Inside Listening: The Mountain Goats' Bassist On His Own Band's Albums
I don't know about other bands, but I can say with some confidence that in The Mountain Goats we don't spend a lot of time listening to our own records. This wasn't always true in my case: for the first decade or so that John Darnielle was performing his spare, arresting, enigmatic story-songs under that moniker, up through the 2001 release of All Hail West Texas, my role in the band was one of friend, fan and only very occasional collaborator, and as such I listened to The Mountain Goats plenty. That all changed soon after, when what John and I initially talked about as just doing some recording together turned into a full-time job as a bassist for me, and something that's kept us busy to this day — busy enough that we don't bother to listen to our own records.
Once they're finished, I mean; there's always the initial excitement of getting the mixes back from an album we've just recorded, but once the giddiness has worn off, the nature of our relationship to a given collection of songs diverges pretty radically I think from that of a listener's. For everyone else, an album and the performances it captures are definitive: they're the primary (and sometimes sole) interface with the material, and when an album hits home with you, those particular performances can end up being a permanent part of your mental landscape. For us, the recording is almost incidental. More often than not, our relationship with a song is just beginning when we bring it into the studio. Albums then are more like collections of snapshots — baby pictures! — of songs that we'll be performing, living with and nurturing, for years to come. And just as when you live with someone you don't feel much need to look at pictures of them, so too don't we feel much compulsion to revisit recordings of songs we play every night.
Still — to exhaust the metaphor entirely — after enough time living together, there inevitably comes the temptation to dust off those old, er, albums and see where you've been. Last year, with 2012 marking the tenth anniversary of my more-or-less daily involvement with The Mountain Goats, I found myself wondering what it would be like to revisit each of the records we'd made together during that time, not just playing a song here or there as I might occasionally do to relearn a forgotten bass part, but actually sitting down and giving myself over to the experience of listening to them as albums. How would they hold up? How different are they from how I remember them?