The Mountain Goats’ eccentric frontman talked to Gary Steel just prior to the group’s recent NZ mini-tour.
John – It’s hard to be away from home for a great length of time. On the one hand you don’t want to complain because it’s a great job to have, but on the other hand I don’t like to be gone for more than three weeks if I can help it. I like being home.
WD – You used to have a reputation for doing incredibly long, rigorous tours, so you’ve learnt through experience that you’ve got to keep the life/work balance thing happening?
John – Yeah, you go pretty crazy but you get better. By the end of the tour you remember the part where you went crazy almost fondly, but then three weeks isn’t that short, it’s a lot of flying and a lot of movement. There aren’t any real weekends in touring, if you work two and a half weeks, you can always see your weekend coming up at the end of two and a half weeks. It’s a way of seeing things. I have no complaints. If the only way we could do it would be to do it for two months at a time, we’d do it because there’s a job to do.
WD – Your fan base down in Australia and New Zealand – does it manifest itself pretty much in the same way it does in the rest of the world? The same level of ardent fanboy and fangirl mania?
John – Well, I would guess it’s a little different, but it’s hard to say how. This is a sort of facile truth, but people are the same wherever you go, right, people have the same sort of needs and music is a universal language, but at the same time I think there’s something about an album that tries to tell a young man’s truth about his family that seems to have really resonated down there. It was a sudden latching on, you know. I wouldn’t presume to say what it is that made that particular area really resonate for people, but it seems to have. I get letters from Australia and New Zealand… I think it’s that a disproportionate number of people will share a little of their own story is nice for me to hear because there were similar things going on in my life when I was a child. I think there was something in telling that kind of truth that really resonated for a bunch of people down there.
WD – The way your early records were perceived was lo-fi. If you were to compare the latest album and its intimate and quite spare sound to the live show, would it be quite similar, or is the live show quite a different thing?
John – The live show is a whole different ball game. Live, we are a rock band, you know. We like to make a little bit of noise. And we play rock music, we play in bars a lot of times, so we like to stomp our feet, and it keeps you young. It’s more… the records are kind of Apollonian, but the live show’s Dionysian, we have fun. Because even if your songs are getting really sad and emotional, if you’re onstage in front of people that have come out to see you, what they’re telling you is ‘I’m here to have a good time’. Even if we’re going to talk about bad things, we want to have a good time with it. I don’t think those are incompatible, we have a good time telling sad, dark stories. It’s a question of getting the right balance.
WD – Bars can be quite noisy, even just the sound from the bar itself.
John – You learn to work to that and if you show love to your audience and if you have a really quiet song to play, if you say “this one’s a quiet one can you tone it down for a few minutes”, nine times out of ten people are going to show you that kind of love. But you tend to remember the one time you couldn’t make anyone be quiet for anything. These are people who like music, like you or me, not just bar-goers. For me, I don’t go into a bar to drink if there’s loud music there that I don’t want to hear. I’ll go to a bar to buy a drink.
WD – Will you be playing a lot of stuff from Life Of The World To Come, or will it be a greatest hits from 17 albums?
John – I make up a new set list every night. I do enjoy writing out a new set list in the dressing room, and I hand them around the band and we discuss them. And it keeps me fresh, because when you see people with pre-planned setlists, for me that takes some of the fun out of it. We need room for spontaneity. We tend to open with the same number for the whole tour though, because it gives you a nice sense of having arrived. It sort of escorts you into your groove, which is nice.
WD – Do you try to keep it quite loose in terms of rehearsals and so forth, or is it better for the other musicians not to be too well rehearsed and have something sprung on them?
John – No, I don’t think they like that so well as I do; if the drummer doesn’t know where the song is going it can be rough! What we do is practice all the ones on the list so we know 45 songs going out, and I’ll draw from those BUT plenty of times people have called for a song that we haven’t played live and we can usually put some kind of Frankenstein version of it together.
WD – What was the reaction like to the overtly religious subject matter of the last album?
J – Um, it was interesting. Before it came out, people seemed CONCERNED. [laughs]. When it was announced the vibe I was getting was “oh, what is this all about?” But… you never know how people really felt about an album until it’s been out for five or six years. But people seem to have really enjoyed it. The song that I consider the song at the centre of it, the one about [my friend] who dies of cancer, has really reached a lot of people and that’s so important to me because I sort of, I wrote it so people who have had that sort of experience would have a story that they could hear and find comforting. We haven’t played it live very much at all, but the few times I have it’s been very special for me. I think that people see that that sort of emotional nakedness is somewhere near the centre of the record, and all these stories around it are just sort of sparking off that energy. Yeah it’s good, it’s done really well for us. I always assume that when we put out a new record we’re going to be told “oh, you’ve dropped the ball now”. I’m always writing, so now I’m focused on the new stuff.
WD – I wondered if you read your own press at all. There are so many great critical comments up in cyberspace. I noticed on YouTube there was some guy who said the song ‘This Year’ had become his anthem, he broke his back and was paralysed.
John – Oh, wow! This is the thing, okay, to answer the question honestly. There’s two kinds of artists, there’s people who read their own press, and there’s people who lie about it. Everybody reads their own press to some extent, but I think it is unhealthy, you have to be careful. It’s unhealthy for a writer to get called a genius. It’s terrible. What you always need to be conscious of is the fact that everybody that you look up to is always going to be above you, and that’s where to be shooting, looking up as high as you can look, and climbing the mountain and imagining what it would be like to be your favourite writer. It’s lovely when people say nice things about you. And at the same time people demonise critics. Critics are also just people, it’s not like the critic is a different [laughs] order of human being – they’re music lovers. It’s interesting because it used to be you had to wait to see your own press, but in the age of the internet you’ve got access to as many people talking about you all day as you want. That’s not healthy for you as an artist or a human being, right? How can you focus on your work if you focus on what people are saying about it? Imagine a bricklayer hearing the chatter of someone constantly evaluating every brick he put down. It would be bad for him and bad for the wall he was building. You try and avoid it, but at the same time, artists are egotists and they are going to read their good notices. I can’t deny that, but I strive not to hear too much of it.
WD – Thanks John.
John – I don’t know if you’re going to run into Chris Knox, but if you do please tell him I love him and I will be there soon to tell him so to his face. That guy changed my life. [Knox was due to perform at the Mountain Goats’ Auckland show, but had to cancel his appearance due to illness].