Zoop! Benefit!: Interview
John Darnielle & Peter Hughes (Mountain Goats), Perry Owen Wright
As we drive past a rundown bagel shop amidst acres of farmland, Liz muses, “I really hope this isn’t the ‘town’ they’re talking about.” Truth be told, we have no idea what we’re getting ourselves into. My friend Iliana, an ever-vigilant member of The Mountain Goats’ official message board, had alerted us to ZOOP! a few months ago. Camping? Cute animals? Farm? John Darnielle & Peter Hughes? Sick deal, brah. Having spent many summers sharing a tent with my sister on our family friends’ sheep farm in Vermont, this sounded right up my alley. But were we really prepared to spend a weekend camping among rabid Mountain Goats fans? What if an effigy of JD was burned and held aloft in a daily fan ritual?
Three days, two nights, and zero showers later, The Mountain Goats and Perry Owen Wright had proved all of us completely wrong. By now you’ve read the reviews, combed through the playlists, and listened to the show. All Mountain Goats fans should extend a thanks to the nuts (I use this term affectionately) who sang obscure MG songs around the post-show bonfire, undoubtedly the same nuts who have provided the unlucky many who didn’t attend with some sound and vision from the weekend.
So, let’s kick off this EXCLUSIVE (or some shit) look at the inner workings of ZOOP! with a conversation I had with Farm Sanctuary’s best kept secret: Perry Owen Wright of The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers. He kicked off the first of two (two!!!) shows with brooding, gorgeous ballads that coulda made a proud rooster’s comb droop in sympathy. Over Boca burgers and Yuengling, we talked about the cute farm animals we’d patted that day, a.k.a. nothing that anyone else out there would find interesting, so here’s take two on the weekend, internet-style:
So first of all… how do you know JD and Peter?
POW!: John and Lalitree [John’s wife, whose excellent ZOOP! photos can be found here] moved to NC a few years ago. I met Lalitree at a John Vanderslice show while JD was touring Europe, and – not knowing she was married – I think I basically spent the evening flirting with her. She was forced to drop the traditionally potent Mention-of-the-Husband foe-hammer and we became fast friends instead. When JD got back from Europe, I think he was suspicious of my unnervingly good nature, and it became a kind of “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” situation. I met Peter a year later in an ecstatic vision while whale watching off the coast of Nova Scotia as his incorporeal specter crossed the licking waves. I met him in person in the woefully less interesting context of a show we played together in Lubbock, Texas.
What was your reaction when they asked you to do this benefit? How did they go about asking you?
POW!: JD came home from a tour last fall and was effusive about his first visit to Farm Sanctuary; several months later at our regular music trivia night, he asked me if I wanted to come along and play a solo set with him on its behalf. Personally, I was really excited because my roommate (David Karsten Daniels) was going to have my other roommate and regular coconspirator (Alex Lazara) in Europe for some shows at that time anyway, so I was going to be stuck at home alone. Also, who doesn’t want to spend a weekend playing with rescued animals and listening to drunk dudes scream obscure Mountain Goats songs around a campfire? [Note: These were the same dudes who requested “Golden Boy” ad nauseum and contented themselves with a slightly louder rendition at the bonfire after the second show.]
Had you done anything animal rights-related in the past in terms of benefits or activism?
POW!: We played a benefit last year for the Piedmont Wildlife Center at home in NC, though my personal past political activism hasn’t been in animal advocacy, specifically.
Did you find that you had some random fans show up this weekend in
addition to MG fans?
POW!: It’s like that old chestnut, “If you play on a farm, you’ll eventually get punched in the face by the mountain goats.” I think a lot of people came this weekend hoping for that, and John personally punched each and every one of them in the face. With his rock, I mean. Prayers & Tears have played many, many shows with the Mountain Goats, so there were a large number of friends we’ve made on tours at the campout this weekend, though swarming hordes did not approach me to say that they had come solely to hear me. Now that you mention it, I’m feeling a little insecure about that. Next question.
Which was your favorite animal to pat on the tour of the farm?
POW!: I have a very real childhood fear of picking up chickens, which I think must be Wonka-related from that one scene in the boat where the chicken loses its head and also because I only want to get my eyes pecked out by something that can let me know that it wants me to be touching it in the first place. And because I don’t live in a post-apocalyptic agrarian dystopia, the need for picking up live chickens on the street hasn’t come up much in my adult life. So spending some quality time with Fennel the Chicken was what my therapist Wii Bowling will call a “Nice Throw” when I tell him about it at home. I feel so judged by him sometimes.
What was it like being in such close proximity with the people you were performing for all weekend? Pretty unique situation!
POW!: Yeah, I honestly had my reservations about how the whole thing would go. JD is a man whose songwriting engenders ardent fans, and inviting 300 of them to sleep 15 feet from his doorstep seemed like it might attract some people who “just wanted to smell his hair while he slept, you know? No big deal, man.” [The MGs and Perry’s “VIP” section consisted of cabins located a goat’s bleat from a field of campers.] But it was so great and everyone was really cool. There was just enough communal time and just enough sequestered time to make it strike a perfect balance. JD, Lalitree, and I spent several hours in Watkins Glen on Sunday, which was a nice break from the Jonestown-ian feel of the compound full of tents, too.
What did you find to do in Watkins Glen? [Note: “Town” was actually in the opposite direction from the aforementioned disappointing bagel shop, and turned out to be quite charming. We stood corrected.]
POW!: We hiked the incredible gorge that runs essentially through the middle of town. It made me want to print up my own t-shirts that say “Screw Ithaca: Gorge Yourself on Watkins Glen Instead,” but I wouldn’t want to do anything to stir up the existing sociopolitical tensions of that troubled region during the current cease-fire.
Would you do something like this again?
POW!: Yes. Not only like this, but when time travel is possible I have every intention of doing exactly this again and again on a feedback loop. Once CERN fixes that broken magnet, the new supercollider should provide the perfect black hole for subsequent Zoop! visitation and retroactive 30-year-old-Perry pep talks with 16-year-old-Perry – because I know now that I totally should have asked out Tara Lorenzetti in tenth grade. The Gedanken mindfreak will be when I go back in time to preemptively save the animals that end up at Farm Sanctuary, effectively eliminating the need for Farm Sanctuary and killing my chance to go back and relive the experience over. Oh, time’s remorseless arrow!
In all relative seriousness, and though some of the townies asked us if Farm Sanctuary was some kind of “cult,” I couldn’t help but feel a little squishy inside as I patted friendly (!) roosters and house-sized cows on a tour of the farm. All of the animals at Farm Sanctuary have been rescued from a variety of dangerous situations, whether it be cases of neglect or abandonment, or inhumane slaughtering practices used by many factory farms in New York State and others. I felt pretty lucky as I patted a pig the size of a sheep; a size most pigs never reach before they end up on a Sausage McMuffin somewhere. The night before I’d also gotten lucky in that I’d seen Peter Hughes of the Mountain Goats perform his first solo set in five years. Get your paws on some of his non-MG material at his website, and for chrissake, talk the dude into a solo tour! God knows I tried.
So how did it feel to play your own stuff in front of people? Why hadn’t you done it in
PH: It was fun! A little nerve-wracking… I never, ever get nervous before playing except for
when I’m playing all alone, and then I pretty much always do… but starting with the gin
and tonics at four in the afternoon pretty much took care of that. Not really sure why
it’d been so long… maybe just because nobody had asked! I’m always game, though. [Concert promoters: ask him! Doy!]
When John told you about the idea for ZOOP!, what was your first reaction?
PH: Honestly at the time I wasn’t sure how my schedule for June was gonna shake out so I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but then the more I thought about it, the more it just seemed like “duh, no-brainer, this sounds like the best thing ever.” Which it was.
Have you done animal rights-related benefits in the past?
PH: Nah, I think this may have been the first.
What’s the weirdest thing that happened to you all weekend?
PH: Can I plead the fifth on this one? [Note: He sure can. I know I did.]
What’s the most awesome thing that happened to you all weekend?
PH: Kinda hard to narrow it down to one thing, but maybe it was just arriving at the farm and pulling my car into the lot and parking it next to John’s car. I think it’s been 12 years since we lived in the same place (in California, where we both grew up), but that moment just felt so normal and domestic and so utterly unlike all of the time we’ve spent
together since then, as if we were just showing up for some kind of family picnic in the park or something. And the whole weekend kinda felt like that, mellow and carefree and happy and fun.
Which animal was your favorite to pat on the tour?
PH: Perry, no question.
Did a lot of people introduce themselves as LiveJournal friends? [Note: Peter maintains a LiveJournal, under the moniker of “diskothiq,” making it officially okay that I still have one. No, really. He was also able to identify my friend by her LiveJournal name, and proceeded to refer to her journal as “salacious.”]
PH: A handful, yeah, and there were some LiveJournal people there that I’d met before –
although this event seemed more skewed to John’s LPTJers [LPTJ = Last Plane to Jakarta, JD’s blog] than my LJers, something that’ll need to be addressed next year!
How did it feel to be in such close proximity to your fans all weekend?
PH: It was totally great, and maybe the best illustration of what was so cool about the whole event. The thing about me and John is we really like meeting fans and getting to know them as people…we’ve both been music fans for a lot longer than we’ve been guys who people come to see, so we don’t really think of ourselves as being any different… but the realities of touring make it difficult to do that. On tour, you’re always tired, and you’re always stressed about something, and you tend to keep a death grip on what little personal space and quiet time you can squirrel away. This is why bands hide in dressing rooms: not ‘cause they’re dicks who are too cool to hang out with the people who came to
see them, but just because there’s too many people, and if you gave every person who wants to hang out the time and attention they deserve then you’d be too exhausted to play a show! Which blows, for everybody, but what can you do? Anyway, the farm was the complete opposite of that scenario: it was a total one-off show, so we weren’t on tour, and we weren’t tired, and John didn’t have to worry about whether his voice was gonna hold up for the next three weeks, and we could just hang out all day and have fun. Also, because it was capped at 200 people – a perfect number – and because it was spread out over a couple days, there was none of the urgency that happens when you see someone at a show you want to talk to and it’s like “Oh shit, this is my only chance!” So we could walk around and not worry about being ambushed by fifty people at once because you know that you’re all gonna end up drunk around a campfire later anyway. [Note: Truth. Glorious truth.] So yeah, to answer your question, it was awesome.
Did you really take people on the raceway in your car? [Note: During Peter’s set, he declared that the first five or so people who approached him the next day would get a joyride in his white Miata around a track in Watkins Glen, a feature which the town is known for.]
PH: I did, although I should point out that it wasn’t the actual race *track* at Watkins Glen, which is a couple miles south of town, but the original course they used in the ’40s and ’50s before the track was built, which was run on public roads that still exist. Come to think of it, that might’ve been the coolest part of the weekend!
I figured I would ask Peter that last question after we realized he was following us back to the farm with a rather dazed-looking fan in his passenger’s seat. There was certainly no shortage of adorable surprises during the weekend, and when we were schooled on the origin of ZOOP! during the first evening’s show, the whole room fell in love with John Darnielle just a little more, if possible.
I know the volunteer who spoke said that you decided to do a benefit for Farm Sanctuary even before they could ask you, after giving you a tour. What made it so easy for you to make that decision?
JD: It was touring the sanctuary during the Christine Fellows tour last year. Me and our tour manager/all-around savior Brandon E spent an afternoon hanging out with the animals and getting all hesher-dude about the hugeness of the pigs. (“Dude! That pig is the size of four Marshall cabinets!”) Besides that, they’ve been a favorite charity forever. Their annual adopt-a-turkey thing has been a household favorite for years.
Had you done animal rights-related benefits in the past?
JD: No, I haven’t! One thing that I liked about being able to do this is that it was sort of a show first… lots of people have an aversion to overtly political concerts, though I do think it’s time to reexamine whether that’s a sensible bias. Anyhow, this seemed like a great opportunity to show people what I’m kinda personally about while still bringing the old-school foot-stomping Mountain Goats thing, you know?
Which was your favorite animal to pat on the tour of the farm?
JD: Well, I hate to pick favorites, and the animals who moved me most are either dead (Hilda’s grave just floored me) or are rightly uninterested in hanging out with people (the cow called “Cincy Freedom” who jumped a six-foot slaughterhouse fence and wandered Mill Creek Valley ‘til she got caught and will now live out the rest of her life at Farm Sanctuary). But having said that, there’s a new piglet named Ellen who’s just unbelievable. Piglets are kinda impossible to not love.
I thought the donation-based request show was a really rad idea. How did it feel to play songs that you had put to bed, so to speak? [Note: The second night’s show was a donation-based all-request show, with donation amounts determined by the obscurity of the song …and mother, trust me … those kids knew their old-school MG songs. At times, John had to call out for lyrical assistance… reminiscent of a Kimya Dawson show I saw earlier this year. It happens to the best of ‘em.]
JD: It was awesome if not hilarious - I had to buy some of my own stuff off iTunes to learn it. Really enjoyed doing songs I’d never think to put in the set.
What was it like to be in such close proximity to your fans all weekend?
JD: I gotta say, it was so much fun… the whole groove wasn’t like the tense feeling of a club show, where I don’t want to hang out in the crowd ‘cause I’ll have to shout over loud music if I want to have a conversation, and where the close quarters drive me into hermit mode. It was just really relaxed and wonderful. It wasn’t really artist/fans. It was just a bunch of people hanging out on a farm and I happened to be providing the entertainment.
What was the weirdest thing that happened to you all weekend?
JD: Nothing weird, really. I am always a huge disappointment with the “weird stuff that happened” stories, I’m afraid. I was surprised to find myself joining in at the campfire/obscure songs-singalong, does that count? [Note: Sure does. I was surprised to see him join in, and posited that he may have felt some sort of responsibility for the dude who kept teetering dangerously close to the flames, intoxicated with love for the Mountain Goats and uh, absolutely nothing else.]
What was the most awesome thing that happened all weekend?
JD: Tossup: either the ending of the second set, which just got so exhausted/sweaty/unhinged that it felt like the early shows Peter & I used to do at Munchie’s where nobody cared whether you were really being good or impressive and the whole thing was just about everybody having stupid fun with each other, or hanging out with the animals. I can’t really even express how much I love that. The pigs scream when they eat in the mornings, it’s like the most metal sound in the universe.
Do you think there will be a ZOOP! Part Deux?
JD: Oh hell yes. [Note: YESSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!]
So glad you had a good time! Really that was the most rewarding thing - everybody seemed to be having SO much fun, us included. It’s hard to talk about without sounding all harmonic-convergence-rainbows’n’unicorns but there was just this wonderful loving friendly feeling the whole time.
So there you have it. Two days and three nights of non-showering and a whole lot of Smart Dogs and singalongs later, we faced reality once again with some big love for Mountain Goats in all forms musical and animal. Make sure to visit Farm Sanctuary’s website and make a donation, or sign up for a tour to pat some super cute cows’n’pigs.
[Photos: * - Heidi Vanderslice, ** - Iliana Garriga]