Earlier this year, indie-folk stalwarts The Mountain Goats released In League With Dragons, an album full of the band’s usual mix of lush orchestration and elaborate, insightful lyrics. As the group prepares for its first-ever show in Las Vegas, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter John Darnielle spoke with the Weekly from his office in Durham, North Carolina, where he was spending the day “working on prose” during an off day from the road.
You’ve never played in Las Vegas with Mountain Goats or solo, right? No. I’ve been to Vegas a bunch of times, but [Nevada] is one of the few states left that we haven’t played. There’s only three, I think, and we’re knocking out two of those [on this tour].
[Las Vegas] has the Pinball Hall of Fame, which is one of the two greatest pinball places in the country, the other one being the Silverball Museum in Asbury Park. The Pinball Hall of Fame is a blessed, amazing place that I cannot wait to get to. There’s one thing Vegas has that they don’t have a copy of at the Silverball Museum. The machine’s called [the Pinball Circus]. It was one of these machines that was supposed to save the industry, because it was withering in the wake of arcade games and also home video. It was this big three- or four-level, game—you go up ramps to another level and another one and another one. It’s really a spectacular game. It only exists in prototype.
What is it like performing in a place you’ve never played before at this point in your career? You get a little more excited. It does mean you do tend to bring your best game to it. This will be the end of a long year’s touring, so we should be firing all cylinders. [It’s] very exciting to be hitting a new place on the last night of the tour. Lots of people show up to see the first night [of a tour] and that’s great, and I’m grateful for it. But honestly, if I have to pick when I’m going to see a band, I would pick as late into the touring cycle as possible, because you do just get better as you go. You get more free. You go to new places once you’re dialed in.
How have you found that the songs from In League With Dragons have evolved as you have been playing them live? We always change up the set, a little from night to night but also from leg to leg [of a tour]. We were opening with “Done Bleeding” leading the first leg of the tour, and it was a whole theatrical thing that we haven’t been doing. That happens, where you go, well, there’s multiple ways of looking at how the songs fit into the overall presentation of what you’re trying to do.
And they started out feeling more formal; that’s just how it is when there’s a new album and you’re learning how to play them live, especially when the record is as elaborate as this one. We played a lot of stuff live in the studio, but we had seven or eight people playing at once most of the time. Especially [for] “Done Bleeding” and “Younger,” there was this big ensemble playing the core and playing overdubs. [You have to] figure out how to do that with four people. But they’ve been going great. I mean, when Matt [Douglas] hits the sax solo on “Younger,” everybody goes nuts (laughs).
It is a very triumphant moment on the record. And there’s something about a sax solo … If you don’t love a sax solo, I question your commitment to music (laughs). It’s just beautiful.
[When recording the song] he did, like, eight takes, and we were just sitting there going wild in the control room. It was really just a pure musical pleasure to sit there listening to a musician as good as that.
Owen Pallett produced this album, and it was the first time you’ve let someone else direct the process. What made this batch of songs right for him to work on? I’ve been doing this long enough that I can relax a little. One reason I’ve always occupied the executive producer thing, and shot down ideas I don’t like from my spot, is my feeling was, “Look, if you let somebody produce you and make a bunch of decisions and then it comes out badly, the producer’s not going to get the blame for that—I am.” I’ve always been very protective of what I do.
And I felt at this point, I have enough bona fides that I can let somebody produce. And if it doesn’t work, you make another record. And I know Owen; we’ve toured together. When [bassist] Peter [Hughes] and I were talking about who to hire for this, we made a list of some producers, but we didn’t know any of them. And Peter did say, “I think with somebody you’ve never met before, you will have a hard time establishing trust.” Owen has known my stuff for years, and we’ve toured together and we’re friends. I trust him not to misrepresent my vision.
For me, making records is pretty personal. And so I need somebody who I can share what the vision is, who I can then entrust with that. It was a really rewarding process this time.
What did you like most about the process of working with him? Owen’s a musician. Not all producers are. Plenty of producers have a lot of ideas, but Owen writes string arrangements. When Owen’s talking about orchestration, he’s intimately acquainted with what he’s talking about. And he had a lot of connections: There’s a string orchestra we have on two tracks, [and] those are some people he’d worked with before. Owen was a five-tool player. I remember him taping a thing to the boards that said, “Owen’s Preferred Vocal Chain,” and it was a list of what plates to send the vocal through.
The other thing that I did is, when Shani Gandhi mixed it I gave her free reins. Usually mixing with me is a nightmare, because you send me a mix, and then I go, “OK, well, this doesn’t sound like the rough mix”(laughs). I just let Shani do her thing. I sent a couple of things back, but for the most part, I just let her bring the entirety of her vision to mix it.
Was that difficult to do then, to stop yourself from being like, “I need to give more feedback”? Well, I had been prepping for it for a year or two at that point. I told myself, and I had done a lot of interior work and said, “This is what you’re planning on doing.” If you listen to “Younger,” my voice is pretty wet. There’s reverb. I have been allergic to reverb my whole life.
But that’s because I’m focusing too hard on my voice. Most people, when they’re auditing a track, they tend to zero in on what they played. And that is actually not what you should listen to—you should be listening to a track and get your ego out of it, if you can. Very hard for most musicians, including me, of course, to do—to listen to it as if somebody else made it. Instead of listening to what you play, listen to the whole thing.
The first time I heard all the reverb, I laughed. But Shani was incredibly giving of her time. I would say, “Well, what if we dialed the reverb back about half? And she’d say, “I tried that, and it feels like this is the amount of space your voice wants in the track.” She sent me multiple looks, and the one she had was right. So it’s an unusual sound for us.
The one thing I don’t want to be doing is making stuff that sounds like what I did last time. You have a limited amount of time doing this, [so] I would like to be growing as much as I can.
You said you’re writing prose today. Do you have something else coming down the pipeline? I’m always writing songs. By the time an album comes out, I already have a bunch more songs. I don’t stop while I’m waiting for the album to come out.
It actually is a really productive summer for me. Historically, from the time I started doing The Mountain Goats, [in] summer and December, I just tend to write more songs. And it was a pretty busy summer. I just had a lot of good ideas.
Do you expect a lot of people to show up in Vegas? Even if they don’t, I’m getting to cross Las Vegas off the list, so I’m excited. I’ll tell you a story that Peter tells, from an interview with Jim Dandy from Black Oak Arkansas, during a pretty down period for the band. They’re not playing arenas anymore, and they did in the ’70s, even if they were opening. The interviewer is trying gently to ask, “Well, you used to be really big, and now you’re not as big. Has that changed the way that you do your work?” He’s trying to find a respectful way to ask that.
Dandy interrupts the interviewer and says, “Whether we’re playing to 20,000 people in Texas in 1978, or 200 people here tonight, Black Oak Arkansas attacks the stage with the ferocity of a caged wolverine” (laughs).
This is sort of totemic for us: It doesn’t matter how many people show up. You want everyone to go home saying that anybody who wasn’t there missed out.
THE MOUNTAIN GOATS with Lydia Loveless. September 18, 7 p.m., $26-$30. Brooklyn Bowl, 702-862-2695.