of Montreal - EMusician

of Montreal

KEVIN BARNES EXPERIMENTS WITH MICROTONALITY, ORGANIC ARRANGEMENTS, AND PHYSICAL EFFECTS ON PARALYTIC STALKS
Author:
Publish date:

of Montreal—Clockwise from top: Kaoru Ishibashi, Nicolas Dobbratz, Dottie Alexander, Davey Pierce, Clayton Rychlik, Bryan Poole. Center: Kevin Barnes

Photo by Patrick Heagney

There''s balance to be found in going to extremes. At least that''s what''s been discovered by Kevin Barnes—the priest, the agitator, the savant, the umami at the heart of florid freakbeat superstructure of Montreal. Acting as a role-play exercise and a confessional framework, of Montreal has allowed Athens, GA-based Barnes to indulge all manner of affectations as both an analog pop curator and a digital funk Svengali since he began recording in 1997. And of Montreal persists as a compelling look into the evolution of a home recordist in the nonlinear era.

The constantly oscillating aperture of Barnes'' mind has captured snapshots of the project across nearly a dozen full-lengths, ranging from collated ''60s-informed psyche-pop to aroused synth-pop. On the last of Montreal album, 2010''s False Priest, Barnes solicited the production assistance of Los Angeles, CA-based Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Kanye West, Spoon), traveling to Ocean Way Recording in Hollywood. Now on this 11th effort, Paralytic Stalks (Polyvinyl Records), Barnes has returned to self-production and to a more reflective mode, both in terms of lyrical content and incorporating Brion''s lessons on inserting extended tonality into a mix.

“This album is more connected to who I am as a human being, and how I wanted to make an album that is more transportive, less digestible, with both more frequency information and more clarity,” says Barnes. “The spirit of this album is more serious, but also more fun as an art form, because it''s full of all these spontaneous impulses and hands-on imperfections.”

The sessions for Paralytic Stalks began, like the majority of of Montreal albums since 2005''s The Sunlandic Twins, in Barnes'' Sunlandic home studio. Whereas before 2005 Barnes followed a more traditional trajectory of composing acoustic demos before heading into the studio assisted by the band to record, from The Sunlandic Twins through 2008''s Skeletal Lamping of Montreal indulged a progressively more virtual recording element. His workstation became used more and more to sequence processed harmonies and soft-synth textures, compiling albums one layer at a time. Initially working with Propellerheads Reason slaved to Steinberg''s Cubase, Barnes moved to Apple Logic Pro for 2007''s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? and he has remained loyal to his Mac ever since, using it as a means to quickly accumulate and deconstruct facets of his fertile, sometimes perverse imagination.

The core of Sunlandia''s compositional tools are tethered through an Apogee Symphony I/O with Symphony 64 PCI card, an Apogee Big Ben master clock, a Tube-Tech MP 1A 2-channel tube mic preamp, a Tube-Tech CL 1B compressor, the Chandler Limited TG12413 Zener Limiter, a Summit Audio TPA 200B, the Universal Audio UAD-2 Quad DSP accelerator package, a Lawson L251 tube mic, beyerdynamic M130 and M160 ribbon mics, Royer SF12 and R122V mics, and a Toft Audio ATB24 mixing console.

With a few multipurpose microphones around the room, Barnes explored studies in positive distortion. Inspired by ''70s-era Neil Young meets Fairport Convention, he varied his distance from the mic to capture both an intimate overdrive and a more sparse living quality across multiple takes of both vocals and Ampeg Portaflex-fueled Rickenbacker bass.

“I''ve never looked for more than a couple of decent microphones because I''m more interested in capturing the performance than the perfect shimmer,” says Barnes. “I throw something up for tracking and it needs to be able to stay there for awhile, because I''ve been a lot more with layering live takes. For several albums I was plugging into a DI, but now I''m combining live signal with that for a fuller chain.

“And I''ve approached my voice as more of an instrument on this album,” he continues. “I''m interested in experimenting with microtonality, working in a semitone range, using vocals that are slightly off-key with each other to create a phasing effect. There are moments where I had to fight my Beatles-esque instincts all over the album. Like on the song ‘Spiteful Intervention,'' there are these block harmonies with all the parts off from each other, and it creates this pulsating, freaked out sound from what is the most personal melodic instrument.”

Barnes hasn''t made any major investments in studio gear since recording False Priest, but he did receive arrangement insight working with Brion, who re-introduced this more organically conjured instrumentation to Barnes'' process, as well as a greater appreciation for the bookends of the stereo space.

“Jon [Brion] helped me to visualize a broader, less-boxy landscape musically,” says Barnes. “Before, I was just creating countermelodies on top of countermelodies, making mixes where elements were fighting each other in the same frequency range. He helped me see that if there are things in the über-high and über-low ranges—even just a tambourine or some Little Phatty Moog subbass, it doesn''t have to be melodic—it takes the pressure off the midrange by keeping your mind busy with other things. And there was a time that if I wanted fuzz bass I''d record it; I wouldn''t care how it muddied things up. Now I recognize it might be better to try something like comping clean bass and a fuzzed guitar; I''m more open to finding a less-direct, but more efficient method to achieve things.

“You have to think of all the parts like a Voltron figure, where on their own they''re not really all that impressive, but together they form an awesome robot,” continues Barnes. “Now I think a lot more about how the different aspects of production can change people''s perception of a song based on how you interconnect and position the presence of each element.”

Of course, assembling a mighty robot for excursions outside one''s timbre comfort zone is more difficult to do as a lone wolf, however, so Barnes solicited contributions from outside musicians. Matt Chamberlain, also featured on False Priest, as well as of Montreal tour drummer Clayton Rychlik, provided percussion. Having met classically trained multi-instrumentalist Kishi Bashi while playing a festival, Barnes solicited his help for string arrangements and sourcing various sundry parts, such as harp, oboe, cello, zither, pedal steel, and dulcimer.

Their meeting came at a highly fortuitous juncture, as one of the key influences on Paralytic Stalks is, according to Barnes, the “staggeringly beautiful and terrifying density and even a lack of dimensional logic” of modernist Classical composers from Charles Ives to Krzysztof Penderecki, as well as the “emotive cacophony” of free jazz icons like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. Bashi, a violinist, was able to draw on his past studies in these genres to provide the descents into madness that Barnes envisioned as he wrote his mini opuses. (Half of Paralytic Stalks is a set of suites that range from seven to 13 minutes in length.)

Recording independently, Bashi would receive Barnes'' outlines and import them into Logic 8 on a Mac Pro Quad. From there, he would set about to record his violin with an Ithaca Strings piezo pickup run through an L.R. Bass Para acoustic D.I., a Boss RV-3, a Digitech Whammy, a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, and into a Golden Age Pre-73 Neve 1073 clone and Apogee Rosetta 200.

“I really rely on the Line 6 to do a lot of the varispeed stuff I do, because it allows you to slow things down to half-speed and get these amazing murky textures,” reveals Bashi. “When Kevin would send a track, I''d look for the arc in the composition and then come up with things that would take the song in a very different, but not too jarring direction. A song like ‘Wintered Debts'' [which eases out of country-rock into an increasingly abstract, icy minimalism] would be a collage of loops, which much of ‘Ye, Renew the Plaintiff'' involved a lot more processing on bounces of overlaid strings, plus I recorded my friend [and fellow of Montreal touring member] Zac [Cowell] on saxophone and flute to get Kevin this descent into madness so intentionally intense people might want to turn it off.

“The more stuff I pile on, I might have to cut around 200 or 250 to make it fit, but I try not to do any extreme EQing,” continues Bashi. “I can tell if there''s space, and Kevin has been keeping really even mixes. Recording oboe was a challenge, though, with its intense midrange. It was tough to keep 800Hz-to-2k super bright. But I''ve learned a lot while working with Kevin about picking better sounds and making better recording choices instead of extreme EQing, and I''m stopping wall reflections, using subtractive EQing, using compression only when needed . . . things I didn''t initially understand when I started recording myself. And it''s been great to work with someone who lets me have the freedom to improvise and unify layers where he sees a weakness, as long as I push myself creatively to never repeat my approach.”

Photo by Patrick Heagney

Freedom can have its downsides, however. Or at least it can require some compensation in the mix. The ability of Barnes to write and track simultaneously, incorporating collaborators'' WAV mixdowns, limited only by imagination, resulted in songs comprising 50 to 70 tracks.

“A track like ‘Gelid Ascent'' is short [for this album, at four minutes], but I could easily take every guitar and every vocal and make multiple runs with them through a busted Roland Space Echo and various amp configurations, putting them together all these sounds where they''re awkwardly feeding back,” reflects Barnes. “And I''d just have these Universal Audio plug-ins like the Cooper Time Cube [mkII Delay] and the Moog Multimode Filter sitting in the channel strip. So, every sound is probably four sounds, which adds up.

“Sometimes it would get to the point that the computer couldn''t deal with it anymore, and something like a feedback delay plug-in would trigger twice, pop out for a measure and then pop back in,” continues Barnes. “But it doesn''t bother me; I look at it like the abused computer made a creative decision, like Logic wants to collaborate by acting illogically, which adds interesting artifacts and is another way this album is about not following the grid so closely. Coming up with ideas and finding things to live in the mix is never hard; the challenge is making it more seamless.”

To facilitate this last piece of the puzzle, Barnes turned to Drew Vandenberg (Toro y Moi, deerhunter, Kishi Bashi''s upcoming solo album) at Chase Park Transduction, a studio in Athens. Barnes'' tracks included a wealth of volume, panning and delay automation to achieve impactful parts as they ride effects, and all done in Logic. Chase Park is a Pro Tools studio, so rather than have to recreate all these intended effects, Vandenberg routed Barnes'' I/O into the Sony MXP3036 console, allowing the sessions to take advantage of a wealth of hardware, including Empirical Labs Distressors, Tube Tech CL 1B optical compressors, a Thermionic Culture Phoenix stereo valve compressor, an API 2500 stereo compressor (on all drum submixes) and various other paired gear.

“His track count is so high, and the console only has 36 channels, so we had to do a lot of submixing, establishing stereo blends of things in Logic before it hit the outboard gear,” reflects Vandenberg. “We were doing lots of compression, but in small amounts, because Kevin didn''t want things too grabby or super aggressive unless it was an intentional aesthetic. There was no one right way or preferred box; I''d pick compressors or EQ for each part specifically based on how they would color certain things and what they would sit around. He came in having worked in all these interesting details into the super high frequencies and in the low end, and with so many harmonized elements, so we''d have to be extra careful that we didn''t accidentally link a stereo compressor and have a cowbell panned hard right ducking a chimes part that''s closer to the left.”

Each subgroup also saw a choice of several EQs, including the API 550s, the API 560, and the native Sony modules. “I really like the 560 on low-mids, so I really like the half of the band from 1k to 31Hz for carving on subbass and synths, which were integral to the integrity of the songs,” says Vandenberg. “It just came down to what was needed. The 550s isn''t surgical, moving in 2dB then 3dB increments, but there''s something about the color, while the Sony EQs are neutral so were used for parts that shouldn''t dramatically change.”

Mixing took part over ten 10-hour days, and culminated in the mix being run to an ATR 102 1/2-inch tape machine to provide a final unifying factor. “It sounds deeper, wider, and the tape compression holds everything together in a very pleasant way,” says Vandenberg. “We definitely mixed into the tape and to the qualities the tape imparts, always trying to think more about organization and careful scooping rather than unnecessary boosting.”

“I really set out to create more physical effects with this album,” concludes Barnes. “I think it accurately shows how the bottom can drop out, how you can have all these strange spirits that can exhaust you in a very therapeutic way, and then after you relieve them you can get your bearings back. It''s something I''ve experienced emotionally and recording.”

On stage, Athens, GA-based octet of Montreal is a kaleidoscopic menagerie, a polymorphous vaudeville performance set to an avant ADD electro-disco-glamfunk beat. In the studio, of Montreal is historically the project of songwriter Kevin Barnes, a Beatles enthusiast who has indulged some inner Camille-era Prince through a series of psychosexual lysergic mood shifts. Like Os Mutantes, Eno-era David Bowie, Sly Stone and P-Funk cavorting around in Todd Rundgren''s I/Os, Barnes'' songs exhibit prog-sleaze and rhythmic moxie.

Recording since 1997, Barnes transitioned his influences from the straightforward, prismatic retro-pop of bands like The Kinks to a far more coltish, just-plain-kinky R&B synth-pop. Along the way, he progressed from old-school, 8-track, 1/4-inch tape-based recording to programming synths and mixing “in the box” in Apple Logic. Now, with False Priest, of Montreal''s 10th album, Barnes collaborated with producer Jon Brion on a hybrid production approach that resulted in the most accessible and most theatrical of Montreal work to date.

Sessions for False Priest, like those of the past four of Montreal albums, began in Barnes'' Apollinaire Rave home studio in Athens. Barnes recorded the majority of the album parts as he composed them: “I ran pretty much everything through Logic Pro 9.1.1, an Apogee Rosetta 800 A/D interface, an Apogee Big Ben master clock, a Tube-Tech MP 1A two-channel tube mic preamp, a Tube-Tech CL 1B compressor, a Lawson L251 tube mic, and a Toft Audio ATB24 mixing console,” Barnes recounts of the preliminary recordings. “For the most part, I only use one channel and just build things up an instrument at a time.”

Despite having a wealth of multi-instrumentalists in his live ensemble, Barnes has been programming drums and soft synths since 2004''s Satanic Panic in the Attic. Initially, he worked in Propellerheads Reason slaved to Steinberg''s Cubase, but around 2007 Barnes abandoned both and made the move to Logic to facilitate making his own percussion maps and sampler instruments (augmented by a drum library from Atlanta-based Ben H. Allen, engineer for Gnarls Barkley, among other projects). While Barnes praises Logic''s EXS24 sampler, Ultrabeat drum synthesizer, and Delay Designer and Space Designer effects, he especially appreciates Logic''s composition features such as drag-and-drop patterns and arrangements, as well as efficient workflow features such as the marquee tools. (A crash course in integrating Logic''s editing shortcuts would become a theme for False Priest; Barnes credits the SFLogicNinja''s YouTube channel as invaluable for shortening his learning curve.)

When he played a show with songwriter/ producer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Kanye West, Spoon), Brion asked to hear some tracks, and then suggested Barnes come out to Los Angeles for a few weeks to use his vintage gear trove to supplement virtually modeled instruments.

The pair convened in Studio B at Ocean Way Recording in Hollywood. Brion, engineer Greg Koller, and crew are Pro Tools-based, and making mix stems to swap from Logic was proving too time-consuming and sound-compromising, so Apogee provided a Symphony I/O and Mac rig, which allowed Koller to integrate newly-recorded tracks as he quickly came up to speed within Logic. “I feel [Logic isn''t] built for an engineer; it''s built for people who write,” says Koller. “When I started looking at it like that, I really grasped it.”

With all systems patched in, tracking commenced. In the live room, Brion and Barnes set about tracking enhancements to the primary, mid-fi home recordings. For example, where Barnes had recorded with emulations of the LinnDrum or the Yamaha CS-80 polyphonic synthesizer, Brion would draw from vintage units to lead him through reseating the parts while preserving the original arrangements. “I really like the idea of this foreign . . . weird, ‘wrong'' element being there,” says Barnes of layering sequences with the analog synths'' sometimes unpredictable harmonic signatures. “It makes it seem more exciting to me . . . when it''s not just this homogeneous landscape.” With the overdub process proceeding quickly, editor Eric Caudieux performed pitch correction when needed.

Brion used a Moog Modular synth to add subsonics to Barnes'' Rickenbacker bass parts (many of which he re-recorded for consistency). “My bass lines are really more baritone guitar parts,” says Barnes. “It''s not just low, it''s more noodle-ly and almost percussive . . . I''m usually doing a lot of stuff on the G string, way up by the 12th fret. It really worked well having the synthesizers filling in the gaps.”

The weight of some tracks, such as “Like a Tourist” and “Our Riotous Defects,” was augmented by recordings of a Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ, miked in surround sound (it was also being tracked for a film project) with Shure SM50s and Neumann KM53s through an Inward Connections 820 sidecar.

Standout session drummer Matt Chamberlain contributed on many tracks, such as False Priest lead single “Coquet Coquette”; for drum sessions, Koller would typically set up an AKG D12 on the kick, Neumann U67s on snares, plus an overhead mono (either a Neumann U47, AKG Elam or D19), with Neumann M50s and sometimes RCA 44 ribbon mics in the room for ambiance. However, for the song “Black Lion Massacre” (on the upcoming Controller''s Sphere, an EP of additional songs written during the False Priest period), the team created a tight, ringing, highly effected groove by placing contact mics on each piece of the drum kit, having Brion and Barnes mute parts as Chamberlain played, and running the result through guitar amps, which he then miked and recorded.

On the same track, as well as ones such as “Sex Karma” (a duet with Solange Knowles), Brion applied what Barnes jokingly calls “the most expensive fuzz pedal in the world”—an EMI TG 12345 portable console that served as the Abbey Road mobile unit in the ''70s. “You can overdrive it in a specific way, because John has a special relationship with the gain structure,” says Koller. “We''d push channels in the group master at different levels for effect, and even for parts we didn''t re-track, I''d run them out of Logic through the EMI to open them up, drive them with that sonic character.”

When recording, the team used the EMI board and/or what they dubbed “the God chain”—the best-sounding outboard modules for each application, pulled from tube preamps, a rare pair of Pultec shelving EQs, a Fairchild limiter, Altec RS124 compressors, a boutique Overstayer stereo compressor, and Sontec parametric mastering EQs. The same outboard gear was used to detail out and fatten up pre-recorded material in the mix, as Koller dealt with a lot o

f “mid-range build-up . . . I find a lot of modern gear and recording compounds [frequencies] in the 3–5kHz range.” Other processors included the Sonnox Oxford SuprEsser, the SofTube FET Compressor, and Trident A-Range EQ.

“I used a lot of synth filters to take off nasty high end, make mids more aggressive, and add low end,” says Koller. “Some were plug-ins, such as the UAD Moog Multimode Filter, and others were outboard filters like the Schippmann EBBE und Flut and the Moogerfooger pedals.” Koller, however, avoided using main bus compression before mastering, which gave him more opportunities to preserve dynamics in the complex mixes. (By the time the sessions were completed, each of the 13 songs contained 30–50 tracks.)

Reflecting on what was the most technically complex recording process of his career to date, Barnes has nothing but glowing things to say about what Brion and his team brought to the punchy soul-punk of False Priest. “Jon''s a beautiful person, an amazing musician; he has a great ear, he has soul, and he has technical proficiency to top it all,” he says. “Next to him, I felt almost like how Brian Eno describes himself, like a ‘non-musician.'' I''m more about quickly getting the ideas out and having the excitement come through in the texture, rather than playing or engineering with perfect tone. He really helped bring out all the body I''d heard before and imagined and wondered how to fully incorporate, but I''d never seen the real gear. And no one ever did anything generic through any of it.”