Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Interview with Of Montreal's James Huggins - Part 1 of 3

I had the chance to chat with Of Montreal multi-instrumentalist James Huggins this weekend. The Athens band is wrapping up the U.S. leg of its Skeletal Lamping tour these days.

If you haven't seen the band live yet, I'd recommend it, if you want to see and hear mock hangings, ninja action sequences, centaurs and brilliant musicianship.

Skeletal Lamping was one of my favorite albums this year, a fantastic mix of psychedelic rock and indie-funk that should pass the test of time.

Huggins has been in the band for more than a decade, and now the collective finally appears ready to make a splash on the charts, thanks to ever-imaginative frontman Kevin Barnes. Catch the group performing live on the "Late Show with David Letterman" Thursday, Dec. 18.

Barnes recorded most of Skeletal Lamping in his home studio, and his big band fills in the gaps on tour.

Huggins, a gifted songwriter in his own right, is responsible for a solo album under the name James Husband.

He called me from a Tampa beach this weekend and talked about his time with the band and Barnes, what it's like to finally hit the "big time," and his plans for an upcoming solo project.

I will post the half-hour interview in three chunks over the next three days. Enjoy!

SoR: How's the tour going?

JH: This is the very bottom of the tail end of the last straw of this tour. We feel like the whole tour was over essentially right before Thanksgiving and then these Florida shows were added on at the last minute. They're all a little bit lower profiles, so we're just kind of doing them just for like a bonus.

SoR: It's obviously the most elaborate show the band has done, with ninjas and costumes and action sequences. Is this your ideal view of what a concert should be?

JH: This time we were more motivated. The time before it was a little bit less. The scary thing is trying to top this now because there's an expectation when you do something really big and theatrical that then, each time, I feel like there's some expectation that we have to impress and improve. So at some point it's going to have to hit a plateau and go back to something minimal.

SoR: You can't really top mock hangings I guess?

JH: Yeah, but that's exactly how we wanted to do it. And for us the only real limitation on this whole tour was venue size, like stage size, and then, of course, money. But we found some very creative ways around the money thing. As far as the size of the venues, we could just adapt our set to accommodate most places.
Like in Atlanta, that was the ideal setup where we had all five video screens and our little drum towers and all that. But a lot of times, like in Nashville, I remember it was really small. We had to strike the risers all together and only use one video screen. I don't know, all those things we have to work around every night. It's sort of a new setup but the show is essentially the same.

SoR: Do you sense that you guys have turned the corner and maybe moved out of the smaller rock band status and into one of those larger acts?

JH: Well, definitely, that's undeniable. For us, it's kind of like a funny thing that we're talking like we're so old and we've been doing it so long. So we have the same excitement that you see in a younger band that's put out their first or second record.
I feel like we've been trained for disappointment because we sort of expected it to do this six or eight or 10 years ago. And with each record and each tour, we feel like we've just been waiting for the audience. Now 10 years later, to have some of those things start to happen, I think we're all a little bit distrustful of the whole situation.
Because it's like it's great that we can be able to put on the shows we want from larger audiences and have respect from other groups and press that wouldn't give us the time of day two years ago. It's definitely a very interesting transition but I think we're all just slightly confused and maybe wary of the success.

SoR: What would be the optimal topping out point? Do you guys want to sell out Madison Square Garden?

JH: Sure, that would be great!

SoR: I understand that the music scene is splintered today with the larger record companies struggling to make a lot of profit. Now there seems to be a lot of the smaller bands that hit the medium status and never get to that Britney Spears-type status. Would your goal be to sell out the big stadiums?

JH: Well that's the thing. I don't think there is an ideal. It's just different things. We love putting on big, funny things and playing in small clothes. I guess it just depends on what it calls for. We had an offer to do a show at the Hollywood Bowl, which I think the maximum there is like 15,000 people.
I don't know if we'd get anywhere close to that. I guess the last show we did in L.A. was like 4,000 people in a single room, and this was like an outdoor room. So we would have the opportunity to have like an orchestra or something crazy. But that would be something we'd do once, and then the next time we might play at the small, little rock club and put on a special show.
Last time we played in London in a big theater and put on the first, real U.K. big performance. But then we're going back in a few weeks and we're playing this show with Franz Ferdinand in a little club that only holds like 600 people.
I think that it's really just keeping it interesting by doing a variety of different kinds of shows and different kinds of environments for different kinds of audiences. I think rotating it gives you perspective.
Because if you just start doing detached, large arena kind of shit, I can see how that would kind of kill the personality of the performance. I've gotten a glimpse of that a couple of times. I've heard of a couple of other bands that say that they can't stand playing really large, arena-type venues because they don't feel any connection. I can see that too, but I don't think we're in any immediate danger of having to do that.