Here’s a question for you: What would you say if I told you that all you need to record a classic album is to head to eBay and pay the “buy it now” price of $59.95 to acquire one Panasonic RX-FT500?
Well, if you’ve ever set an Indiegogo campaign with a goal of thousands of dollars to fund your project, this might sound very appealing!
You might also think it sounds crazy, but this very affordable piece of solid state technology is exactly what acclaimed songwriter John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats used to record his 2002 lo-fi masterpiece, All Hail West Texas.
Recording into a tape deck, albeit a dual tape deck, was an incredibly outdated recording technique even by the standards of the early 2000s. Consider that this was recorded the very same year Pro Tools HD was released, a system capable of 96 simultaneous audio tracks. However, the press release for Pro Tools HD mentions nothing of an AM/FM radio: Advantage Darnielle.
Audio quality be damned, years later All Hail West Texas is a critical darling. The record was re-released in 2013 by the popular indie label, Merge Records, and it received a score of 9.0 and the accolade “Best New Reissue on Pitchfork. It is also the subject of a popular bi-weekly podcast, I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats>, by Night Vale Presents. The podcast discusses artistry and West Texas track by track, and each episode features new renditions of the songs from that album by artists such as Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, and more. For anyone who has ever tried to create, it’s an incredibly motivating success story.
Part of the genius of All Hail West Texas is how relatable it is. Composed by a man with a day job, on the best resources he could grab hold of, it’s an argument-ender to any blogger who told an artist their sound was too DIY. It’s fire under the ass, because it shows that you don’t need to be in a professional studio, or even have top-of-the-line equipment to put forth into the world a line as beautiful as “we were the one thing in the galaxy God didn’t have his eyes on.” Darnielle’s home recordings one day found the right pair of hands, and that means the same possibility is open for any songwriter.
Darnielle has of course since moved beyond the days of boombox recording. And it’s not even a given that he’ll draw from that album in live performances. A recent tour stop in Maine relied mostly on newer material.
Darnielle said about his boombox recording days in a recent interview with NPR, “When people talk about fidelity, I think they’re imagining that there’s some way of recording that will aspire to this condition of total clarity. I look at it more like food: You can’t say there’s a best food. Foods taste different, and some of them taste really good to you.” Thus we all just have to work to find the right audience who eat up what we’re selling.
On episode 9 of I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats, Darnielle and his co-host, Joseph Fink, discuss the track “The Mess Inside.” Darnielle makes a case for the power of simplicity to the playing of the Modern Lovers frontman, Jonathan Richman. He compliments Richman as a great guitarist and says, “what you’re doing worships at the altar of simplicity, but you yourself are not simple.” The same should be said for All Hail West Texas. At first all you might hear is the distortion and hum of a lo-fi basement recording, but if you listen closely you will hear thoughtful commentary on immigration, mandatory minimum prison sentences, and being a member of “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.” It’s a high water mark for depth, and Darnielle somehow found time to be catchy at the same time. Not bad for a release captured on a device that couldn’t even play CDs.
There’s got to be something to “the spirit of the Mountain Goats” as guest Amanda Palmer described on an episode of I Only Listen. Despite being a very popular artist in her own right, she opted to record her cover in a greenhouse, with a video camera balancing on a ladder. Just as there has to be a reason that Joseph and John recorded much of the podcast from a mattress in a basement. It’s because good art doesn’t have limitations of surroundings. If you have an SM58 and Garageband, you are light years ahead of what John Darnielle was working with when he wrote All Hail West Texas. So don’t consider your means to limit your art. The finer things in recording are nothing more than Belgian chocolates and Italian race cars