decade.
Barnes' drive to keep moving, to constantly do something different, means that he's the sole constant among Of Montreal members. The group's lineup is almost always in flux. "That's just me wanting to go in different directions and find the right personnel" for each project, he says. "So if I want to do something more electronic, then I'll find people to play that style."
Other than bending his songs toward a particular style — electronic pop, dance, psychedelic, progressive (Of Montreal has trafficked in all those and more) — Barnes says that onstage he tends to stick with the arrangements that work for him. "Bob Dylan has probably done a hundred different versions of 'Blowing in the Wind,' and that's exciting for him," he observes. "But for me, I tend to sort of stick with the studio album arrangement."
But once he's back in the studio, Barnes can continue to indulge his ever-changing moods. "I try almost to become a new band with each record, to make it feel like a completely different band from the one before," he explains. "I feel proud of all the stuff I've done, but I just focus on the future."