Between The Mountain Goats that created early solo boom box recordings and the collaborative band that toured its 2012 album, Transcendental Youth, with a horn section were the duo years. And it's as a duo that The Mountain Goats will perform at Crescent Ballroom on Wednesday, June 18.
Peter Hughes first joined John Darnielle's burgeoning project to record 2002's Tallahassee, marking a shift from lo-fi singer-songwriter material to a folk-rock approach. With Darnielle on guitar and vocals and Hughes on bass, The Mountain Goats toured as a duo for the next several years, steadily growing an audience enamored with the lyrics of Darnielle, a natural-born storyteller often touching on dark but relatable themes.
"That was basically what The Mountain Goats consisted of from 2002 to 2007; it was just the two of us," Hughes says.
The Mountain Goats toured the intervening years as a trio, with Superchunk's Jon Wurster on drums and often bringing along guest musicians. Darnielle and Hughes regrouped for a duo tour of the East Coast last summer and decided to stomp out West this year.
"It's a bit different. We play some new songs and some old songs. We're revisiting things. It's not exactly the way we used to play. My approach to the songs is very different," Hughes says. "But The Mountain Goats is John. It doesn't matter how many people are along for the ride."
Touring as a duo -- and especially now, in between albums -- gives The Mountain Goats the opportunity to play old obscure songs and fan favorites that have been pushed aside over the years.
"When we're touring on an album, when there's something new out, you go out with all guns blazing. We'll bring out extra musicians and make it a pretty intense show," Hughes says. "With these duo tours it's a little more informal, a little more casual, so there's room to be spontaneous if we feel like it."
Though he hasn't played in The Mountain Goats from the beginning, Hughes was around during the early days of Darnielle's home-recorded tapes, as a fan and a friend. "I know all those songs, so even if something was written 20 years ago and we've never played it, I know it's in my head, it's in the bank somewhere. If we get a wild hair to play some ancient song, we can do that pretty easily," he says. "There is always that contingent of the crowd that just wants to hear the stuff from the tapes, and it's fun to be able to pull stuff out of a hat and throw something out that those people will appreciate and not feel the obligation to play a bunch of songs from the new album. With this, it gives us a lot more flexibility and freedom to indulge those whims."
This tour -- The Mountain Goats Twin Inhuman Highway Fiends Tour 2014 -- brings back memories for Hughes of those years on the road as a duo.
"John and I had played together a little bit maybe five years earlier, but when we recorded Tallahassee, we had no idea where it was going to go," he says.
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"I'll never forget that. I remember seeing bands in the '90s that were blowing up and being on opening slots for them and being wide-eyed, and it was 'Wow, this is kind of happening to us.' It was a small way, but to us it felt like that. Maybe we were only playing 300-seat rooms, but they were packed."
Hughes remembers a night, maybe a year later, when he realized he was making more money playing music than he had been working as a graphic designer.
"That's when I realized that this was a real thing," Hughes says.