The Mountain Goats’ Peter Hughes tours the world but calls Rochester home 

click to enlarge Musician Peter Hughes embarks on a national tour with The Mountain Goats on Aug. 6. But when he's not on the road, he's at home in Rochester.


Musician Peter Hughes embarks on a national tour with The Mountain Goats on Aug. 6. But when he's not on the road, he's at home in Rochester.

In 2001, bassist Peter Hughes got a call from his friend and collaborator John Darnielle. It had been five years since they’d toured Europe together as The Mountain Goats, the lo-fi folk-rock project then known for Darnielle’s singing and strumming into a boombox tape recorder. Hughes had since relocated to Rochester for his then-partner’s job; Darnielle was living in Iowa. But he had two questions: Did Hughes want to join him in the studio to cut a more polished album? And did he know anyplace?

The resulting LP, 2002’s beloved doomed-marriage opus “Tallahassee,” came together at Tarbox Road Studios in Cassadaga, New York at Hughes’ suggestion. In the 20 years since, The Mountain Goats have expanded to a four-piece, toured the world, and released 13 more albums — the most recent of which, “Dark In Here,” dropped in late June. Hughes, now in his early 50’s, has called Rochester home through nearly all of that.

“Rochester, more than most places in this country, has a really strong sense of place about it, and that's super appealing to me,” Hughes says. “Good or bad, you always know where you are.”

When he joins the band to kick off its latest tour on Aug. 6 in Asheville, North Carolina, he does so after 16 months at home, thanks to the pandemic — an unusual respite for a touring musician. But he says time here in his adopted city, 2,600 miles from where he grew up in Chino, California, is always time well spent.

“You know that ‘Keep Austin Weird’ bullshit? At this point, Austin is the least weird city,” he says. “But Rochester is genuinely weird, and I don't think people celebrate that enough or even recognize it enough. I think people that have lived here their whole lives don't appreciate how unique that is.”

Hughes appreciates it. He runs an Instagram account devoted solely to classic and oddball cars he spots around town. He broadcasts a weekly radio show on volunteer community station WAYO-FM, showcasing emerging Czech bands alongside The Cars and local favorites like Ben Morey and the Eyes. And even if his band has only played in Rochester once, the touring musician who can make any city his home has chosen this one on two separate occasions.

He first moved here in 2000 and set up in the South Wedge for years. Trudy Feikert, a friend who ran a vintage clothing store called Godiva’s on South Avenue, became Hughes’ de facto tour stylist; she now works with The Mountain Goats on band merch. Among fans, Hughes’ onstage menswear has long been second only to his bass-playing, with one YouTuber christening him “the most nattily-attired gentleman rock and roller.”

Across the street from Godiva’s, Hughes played one of his first gigs as an official member of The Mountain Goats in fall 2002. He and Darnielle strummed out four songs in the back room of Analog Shock, a now-defunct record shop in the building where Hedonist Artisan Chocolates currently operates.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
Hughes brought both a new sound and perspective to The Mountain Goats — previously Darnielle’s solo project — one informed by the punk and electronic music he grew up listening to. “I loved the boombox stuff and the intimacy of it, but I really strongly felt like, if this was just opened up a little and made more accessible, I think there's a lot of people who would respond to this music as strongly as I already did,” Hughes says.

He was right. “Tallahassee” kicked off a six-album run on British label 4AD before the band settled into its current home at Durham, North Carolina’s Merge Records. With the band’s label and three other members all currently based in the Tar Heel State, Hughes has felt tempted to be closer. He left Rochester in 2014 with his wife and daughter for stints in both Carolinas when his wife accepted a new teaching job. Ultimately, they found the change of scenery lacking. They moved back in 2018.

“It was just like plugging right back in,” he says. “I think moving away, living in a couple other places for a few years really cemented how much of a home it had become for us as a family.”

His return allowed him the opportunity to join WAYO as a DJ after being an early booster. His show, “Northern Gothic,” airs Thursday mornings at 10, and he’s consistently impressed by the depth of knowledge at the station. He could spin, as he says, “some record that I bought in 1990 at a record store in Prague that I've never seen anywhere else in my life,” and the studio’s computer will let him know he’s not the first to have played it on WAYO.

Hughes’s own depth of knowledge also extends to vintage automobiles, which he displays on Instagram. Though his criteria for which street-parked vehicles are worthy of a snapshot is “idiosyncratic,” he knows when a ride speaks to him. It’s often not the expected choice. “I'll walk past some really fancy exotic car and go take a picture of some shitty '80s Econobox that I haven't seen a clean example of in 30 years,” he says.

Being states away from his bandmates — Darnielle, Superchunk’s Jon Wurster on drums, and multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas — means long drives to meet up for recording, occasions Hughes revels in. When The Mountain Goats planned back-to-back March 2020 sessions in both Memphis and Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Hughes saw the opportunity for a road trip. “Fifteen hours in a car sounds like a good time to me,” he says.

Completing the two albums, “Dark in Here” and last year’s “Getting Into Knives,” coincided with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. His wife called to say store shelves back in Rochester were bare thanks to waves of panic-buying. By the time he headed home the day before statewide lockdown, Hughes had loaded his car with not just his instruments and gear but also emergency supplies that were still plentiful in Alabama.
click to enlarge Peter Hughes at Cobbs Hill Reservoir. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Peter Hughes at Cobbs Hill Reservoir.
Hughes spent most of the pandemic at home with his family, “being a house husband and going for walks and taking pictures of cars,” he laughs. He also drove down to North Carolina for Mountain Goats meet-ups every few months.

Their latest run of shows, called the Cave Angel Ascendency Tour, will take him around the U.S. through the end of October, or until safety concerns about the delta variant grind the momentum to a halt. For now, Hughes is cautious, though excited about the path forward for live music.

And if outbreaks force additional closures and cancellations, that’s just another reason to head back home again. “I just really like Rochester,” he says. “I could kind of live wherever and I choose to live here.”

Patrick Hosken is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to [email protected].
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