John called me about playing with the Mountain Goats in 2001.
Not for the first time, mind you. I’d signed on for a couple European tours in 1996, playing bass; the first had gone swimmingly and led to a second, which didn’t. Still, a foundation had been laid: John and I, already close friends, had developed over the course of those tours a musical chemistry strong enough that, even five years later, we were still bummed that the only people who got to see it were a handful of indifferent Bavarian villagers. “Do you want to do some recording?” John asked. Yeah, I said. We should totally do some recording.
It turned out to be a fateful conversation. Not more than a week or two later, the venerable London indie 4AD got in touch, and we found ourselves suddenly charged with making an album. In a studio. With a producer.
We spent an intense week at Dave Fridmann’s Tarbox Road, with Glasgow’s Tony Doogan at the board. There was some give and take. I loved the Mountain Goats, but I’d heard ten years’ worth of boombox Mountain Goats albums and wanted to swing for the fences. John was game while insisting that certain defining orthodoxies be preserved. We met in the middle and were both pretty ecstatic with the result: we felt like we’d gone out on a limb, but in a way that stayed true to the spirit of the project. And then Tallahassee came out and we got to read a bunch of articles about our new lo-fi album.
Indefatigable in our efforts to escape the legacy of the Mountain Goats’ home-recorded past, over the course of the eight albums that followed we would exploit the production and engineering skills of meticulous sonic architects like John Vanderslice and Scott Solter, become even more of a band with the addition of Superchunk’s Jon Wurster on drums in 2007, and flesh out our songs with string and horn arrangements bordering on the Bacharachian.
With Matt Douglas fully on board as woodwinds-and-kitchen-sink guy, we’re now a four-piece, and to record this album, our fourth for Merge and the one to which you’re presumably about to listen, we went to Blackbird Studio in Nashville, as top-shelf a facility as any on the planet. They have the board Aja was recorded on. When Jon asked about snares, he was told, “We have 200 of them.” We had sixteen people from the Nashville Symphony Chorus skip out on a Mahler rehearsal to come in and sing on a song. Sixteen!
The theme this time around is goth, a subject closer to my heart perhaps than that of any Mountain Goats album previous. And while John writes the songs, as he always has, it feels more than ever like he’s speaking for all of us in the band, erstwhile goths (raises hand) or otherwise, for these are songs that approach an identity most often associated with youth from a perspective that is inescapably adult. Anyone old enough to have had the experience of finding oneself at sea in a cultural landscape that’s suddenly indecipherable will empathize with Pat Travers showing up to a Bauhaus show looking to jam, for example.
But underneath the outward humor, there is evident throughout a real tenderness toward, and solidarity with, our former fellow travelers—the friends whose bands never made it out of Fender’s Ballroom, the Gene Loves Jezebels of the world—the ones whose gothic paths were overtaken by the realities of life, or of its opposite. It’s something we talk about a lot, how fortunate and grateful we are to share this work, a career that’s become something more rewarding and fulfilling than I think any of us could have imagined. We all know how easily it could’ve gone the other way, and indeed for a long time did.
Maybe that’s why John entrusted me with writing the coda to his song about a guy fed up with his major label bosses and contemplating packing it in. You know, the one I sang at the fancy recording studio, into a microphone worth more than I made in a year for most of my life.
Okay, I’m wasting my time, I know. And it’s fine—as far as inevitable fates go, I can think of far worse. Please, enjoy Goths, the new album by those preeminent legends of lo-fi, the Mountain Goats!