John Darnielle on adding horns and offering advice on the new Mountain Goats album
Published: October 10, 2012
John Darnielle founded the Mountain Goats in the early ’90s, when he would record world-weary folk songs on a boombox. After maintaining a strictly lo-fi sensibility for years, he’s added band members and expanded his sonic landscape considerably over the past decade. The band’s new album, Transcendental Youth, out this month, sounds more textured than ever—a horn section, even!—but Darnielle’s gaze remains fixed on society’s outcasts. The band plays songs from the new album at the Ottobar on Wednesday, Oct. 10, with opener Matthew E. White, who plays horns and helped arrange the new album.
City Paper: We’re really looking forward to the Ottobar show.
John Darnielle: We’re a little nervous because the last Baltimore show was really one for the ages. It was a really an amazingly fun show, with Megafaun. That was really a blast.
CP: The sound is a bit bigger on the new album, more textured, with the horns and everything. Does that present new challenges for the live show?
JD: Yeah, but it tends to come together pretty organically because we do work on these songs together, so by the time we record them, that’s how we’re playing them. The one thing that’s different about playing in the studio is that you instantly have access to a bunch of other instruments, so Peter [Hughes] can trade out and use a different bass on this or that. There’s some pretty interesting bass stuff on this one. There was a crazy Gibson bass with a really cool tone. We are bringing out Matt White with his horn section, so we will be having horns onstage.
CP: How do you explain the process of going from your super lo-fi early career to where you are now, which is so much more lush?
JD: I started recording on a boombox, but I had a bassist named Rachel [Ware] who was awesome. We liked to play together, and you can’t really record bass into a boombox—you can, but there’s really no point in it. The stuff I was recording into a boombox, to me, that sounds good—it’s lo-fi, OK, but it’s a good sound. When you add a bass to that mix, it doesn’t sound good. It’s just a mess. The tape can’t take the bass, and if you adjust the levels to make the tape take the bass, at that point, you might as well just go into a studio, because the spontaneity of being able to just punch play or punch record is going to be gone. So we went into a small studio in San Dimas, [Calif.], but it was still fairly lo-fi by regular standards. So we started in the studio fairly early and it’s been a smooth transition. The one thing is, like, in studios, songs go this way and that way, whereas when I record directly, the song is solidified very quickly instead of the long process of making a song and finding out what it sounds like in the studio.
CP: A lot of this album sounds like you’re giving advice—did you intend to do that going into the album?
JD: It’s funny, people say that when I use the indicative voice like that. I kinda don’t mean it as general advice—there’s always the question of, well, I’m standing there saying something, but that’s not necessarily me; there’s a personified aspect to that. But I do think the album is drawing somewhat on experiences of being unwell. I like to use the second person, I like to sing to some unidentified “you,” but I don’t like to sound pedantic or be telling people what they will or won’t experience, because everybody’s experience is singular.
CP: Do you feel like you have things to say that could help people?
JD: I’m really reluctant to say that, because I don’t like to dwell on being a little long in the tooth, but there’s seriously nothing worse than, when you are 20, to have somebody who’s no longer 20 telling you what your life feels like. It’s really horrible, so I try not to be that guy, I resist that with every drop of my blood. At the same time, it’s not like people don’t also intuitively understand that someone sharing what their experience has been can be helpful, but there is this tendency of people past 30 or something of being really tiresome about it. I’m really reluctant to feel like I have much to share other than stories to tell.
CP: Who are the “transcendental youth” of the song and album title?
JD: It’s hard to say. For one thing, the use of the word “transcendental” modifying youth could mean youth who are transcendental, or youth which is transcendental. There’s a number of ways you can work with it, which is kind of what I liked about the phrase. There’s an aspect to which youth is eternal. Once you’ve gone through it, you have a choice to celebrate it and make those incredibly turbulent times of youth part of who you are. Or a lot of people describe youthful experiences as dumb stuff they passed through. I don’t have any truck with those people. My youth was super-important to me and a big part of who I am. So the title has to do with the permanence of some of the lessons that you can choose to take from youth.
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