Right off the bat: do you remember the first record you ever bought for yourself?
You know…I don’t. I thought about it for a while, and I feel like most of my early records were ones that I asked for and was given for a birthday or Christmas or whatever. I don’t know at what point I started getting allowance or buying my own stuff. I would guess that it’s probably something pretty lame like REO Speedwagon or The Eagles or something like that [laughs]. For years and years – this will give you a good idea of how I thought about my record purchases – they were a big deal. I used to save all my receipts. In my desk drawer, there was this little plastic tray and I had a stack of receipts. I would write on the back what record I had bought. And I’d write down the record store. I don’t know where those are today, but I probably still have them. They’re probably in a box in my attic somewhere with a million other things.
When you say it was a “big deal,” is that because you’d had to save up your hard-earned allowance or was it because you you were already cognizant of the quality of your record collection?
Both. Music was really important. Access to music in the late 1970s and early 1980s was much more restricted. I used to have – I still have – these tapes. I was fortunate to grow up in Southern California, where there was pretty good radio. There was KROQ, which was the big alternative/New Wave radio station. It's pretty mainstream by today’s standards, but at the time they were playing some cool stuff. They were the first radio station to play Duran Duran or something like that. But they played a lot of obscure, punky-y stuff too.
I used to sit there with my boombox and a cassette already in it, with the record button paused. And any time I heard something that sounded cool or interesting, I would unpause it and tape the song. I still have these cassettes [laughs]. They’re total time capsules of what was on the radio at that time.
If you think about 80s music now, there are certain songs that have become canonized and codified as being representative of that era. Like Flock of Seagulls. But it’s really interesting to listen to these tapes and realize how much good stuff there was on the radio. The music that ended up on the Best of the 80s compilations is random. It’s the songs that had pretty good publishing deals or licensing or whatever - but there’s so much other great stuff that fell through the cracks.
So it’s been roughly 30 years now. Where do you stand on The Eagles these days?
That was more of a childhood thing. I moved away from The Eagles pretty early on [laughs].
My view on The Eagles was forever ruined by The Big Lebowski. That scene where the Dude is riding in a taxi. He’s had a really bad day and tells the cab driver that hates the Eagles. Have you seen it?
Yeah but only within the last year. I finally saw it on an airplane. What’s the line about the Eagles?
So the Dude is a diehard Credence fan. All he has is Credence tapes, which get stolen when his car gets stolen. Since he has no car, he’s riding in a cab and he’s coming back from somewhere. I don’t remember what had just happened, but it was bad. So the Dude’s having a bad day. And the cab driver is listening to the Eagles. The Dude asks the driver to change the station, and the cab driver asks him why. Why don’t you like my music? What’s wrong with the Eagles? And the Dude says something like, “Man I’ve had a really bad day…and I hate the fucking Eagles, man.”
Yes. I remember that. [Laughs].
The name of the new LP is Goths, a title that immediately evokes youth and adolescence. You confirm as much in the blurb you wrote for the official Merge Records press release. What was your childhood like as it relates to music?
KROQ was the big thing. It was the defining radio station. It’s what everyone listened to, unless you were into metal. It was a big deal in Southern California.
Where specifically was this?
Los Angeles. I grew up in the Inland Empire – about thirty miles east of L.A. It was where all the smog from L.A. blows and just kind of stays [laughs]. So I grew up in the greater L.A. metro area. Nobody from L.A. would ever go to where I was from. We would go to L.A. for shows pretty routinely, but nobody would ever come to where I lived.
In addition to KROQ, there were these TV shows. Cable TV didn’t come to California until the late 80s, so we didn’t have MTV like everybody else did. Instead, we had these after-school shows, almost like American Bandstand. There was this show called MV3 in the early 80s. They would show videos, but they also had a dancefloor where these people would be dancing on TV. You can find it on YouTube.
It was hosted by Richard Blade, one of the KROQ radio guys, who I think is Australian. But he never corrected anyone if they thought he was English, because that made him cooler [laughs]. He had two other co-hosts. This was early on, so when a band would come to Southern California, they’d play on the show. Or sometimes a local California band like Missing Persons. Or Oingo Boingo. They were a huge deal in Southern California. If you watch the videos now, they're amazing. What the people were wearing. Doing these 80s dances. It added a visual element to what was going on with KROQ.
I remember seeing Cure videos on MV3 when I was twelve or thirteen years old. Songs like "The Lovecats" and "Let's Go To Bed." And I remember being pretty into it. Then I discovered a live version of the song "Faith," the title track from The Cure's third album. It's this eight-and-a-half minute long, monolithic piece of music with these interweaving bass and guitar lines. It's so beautiful and icy and amazing. It was one of the coolest things I'd ever heard, and it totally opened my mind up to the fact that music can do all this other stuff too. That was my gateway. Those early Cure records are dark and super goth-y. That's goth. I never identified as a goth and wasn't wearing nail polish or eyeliner. But that was the music I was into. Joy Division. Siouxie. Bauhaus.
It sounds like the radio and MV3 were more formative for you than, say, a local music scene where a bunch of punks get together and play house shows.
I'm talking about a time when I was younger. I grew up in Chino, which was this cow-town that was turning into a bedroom community. There wasn't a whole lot going on where I lived. If I had grown up in West Hollywood, I probably would have had access to more things. But at that age - I didn't have access to a car, or an older brother or older friends. I found out about stuff from the radio and these random TV shows. It was later that I started going to shows. I did get to see The Cure and Siouxie in 1985.
Goths has been in the works for a while. When did you record it?
We recorded it about a year ago. We did it in Nashville at Blackbird Studio. It's this super high-end place. The nicest place we've ever worked. The gear they had for us to use was phenomenal.
Did you record the whole album in one session?
Yes. We did it in about a week and a half. We did all the basics while we were there. The overdubs. We had a day where sixteen people from the Nashville Symphony Chorus came in and sang the piece that's on "Rain in Soho." That was pretty amazing to see and be there to listen to. We also had these four gospel singers come in for a day. They were amazing. They sang on "We Do It Different On The West Coast" and "Wear Black." They were a joy to watch.
You had a lot going on. Nicest studio you've ever worked in. Sixteen piece choral group. Four piece gospel outfit. No guitars. The addition of Matt Douglas. This sounds like it was a completely new experience for the band.
Yes and no. It was great to have Matt there the whole time. He played on the last record (Beat the Champ) too. We knew we wanted woodwinds and saxophone on that record, and our longtime, long-suffering tour manager and producer Brandon Eggleston knew Matt. He brought Matt in for a day during the Beat the Champ sessions. He played saxophone, clarinet, flute, a bunch of other stuff. He's one of those guys who can play everything. He's a real musician.
When it came time to tour the record, we were like "That guy Matt seemed pretty cool. Maybe he can come out with us." Almost immediately we realized we could never tour again without him [laughs]. So he's full time now. It was nice to have Matt in Nashville this time as a full time band member. He's integral to the arrangements.
The "no guitars" thing was almost kind of an accident. Over the last ten years or so, John has been writing songs on piano. Those songs tend to be different structurally. They just sound different - a little more sophisticated. He uses this Rhodes preset on a keyboard that he likes and is inspired by.
What's the story with the Rhodes?
It's a Rhodes electric piano that was popular in the 70s. It's your classic soft rock piano sound [laughs]. Most of the songs for this record were written on the Rhodes. When it came time to actually record, we would do the basics of a song. We'd then move onto the next one or maybe have the overdubs in mind. We were about two thirds of the way through the album when it occurred to us - we haven't put a single guitar on this. It wasn't by design or anything, but we thought, well, maybe we shouldn't [laughs]. It's pretty cool. Why spoil it now?
By that time, it had become this thing that you could build around.
Exactly We started asking what it would be like to have a record with no guitars. It wasn't some grand design. It was more of an organic thing that just happened.
Still, when you add all of these things up, it did end up being a pretty different record. At the same time, it's still immediately recognizable as a Mountain Goats record. I don't think anybody is going to disagree with that or confuse it with anything else.
A Mountain Goats record is definitely singular and unique. It doesn't matter what instruments you're playing - it's always going to be a Mountain Goats record. That must mean your next album will be a synth and techno record.
If I was the boss, yes. [laughs]
You are well known as the bassist in a popular band. What might be less well-known is that you also write for AutoWeek. Can you tell us about that side of your professional life? Where does your passion for cars come from, and how did you end up writing about them professionally?
I've always been a car nerd, ever since I was a little kid. I was obsessed with Trans Ams that had the crazy bird on the hood. And it was a similar voyage as my music voyage. You start off with REO Speedwagon and find your way to The Cure. I found my way from the Trans Am to to the obscure European sports cars of the 1950s and 1960s [laughs].
It's been a constant throughout my life. At the same time I was getting into all the music we talked about, I was also reading a bunch of car magazines. That's the first job I seriously wanted. When I was a kid, I imagined myself writing for car magazines. The needle kind of wavered between cars and music, and I stuck with music long enough to develop a career in it. But I was always into cars too.
About ten years ago, I started doing this car blog called Firebird Man (Tumblr link) where I would post links to cars for sale that I wanted. Then I started taking pictures of cars and writing about them. At one point six or seven years ago, someone was interviewing me and asked about the blog. I said that I'd always harbored this ambition of being an automotive journalist. And an actual automotive journalist and Mountain Goats fan - this guy named Davey Johnson - happened to read the interview and was determined to make me into one [laughs]. So he kind of made it his mission, and we hit it off. We ended up making a music video together. I did this solo album that was a very high concept pop record about a racecar driver from the 1950s named Juan Manuel Fangio. Davey flew in from California to make the video. We ended up spending three days in upstate New York driving my Saab around in the freezing cold. That was the beginning of me realizing my other life ambition [laughs]. For the last two years, I've been writing for AutoWeek. It lets me go on cool trips and drive cool cars.
You're living the life.
When I go on these writing trips to something like an event where a car company is introducing a new model, there will be all of these writers. And I'm kind of the this outsider guy because I don't do it very often. They'll ask who am I there with, and I'll say AutoWeek. I have to explain that this is not my full time gig. It's more of a moonlighting thing.
My real job is playing bass in a band. The Mountain Goats. Have you heard of them?
Exactly. Thats the thing. Some of the writers will ask what my other job is, thinking I work for a bank or something. And I'm like, well, I play in a band. Not everyone has heard of us, but a lot of these guys who write for magazines are younger, pretty hip dudes. And they've heard of the Mountain Goats. And they're like, wait. What? [laughs]
It's a funny dual thing that I do, but it's a totally different environment from what I actually spend most of my life doing - which is being at home and being a dad to a five year old. That's actually the vast majority of my life. Maybe 7% of the time I play music and 3% I write about cars. It's a pretty awesome outlet.
You recently moved to Charlotte. How do you like our humble city so far? Is there anything that has surprised you?
We're still finding our way around. My wife works as a teacher. My daughter is going to school. I'm at a point in my life where I'm not doing a lot of "hanging out." If it were an earlier period in my life, I would know all of the bars in Charlotte by now. I would know the best places to go, and I would know where to go eat after those bars closed [laughs]. I don't have that experience any more though.
I know where some good playgrounds are. I'm sure you do too, but if you ever need any pointers....
Actually, I do. I'm new to the fatherhood thing. Where are some good playgrounds?
Freedom Park is super nice. And there's cool stuff downtown. What is it, ImaginOn? We've done that and the Children's Theater. We're cool.
That's funny to me. You're in a band and you write for a car magazine, but it sounds like your experience in Charlotte so far has been pretty much just like everybody else's. It's a nice place to raise a family and not get too crazy.
I'm not trying to sound under-enthused. We haven't been here long enough. We're just starting to find a community. The train is cool though. We've done the train a couple times.