The Mountain Goats
There are some things that people simply love to talk about. The allegiance they’ve always portrayed to a sports team, especially when they’re in the middle of a losing streak. A restaurant which they “found” and that you simply must try. And finally, their children, especially when these children are new additions to the world. So when Peter Hughes, bassist of long renowned acoustic troubadours The Mountain Goats begins our interview by talking about his six-month-old daughter, there was really no stopping him.
“I’m doing what I basically do every day,” he says, reached on the phone from his home, kicking the small talk into high gear, “which is take care of my new six-month-old baby. It’s a lot of work, but just in the last month have things gotten a lot easier. I’ve got a little girl and she can do a lot of stuff now that she couldn’t before, which means it’s a lot less demanding now. She can actually hold a bottle now; which doesn’t sound like a very big deal, but I can hand the bottle to her and go do dishes,” he laughs. “Or she can take a nap now. But it’s really fun. When I’m not travelling and touring, I’m at home being a full-time dad.”
Eventually the conversation turns to Hughes’ other full-time job, and the one that would probably win him more friends at parties. Hughes joined The Mountain Goats for the recording of 2002’s landmark Tallahassee. It was a pivotal turn of events not only for Hughes, but for The Mountain Goats as a whole. Tallahassee marked a swift stylistic departure from intrepidly lo-fi recordings to more polished, comprehensive records.
Hughes has never claimed responsibility for this change of pace. Yet when asked if he’s happy with the work he’s done with the band ten years in, he leaves little room for interpretation.
“I’m super happy with it,” he says. “Part of me always wanted to hear his early songs using a broader palate, sonically. When we made that first record together, in an actual studio, it was what was so exciting for me: having the opportunity to hear John’s songs on a larger stage. I thought it was really successful.
“At first, it was tense in the studio,” he continues. “John was used to doing things in a fairly stripped down, puritanical way. And the studio introduces a lot of other opportunities to do other things, but it also introduces a lot of artifice. It’s really important, for what The Mountain Goats is, for there to remain a realness.”
Their most recent full-length, 2011’s All Eternals Deck, offers no measured departure from The Mountain Goats’ classic brand of rousing and literate folk, all with a palpable flow. Hughes insists however that an overarching theme need not be present from the outset of the recording process.
“It depends from record to record. Some records are quite obviously concept albums, some are simply collections of songs. There are always themes that emerge naturally. Sometimes you don’t even get an idea of the big picture until you start recording. With All Eternals Deck, it’s funny that you should mention that it has great flow to it. Because when we began recording it, we went in with the same mindset we had on the previous record; namely we tried to deliberately work different than we had on the previous five records. We were going into the studio and recording everything all at once which was a very immersive situation. With the last two records, we said, ‘Oh, well let’s go to this place for a weekend, and we’ll record three or four songs.’ And it turned out into a series of short sessions over a period of months. I suppose we’re lucky though, because regardless of which studio we recorded in, it’d always end up sounding like…the band.
“John’s voice and his songs have such a strong identity,” he says. “His voice is so instinctive that sometimes it doesn’t matter what else is going on.”
Though Hughes is remarkably modest about his role in The Mountain Goats, there’s a shift and tone in confidence when asked about The Mountain Goats’ upcoming and 14th full-length, the tentatively-titled Transcendental Youth.
“Well, I think it’s going to be really good. We’re really excited about it, and they’re a great group of songs. We’ve actually been playing some of the songs out a little, which we never tend to do. We want to see what they’re made of. We’ve also taken to playing the songs live. You learn something about the songs when you play them live that you don’t necessarily notice when you’re rehearsing or recording.”
For Transcendental Youth, The Mountain Goats are allowing the songs to grow by testing them out live before the recording process. It’s an experiment that speaks not only to the band’s dedication to keeping the process fresh, but also to their commitment to keeping the band’s momentum moving forward.
“There’s always a sequence of the song being written, the song gets emailed around, we exchange ideas, we get together, we rehearse and we go into the studio and the song takes shape there,” says Hughes.
“Subsequently, we go out on tour and the song could end up in a totally different place. With these songs, it’s cool to allow them to opportunity to gestate and become something before they’re recorded.”
BY JOSHUA KLOKE
THE MOUNTAIN GOATS treat Melbourne to two separate shows: first, an intimate evening at The Toff In Town on Wednesday May 9 before night two at The Corner on Thursday May 10.