Even for seasoned artists like of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes, sometimes it takes a getaway to get inspired. That's what happened during the composition of the band's forthcoming release Aureate Gloom, an album whose spirit can be found in New York City's 1970s punk scene.
"I actually went to New York for a writing retreat, so that was cool just to wander around the village in Chelsea and role-play and imagine what it would have been like in the '70s," Barnes tells us before of Montreal's show in Gainsville, Fla. last week. "But also so much really cool art was happening, mixed with the punk scene that was developing out of The Bowery. And I read a couple of books. I read Richard Hell's autobiography and Patti Smith's autobiography, so that kind of helped me get into that state of mind as well."
The follow-up to 2013's lousy with sylvianbriar, a beautifully melodic album recalling 1960s folk and counterculture rock, Aureate Gloom returns to of Montreal's signature electro-pop form. But bands that thrived in and around the Village in the early '70s come through, too. "New York Dolls, Johnny Thunder and the Heartbreakers, Richard Hell's projects Television and the Voidoids, The Ramones — just that whole scene," Barnes says. "New York was almost more of a character than a city."
Though Aureate Gloom isn't due out until March 3, the Athens-based band has released two singles off the album, with "Empyrean Abattoir" being one. "That song has a bit of an '80s, almost kind of Joy Division-y vibe to it," Barnes says. "And then it goes into a Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks kind of punk vibe at the end of the song."
Meaning celestial slaughterhouse, "Empyrean Abattoir" was written as a collage, a style Barnes employs often to disguise a song's deeper meaning, allowing him to create music therapeutically. "My personal life has been in turmoil for the past year or so," Barnes confesses. "So that definitely had a lot to do with the lyrical content of the record, and the album is very autobiographical. And it's interesting to me that I just stumbled upon this method that worked really well where I would write about different people in the same song, but I wouldn't specify who it was at any point. So I could be singing about one person for one line and then the very next line be singing about a different person and then the next line singing from my concept of what their perspective or situation would be. I find that my mind just works that way. Collage art is just easy for me, and I can get into a good work flow that way if I'm not trying to make sense or if I'm not trying to make something that other people can understand."
The only track off Aureate Gloom that isn't autobiographical is the disco-friendly, anti-fascist "Bassem Sabry." After Egyptian journalist and civil rights activist Bassem Sabry mysteriously died last year, Barnes felt compelled to write about it. "It's something that I think about a lot, you know, the individual fighting against the monster and the courage that it takes for people who live in those countries to stand up against the dominant force, which is very oppressive. They're risking their own lives and this guy — it can't be proven, you know, because it's all so shady — but he supposedly fell off a balcony, but it's like, no one really falls off a balcony."
As for the recording of Aureate Gloom, the not-at-all-Canadian band decided to go analog. On yet another getaway, the band went to the desert, where they spent two weeks at an analog studio outside of El Paso, Texas. "That's what I've been into a lot lately with the last couple of records, wanting to record the take and just avoid the computer altogether and, you know, just make records like people used to make records," Barnes says. "All the classic records were made that way so I said, 'OK, well if that's the way my favorite records were made, that's the way I should be making records.'"
Just because Aureate is complete now and ready to rock doesn't mean of Montreal can simply stop making new music. With 16 records released since 1997's The Kinks-inspired Cherry Peel, it should come as no surprise to hear the prolific band already has half of yet another album written and recorded. For Barnes, staying busy is what suits him right now. "I think that because of what's going on in my personal life, I just wanted to throw myself into my art," he says.
Recorded in Barnes' home studio in Athens, the as-yet-untitled follow-up to Aureate Gloom probably won't surface until 2016, or as soon as their label Polyvinyl will let them drop it. Barnes describes the record as more electronic than Aureate and says that the song they're working on now involves a lot of experimentation — like pairing pedal steel with drum programming — just because they can.
"It's fun because it almost feels like free time or something," Barnes says. "We're not contracted to do anything for a while so to actually be working again is exciting and feels really liberating. It kind of feels like we could do anything."