What's a good way for the leader of an indie folk-rock band to scare the heck out of his audience? Hire a death-metal musician to produce songs for a new record.
That's what John Darnielle, singer, guitarist and driving force behind North Carolina's The Mountain Goats, did while recording the band's stellar new record, "All Eternals Deck" (Merge).
"I called Erik Rutan, who's this death-metal guy, and he was totally into it," Darnielle said. "He was happy because all anyone else had asked him to produce was metal stuff. Some fans were freaked out, wondering just what we were up to. But it was great. We got to take this 'dude road trip' down to his studio in Central Florida and everything."
The Mountain Goats have existed in one form or another since the early 1990s. The earliest incarnation of the band consisted primarily of Darnielle recording primitive, angry, low-fi songs and distributing them on homemade cassette tapes. As the decade wore on, Darnielle worked with a number of collaborators, honed his songwriting skills and released proper albums, building a devoted fan base in the process.
Today, he's one of rock's most respected songwriters, known for his dark lyrics and his writerly sense of narrative. He often builds albums around a single issue or story, like in 2005's "The Sunset Tree," which documented Darnielle's time with an abusive stepfather.
"All Eternals Deck" is more impressionistic than that. Darnielle's lyrics suggest moments of dread and despair without pointing to any specific horror. When he sings about "these bite marks deep in my arteries" (on the opening song "Damn These Vampires"), you flinch without realizing why.
"With this record, I tried to write more spontaneously, about whatever happened to pop into my head," he said. "It was harder, because I never knew where it was going."
That's one reason why no less than four producers, including Rutan, were asked to work on the record. Darnielle said he wanted to record the songs in a variety of settings.
Despite all that, "All Eternals Deck" sounds like a coherent musical statement. The mostly midtempo songs are built on piano, acoustic guitar and a chugging rhythm section, with some offbeat touches, like the barbershop-quartet harmonies on "High Hawk Season," thrown in here and there.
The Mountain Goats will play Lollapalooza at 5:30 p.m. Friday. Darnielle said fans can expect to see him accompanied by Peter Hughes on bass and Jon Wurster, who also plays in Superchunk, on drums.
"We've never played Lollapalooza, and we're excited about it," he said. "It's a different kind of thing because our set will be shorter than usual and we'll be playing in front of people who don't necessarily know our stuff. But to be on stage in front of a big festival audience will be so cool."