From intricately bizarre cover art and maddeningly obscure song titles (“Faberge Falls for Shuggie” and “Beware Our Nubile Miscreants,” for example) to high energy shows that feature prop-wielding performance artists and multiple costume changes – or, in the case of a 2009 Las Vegas performance, no clothes at all – the Of Montreal experience is one of the most interesting, absurd and sexually ambiguous in indie rock. Touring in support of recently released EP thecontrollersphere, the psychedelic pop troupe takes over Webster Hall on Saturday. We checked in with keyboardist Dottie Alexander as the band makes its way up the Atlantic coast.
Where are you?
We're in D.C. at the 9:30 Club getting ready for sound check. It's one of those clubs that's totally oriented around band comfort, so we're very happy to be here.
What's the most important thing about a venue comfort wise?
95% of our mornings on tour are spent trying to get clean. So, it's this mad dash to do laundry or get to a shower. You start gauging clubs based on how good their bathrooms are.
You must be able to travel a bit more comfortably these days.
Yeah, it's a weird kind of trade off. Before, we would drive all day in van – which wasn't very pleasant – but we'd have a hotel every night. Now we've upgraded to a bus and it's nice to be able to drive through the night, but at the same time we spend more time on the road. It's definitely nice that the clubs are getting bigger. Actually having a backstage is a good thing.
How would you describe an Of Montreal show to someone who's never seen you live?
It's kinda like the circus rollin' up into town. We try to mix theatrics in – as much for our own sake as for the crowd's – because so many rock shows are the same formula: you just stand there in your hoodie and play the same stuff every night. That gets sort of mundane and automatic, so we try to really concentrate on the visual element by bringing performers and projections. It's more of a theatrical experience.
Does that make it easier to go out on the road for long stretches?
Absolutely. We have this crazy family and we're constantly learning new things about each other. I'm never sure what the performers are going to do. I have an idea, but there's always something hilarious and unexpected. It's great.
How much of the shows are unplanned?
It depends on the tour. The last one was very choreographed and specific. This one, we're touring for an EP and we deiced to be spontaneous and have fun.
Are you still the only female in the band?
I'm not! We've expanded the lineup to an eight piece now and we have an awesomely talented piano player named Thayer Sarrano, so there's actually another girl musician in the band, which is great. The last couple years we've been traveling with women performers, but it's nice to have another one actually in the band. We're still vastly outnumbered though.
It's kind of that way across the board in indie rock.
Oh yeah, definitely. I've been doing this for 13 years and it still blows my mind that I'll show up to a club and be told where the merch table is or asked which one of the guys in the band is my boyfriend. That kind of thing still happens.
You recently got married. How does that affect your rock stardom?
Well, my husband is our video guy, so he travels with us. It's an interesting dynamic for us because we actually don’t spend that much time together during the day. It’s the best of both worlds: we're not all on top of each other every day, but we do get to hang out.
How did you break the news that you're off the market to your groupies?
(Laughs) My husband actually proposed to me on stage at the Hollywood Bowl, so it was really a public affair. It was really sweet actually. The rest of the band knew for a couple weeks before I did.
There must have been a lot of people there. You couldn't really say “no.”
I think he was pretty confident that I was gonna say yes. It was surreal because we were playing this summer concert series that was hosted by Henry Rollins, who is actually a really sweet guy. So the first person to congratulate me on getting engaged was Henry Rollins. It was truly a rock and roll moment.
Maybe they're not groupies, but you've a pretty intense following. At your shows there always seems to be people in the crowd with “Dottie” signs and shirts.
I think that has to do with me being a visible female presence. Over the years I've created this weird persona for myself and I'm still surprised by it. There's nothing better than a bunch of kids chanting your name (laughs), but I honestly think that a positive, non-sexualized female presence on stage is something that a lot of kids respond to.
Overall, there's something very intimate going on between our band and the fans. We're a band that you “find” and in a way we're these kids' secret. That inspires intense loyalty. We have two people now who have been turning up every day; they just keep following us. I hate to use this comparison, but it's kind of like The Rocky Horror Picture Show where you know you can dress up freaky and take on this different persona and everyone else is gonna do that too.
It has to be hard to be “non-sexualized” as a member of this band. Kevin Barnes (the band's lead singer) is a hypersexual man.
I feel like Kevin's got that part covered. It's not really my style anyway. I'm happy to let him cover that.
He did a show naked.
Oh, the naked show. We try to play all-ages shows as much as possible, so of course you can't expose yourself in front of underage kids. So we thought “we're doing this bar show in Vegas. It's 21 and over. Wouldn't it be hilarious if we shook up this image of us being a band for teenagers and just played porn on the projectors?” Eventually that idea grew into Kevin saying “I'll do it. I'll get totally naked.” Then it became a weird obsession of his. At the time there was a lot of backlash about the Outback Steakhouse commercial that Kevin gave a song to and the naked show definitely changed the topic of conversation.
No doubt. How long did it take for you to get sick of having to explain the Outback commercial?
I was sick of talking about it pretty much the day the commercial came out. We didn't realize what kind of phenomenon it was going to be. Up until that point, no one was offering to pay us money for a song. So we didn’t really understand the ramifications or how widespread it would become because we'd never done it before. So it got to a point where it was like “oh, now Outback is doing a Father's Day version of the song. I didn't know that…” It got real old real fast. Some of the fans weren't happy. A kid threw a nicely packaged steak on stage at a show. Now it seems to have blown over, so that’s good. I think we'll stick to Yo Gabba Gabba! from now on.
Why do you guys like doing the all-ages shows?
It's just way more fun. Younger people really make it an event. They bring in this un-jaded energy with crazy dancing and just letting themselves go. To exclude that fan base would be suicide for us.
You guys are on the road with Painted Palms. How do you go about finding bands to tour with?
I don’t think that we've ever toured with anyone that we didn't have a love affair with, so we've been pretty lucky. Bands that we like turn out to also be really awesome people more often than not.
You guys are doing the mid-Atlantic right now. That has to be tougher for you because the crowds tend to just stand there with their arms crossed or their hands in their pockets.
Yeah, but they go nuts for us! It's crazy! I've been looking forward to this. It's true that somewhere weird like Salt Lake City or Lawrence, Kansas will wind up with the craziest crowd, but this D.C.-Philly-New York run has been awesome in recent years.