People who passionate about an interest, hobby, job, or anything, really, will often wax nostalgic about the time they discovered a new thing to obsess over. Pizza lovers, for example, can tell you exactly where they discovered their favorite slice or why it is better than anything else they had ever tasted. Music fans are no different.
I first heard The Mountain Goats while watching the Showtime comedy series Weeds. “Cotton,” a transcendent song off of the 2004 record We Shall All Be Healed, was featured prominently in a particularly tense episode in the first season of the series. I was immediately a fan, so much so that I hit rewind a few times just so I could hear the song more before heading to Zia the next day to pick up the CD. I was a bit late to the party, as I quickly found out, and began exploring the massive discography of The Mountain Goats, which features some of the most inventive lyrical arrangements I have ever heard.
Founded in 1991 in Claremont, California, by singer/songwriter (and now author) John Darnielle, the Mountain Goats have been a solo act, duo, trio, quartet – you get the picture. Regardless of who Darnielle has accompanying him, his distinctive voice and songwriting style is ever-present, and if you like it, you won’t be able to get enough. When you listen to one of their songs, you can almost see, feel, touch, taste, and smell the world their storytelling creates.
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Truly prolific, as in the Mountain Goats have over 50 LPs, EPs, singles, compilations, collaborations, etc., Darnielle, who turned 51 this year, is one of the world’s best lyricists, and it's always fun to try and predict which subject matter he'll take on next. As an audience, will we get autobiographical stories from Darnielle’s past as a recovering addict-turned-nurse at a California mental hospital or, as with 2017’s Goths record, will we hear a mixture of songs that pay homage to the dark wave of music that swept through the '80s? Still autobiographical in a sense, as Darnielle grew up listening to morose bands like The Cure, The Smiths, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, Goths is also notable as the first Mountain Goats record recorded without a six-string guitar.
For the current tour, which will hit Phoenix on Tuesday, September 11, the Goths lineup of Darnielle (vocals, guitar, keyboard), Jon Wurster (drums), Peter Hughes (bass, vocals), and Matt Douglas (saxophone, woodwinds, keyboards, vocals) will play together as a quartet as they have since 2015. Wurster, who you may know from the indie rock band Superchunk, provides not only a solid drum presence but also a fair amount of clever repartee during the set as the occasional object of Darnielle’s on stage banter. While you won’t get any mind-blowing onstage choreography during the set, you will get a good cross section of the band’s discography and solid, if not excellent, musicianship.
With such a diverse and lyrically challenging discography, it is interesting how Darnielle goes about choosing a set for each night’s audience.
“I want to get a good list of songs together that includes stuff that I know we can play because we don’t really live near one another, so with limited rehearsal, you want to be good," says Darnielle over the phone from his home in North Carolina. "I choose about 10 songs we can play anytime and be good, and then you want to always be stretching and enriching the set, because you want to keep yourself interested and because people come to see us every year. Then, I pick one or two that have never been played live and add them.”
Darnielle typically puts together a set list about two hours before the first show of the tour. The band tries it out, then makes adjustments each night, so it is never exactly the same. With all of the variety and song textures to choose from, it has to be an adventure for the band and the fans in figuring out what kind of show they are going to get each night.
“I’m a huge Grateful Dead fan, and they could really vary their set from night to night, but they were also living in the same house and playing all the time and taking drugs together, and the reality where we are at is not that. For the Dead, it was not a romantic thing. It was practical. We don't have that luxury, but we do try to vary (the set) as much as possible.”
While comparisons to the Grateful Dead are probably finished at how each band looks at set lists, it is important to note that many of Darnielle’s early songs were greatly influenced by the time he spent in the Dead's home region of Northern California. It was there that he went to high school and there he returned to after a brief time in Portland, Oregon. Much of We Shall All Be Healed deals with the aftermath of moving back from Oregon and kicking a fairly nasty methamphetamine addiction. There is a line from the song “Letter From Belgium” that illustrates this very well:
“We're all here / Chewing our tongues off / Waiting for the fever to break / When we walk out in the sunlight / We tell everyone know it hurts our eyes / When the real reason we don’t like it / Is that it makes us wonder if we’re dying”
Having kicked the need to stay up for days on end, Darnielle seems to be torn between being on the road with his band and being at home with his family.
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“Really super hard-working musicians do 100 shows a year and I feel like that really pays dividends. When you see a band who does that, you typically see a really tight band. The other thing is with me with a lot of people responding to me personally is the fact that I love doing it. And somewhere around the 90-show mark, you can start to see that I need to be home because I'm a home body. I haven't left the house today."
Somehow, I’m guessing that we’ll get to see The Mountain Goats for years to come because Darnielle is currently working on a batch of new songs and professes love for both writing, and then sharing, his music.
“I talk to a lot of musicians who really believe that live music is where music lives … because it happens right there, and it only happens once. That’s exciting stuff. Writing is always first, for me, and mainly I write at home, and that keeps me going. Studio is private and it’s great, but at some point, you have to share and tour is where that happens. I wouldn’t want to keep touring if I didn’t have new stuff."