The Rumpus Interview with Peter Hughes of The Mountain Goats

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“Why should only famous people be famous? Fuck that! Fame for all! Even if it’s just the tiniest bit (which turns out to be the perfect amount).”

I first met Peter Hughes when I was going through a rough patch in my life and coming on a plane to San Francisco for the first time.  I had never seen The Mountain Goats play and they had a show at the Bottom of the Hill the night I arrived.  Of course, due to my lack of planning, the show was all sold out, and so I wrote them an email, and not only did both Peter Hughes and John Darnielle respond to my email, but they put me on the guest list with a plus three.  I was blown away by that act of generosity that they extended to a stranger.  Sure, it wasn’t probably the biggest inconvenience for them to put someone on the guest list, but the fact that they both wrote back to me that day with thoughtful emails, was something you don’t normally expect from rock stars.  That’s because they operate like normal, humble dudes.

That was in 2005.  I’ve seen them play a bunch of times and have enjoyed watching their music evolve and change.  I caught up with Peter Hughes while he was on tour with The Mountain Goats for their latest album, Life of the World to Come.  We conducted our interview over Gmail, and as I was finishing a masters degree and he was on a breakneak touring schedule, it took us two months of back and forth emails to get to this interview.  That may account for any lack of continuity, and any endearing stilted awkwardness.  We talked about things like music, Facebook, the democratizing effects of the Internet and the beauty of automobiles.

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The Rumpus: I’m sure you’ve googled yourself, and the first result for Peter Hughes is this guy:  http://www.peterhughes.com/about-history.shtml.  What’s up with that?

Peter Hughes: That guy is my nemesis! I’M the REAL Peter Hughes! Actually it’s kind of amazing to me that there’s only one person ahead of me. And it’s fine, yeah. I like that he’s pretty obviously not me, too. Like, if someone from high school wants to look me up, they’ll see the Australian scuba instructor — hm, probably not — and then this guy doing music and writing about cars — aha! It also means I don’t have to be on Facebook, which is just too creepy. I like having the barrier of, in order to get in touch with me, you have to at least consciously articulate the thought, “I’d like to get in touch with Peter Hughes, let me go to Google and see what comes up.”  It’s a pretty low bar; I don’t feel like I need to make it any easier.

Rumpus: I’m interested as to what you think is creepy about Facebook.  I mean it’s kind of amazing that googling someone’s name and then having to contact them, in your mind, is somehow more of an effort than using Facebook.  Does the whole thing make you mourn a time of more thoughtful communication and the lessening of wonder and open space?

Hughes: Well first of all lemme just say that I’m not some kinda Luddite technophobe. As someone who’s old enough to remember how much of a pain in the ass the world was pre–the Internet, I regard the Internet as pretty much the greatest thing ever. But here’s my thing with Facebook. My friend Trudy once made the great observation that Facebook is like heaven. We all imagine heaven as paradise, but really, if you think about what it would actually be like — everyone you’ve ever known in one place — I dunno, some part of me just thinks that would be weird and not entirely pleasant. I’m not a nostalgic person. I’m perfectly happy to let the past be the past. And the thing that Facebook facilitates that creeps me out is this kind of flattening of past and present, this “heaven effect,” let’s call it.

So, to use the high school example: I kinda hated high school. I hated most of the people with whom I went to high school. Those few that I liked, my oldest friends, I’m still friends with. Everybody else, I wish them no harm, but I don’t feel any need to reconnect with them either. But let’s say I get on Facebook. I’m immediately friended by one of my old friends who doesn’t share my old-classmates allergy. Suddenly I have friend requests from people I never really wanted to think about ever again, who very likely would have gone the entire rest of their lives without ever thinking about ME again, saying hey buddy! Great to see you on here! What are you up to these days?

There are many reasons that I live three thousand miles from where I grew up. Avoiding these situations in real life isn’t anywhere near the top of the list, but it’s a happy fringe benefit!

Rumpus: A lot of people might identify you so closely with The Mountain Goats that they aren’t aware of your other musical ventures. What’s the difference in the experience of being a songwriter and a solo artist, and being in a band where you’re not the songwriter?

Hughes: Being in a band where you’re not the songwriter is great. You’re not in the spotlight, it’s not your ego on the line if people aren’t into it, you can just chill and play and have fun. Also, if it’s a band with a songwriter you really love (as is the case with me and The Mountain Goats), you get to influence the sound of the band somewhat, which is awesome. How many old-school Mountain Goats fans would love to play Rick Rubin and sit John down in front of a boombox again? Well, I was an old-school Mountain Goats fan who always wanted to hear The Mountain Goats sound like they do now. I win!

Playing in a band where you’re the songwriter is also great. One of my favorite things when I was playing with my old band DiskothiQ was writing songs on an acoustic guitar and imagining how they would sound fleshed out with the whole band, gradually arranging them in my head to the point where I could hear the finished product, and then bringing the songs into band practice and working them up and hearing that thing that I’d imagined come to life. Incredibly satisfying. Also it’s your band and your vision and you get to call the shots, which is cool, but you also have this sense of camaraderie and being part of a group, which makes it more fun generally and easier to deal with when the chips are down.

Playing as a solo artist, so far as I can tell, is just horrible. There’s no one around when you’re working on stuff to say, “Yeah, that’s cool!” so you spend the whole time wondering, is this even good? Playing solo is incredibly nerve-wracking — the only times I’ve EVER experienced anything resembling stagefright are the times I’ve performed solo, and it happens pretty much without fail. Pretty much the only advantage I can think of to being a solo artist is that there’s no one to split the money with. But as there is no money to speak of…

Rumpus: What was making “The One Hundred Thousand Songs of Peter Peter Hughes” like? Listening to it, you seem so British to me in your sensibilities. Do you need this kind of other solo outlet for music?

Hughes: I’ve been playing in bands and recording solo stuff since way before I started playing in The Mountain Goats, so I just kinda see the stuff I’m working on now as a continuation of that. For most of the ’00s I’ve been too busy with The Mountain Goats to do much else, but the “One Hundred Thousand Songs” stuff happened just as that was starting, and the writing of those songs was less about, “Hey, I’m gonna record a solo album!” and more just me working through some personal drama. That’s funny that it sounds British to you. I guess most of my musical career has been spent pretty solidly in the realm of good old American indie-rock, but before I discovered Sonic Youth and Dinosaur it was really all about Factory stuff and the Smiths and every variation of early ’80s synthpop before that. And that’s what I ultimately revert to if left to my own devices, hence the New Order.

Rumpus: What’s your music writing process like?

Hughes: For me, songwriting is its own thing apart from lyric writing. It’s partly writing and partly composing, sure, but in the same way that painting is partly drawing and partly coloring: ultimately, it’s something entirely different. I don’t adhere to any set process particularly. Sometimes a lyric comes first, sometimes a melody, sometimes a chord progression; some songs get written all at once, some songs are hammered out over months. For the stuff I’m working on now I tried something new and spent a couple months just creating beats and sequences on the computer, while simultaneously sketching lyrical ideas in the shower, during walks, whatever, and writing them down without any regard for where they’d end up; only later did I start mixing and matching and building around that. Maybe half the songs ended up coming out of this process; the rest got written more organically, more the way I’m used to working, only with a laptop instead of a guitar.

Rumpus: Let’s shift and talk about music and technology for a bit. Do you want to talk about how the Internet has fragmented the music industry?

Hughes: The Internet has harmed it to the precise extent that it deserved to be harmed. This is democratizing and good.

Rumpus: How do you think it has shaped music production? The Rumpus did an interview with John Vanderslice recently where he said, when asked about the future of audio recording technology and music production, “The world is just going to continue to fragment, and that’s a great thing.” What do you think about that?

Hughes: Well, yeah. Momus’s revision of the famous Andy Warhol line, on like Day 2 of the Internet, that in the new future everyone would be famous for fifteen people, has quite clearly come to pass (you’re interviewing me, right?). Which is great. It’s democratizing. Why should only famous people be famous? Fuck that! Fame for all! Even if it’s just the tiniest bit (which turns out to be the perfect amount).

Same with the actual production of music. One reason it’s taking me so long to answer these questions is because I’m busy trying to finish up this album I’ve been working on before everything gets crazy with Mountain Goats stuff. Used to be when you heard someone say something like that you’d picture them in a big recording studio surrounded by thousands of dollars worth of gear, or else (if it’s someone you personally know) holed up in their bedroom making lo-fi cassettes on a crummy four-track. Me, I’m sitting in my back room with a laptop plugged into a stereo and it sounds like freaking New Order! Do you know how long I’ve wanted to sound like New Order? All I had to do was wait for someone to invent GarageBand.

So yeah. There are trade-offs — proper analog studio recording is a dark art, one that requires tons of skill and resources, and it’s getting harder and harder for people who care about it as an art form to stay in business — but it’s hard to argue with the idea of making the means of production available to everyone. It’s like, what if paint were a hundred dollars a tube? That would be shitty. Why should making music cost a fortune?

Rumpus: In response to you in the back room, sounding like New Order (also a dream of mine to sound like New Order) I know a lot of musicians who lament the fact that people don’t seem to learn musical skills the old-fashioned way. Like the hundreds and thousands of hours honing the craft of being a musician can now be replaced, although not replicated exactly, by a machine. I, instead of learning how to sing, just sing into my computer and alter it slightly. Sometimes I feel that I’m getting away with something, but enjoying it just the same. The fact that you can approximate your New Order dreams with Garageband – do you ever feel like it’s cheating?

Hughes: Well, look — it’s not like New Order are exactly virtuoso musicians either. They were just using a bunch of expensive and janky machines to accomplish what i can do with one cheap and easy one. Maybe that’s cheating of a sort, but no more than it’s cheating to take a hot shower in your bathroom when your ancestors had to fetch cold water from a well.

As to the larger question of technology as a substitute for skill, wasn’t the whole point of the twentieth century (and punk rock, for that matter) that art could be as much about ideas as it is about technique? I mean, I’m not a great singer and I never will be, period. But nobody who’s listening to my music is coming for the beautiful singin’. The only reason it’s even there is to get across the lyrics and be otherwise as unobtrusive as possible. But let’s say I have this magical filter I can run my voice through that’ll make my egregious flats less painful on the ears of a kind listener. Should I NOT use it? That just seems silly to me, and cruel.

And great musicians are going to be great no matter what. Erik Friedlander, who has graciously lent his cello playing to The Mountain Goats on occasion, is a guy who through a combination of extraordinary talent and fierce discipline (and a lifetime of cultivating both) has just completely mastered his instrument. Watching him play is like watching Roger Clemens pitch or Michael Schumacher drive, except that those guys are dicks and Erik is a total mensch. I’ve watched him do his thing — which is, and read this slowly so as to let the full implications sink in: free-jazz improv solo cello — in front of five hundred texting talking ADHD indie-rockers and inside of thirty seconds have every last one of them slack-jawed in wonder and rapt attention for the full duration of his set. None of those people will ever listen to free-jazz improv solo cello music again, but it doesn’t matter: in that moment, they recognize that they are in the presence of greatness, and they stand in awe. An entire planet of auto-tuning hacks isn’t going to change that.

Rumpus: That’s a pretty sweet answer. When you say, “The only reason it’s even there is to get across the lyrics”, does that mean you consider yourself more of a poet than a musician, or are the two so synthesized that you don’t distinguish it in that way?

Hughes: Poet? That might be a bit of a reach. More of a songwriter than a musician, though, definitely, at least when it comes to my own stuff.

Of course, that conveniently ignores the fact that for most of the last decade my primary gig has been playing in a band where I am very much NOT the songwriter, and that “musician” is what I’ve been writing on my tax return for a while now too. But I think there’s a distinction to be drawn between the absolute-mastery kind of musicianship that someone like Erik exemplifies and the musicianship required of people playing in a rock band, where often as not the most effective thing to play is the one that utilizes the least amount of skill. Mine is of the latter order, obviously.

Rumpus: I also wanted to ask you about your photographs. I know you post them just as photo diaries, but I think they’re just lovely and seem to reveal that you have a gift for photography. I especially love the photos of empty hotel rooms and street scenes – those kind of remind me of Todd Hido’s work. What’s your relationship to taking photographs? Is it to trigger memories? As evidence?

Hughes: Well thanks for the kind words, first off. I don’t know Todd Hido, I’ll have to check him out. But yeah, evidence I guess. And also just as a window. Being a music fan you have all sorts of ideas about what it would be like to be a working, touring musician — I know I did, anyway — and when it finally happened that I was lucky enough to do it, I wanted to share the experience with people, and show what it actually is and isn’t. That’s kind of the point of the tour diaries on livejournal, too — to demystify and demythologize the job of “rock star,” to let people in on it to some extent and also to show that we’re just regular people who spend some percentage of their time living a life that seems glamorous — sometimes even to us! — but more often than not isn’t, so much. Hence the hotel rooms with televisions tuned perpetually to Law and Order.

Rumpus: It’s nice to hear people being grateful for their luck and success in an industry that’s very hard to make it in. If you hadn’t ended up as a musician, what do you think you’d have done?

Hughes: If only it were so hypothetical! Success in music came late enough that I had plenty of years (like, ten) to flounder about trying to find a non-soul-crushing career. I settled eventually for graphic design, typesetting, copy editing, that sort of thing, worked full-time at it for years before going freelance and working, well, somewhat less than full-time. I still do freelance stuff for my old employers on occasion, and the odd Mountain Goats t-shirt or design project. I did the art for my friend Franklin Bruno’s new CD, Local Currency. So, to answer your question, if I hadn’t ended up a musician? I’d probably have continued doing what I was doing already. And playing music anyway.

Secret dream job, though? You know the joke about how professional athletes all dream of being rock stars and rock stars all dream about being professional athletes? I dream of being an automotive journalist. Have all my life. Still might do it.

Rumpus: I’m so glad we got to this point in the interview. I was actually waiting for this moment where we would get to talk about cars. I know that you’re a huge automobile fan from pictures and writing on your blog. I love me some cars, although in San Francisco, that’s like an affliction, something to be ashamed of. Tell me more about your love of cars. Mine is so base, I can’t imagine being an automobile journalist. I wouldn’t be able to get past their beautiful surfaces.

Hughes: There is much to be said for beautiful surfaces. There is also much to be said about the harmful ways the automobile has shaped our society over the last hundred years (it’s tempting to say “American society,” but in truth it’s the same story everywhere), which is why the self-selecting population of San Francisco feels the way it does. I don’t disagree with them entirely. If it were up to me, the suburbs would all be bombed. But they would be bombed with completely awesome WWII B-25 Mitchells, deadly weapons for which I also harbor a terrific enthusiasm, despite being, most of the time — except where the suburbs are concerned, I guess — a pacifist. Do you see where I’m going, though? The question is asking me to explain my love for cars. But love isn’t rational. It can’t be justified. It just IS.

But yeah, I’m not the Jeremy Clarkson kind of car guy who thinks global warming is a joke and that the noblest thing we can do with our lives is to use up the earth’s remaining supply of oil as gleefully as possible. I’m the kind of car guy who lives in a city and organizes his life in such a way that he can go days and even weeks at a time without ever using a car. I’m also a fairly anti-consumerist car guy, in the sense that given the choice between repair and replace, I will repair every time. I kinda don’t give a shit about new cars, anyway — they’re all too heavy and too complicated. My newest car will celebrate its quinceañera in 2010, and my other car is old enough to drink. Each of them also has more character and deliver more all-around goodness than any new car I can think of.

That’s not to say that my car enthusiasm adheres to some 100% politically correct and ecologically consistent philosophy either, though. Every argument I make I can just as easily contradict. I am super opinionated about this shit and there isn’t always a lot of logic governing those opinions, and I make no apologies for this. Love is not rational!

Rumpus: It’s hard to follow up with a question after “love is not rational.” I think there’s some quote about letting the beauty you love be what you do, so this kind of relates to that: if could be any car, which car would you be?

Hughes: This is a bit of a head-scratcher for me. I don’t think I want to be any car! I’m not sure that I’m ready to trade in sentience for the ability to go zero-to-60 in however many seconds, especially when I can do that already, as long as I have a car myself, and even if I were the car, I’d still be dependent upon a sentient driver to mash my pedals. So I’m going to stick with being human, as much of a pain in the ass as that can sometimes be. That said, if I must be a car, I should like to be a 1957 Ferrari Testa Rossa with cutaway fenders, and if it’s not too much to ask, I’d like to live out my days in the south of Italy, among the low rolling hills of Puglia.


Anisse Gross is a writer, editor, artist and question asker living in San Francisco. Her work has been featured in The New Yorker, The Believer, Lucky Peach, Buzzfeed, Brooklyn Quarterly, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She openly welcomes correspondence, friendship, surprises and paid work. More from this author →