Before the Mountain Goats became a real band, they were just John Darnielle, alone with an acoustic guitar, yelling fire and brimstone into a Panasonic boombox. And now, in these crazy mixed-up times we find ourselves in, that is what the Mountain Goats have once again become.
For the past several weeks in quarantine, Darnielle has been sharing videos of himself playing new songs like “For The Snakes,” “Exegetic Chains,” and “Until Olympius Returns.” And today, he’s officially released those songs in the new album Songs For Pierre Chuvin, the first Mountain Goats album to be recorded on his legendary and seemingly indestructible Panasonic boombox since 2002’s All Hail West Texas.
As its title suggests, Songs For Pierre Chuvin was inspired by French historian Pierre Chuvin’s A Chronicle Of The Last Pagans. And in a lengthy statement, Darnielle gets into the process of how the album came to be:
SO THIS TAPE STARTED while the entire band was decamped at an undisclosed location working on the next Mountain Goats album, and I had brought books with me to read, and one of them was Pierre Chuvin’s A Chronicle Of The Last Pagans, which I was reading as research material for another thing I’m working on; and it’s been a long time since I sat around playing music and thinking about antiquity, but I used to do it all the time, and several of you know that because the old tapes are all littered with stories about Ajax and Agamemnon and the cult of Cybele, stories which, when I was learning them, got me so fired up that as soon as I got out of class I’d drive home in my yellow 1969 Superbeetle and write songs about them.
At our undisclosed location, one morning, immersed day and night in our work but also beginning to get the feeling that the increasingly febrile pitch of the newsfeed would continue to rise until it reached registers not seen in a while, I had a thought — what if the next Mountain Goats album was just songs about these pagans? And I wrote down the title “Aulon Raid.”
I GOT HOME about seven days later and the world was a very different place by then, and I took my old boombox down from the shelf where it sits flanked by brass deities from a former period of my life, and I got a wild idea to stand it on its end to reduce the unpleasant clicking that made it unusable — the hum & grind are one thing, basically ambient noise that adds to the pleasure of the sound if you’re into it, but the clicking I’m talking about developed sometime in the early 2000s and is not a conscriptable effect, it renders the Panasonic unusable.
Unless you stand it on its end, I learned, by accident, one day during the early weeks of the new days.
AS THESE DAYS WERE DEVELOPING, I realized, as I’d feared a week before, that the work schedule my band and I had planned for spring probably wouldn’t be panning out. The four members of the band split up our touring income equally, nightly pay & sales of merchandise; before we split up that income, we pay several people from gross receipts: Brandon, our soundman and tour manager of over a decade; Trudy, who works the merch table with style and flair; and Avel, who manages the stage no matter how unmanageable I become. I can’t do what I do without these people and I take great pleasure in trying to make their job a fun place to work. All seven of us rely on the Mountain Goats for our paycheck.
The boombox and I knew we had to do something. Back in the early nineties, when I’d first met Peter Hughes, I wanted to make a tape to be on his label, Sonic Enemy. It was Christmas break and I was on a hot streak, so I decided to try to make a full tape over the course of the break. That tape became Transmissions To Horace, which consisted entirely of work done on a daily basis during that span. I haven’t tried anything like that in a while.
I WROTE A SONG EVERY DAY for the next ten days while reading A Chronicle Of The Last Pagans, starting with “Aulon Raid” and working in exactly the style I used to work in: read until something jumps out at me; play guitar and ad-lib out loud until I get a phrase I like; write the lyrics, get the song together, record immediately. Those original lyrics, exactly as written on the cardstock I save from comic books I buy, with corrections and everything, will be randomly inserted into orders; each is one of a kind, an original first draft of the lyrics to the first all-boombox Mountain Goats album since All Hail West Texas. It seems unlikely that I will ever again offer original drafts of lyrics for sale or otherwise, but pandemics call for wild measures.
I dedicate this tape to everybody who’s waited a long time for the wheels to sound their joyous grind: may they grind us into a safe future where we gather once again in rooms to sing songs about pagan priests & hidden shelters, and where we see each other face to face.
Hail the Panasonic! Hail the inscrutable engines of chance! Hail Cybele!
Listen to Songs For Pierre Chuvin below.
Songs For Pierre Chuvin is out now on Bandcamp, with more digital services to follow next Friday, 4/17. The album will also be dubbed to 1000 hand-numbered cassettes for its physical release on 6/19 via Merge. Pre-order it here.