By Philip Runco
Over the course of two dozen years, John Darnielle’s the Mountain Goats has existed in essentially two iterations: the home-recorded (mostly) solo endeavor and the polished full-fledged band.
The finer details of the albums produced during each of these eras may vary – the bespectacled frontman has never been one to shy away from collaboration, regardless of the audio fidelity – but a clear divide splits the recordings produced on either side one LP: 2002’s Tallahassee. Released just nine months after boombox masterpiece All Hail West Texas, the Mountain Goats’ 4AD debut marked the first time that Darinelle recorded with a real budget in a proper studio. And he hasn’t looked back since. As the narrator sings on Tallahassee‘s opening track: “There is no plan we can fall back on.”
Of course, this is all ancient history. The majority of the Mountain Goats fans that will fill venues throughout its current U.S. tour likely discovered the once-cult artist long after he had made that jump. At this point, Darnielle’s Panasonic boombox is the stuff of Mountain Goats lore. But it’s worth mentioning, nonetheless, because on the eve of the release of its fifteenth LP, Beat the Champ, the long-running project has now created music longer as a band than it did as a scrappy, DIY outlet.
“Isn’t that weird?” the Mountain Goats’ Peter Hughes remarks. “It’s weird to me.”
Hughes identifies himself as a Darnielle “fanboy,” but he has a lengthy personal history with the singer-songwriter: The two became friends in the mid ’90s, and the bassist would subsequently lend a hand with the Mountain Goats on occasion – filling in as a live partner, contributing to 1997’s Full Force Galesburg. The turning point for his involvement with the project came as part of its larger transformation: He officially joined the band with Tallahassee. (Five years later, the two would recruit a third permanent member, drummer Jon Wurster.)
When we speak, Hughes is at home in Greenville, South Carolina, where he relocated last summer after fifteen years living in Rochester, New York. “I had never even heard of this place before we moved here,” the father of one says. “But it’s blowing up like crazy. It feels like Austin or Portland circa the mid-90s; just before they crossed over onto everybody’s radars.”
The southern migration was sparked largely by his wife’s acceptance into a educational certification program in the Palmetto State. The demands of her schedule, coupled with the Mountain Goats’ brief hiatus – something “entirely attributable” to the release and subsequent promotion of Darnielle’s first novel – have left Hughes leading a “very domestic” life. “I’m basically stay-at-home dad,” he says. “I do a lot of hanging out with a three-year-old and shopping and cooking.”
With the release of Beat the Champ, a record centered on the sports-entertainment spectacle that is professional wrestling, Hughes is looking forward to hitting the road.
“That part of my life is awesome – I wouldn’t trade it for anything – but, man, after not being on tour for almost a year, I’m so ready to go on tour.”
What was your reaction when John said that this record was going to revolve around wrestling?
He’s always writing. He’s always working on songs. At some point, he was like, “So, I’ve written a couple of songs about these wrestlers, and I think that I just might write some more. That’s going to be the next record: Wrestling.” And my reaction to that – like when he started writing songs for The Life of the World to Come around bible verses – was: “Hmmm. OK.” [Laughs]
At the same time, I’ve learned over the course of twenty-plus years of being friends with John and listening to his music to think, “No, just trust John. He knows what he’s doing.” And, sure enough, when he started sending me these songs about wrestling, I listened to them and it was like, “Oh my god, these songs are so good.”
In the announcement for the album, John said, “Trust the Mountain Goats.” That’s kind of what I’ve learned to do, too. John knows better than I do about what works and what’s in his head.
John has talked about his history with wrestling, and he appears to have a breadth of knowledge on the subject. What was your perspective on the sport going into this?
I never went through a phase where I was into wrestling. I was cognizant of it. I knew that it existed. But I just kind of missed the boat. It never captured my imagination. That’s part of the reason why when John told me that he was writing songs about wrestling I thought, “Hmmm.” If I had been more into it, I probably would have been on board from the first second.
Now I’ve had this seminar in that world, though. We just made a video this past weekend, and in preparation, John sent us these YouTube clips of wrestling promos going back to the ’70s and ’80s. They’re these iconic things. There’s so much theater to it. That’s the thing that I’ve come to understand and really appreciate about it: It’s this great intersection of sports and theater. It doesn’t matter whether it’s real or scripted; that’s so besides the point. It’s just fantastic. It’s about these outsized personalities, and the characters that they’re portraying, and the relationship of those storylines to the actual people, and their individual biographies and backgrounds and stories.
It’s endlessly fascinating. I totally get it now. I can see how you could go down that rabbit hole and want to live in that world.
Wrestling has always had a massive following, but it seems as if there’s been a resurgence in its appreciation and coverage across more “highbrow” pop cultural publications recently.
There was some discussion within the band, like, “Man, are people even going to be interested in this? Are people going to be like, ‘Wrestling? Whatever.’”
But when the Chavo Guerrero song went up a couple months ago, there was an instant response from all of these people on wresting message boards. A few of them were already big Mountain Goats fans, but most of them were just fans of wrestling, and they were like, “Whoa! These guys are great! This song is awesome!” It was crazy.
This record is opening up this whole audience that we didn’t even know existed. It was like, “Who knew that there were all of these Mountain Goats fans lurking in this community?” Apparently, the ven diagram is working in our favor.
Do you give John feedback on his lyrics? Would you ever say, “I don’t know, man – another vampire metaphor?”
John has gotten very good at editing himself. Back in the day, he was writing so many songs, and not everything was going out of the park. That’s just being a young writer. That’s how you get good: It’s by working and working and working.
These days, he’s really conscious that if something is not a good idea, he’ll just cast it aside. Maybe he’ll come back to something if he figures out a new way to approach it.
I can think of one or two instances where I’ve made a suggestion about a given line or two, but it’s always something just totally small – like, “You used this word a few lines earlier.” And he’ll be like, “Oh yeah, I didn’t even realize that. I’ll swap that out.” It’s tiny stuff. I would never take credit for anything. He doesn’t need my editorial input. [Laughs]
How did Beat the Champ come together as a record?
We made it pretty much the same way that we did Transcendental Youth. There’s a little studio in Durham, Overdub Lane, which is where they recorded the last few Superchunk albums. And like the last one, we did it with Brandon Eggleston, who has been our tour manager / front-of-house sound guy for the last eight years, and is also a really accomplished engineer and producer. He’s like family now, so it’s the most natural, totally obvious way to do it.
With Transcendental Youth, we basically booked a week at Overdub Lane and just did it. We’re all really comfortable working together, and we both have families now, so we’re into getting it done, and then getting back to our normal lives.
We did it the same way with Beat the Champ. We made it in a week with Brandon. There were a handful of other players who we brought in. One of them was Matt Douglas, who plays a lot of woodwinds on the record – the baritone sax, flutes, clarinets. He’s actually coming out on tour with us as a fourth member; we’ll have him doing that stuff, and playing guitars and keys, and just kind of filling things out. There were a few others, like Eric Friedlander, who’s an amazing New York cellist that we’ve worked with over the years.
There’s actually one uncredited appearance: Mac [McCaughan] from Superchunk sings the backing vocals on “Werewolf Gimmick” with me. “Those bodies,” that stuff – that’s me and Mac. But we forgot to credit Mac on the record. [Laughs]
It’s cool. He’s not the boss or anything.
Exactly! He’s, like, the boss man! And we left him off! It was like, “Oh my god.”
But, basically, the record is kind of homemade. We had our longtime friend and collaborator, Scott Salter – who’s also in Durham – mix it, as with the last record. We’ve hit this stride where we’ve found a way of working that’s pretty comfortable and easy, but not so comfortable that you get complacent or bored. Hopefully, the results speak for themselves. [Laughs]
Despite a similar aesthetic, Beat the Champ does come off a little more ambitious than Transcendental Youth. The songs feel more individually defined.
We’re getting that a lot of that – people are saying that the record is way more varied. And the thing is that for us, we kind of go, “Oh, yeah, I guess that it is.” But it wasn’t like we had a pre-album meeting and we sat down and said, “OK, guys, with this one, we’re going to make everything more ambitious.” It’s funny – as a listener, you always sort of read a narrative into what you’re hearing.
We’ve always approached records song by song. And a song is always driven by the lyrics. The lyrics are front and center. We’re just looking for ways to frame them in the most effective way. You hear the songs, and most of them – not all of them – will dictate the approach that we’re going to take to it. You go from there and start working on parts and arrangements.
But I also think that having reached a certain level of comfort in the studio, we all trust each other. We’re long past the point where you’re staking out your territory and it’s like, “No! This has to sound this way! I’ve written this part, and it’s really important that it stays like this!” Everybody just kind of checks their egos. It’s like, “Cool. Whatever works. That’s an awesome idea – let’s do that.”
That flexibility opens things up and encourages a little more looseness and experimentation, and that’s how you end up with things that are a little bit more out there.
Were there times in the past where you’ve butted heads?
A little bit. When John and I made Tallahassee, we had been friends for ages and we had done a few things together, but it was the first time that we really were in a studio together. It was just the two of us, and we were making a proper album. We were recording it for 4AD, and we had a real budget, which we had never had before, and it was like, “Who knows if we’ll get to do this again?”
I was very much like, “We gotta swing for the fences, man.” I loved all of John’s stuff prior to that. I’m the world’s biggest Mountain Goats fanboy, and I love the intimacy and the intensity of the home-recorded stuff – it’s huge – but I also felt like he had done so much of that prior to Tallahassee, and it was like, “We have this opportunity. Let’s really open it up and do something different and make something that’s slick and maybe a little more accessible. Who knows – maybe more people would actually like this.”
That record was really interesting to make, because I was trying to pull us in one direction, and even though John isn’t conservative, he’s always had a really firm idea of what the Mountain Goats is and isn’t as a project. That vision is why there’s been such consistency and quality over the years.
So, there was negotiation – I’ll put it that way. There a push-pull. He wanted it to remain true to what the Mountain Goats is, while at the same time, opening it up to new colors and ideas and textures musically. Looking back on it, that record is actually pretty successful in finding that sweet spot.
Everything since then has been about finding that path, and continuing to open it up, and getting to a place where we can really be comfortable building and growing while still remaining true to the aesthetic.
As a fanboy, what’s your response to the type of fan who clings to the boombox recordings as the peak actualization of the Mountain Goats?
I empathize with those people, because I understand what they really love about that stuff. I totally love that too – just the immediacy of it.
But I also wonder: Can you make records like that for twenty-plus years? [Laughs] At some point, don’t you get bored? If John had continued to make a boombox-recorded version of each record alongside the full studio album, which one would you spend more time with? For me, I wouldn’t listen to the boombox one. That’s not a slag on any approach or taste or whatever; it’s just my personal taste.
I love both approaches, though. And apart from how these albums were recorded, John’s writing has gotten so much more sophisticated. It operates on so many levels now. I don’t see how you can look at one of our last few records and then compare it to Sweden and say, “Well, Sweden is better than this.” [Laughs]
They’re different. It’s a little bit of apples and oranges. Those people who naysay the new just because of how it’s recorded or sounds might be missing out on something.