From Fandom To Air Hockey: Peter Hughes Offers Insight On The Mountain Goats
Photo: Reese Higgins
In the past twenty plus years, there haven’t been too many acts as prolific or as entertaining as The Mountain Goats. The group, lead by singer/songwriter John Darnielle has been joined by the equally impressive bassist Peter Hughes. Hughes has gotten to live every fan’s dream in going from hard core fan to full fledged member. In June, Hughes and Darnielle will bring The Mountain Goats to Houston as a duo, in one of their rare and special duo tours. Free Press Houston was lucky enough to sit down with Hughes, and find out the inner workings of the luckiest fan in music today.
FPH: I appreciate you taking the time for this. You’ve been in The Mountain Goats since 1997 correct? How Did you and John get together?
PH: It depends when you start counting. John and I were friends for a while before we had ever played together, but in 1996 I did a European tour with him as a fill in on bass. It was a last minute thing because we knew each other and I already knew all the songs from being a fan. I also did a second tour with him which was a real disaster. Then we were living in different parts of the country, so it was almost five years later when we discussed recording together. It was around that time where 4AD had shown interest in the band, so we did so. It’s been one thing after another since that five year gap between 96’ and 2001.
FPH: Your first album with John, 2002′s “Tallahassee” was a real tour de force. I read somewhere that you were impressed with the job Tony Doogan did with producing an album by two guys who never recorded together, but I feel like you and John have a magical chemistry together. Does it feel as magical as it sounds to the listener?
PH: It’s hard to say. At the time, it really felt experimental. We had been friends for ten years when we made that album, but we were really just testing stuff out. Neither of us had really worked with a proper producer up until that point; but I felt that since this was the guy who had produced Belle and Sebastian, we had a real shot at appealing to a wider range of people. I really wanted to make sure we hit it out of the park with that album. We had a bit of a tug of war between what we each wanted to do and the sound and idea that John had in his head at first. We recorded seventeen songs and mixed the album in just six days altogether, so maybe that frantic pace coupled with the touring together five years prior helped. We had only rehearsed for two days before we went to record, but there was definitely a chemistry there.
FPH: Like many artists, you guys don’t really listen to your work post release; with that impressive back catalog, how do you decide what to play each night?
PH: We typically, on any given tour, have a pool of songs we try to pull from. At this point, we feel like if people are paying twenty bucks to see our band, we are obligated to play that handful of songs they want to hear. Sometimes on this duo tour, we pull from old songs we haven’t played out before or even songs we haven’t played in forever. We also play stuff off the newer albums; but each night is different. The cool part of me being around for so long, even as a fan; is that I can play many songs off of a request. Once the album is done, the songs have already been worked out from what John had idea wise, to the band forming and recording them. That aspect happens so early in the life of a song that when you go back and listen to them ten years later, they’re usually weirdly familiar.
FPH: The way that you guys recorded “All Eternals Deck” isn’t really a new concept to that of the struggling musician, but it’s definitely different for an established act. Was the idea to use four different studios and four producers the idea from the beginning?
PH: It was done by design, but it was done with the idea to mix things up. The album before it, “The Life of The World To Come,” was done somewhat in a similar way. But we did it to get away from that recording session feeling. When you record an album that way, it’s so high stakes. If you don’t get what you want; it’s too late. Doing it by being laid back and casually going to different places changes that pace. You might go in with the idea to record four songs, then you come out with six. The idea was to make it a little more patchwork sounding sonically. It reminded me of the early Mountain Goats tapes where John had recorded the songs at different times, in different places, and in different seasons.
FPH: For me, the last album “Transcendental Youth” had a bit of a more upbeat feeling musically. Is that a sign of things to come or do you guys just write for the moment and let the album’s pace come organically?
PH: I agree, it’s definitely more upbeat. I don’t think it’s deliberate as much as those are just the songs that John wrote. As a listener, it’s easy to think that a band is going in one direction or another; but for us it’s based off the fact that John just writes lots of songs. Once we have a bunch, we decide to go record them. But there’s no roadmap to them. That’s actually my favorite album we’ve made to date. I think it resonates that we are comfortable playing together and more confident as a band without that experimental tug of war that occurs when you first play together.
FPH: It’s been seven years since you and John did a duo tour?
PH: Well, we did a bit of a duo tour last year for the same reason, which is Jon Wurster’s schedule. It also allows us to tour without the “big album push” feeling, and it lets us play some markets we don’t usually get to reach. We try to make the shows all ages if possible, and it’s more informal and we’re more flexible when we do it.
FPH: As I recall, you play a Fender Jazz bass? Will that be your set up on this tour or will you mix it up?
PH: It’s pretty much my signature bass since my time with the band. But last year, I wanted something different for these duo tours. Something that had the sound of an upright bass, without having to lug an upright around. I found this Canadian company called Godin, and I researched their stuff, and I was really impressed. I found a fretless bass that fit the sound and feel of this tour, and I made a concentrated effort to play it daily until I could take it out exclusively on this tour. And, I did it. I’m not trained classically as a bassist, so it’s made me a better player for sure. It’s so beautiful and it sounds amazing.
FPH: I saw you playing in a suit a couple years back at ACL (Austin City Limits Festival), you do realize that Houston is about twenty degrees hotter than Austin, right?
PH: That’s become a standard for me, like part of the ritual of performing live; plus it gives me an excuse to wear a suit. It’s just part of the persona of performing, where it’s your uniform like you’re dressed and ready to go play. I try to wear lighter fabrics during the Summer. That ACL stage, playing at 3:00 in the afternoon, facing the sun; it was so hot. At the time, John had this thing for wanting to play barefoot, but I think that was squashed once he walked out on to that stage.
FPH: I heard a rumor that John is a beast at air hockey, and if that’s true, are you as good as he is? Because Fitzgerald’s has an air hockey table backstage, and I just need to know who to place my wager on.
PH: Actually, I had a job in college at the student center coffee shop. Across from it, there was an arcade where a friend and I would visit during our breaks and our free time. We were guys who weren’t really competitive at anything, except when we played air hockey. (Laughs) We’re talking we had black and blue fingers and sore hands from playing so much. It’s only once in a while that John and I get the chance to square off against each other. I know one time we did so at a gig in Miami, and I think we played backstage at Fitzgerald’s once before too. But as far as skill wise, I feel like we’re pretty evenly matched.
This might be one of the more special shows you get to see all year as a Houstonian. The fact that The Mountain Goats will grace our city while playing fan favorites mixed with deep cuts and new classics, is something of pure magic. While Hughes gears up for some backstage air hockey; you can catch him and Darnielle as they perform at Fitzgerald’s on June 21st.