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Q & A with the Mountain Goats’ Peter Hughes

The Mountain Goats: from left, Jon Wurster, John Darnielle, Peter Hughes, and Matt Douglas.
Jackie Lee Young
Merge Records
The Mountain Goats: from left, Jon Wurster, John Darnielle, Peter Hughes, and Matt Douglas.

One of indie-rock’s most beloved bands, the Mountain Goats have amassed a fervent following of fans drawn in by frontman John Darnielle’s narrative approach to songwriting.

Since 1994, the band has released 22 albums chock-full of catchy melodies, memorable characters, and surprising plot twists – all delivered in Darnielle’s quirky and distinctive voice.

Founded in 1991 by Darnielle as a solo project, the Mountain Goats today include bassist Peter Hughes, drummerJon Wurster, and multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas, with Isa Burke joining on violin and guitar for the band’s current tour, which stops by the Center for the Arts of Homer for a sold-out show on Friday night.

Released by Merge Records on October 27, the Mountain Goats’ new album, “Jenny from Thebes,” is a sequel of sorts to their 2002 album, “All Hail West Texas.” The band explains in the album’s liner notes:

“The Mountain Goats’ catalog is thick with recurring characters—Jenny, who originally appears in the All Hail West Texas track bearing her name, as well as in “Straight Six” from Jam Eater Blues and Transcendental Youth side two jam “Night Light,” is one of these, someone who enters a song unexpectedly, pricking up the ears of fans who are keen on continuing the various narrative threads running through the Mountain Goats’ discography before vanishing into the mist. In these songs, Jenny is largely defined by her absence, and she is given that definition by other characters. She is running from something. These features are beguiling, both to the characters who’ve told her story so far and to the listener. They invite certain questions: Who is Jenny, really? What is she running from? Well, she’s a warrior and a thief, and, this being an album by the Mountain Goats, it’s a safe bet whatever she’s fleeing is something bad. Something catastrophically bad.

“’Jenny from Thebes’ is the story of Jenny, her southwestern ranch style house, the people for whom that house is a place of safety, and the west Texas town that is uncomfortable with its existence. It is a story about the individual and society, about safety and shelter and those who choose to provide care when nobody else will.”

In a phone call from Burlington, Vermont, earlier this week, Hughes spoke with The Route’s Jim Catalano about the new album, life on the road, his own projects, and much more!

Q: I’ve seen the Mountain Goats five or six times over the past 20 years, and it’s been cool to see the band evolve and go through all these iterations while still putting out interesting stuff. Has it been gratifying to be a part of the band for so long?

Peter Hughes: It totally is. And the current incarnation, I feel, is as good as we've ever been. We have a fifth player out with us now – a woman named Isa Burke, who plays guitar and violin – so it's a full roc- band onslaught. And it's pretty fun.

Q: The new album is very impressive sonically. How has it been to bring those songs to the stage? Especially when you not touring with a full horn section or string section?

PH: Part of the reason that we brought out a fifth member was to try to pull off some of those songs live. But it’s working really well. A few of the new songs do have bigger arrangements on the record, so Matt will play saxophone and Isa will play the violin, so we have the horns and strings covered at least a little bit. It’s not like it’s a full section or anything, but it comes over live pretty effectively. We were all kind of blown away the first time we got together to rehearse and it was like, “Wow, this stuff is working right out of the gate!” when we weren't sure if it would.

Q: John Darnielle is the main guy in the Mountain Goats, but you’ve been there for more than 20 years now. How would you describe your role in the band?

PH: The Mountain Goats always has been by definition John and whoever's playing with him. I've been playing with him for a long time. But when it comes to new songs he's writing, he’ll usually demo them up at home on his computer and then send us a version that's either just him playing piano or playing guitar. Sometimes they're a little more fleshed out, Sometimes they're just pretty skeletal.

Then we'll all work up ideas on our own and then we get together get together and kind of hash them out. So, the songs are all John’s, but the arrangements end up being pretty collaborative with all of us. It's a fun process.

The whole thrust of what we do is very much lyrically driven, so when we're working at the arrangements it's always with an ear toward serving the song, as they say, and just trying to give the lyrics the best setting to be most effective.

That happens in rehearsal, and then in the studio, where kind of stuff takes shape. And then when we start playing live, that's a whole other kind of thing. Songs have multiple stages, you know, and I always liken our recordings to baby pictures: what people hear on the record are those songs in their infancy, usually. And then they go out into the world and, and grow up and they take on new dimensions when you when you get them in front of the live audience. And I feel like that's when they really start their lives. That's why touring and playing live is always really fun, especially when we have a new album out and new material to kind of start that journey off with. It's always a really fun process.

Q: The Mountain Goats are known for always changing up their sound, whether it’s the lo-fi albums with just John or more produced albums like “Jenny from Thebes.” Has it been fun to sonically experiment like that?

PH: Yeah, for sure. Part of that it's conscious, in the sense that we're all into lots of different kinds of music and I think we would get bored just doing one thing all the time. When you've been in a band for over the space of 30 years, I guess you take your pick, right? You either be like the Ramones and say this is what we do. Or else. Or else you take the other tack and just refuse to be defined by any one particular sound.

The thing with John’s songs and his writing, his voice is so kind of singular and distinctive that, in a sense, it doesn't matter what we do musically. People are gonna hear it and instantly identify it as the Mountain Goats just because of John’s singing, which is good, because it gives us a lot of freedom to do whatever we want, you know?

But one of the other funny things you get when you play in a band for a long time is… I mean, I've done this as a music fan all my life, when you follow a band and you kind of impose your own narrative on what you imagine they're thinking, where it's like, “Oh, well, they made this, this rock album, and then they made this really quiet album because they didn't want to get pinned down” or whatever, and you just invent this story of continued intentionality. Like the band has this grand scheme of, “We're gonna do this next, and then we're gonna do that.”

With us, I feel like, there might be a tiny bit of that, but a lot of it is just really kind of accidental, depending on what the mood is at any given moment, and who we're working with, and where we are. And that kind of determines, what costume we put on for a given album or set of songs. So, it's not always as calculated as I think people imagine.

Q: What was your reaction when John proposed this kind of sequel approach for the new album?

PH: I liked it. I thought it was cool just because we've never really done that, and that’s always a fun thing. There is a little bit of an aspect of kind of an internal universe in the Mountain Goats. John obviously writes about all kinds of stuff, but there have been characters that he's written about over the years. Like, the alpha couple who were the couple in “Tallahassee” was about these kinds of desperate people in a failing relationship. And those people popped up in songs over a really long period before “Tallahassee” got written.

The character of Jenny has reappeared over the years in odd spots since “All Hail West Texas,” and it kind of made sense to flesh out this backstory. It’s cool because a lot of our fan base really loves “All Hail West Texas,” just because it's a great collection of songs, but it's also the last record that John made in his old-school, Lo-Fi boombox style at home before we started doing studio albums and make things bigger sounding. So it’s been fun to revisit that story and those characters and give them the 2023 Mountain Goats treatment.

Q: Speaking of sequels, have you thought about following up on your 2010 solo album, “Fangio”?

PH: That's funny, because people have actually asked me about that.

Q: I was pretty mesmerized by it when I put it on, and I hadn’t even known about it before!

PH: Thanks! I really, really appreciate that. Yeah, that was kind of a funny, weird thing. That album started with a song that I wrote in high school when I was 17 years old. I had a little Casio keyboard and I would just make songs by myself.

I've always been a big car nerd, and at the time I had this idea of this guy,Juan Manuel Fangio, who was one of the greatest racing drivers ever. He was from Argentina and a five-time Formula One World Champion in the 1950s. He was still alive at the time in the late 1980s, and I had this idea of the fantasy of him basically as a rogue assassin on a mission to assassinate Augusto Pinochet, who was then the dictator of Chile. I imagined him driving a contemporary Saab turbo, and this was at a time when I didn't understand SAABs, I just thought they were weird. So I had this very strange non-sequitur of an idea about Juan Fangio and wrote a song about that.

More than 20 years passed, and in the meantime, I discovered that SAABs were cool. I ended up buying one, and when I got home I realized this is the car that Juan Fangio drove in that song I wrote when I was 17.

And it kind of planted the seed for the album. He had since died in real life, but I had this idea of bringing him back into the post-911 world and sending him on these missions of vengeance but still driving this 1980s Saab. So that's the genesis of that album.

I’m a willfully obscure person in the things that I'm into, and the art that I make when I do stuff by myself. And so that kind of fit the bill of like, “I'm just gonna do this thing that I and only I will understand.” it was a really fun project, and then as it happened, it found its own audience of fellow racing nerds and, 80s synth-pop aficionados.

Q: I had heard of Fangio, but didn’t know much about him.

PH: Yes, well, I invented this whole universe for him. I didn't grow up as part of the generation where fanfic was a thing, so it never occurred to me that that's what I was doing. But I now realize that's exactly what I was doing – I was just writing fan fiction.

Q: I’m also curious why you released it under the name of “Peter Peter Hughes”…

PH: That was just a funny thing, where some friends of mine just started calling me that after I left a message on somebody's machine. It had been a while since I talked to them. And I left this message saying, “It's Peter, Peter Hughes.” And, they later kind of threw it in my face was like, “Oh, look, it's “Peter Peter Hughes.” But I thought that was kind of cool and worked better as a catchy sobriquet than just my name on its own.

Q: You’ve lived in Rochester on and off over the years. Are you living there again?

PH: Yeah, I live back in Rochester. I've kind of come and gone a few times. Most recently, between the years of 2014 and 2018, I was living down south in the Carolinas, but we moved back in 2018. It’s just kind of a place that I accidentally found my way to 20-plus years ago, and it's just become home.

Q: How did you get there in the first place?

PH: Oh, just an ex's job – she got hired at Kodak, so it was like, “Alright, go there and check it out.” And I just kind of instantly fell in love with it. I grew up in California, but my parents were East Coast people and I never really felt at home in California. I always imagined that I would end up somewhere in the Eastern U.S. Weirdly, I had some pen pals from Western New York in high school, so I had some experience with the area and really, really liked it.

A Rochester friend of mine has this great phrase that I stole for the radio show that I do, which is “Northern Gothic.” That characterized the post-industrial Rust Belt kind of vibe, which I love. I mean, it's just very appealing to me in ways that I can't quite justify or completely describe, but it felt like that from the first time that I visited.

Q: I live in Ithaca now, but I grew up in Cortland and my family is originally from Brooklyn. I always describe upstate New York to people who don't know much about the area as “New England meets the Midwest.”

PH: I get ridiculed in my band for this opinion, but it's not the East Coast. Rochester is not the East Coast. I think of it as kind of the gateway to the Midwest. It has Great Lakes. It has more in common with Milwaukee, culturally than it does with New York or Boston or any of your kind of eastern seaboard places. It's the Rust Belt.

Q: Have you been involved in the Rochester music scene at all?

PH: I have friends who are in it, and, like I said, I do a show on a local low-power radio station WAYO. I’ve been doing that since I moved back, for the last five years or so. So that's been fun, and it keeps my foot in the community musically.

The Mountain Goats
The Mountain Goats

If You Go

Who: The Mountain Goats, with opener Stephen Steinbrink

When: 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 8

Where: Center for the Arts of Homer


Event Info

Jim Catalano covers the Finger Lakes music scene for WITH (90.1 FM in Ithaca, and its affiliates.