Of Montreal came into being in the late ’90s, when so-called alternative music was entering a period of fallow commercial bloat that followed the pop overthrow of 1991 — The Year That Grunge Broke.
“Alternative” was in many ways a reaction to the outlandish extremes of ’80s culture, from the Day-Glo synthetic-ness of new wave to the eyelinered leather tease of hair metal. Like late-’70s punk repudiating disco and prog-rock, early-’90s rock was a roots-return maneuver, and a relatively austere one at that, as a generation of youngsters became interested in music-biz ethics and flannel accouterments. Which of course made the stage spectacle of Of Montreal in particular and the Elephant 6 collective in general seem all the more jarring. Barnes and company have always filled their albums to the brim with insanity — but for many of their fans, it is the band’s live show, flamboyant and bizarre, that’s kept them coming back.
“In the early years especially, the live show had been a real thrown-together hodge-podge,” Barnes points out. “There were a lot of ideas, but they weren’t very refined. It would be like, ‘Okay, these pigs will come out on stage, and then this man with a gas mask will come out and gas them all, and then a cowboy will come and shoot them all’ — but it was all thrown together like a Benny Hill sketch.”
The past tense there suggests that for the False Priest tour, the band are looking to class up their act. “Well, sort of,” Barnes qualifies. “This record is really cinematic, and so while it was being made, I was thinking very visually, and we’ve been brainstorming this production for months. It’s become an intricate process, coming up with visuals and theatricals and dancers for every song.”
Which is still a far cry from the lumberjack dress code that prevailed through so much of ’80s and ’90s indie. (Even if there was a freak-flag strain in there, whether it was the Butthole Surfers’ surgery videos and topless go-go dancer amid drug-fueled mayhem or the playtime carny juvenilia of the latter-day Flaming Lips.) For Barnes, it’s all about finding a way to express “a powerful positive energy. I mean, I’ve been really into Parliament and Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder, and I just love the freedom that those artists have. They just sort of stuck their ass out and didn’t care. It’s just about allowing yourself to just be, just celebrating all things in life without being full of insecurity.”