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The Mountain Goats' Jon Wurster talks not being goth and playing on an album about goths that doesn't really sound goth

City Paper

With birds tweeting in the background, the distinctive voice of drummer for the Mountain Goats Jon Wurster chirps through the other end of the phone line. Though he's known for being a solid, sturdy, quietly creative drummer (who also plays for Superchunk, Bob Mould, and others), his voice is well-known to comedy fans as one half of noted phone call comedy duo Scharpling & Wurster, where he is often jabbering and screeching in a thick Mid-Atlantic accent as Philly Boy Roy or conjuring up any other number of oddball characters occupying the fictional New Jersey town of Newbridge on the cult radio show-turned-podcast.

That is something Wurster very much has in common with Mountain Goats visionary John Darnielle—an impulse to build worlds and embrace outsiders. On the Mountain Goats' latest record, "Goths," Darnielle, Wurster, and others take a guitar-less, mellow approach to tell stories from the perspective of current and former goths about youth recklessness and the sober realizations nudging some towards growing up.

Unlike Darnielle however, Wurster was not so much the goth type growing up.

"I have almost no connection to goth. When goth was happening I was really into punk. You know we're talking early '80s, early mid-'80s, I was really into a lot of SST stuff. I was into the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, that early REM stuff," Wurster says. "So I was aware of Sex Gang Children and that Bat Cave stuff but it just didn't speak to me, so the fact that I can get into this stuff [via 'Goths'] is a testament to John's songwriting."

I, however, was goth. As goth as one could be born in 1988 and raised in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. I grew up near Columbia—home to Merriweather Post Pavillion, where the Mountain Goats open for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit tonight—and I remember fondly how my mom would drive me to Columbia Mall during middle school so I could go to Hot Topic and get some spiked or studded jewelry or a Korn CD, because that was goth as heck to me.

Maybe that isn't as gnarly as what was going on during the first wave of goth at the Bat Cave—the London club mentioned in the haunting chorus of 'Rain in Soho,' a piano-driven banger with accompanying children's choir—but the awkwardness, alienation, and need for sanctuary from the "normal" world was real as hell to me too.

And that's what "Goths" is about—it's an album that treats the dirty, sometimes quotidian memories of adolescence where every obstacle feels like a melodramtic fight for survival very seriously. It meets the subculture on the subculture's terms.

"Goths" however, doesn't sound especially goth. Like 2015's "Beat The Champ," a folk-country, jazz album about '70s wrestling, or Darnielle's 2014 novel "Wolf In White Van" (which won the National Book Award) dealing with heavy metal and role playing games, or his latest book, this year's "Universal Harvester," about people working at a video store, he treats these subcultures with the reverence and respect typically reserved for more "serious" fare and adopts a counterintuitive approach.

"John's usual inclination [in songwriting] is to go the exact opposite of where—and I'm using air quotes—of 'where it should go.' So I think that plays into a lot of it," Wurster says. "'Whats the obvious thing I would do here, maybe let's not do that.'"

On 'The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement,' dread comes from dangerous car rides home at dawn with people that, as you quietly fear for your life, realize maybe aren't really such good friends at all. "I'm hardcore," Darnielle repeatedly confesses in a delicate falsetto, "but I'm not that hardcore." It's unnerving and tender, expressing both the envy and relief of not being the hardest dude in the scene. A song that admits that in one way or another we're all "poseurs."

For Wurster, finding a percussive sound that worked meant catching up on the touchtones of goth, but not trying to force a distinct style: "I made myself a little Spotify goth playlist, just to see what they were doing rhythmically then. I tried to incorporate some of that stuff in, but a lot of that kind of industrial whatever approach doesn't super lend itself to what we were doing. I tried to just soak in some of that stuff. And hopefully it would come out in an acceptable way."

The music itself was conceptualized to purposefully avoid the signifiers of goth as well, Wurster explains: "With goths, the concept musically was that all the songs were gonna be written on this Fender Rhodes piano. And I think that dictated a lot of how the album ended up."

'Unicorn Tolerance' locates the vulnerable side of the often faux-hardened facade of a kid going around in all black everything and dark shades. Woodwinds hang melancholy around the lyrics, and there is a kind of collective forgiveness of our past selves in the kindness that oozes out of Darnielle's voice when he sings: "When the clouds do clear away/ Get a momentary chance to see/ The thing I've been trying to beat to death/ The soft creature that I used to be/ The better animal I used to be."

The tender parts of yourself are the hardest to embrace in a cruel world that grows increasingly crueler—especially to any kind of perceived outsider—but there is no future if you can't love all of yourself, "Goths" suggests. And so, whether or not you were a stupid goth nerd like me, "Goths" is for everyone.

"I think that's what's great about John's writing, specifically his writing in the context of a concept album like with the last one about wrestling, where you don't need to have any connection to the subject matter," Wurster says. "You don't need to know about wrestling, you don't need to know about goths—the songs are all about the inner workings of the people in these situations and thats something everybody can relate to."

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