Plenty of indie-rock bands find the poignant in the ridiculous and vice versa, but few do it with the hand-strummed, hardscrabble troubadouring of John Darnielle, the songwriter, leader, and, um, main guy of the Mountain Goats. Their latest album, We Shall All Be Healed, is his second on a major label, and features real live studio production, but Darnielle has also recently released three compilations—Ghana, Protein Source of the Future… Now!, and Bitter Melon Farm—that cull together the singles, cassettes, and other ephemera where many folks first heard his wavering voice, and the lo-fi fizzle and crackle of his acoustic guitar, or, sometimes, cheapie Casio keyboard.
The night after this interview took place, the Mountain Goats played a great show. The encore was “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton,” and like many Darnielle songs it’s less of a song than a story: two angry high-school kids who sort of start a band, only to get into trouble and endure a forced separation. The lyrics made me laugh; they made everybody laugh. And then came the kicker, in the last verse: “When you punish a person for dreaming his dream / don’t expect him to thank or forgive you. / The best ever death metal band out of Denton / will in time both outpace and outlive you… Hail Satan! / Hail Satan Tonight! Hail Satan!” By the last “Hail Satan!” everyone in the room was singing along with genuine fervor: it wasn’t a joke anymore.
For the interview I picked him up at the airport and we had vegetarian Chinese food at Eric’s. I told him in an email we could talk about anything. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that he wanted to talk about death metal.
I: “THIS IS A GOOD EXAMPLE OF A LIGHT COMEDY.”
THE BELIEVER: I think it would surprise many of your fans to hear that you’re a death-metal fan.
JOHN DARNIELLE: I hear that a lot, but the thing is, I don’t know why if you make the kind of music I make you would listen to more of that kind of stuff. I know it sounds arrogant to say it, but I know how singer-songwriter stuff goes. I like a lot of singer-songwriters, but at the same time when I listen to them, it sounds like watching my peers work in the workplace. I’d be more interested in going to a factory and seeing people work there because I don’t do that kind of work… I guess there’s a conflict, but I don’t know, I think listening to music and making music are two almost totally discrete activities. Deicide is a band that is single-mindedly focused on hating Christ. Now, a lot of death-metal bands, that’s a part of their ideological arsenal. Deicide is a one-issue candidate; it’s all they’re interested in. And I think they’re charming.
BLVR: Christianity or Christ?
JD: Christ and Christianity, but they like to focus on Christ.
BLVR: They’re opposed to loving your neighbor?
JD: That’s all secondary. Human ideology is secondary, I think, to the sort of Sharks and Jets thing: you guys are the Christians and fuck you—we’re not. Then later I think they developed the whole “we don’t like Christians because they’re weak, we don’t like Christians because of false piety” or whatever. So I had an advance [copy] of the new Deicide, and I was going to transfer it to the iPod, to listen to it on the plane. I put the CD into the Macintosh, and the drive starts doing the “whir whir” that suggests it’s not going to be able to pick up the CD. Fine, I’ll try and eject the CD. No. Press the button. No. Press the button. No. What about the drive? Okay. Force-quit iTunes in order to try and open it. No, iTunes won’t force-quit. Deicide has taken over the computer. I can’t play the CD. I can’t do nothing with it but sit there and wait for my wife, who’s more proficient with the Macintosh than I am, to come home and say, “Umm, shut down the computer, I guess.” It was pretty great, it was like the ghost of the art haunting me.
BLVR: If there’s one Deicide album to get, what is it?
JD: Probably Once upon the Cross, because the thing is, hardcore Deicide fans will tell you, [mockingly] “Oh, this one is much better,” probably the first one, because always with metal it’s the first one that’s the best, according to the fans. But as far as I know, it doesn’t really matter all that much which Deicide album to start with and that’s because you’re doing it to hear how pissed-off this guy is at Jesus Christ. And how intense it is to see a guy who’s milking that angle as long and hard as he does.
BLVR: I guess I don’t have a lot of need for the kind of music that makes me want to wreck a hotel room or something.
JD: Well, I think that part of the appeal of it for me is that the first time you hear it, you go, “Whoa, I can see how this is interesting, but I can’t imagine being into it and receiving it or responding to it the way you do to the type of music that naturally moves you.” And whether in the case with film or books or anything, that really intrigues me, and I really want to see what sort of theoretical underpinning you have to get to respond to it. Sort of like if you’re watching some genre of film that is not your type and learning the vocabulary in such a way that you can say, “This is a good example of a light comedy.”
II: “I DON’T BELIEVE IN IRONIC APPRECIATION.”
BLVR: After I listened to a little bit of death metal I was cooking dinner and I put on an Isaac Hayes album. My wife hates Isaac Hayes and she came upstairs and she said, “When you listen to this, is it a joke or is it for real?” I find that to be a confusing question. On the one hand there’s so much stuff that’s ridiculous about Isaac Hayes, his whole gooey “I want to make love to you” rap, but on the other hand I was alone when I was listening to it, so I’m not listening to it to impress others, and it’s not part of a skit I have going on in my head.
JD: The campy-listening thing, I think, is false. I don’t think that there is any such thing, actually. This happens with age, that at some point you might have told yourself and others that you listened to the Backstreet Boys because it was funny. But in fact, you were enjoying it; it’s just a different kind of enjoyment for you. But I don’t think that ironic-distance appreciation is actually a different or lesser appreciation. I think most of that irony is an attempt to say, “These aren’t exactly my kind of people, and I don’t picture myself sounding like that, but I still like it.” I don’t believe in ironic appreciation. I think if you like something, the core of it is you like it.
BLVR: One time I saw you perform live and you played an Ace of Base song at a time that was sort of the height of Ace of Base’s fame.
JD: I love Ace of Base. That’s part of why I used to do that song. I thought it was a great fucking song. I suspected everybody else also thought so, but that everybody would want to say, “I like that song, but it’s really stupid.”
III. TWENTIETH-CENTURY WILLIAM WORDSWORTH MOVEMENT
BLVR: Do you find the mock-suspension of adolescence in indie rock to be stultifying or confining in some way?
JD: I’m so disconnected from an indie-rock community that I am the hermit people used to guess I was.
BLVR: You are revered as a sort of cuddly troubadour.
JD: I was always hoping people were afraid of me.
BLVR: I’m not aware of anyone who’s afraid of you.
JD: Then I’m not doing my job. With the suspension of adolescence, I think about parts of early indie like the early K Records scene of Olympia, where there’s an idolization of childhood, which is sort of just like a twentieth-century William Wordsworth movement. There’s this idea that there was a point in our childhood when we were in some way better than we are now and we should try to hang on to that. But at the same time I think people who listen to that stuff value their adult reading skills and value their ability to listen to a song on several levels at once. I think most indie rock is trying to impress multivalent listening. I think suspended adolescence is more of a cultural trope than an artistic indie-rock one.
BLVR: Even in your most recent album you’re often adopting a tone that feels almost “catcher in the rye”—not actually the novel but the incident in the novel. There’s a sense that all us long-suffering, scruffy kids who have been screwed over by the world shall come together. Does that come from your own work with children?
JD: The most recent album [We Shall All Be Healed] comes from personal experiences. This is the first album that’s worked like that. Usually I’m just telling stories. That’s what’s most interesting to me about the new album—this is me trying to engage with something that no longer has anything to do with me, or who I am personally. It was me dredging up a me that I managed to kill many years ago.
BLVR: It’s interesting that you would say that. I took the album to be a series of songs about people who are all in a mess. So many songwriters are termed “literary” and I always thought you were one of the songwriters where that actually sticks. The melody and instrumentation seem secondary to the words, on purpose. Not because you couldn’t do it, but because the words are more important. Are there particular writers you would find yourself drawn to?
JD: Joan Didion. Play It As It Lays, all my thoughts on narrative come from that. People always mention Raymond Carver and he’s great. The past few years I’ve been reading French writers. What I was reading up to this album was Histories of Cambodia ’75–’79. I’m keenly aware of that novelistic, Leaving Las Vegas–style trope. I actually haven’t engaged with much of the actual literature. I feel like it’s more of… that whole vision of a lost group of lost people who are engaged in the act of losing themselves is kind of an article of common cultural faith. I don’t know if I took that from anything other than the zeitgeist.
IV: “I NEVER ACTUALLY SHOT ANYBODY.”
BLVR: It’s interesting for me to hear that it’s autobiographical. I assumed you were a clean-cut guy who wrote about messed-up people.
JD: I fictionalized a lot of it. There are real people on there, but nobody can sue me.
BLVR: That must be a profound relief to [Mountain Goats’ record label] 4AD.
JD: I never actually shot anybody. It was the first album where I was consciously drawing on actual experience just to see what that was like to do and also because when I first started writing the songs for it I didn’t have an album vision yet. I wrote “Palmcorder Yajna” and the way I wrote it was I had a chord progression, I liked the sound of it, didn’t have any words, so I just barked out an intersection of Pomona. It was the intersection that my dear friend Franz Writter always told us: If you ever get caught by the cops, and they ask you where did you score, tell them Holt Boulevard. They can’t touch you if you tell them the name of the street [where there are many drug dealers]. I barked out “Holt Boulevard!” and amused the shit out of myself just yelling the name of a random street that’s a part of my childhood. I felt like I was mythologizing this nothing area, and then I named the next two streets. It was kind of liberating doing something like that, which is the opposite of the way I usually work.
BLVR: How do you usually work?
JD: I start writing, pull whatever images happen to occur to me and make up a story, instead of starting with details that are real and I know of and going from there.
BLVR: A lot of your lyrics contain mysterious and decontextualized imagery, and certainly your song and album titles are often completely unreadable.
JD: I always preferred album titles that weren’t named after a song on the album. I would sit there and wonder why the album is called Dub Housing. There might be a track on that album called “Dub Housing,” so that might not be a good example. Why is the album called Get Lost? That’s a great example, because it’s The Magnetic Fields Get Lost—it’s a sentence. But divorce it from the band name, and it’s an imperative: get lost. When I was a kid, when I was developing my record-collector disease, those are the types of records I liked best because when I exhausted the songs and the lyrics I could still think about that aspect and I wanted albums to have as many possible points of scrutiny as they could. From the time I started writing songs, I thought it’d be better if the song title had to be in some way connected to the song. Then I got perverse about it and thought if I titled them in ways that no one could possibly make the connection I’ve made, they’d be even more interesting because anybody who’s like me and wants to make the connection would have to fabricate their own or conclude that it can’t be done. If you’re a record collector, you won’t conclude that it can’t be done. You’ll just go ahead and do it.
BLVR: So are a lot of your titles random?
JD: Not random. [The title] means something to me. Sometimes it’s a reference to something that happened while I was writing it.
BLVR: Willfully obscure.
JD: They always have some meaning for me. At least three quarters of the time there’s some meaning you could bear out from the text, if you really wanted to do the work. But you don’t have to.
V: “FOR ME, A THREE-CHORD SONG THAT COMES IN, DOES WHAT IT NEEDS TO DO, THROWS IN SOME LITTLE FILL AT THE END AND GETS OUT OF DODGE IS ALWAYS GOING TO BE WHAT I LOVE BEST.”
BLVR: Tell me about the records you were obsessed with when you were fourteen. Fourteen always seems like an important age for pop music.
JD: Fourteen and fifteen were the big years for me. I came into high school, and Heart was my favorite band. In my heart, I knew that their last two albums had been dogs; I just didn’t want to admit it because they’d been my favorite band. I was listening to them and trying to groove but I just couldn’t do it because they weren’t any good. Then I bought, for twenty-three cents, Jethro Tull’s Benefit and Genesis’s Foxtrot and Nursery Crime. My hair was getting long, and I became Mr. Proghead Guy. I listened to Genesis all the time, and the early Peter Gabriel solo stuff and that’s who I was. I was also getting fonder and fonder of Lou Reed’s Transformer. My prog friends thought Lou Reed was a joke. Speaking of ironic appreciation, that was like my first discussion on this. They would say “Do you like this because it’s funny that he can’t sing?” and I’d say, “No, that’s not it,” and they’d say, “Well it has to be, there’s no good guitar,” and I said, “It’s different from that.” They’d always argue that the only way you could like Lou Reed is if you were in some way laughing at the fact that he couldn’t sing or that the songs were so simple. By the end of that year, I decided that Genesis and all that prog stuff had to be destroyed because it was so much more pleasant to listen to this stuff that wasn’t trying so hard to be impressive musically.
BLVR: Was this love of a simple, more direct approach that led you to your first recording approaches?
JD: Yeah… I feel like there are some people who should be working more baroque forms and there are some people, like me, who are better suited to do something really simplistic. I did have classical training on the piano, and I’d like to think that if I devoted myself to it I could do what Franklin Bruno does. I guess it depends on where your heart is. For me, a three-chord song that comes in, does what it needs to do, throws in some little fill at the end and gets out of Dodge is always going to be what I love best.
BLVR: Until recently, it seemed like all of your recordings were you and a guitar, maybe someone else chimes in, maybe a bass, possibly a snippet of strange foreign radio at the very beginning, but not the typical production extravaganza that most people would certainly get by their tenth album.
JD: I was stubborn.
BLVR: So much of your early work appeared on compilations. Was part of the appeal that you were a one-song-at-a-time kind of guy?
JD: It was mainly that I was surprised when people started liking my stuff. Not because I didn’t think it was good, just because I think it’s always surprising. I’ve been writing since I was in the sixth grade or earlier. I sent out stories when I was a little sci-fi fan and I would get back rejection slips. During the whole compilation and 7” boom I would get letters all the time saying, “Would you like to be on our comp?” I don’t know if writing is like this for everybody, but I’ll hit a vein at some point and I’ll be working all the time. At that point, I was writing, on a good day, three to five songs. I had a ton of stuff and I thought some of it was good. Somebody would write and say, “Do you have a song?” and I would say, “Yes I do! I would like it to come out now rather than waiting until I can put an album together.” Mainly what that was about was I had these songs, the opportunity was there, and I didn’t expect that I’d get saddled with the idea that I was releasing everything I wrote, which people did say a lot. It was a hurtful, mean thing to say and some day I will come and kill all those people.