For the last 14 years and 13 albums, The Mountain Goats have been the musical project of iconic musician John Darnielle, whose vocals and acoustic guitar have been the only constant in a changing lineup. More recently, bassist Peter Hughes has been the other regular band member. At times, the band might rely on using the drummer of an opening act for a few songs per set. Other musicians might also join them onstage to flesh out certain numbers. Still, their live sets tend to mainly feature only Darnielle and Hughes.
Considering this, it might seem unlikely that a bass and acoustic guitar duo would cause any indie ears to perk up-especially since many such ears have become acclimated to a steady diet of delay pedal, bashing drums, delay pedal. Even though the Goats’ recent albums make some use of percussion and strings, a hard-strumming acoustic guitar tends to remain at the forefront of each song.
A large part of the Mountain Goats’ lo-fi appeal is the unique voice and
lyrical content that Darnielle offers to listeners. Many of his songs nearly come off as a form of reporting. His content varies widely, ranging everywhere from Beowulf to store robberies. We receive these topics through the unsteady and nasally filter attributed to Darnielle’s trademark voice. For those familiar with his tone, feel free to picture said voice as John answers the following questions for Buzz.
Buzz: Why do music?
John Darnielle: Easier than Ponzi schemes.
Buzz: People have drawn attention to this album as being a step towards more overtly personal songwriting. How would you compare the songwriting approach in past albums to this one?
John: The basic process is unchanged – write lyrics, find melody, match with chords – obviously there’s a bit more personal involvement in writing from experience, so one has to be more rigorous about swatting down clichÇ-urges, since often there’s this instinct to let a bad line through if it seems “true,” which instinct is most base. There is always an elegant way to say something if you’re willing to work.
Buzz: What’s gained in keeping ‘the personal’ out?
Buzz: What role has any of your past employment played in songwriting?
John: Not much, and I’m always surprised by this question – really I think the time I spent doing manual labor (dishwashing as a teenager, loading grain off of trucks in ’99) gave me more help than anything else in thinking of songwriting as a physical, sweat-inducing activity, which is the best way to think of it I think – not as some wait-for-the-muse-to-speak sort of idleness.
Buzz: Anything happen to songwriting when it becomes its own full-time job?
John: Maybe one takes it more seriously – but then again, my best songs are still the ones I sort of write by accident while watching sports on television or something
Buzz: For the most part, you have switched from a very lo-fi recording style to a full studio setting. What has been lost/gained from the change in
John: Immediacy, obviously, is the first casualty, but the tradeoff is fuller realization – it’s a lateral move, I don’t think of the studio as a step up so much as a different view
Buzz: Future plans for the band?
John: Sing songs about monsters, record them, tour country/world singing songs about monsters.
Buzz: I was at Empty Bottle for one of the more recent regional shows. Onstage, there was mention of Urbana, Ill. This did warm my heart.
Can you fill us in on the band’s connection to Champaign-Urbana?
John: Peter lived there ’til recently [Peter Hughes worked at a local music store in Champaign.] He has since moved back to Rochester, N.Y., though.
Buzz: Your song “Cubs in Five” lists several … unlikely … events. I have to ask, White Sox in Five?
John: I wouldn’t count ’em out! Amazing year for the hated White Sox, all respect to them. I have to admit that the ‘roid scandals of the past few years have really dampened my enthusiasm for baseball.
I watch a lot more boxing now, which is just as corrupt, but at least it doesn’t present itself as some shining beacon of the gung-ho
can-do God-n-Country American spirit, you know? Boxing is
a mug’s game, knows it, acts like it, and everybody’s comfortable with that: there’s something to be said for honesty. More something every day I think.
The Mountain Goats will take the stage at the Canopy Club on Oct. 12th in support of their release of this year’s critically acclaimed The Sunset Tree.