The Mountain Goats: Survival Skill

Music Features The Mountain Goats
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“Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1” opens the Mountain Goats’ 14th album, Transcendental Youth, with a clear mandate: Just stay alive. It sounds like the bare minimum of motivation, but from the mind and mouth of John Darnielle, it’s a critical pep talk from the depths of personal hell:

Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive
Do every stupid thing to try to drive the dark away
Let people call you crazy for the choices that you make
Climb limits past the limits
Jump in front of trains all day
And stay alive
Just stay alive

The song—musically a triumphant, ultra-catchy stomper—also urges “play with matches if you think you need to play with matches,” but “don’t hurt anybody on your way up to the light.”

“It’s kind of my breed of motivational, which is ‘distrust everybody,’” says Darnielle. “It’s possible to survive things and retain your lust for death.”

Since he began setting poems to music on cassette tapes in a Southern California studio apartment in 1991, Darnielle’s unique ability to empower from humanity’s darkest corners has earned him countless citations as indie rock’s best songwriter, America’s best lyricist and other variations on the theme. Transcendental Youth, out Oct. 2 on Merge Records, was written amidst great joy—right before and after the birth of Darnielle’s first child, Roman—but also with thoughts of loss and mortality front and center. A post-baby record of soft tributes to fatherhood was never on the table.

“Seriously if you want to go to dark places when you have a baby, think for a moment about death,” says Darnielle. “I was never afraid anything was going to kill me. But now, you get on a plane and you go man, if this goes down you are never going to see your child again. It is very, very dark stuff that crosses your mind, in a real sense of terrible longing. There is a Shakespearian line that I always liked—‘This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong, to love that well which thou must leave ere long’—it’s like hmm, I am only going to know this kid for 40 or 50 years, that’s all I’m going to get and that will be the end. So it’s pretty permanent eternal unbanishable darkness that you become aware of.”

The death of Amy Winehouse also came at a key moment in the making of the record. “Even though I didn’t know her music that well, she was one of those people who you saw publicly fall apart,” says Darnielle. “And when you’re an ex-junkie, you say, ‘You know what you need to do? You need to do a number of things and all of them revolve around making yourself scarce from the people you’re around.’ And you can’t do anything, you just sit there and watch them die. When they’re that young, and you remember being that young, and thinking ‘Man, if I had had a lot of money when I was younger, I’d be dead.’ So my wife was pregnant, and the whole thing just broke my heart. We saw a person who truly loved music who no longer gets to do so.”

This is why all that terrible survival is worth it, however painfully difficult it might be. As a performer and public figure, Darnielle is far from shadowy; his live shows are communal and celebratory, he’s active and accessible on Twitter (@mountain_goats) and he’s as publicly enthusiastic about his own music fandom as his fans are about him. His deep love for heavy metal is well known; he recently sat in as an “expert witness” on an episode of comedian John Hodgman’s podcast, in which Hodgman presided in judgment over a death metal-related rift between a guy and his girlfriend (on the podcast, Darnielle admitted to having a tattoo inspired by Danish black-metal band Mercyful Fate, but says details will remain secret to the public until his own autopsy). At last month’s Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh, N.C. (near Darnielle’s Durham home), he played a set of heavy metal covers on piano, all of which he taught himself while looking after Roman.

“I said ‘Okay, Mr. Baby, you’re going to have to figure out a way to deal with this, because I have to do it,’ I can’t just show up and say the baby kept me too busy,” he says. “The chances that my son’s first word will be ‘Satan’ is so high.”

When the Transcendental Youth tour wraps at the end of the year, Darnielle will have a long stretch at home to refine his work/child-rearing balance—he’s writing his second novel, which he says now has a publisher. The first was 2008’s Master of Reality, Darnielle’s take on the Black Sabbath album for the 33 1/3 series of books about iconic pop recordings—unlike the scholarly or journalistic volumes that comprise most of the series, Darnielle wrote a fictional account of the album through the ears of a teen psychiatric patient, based in part on Darnielle’s own past experiences as a psychiatric nurse. Darnielle won’t say much about this second book, except that he’s been working on it for a long time. “I’m always reluctant to bring it up, because I can’t talk about the subject matter of what I’m writing when I’m writing it,” he says. “It’s like when people want us to give them a preview of the album as we’re working on the thing and I am always like, ‘Nope, no can do.’ People get expectations.”

Darnielle’s songs have always been as literary as they are musical, so the difference in storytelling is really a matter of scale. “A song is a poem which is a little compressed universe, and it’s up to the reader to enter and see how it’s vast in a small space,” he says. “So I’m used to trying to make sentences that have everything in them. A novel is so different because if you try to fill it up with those types of sentences, you get to spend 30 years writing it. I’m really addicted to being understood, but at the same time I want this novel to have a certain density so it’s a challenge.”

While the Mountain Goats is basically synonymous with John Darnielle and his superhumanly prolific output (14 albums in 20 years doesn’t include dozens of other demos, cassettes, EPs, singles and collaborations), the band has had a long roster of members and collaborators. For the latest four albums beginning with 2008’s Heretic Pride, the core band has been Darnielle along with bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster; Hughes’ tenure with the Mountain Goats goes back four more albums to 2002’s Tallahassee, and as a performer to 1996, when after years of traveling in the same Inland Empire musician circles, Darnielle invited him on a couple of European tours.

“The first [tour] was really great, the second was disastrous,” says Hughes. “It was bad in every way that a tour could be bad. Poorly planned, poorly promoted, shows falling through—the word ‘clusterfuck’ is really the only way you could characterize it. But even though it was a total trial, we got really good at playing as a duo—afterwards we both had this sense like, ‘Well, it kind of sucks that we did this and no one who would actually care got to see it.’”

Darnielle had moved to Iowa at that point, and Hughes eventually moved to Rochester, N.Y., where he currently lives. After about five years of a “lingering sense” that they should keep something going, Hughes says Darnielle called him up out of the blue about recording. Hughes started looking for cheap local studio space, but before they settled on anything, 4AD offered the Mountain Goats a record deal, which led to Tallahassee.

“I went back recently and listened to that album and was actually really surprised by how, for as tentative as it was at the time, it’s like ‘Oh, this is actually pretty good,’” says Hughes. “But it was a learning process, learning how to work together and trust the studio, because John had always been kind of puritanical about the way he made records. So this was opening things up in a big way—using a much broader palate—which is something that I had always wanted to hear as a fan.”

Hughes says his own fandom is one of the reasons they’ve worked so well together for so long. “I don’t have John’s maniacal work ethic, for better or for worse,” says Hughes. “I don’t think I’m haunted by the same demons. Mountain Goats by definition is John, and one of the reasons I think I’ve kind of become sidekick guy is just that I understood that from the get go. I’m just a huge fan of his writing, and I think I have a sympathetic ear and I get excited when I hear new songs and I start just imagining what I can bring to them.”

In contrast with Hughes, who outside of the Mountain Goats is a stay-at-home dad (with a baby born just after Darnielle’s), car enthusiast and occasional solo artist, Jon Wurster is one of the busiest drummers in show business. Based in Durham with Darnielle, Wurster is also the longtime drummer for Merge Records founding band Superchunk, as well as for the solo band of veteran rocker Bob Mould (Hüsker Dü, Sugar), who released an album on Merge last month and finished a tour just in time for the Mountain Goats to hit the road this week. Wurster is also one half of a comedy duo with comedian and director Tom Scharpling, cohosting the popular Best Show on independent Jersey City radio station WFMU, and was recently named one of the 25 funniest people on Twitter by Rolling Stone, after coming in at #30 on Paste’s Best Twitter Accounts of 2011.

“Jon Wurster’s date book is hard to get into, you know,” says Merge co-founder and Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan. “If Superchunk wants to do anything it’s definitely about trying to get his calendar to see where he has a week or two free.”

“I’ve got no personal life, so that helps,” says Wurster, who spoke to Paste on the phone from the steps of a Manhattan church the day after performing on Letterman with Mould. Yet even with this schedule, Wurster is the most permanent drummer so far for the Mountain Goats, who would traditionally just commandeer drummers from their opening bands before going on stage.

“Peter and John were fans of the comedy CDs that Tom and I’d do,” says Wurster. “Apparently at one point while touring they were listening to the CDs and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be hilarious if he were our drummer?’” In 2006, Darnielle emailed Wurster about sitting in for a few songs at an upcoming 10th anniversary concert in New York for The Daily Show, where both Superchunk and the Mountain Goats would be playing. This led to subsequent tours and now four albums together.

“It’s great because it makes me think with a totally different side of my brain than I would with Superchunk or Bob Mould, because there’s a lot more space in Mountain Goats songs,” says Wurster. “That’s really fun because it’s taught me a lot about what I can and can’t do. Bob Mould will give me a demo that has a drum machine on it, like ‘Here’s the idea, you can add your thing but this is kinda what I’m looking for.’ With John it’s a little more, ‘Here’s what I’m doing on the guitar, the piano and singing,’ and I’ll have to come up with something that complements that but also stays out of the way.”

And that process is always evolving. “For a guy who’s highly prolific, [Darnielle] still manages to pull out surprises each time,” says McCaughan, who signed the Mountain Goats to Merge for 2011’s All Eternals Deck after years of working down the road from Darnielle in Durham and following his career. Transcendental Youth stands out from previous Mountain Goats albums in a number of ways, including being the first to incorporate a full horn section with arrangements by Matthew E. White, who will also open for the band on many tour dates. The band also made the rare (for them) decision to perform some of the songs live before recording.

“John’s stance has traditionally been the romantic notion that when a person hears an album for the first time, they’re hearing it for the first time, and that’s super exciting for me too,” says Hughes. “I totally appreciate that. With some albums we really didn’t have any idea what direction the songs would take until we got into the studio and learned to trust that process, and that leads to some really cool things. But when you then take the songs into a live environment and start performing them night after night, they go to all these other cool places, and I’ve always wished we could capture that before we record instead of after.” Hughes says he made the pitch to Darnielle, who agreed to play some of the new songs during a short tour last February and sent around demos.

“That really helped, really made it apparent, ‘Alright this song could really benefit from horns,’ etc.,” says Wurster. “On the previous records, we knew the songs, but we hadn’t really played them much; we were kind of finding our way as we were recording. But this one, we knew what we were doing and I think, I’m just speaking for myself, but it gave me a real confidence. And Peter shines on this record. I think his stuff is especially great.”

Transcendental Youth does take a step up from All Eternals Deck in aggressive energy, undoubtedly due in part to the expanded instrumentation and early live runs. But as with all Mountain Goats albums, the core character comes back to the songwriting.

“I always think of an album as having an anchor; one song that isn’t the hit, but that the other songs are drawn towards,” says Darnielle. “Like ‘Autopsy Garland’ [on All Eternals Deck]—not anyone’s favorite song on the album, but it was mine, and all the energy from the other songs sort of went toward that. With the new album, ‘Lakeside View Apartments Suite,’ which is a midtempo song with a real groove, has this presence to it that people have observed about me, which is not an intentional thing, but that I tend to have darker things in uptempo songs. And I think there’s more aggression and anger in this record that wasn’t in All Eternals Deck.” That song, which tells a story of reclusiveness and drug abuse against a lilting piano and percolating bassline, brings back the theme of self-reliance against internal and external demons: “Under each eye little greasepaint smudge / You can’t judge us—you’re not the judge.”

“I follow the story of the lyrics as much as anyone,” says Wurster, who even as the drummer believes his primary purpose is to serve the story. “That was the first thing that really knocked me out about playing with them, just watching these kids, or all ages really, hanging on every word.”

“John can incorporate a lot of information into a song, some of it incredibly obscure or arcane,” says McCaughan. “But there’s almost always a point where there’s some super personal detail, not necessarily a detail from John’s life, but one that all of a sudden brings everything back to this real human, daily life kind of level that anyone can latch onto.”

This, along with Darnielle’s relentless work ethic and output, is undoubtedly why the Mountain Goats have endured and will likely continue indefinitely as a beloved musical institution without necessarily achieving a household rock-star name. Only four of the Mountain Goats’ 14 albums have charted on the Billboard 200—but the peak was last year’s All Eternals Deck at No. 72, and with the support of Merge and the members’ increasing visibility, there’s no reason to believe Transcendental Youth won’t do at least as well, not to mention rise to every accolade critics perennially expect to give any Mountain Goats record.

“I do a lot less [self-promotion] than most people, which always in the short-term probably means I make less of a big splash at the outset,” says Darnielle. “But I have had a lot of faith in the concept of slower growth.” The Mountain Goats have only ever done one tour as an opener, for Bright Eyes last year, despite advice that it would help the band get “bigger.”

“It always sounds like you’re trying to make yourself look good if you say you don’t think about getting bigger—it’s lovely when more people like your music, it’s lovely when more people show up, it’s lovely when you divide up the paycheck at the end of the night there’s a little bit more for everyone,” says Darnielle. “But I really have naive kid-in-the-’70s ideas about how you ought to conduct your business on that front, and I can’t sit around thinking about whether more people are going to like something.” In other words, trust your instincts, and just stay alive.