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Of Montreal: Satanic Pantomime

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: April 21, 2004

Of Montreal
w/Tilly and the Wall, Son, Ambulance
April 28
Sokol Underground
13th & Martha

Tired of the same old indie-rock show schtick week in and week out at the local club?

You know the one I'm talking about: The T-shirt-clad band slumps onto stage and pounds out the typical 35-minute set of songs from their new album, barely acknowledging that there's an audience standing a few feet away while they scream to the soundman that they need more vocals in the monitor. If you're lucky, you might get a "Thanks Omaha" after the lead guy plays his one-song encore before slinking away for the evening.

Of Montreal feels your pain.

So don't expect a traditional rock show when the Athens-based ensemble plays Sokol Underground April 28. Expect an extravaganza.

"There's always a lot of unconventional stuff going on," said Of Montreal leader Kevin Barnes about the stage show via cell phone in transit to their Mt. Pleasant, S.C., gig. "It's kind of hard to describe. We perform a whole bunch of skits between songs. We pantomime to prerecorded music just for fun, just to make people laugh."




A veteran of countless tours since the band formed in the late '90s, Barnes knows just how uninspiring a typical rock show can be -- both for the fans and the musicians on stage.

"We want to make something that's less predictable," he said. "We've done so many tours, it gets boring playing 14 rock songs and saying 'good night.' Doing skits breaks it up."

It can also make for some interesting challenges. Just the night before, the 7-piece band found themselves struggling to pull off their skits on a tiny stage at Asheville, N.C.'s Vincent's Ear. But they soldiered on and made it work.

"We're pretty flexible," Barnes said. "We roll with the punches. If the skits don't go off like we want, it doesn't matter. The point is trying to do something special. Most people familiar with our music know we have an unconventional sense of humor and expect to see it."

The "unconventional" is just what those Of Montreal fans have received since the band burst onto the indie scene in 1997 with their playful Bar/None debut Cherry Peel. They were quickly identified as part of the Elephant 6 collective -- a gathering of bands and artists whose sound reflects a love of '60s California sunshine pop from such icons as The Beach Boys, Van Dyke Parks and The Turtles. Other Elephant 6 acts include Apples in Stereo, Elf Power and Neutral Milk Hotel.

Barnes acknowledged the ties, though he said the Elephant 6 concept has faded over the years. "It's not really an active collective anymore," he said. "It's always been difficult to describe what it is. It's abstract -- a bunch of people who live in town who play similar music. It's not like a cult -- we don't have meetings."

They do, however, share musicians and other resources, but no more than any other active scene, Barnes said. "Pretty much every scene that's thriving at all will have that communal experience that comes from working together," he said, citing Omaha's Saddle Creek "collective" as an example. "I'm sure Detroit, New York and every big music scene has a group of musicians that work together, whether they have a name for their scene or not."









"It's not like a cult -- we don't have meetings."







"Most people familiar with our music know we have an unconventional sense of humor and expect to see it."



Elephant 6's stereotypical ironic, low-fi chamber pop influence isn't obvious on Satanic Panic in the Attic, Of Montreal's just-released full-length on Polyvinyl Records, though there's plenty of '60s inspiration to be heard, albeit slightly modernized. Think recent stuff by The Shins or New Pornographers and you're getting the picture.

Satanic Panic in the Attic sports an ethereal theme park vibe -- an exuberant kaleidoscope perspective of color and light, like a child spinning in place until she falls on the grass, dizzily looking to the sky. Songs like the standout opener, "Disconnect the Dots," floats along a cushion of keyboards, handclaps and Barnes cooing "It's so beautiful…"

Unlike the band's past albums, including their 1999 carnival-ride breakthrough The Gay Parade, Satanic Panic isn't a concept piece. "It's just a collection of pop songs all recorded in the same four-month period in the same studio," Barnes said. "I wrote all the songs, so there's a thread of continuity that runs through them, but it's not a concept.

"Concept records are more challenging and ambitious to write, but can be a less enjoyable listening experience if they're following a story line. Sometimes the lyrics can become too spelled out and that can limit you."

And that's just what Barnes says the band is trying to avoid -- limitations -- hence, their wonky vaudevillian stage show. "We're having a lot of fun," he said. "Hopefully the audiences are as well."

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Published in The Omaha Reader April 21, 2004. Copyright 2004 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.