“When I was trying to create song titles for (2007’s) Hissing Fauna, I would read Dylan Thomas poems and use that as an influence, like a drug almost, and start freewriting,” Barnes says. “(The phrases) ‘Skeletal Lamping,’ ‘False Priest’ and ‘The Controlosphere’ happened during one of those exercises. When people ask now what it means, I can invent a reason. I’ve said the false priest is the voice inside of everybody that sends you to darker places and sabotages you, in a way.”
False Priest clearly represents of Montreal’s next evolutionary step, long after beginning a gloriously lo-fi, giddily complex Pop band and one of the ’90s anchors of the Elephant 6 collective. In recent years, of Montreal has morphed into a flamboyantly eclectic Soul revue, as Barnes has been inspired to move his Pop decimal point to the Funk side of the equation.
“Sly & the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye have been huge influences,” Barnes says. “Of course, George Clinton and his scene — Funkadelic, Parliament, Bootsy Collins and all those guys.”
Like all oM albums, False Priest began with Barnes in his Athens, Ga., home studio, crafting sounds and applying long-journaled lyrics to sonic fragments until songs took shape. In the sense that Barnes is constantly creating, False Priest is an extension of the band’s last album, 2008’s Skeletal Lamping.
“I started working right away,” Barnes says. “I never put six months aside for writing. Whenever I have the opportunity, whenever I have a free moment at the piano, I’m thinking about something new.”
As Barnes pieced together False Priest, his publicist contacted Pop wunderkind Jon Brion, who had been complimentary about of Montreal in interviews.
A long phone conversation between Barnes and Brion transpired, followed by a shared bill for a 2009 L.A. show and finally Brion’s offer to assist in Barnes’ next project.
“He’d become familiar with our stuff and knew how I made records — doing everything myself in my home studio, one track at a time — and he could tell there were limitations,” Barnes says. “He’s learned a lot and he wanted to impart that knowledge to me. He didn’t get much out of it, financially. It was more a labor of love.”
Barnes was already well into False Priest, steered by classic ’70s Funk/Soul records. As a result, the new songs exhibited an amazing reflection of Barnes’ long-held inspirations. In that regard, False Priest is a departure.
“With Skeletal Lamping, I wanted everything to be schizophrenic and fragmented and experiment with song structure,” he says. “Because I’d just done that, I was thinking more about trying to create really well-crafted, unpredictable Pop songs, but also infusing it with this new Funk influence. I wanted to have a bit more attitude and swagger.”
Next came Barnes’ exposure to the Wondaland Arts Society. Through the Atlanta organization, Barnes met Soul singers Janelle Monae and Solange Knowles, sister of the impossibly famous Beyonce, who both contributed vocals to False Priest. Barnes also met Monae collaborator Chuck Lightning through WAS, a fellow literary aficionado who introduced Barnes to science fiction, specifically the gritty majesty of the late Philip K. Dick. With Dick’s influence, Barnes wrote “Enemy Gene,” arguably the only dance jam in history to address particle wave duality.
False Priest coalesced when Barnes met Brion in Los Angeles to work out the album’s sonic issues. Barnes was incredulous at the expansion that Brion achieved, the most significant being oM’s first discernible bottom end.
“That was definitely Jon’s influence,” Barnes says. “The things I sent him sounded, as far as fidelity, like Skeletal Lamping. That’s what he was talking about helping me improve upon; more present, punchy, powerful low end, as well as a higher ceiling and broader sides. I don’t have a lot of money or equipment, I use what I have. I’ll use a software version of some vintage keyboard; he would have that vintage keyboard. But we were conscious of not making this thing too slick for no real reason. We wanted to make it hi-fi, but in a cool way.”
As a result of Barnes’ happy accidents, False Priest is an extraordinary document driven by the songwriter’s reverence for ’70s Funkmeisters and his longstanding love of Glam and Pop. “Godly Intersex” and “Casualty of You” sound like Hunky Dory-era David Bowie on a Bee Gees/Saturday Night Fever binge and “Coquet Coquette” offers up a mash-up of Marc Bolan and Jeff Lynne, while “Like a Tourist” presents an imagined collaboration between Prince and 10CC and “Famine Affair” shivers like Robert Smith contracting a virulent case of dance fever.
“I can’t write an R&B sex jam, it just wouldn’t work for me,” Barnes says. “Before I went to California to work with Jon, I was doing everything myself so it was extremely challenging to create something that feels like There’s a Riot Goin’ On with just one person. The challenge was ‘How can I put so much energy and emotion into this thing that it gives you the same feeling as Stevie Wonder records?’ Stevie actually did things like that, so he shows you that it’s possible. You have to have the right spirit.”
OF MONTREAL performs Sept. 21 at Madison Theater with Janelle Monae. Go here for show, ticket and venue details.