Interview with the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle

TallahasseeI only recently discovered the Mountain Goats, but they’ve already made a big impression on me. The emotion that John Darnielle can get out of his acoustic guitar and legendary Panasonic boombox is nothing short of remarkable. Literary wordplay and intense emotionality tend to be mutually exclusive in the world of rock and roll, but the Mountain Goats pull it off.

On the Mountain Goats’ latest release, Tallahassee, John Darnielle left his trusty boombox in Iowa and headed to a real studio in upstate New York with producer, Tony Doogan, and a handful of other accompanying musicians. Glorious Noise had a chance ask Darnielle a few questions during a short break in the middle of the Mountain Goats’ world tour (see schedule).

GLONO: The bass in the song “Tallahassee” sounds a bit like the whirring motor of your old boombox. Was that intentional?

Darnielle: The intro bass line to “Tallahassee” does some really weird stuff and I’d tell you about it but I kind of want to keep it secret.

GLONO: You have several recurring themes and characters throughout your albums, but Tallahassee is your first album consisting entirely of songs from the Alpha series. What is it about the Alpha Couple that has kept you coming back to them? Are you done with them now that you’ve recorded Tallahassee?

Darnielle: I think I’m done, but then again I thought that back in ’94. They’re like alcoholic zombies who break in through the front door from time to time to update me on their condition.

GLONO: Can you envision a Tallahassee bonus disc that contains all the other songs in your Alpha series collected together?

Darnielle: No, I don’t think that’ll happen, though I know some Mountain Goats fans who make themed CD-Rs (all “Alpha,” all “Going To,” all songs with water as a prominent image, etc.).

GLONO: Your songs often employ the literary device of the unreliable narrator, which is a fairly unusual thing to find in pop music. Usually we like our singer-songwriters to be ultra-sincere, and we want to believe that everything that they’re singing about actually happened to them. Like, could anyone even listen to the awful “Layla” if we didn’t know it was about Clapton being in love with George Harrison’s wife? Wouldn’t the emotion in that song seem over the top and goofy if we didn’t know Clapton was a strung out junkie going nuts over his friend’s girl? What is it about rock and roll, that makes us want to believe that the singer has lived what he’s singing?

Darnielle: This question demands a novel. I don’t know whether to blame listeners or artists (or gnomes) for this terrible tendency to demand “authenticity” from popular music. Certainly rap has had a lot of fun insisting that “reality” be the watermark of quality. Dashboard fans seem to be really into this question of “sincerity” also. I really think that sincerity is best found in honest effort: a carefully constructed song is the mark of a sincere songwriter, not a spilling-out of random unretouched demons. But then again I am somewhat ornery.

GLONO: You express “love bitterness” better than any songwriter in a long time. Songs such as “Source Decay” from All Hail West Texas explore the depths of insanity that dwelling on lost love can lead to. Why do we enjoy wallowing in our own misery like that?

John DarnielleDarnielle: Because we imagine that our hardest experiences are the ones that help us grow: that help us get closer to being who we want to be. Whether this is a good or healthy way of thinking about things is another question, but I think that people are pretty convinced that in our deepest wallows is where we locate our core. Also, there’s always humor in extreme situations, more of it in extremely dire situations like finding yourself alone when you really, really didn’t want to be alone any more.

GLONO: Speaking of which, is your wife ever freaked out my the amount of bile and hatred on your records? Do you ever feel weird about singing about how painful lost love can be?

Darnielle: No, she has fun hearing this stuff. I think she maintains a distance from one or two of the more solemn ones but finds the full-blown bitterfest ones (“No Children” [mp3 via insound] for example) as funny as I do.

GLONO: Did you see the 4-star MOJO review of Tallahassee? Funny they think you’re a duo. Where did they get that idea?

Darnielle: Haven’t seen the MOJO review, though I am fond of that magazine—they write about older records without being all “oh of course this is CLASSIC, everyone has to love it” about things. The Mountain Goats are a duo, for the time being anyhow—it’s been me and Peter [Hughes, of Diskothi-Q] for a year now! Certainly Tallahassee is a duo record.

GLONO: Do you read a lot of rock writing?

Darnielle: I would read plenty of rock writing but time is too tight right now—I read what Christgau has to say, and Mark Sinker, and then time gets too short.

GLONO: There really seems to be a conscious separation between your Last Plane To Jakarta stuff and your Mountain Goats stuff. Do you think it’s inappropriate to hype your music (or even mention it!) on your own website?

Darnielle: Yeah, I just don’t feel right about it—I don’t post tour dates on LPTJ or mention the Mountain Goats unless I can’t help it. I try not to be too neurotic about it, though, since lots of the writing is in a diary style and in years like this one, when I’m sorta eating, sleeping and breathing Mountain Goats stuff, then it’s bound to work its way into my writing.

But yeah. I try to keep the two separate as best I can. I want people who don’t like the Mountain Goats to still be able to enjoy LPTJ.

GLONO: Do you separate your musician self and your rock-write self in your head, or do you approach both in the same way?

Darnielle: Songwriting and writing about music: two totally different things / voices / processes.

GLONO: I recently read the Meltzer book, A Whore Just Like the Rest, and I found his playfulness and irreverence liberating, although a lot of his stuff comes across as hollow. How do you justify fucking around with the facts, like in your recent Strokes “preview,” and were you surprised how many people (including the folks at Neumu) believed it?

Darnielle: Neumu believed in “True Tales of the Rev0lution“? Where, where? Forward me the link please! [It was mentioned in their newsletter to their mailing list – ed.]

GLONO: So what’s next for the Mountain Goats?

Darnielle: tour / record / tour / harangue people about the necessity of converting to vegetarianism / write / write / write.

GLONO: What can you tell us about your upcoming recording sessions?

Darnielle: Recording the new album at Bear Creek in May with John Vanderslice and an army of inflatable tigers. Look for songs about people who will die if they don’t take better care of their bodies.

GLONO: As a vegetarian, how do you get your protein? Do you miss bacon?

Darnielle: [Warning: Thinking about farming conditions gets me all Lisa Simpson.]

Protein? Don’t get me started. The “recommended daily allowance” of protein that you’ll read about in nutrition books was determined by whom? You guessed it: studies funded by the beef council and so on. Anyhow, yeah, beans’ll do the job. Miss bacon? Only until I think about the truly staggering amount of suffering that has to go into each piece. Not just death: suffering. Intelligent animal as friendly as a nice dog (and MORE loyal, if you can believe it: hogs have been known to walk thirty-plus miles back to their homes when they’ve gotten lost) being forced to endure living conditions you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, screaming in pain all day, unable to move around, eventually going insane from the stress, often being tortured by slaughterhouse workers who have become cruel after working so long in an environment characterized mainly by blood and death…no, I don’t miss bacon.

(Didn’t mean to get all preachy, I am just pretty passionate on the subject.)

Love from Iowa, the pork capitol of the world,

* * *

Jillian Steinberger went deep into Tallahassee in a must-read Neumu article. You can download a lot of Mountan Goats mp3s here, here and here, and you can buy Tallahassee from your local independent record store or from Amazon.

3 thoughts on “Interview with the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle”

  1. Jake,

    Cool interview. He sounds smart and interesting. I like the way he expresses the difference between writing music and writing about music. But how could you say that about Layla? I think it’s a great song no matter what it’s about. It’s just a beautiful song. “Please don’t say, we’ll never find a way…” Wow, how can you not like that?

  2. I remember John from Claremont. Glad to hear what he’s been up to … including that he’s a vegetarian! Bless him.

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