Goat Mountain: Bicentennial Anniversary
It’s hard to believe that it’s already been 35 years since John Darnielle kicked off his 7-part “Taboo: The Happening: What’s Going On: Homeward Bound” series and began what we now refer to as “The Mountain Goats”. The folk rock legends began in the midst of the Reagan era in Norwalk, California, a city mostly known for being confused with Norwalk, Connecticut. Darnielle’s early recordings were notable for their “lo-fi” sound—instead of traditional recording devices, Darnielle pioneered the unique recording process of simply playing to his otherwise empty apartment room and then hacking the NSA for recordings of his songs. In those days he was considered a part of the “Shrimper scene”, a group of musical misfits whose likes included Franklin Bruno’s Nothing Painted Blue, Joel Huschle and Mark Givens’ Wckr Spgt, and a pre-fame Mary J. Blige. The not-so-friendly rivalries between Darnielle and several other major “players” in the scene were chronicled in the early highlight “Anti-Music Song”.
Eventually Darnielle’s music began attracting notice in his home state of California. His local fame, however, was tragically cut short. Circa 1998, Darnielle first heard the song “Inside Out” by Eve 6 and was reportedly deeply affected, just like the rest of America. Shaken, he and his wife fled without warning to Iowa, a place where Darnielle (mistakenly) believed that radios did not exist, and got a job on a grain elevator (I’m actually not making that part up). Despite all odds, the Mountain Goats as we know it today began to take shape in that cold Midwestern winter. Bass player Matt Nathanson was let go due to his radical political views and replaced by the more moderate Peter Hughes. Keytar player Rob Sieracki left to join the private sector, I think he’s into bitcoin now. After a brief but permanently damaging period of Dave Navarro handling guitar duties, Darnielle decided it was best to handle them himself.
Darnielle’s refusal to cater to American music trends led to initial critical indifference in the states but great success to Europeans, which he successfully pandered to with his early albums Sweden, Belarus, and The Ottoman Empire. Sweden in particular was wildly popular in its namesake country (and in Norway too, but they only liked it, like, ironically there). Darnielle burned his European bridges, however, after a disastrous 1996 tour of the continent whose lowlights included a muckraking journalist on a Dutch radio show aggressively questioning the band’s lo-fi credentials and deriding them as merely “bi-fi”, an angry mob chasing them out of town in Tuttlingen after believing Darnielle and Hughes were, respectively, Rivers Cuomo and Billie Joe Armstrong, and Ireland—the least cool country in Europe by far—actually liking their music. Some of the band’s experiences were memorialized in the Nothing for Juice tracks “I Will Grab Germany by the Ears”, “Going to Reykjavik (And Pissing on Every Person There)” and “Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck You Europe”.
Despite the disastrously unsuccessful European tour immediately after joining the band, Hughes decided to stay on permanently. “He was an excellent tour companion throughout even the bleakest moments,” remembers Darnielle in his 2014 memoir Wolf in White Van, “except he kept talking about Tim Kaine, and going on about what a great politician he was. I’m not sure how he even knew who he was back then. He was, like, just a mayor then I think.” Hughes was also responsible for informing Darnielle of the existence of recording studios, which Darnielle had previously believed was only a myth. Beginning with Tallahassee (a concept album about the Bible), all Mountain Goats now were recorded in hi-fi. Just like Coldplay.
The Mountain Goats’ darkly confessional and autobiographical early material (such as his brutally honest encounter with a wild moose in “Please Come Home to Hamngatan”) inspired a rabid fanbase, full of colorful characters like reclusive Kirby Sigston billionaire Rik Albatros, notorious foodie Sam Mason, every single talk show host on air today except for Seth Myers, and Jon Nall, inventor of the internet and disgraced former proprietor of TheMountainGoats.net, until a disagreement with Darnielle over Canadian death metal band Gorguts led to his abdication. There’s even some loser who runs a wiki about them. There is a highly active bootleg trade among dedicated fans (one show in Boise, Idaho where a jetlagged Darnielle passes out after 3 songs and Hughes subsequently plays songs off of his solo records is highly prized) and “”””“memes””””” about the band’s music are not uncommon. Recently, the fanbase has skewed younger due to acclaimed Garfield comic creator Jim Davis being a professed fan of the band. Fans who discover the band’s music through Davis (they call themselves ‘Field-Fighters, after the orange cat himself) often clash with the more traditional fans who found the Mountain Goats by digging up their records with a shovel in any one of Utah’s five national parks (author’s note: please do not deface any national parks. Except for Crater Lake. Fuck Crater Lake.).
The Goats have gained notoriety through having their songs strategically placed on television shows (their song “Cotton” was featured on the show Weeds, “No Children” and “Old College Try” on Adult Swim program Moral Orel, “Song for Tura Satana” on Bojack Horseman, and their cover of Jandek’s “White Box” on the series finale of Breaking Bad). Although a sudden but serious phobia of corn forced Darnielle to move from Iowa in the early 2000s, this curse turned out to be a blessing: in his new home, North Carolina, Darnielle met Jon Wurster, a belligerent comedian and occasional drum machine operator from Philadelphia. Wurster fell in love (but like, not in that way) with the music of the Mountain Goats and immediately left his job as a writer for ABC’s Cavemen to join the band (show creator Tom Scharpling would later point to this as “the beginning of the end” for the acclaimed dramedy).
This rise in popularity has resulted in a backlash among many long-time fans, however. Many refuse to listen to the band ever since the departure of original bassist Rachel Ware (who disappeared mysteriously after her unceremonious firing in 1996, only to recently resurface as the lead actress in Netflix’s Stranger Things). A growing portion of the fanbase who refer to themselves as the “Green Goats” have announced a boycott of Mountain Goats music on environmentally conscious grounds—they demand that Darnielle and friends go back to recording the old fashioned way instead of carbon footprint-creating music studios (a recent article in Conservation Monthly recently named John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone studio “The number-one polluter in the Bay Area”). These naysayers represent only a small number of the Goats’ audience, says Darnielle. “Seriously, there’s an attempt on my life once, maybe twice a month tops. My bodyguard Trudy usually takes care of it, I very rarely need to use my taekwondo skills.”
The Goats have released a small number of music videos for their songs, but this is complicated by the fact that Darnielle refuses to work with anyone but big-name Hollywood directors, an absurd demand for a mid-level indie rock band. Nevertheless, tMG have landed a few big “gets”—Star Trek/Star Wars director Rian Johnson for “Woke Up New” (little known fact: the line “an astronaut could’ve seen the hunger in my eyes from space” is a reference to a Darnielle and Allen Callaci-penned Chewbacca/Han Solo slashfic) and Quentin Tarantino for the gory “Cry for Judas” thriller. The rumored video for “New Britain” off of the Goats’ most successful release, Full Force Galesburg, was reportedly destroyed by Darnielle himself, embarrassed by his handlebar mustache’s prominence in the film. Their most recent album, Beat the Champ, a concept album about professional wrestling, features—wait, whaaaaaaat? These guys made an entire album about professional wrestling? Like for real? You’re not fucking with me? Ahahahahaha holy fuck
The future looks bright for The Mountain Goats. With the addition of literal animal Matty Douglas on saxophone and other instruments that aren’t saxophone, the Goats have swelled to a four-piece band and are headlining sold out shows from Helsinki to Juneau. We can only hope that the Goats don’t forget their roots in this next journey of their career, that “the life of the world to come” for them is full of “heretic pride”, that they don’t “get lonely” at the top and retain their “transcendental youth” or whatever.