Musicscan: Your last album „The Sunset Tree“ was probably received as your most personal and intimate record, especially as far as the lyrics were concerned. “Get Lonely” seems to be a step back into a more subtle and less brutally confessional terrain at least lyrically. Was that a conscious decision? In how far did the previous album have a cathartic effect for you?
The Mountain Goats: I actually don’t think of “Get Lonely” as a step back – in many ways it feels more personal, just because a lot of the feelings it’s dealing with are closer to the present day. “The Sunset Tree” dealt mainly with my younger self – there were two or three or four songs (“Pale Green Things” and “Dinu Lipatti’s Bones” especially) that brought a present-day perspective, and I felt like those were the best and most personal songs on the album, the ones I felt most deeply. So while the songs on the new one are for the most part stories, the feelings are if anything more confessional – the songs describe where my head was for much of the past nine months or so.
Musicscan: Tell me a little bit about the recording process for this record. You worked with Scott Solter. What impact did he have on the music?
The Mountain Goats: Well, Scott was the engineer for the last two records – he and Vanderslice work closely together. When I found out that John Vanderslice would be on tour during the time I wanted to record, I asked Scott if he’d like to do the job himself, and he was into it. Scott and I get along really well, which I honestly feel is one of the most important things for me in a producer: he really listens hard to the songs, asks me questions about them, and tries to get inside of them. He also has one of those insanely attuned ears where he can hear every minor detail of a sound, even if it’s just a mic that’s a tenth of an inch further away from the guitar than it was a minute ago.
Musicscan: I believe the only person that you sort of have been working with continuously is Peter Hughes. How would you describe your musical relationship?
The Mountain Goats: Well, I’ve actually been working with Franklin Bruno longer – our “side project,” the Extra Glenns, actually pre-dates the Mountain Goats. But Peter and I have been non-stop since 2001, whereas Franklin and I only meet up sporadically. Peter’s great strength is actually similar to Scott’s most of the time – I send him songs & then he listens hard to them and tries to find what mood they’re coming from, and then instead of just rooting the chords he writes lines that complement the entire song.
Musicscan: Would you consider it a compliment or rather a form of criticism if people called your music escapism? What has been the primary function of music for you in your life? Can music be therapeutic in a way?
The Mountain Goats: You know, there was a time when I would have really hated that, but I’ve turned a complete 180 degrees on the question, since I now enjoy music that lets me break free from the day-to-day and live in somebody else’s world, even if it’s a dark and haunted place. The word “escapist” has so many negative connotations though – why is that? Daily reality is fine but dreams and nightmares and visions are also important. The main function of music that I listen to is to sort of possess my body, if that makes sense – to completely take over my brain.
Musicscan: Has that relationship to music changed over the years as you have been engaged with music full-time for quite a while now?
The Mountain Goats: Yeah, I used to listen with my head a lot more – lately sound, rhythm and texture are as important as others’ lyrics for me, though in my own work I’m still lyrics-first. But so much of the music I like now is from other countries, or is instrumental; that’s a huge change from when I only listened to stuff that had great lyrics. Maybe this change is partly because good lyricists keep getting harder to find but I don’t think so – I think my ears have gotten bigger, more open and more receptive to other colors and depths.
Musicscan: Why write songs and commit your life to music instead of working a “regular” job with a considerably better pay?
The Mountain Goats: Well, I didn’t quit working a regular job until music was able to pay the bills – I don’t have any romantic ideas like the ones people often announce, you know, like “I MUST be an artist, it’s the only way for me” – for me that’s just not true. I got a lot of satisfaction out of being a nurse when I was a nurse; it’s good to work. Really the only reason I’m a full-time musician now is that the work keeps me so busy that it’s not practical to hold another job.
Musicscan: Where there certain turning points in your life where you were struggling with the idea of being an artist? What made you stick to being hungry and creative?
The Mountain Goats: I’ve really been writing something (stories, poems songs) all my life, always, ever since I was very young; I don’t really think about being hungry, or whether my creativity’s up or down: the whole process is just very natural for me and is pretty separate from qualities like ambition or goal-setting, you know? It’s like, yeah, this is what I do for a living now, but I’d be doing it even if nobody was listening; I just wouldn’t tour, probably. Sometimes I think of writing poems instead of songs, since I think poetry is a pretty demanding craft, but I don’t ever imagine not making something. Making things is what I do as naturally as I eat or sleep.
Musicscan: Does art have responsibilities? What makes for great, “timeless” art in your opinion?
The Mountain Goats: I almost don’t believe in “timeless” art – I think all art is for somebody, or some occasion, or some small thing. The whole concept of “for the ages,” that’s kind of not for me. I do feel that artists are responsible to their listeners – that an artist should always do his best, and should remember that someone is listening: art doesn’t occur in a vacuum. In fact, nothing ever occurs in vacuums. So that’s worth remembering. But I think an artists responsibilities sort of begin and end with the listener: that’s who I love, and that’s who I’m making the song for. I do not believe people who say they make art for themselves only. If that were really true, why share it with people? So, to answer another part of your question, great art connects with someone. That’s more or less all! The deeper the connection the better. This need not be an emotional or spiritual connection (though it can be) nor an intellectual connection (though it can be that, too). But I think people (it doesn’t really matter how many people) responding, that’s what makes it great. I don’t really believe in a general notion of greatness, though.
Musicscan: In these supposedly postmodern times, authenticity in music and art continues to be of major importance for many people. Have you ever experienced that people conceive of music as more authentic when it is made out to be based on “real” lived experiences as opposed to purely fictional storytelling?
The Mountain Goats: I think people generally ascribe “authenticity” to acoustic instruments like guitars and violins and so on – which is sort of silly. But I do think, yes, that what people want from art (and from theatre, too, I think, and from dance) is the feeling that there’s some connection being forged between strangers – that the artist and the listener are somehow riding the same wave. And the surest way to get that is if the listener feels like he’s hearing something spontaneous, which is kind of weird but is a deep-seated notion people have. People have always sort of assumed that all my stuff is autobiographical, and some people didn’t believe me when I said We Shall All Be Healed was largely about my younger life. Authenticity I think is mainly in the eye of the beholder, if that makes sense.
Musicscan: What has changed in your life since you married? Isn’t any relationship hard to maintain when being on the road for such extensive periods of time?
The Mountain Goats: Oh yes, it is tough! The thing is, when I got married I sort of expected to be leaving music before long – I didn’t know that my best work lay ahead of me, in the future. We moved from Iowa to North Carolina where there’s more for my wife to do while I’m away.
Musicscan: You have probably written several hundred songs by now. How do you keep it fresh and exciting for yourself also with regard to being on tour pretty much all the time?
The Mountain Goats: This is partly why I write from a more honest place now than I used to: writing is a way of staying in contact with my real self, with the ideas and images that sort of shape me. I didn’t write anywhere except at home for years but now I write some of my best stuff in hotel rooms: “Dance Music” was written in a Rotterdam hotel room and several songs on the new record were written at a Holiday Inn Express in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Something about the exhaustion of being on tour, and the solitude of it, really inspires me now. Kind of unhealthy, that, I guess.
Musicscan: Do you ever contemplate if there is a life after music for you? What are some other passions in your life besides music and art?
The Mountain Goats: Oh yes – it’s inevitable, isn’t it? Sometimes I think I’ll return to health care – I have a real passion for patient care, though the bureaucracy of the health care system in the US is so horrible that it makes it frustrating. I love to cook, so sometimes my wife & I talk about opening a restaurant. And then sometimes I think: what else might I do that I haven’t even considered yet? Life is so long, there are so many things one can do.