Mike Mills is best known as the co-founder and bassist of seminal rock band R.E.M. He has also played in the Baseball Project and Hindu Love Gods.
Marilyn Carino gained notoriety as the songwriter and frontwoman of post-trip-hop band Mudville and as a solo artist and producer. Carino and Mills embarked on a joint writing endeavor for the soundtrack to a film that was never completed, but which resulted in one song, “War and Peace,” that will be included on Carino’s album Leaves, Sadness, Science, which will be out April 14. You can follow Mills on Twitter here and Carino on Twitter here.
Longtime friends Mike Mills and Marilyn Carino met and bonded over music when she was working as an engineer in a studio where R.E.M. once recorded. That connection has resulted in late-night jam sessions, live performances and a co-written song that will be released on Carino’s upcoming album Leaves, Sadness, Science. Since R.E.M. and Of Montreal originate from the same musical hotbed of Athens, Georgia, Mills felt he had some insider perspective on the nature of Kevin Barnes’ unique sound. Below, Mills discusses Of Montreal’s 13th album Aureate Gloom with Carino.
MARILYN CARINO: What did you think of the record?
MIKE MILLS: It’s like Scottish weather, if you don’t like it, just wait a sec and it’ll change. Which is both a strength and a…
MIKE: Because [Of Montreal frontman/songwriter Kevin Barnes] does jump around so much, from rhythm to rhythm and part to part.
MARILYN: And you know that he’s read, like, 1000 more books than you and I put together.
MIKE: He’s got one of the most fertile minds of anyone in the music business. He has more ideas than he can possibly put down. On first listen the songs seem to jump from place to place and you get the feeling that’s what his mind does. But after the first listen they make a lot more sense.
MARILYN: My very first reaction was, I don’t know if you do this, but I find that I listen to music as a songwriter and lyricist, and during my first listen I was thinking: “How the hell does he teach his band how to play these songs?” Because I wouldn’t want to be the one charting this! There are so few conventions of melody and rhythm. I heard blocks of ideas which I recognized as musical patterns, but I struggled to latch onto it in any other way at first, you know, as far as enjoyment or connection. It reminded me of when someone is mad at you and arguing a point, you’re saying things to make your point but as you’re arguing you’re all hyped up and fast ideas run through your head, but you don’t necessarily say all of them. Kevin Barnes seems like he’s just saying everything that comes into his hyped-up head. And because he’s way more clever, you can’t keep up, so you are kind of dumbstruck, emotionally.
MIKE: Like with all music that will last, you can’t get it all the first time or two. As a result, it may take a little work to get to like it but it’s something that you’ll probably enjoy longer than something that catches you on the first listen. With this music, you can devote as much time and attention as you like: headphones, audiophile, it’s all going to pay off in the end.
MARILYN: At first I felt an iciness about it overall. I felt like he wasn’t letting me in. I love experimental music and punky sensibilities, but on my very first listen I felt a real “fuck you if you don’t get it” vibe, and I felt kind of kicked to the curb. There were so many changes; one song had this beautiful little interlude, it reminded me of “You Are an Airplane” (from the 1999 Of Montreal EP The Bird Who Continues to Eat the Rabbit’s Flower) and just as I was beginning to groove on it mentally, everything got extreme again and I just couldn’t recover.
MIKE: Exactly. There are so many ideas in each song. I really like “Apollyon of Blue Room,” which sounds kind of like a great lost Kinks song. On “Monolithic Egress” he sings about the passion of St. Matthew. I don’t even know what that was, but I assume he had one. I really liked the dreamy moments, like “Aluminum Crown.”
MARILYN: I like that one too, also “Virgillian Lots.” He comes up with some great lyrics on it, like “Your neo-feminist divinations.” “Empyrean Abbatoir” has got two great lines: “Now you’re back in Knoxville, masturbating your father’s pain” and “With your body as a sacrament, your mind a killing floor.”
MIKE: That sounds almost Shakespearean. That song sounds like a lost Buzzcocks track. The first song, “Bassem Sabry” has this great, stark sound like Roxy Music or Climax Blues Band, who no one knows about but it sounds like Barnes does. It’s an amazing amalgam of styles; it’s also got a real psychedelic thing, which I really dig.
MARILYN: I like how he seems so desperate to figure things out; it is almost like onomatopoeic ravings. There is something very Todd Rundgren about it.
MIKE: There is definitely a Todd Rundgren-esque feel to this; someone who knows so much, who is such a polymath about music and melody and chords and structures and rhythms. It sounds unfocused, but it’s not. And you can see that if you get yourself past the first listen.
MARILYN: What changed this music for me was when it struck me that it actually fits in perfectly with a movement right now in visual art, particularly abstract painting, called “atemporal,” referring to things that exist in their own space and time, that belong to no one place or time. These artists are using a real mash-up of styles, and in ways that were not expressed in the past, and with no obvious link-up. It is a real reflection of the digital age, new media, where we can see all different styles and genres simultaneously with no obvious connection. We don’t know how to interpret them, but we know what we like. It’s not rooted in any one influence, so it is effectively timeless.
MIKE: All the influences I hear, Roxy Music, Buzzcocks, Kinks, maybe even a little Pink Floyd, are there and you hear them, but they don’t dominate. They’re very brief, and you can find them if you’re listening for them. It threatens to go full prog-rock at points, but he cuts it short before it gets self-indulgent.
MARILYN: I think the album makes your ear search for something to latch on to. It sounds like we both had the same reaction: the references kind of pop out and you think for a second, “Oh, that’s so Bowie” but as soon as you would recognize it, it would go away. And your overall impression is not, “Oh, that’s the song that sounds like Bowie” at all. I don’t think I’ve heard any other music quite like this or music that has made me feel like this.
MIKE: Exactly. It uses so many different styles that it becomes of its own unique time and style because it doesn’t attach itself to any one approach. I think that’s exactly what this music sounds like. It’s very much of the times, but you can’t really put your finger on why.
MARILYN: Atemporal also expresses a longing for something more tangible and immediate. And I really hear that in Kevin Barnes. At one point I recognized, “Ah, so atemporality manifests in paintings that look a certain way, and this is what atemporal music sounds like.” It made me let go of judging it in terms of my normal musical expectations, and even in terms of previous Of Montreal albums. Instead of sort of being upset that it wasn’t meant to be something I could dance to or sing along with, I sort of rose to its challenge. It’s like how the internet makes me feel. Within an hour you will hear about Kanye West and beheadings and Google. It’s not connected, but it is.
MIKE: I think you’re right in that looking at it from that perspective gives you a useful lens or prism through which to listen to this music. It gives it a focus that might have been a little harder to come by if you didn’t think of it in that context. I think his work is a real reflection of the age in which we find ourselves — an overabundance of information from a constant variety of sources, and you just have to try and make it make sense and put it in a place where it’s cohesive and hangs together.
MARILYN: There are a lot of lovely melodic touches that seemed almost like random flecks of bright color on a landscape. I started to “see” the album visually, thinking about atemporality, and the music got more beautiful for me.
MIKE: The complex nature of the songs — you don’t even have time to say, “Oh this sounds like…” whatever, because it so quickly changes to something else.
MARILYN: It’s a fascinating work. It’s a window…
MIKE: …into his mind, which is scary and fascinating.
MARILYN: It’s like looking at a purple landscape that someone behind you suddenly flecks with yellow. You can feel disrupted, or marvel at your own surprise.