TAS Interview: Mountain Goats
If you're hoping to catch the Mountain Goats at New York's Bowery Ballroom later this month, you'd better have a ticket or you're out of luck. John Darnielle and his bandmates, bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster (of Superchunk), have sold out all three gigs, from March 24-26, just days before the trio release their new album, All Eternals Deck, on March 29 via Merge Records.
Darnielle chatted with The Alternate Side's Russ Borris last week and the conversation veered like a bumper car from songwriting, to Hank Aaron to the trailer for the 70s horror flick, "It's Alive." The band also played a few songs from All Eternals Deck; check out audio below from for the earnestly-titled "Liza Forever Minnelli" which Darnielle confessed was inspired by an idle saunter down Hollywood's Walk of Fame.
Hard to believe that Darnielle just marked twenty years as the Mountain Goats; his enthusiastic release of cassettes over the years might lead some fans to scratch their heads when trying to determine where All Eternals Deck officially falls in the band's discography ... which Darnielle explained:
Russ Borris: Album number 18?
John Darnielle: I guess. I consider it album number three. Every time we change it up a little bit it just feels like a total fresh start. It’s like a totally different band than the one that toured as a two piece for about five or six years and a way different band than than me and Rachel [Ware] who went over to Europe in ‘95.
Russ: So there’s certainly a lot of different things musically going on in this record. Some of the harmony vocals ….
John: “Prowl Great Cain?” That is John Congleton’s idea. What happened there, that is actually not a harmony, it’s a previous take and John just flew in a little line, he said “let me try something” and flew in a previous take where I’m singing different notes and made them harmonies. Really fun.
Russ: So it really just comes together right?
John: Yeah, it was John and an idea on the fly. Which is how all the best ideas come out.
Russ: Did you approach things differently working more in the trio sense now?
John: We play a lot live. A lot of the stuff you’re hearing is the core, like the song “Liza Forever Minnelli,” that’s live, that’s just sitting there playing and then I add the vocals later. So I don’t think I do approach it differently. The ideal situation is that everyone is playing it live. I just add stuff to decorate it in the sense of adding gold leaf to stuff or whatever but the core is usually as live as we can get it.
Russ: How long did it take to put the album together?
John: We recorded at a really leisurely pace all through the year. This is the way that we started doing things on Life of the World to Come. To stop going in to Make The Record. Because that’s what you usually do; you dig in for two weeks. But it’s really stressful because what happens then is that you have two weeks to determine how your next year is going to be. Man, it’s horrible every time and if you get sick during the session you’re out of luck. So instead we go in for three days at a time with a few new songs. There’s no pressure. If the session tanks, it’s just a three day session. It winds up costing more to make the record but it takes almost all the stress away. It just makes so easy to sit around, three guys playing songs together for a couple of days. Then you hit the road. So we did that. Three times together and then I went up to Boston with Brandon Eggleston to put “High Hawk Season” together with some singers up there.
Russ: The song “Liza Forever Minnelli” is a true story. Is it yours or someone else’s?
John: No, it’s mine. I got deadly ill on the last tour and had to leave the tour for a day or two while the tour bus went ahead. I had to hang in L.A. just to recover. It was some very strange Martian flu. I stayed and I went for a walk one day just to get out of the room because I literally been doing this lie-still-and-don’t-move-sick thing and I went for a walk and I saw Liza Minnelli’s star [on Hollywood Boulevard]. I always related strongly to Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli and I later came home and wrote a song about the walk.
Russ: The “Hotel California” reference was nice too.
John: Thank you very much! It’s because it’s a song about going home and thinking things about when you were younger in the home where you come from. “Hotel California” is a song about not being able to go back to stuff, but at the same time, the sentiment the way it is expressed is so treacly and stuff. It’s a very complicated thing. It’s a well-written song, but when you’re talking about that strange feeling of home and what it means to you, you need to be respectful of the extreme complexity of that sentiment instead of reducing it to simple nostalgia.
Russ: Do most of the songs come together in this way in which you’re thinking this much? Because you’re so literal when you’re writing.
John: When I’m tellilng you about it, that’s me, that’s my reading of it. When I’m writing, it’s very automatic and natural. I don’t sit there and say, “Oh, I’m going to write about this.”
Russ: I was talking about this being album number 18, but when you started doing demo tapes and putting things out on cassette, did you think that you’d get to a 20-year career?
John: No. And I still don’t. I just sit around and do what I do. To me, not to be all cantankerous and stuff, but if you think too much about career, whatever you’re career is, you’re doing it wrong. I just sit around and play guitar and piano and write songs and read books and I try to think as little about that stuff as possible. I always have because people can smell it if you’re thinking about how this is going to impact my so-called career.
Russ: Has there ever been a point when you’re writing or playing a show and you go, “I don’t think I’m going to do this anymore.”
John: No! No! I love it! I hope I’m still doing this until I’m 90. I enjoy every single second I’m ever playing music; my worst day playing music still beats the tar out of my best day cleaning toilets.
Russ: I’m trying to recall the best day I had cleaning a toilet. There was a lot made, before the record was released, talking about producers and Erik Rutan, who’d been Morbid Angel. Some people saw that as an odd connection, but you’re a closely associated metal dude.
John: Yeah, I listen to a lot of metal. People think that musicians have more constricted listening habits then they do. When I wrote to Erik, the first thing he did was look us up and said, “Oh, you’re on 4AD. I love Dead Can Dance.” Right? So he’s a big fan of that kind of stuff. Now we don’t sound like Dead Can Dance much, but Erik listens to a lot of different kinds of music. I think genre tags are mainly there to make sections in record stores of which there are so few left.
Russ: And to make people comfortable.
John: I think genre is kind of a false construct. Music is a continuum, not a series of boxes in a cabinet.
Russ: So you’re working with Erik and he comes to you from a whole new standpoint.
John: And it’s a whole different way of working because when you’re making death metal, you record four bars at a time. You don’t sit down and play live. We play live. So it was a very different habit for him. We brought Brandon down to build a bridge because Brandon’s been working with us forever and it worked out just beautifully.
Russ: There’s a misconception that people who do death metal aren’t really musicians.
John: Oh my god, these are some of the best musicians on the planet aside from jazz musicians. Seriously. Those guys can play. The worst death metal guitarist is still three times the guitarist I am.
Russ: “Birth of Serpents” was the song you did on Letterman. How was that experience?
John: It was amazing! He had Hank Aaron on. Seven hundred and fifty-five home runs! Hank Aaron!
Russ: And you got to shake his hand.
John: Yes! It’s insanity! Freaking out! Hank Aaron. A hero and a very present and great guy. He has a real spiritual power to him.
Russ: I saw that there was some 70s occult and horror film influence in this record?
John: It stems from being frightened by commercials for movies I didn’t see when I was a kid.
Russ: Just because they were spooky trailers.
John: Oh my god, “It’s Alive.” Did you ever see that one?
Russ: They did like three sequels. I don’t recall the trailer, I did see the film.
John: (assuming an announcer’s voice) “This fall, the Johnsons are having a baby. They’re very excited. And all of their friends are looking forward to the birth. There’s only one thing wrong with the Johnson’s baby. It’s alive!” (everyone laughs). I mean that stuff got inside my spine when I was a kids. You’d see this commercial and it had very little to do with the movie, but your own fears of stuff. This was the power of a lot of these 70s movies, like “Burnt Offerings.” There’s less going on. There’s long, slow segments of dread and of the fear of the unknown. That’s what the 70s stuff is all about. Like “Rosemary’s Baby.” You know there’s one satanic orgy segment but outside of that there’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s going on. Is she just crazy? And then finally, when she sees her infant ….
She gives birth, it’s a hard birth, they take the infant away and when she comes around she asks to see the baby and they bring the baby in and she looks at it and looks up and says, “What have you done to his eyes?” And Ruth Gordon says, “He has his father’s eyes. Hail Satan!” And it’s like one of the scariest moments of all time and you’ve waded through two hours of a fair amount of boredom for it. That’s kind of what 70s horror and occult stuff was about was this questioning of whether the world you were looking at actually has some dreadful thing behind it that you’re never actually going to see.
Russ: I’m impressed you could recount the whole trailer for “It’s Alive.”
John: Among horror fans it’s a classic trailer. Go to YouTube and look it up. It’s so awesome.
Russ: So how does that affect the record?
John: It just affects my writing. The things that I’m thinking about and dwelling on. This is why the term “concept album” always gets derided is because if you can feel which song is there just to draw a line in a plot, it’s boring. All I do is write what’s in my mind and look at what’s going on once I’ve already done this spastic, mantic kind of gesture and then I just take not of it. When I’m sending them out to Peter and John, I sort of weed through them and pick out the ones that seem to go together.