Decades after the rise (and, arguably fall) of the B- 52's and R.E.M., the reach of the rock and roll Bethlehem that is Athens, Georgia can still be felt in contemporary pop. In 2005 the perennial critical darlings of the Elephant Six Collective, the town's musically incestuous conglomeration of resident bands and buddies, traded in The Apples In Stereo as a figurehead for the late Neutral Milk Hotel, which enjoyed an enormous rebirth with the reissue of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. More recently the torch has been passed to Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal, a band- turned-solo-project which can alternately resemble either an Ouija connection to Beatles departed or an orchestra made of Silly Putty. Barnes has reveled in the spotlight, churning out albums which each seem to go over better than the last.
What was it like making records in Athens?
It was a really great community, a time when everybody would help each other out with recording. If you had some crazy vision where you wanted to hear what it would sound like if fifty people were playing snare drums at this one section, you could get fifty people together and do something like that, or sing-a-long choruses with thirty people. Elf Power, for one of their records, got this room at the University [of Georgia] and everyone brought a drum or whatever percussive instrument and they set up a couple of room mics and recorded it. We did stuff with fifteen guitar players playing the same part on acoustic guitar around this one microphone. When you have ten or fifteen people playing trumpets it doesn't matter if people aren't really good at the instrument. There's an interesting record called Major Organ and the Adding Machine. That's sort of the most collaborative project involving Elephant Sixers, or at least people from Athens that were involved in that scene. There were a lot of people contributing songs to the record, and everyone was collaborating on the arrangements and the orchestration and the recordings. It was kind of the high water mark of that scene.
Was the studio activity an important part of Athens turning out the way it did? Could that happen without people there to record it?
Then I guess it just becomes legendary, where people who were involved in it might talk about it, but it's not really the same because there's not documentation. Everyone was just learning the ropes on their own, on their own time, without having to spend a shit-load of money going to middle-of-the-road, boring studios with a guy with no vision engineering and recording. That's what happens to a lot of people — their first demos are just so boring because they just didn't know any better. But we were able to experiment and do all sorts of crazy stuff which no engineer probably would have let us do.
You've released a compilation of your early 4-track compositions, which were much simpler than the music you're making now. To what degree do you feel like the production is the composition? Can you explain the intersection between the two?
A lot of times a song, when it's just stripped down to acoustic guitar or a couple instruments, can be really extremely boring. But then if you hear a really clever production it transforms the song into something really magical. Since we record at home we're a little bit limited. There's certain stuff that we might have in our head that we'd like to hear, but you can't hear. With us it's all about trying to be as resourceful as possible and use whatever is laying around to try to fill the sound up as much as possible and try to create something interesting.
Has that changed as the albums have become more successful? Do you have more tools now?
With the first five or six records we were building up this analog studio and we had a 16-track tape machine and a pretty big 24-channel mixing console with a lot of outboard gear. But with the last couple records I've been making them more as solo projects, and I've just been making them on my computer, not even using any of the stuff that we spent all that money on. Now I've just started composing in the studio and not even doing any sort of preproduction work, just experimenting and turning things into songs that were not even rough ideas when I started screwing around with them.
What did you switch to?
I've been using Cubase and Reason. Recently I've been using Logic a lot more.
How did that change affect the songs?
I'm not really sure if it changed the way I'd want to produce a song or the sounds that I'd want to hear so much, but I think that once I started working with computers one of the reasons I wanted to was that I wanted to start making dancier stuff, like using programmed drums and incorporating more electronic- sounding quality to the recording....