In which one half of Sugar and Noise’s indie boy journalist duo interviews the other about his favourite band.
M: When did you first hear The Mountain Goats?
R: I was looking for something I don't even remember now on Limewire, probably bad pop-punk. I found you could see a list of files from the user you were downloading from, so on a whim I click it, and got tracks by the bands with the most interesting names. One was The Exploding Hearts, the other was The Mountain Goats. The song was No Children, it was beautiful and bitter and really, really funny, and you could sing along to it. It became one of those single tracks I listened to when I had no albums I wanted to hear. It was a good little song, but I had no idea who they were.
M: Wow. So in an alternate reality, your favourite band is The Exploding Hearts? (Whoever they are…)
R: They were a trashy, amps-up-to-11 punky pop-rock band, who you'd probably like. They released one album called Guitar Romantic, which was like The Undertones on speed. Then three of them died in a van crash.
M: Huh. Ok. No Children is probably my favourite of theirs, by the way. Now that you've been a serious fan for a while, has another song replaced it as THE Mountain Goats track for you?
R: Well, as the introduction it's always going to have a special place in my heart. I think you've heard the mp3 of the show where John's sick and plays it, barely able to whisper the chorus, and the ENTIRE CROWD sings every word for him. I can't think of anything better than being the guy who wrote that song at that moment.
M: Heck Yes.
R: But, it's the 'big single' really, so once I delved further into the vast discography I found a lot more, less often-aired stuff that was just as skull-shakingly amazing. Right now, I'm head over heels for Crows, You're In Maya and Grendel's Mother.
M: That John Darnielle sure likes his quirky titles, huh?
R: Half of them don't seem to have any particular relevance to the song, but they're great whatever the hell they mean. I think Maya is what the Hare Krishna call the earthly state of greedy materialism, and Grendel's Mother is a Beowulf reference. He did an English degree, so he's also big on the Latin.
M: Nice. Devil's Advocate: Whilst he writes mighty fine songs, the music is at best average and forgettable. Response?
R: John himself said something like 'I see the music as a way to slip the lyrics under people's doorsteps', and I totally agree. There's only so much one man with a rudimentary knowledge of the acoustic guitar can do, and the words practically obliterate it. I do prefer his faster strumming to the softer meanderings, cause they give more bite to the songs, but in general I think it's functionally irrelevant. It's just there, there has to be some backing otherwise they wouldn't be songs.
M: I on the other hand think that some of the softer moments are the best. Woke Up New, for example. Any comment on the shift in style and production over the last few albums?
R: The production thing doesn't bother me as much as some hardcore Goatists (I think they prefer Mountaineers, but let's be imaginative) - as I said in the last one, the lyrics are the key and being able to hear them clearly is a bonus. I love the lo-fi sound too, but sometimes the sense of the song is basically eaten by the tape-trash, and that's not what we want. So I'm happy for him to be in the studio - for one thing it shows he's succeeded enough to get to that stage. And Get Lonely isn't my favourite album, but it fulfils its own purpose, so I can live with that change in style. The next one should probably be back to a more varied palette.
M: Ok. Whilst I'm sure (and from experience in fact, I know) you could talk about them all day, let's wrap it up. Sell me (and the rest of the world) one Mountain Goats album in less than five sentences.
R: One album? OK, since the majority of the listening public might be slightly alienating by the ever-present whirr of a boombox, I'll pick one from the studio era: Tallahassee. I'd recommend Tallahassee to anyone who likes their songs to tell them a story, and even more so if the kind of stories they like involve copious amount of cheap alcohol. It's about John Darnielle's most prominent characters, the Alpha Couple, and the mess they're steadily making of their lives. From upbeat fucked-up love songs ('I am not gonna lose you/We are gonna stay married/In this house like a Louisana graveyard/Where nothing stays buried') to wistful, defiant elegies to something/someone that can't be saved ('I will walk down to the end with you') to rattling post-punk death-trip madness (the whole of 'See America Right') and finally that perfect, buoyantly destructive closer, 'Alpha Rats Nest', 'Tallahassee' has all you could ever want.
M: And finally, to fulfill the needs of the part of my psyche that wishes it was in a Nick Hornby book - A) Top 5 Mountain Goats Songs and B) The Mountain Goats explained in classic "[band] meets [band]" fashion.
R: Top 5? You’re killing me.
M: Do it man. Do it now. On the fly. Go.
R: I’ll just tell you the first good five I think of.
M: Oh, fine.
R: Old College Try, Grendel's Mother, Elijah, Commandante, Broom People – all up there.
M: All ones I've never heard. Which says it all really. Are you going to do a painful Pitchforky band-meets-band, or can I?
R: The Mountain Goats = Bob Dylan meets The Great American Novel [not a band] with punk spirit and added nasality
M: Craig Finn meets Bright Eyes after a weekend of drinking and reading Fitzgerald and they decide to write 5000 songs together.
R: That too.
M: Thanks Richard.
Lookee, Mountain Goats mp3s!
You're in Maya [Live]
Richard's little update: They're more like Neutral Milk Hotel than any of the bands mentioned above, though he's a big fan of Craig Finn's work. Possibly not so much of Fitzgerald's, since when I asked him about 'The Beautiful and Damned' he hadn't actually read it. But he'd read a bunch of cool shit that I hadn't, as you can see here: 3:AM Interview.
We also highly recommend this article: yeah, that one, which sums up John's writing and discusses their sound and content a lot more intelligently than I could.