When Of Montreal's 10th album in as many years, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, leaked late last fall, it received a rapturous response, particularly for "The Past is a Grotesque Animal." Straddling the album's two sides, the song is 12 minutes of throbbing beats, dark synths, tense guitars, and bottled urgency, over which Kevin Barnes (the band's sole recording member) sings free-verse lyrics that alternate between purple-prose impressionism ("Somehow you've red-rovered the Gestapo circling my heart") and plainspoken confession ("I fell in love with the first cute girl that I met that could appreciate George Bataille").
It's a complex, contradictory indie epic, both a pledge of devotion and distance ("How can I explain?/I need you here and not here too"). It's the centerpiece, both sequentially and thematically, of what is arguably the band's best album.
"It's very autobiographical," says Barnes of 'The Past is a Grotesque Animal.' "It's basically like a letter to my wife. We split up for a while. It's all about our relationship and what it was like at that period in my life."
The song signals that this will be a much weightier, darker record than anything Of Montreal have done before. In the mid-'90s, the band sprouted from Athens' Elephant 6 movement, mixing psychedelic pop, surrealist imagery, and an indie DIY aesthetic on albums such as 1999's The Gay Parade and 2001's Cocquelicot Asleep in the Poppies. Over the past decade, while other E6 groups have either disbanded (Olivia Tremor Control), gone missing (Neutral Milk Hotel), or simply lost their way (Apples in Stereo), Of Montreal have managed to sharpen their sound and attract a modest but extremely loyal following.
Hissing Fauna contains all the whimsical hooks, faux r&b grooves, and digressive pop structures that loyal fans have come to expect from Of Montreal, and yet these elements are here deployed in service to songs that draw heavily from Barnes' tumultuous personal life and incorporate real people in an often unflattering light. Barnes' wife Nina is mentioned several times, as is a friend named Matthew.
Most curious is Eva, who shows up in the chorus of "Bunny Ain't No Kind of Rider." "Eva, I'm sorry but you will never have me," Barnes sings in a twisted Beatlesque melody. "To me you're just some faggy girl and I need a lover with soul power." The song smacks of casual misogyny, yet Barnes insists there are no hard feelings.
"I talked to her about it, and she's really cool," he says. "I was like, 'Are you offended?' And she said, 'Well, if I had feelings, I'd probably be offended.'"
He speaks very candidly about the events that inspired Hissing Fauna.
"I'd gone through a pretty heavy period when I was writing it and recording it," he says. "It was my first real experience with chemical depression and serious anxiety and what might be qualified as mental illness."
That experience shows through on songs like "A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger," in which he claims to have "felt the darkness of the black metal bands," and "Heimdalsgate like a Promethean Curse," with its desperate chorus: "Come on mood shift/Shift back to good again."
While in this depressive haze, Barnes also faced the birth of his first child, an event that involved a months-long sojourn to his wife's native Norway. There, he wrote and recorded the first half of the new album on a borrowed laptop. Soon after he became a father, he left to tour behind The Sunlandic Twins, Of Montreal's 2004 album. "That was another big part of the craziness," he says, "having a child but not being able to spend any time with her. We were touring so much. That was just really difficult to balance out."
Two years later, he faces a new tour for a new album with more hope and excitement. Prescription medications have assuaged the "craziness" of his last few years, allowing him to reconcile with his wife and to enjoy putting on a show with the other members of the group. "We're attempting things that we have never tried before," he says, describing the giant giraffe he'll climb into for one song. "There's a ton of costume changes and all sorts of stuff that's definitely outside the realm of the conventional indie-rock performance."
Of Montreal are anything but conventional, with a holistic approach to marketing themselves that many might wrongly label sell-out. "We've always had these ambitions beyond that sort of slacker guitar rock," he explains. "We spend a lot of time on all aspects of the presentation of things, even beyond writing the music and recording. The photos and artwork and poster art and T-shirt art are all lovingly prepared."
For this reason, Barnes says he has mixed feelings about the album leaking several months prior to its official release. "People download the record, but they don't get the artwork," he explains. "I guess in some ways it's good, because if people are talking about it, that generates excitement. But it does take away from the impact of getting the record and opening it up and looking at the artwork.
"It's indicative to some degree of our society," he continues. "We need it really fast, we need it now, we can't wait, no time to wait. It's kinda like, 'I don't want to wait three months until the record comes out. I'm just gonna download it.'"
Barnes obviously is invested in every aspect of Hissing Fauna, with no reservations about leaking his private life to the public. "I never mind giving intimate details of my life in my songs or in interviews, because it's important for all of us to connect in that way and realize we don't have to preserve some phoniness or whatever."
By putting the details of his life on record, Barnes has created a dark and fascinating album, one that is as catchy as it is candid, as delirious as it is dark and even occasionally troubling. "I'm flawed, everyone's flawed, we're all crazy," he says. "It's important that we all share in the craziness."