A conversation with John Darnielle, aka The Mountain Goats: Lou Reed lover, Mitt Romney slammer and one of our greatest living lyricists.


When I first interviewed The Mountain Goats, I started with the typical ‘so, new album…’ questions. He stopped me and said, rather refreshingly, “let’s just have a conversation.

“I’m going to get up on my soapbox for a second here,” he continued, “but we only live the one time, so when we have a conversation with somebody it should be fun, you know, instead of, ‘here are the same ten questions that just got asked before’. To me, why not just go ahead and work in a factory?”

And so, once again I (mostly) plunge into an agenda-free, all-topics-covered conversation with the wordsmith extraordinaire and furiously prolific chief Mountain Goat John Darnielle, ahead of his band’s (now consisting of long-time bass player Peter Hughes and Superchunk’s Jon Wurster) fourteenth studio album, ‘Transcendental Youth’.

Like many of Darnielle’s records, and especially the most recent offerings, it’s a slow-burner. An album carved out carefully and dexterously, one relying both on the intricate craft of the lyrics and the solid musical foundations they are built upon, it’s one that came together rather easily, John tells me.

“It’s the first time in a while that we’ve done the ‘dig in for a single long session’ style of recording and since the studio was only a mile or so from my house it was really a breeze.”

For long-time Mountain Goats fans, the inclusion of brass will be the most notable addition to the sonic palette. I put forward to John a recent quote from David Byrne regarding working with brass on his and St Vincent’s new record. Byrne told The Stool Pigeon last month, “Brass is always kind of big, whether it’s funky or orchestral sounding, or whatever – it’s not an intimate sound.”

I ask John if he has heard Byrne’s latest album? He hasn’t, “but I disagree with Mr. Byrne’s estimation of brass,” he says. “There’s actually an Ellington album called ‘The Intimacy of the Blues’, and it’s full of brass in that cosy, warm, intimate space. I’d disagree with the characterisation of any instrument or combination of instruments as having inherent qualities like ‘big’ or ‘intimate’ – it’s in what you do with it, not in the sound itself. Especially, like, if you listen to the horns on Van Morrison’s ‘And It Stoned Me’, they’re doing this small-section comment-on-the-lyric thing that’s as conversational and easy as a classical guitar echoing phrases in an unaccompanied voice-and-guitar piece… So I don’t think of brass as being something you can have a simple relationship to: it’s infinite, like any timbre.”

As demonstrated above, John’s instant ability and propensity to speak (often at length) perceptively and passionately about many given subjects has led him to not only be regarded as one of music’s greatest lyricists, but it has also seen him tackle a vast, often perplexing array of subjects and characters in his twenty-year career: from divorce concept albums (‘Tallahassee’) to a record about methamphetamine users (‘We Shall All Be Healed’) to an entire album based on and inspired by biblical passages (‘The Life Of The World To Come’). In the last three albums alone you can also throw in songs about Charles Bronson, Liza Minnelli, Michael Myers, H.P Lovecraft, Black Metal, Judy Garland and, if you dig further back in his career, you’d create a continuing list so varied and long it could fill up this entire article. It does, however, beg the question if any subject or character has ever proven too difficult to cover, or is maybe off-limits.

“Hmm,” he ponders. “I feel like there are stories I’ve come back to repeatedly and never fully gotten what I wanted out of them. I’m not entirely happy with any of my songs about boxing – I feel like the wrestling one, ‘Ox Baker Triumphant’, got a lot closer than any of the boxing-related ones have.

“There are some song titles that I’ve taken repeated stabs at and never gotten right.  They go back into the drawer for later attempts.”

The subject of one song on the new record, ‘Harlem Roulette’, is based on the child-star Frankie Lymon, who, with his group The Teenagers, sang ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ and shot to fame instantly as a teen himself. He was then drafted to fight in Vietnam, grew up and his voice of course changed from that of the boyish charm that had made him a star. After repeatedly going AWOL, he was dishonourably discharged from the army, was out of favour and within a musical landscape that had shifted dramatically, he struggled to get record deals or work until Roulette Records showed interest in him. A recording session was set for February 27th 1968. He cut a few tracks at the studio and celebrated by scoring some heroin. On February 28th he was found dead of an overdose on his Grandmother’s bathroom floor. John recently told Pitchfork, “I don’t know why, because I wasn’t myself a child star, but when people get famous too young and then it ruins them as people, I just get really sad thinking about it.”

Drugs have long been a staple part of Mountain Goats lyrics but not too much is known of John’s own relationship or proclivity towards them. “I took a lot of hard drugs when I was younger,” he openly tells me. “I generally try to avoid going into it at too much length – the main thing that’s interesting about drug use isn’t the mind-set or the actual drug experience, but the situations in which you find yourself when that’s the life your living, the people you run across and the places you end up spending time in.”

A prime example of this is ‘Letter from Belgium’, a glorious cut from 2004’s ‘We Shall All Be Healed’, with lyrical depictions of such conditions. “Yeah, we’re all here, chewing our tongues off/waiting for the fever to break… When we walk out into the sunlight we tell everyone we know it hurts our eyes/when the real reason we don’t like it is it makes us wonder if we’re dying”

As anyone who has ever experienced a really great Mountain Goats show will testify, there is an energy and intensity John expels as a performer that can almost border on the frightening, such is the strength and concentration on display. I enquire if it’s a demanding task. Being human, John must not be in the mood from time to time?

“Sure, absolutely, but it usually only takes one song to get into the mood. The point shouldn’t be whether I’m in the mood or not – people paid to get in, the very least I can do is find that mood that makes the night a good one and sustain it.

“I’d have to be pretty arrogant to think ‘well, I’m in a bad mood, and after all, you’re here to see what kind of mood I’m in,’ right? I just throw myself into the songs. Maybe I’ll throw some out of the list that I don’t feel like singing and replace them with ones that’ll make it easier to go into that lost-in-the-song place.”

When recently interviewing Michael Gira of Swans, he spoke to me about occasionally becoming possessed when performing live, transmuting into a character above and beyond his control, it taking hold of his body. Similar comparisons could be drawn to some Mountain Goats shows. “Probably not to the extent Gira does,” says John, “especially since his milieu is about transformation through excess, largely. I get very lost in the smaller moments, find myself disappearing into the narrative, but what Gira is talking about has to do with physical exertion to some extent, with the pure body-force of the sound. I have something like that, but it’s coming from a very different place, I think. It’s in the words themselves, in the stories and the power of telling them. There’s a similarity at the far end of thinking about these things, but mine isn’t possession, it’s more like some combination of memory and prophecy I think.”

Looking at John’s discography can be a bit of a head-spin. 14 studio albums, 23 EPs and multiple cassette-tape releases, demos, split releases and compilations. But the one consistent and clear thought that can be extracted from looking at these is John’s propulsion towards forward momentum. In a current age plagued by nostalgia and constant looking back, is it a culture that interests the Mountain Goats?

“I dislike it for myself,” says John. “If other people are into it, cool, it’s not my style to say ‘don’t enjoy what you enjoy’, but to me it is a somewhat sad idea. I go to shows to learn what’s new, not to tread over familiar ground. When an act I see plays a song I don’t know, I’m happiest: when they’re taking their newest songs to places they’re not entirely familiar with yet, when new things are afoot. The only band I’d go see doing a ‘plays x in its entirety’ show would be Souled American, and that’d only be because they don’t tour so I’d go see them no matter what they were doing. But this sort of intersection of nostalgia and celebration of canons that’s inherent in the thing you’re talking about: 100% not my scene. Totally ok if it’s other people’s scene, enjoyment of music is a net positive! But I won’t be doing one, no.”

In the 90’s John was notorious for recording straight into his boombox, recording entire albums of one-take bursts of guitar and vocals, caught gloriously on whirly, scratchy tape, the hiss in the background of his earlier material almost acting as an instrument itself.

“You know, I kind of am still a fan of tape cassette,” he says. “I don’t buy a lot of them, because a lifetime of music collecting has left space at a premium in our house, but when I do get one, I’m always kind of excited. There’s just a different feeling to playing one – the physical act of putting one in the deck has some weird muscle-memory effects and the slightness of the format is a virtue I think.

“But I’m not in the neo-cassette scene or anything,” he adds. “Occasionally I’ll hear about something and I’ll get it, but I listen to a lot of classical music these days: there is no movement to bring back the age of the cassette in the classical world,” he laughs.

Earlier this year John made the press by laying the smackdown on Mitt Romney via Twitter. The Republican leader had commented on the death of Sally Ride, the world’s first female astronaut, who was openly gay. “Sally Ride ranks among the greatest of pioneers. I count myself among the millions of Americans she inspired with her travels to space,” Romney had said. John’s response: “Kind of despicable and grotesque that her partner of 27 years will be denied federal benefits, don’t you think?” It was a splendid, swiping hatchet at Romney’s anti-same-sex-marriage views. I ask how the 47% are reacting, to which John responds in recurrently modest form. “Well, we’re about to have an election,” he says, “and the wheels seem to have come off the Republican party, which is a general good, though I’m not a cheerleader for the Democratic party, either. This country is essentially a plutocracy – the best we can do is elect the people who seem to have a little more of a conscience about things. I’m just some guy, though, I don’t really consider myself qualified to lay out a terrain map of our political landscape. I’m very active in pro-choice politics, and so I support candidates likely to do less to erode the right to choose. I say ‘do less’, because the pro-choice movement here has few friends on either side of the aisle. A sad state! But I have to believe that the movement toward more rights, not less, will continue.”

In true arbitrary fashion, as promised, we end with a discussion about Lou Reed and Metallica that turns into a further discourse on the state and existence of modern music journalism. John is a well-known Lou Reed fan and a devout and expert metal-head. “I actually lobbied Pitchfork to let me review it and they gave me the OK, and I started a piece, but it was very long and I couldn’t get around to finishing it,” he says. “Pretty complex piece of work. I think things like that are sort of bound to be ridiculed by people during their first listen to it, just given the climate now. I can’t say I loved it, but people are generally given to responding as one would in a childhood classroom now, announcing their opinions on something without reflection, often during their first listen. What’s the value in that? None, I think. I don’t think an in-the-moment reaction or an immediately-after-listening reaction is of any particular value to understanding music; and the weirder the music is, the less value such a critical approach is going to have. I have this idea that nobody should review an album until he’s lived with it for a few years. Obviously, given promotional cycles, that’s never going to happen, it’d make a publicist’s job very weird indeed, but if the question is ‘How best to evaluate music?’ the answer is ‘over time’, not ‘based on one’s first reaction’.”

Thankfully, there is more than enough music in the Mountain Goats catalogue to appraise and ponder over a lifetime.

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