On paper, the Mountain Goats don’t sound like anything too special. Indie-folk trio, literate lyrics, catchy melodies—it’s more or less been done before. As a result, when it becomes clear that the Mountain Goats are indeed a very special band — one with a unique power to add up to, one could argue, several multiples of the sum of their parts, the question becomes this: where might we locate the source of this power?
Of course a large part of it comes from the singular literary skill of the band’s lead singer and songwriter, John Darnielle. He balances the nearly paradoxical mix of un-self-serious humor and absolutely dead serious subject matter (one need only hear him introduce the song “No Children” whose chorus goes “I hope you die/I hope we both die” as a “song of hope,” or follow his Twitter feed for a day, to discover this).
But that’s hardly the whole story. Though the Mountain Goats began as essentially Darnielle’s solo project, throughout their history, Darnielle has been joined by a wide cast of fellow musicians, and whether it’s been the jazzy chordal structures of Franklin Bruno, the acoustic guitar fireworks of Kaki King, or the heavy metal lineage of Hate Eternal’s Erik Rutan, they’ve all contributed something special and absolutely unique. One such fellow musician, one who has been around for just as long or longer than any of the others, is bass player Peter Hughes.
Describing the way he and Darnielle met, Hughes says,
“We were both kind of part of the Shrimper [record label] scene in Southern California, and so we met for the first time that way, just playing shows.”
Hughes describes the music scene at that time as “very incestuous,” where “everybody kind of played on everybody else’s records.” As a result,
“We kind of did cameos on each other’s records, but we didn’t really actually play together until 1996.”
In 1996 the two of them went on two tours of Europe together,
“The first one was really great, but the second one was really terrible.”
By early 2000, both men had moved out of Southern California, and Hughes says,
“He [Darnielle] called one day out of the blue and asked me if I wanted to do some recording.”
Hughes was excited by the prospect,
“We had gotten kind of good as a duo, and it was a shame that none of our friends had gotten to see or hear it.”
It was around this time that the Mountain Goats found their way into a rather fortuitous record deal with 4AD, and so Hughes and Darnielle began work on what would become the first Mountain Goats album to be recorded in a “real” studio (much of the band’s early work was recorded directly onto a Panasonic boombox)- 2002’s Tallahassee.
From the first few moments of the album’s opening track, it’s clear that Hughes’ bass style is uniquely his own. Though Hughes does occasionally pull back into more traditional bass lines, his style is typically marked by a more harmonically complex and melodic pattern than most bassists would dare.
“I listened to a lot of Joy Division and New Order when I was a teenager, so I think that really led me to pursue that type of sound when I picked up a bass when I was sixteen or so.”
Hughes’ more complex bass lines fill out Darnielle’s often very harmonically simple songs in a way that is immediately recognizable,
“One of the things I really love about playing John [Darnielle’s] songs as a player is that a lot of the time there’s room within them to do kind of more melodic stuff, I can sit back if I want, or when the mood strikes or based on something in the song, I can play something more melodic, or play a third over the root here or there.”
Though some of the accompaniment has changed on Transcendental Youth, (most notably with the addition of a prominent horn section), Hughes says the band approached constructing the songs has remained largely the same,
“The horn charts were written based on the original demos that John had made for the songs which were mostly guitar and voice.”
Describing the song “Cry for Judas” which features the album’s most prominent horn parts, he says,
“It’s just so fun to play.”
Though the writing process for this album was largely similar, Hughes says that the process of refining the songs as a band before recording was a bit different. Though the Mountain Goats have been a complete power trio since about 2007 when Jon Wurster joined the band on drums, they’ve rarely played new songs on tour before releasing them on an album.
“A lot of us who are a certain age remember a time when there was no such thing as a leak of album. You would hear about an album, but you didn’t actually get to hear it until the day it came out, when you went to the store and bought it and brought it home.”
Hughes says that he and his fellow band members find that feeling of anticipation appealing,
“We think there’s something awesome about hearing the music like that for the first time.”
However, for this album, the band decided to tour early this year and include some of the newer songs in their set before committing them to record, “maybe just because it was something we hadn’t done before.”
He says that this changed how the songs developed.
"When you’re not playing the song first in front of people, what you get when you record the songs is like a baby picture of the song, because once that song takes form in the studio, it can go any number of places.”
Since the songs on Transcendental Youth were played in front of audience before they were recorded, “I think it kind helped them, in the sense that, when we got in the studio, we had a little bit better of a sense of what these songs are about and the best way to approach them.”
Of course, Hughes is more than simply the bass player in the Mountain Goats. He’s played in a string of other bands, including the secret best indie rock band of the 90s/early 2000s Nothing Painted Blue, and Diskothi-Q (whose name, inspired by a college friend’s mispronunciation of “discotheque,” he says embodies all the traits of a perfect band name: “It’s really hard to remember, hard to pronounce, and impossible to spell”) in addition to releasing his own music.
In 2010, Hughes released a solo album entitled Fangio about the famous Argentinian Formula One racer, Juan Manuel Fangio. The album arose from a number of sources: a Casio-based song he wrote in high school called “A Fangio for the 80s,” a love of Saab vehicles, and an interest in Latin American history and politics. The album, “imagines Fangio [who died in 1995] by some mysterious mechanism brought back to life... and as this kind of angel of vengeance.”
The “angel of vengeance” part grows from the content of the original song he wrote in high school, which described Fangio riding across the Andes mountains on his way to assassinate the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Hughes himself is a bit baffled about why exactly he imagined this plot in particular,
“I have no idea where any of this came from, I think I read an article about Pinochet in like Newsweek or something.”
In addition to the synth pop of Fangio, Hughes is currently working on a new project entitled Class War Right Now, which appears as if it will draw a bit more directly from the punk rock tradition. He says that he’s still writing for that album, though he says the recording process might be a bit slow going,
“I haven’t really had a lot of time to record, I’m basically being a stay-at-home dad when I’m not on tour.”
He goes on to say that he’s hopeful he’ll be able to find more time in the near future, “as the baby gets older it will get easier, it’s easier now than it was six months ago, and I hope I’ll have a bit more time to work on stuff like that soon.”