From the first jangle and piano runs of its opening track, "I Feel Ya' Strutter," False Priest suggests a new of Montreal.
Since 1997, Kevin Barnes has been of Montreal, as a revolving cast came and went. Although False Priest began as another solo endeavor, its overhauls by sui generis producer Jon Brion and additional vocal contributions from Janelle Monáe and Solange Knowles transformed it into an undeniably collective work.
False Priest is also a hell of a good time. If 2007's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? found Barnes working out his personal depression and demons, and 2008's Skeletal Lamping was a salacious declaration, than False Priest is a party. With more cooks in the kitchen, the album plays like a Parliament-Funkadelic mix tape; in fact, one could be forgiven for mistaking the intergalactic glam-funk "Like a Tourist" for a cover.
Granted, False Priest still bears the marks of its predecessors: "Around the Way" is an anxious techno vamp with pitch-black frustration ("I wanna die again"; "I'm crashing in the waves / getting fucked up, trying to cure you / it's so draining"), while "Sex Karma," a playful duet with Knowles, drips with lust ("You look like a playground to me").
During a recent tour stop, Barnes was resting his vocals, but bassist Davey Pierce was available for a phone chat. Pierce and Kevin's brother, David, are the two-man team responsible for bringing to life all of the various props and puppets that constitute the band's now-legendary live performances.
"Dave Barnes designs them all, and I try to make them all," Pierce said of the props. "I just try to make whatever he sees in his head come to life."
Of Montreal's stage shows are constantly evolving spectacles that are part Brechtian theater of alienation, and part vaudevillian gimmickry. Kevin Barnes takes a backseat regarding this aspect of the band's presentation; instead, David Barnes, who is also responsible for the band's album artwork since 1999's The Gay Parade, takes charge of the group's live theatrics.
Like with the construction of an of Montreal album, the process is fluid.
"Kevin has input, obviously, but it's more in David's hands of what it's going to look like," Pierce said. "And then where I come in, I just facilitate and make Dave's dreams happen in real life. Sometimes, it works; sometimes, it doesn't. We had a couple of characters that we had made that didn't really work out how we planned, so we quit using them. It's a constantly evolving process, because right when we're done making something, Dave will say, 'No, actually I want it to do this,' so we'll have to start all over again."
Musically, however, of Montreal is Kevin Barnes' domain. Although Kevin is responsible for the lion's share of an album's construction, he will actively seek advice from Pierce and others.
"He'll give us demos a long time before the album's even close to coming out, just to see what we think," Pierce said. "We give him input, and sometimes, he takes it to heart; sometimes, he doesn't really agree with it. It's a weird situation in that way, because I don't really feel too comfortable giving him input. It's his thing; he hears it all in his head, and I feel weird about giving my take on a song, because I would obviously do things totally different."
Thankfully, when Kevin ceded some control to Brion for False Priest, the producer was not afraid to re-imagine Barnes' songs. Instead of the tinny glitz or lo-fi rock of previous albums, Brion—who has worked with everyone from Kanye West to filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson—went widescreen, turning False Priest into a richly layered listening experience.
"False Priest started off the same way all the other albums have started off, which is pretty much Kevin recording these songs in his house," Pierce said. "He decided he wanted it to be a more hi-fi record, which he's never been able to capture before. And that's where Jon Brion came in, because he's obviously a genius with this stuff. ... It just sounds so much better, bigger and fuller."
From the Cure-esque synth blasts and guitar trills of "Famine Affair," to the swirling, psychedelic throbs at the conclusion of "Our Riotous Defects," to the driving, early-'60s garage-rock chug of "Coquet Coquette," Brion's deft ear is on display throughout False Priest.
Then there are the soulful vocals of Beyoncé's sister, Solange, and Janelle Monáe.
"Solange, we met through Janelle in New York one day," Pierce said. "She came out and saw a show we played ... and we all met and just kind of became friends with her. Kevin's been a huge fan of Beyoncé and Solange ... and it just so happens she's a huge fan of indie rock, so it worked out really well."
Meanwhile, Monáe has become nearly inseparable from of Montreal, with Barnes contributing a track to her ambitious debut, The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III), and Monáe opening for of Montreal on this tour. Janelle, however, will not be performing in Tucson. Pierce, who said he does not know the exact reasons, thought her absence has more to do with a "prior engagement" than the passage of SB 1070. Pierce did admit the law has made this stop bittersweet, but that will not prevent the group from bringing its cosmic funk to town on Halloween.
"We love playing Tucson, and we love the Rialto and Congress, but it's hard for us to get over (SB 1070)," Pierce said. "At the same time, it's hard for me to boycott an entire city. All the people who are there, who are equally against it, seem like they're going to lose out in the long run because of where they live, which doesn't seem really fair to me."