The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle on the Guitarless Goths

Why the Mountain Goats Shook Up the Formula and Headed to Nashville for Their Latest LP

Music Features The Mountain Goats
The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle on the Guitarless Goths

John Darnielle can’t pinpoint exactly when he realized that none of the songs on the Mountain Goats’ new album, Goths, included guitar, but the singer remembers how he felt. “It was a very liberating thought to me,” he says.

One reason for that is the Mountain Goats’ enduring, if long outdated, reputation as a purveyor of “driving lo-fi guitar tunes,” as Darnielle puts it, quoting from an imaginary boilerplate review of the kind that continues to follow the band. That description was accurate 15-plus years ago when he was recording entire albums at home by himself on a boom box, but a lot has changed.

Mountain Goats albums have grown almost lush since 2002’s Tallahassee, the first LP Darnielle made in a recording studio, backed by an actual band. Subsequent releases have often featured as much piano as guitar, with ornamentation from strings and horns. With 12 new songs written almost entirely on keyboards, Goths is full of lithe arrangements and luxuriant musical touches: a choir on “Rain in Soho,” woodwinds on “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement” and the late-night gleam of a Fender Rhodes electric piano on several songs, including “Shelved” (which also features bassist Peter Hughes’ first lead vocal).

With Darnielle’s distinctive voice and his wry humor, there’s no mistaking Goths for anything but a Mountain Goats album. At the same time, it’s the band’s biggest step yet away from the forceful, propulsive acoustic guitar strumming that helped define the Mountain Goats in the early years. Darnielle calls that sound his “default rhythm,” and he used to employ it frequently, on songs including “Up the Wolves,” “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” (which you can listen to in the player below), “Going to Georgia” and plenty more, until drummer Jon Wurster told him there were only so many ways to accompany it.

Writing songs on keyboards helps Darnielle keep away from musical tropes that have become too familiar on guitar. “It’s easier for me not to drop into a comfort zone on piano, in part because I’m less adept on piano,” he says. “On guitar, I could do a default rhythm right now. I could do one right now that people would like, and that’s pretty tempting. But it’s also good to always be thinking about growth, about doing things you haven’t done.”

As usual, he made demos of the songs and emailed them to the rest of the band: Hughes, Wurster and multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas, who plays woodwinds, keyboards and sings. Goths is Douglas’ debut as a full-time member of the Mountain Goats, though he also contributed to 2015’s Beat the Champ. “He’s a ringer,” Hughes says admiringly. “He’s one of those guys who can just pick up anything and play it and sound awesome.”

Says Darnielle, “When you bring in people who are better than you, it’s always a good idea.”

That same concept prompted him to seek out contributions from pros in Nashville, where the Mountain Goats recorded Goths at Blackbird Studio. Darnielle recruited 16 members of the Nashville Symphony Chorus to sing a portentous vocal part on album opener “Rain in Soho,” an appropriately goth-y track with deep bass notes on piano. To help arrange rich layers of backing vocals on “We Do It Different on the West Coast” and “Wear Black,” the group hired singer Robert Bailey, who has been part of Garth Brooks’ touring band since 1991, worked with Wynonna Judd and sang on the televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL Club show in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

“I had written an arrangement for ‘Wear Black,’ but I wanted people who could really sing it,” Darnielle says. “I consider myself a decent vocalist, but the least glamorous backing vocalist from any band is almost certainly a better singer than me or any of my peers.”

Fair enough, but did he hear any fun behind-the-scenes stories from life on the road with Brooks or Judd, or what the Bakkers were really like?

“Nah, man, this is Nashville: it’s all business,” Darnielle says. “I have long talked about how I consider what we do labor, and not in a complaining sense. I think labor is wonderful. In Nashville, they don’t have any illusions about it. You show up to work. They’re not there to hear your story about your song, or vibe with you about it; they’re there to get on the mic and do the thing you asked them to in two takes. It’s inspiring.”

Like other recent Mountain Goats albums, Goths has a theme. Songs on The Life of the World to Come in 2009 took their names from Bible verses, for example, while All Eternals Deck in 2011 was based on a fictional set of tarot cards. Beat the Champ featured songs inspired by professional wrestling, though it wouldn’t be the Mountain Goats without subtext. “There was a lot about cutting losses and living performatively, and the vehicle through which those are being understood is wrestling,” Darnielle says.

“I had written an arrangement for ‘Wear Black,’ but I wanted people who could really sing it,” Darnielle says. “I consider myself a decent vocalist, but the least glamorous backing vocalist from any band is almost certainly a better singer than me or any of my peers.”

With Goths, an album about people who identify with the subculture—pale skin, black hair and clothes, fascination with the macabre—Darnielle is still discovering the underlying meaning. “I finish writing them without really knowing what they’re about,” he says. “That’s sort of revealed in playing them, and in my band members’ reactions. Peter pointed out to me that a lot of these are about themes of maturity and looking back.”

Darnielle doesn’t recall exactly how he ended up refracting those themes through a goth lens, though he says he frequently starts with a phrase or title that makes him laugh. He also refers to the goth bands Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus and Sisters of Mercy. “I think it’s when you name-check more than one person from the same genre,” he says. “It’s like, you either throw one of these out, or that’s the theme.”

Hughes identified another theme linking Mountain Goats albums over the past decade and a half: steady development on the band’s own terms. “We’ve been really lucky in that we’ve been able to grow in every sense, both literally in terms of the band growing, gaining new members, and our audience growing over time in a way that’s been very slow and gradual and organic,” he says. “John has continued to grow as a songwriter and writer, and when I think about our catalog and the stuff that I’ve recorded with him, going back to Tallahassee, that’s a lot of records, and a lot of pretty good records. It just feels like the stuff that we’re doing now, we’re as into it as anything that we’ve ever been into. We’re still growing. Our best stuff is still ahead of us.”

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