ALYSSA FAVREAU, AUTHOR OF JANELLE MONÁE’S THE ARCHANDROID, TALKS TO KEVIN BARNES ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE OF WORKING AND TOURING WITH JANELLE
With so much of The ArchAndroid coming out of Janelle Monáe’s own Wondaland Arts Society, there’s one song, “Make the Bus,” that stands out as a little bit different. The song is the brainchild of Kevin Barnes, founder of the indie pop band Of Montreal, and a free-wheeling ode to the creative partnership that existed between Of Montreal and Monáe’s inner circle in the lead up to The ArchAndroid’s release.
I talked to Barnes to get a better sense of what their collaborative relationship with Monáe looked like, how such different artists came together, and what makes “Make the Bus” tick.
Alyssa Favreau: How did you first meet Janelle?
Kevin Barnes: Of Montreal was playing a show in Atlanta, at the Tabernacle. She and Chuck Lightning, her collaborator, came to the show and came backstage and introduced themselves and that’s how we met.
I wasn’t familiar with her music, but she had already done her EP. She was pretty well established already. When I got home, I looked her up and realized what an amazing talent she was. From there we started communicating a lot more, hanging out a lot more. And I met all the people that she collaborated and hung out with, and we all became really close friends and merged our two worlds together in a really major way around that time period.
I find it so interesting that you’re both doing work that’s equally creative, but is so very different. What exactly drew the two of you together?
We have a lot in common musically, artistically, and aesthetically, as far as wanting to put on a really theatrical show, and wanting to do something extravagant and high glam and also like a bit camp and funky. Something very positive feeling, but not one-dimensional.
The cool thing about Janelle and all of her family, her collaborators, is that they’re seekers, just like I am, always seeking out new forms of inspiration. We’re all very open-minded people and very turned on and excited about the possibilities in music and art. We just sort of fed each other in that way. I would maybe turn them on to some things that they hadn’t heard about, and they would turn me on to things I hadn’t heard about. It was a very cool experience to have this love affair with a whole group of people. I feel like our hearts are still connected.
I read an interview about the tour you did together in 2010, where you said that you wanted to transform the venues each night so that it becomes this exceptional experience. What did that end up looking like?
It was so great because Janelle has such a strong aesthetic of her own. At that point they were doing exclusively black and white suits, and then when we came out, it was kind of more Technicolor. I’m sure most people felt like they were watching two different movies that somehow worked together.
I love that idea of two worlds coming together. There’s a video of you guys all jamming together called “Wondalandians in Sunlandia.” I really love that imagery, knowing a little bit about the worlds that you’re both individually creating.
We both have these deep, rich fantasy worlds that we’ve created to exist inside of and allow other people to exist inside of. It’s interesting, [and] not something that every artist does. It’s kind of exceptional when an artist or an art collective operates on that level.
Where do you think that impulse comes from?
You could say an unhappiness [with] the regular reality that you’re forced to live in, or that you’re expected to live in. Being dissatisfied with that reality and wanting to create something that is more fulfilling and feels more engaging and more positive.
Fair enough. I want to ask about the song “Make the Bus,” and the story behind you writing it.
That song is definitely of that time period. I was just getting into Philip K. Dick and some other sci-fi things and that’s one of the places [where] I connected with Chuck Lightning. He was a big Philip K. Dick fan. And so there’s the reference in “Make the Bus” where I say something about having Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? under your pillow. I think he connected with that. I shared it with them and Nate [Wonder] was saying how much he loved it. It felt organic to give it to Janelle for her record. I really wanted to be a part of that experience, the ArchAndroid experience. [The song] gave me this kind of doorway that led me into the ArchAndroid world.
You didn’t write it with them in mind specifically?
Not consciously, but there were things working in the background, in my subconscious, that were probably inspiring me and leading me in that direction. I can’t remember if that was just one of many songs I sent them or if it was one that I was like, “Hey, maybe you guys would put this on your record.”
I was sending them pretty much every song that I recorded for [Of Montreal’s tenth album] False Priest. I would go to Atlanta all the time and play them new things I was working on and the energy that they would give back to me was so inspiring and motivating. It’s cool to have this support group of people that are like, “No, you’re on the right path. You’re doing cool stuff, don’t doubt yourself.”
In the liner notes, one of the inspirations for this song includes the “Sunlandic summer,” which seems pretty obviously about you. Was there a specific summer where you all were working together?
Yes, the year that we were working on ArchAndroid and False Priest, that whole time period when we we’re kind of bouncing around Athens and Atlanta, hanging out all the time, and collaborating and performing. It feels sort of dreamlike. It was such a magical time period, and I have such great memories about it, such positive feelings about all of them. The ArchAndroid and False Priest partnership, or marriage, or whatever it was, [is] very special to me.
In terms of placing Janelle as an artist at that point in her career, what was your impression of her at the time?
Someone that was destined to take over the world, and destined to make the world a better place. She has such positive energy and is such an incredible performer. The whole group—the whole band and, the whole clique or whatever that they’re a part of—was so focused and committed to what they were doing on a level that I’ve never seen before. Just the level of professionalism and attention to detail and focus that they have for everything that they’re involved with. They never phoned anything in. Every performance I’ve ever seen her give, it’s been James Brown-level, Prince-level mastery. It’s amazing to meet someone like that. I have a way more casual approach to performing. A lot of times my mood [will] get in the way, or something will happen where I just won’t be able to do my best, but I never saw her fall. She’s always just so strong.
From the outside at least, the Wondaland collective seem like such a cohesive, tight-knit unit. Is that how they are when you’re collaborating with them artistically?
There are a lot of people that she was working with in 2010 that are still a part of her crew and her friend group. It seems like something that she treasures, mak[ing] sure that she lets everyone know how much she cares about them and keep[ing] everyone involved and engaged.
We have a lot in common in that way. Almost everybody that’s been in the Of Montreal touring group is someone that has been around for decades. There’s just a lot of loyalty and love for people who give it back to you, and I feel like [it’s] the same thing with Janelle. She expects people to be committed and be professional, and then she’ll be the same way to them. Basically, once you earn her respect and her love, then you have it forever.