The Mountain Goats' 'Transcendental' Recording Process

Talking with John Darnielle about the horns, repetition, and fine details on his band's 14th album

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DL Anderson / Merge

The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle builds stories out of spare and forgotten parts. Characters and motivations emerge from sharp, tessellating imagery—small details that lock into haunting and coherent narrative. The new Mountain Goats album, Transcendental Youth, finds Darnielle tenderly observing a group of people in varying states of mental distress.

Started in the early '90s as a lo-fi recording project that drew vast critical acclaim, the Mountain Goats have dramatically expanded in sound ever since 2002's Tallahassee. The newer songs are harrowing environments in which Darnielle, bassist Peter Hughes, and drummer Jon Wurster root around thoughtfully and ecstatically. I spoke with Darnielle about his band's 14th record, out this week.

There are two different songs technically titled "Spent Gladiator," which are kind of two takes on the same idea. Could you explain more behind that?

It's interesting: If I looked in my demos I'd be able to figure out which one I wrote first. Because "Spent Gladiator 2" says "Like a spent gladiator" in the first line of the song, but the other one I remember just calling "Amy" when I wrote it, and then it had the same chorus. And I assumed I was going to kill one of them and I couldn't pick one, because I thought they were very different looks at the same idea. This is the sort of thing, you get trapped in ways of thinking where you go, "Oh, one of them's gonna have to go. They're the same words. Nope, one's gonna have to go. Which one's better? Just pick the better one. We'll record them all at the session and pick the one that comes out better... Wait a minute. We can use them both." It really is like one of those Sesame Street moments where you're, "We could try both." I was really glad because the opening track—I love the way that came out. I really feel it pretty deeply. It's a pretty emotional song for me, whereas the second "Spent Gladiator" is a colder look at the same sentiment.

Do you know "Provide, Provide" by Robert Frost?

No, I don't.

I should know it by heart, I feel bad. It's about seeing an old woman down at the market and realizing she was once Queen of Hollywood—a huge star, and now she's a woman who doesn't look spectacular. The concluding lines of it are the title of the poem—the same word repeated twice, but it has different weight in each iteration.

Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!

You see, what he's done there is he says "provide, provide" but it's not the same word twice. There's an urgency and intensity to the repetition, and a gravity and a deepening. A floor opens and you get to the ground-level meaning of what "providing" actually means—not just shoring up money but providing for yourself. And that's sort of where I was going with the idea of "to stay alive"—as a triumphant thing to do, but also sometimes you have to bite your lower lip and stay alive through things that aren't pleasant and you're not able to find the triumphant aspect of. You're not able to see it as a victorious thing, you just sort of go through it like going through a car wash.

One of the most surprising sounds on the record is the first sound on the record—the drum hits that open "Amy." They just sound really different. Is that Jon Wurster doing that in a specific way?

I think Jon did all of those. The idea came together in rehearsals. I feel like Brandon [Eggleston, producer] was pounding on the stage—the rehearsals were kind of loose. But I think Jon did all of them and did them all the way through the song, and then we took them out so they'd be more commenting almost. They're sort of like birds. They start out "duh duh duh duh" and then the actual percussion track kicks in, and they come back in and out as accentual percussion instead of the only percussion, and they sort of amplify the meaning of some lines and stuff like that.

There's a lot of accentual uses of percussion on this record.

Well, Jon Wurster is one of the best drummers in rock. He's just so good, and he's really so expressive. I think one great thing about our band is Jon really has room for styles he doesn't always get to explore. We've been doing much more groove-oriented stuff—weird to talk about [with] the Mountain Goats because we did not used to be a very groovy band. But since Get Lonely we've been traveling in this direction where we sort of find little pockets of feeling that are more exploratory.

There's this moment in "White Cedar"—when I first heard it, I compared it to the more mostly-piano songs from Life of the World to Come. But then I hear Jon striking two hits and it's just out of nowhere. It's an interesting, shocking effect.

I think this record more than others, the music is really interacting with the lyrics—I hate the word "interact." It's "interfacing"? That's even worse. The music is... is apposite to the lyrics in a really interesting way. That the playing seems to be responding to it, but not in a Carnival of the Animals way. An interesting conversation goes on. I think that's the most pronounced moment of it. That and the dropping on "Lakeside View."

I wanted to talk about the horn arrangements. Mostly because when I first heard the record I tried to think of many ska jokes as I possibly could.

That's driving me crazy, though. Horns does not mean ska.

I know, I agree. I just still thought of ska jokes.

Yeah, but... why not jazz?

Oh yeah, I think of jazz. You can just make more jokes about ska. Are you bringing horns on tour?

Yeah, Matthew White's opening and he's bringing his horn dudes in.

Why did you decide to go for horn arrangements on this record?

There's four horn arrangements. We had some very sparse horn arrangements with two players on Get Lonely.... I've wanted horn arrangements for a long time but there's so much that goes into it. You have to find someone who can write them, and he has to have people who can play them. You have to have room in the budget. And you have to have room in the budget in two ways: for them, and to have at least a day to do horns, because that's a full day of studio time. If you have a lot of songs, which I usually do when I go in, you really have to be careful in trying to bring in extra musicians or you will wind up with too many cooks and not enough time to let them all cook.

But I was sort of bent on it. I feel horn arrangements really have a depth. I listen to a lot of Dionne Warwick. Usually I'm so vocally centered that I don't listen to the arrangements, but the past couple of years I've noticed that the horns are doing something so special and rich and deep. And a lot of ska also—early ska. Not ska revival stuff. Not my favorite Tony Hawk jam, I don't even know who it's by, where they're "Here I am!" You know that one? I think it's by Goldfinger. But the earlier ska stuff where it's just dudes who played in their high school and they're tight and can play together, and they hit these amazing smooth chords. You hear it all the way through Augustus Pablo records, through a lot of early reggae that's rocksteady and no longer ska. That stuff, there's a real emotional depth to horn chords, little horn movements. You hear it on records by The Band too, where Allen Toussaint is doing the arranging.

A rock band can also be quite complex, but when you bring horns in, you get these shades of feeling, of meaning, that when you're talking about mental illness and depression with attendant psychotic features like I'm trying to do on this record, you want to be making sure people aren't having some cartoon vision of the states of mind you're talking about. That there's a depth to that. You're not reducing your characters to two dimensions, and I think horns are a good way to do that.

I caught the Anonymous 4 shows and I wanted to talk about how that's a totally different arrangement of songs that exist on this record.

Yeah, the "Spent Gladiator" arrangement is so massively different.

I looked in the program again and went, "Oh, 'Spent Gladiator' was played." And I couldn't actually remember that song being at all like what's on record.

Their version has this Latin where they start it and they do a sort of staggered... [sings Latin] and I play the changes, but they're doing something extremely complex in that one, whereas when we did it in the studio, we seriously took like a razor to it. Cut all the fat away, leave only bone. I really love how it's like the last song on the record, right, so you wind up with just this little creature in the dark breathing and then it opens on to "Transcendental Youth."

I also wanted to talk about how there's a weird buzzing instrument in "Night Light."

Do you know who mixed the record? Did you pay attention to that?

I did not.

Brandon Eggleston produced it and Scott Solter mixed. One of the things that I will never tire of talking about when I remember to do it in interviews is... We all live in the era when various seismic historical events have happened, right? We also live in the era when Scott Solter is mixing records. Mixing is not a simple thing. You don't just bring up faders. It is an art and craft, right? You can do it, you can just go "I hear what they're going for here," so [mimes mixing] and it's done. Or you can be what Scott is, which is in the classic '70s mold of a mixer like Eddie Kramer, who, you know, listens to what we've got and makes editorial decisions about what's going to stay or go. With me, Scott and I have a relationship, so there was one point where we dropped out some saxophones. I was like, "Where'd the saxes go?" And he was like, "Oh, you want those?" I said, "Yeah, no, I like them." "Okay, cool," and he brought them back.

But "Night Light" was sort of the one that I handed over to Scott and Brandon. I had a version with guitar but it was in my default rhythm, right? I'll show you. [Walks across room and opens his guitar case.] So Wurster's the guy who pointed this out to me. I already knew it, but it's the sort of thing you go into denial about. Every guitarist, every songwriter has a sort of rhythm they go to when they have a lyric or whatever that they want to play. They have sort of the one that's in-the-pocket. The one where that's your natural thing. Mine is this. [Plays fast strumming rhythm.] Sounds like the Mountain Goats right? That bam-buh-buh-bam-buh-buh-bam. I've been doing that since I was 16 years old. That's sort of what "Night Light" was. Wurster pointed it out on that song. I liked my guitar version but it sort of felt like I've done that already and I'm trying to keep growing, it's important. We toured it and it was fine, but it felt a little rote. I think now that we've done it this way, when we get back out with the guitar, it'll be more fleshed out and it'll be able to sit out of the way of the rhythm section. I decided, "Well, let's track the rhythm section and build the rest of the track around it." So I did some guitar stuff, and then Solter got there with his big stack of analog circuitry, which is just this tower of stuff from various eras and places, and plugged this into that, and this into that. But some of the chords in there, the droning chords, are ebowed individual strings on a 1962 Gibson LG1, tracking one at a time to build a chord. Those sounds at the end are, I think, me doing a tiny guitar lead just put through this big tower of machines. It's sort of the track that Solter and Brandon just ran riot on. "I will do my part, I will put in a vocal, and anybody else: go nuts." So I feel like Solter, when he got to mixing it, really brought his heavy game to bear on it, to really make it as atmospheric a track as possible. I'm glad you asked about that because I'm worried about that one, about people not really noticing... It doesn't have an immediate hook or anything, it's very atmospheric.

It launches you really deliberately out of the previous track, "Until I Am Whole."

It drops! It's great. It's a big, big drop. You're listening hard. That's good.

Thanks. Also in "Until I Am Whole," there's a vocal effect. Is that a vocoder or...?

It's a Leslie. Do you know what a Leslie is? It's what makes an organ swell. It's a mechanical thing. Track the vocal and then play through a speaker... play it through the Leslie and track that. It's just a backing vocal. I could actually play it on my laptop. The reason it's that way is I used a Leslie effect on my demo of it in Garageband. I did the backing vocal and then I monkeyed around with some effects and I found one that sounded pretty cool. So we tried to hit that in an analog sense. So it's me singing a backing vocal through a Leslie.

Forgive me if this is a tone-deaf comparison but this record really reminds me of [2004's] We Shall All Be Healed. I think We Shall All Be Healed is from... not necessarily a more distressed place, but there's the line from "All Up the Seething Coast" is "a thousand dead friends can't stop me." Which I don't think is the attitude here, but I think there's a similarly desperate situation.

It's funny, because I do always try to twin the records and say what it's most like. I'm trying to think whether this would be that one. It's hard to say. I feel like All Eternals Deck was sort of partner to Heretic Pride, maybe a little deeper view at the same modes. And Sunset Tree and Life of the World to Come sort of go hand-in-hand. Yeah, I think We Shall All Be Healed is maybe the natural partner to this, but We Shall All Be Healed is an aggravated record. This record I think is a lot more compassionate. I think We Shall All Be Healed has got a lot of rage and violent death. We were talking about "Night Light," and that's a dark little song to me.