Athens indie pop group of Montreal has kept it quirky for nearly 30 years

Now calling Vermont home, leader Kevin Barnes and band play Variety Playhouse on Saturday, June 29.
Kevin Barnes of of Montreal started the group in 1996 in Athens and now resides in Vermont. The band plays Variety Playhouse on Saturday, June 29. CONTRIBUTED



Kevin Barnes of of Montreal started the group in 1996 in Athens and now resides in Vermont. The band plays Variety Playhouse on Saturday, June 29. CONTRIBUTED

There are several famous bands named after the places they came from such as Boston, Kansas and Chicago. That is not at all the case with the celebrated quirky indie pop band called of Montreal. Rather, Kevin Barnes started the group in Athens in 1996.

Now, 28 years later, the Ohio native remains the one consistent link in the group and is in the midst of a spring-summer tour that includes a stop at Variety Playhouse on Saturday, June 29.

The origin of the band name stems from a Barnes ex-girlfriend who was from that city, but it’s Athens that really has mattered to him since he was 18.

“That was when I realized I wanted to do music as my primary focus in life and I was looking for a place to manage that, places that weren’t New York or Los Angeles,” Barnes told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a recent interview. “I found about Athens through some friends.”

The minute he came to Athens, Barnes said, “I fell in love with the place and the history of all the bands that have started there. There was a pretty cool collective of musicians there. I had never before been around a group of like-minded people interested in the same kind of DIY approach to creating music.”

The collective, dubbed Elephant 6, featured groups like his, Elf Power and the Olivia Tremor Control. “We’d go to each other’s shows,” Barnes said. “It was the bands plus their girlfriends and friends.”

Barnes was always experimental and iconoclastically independent in his music production. “I really learned early on to be sort of self-reliant and not expect others to participate,” he said. “I had fun with the process. It felt good making music every day. I was able to find what I liked to do, what comes naturally to me. We were all able to build our own identities.”

He said it took at least seven years for of Montreal to become financial viable while he did mundane jobs like telemarketing or working at a video rental store.

Of Montreal now has 19 studio albums. “I feel like almost of my records represent the person I was at that time doing his best,” he said. “It’d be weird and lame to be too critical of that person. On our last tour, we played a couple of songs from the first album [”Cherry Peel”]. I like to play them. There was a period when I didn’t because I thought they were too twee or silly. But I’m fine now.”

Barnes said prepping for a tour gives him a fresh perspective on what he has created: “I’m now 49 years old. I have this body of work to perform live. It’s a really interesting experience looking back and trying to create a set list.”

And given his penchant for unpredictability, the set list is forever morphing. “We don’t just play our most popular songs every single time,” he said. “We try to mix it up. We try not to repeat ourselves.”

As for of Montreal’s latest album “Lady on the Cusp,” which came out last month, “there were a couple of songs I was trying to create sonically that were difficult to turn into a pop song. I’d start with a gross sound and mold it into something infectiously catchy and melodic. That was a fun challenge for me.”

Barnes has never gone out of his way to try to create music to top charts or garner radio airplay. He is fine with the niche fan base the band has developed over the years.

“We’ve had moments when were more popular and moments when we weren’t,” he said. “I feel fortunate to have experienced being popular but that’s never been my ultimate goal. My ultimate goal is getting fulfillment from the creative process. Otherwise, what the hell are you doing it for? It becomes a boring job. It’s not what drew me to music.”

After decades in Athens, Barnes moved to Vermont last year.

“My partner has a lot of friends up there,” he said. “My daughter is going to college in Manhattan. I wanted to be closer to her. I also wanted to be in a more progressive state. I was getting triggered all the time in Georgia. I’m not from the South. It eventually became this gross feeling to be surrounded by all that. Vermont is more my vibe.”


Of Montreal

8 p.m. Saturday, June 29, $25, Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave NE, Atlanta,