Call of Montreal the anti–Allman Brothers. Singer, songwriter and chief visionary Kevin Barnes says the theatrical, performance–art party atmosphere of the Athens ensemble's stage shows are meant to be the polar opposite of concerts featuring guys just standing there playing music.
"There's something to be said for that as well," Barnes is quick to add. "I wouldn't want everybody to try to do what we're doing. I definitely don't think it's lame for people to not do it. It's just what we are just naturally compelled to do."
The chameleonic Barnes, who founded of Montreal 13 years ago, has guided his six–member band through many musical changes — from gauzy psychedelia and moody, Ziggy Stardust glam, to hooky pop/rock and blissful explorations of '70s–styled R&B and funk.
The band grew out of Athens' wildly collaborative, genre–bending Elephant 6 collective and has become a worldwide cult favorite — mostly because of the stage show. Costumed, androgynously made–up and wholly unpredictable, Barnes is the always–entertaining centerpiece.
The music and the visuals "work well together," he explains. "And it's fun for us because we can have a bigger art troupe involved — not just the musicians, but also the performance artists and the video people, all the lighting stuff and all that. It's fun for us to have a big production, I think. It makes it more of a challenge and it's more fulfilling, artistically to be involved in something that's more ambitious like that."
He has considered dropping the theatrics — if just on a whim — and going out to play his music on its own (considerable) merits.
"I think it would be fun, but at the same time we're already doing that in a lot of ways," Barnes explains. "Because as the musicians we're not really that involved in the theatrics anyways. I am involved a little bit more than anybody else.
"Like Davey, who plays bass, it really doesn't matter for him, for what he's doing, whether or not there's somebody jumping around in a weird costume. Or being projected upon or whatever, he's still going about his business playing the songs."
Barnes insists that his downstage alter–ego, and the character's wild antics, are there to augment the music rather than detract from it.
"In my mind, it's definitely adding to the sort of carnival aspect of the performance, and it's also adding different layers to things," he says. "Especially with the transportive, semi–hallucinatory visuals. It sort of transforms the environment in a way, so you're not just at a rock club. Maybe you've been to that club many times.
"So the hope is by transforming the environment, and making it feel special, making it feel exceptional and just different ... the thing that we're always fighting against is the static image. If you go to see a band, and even if you like the music a lot, by like the seventh or eighth song you feel a little bit burned out. We're always trying to fight that, and maybe going a little bit too far on that side of it, but it's fun for us. And it's a good challenge, every tour, to try to do something differently but still keep the spirit of what we started alive."
The March 8 Stopover show, strangely enough the first time of Montreal has performed in Savannah, is free in Forsyth Park. Barnes liked the idea of doing a free show in a big place, "where people can just drift in and check out what's going on."
Although he's been writing on piano almost exclusively for the last few years, Barnes reports he's recently re–discovered his guitar. The songs on the next of Montreal album, he says, are "more in the songwriter–y vein of like Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, Neil Young. Grateful Dead. It's definitely more lyric–driven than the other stuff.
"I never feel like I've made anything great or special. I'm always driven to do something better, and always happy that I'm still alive, that I can still re–write my history."