My Page: of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes

Kevin Barnes on June 9, 2018

Many years ago, I was approached by an advertising company to use the melody of one of my songs, “Wraith Pinned to the Mist, and Other Games,” as a jingle for one of their clients. The client, as it turned out, was Outback Steakhouse. When they initially reached out, I thought it was a joke because it seemed so far-fetched that a company like that would ever want to be associated with my band. When I think about Outback Steakhouse, I think of sweaty meats and pickup trucks with Confederate flag bumper stickers, not gender- bending or cross-dressing or queer pride.

A lot of people have asked me why/how I could have ever given them permission to use my song, so I’d like to walk you through the process. The way it unfolded was very surreal: They told me that the client only wanted to use the vibe of the song and that I didn’t have to do anything personally other than give them approval for their people to create something reminiscent of my song. They told me it would most likely only be used on radio and likely only for a few months. At the time, I didn’t have any legal representation or council, and I was just the lead singer of an indie band struggling to keep my small family afloat.

I had never done any corporate events, I had never been on television and I had no connection, whatsoever, to big business or corporate America. I viewed myself as an underground, independent artist, completely free from the mainstream. I felt like I lived in a parallel universe outside of the machinations of big-money capitalism. I made albums in my bedroom and I performed them with my close friends, and everything was always DIY. There wasn’t a lot of money in it but we were fulfilled by the process and received enough affirmation from the outside world to continue on.

Around the time the ad agency contacted me, my daughter was about one year old and I was feeling a lot of anxiety about balancing the want of chasing my dream with the need to support my child. So, when the agency seductively waved the check in my face, I couldn’t resist. It’s one thing to be a starving artist when you only have yourself to take care of, but when you’re trying to raise an infant, you can’t really be so idealistic about where your money is coming from, right? That’s not to say that I only spent the money on my daughter; I also bought some S&M gear and some Kenneth Anger DVDs and stuff, but most of the money went toward diapers and formula.

Fast-forward a few months, and you’ll find me dealing with a small furor over the ad and, for the first time in my life, being called a sellout. It was such a crazy feeling to be the target of so much rancor and to be treated like an art-rock Judas. I had gone from being a precious little indie darling to a bit of a pariah in just a matter of months, and it didn’t feel good. It all seems pretty silly now but, at the time, it felt serious and deeply upsetting. People came to shows with Outback Steakhouse menus and signs and mocked us from the audience. I felt like a worse-dressed Dylan going electric. Ha!

In hindsight, I can see how the scandal was kind of beneficial to me as an artist, though, because it made me want to prove myself even more and led me to do things that I might not have done otherwise, like stripping naked during one of our shows or riding a horse onstage or making a really bonkers album like Skeletal Lamping. I used the negative feels as a motivation to try to show the world how little of a sellout I was, although, on some level, I can see now that I was sort of chasing my tail.

It is also interesting how allowing one of my songs to be turned into a jingle has become a fairly substantial footnote in my career. I still get asked about it in interviews, and I imagine that more people have heard the jingle version of that song than any of my other songs combined. That realization was simply hard to accept. The ad went through some weird permutations, but it was the primary Outback Steakhouse commercial jingle for about three years and it sort of haunted me for awhile.

I still get a funny feeling when we play that song. On occasion, I have actually slipped in the “let’s go Outback tonight, the world will still be there tomorrow” lyric because I think it’s a pretty bizarre and interesting concept. Why do they feel the need to tell their customers: “Don’t worry, if you go to Outback Steakhouse tonight, the world will still be there tomorrow?” You don’t see Taco Bell feeling like they have to reassure their customers of the obvious in that way, although the line “let’s eat a Cheesy Gordita Crunch Combo, it won’t give the oceans herpes” would make a pretty sweet jingle.

This article originally appears in the June 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here