I knew "Mountains" was special the day I wrote the riff.
It was Spring in New York City in 2014 and I was getting inspired by the monster sounds of Linkin Park's aggro new album The Hunting Party. You may hear absolutely none of that album in the song "Mountains," but that's the thing about true inspiration: it's not copycatting, it's just a starting point that sends you down a rabbit hole towards something new. It was an interesting situation in that the big riff in the beginning came first, then I knew it needed an intro so I started building something on the bass and then just kept adding and adding until I had something I deemed truly epic, complete with an Edge-like hypnotic delay guitar riff to go with it. Once I had it, I couldn't get it out of my head, and it became my favorite riff to play; a title still held for me to this day, as I always look forward to the end of our sets when I get to play "Mountains."
The song truly found its legs in the Summer and Fall of that year. I would leave New York in July of 2014 at the behest of our new manager that we had signed with in May, who had heard the initial four recordings that I mentioned in the "Tell Me" diary - "Heartbreakers," "Lay Me Down," "Masquerade" & "Tell Me" - and thought that we were about to go to the promised land. He thought that it would look way cooler for us to break out of our home of Virginia, so off I went. The plan was for me to go back to Virginia, Jack and I would re-group and tighten up some new songs, we would finish recording our album that summer in Texas with a record producer friend of our father's and our manager's - this person is who brought us together - and then world domination would imminently follow. At the time, our manager thought that "Masquerade" was THE song and it was going to be yuuuuuuge because it sounded "like fun. covering a Maroon 5 song" - a comparison I have no problem with, considering those bands are very successful - but his tune would soon change once he heard "Mountains."
Our "liftoff" plan never came to fruition because one week after we met our new manager in May, Jack broke his finger in a game of coed beach volleyball (ironic considering Jack was a two sport college athlete - football and rugby - and had never injured himself before). Nevertheless, we locked ourself in our dad's garage for a few days and tightened up some songs and sent them to our manager so that we could be ready to hit the studio whenever Jack finished recovery. His exact words upon hearing the "Mountains" instrumental were - "Don't you DARE fuck this up!" So now THIS song became the one that would ensure record deals, tours, models popping bottles of bub in the club; you know, the usual stuff that successful people enjoy.
Once Jack recovered, we were set to hit Sound Of Music in Richmond, VA to record with the great John Morand, a local legend who had recorded with everyone from Cracker to Carbon Leaf to Lamb of God to D'Angelo. We recorded in their enormous live room that used to be a church and we recorded the drums to analog tape to give them an even bigger, warmer sound. The session was also notable for an happy accident that occurred out of pure frustration. The "Edge" delay guitar that comes in the intro was originally a lot smaller and tighter sounding. I thought of it as kind of building the suspense before the giant riff kicks in. Well, I was having some trouble nailing this all the way through in the studio. I would get about 98% of it and then some little thing would go wrong and we would have to start again (because typically we like to do things for real here in Camp Ivins and didn't want to cheat and program the delay. Archaic by today's standards and methods? Maybe. But it's just how we roll). On about the 10th take I got super pissed and just accidentally took my hand off the strings and stopped palm-muting them, which completely opened up the riff and completely up the section of the song (this is why doing things for real is superior - happy accidents become possible). John and Jack stopped and were like "WHOA! What was that?!" So we kept it. It may be a little "Inside Baseball" for some reading this but you can hear the difference on the original "Mountains" demo that I have included below.
The other difference that may be noticeable to some - other than the Rob Zombie-esque super low octave distorted "We've come too far" vocal going into the last chorus - which got vetoed while recording vocals - are the lyrics in the chorus. This song is about our struggle as musicians to achieve our dreams. It's about fighting and sacrificing everything to get to where you know you need to be, no matter what anybody says. No compromises. The current lyrics are:
(Oh) We've come too far
(Oh) We fell so hard
(Oh) We've come too far to pay for a loss of who we are
But as you can hear in the demo, those lyrics were:
(Oh) We've come too far
(Oh) We fell so hard
(Oh) Hell's deep inside but heats our souls 'cause it's who we are
Basically saying that we know that we live with the desire for this unusual, sometimes hellish lifestyle but this struggle also happens to be fulfilling because it's just who we are. Typically, I am extremely protective of my lyrics and almost never "take them to committee" but our manager insisted that since this was going to be THE song, that it needed some notes. So I sent a draft to him and Jack, Jack contributed a line to the second verse, but it wasn't there yet. Our manager felt that we needed to drive home that "we've come too far" motif and that if it repeated, it would get stuck in the listener's head that much easier. Of course, because I'm the "artist," I naturally balked at this and felt that he had no idea what he was talking about (ignoring the fact that this man had been the head of A&R at Sony for over 20 years so he actually did know what he was talking about in a very big way). So Jack and I sat at our dad's house one night and just went back and forth ping ponging ideas on what it would be. I don't remember what Jack said to alley-oop me on the lyric but he said something which triggered "we've come too far to pay for a loss of who we are" in my head and we both knew that was it. Basically, we've worked too hard - I have been playing in bands and in clubs and writing songs for 13 years - to do something that isn't who we are and we will never acquiesce on our dream. And you know what? Our manager was right. It is better. #PersonalGrowth
One other note about the writing process was that the lyrics did not come easy for me. We recorded the music at Sound Of Music and then were going to my longtime friend and collaborator Pedro Aida's Audio Vérité studio to record the vocals a week or so later. A few days before we were set to go at Sound Of Music, I had NOTHING. No ideas. Not a single line. All I had were the "Oh's" that we had agreed upon and then a bunch of gibberish melodies. I have a set of lyricists that are my lyricist Mount Rushmore and in these situations, usually I go to them to find some inspiration: Brandon Roundtree from Conditions, Jesse Lacey from Brand New, Ace Enders from The Early November, Bono, Jon Foreman from Switchfoot and Billy Corgan from The Smashing Pumpkins. This was a major "What would Billy do?" moment, so I did something I had never done before: I wrote a poem. A long one. It all came out in a stream of consciousness in just a few minutes and once I was done, I stared at it for a minute and then that was enough to be the springboard to take a few lines from, and build more around them (I actually went back to this poem to get some lyrics for another song on the album called "The Seeker").
So there you have it. "Mountains." Even the title sounds huge. It's such an interesting amalgamation of influences that made this thing. For instance, when we were coming up with the pre-chorus melodies, I took a "what would Adam Levine do?" approach, but then those "Oh's" in the choruses sound straight off a Def Leppard song. And I love it for that. "Mountains" is this tight three minute gumbo of elements from all over the rock spectrum and for that, it is possibly my favorite song on the album. It sounds absolutely MASSIVE thanks to the phenomenal mix from Grammy winner Michael Rosen and I highly recommend listening to it cranked to 11 in your car with the windows down at night on the highway.