Kevin Barnes (of Montreal) and Ruth Garbus Talk About Aliens

And their relationships to receiving praise, live performance, and more.

Kevin Barnes is the frontperson of the indie rock band of Montreal; Ruth Garbus is a musician living in Brattleboro, VT. of Montreal’s latest record, Lady On The Cusp, is out tomorrow on Polyvinyl, so to celebrate, the two friends met up to talk aliens, compliments, live performance, and more.   
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Kevin Barnes: We are sitting in a room in Brattleboro, Vermont, in Ruth’s new studio space.

Ruth Garbus: Indeed. We’re looking out at the Connecticut River and Mount Wantastiquet.

Kevin: “Wanna stick it.” Have you known anybody to go up into the mountain looking for the jewel or the — what is it, the crystal? 

Ruth: Well, I don’t know if I have this right, but I thought the idea is that there’s a crystal under Brattleboro. Like, the bedrock is made of crystal or something like that.

Kevin: OK, cool. But there was a UFO sighting recently…

Ruth: Yeah. [Laughs.] There was a UFO. 

Kevin: You guys saw it? Didn’t people see, like, drones up there at night or something?

Ruth: Chris [Wiseman] and Elie [McAfee-Hahn], around 7:00 they were walking from the Co-op and they saw weird lights on the mountain. They didn’t really think anything of it, and then later on that night, there were a bunch of lights up there — which, I looked at it from [my friends’] apartment. And there was a drone, but that was actually a drone that the fire department sent out, because somebody reported that there was a distress signal. Iit was interesting. Because I think one of the hallmarks of UFO sightings or experiences is that people have them and they don’t think of them as being anything. They’re like, “I don’t know why I saw this crazy thing and then I just didn’t tell anybody.”

Kevin: Like it gives you amnesia or something.

Ruth: Yeah, it’s very strange. Every bone in my body just wanted to blow it off… I feel like I sound crazy when I talk about this.

Kevin: No, I don’t think so at all. I love stuff like that.

Ruth: Looking into UFO stuff has kind of changed my understanding of what reality is — not where I’m like, “Aliens are real and they’re here!” Although part of me kind of does feel like that. [Laughs.] But also, it’s a really interesting way into thinking about consciousness. You know what I mean? 

Kevin: Totally, yeah. I always think that’s interesting, the concept of an alien — like, there’s things that belong here, and then there’s things that don’t. I don’t view it that way, but I feel like that’s how culturally we’re meant to look at something from another planet. But then, especially once the universe gets more interconnected and people are going to other planets and having experiences and relationships with inhabitants of these other places — it makes you expand upon, what is an alien? 

Ruth: Totally. 

Kevin: Also, we assume it’s got to be a humanoid to be an alien, or something that’s human-ish. But if it was a bug or something, we wouldn’t be that interested in it. It has to remind us of something that we are in order for us to feel engaged. But things like squid, or things that live in the ocean that we don’t interact with very much — there could be a lot of things like that that are alien. They came from some asteroid that nobody noticed, and they’re just living in the ocean somewhere. And it’s fine because they’re not trying to, like, fuck with capitalism or be involved with our bullshit or whatever. [Laughs.] 

Ruth: Yeah, totally. It is really interesting, because alien depictions are usually humanoid, but then they also a lot of times do look like insects. There are a lot of people who have alien experiences where they’re like, “A seven foot tall praying mantis came into my room and it was highly intelligent!” It also makes me think about — you know how there’s the plastic island that’s as big as Texas, or probably two Texases by now?

Kevin: Yeah.

Ruth: From what I understand — I haven’t verified this — there’s a kind of bacteria that started growing on it that is a new life form. So it brings up these interesting questions about, do we now have a responsibility to protect this life form? And how do we do that? And the fact that it’s apparently in some kind of symbiotic relationship with plastic is really interesting. It makes me think about how people talk about colonizing Mars, because there’s quote-unquote “not life” on it. I mean, it’s not even what you’re talking about, “how do we define what is alien?” But it’s like: how do we define what we need to be respectful of, or acknowledge as something that has a right to exist?

Kevin: That’s interesting if there is some new bacteria that has a symbiotic relationship with plastic. It would make the proliferation of plastic seem a little bit more suspicious — almost like it is what forced us to think that we needed more plastic, and we need to be filling our bodies with microplastics. 

Ruth: [Laughs.] Yeah.

Kevin: And this is how this thing actually does take over the planet… [Laughs.]

Ruth: I feel like conversations like this, too, are part of what makes me feel like there should be more of a conversation on a large scale between different disciplines. I really do think that musicians and artists have something valuable to offer to the hard sciences, just because of being able to conceive of the world in a different way.

Kevin: Yeah. There are many different layers to human thought that people can get different things out of, coming at it from different perspectives, different angles. You’re not getting what the creator wanted you to get out of it, but that doesn’t matter, because you get whatever you get out of it. You can’t really control what people are taking from your ideas — or your concepts or your theories or whatever — and they should just be happy that someone’s getting anything out of it, or that they want to riff on it. Riffing is extremely important. That’s kind of the spice of life, the riff.

Ruth: [Laughs.] Do you notice people riffing on your work?

Kevin: Not really, but I don’t engage on that level. For me, I just make a thing, release it, and I don’t really want to talk to anybody about it. I mean, if somebody was like, “That lyric spoke to me in a certain way. Have you read this book?” That would be more interesting to me than someone just being like, “It changed my life,” or “it moved me,” or whatever. I don’t know if there’s something wrong with me, but that kind of affirmation doesn’t really make me feel anything. But somebody giving me a book makes me feel a lot better because it’s like, “Oh, that’s cool. You’re helping me in my journey.”

Ruth: That’s interesting. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, what it feels like to get compliments, because I just find the whole thing confusing. My relationship to an audience — it feels a little bit odd that I’m doing something as a musician that requires an audience. It feels strange to me, and a little bit wrong. Which maybe is because I grew up in a Puritan place, even if my parents weren’t like that in a lot of ways — I grew up in Connecticut. I just feel like there’s something that seems almost sinful about it. Even though, again, I didn’t grow up with a religious upbringing or anything. I really like it when people come up to me and acknowledge whatever I have done. And I understand that not all musicians are like that — like my sister [Merrill Garbus, of Tune-Yards], for instance, doesn’t seem to have any tense relationship with that at all. So it’s interesting that when people are coming up to you and being like, “I love your work so much, it’s meant so much to me in my life” — it’s not making you feel anything.

Kevin: Yeah. Because Christina [Schneider, aka Locate S,1] would be like, “That was so amazing that person said that.”

Ruth: Right, like listening to someone compliment you. 

Kevin: Or no, even for her — if someone came up to her and said, “I love your music so much,” it would make her day.

Ruth: Yeah.

Kevin: But I’m kind of like, If my daughter doesn’t see it happen, if I’m not looking cool because someone likes me… Just for myself personally, if anything, it makes me feel self-conscious. Like, Oh, I feel weird, someone knows who I am. I have a complicated relationship with my songs and my albums, and I don’t feel super proud of them in the sense that, I crushed it with that record, or whatever. You know? It’s just like, I just made this thing and I loved it in the moment, and I was really excited to share it, but now that time is long gone and I’m working on this new thing. And the new thing is the one that I’m most excited about that totally defines me, and the things in the past don’t define me at all, and it’s just kind of weird that they’re still tagging along.

Ruth: Totally. It’s like people have a misperception about you because the artwork that they’re taking in is irrelevant to you at that point.

Kevin: Yeah. It’s like, “Oh, you liked the person that I was in 2005…” Which I guess is me, but not enough me that it really means anything. But I feel like as an artist, you’re constantly rushing forward.

Ruth: Yeah. I mean, now that you say that, I do almost get resentful when people are like, “I love Rendezvous with Rama!” I’m just like, Fuck you!!! [Laughs.] It always makes me mildly upset, like it’s an inherent rejection or something.

Kevin: Yeah, but people are funny in that way. Even if they’re being nice, they’re like, “This is one of the best things you’ve done in a long time.” Like, Wow, so you’ve hated all the things I’ve been doing for a while now...

Ruth: People say weird, dumb shit.

Kevin: But maybe that’s just us, because — speaking for myself, I’m obsessed with new things, and I don’t get any real fulfillment out of the things that I’ve done.

Ruth: Yeah. When I made the stuff that I made earlier, I have all these associations with it — I have some negative associations with it. I feel like I was so hidden and insecure, and that was expressed in my voice in the way that I sang and what I chose to write. I don’t really like that person as much as I like the current version of me. Which is cool.

Kevin: Yeah, definitely. Would be way worse if it was the other way. [Laughs.] 

Ruth: Yeah. It can be a little bit painful. But also, it makes me think about the way that the role of a musician is perceived in our world. I don’t know if I have anything really specific to say, except stuff that is obvious. Just the whole idea of like, “Are you gonna go off and be a rock star?” — like people at my job. 

Kevin: Like, “If only you knew how humiliating it is to play shows…”

Ruth: [Laughs.] I mean, I’ve heard you use that word before — I love playing. I love performing so much. But you had asked me about the the performances I had this last weekend, and one of them was kind of humiliating. I opened for someone who I really have a lot of respect for, but the venue seems to abide by old rules about hierarchy, and I didn’t understand until a little bit before we played that we only got a half hour to play. And then the pay was really — maybe this is TMI, but the other person who was performing gave me some of their guarantee so that I actually got paid a relatively decent amount of money. But I didn’t understand that until I got a check for a very low amount of money, in my mind. My pride got so fucking hurt. I was stewing about it a little bit. It can be humiliating to be like, “I need an audience to listen to me,” and they’re just going to give me this little tiny window of time… It’s a strange job to have.

Kevin: I mean, it’s funny because for me, now, you get a half hour, I’d be like, “Fuck yeah.”

Ruth: Why? What do you mean?

Kevin: [Laughs.] Because I don’t want to play that long.

Ruth: Really?

Kevin: Yeah. Usually, we don’t have to, but when we go on tour—

Ruth: There’s an expectation. 

Kevin: Yeah, that you should — it’s Bruce Springsteen’s fault — play for three hours.

Ruth: [Laughs.] He set a new precedent.

Kevin: I guess probably a lot of the prog rockers also were like, “We’re going to play for a long time.“ But those early Beatles setlists, there’s like six songs. 

Ruth: Really?

Kevin: They’d just come out, play six or eight songs. Definitely not 16 songs.

Ruth: Yeah, totally.

Kevin: It’s just gotten to the point where you have to play a lot, and you have to go through the whole thing emotionally. For me, so much of the tour experience that’s fun is the hang with the people that you’re traveling with, and the show itself can feel just like… I don’t know, I just feel like I’m not really an extrovert. I can be extroverted on stage, and sometimes I can trick myself by getting a costume that brings out a certain part of my personality that is usually dormant, and those, I guess, are good tours. But then sometimes that will also bleed into my life and I’ll start doing things that I wouldn’t do otherwise. So it’s kind of an interesting mind fuck to go on tour. I’ve been thinking about, too, the difference between writing a song and recording a song, and then performing the song. Because I feel like the writing and the recording for me is what I love the most. And then the performing is almost always lacking.

Ruth: Lacking in what way?

Kevin: Lacking in sonic excitement. Because when you’re crafting a thing in the studio, you can get it pretty much just-so, and you labor over that. But then when you go on tour, even if you’re using tracks or whatever to fill in stuff that none of the musicians can play, depending on what the stage and the room sounds like, it might just not sound like headphone music. It’s not going to sound like this beautiful sonic epic landscape that you created. You’re going to be hitting wrong notes, the guitar player is going to be messing up a little bit, or the drums are off the beat. That’s going to probably, for other people, make it feel more exciting and more alive. But if you’re just reproducing a thing that you already did — because I haven’t gotten to that place where I’m like, “Let’s do different versions of every song.” I’m not good enough musically to do that, so it just ends up being a reproduction of the same thing.

Ruth: Mm… I’m not disagreeing with you only because I’m letting you talk. [Laughs.]

Kevin: [Laughs.] But that’s just me! I know a lot of people can do that. And I think that’s actually what I really loved about your performance, that it felt like an alive experience. It wasn’t a reproduction. Looking at you and your body language, it’s obvious, you know? But I feel like when I sing, I’m basically just hanging on to the horse as it’s sprinting across the valley. I’m hanging on for dear life, but it’s not a triumph. It’s just like, Ah, that was pretty good. I did OK. I didn’t fuck up too badly. I don’t feel like my spirit is soaring. Sometimes it can, but often it doesn’t. But I think it’s probably because of the grid that I’ve forced myself to be on.

Ruth: Do you mean literally? 

Kevin: Yeah, like the musical grid — having backing tracks, having a click track. All the parts have to be in that same spot every single time. It’s like doing a puzzle that you’ve done a million times, so you know you can do it, but there’s not a lot of creativity in the performance of it. That’s probably why I don’t really enjoy performing as much, because every day just feels like Groundhog Day or something. 

Ruth: I’m wondering when you started using the click track, and if there was some era of yourself as an artist that performing felt really different. What was it like early on? Were you ever like, “I love performing.” Or was it always like, “Oh, I have to do this.”

Kevin: I think very, very early on, I loved just having a guitar and being loud, and not really caring if it’s messy. But I think that part of my upbringing of, “You have to earn a living, you have to make money” — if you want to do this not as a hobby, but as the way that you support yourself, then you can’t really think about it strictly artistically. You have to think about sustainability and growth and all that shit. I think that probably sucked a lot of the joy out of it. Then being kind of uptight about wanting the concert to be great — and I do take it seriously. I never phone it in, and if I didn’t do well, I’d be pretty devastated.

I think that there’s probably other layers of it than I’m acknowledging; it’s not just a tedious, boring thing that I hate with all my heart. Because I do care about it, and I take pride in it being a certain way. But there might be some of the problem in that, wanting it to be something instead of just letting it be something. But then there’s just so many chords, so many moving parts that I’m trying to think of how I would even [change them]. Like, if I take these songs that have four very distinct changes, and this little bit of the song has an identity because of how it relates to the other bits in the song — if you totally change that bit, then are you going to change the other bits too? And then, why don’t you just write a new song that is different from that, rather than changing the thing you’ve already made? So it’s just kind of a funny thing. Do you ever think, “OK, I’ll be playing shows. What kind of song should I write that will feel good to play live?” And that’s the inspiration for the creation of the thing?

Ruth: I haven’t written in a while, but the last two songs I wrote were super chipper and happy, which is unusual for me, and it feels really good to play those. So there’s a part of me that’s like, I want to keep writing happy songs. I don’t know that I have it in me to control what comes out. I don’t think I do. I don’t think it would work. I don’t think it would give me that electricity feeling. You know what I mean? 

Kevin: It has to kind of be an accident and a surprise. 

Ruth: Yeah. I don’t have full control over what lights me up. 

(Photo Credit: left, Shervin Lainez; right, Josh Steele)

Kevin Barnes is the frontman and songwriter of the seminal indie-pop band of Montreal, who thrill fans with compelling live performances, delight critics with their constant innovations, and continually showcase their musical evolution by drawing from a different set of influences for each album. You can follow of Montreal on Twitter here and on Facebook here.