The Mountain Goats on "Getting Into Knives" | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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The Mountain Goats on “Getting Into Knives”

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Mar 01, 2021 Photography by Jade Wilson
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Like one of the offbeat characters in his novelistic songs, John Darnielle was stopped dead in his tracks in a trinket shop by a matchbox sized notebook emblazoned with a moniker that didn’t suit him: “Rodeo Queen.” The Mountain Goats frontman still has that mini diary 15 years later, and uses it and copious other notebooks to jot down song titles as they come to him (“It’s too small for me to write lyrics in, because I’m quite verbose,” he jokes). He’ll later leaf through them and build his dissertation worthy lyrics upon whichever of those titles still speak to him.

Darnielle vividly recalls scrambling for a notebook when coming across the muse for what would become the title track of The Mountain Goats latest LP, Getting Into Knives. That inspiration came from a cutlery hawker’s spam email in 2002, which implored recipients like Darnielle, with stiff formality, to “please examine our supply of knives.” Darnielle grew giddy thinking: “What if my thing now was to really get into knives?” To make the idea worthy of a song, Darnielle added some twists and turns. Before long, he was singing about a protagonist luxuriating over those “hateful instruments.” Darnielle adds: “I thought that was a good way of looking into a mind bent on revenge.”

It’s a singular sort of lyricism, and Darnielle’s throngs of fervorous fans would expect nothing less. That cult following dissects each of Darnielle’s densely written, nasally sung lines, before crafting equally complex analysis on fan blogs. A New York Magazine article detailed the obsessive quality of that following. Despite all that, an instantly humble Darnielle was quick to describe himself as less an auteur than a member of a tight knit, and deeply talented brotherhood: “Usually, the Mountain Goats are just me, [bassist] Peter [Hughes] and [drummer] Jon [Wurster]. But we learned late what most bands learn earlier: bringing other people to play is fun.”

For their 2019 LP, In League with Dragons, The Mountain Goats invited pal and indie rock star Owen Pallett to produce. He proceeded to recruit “three musicians I didn’t know, and I was pretty protective of our sound when they arrived,” says Darnielle, who quickly changed his mind once the joy of collaboration was in full swing. When it came time to work on Getting Into Knives, the band decided to invite back keyboardist Bram Gielen because he had been such a gas during the Dragons sessions. There’s also Sam Shoup on Mellotron, Charles Hodges on the Hammond B-3, backing vocalists Reba Russell and Susan Marshall, and more. They energize Getting Into Knives, making it one of the most sonically rich entries in The Mountain Goats’ storied catalogue. Where prior hits like “This Year” were comparatively sparse sonic showcases that left Darnielle’s complex lyrics front and center, the music on Getting Into Knives keeps up with the ambitious frontman. Keyboard riffs elegantly lace “Bell Swamp Connection.” Saxophone moans give “Get Famous” fluttering jazzy wings. And “Picture of My Dress” features all the players blissfully jamming at once.

Darnielle sums it up far more succinctly than his loquacious lyrics, while maintaining the same level of enthusiasm: “Having this many people playing is not a vibe you’ll find on previous Mountain Goats records. It was incredibly cool.”

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