"This girl had some eye affliction," Barnes reports via phone from a tour stop in Brooklyn. "She said, 'I got out of bed to come see you guys! I thought you were from Montreal. I'm so mad!'"
Of Montreal's accidental status as a Canadian band is perfectly in keeping with the ensemble's whimsical approach to musicmaking. Over the past five years, the group has built a reputation for wildly colorful and psychedelic albums filled with unexpected twists and turns, ruled by the cheerful sort of nonlogic that makes children's books such a puzzle for square adults.
When the band's sound jells -- as it did on 1997's savory Cherry Peel and 1998's brilliant The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy -- Of Montreal easily hold its own alongside such pop adventurers as Brian Wilson and Harry Nilsson. But like those creative titans, Barnes and company have a tendency to push the sonic envelope to the point of bursting. If one slide whistle or musical saw part sounds good, the band's reasoning goes, then five would sound even better. The lyrics tend to be just as detail-laden, with Barnes creating a novel's worth of complex characters for every CD. The resulting frantic mélange of clanging bells, kazoos, and vaudevillian antagonists made later releases The Gay Parade and Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse a little exhausting, like trying to watch a Saturday of cartoons in a half-hour.
With its fifth full-length, Aldhils Arboretum, though, Of Montreal -- Barnes, Derek Almstead (bass), Andy Gonzales (guitar), Jamey Huggins (drums), and Dottie Alexander (multiple instruments) -- has scaled back the lyrical ambitions and amplified its sound. Noisy electric guitars now rock in the fields where glockenspiels once frolicked, and the keyboards scream when they used to whisper. For Barnes, it was a conscious attempt to make a record that would shake the hips as much as it would tickle the imagination.
"We had been doing the more theatrical, artsy thing for the past couple years," Barnes explains. "We just thought it'd be fun to do something different and make a record that was a little more danceable, something that people could move their bodies to."
The rawer direction is evident from Aldhils Arboretum's opening track, "Doing Nothing," in which Barnes' wavering, slightly adolescent voice packs a newfound punch. The tune's raucous complaint against stagnation marks a return to the more personal stories that populated Cherry Peel, and demonstrates Barnes' continued ability to translate simple observations and passing thoughts into listenable art. That skill is also evident in the album's would-be hit, "Jennifer Louise," in which the singer reflects on the distance between him and his young-professional cousin. The absurd joy that swells throughout the paean to an unknown family member is classic Of Montreal -- weird and endearing and probably a little unsettling for the song's subject.
"I went to [Jennifer Louise's] wedding and told her about it," Barnes says, laughing. "She seemed a little freaked out."
In another standout track, "The Blank Husband Epidemic," Barnes tells the story of an uncle who gets so tired of his dull breadwinner's life that he fantasizes about driving his car off a bridge.
"I wrote it about myself," Barnes says, "imagining myself if I were to quit music and get a serious job and get married and have kids and go that route with my life. I'd probably be disenchanted with it and become really boring and uninspired."
Running out of musical steam and ending up with a two-car garage in the suburbs is not a risk Barnes faces anytime soon. Like many musicians who have been pulled into Athens' low-distraction, high-output orbit, Barnes and his bandmates spend much of their time working together on home-recording projects. Four of the five members share a house, which tends to speed the work along. The intimate living quarters, though, also provide the kind of insularity that could easily turn obsessive musicians into sun-shy hermits who end up being eaten by their cats.
Becoming the record-collecting recluse on the hill seems an especially high risk for Barnes, who dedicated an entire song on Aldhils Arboretum ("Ode to the Nocturnal Muse") to his pillow. "I love sleeping," he says in explanation. "You can feel everything so deeply. You don't have to worry about all the weird devices that you have in your head, so you can feel love in its fullest. You don't have to repress anything."
Endless sleeping, recording, and hanging out -- it sounds like the sweet promise of college-town living realized. Does Barnes ever worry, though, that he and his friends spend too many days holed up, dedicating so much energy to translating their still-lives to tape that they don't have time left to go out and live?
"That's the sacrifice," he says. "There's not very much going on in Athens, so pretty much the only thing to do is to work on projects. In a way that's great, but in a way you're missing out on a lot of life experiences, because it's such a small town and it's sort of limited what you can do."
The question, he says, is the same one faced by most artists. "Do we want to be really prolific and have a great body of work, or do we want to spend our money on traveling and seeing the world?"
For now, Of Montreal is in the fortunate position to follow both paths -- the band's records have sold well enough to allow it to tour Europe and Japan, and its current itinerary finds the Athenians crossing the country to get to San Francisco.
Despite the extensiveness of the outfit's tour, however, there will be no stops in Montreal, or anywhere else in Canada for that matter. It's probably just as well: The cold and flu season is creeping in there, and, if Of Montreal's previous run-ins have been any indication, the band would have a lot of explaining to do.