On a windy, unremarkable day, Andrew Eldritch — lead singer of the British post-punk band The Sisters of Mercy, who is sometimes described as the “Godfather of Goth” — returns to his hometown of Leeds, England. He’s long past the end of his time in the zeitgeist, an object of niche nostalgia being put out to pasture.
That, in a nutshell, is the plot of the aptly titled “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds,” the lead single from the Mountain Goats’ new studio album, Goths, due out on May 19. Like the album it precedes, the song serves as a gentle elegy for the goth subculture — a music and fashion movement that arguably peaked in the 1980s — from a sympathetic, adult perspective. It’s a spirit that’s mostly distilled in the album’s final lines: “The world will never know or understand / The suffocated splendor / Of the once-and-future goth band.”
Goths is the 16th full-length album by the Mountain Goats — the 10th since the project evolved from a lo-fi solo venture for singer-songwriter John Darnielle into a more polished band. The album marks perhaps the biggest sonic expansion the band has seen in years — the primary instrument is the keyboard, not Darnielle’s guitar — and the band, which previously consisted of Darnielle, bassist Peter Hughes, and drummer Jon Wurster, has added a full-time fourth member, multi-instrumentalist (and previous collaborator) Matt Douglas.
But lyrically, Goths is very much of a piece with earlier Mountain Goats albums. It’s got the most in common with 2015’s Beat the Champ, which shone a similar light on the subculture pro wrestling — both on the entertainers behind the sport and the audiences who see them as larger-than-life heroes providing an escape from the injustice of their lives. But Goths also touches on themes of addiction, like 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed, and teenage disaffection, like 2005’s The Sunset Tree. Darnielle’s lyricism remains as sharp as ever throughout — witty one moment, vicious the next, mournful the next. Throughout the album, though, is a real empathy for the characters and culture involved — which, even for those who are unfamiliar with goth culture, make the album a compelling and rewarding listen.
Recently, Hughes spoke with Weld about his affinity for Goths’ subject matter, revisiting childhood through goth culture, and the limits of romanticizing death.
Weld: The last time we spoke was during the tour behind 2015’s Beat the Champ — and you said that you were baffled when John first told you about that album’s pro-wrestling concept. Does the subject matter of Goths have more resonance for you?
Peter Hughes: Yeah, absolutely. There were a couple of false starts [when John started writing the album]. I think he had written “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds,” and had said, “Maybe I’ll do a whole album about goths.” And I was just like, “Oh my god, oh my god, please, please, please!”
There were a couple of other ideas that came up, and it seemed for a little while that maybe that was dead in the water. But then he circled back to it, and I could not have been happier. This is definitely one where I did not have to be sold at all. I was on board from the get-go, for sure.
Weld: Were you a goth kid?
Hughes: I don’t think I really identified as one, but I was definitely super into a lot of stuff that [goth kids are into]. I was really big into the Cure, and Joy Divison, and Bauhaus, and Souxsie and the Banshees, and some of the more obscure stuff — Sisters of Mercy, too. Those bands are all seminal, formative bands that I was listening to when I was 13, 14, 15 years old. I never spiked up my hair — except on Halloween — and I wasn’t wearing black nail polish or anything like that. But I was, for sure, totally onboard with it musically.
I feel like, as an adult, it’s really interesting to revisit that — both from the perspective of somebody who was just listening to the music or was a goth, but also from [the perspective of] the people who were making that music and were living it and doing that stuff. It’s interesting to think about them. That’s what a lot of the songs on the record concern themselves with.
Weld: In the press release announcing Goths, you that the band is approaching “an identity most often associated with youth from a perspective that is inescapably adult.” But there is something strangely adult about goth culture’s focus on death, too.
Hughes: Yeah! Because it is kind of the embrace of death, right? And of morbidity. Everything that’s dark and scary and f—d-up kind of becomes really appealing, you know? [But] it’s only appealing if you’re not actually confronted with the reality of death. Death becomes very romantic. And then you become a middle-aged person, and your parents get sick and the people around you start dying, and it’s like, “Oh, yeah, there’s nothing romantic about this! It’s f—d up!”
But also, I feel like for young people that instinct of being drawn toward darkness is a correct instinct, because there’s the sense — and this was definitely the case for me, as a young person — that the world is messed up. It’s terrible. People are terrible. There’s grave injustice from end to end, and it’s not all sunshine and puppy dogs, and love isn’t all you need. So when you see something, when you hear music that’s just really dark in its outlook or pessimistic or whatever, you identify with that, like, “Oh, this is the real stuff.”
I don’t want to be condescending toward that impulse, because I think it’s a pretty genuine and on-the-money impulse.
Weld: In a lot of ways, this album seems to have a lot of thematic similarities to Beat the Champ, in that it examines a fringe subculture that is looked down upon by the mainstream. Both Goths and Beat the Champ seem interested in finding the humanity behind the artifice of both pro wrestling and goth culture and finding that relatable element that makes them so essential for so many people. Is that something you guys were talking about as you were shaping the album?
Hughes: I don’t know that it was something that John was deliberately reaching for, but I think he’s aware of it. He and I talked about it for sure, because it was one of the things that was striking to me, too, that they are kind of companion pieces. In a way, they’re both also doing a thing where they’re using these frameworks as a lens for looking back on youth from a later time in your life, too. I think, with the Beat the Champ songs, a lot of those are almost like revisiting The Sunset Tree a little bit, thematically — except at a remove, through this distancing device of wrestling. But it’s definitely something that struck me, too, lyrically.
Weld: The music on this record — which doesn’t feature any guitars — seems almost deliberately counter to what one would expect from an album about goth music. Was that contrast intentional?
Hughes: As a band, I don’t think it was something we ever talked about. I’m not sure that it was something that was really foremost on John’s mind as he was writing, but I feel like musically, it’s more just where we are as a band right now. And obviously, John’s decision to write strictly for keys for this record — I feel like that’s kind of the thing that’s the biggest factor in determining the musical direction to the record.
But you’re totally right. Like, “Rain in Soho,” the first song on the album — which, I feel like that’s the one song that’s actually musically directly informed by the subject matter, right? That choir is a direct shout-out to Sisters of Mercy records, and just the overall vibe of that song is pretty aggressive and in a minor key and just big and doomy sounding. The rest of the record, for sure, is totally not. It has nothing to do with goth [music]. Or, at least, if it is informed by its subject matter, it’s in a much more oblique way.
But I feel like it works, especially if you think about, “What would the converse look like or sound like?” It’d be like, “Okay, well, here’s our new album, which is a bunch of songs about goth music, and they just sound like they were recorded in 1985 with drum machines and super flanged guitars.” It would be bad! It would be cool for about three songs, and then it would just be like, “Oh no. No more.” I feel like this is the way to go, even though it wasn’t something that we really talked about or debated. It just kind of happened that way.
The Mountain Goats will perform at Saturn on Thursday, May 25. Mothers will open. Doors for the show open at 7 p.m.; the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.