Of Montreal doc director on the long, winding road to The Past Is a Grotesque Animal
Give Of Montreal's back catalogue even a casual listen and you'll find a little bit of everything -- glam rock, disco, psychedelia and pure pop -- sometimes all crammed into the same song. The band's main man, Kevin Barnes, is a complex and contradictory figure, creating everything from obscure characters, such as transgender funkster Georgie Fruit, to complex concept albums to raw, confessional songs that reveal some seriously dark depths of the soul. The music and the man behind it get a long, hard look in The Past Is a Grotesque Animal, a new documentary that focuses on one of indie pop's most intriguing bands. Before the film shows tonight, June 20 at the Boulder Theater, we talked with director Jason Miller to find out why the film took seven years to make, how difficult it was getting inside of Barnes's head and how making the movie affected his feelings for the music.
Kevin Barnes prepares to go on stage.
Westword: Is it true you worked on this film for seven years?
Jason Miller: Yeah, I think so. It's a little bit blurry. The truth of the matter is I started with no intentions to make a film. The first three or four years I was trying to do all these other things -- I was trying to make a concert film, trying to make short tour docs that were going to go online. For some reason, every time, there'd be some hurdle or some reason we wouldn't release the things I was making. They were happy with the stuff I was creating but there was just always some hiccup.
It was maybe three or four years into that process when Kevin [Barnes] suggested I make a documentary, which sounded like this gargantuan task. They had been around for over ten years before I even met them, so I guess I didn't jump all over it. The thing that put me over the edge was when I found out there were a few boxes of tapes in their storage unit that hadn't been touched, stuff old band members had shot over the years. Once I realized there was this old footage of them, I started thinking there was a possibility of making this film.
How did you hook up with the band originally?
I think I was in college still. They don't have a manager, which now is a funny thing to me. It makes so much sense that Kevin wouldn't want anybody putting their hands into anything and making decisions on his behalf. The fact that they didn't have a manager made it incredibly hard to get in touch with them. There was an Of Montreal e-mail address on the website and I think I spent a year sending e-mails to that every so often. We lived in the same town, and it's a very small town, and anybody who had been around Athens [Georgia] for a long time, and a part of the music or arts scene, had probably met Kevin, but overall he was reclusive and I was just a 21-year-old college student. I had never met him. I'd never seen him out. I didn't know much about the inner workings of the band at all.
A year into that, thinking that I really wanted to do something with this band, a music video or some sort of live thing, there was another band called Dark Meat. They're a fifteen- or twenty-piece psychedelic rock band that's just a fun project, a supergroup of all these bands in Athens. BP Helium, who was the guitarist for Of Montreal at the time, was playing in Dark Meat. Somehow I got roped into shooting this thing with Dark Meat, and coincidentally Diplo was doing something with them. I met Diplo that day and BP Helium that day, and I told BP I'd been trying to get in touch with Kevin forever. He gave me his number and said to come by and asked me to come by and film their prep for the Skeletal Lamping tour. I did, which was super intimidating, and I finally met Kevin. And after a few days -- I think it was three days -- of filming them in this warehouse, they said, "Hey, why don't you come on tour with us>" And that was the beginning of everything.
So you were just embedded with them on tour after that?
If I had known that I was going to end up making a film, I probably would have quit school and everything else I was doing and approached it a whole different way. At the time, it was pretty casual and I wasn't being paid to be a part of this, so I was just hopping in and out whenever I could. I probably only went ten days of that three-month tour. They had two tour buses and twenty people involved and I had only just met them. They invited me and I was welcome, but I don't think I was welcome to just film them for eternity. It took a really long time to get anybody to get super-comfortable around me and open up. I think for the first two to three years, everything that was shot just ended up being B-roll. I don't think anybody said anything to me of great substance during that time. The trust just wasn't there. It took so long to get people to open up.
Keep reading for more on the new Of Montreal doc.