[MUSIC: Interview] The Mountain Goats
The Mountain Goats
Between The Devil And The Deep
By Caitlin Welsh
Sydney has fared well on the exclusive-shows front recently – see this year’s Vivid LIVE lineup for more than a few examples – but here’s one more to make steam pour out your ears: in March, in New York and London in turn, boss Mountain Goat John Darnielle performed with backing from acapella vocal quartet Anonymous 4 (think ethereal polyphony, not barbershop), arranged by Owen Pallett. (As of the time of print, a beautiful recording of the New York show is available to stream at NPR’s website.) You would think that Darnielle’s characteristically strident voice would be at odds with the crystalline harmonies of a foursome best known for interpreting medieval choral works, but it finds a strange-bedfellows sort of cohesion – Pallett’s arrangements weave eerie threads into pure, ribboning notes, the perfect backdrop for Darnielle’s new material.
Tentatively titled Transcendental Youth, the fourteenth Mountain Goats album might be out before the end of the year – Darnielle says the studio’s booked for May. He made a few blogosphere headlines when the band played a few of the new tracks live earlier this year, announcing they would be on ‘the Satan record’. “The new album has a lot of bleak stuff on it – it’s about mentally ill people trying to cope,” Darnielle says. “And the central metaphor of the record is Satan, right, so there’s a lot of Satan. But it may be more of a full-on, colourful darkness than the last record, which [had a] much more sombre tone. You have your darkness in actuality, and your darkness in fire. And I feel like this one has a lot more fire. But I say that now – we haven’t recorded yet so we’ll see what happens.”
Darnielle is speaking from his home in North Carolina; he’s watching his six-month-old son Roman, who’s apparently awake during the entire interview but seems to be the quietest baby ever. “He’s looking at me right now, and he’s really in contact with the rest of the world,” Darnielle says. “He looks around at things, and smiles at things, and holds them up in the air and so forth… There’s not much I can think of that is more fun than hanging out with the baby.” But don’t expect the Satan album to feature gushing odes to the revelatory joys of fatherhood.
“No, no, no, no! I really don’t believe in that,” Darnielle says, audibly recoiling at the mention of what is a fairly standard songwriter cliché. “My stuff is sort of digging in dark corners to try to find jewels – know what I mean? And you find songwriters who have been exploring the darker, more ambivalent side of humanity who become dads and then, suddenly, they want to tell you about how the world is wonderful. And I just think that’s a total betrayal of the muse,” he explains with a laugh. “Like, ‘Thank you for bringing me all this way, and for bringing me all this success, but now that I’m a father I’m going to go ahead and not do that thing you put me here to do.’ So yeah. And I also feel like there’s this expectation that it will suddenly be your ‘soft’ album.”
Darnielle hasn’t shifted his strum-and-holler style much during the 21-year recording history of the Mountain Goats – from the ‘militantly lo-fi’ early tapes through to the studio albums, which for a decade now have emerged almost annually. Last year’s All Eternals Deck was a particularly sombre affair (“Yeah, I finally got my Goth quota worked out on that one,” he laughs) that despite its withdrawn air, also felt slightly more ‘produced’ and textured than other records.
Some fans have speculated that the Anonymous 4/Pallett collab. was a sign that the 2012 instalment would go in a dramatically different direction sonically to all that had come before, but Darnielle assured them (via his indispensable and hilarious Twitter feed) that the project was no indication of the sound of the forthcoming record. (He reiterates this point to me: “They are arrangements specifically and only for the show”.) They’re more likely to sound like regular Goats tracks, as indicated by the live performances of ‘The Diaz Brothers’ and other songs that appeared on YouTube earlier this year. “We’ve been doing these songs in many different ways,” he explains. “We toured a bunch of them, then came back and looked at them. And one of them, that I liked a lot when I wrote it, now I’m not quite sure how I feel about it. And another one, I think I’m ready to drop the guitar entirely on the recorded version. And that’s a really cool thing about touring the songs – you get to ask hard questions about them.
”But when we talk, the late-March Anonymous 4/Pallett shows are still a few weeks off, and Darnielle – famously an aficionado of metal and Russian composers but also a longtime A4 fanboy – is slightly beside himself. “They are some of my favourite musicians of all time,” he says. “And these arrangements that Owen did are so awesome, and I’m so intimidated by working with them. Because I play rock‘n’roll, and I’m good at what I do and I’m proud of what I do, but rock‘n’roll people, as a general rule, are self-taught musicians… But classical musicians, when you tell them what key it’s in, they can start singing in that key. We have rehearsal next week, and I’m practising every day with a metronome so that I can be at my very best when I get there. I’m really intimidated but I’m so excited.”
Where: The Metro Theatre
When: Sunday May 6