Then the new album by The Mountain Goats, Transcendental Youth, came across my desk (or more accurately, my computer), I initially gave it an uninterested listen. Great. One more in an unending list of minimalist indie bands, right? But that's where I was wrong.
Something grabbed me from the very beginning and I'm not exactly sure what it was: Lead singer and songwriter John Darnielle's voice? His lyrics? An uncanny, but subtle sense of melody? Whatever it is, I was hooked immediately and wanted to know more.
Thanks to Spotify, I dug into the band's catalog a bit and found that Transcendental Youth was no fluke, although it may be a bit more immediate than earlier albums, of which there are quite a few. This is actually the band's second album for Merge Records, following six on the 4AD label, beginning with Tallahassee, which came out in 2002. So how am I just now hearing about this band? Better late than never, right?
I was eventually able to catch up via phone with bassist Peter Hughes, who gave me the lowdown on the group. Primary lyricist and songwriter John Darnielle began recording his songs at home on a boom box in 1991 under the moniker The Mountain Goats. According to Hughes, Darnielle didn't start out with big aspirations, but rather was just out to entertain himself and have an outlet for his songs.
"I met John pretty shortly after that through Dennis Callaci, who ran a tape label at the time, Shrimper, in southern California," Hughes said. "We were kind of part of the community of misfit musicians that were all doing some weird and interesting stuff."
What started out as something of a lark for Darnielle took on a life of its own with a series of cassettes and singles that built an underground following. At the heart of it all, however, was the fact that Darnielle was incredibly prolific and his songwriting stood out, taking front and center.
Looking back, "It's been a slow and steady growth. There have been a bunch of albums and a ton of 7-inch singles and compilations," Hughes said. "The entire discography is insane. There is no such thing as a Mountain Goats completionist, because there's no possible way [someone] could actually have it all."
In the beginning, however, Darnielle was recording all the instruments himself. An actual band was eventually formed in order to start playing live.
So how did Hughes become part of the project?
"It was a small community of musicians and very incestuous," Hughes said. "We cameoed on each other's records at different times and later, in '96, his bassist at the time couldn't go on a European tour, so John asked if I could go. We did one short tour of Germany that was really good, so six months later we went back to do another one, but it was a complete disaster."
Roughly five years passed without the two working together again, but they did keep in touch. Finally, according to Hughes, "John called and he asked if I'd want to do some recording together. The thing about the tours was we got really good as a duo, but no one who would appreciate it got to see it. Here we were in Germany and Europe playing really well, but no one knew who we were, so it was really a chance to do something that the people here would appreciate."
A couple weeks later, Darnielle got a call from 4AD records wanting to put out a full Mountain Goats album. Hughes officially became part of The Mountain Goats at that time and the two recorded Tallahassee in a real studio with a producer and budget, taking the project to a new level.
"That also marked a turning point," Hughes said, "because up to that point The Mountain Goats had all been home recordings or done in very small studios. It had kind of a homemade quality to it, really stripped down with not much more than guitar and vocals."
"With Tallahassee, it was the beginning of just a new thing," he continued. "That 'new thing' was being able to flesh out the songs with more full arrangements. And we recorded in a real studio, so it sounds a little slicker."
Over the course of the past ten years, the band has continued to grow gradually, eventually adding a drummer and recording eight albums, as well as touring with additional musicians from time to time as the music calls for it.
Looking back, Hughes has been grateful for the band's slow, but steady evolution. "It's funny how our music culture has developed in the U.S. over the last five to ten years," he said. "The way music journalism has shifted to the Internet and the whole blog culture, it's kind of like the old U.K. tabloid music culture. There's such a high rate of turnover because bands get hyped and then disappear if they don't live up to it. I just feel we're really lucky that we've managed over a twenty year arc to maintain a very gradual, organic, slow growth through touring and word of mouth."
"We've definitely benefited from the whole online culture, but it's been a slow and deliberate process for this band," Hughes said. "What's really awesome, though, is knowing that our audience isn't going anywhere -- it's continuing to grow, but our fans have been there for a while."
Even so, the band has seen significant growth over the past few of years, making its first television appearance on The Colbert Report in 2009 and even performing on The David Letterman Show in 2011. "It's stuff like that that makes me think we've finally become above ground enough for people to know who we are," Hughes said. "Our parents finally have a reference point to understand what we're doing now. It's kind of cool because it's like you've reached a level where your parents might actually find out about you anyway."
Of course, with that television experience, the group has been exposed to a larger audience and in turn been able to play bigger shows. Just in the past year, The Mountain Goats have played Austin City Limits, Lollapalooza and Sasquatch music festivals and continued to grow the band's touring markets. Even so, Darnielle and Hughes have continued to be very deliberate with their touring schedule, going out on the road for short tours of three weeks to a month, then returning home for three weeks before heading back out.
Even with that cautious mindset and deliberate hold they keep on the band and its growth, word continues to spread about The Mountain Goats as the band continues to make more immediate and impactful records. The current tour brings The Mountain Goats to Cain's Ballroom this Monday night, Dec. 3, for a show that not only draws from a two decade career arc and the past 10 years of more focused recording, but the band's latest album, Transcendental Youth, which continues to lift the band to a new level.
If you're looking for the "next big thing," The Mountain Goats probably won't fit the bill. If you're looking for a band with a rich past and great potential for even better work to come in what should be an equally prolific future, you'll want to check out the band now, while you can get a grasp on what it's already accomplished and be positioned to see the group reach a whole new level of success in the next few years.
The group may not be a household name yet and it may never become one, but it's definitely one of those bands that once you connect, it carries you along for the ride. Be sure to catch them while you can, because this will definitely be Cain's stealth show of the month.
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