John Darnielle, if you aren’t familiar by now, is the founding and fundamental member of The Mountain Goats, a solo project-turned-full band from North Carolina. There was a time when it would be rather easy to pinpoint The Mountain Goat’s sound or niche - often tagged as “lo-fi” or “boom-box music” for that very simple, literal reason; John would play directly into a boom-box releasing albums of one take songs that captured his vocals and guitar in one, hissy, warbling and enthralling take. The Mountain Goats became so synonymous with this method that the whirr of tape in the background was as fundamental a part of the output as the songs themselves. Well, almost. They created beauty by embracing what others would discard, rudimentary recordings some would not even excuse as demos, and it was this visionary thinking and use of bricolage that has led to such a fruitful and groundbreaking career. Early days saw numerous tape releases and albums throughout the nineties - some are now rare beyond belief and are collectors’ items, to say the least.
These days, however, it’s a little more difficult to capture the principal sound of The Mountain Goats. Although instantly recognisable - John’s voice being perhaps the very definition of idiosyncratic - they have grown, mutated and transformed over the years into a creature that a decade ago would never have seemed possible. Long time collaborator and bass player Peter Hughes remains a solid, integral a part of their sound and John Wurtzer (more commonly associated with Superchunk) is now the permanent drummer, taking their total albums as a formed collective unit to three.
We are perhaps on the cusp of a new dawn of Mountain Goats. Gone are the acoustic mid-nineties that encapsulated the very essence of DIY lo-fi and, more importantly, John’s youth. The turn of the millennium saw perhaps the greatest transformation the band experienced: getting signed to 4AD, getting into a studio for the first time, and music becoming a full time profession. It also saw a burst of some of the most ambitious music and astonishing lyrics of the decade, if not the century. The mechanical hiss of the ever-familiar boom-box had vanished, to be replaced by layered guitars, bass, drums, strings, glorious production and perhaps the greatest divorce album written since ‘Blood On The Tracks’. This album was ‘Tallahassee’, a concept that on paper would seem impossible to pull off convincingly, but on record triumphed. The rest of the decade saw a series of albums that all brimmed with lyrical and musical ambition.
The development and maturity of Darnielle as a songwriter was being captured from album to album, and his use of the studio was bold yet restrained - at times grand and ferocious, but never superfluous. For the first time in his career he wrote autobiographical material in the form of ‘The Sunset Tree’. This record is a milestone in the career of The Mountain Goats, breaking personal boundaries as well as musical ones outside of their own realm. The tales of abuse that Darnielle experienced at the hands of his step-father were solemn, but juxtaposed almost to the point of oxymoron with the breezy, feel good sing-along anthems (Dance Music, This Year). Darnielle extended the bitter irony of the sing-along chorus of ‘Tallahassee’’s divorce anthem No Children.
Then we travel through to now - The Mountain Goats MK III perhaps? We now see a full band honing a sound idiosyncratic to their new line-up, Wurtzer’s unique and instantly recognisable drum fills an essential ingredient to the new Mountain Goats style. In essence, they have reinvented themselves, again. Most interesting about these births, rebirths, deaths and creations of The Mountain Goats’ career is that you begin to objectively see that they are a career band, and we are fortunate to be in the midst of it as it’s evolving, instead of looking back as we have to with career bands of old. Many have chastised the band for evolving, not staying true to their individual favoured method of output, but all that that serves to highlight is the narrow mindedness of some people; loyalty for some, it seems, is mistaken for shallowness and stubbornness. ‘All Eternals Deck’ is the latest release from the band and sees the group in unified form, merging more than ever as a unit. I spoke with John ahead of their UK tour in May and just off the back of the album’s release…
So, how is John? “Yeah, I’m pretty well. Just making myself a gin and bitters” is the reply. As normal, I enter the conversation with the standard “so… new album out?”, expecting that, like most people, they are only keen to talk about their new release etc. only to be cut short by something I wish everyone would say: “Let’s not have an agenda, let’s just talk and have an actual conversation.” I concur, that is my personal ethos when conducting interviews when possible, “well, good, and I’m going to get up on my soapbox for a second here 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?” So without any form of agenda or preconceptions, I had what can only be described as a good old bit of banter with John Darnielle...
Before I know it we are deep into talk of all things from baseball to boxing, two things of which I know nothing, John on the other hand does. The former springs up due to John’s recent appearance on the Letterman show - a first for the band and a big deal for US bands, “well yeah it was a big deal, but what was a big deal was that it was all eclipsed for me personally by meeting Hank Erin, who hit 755 home runs and beat Babe Ruth’s record and did so whilst getting racist hate mail and so forth. He’s a hero. In sports stature he’s comparable to Muhammad Ali. He was a guest before us and I’m a huge baseball fan, so I was freaking out, I had been excited all week.” John continues to delve into the racial segregation issues that existed in baseball in the 1950s and discusses it with an intensity and passion that has long plagued his lyrical output, so it soon becomes clear that John is a devouring beast when it comes to topics of interest, engulfing information and knowledge, and this shows in his cerebral music. This extends to boxing, another one of John’s loves and passions, asking “did you see Ricky Hatton’s brother the other night?” I of course didn’t. John then continues into the history of boxing in Manchester and how rich it is, for a moment I feel overwhelmed and out of my depth, but it’s so endearing and (bizarrely) enlightening that I listen with open ears and baited breath. Although I do enquire of the attraction to such a sport, it is after all an activity that embodies aggression and machismo, neither traits that John seems to possess, “I’ve always liked it, when I was 8 or 9 I saw the two Ali-Spinx fights and he lost the fight to this kid, Leon Spinx, and you got this feeling, ‘oh Ali has lost to this up and comer, he must be over’ but he came back and held on and won. I feel with boxing there is a narrative strength to it, you know? There are characters and a sense of character under duress, which is almost Hemmingway-like. But beyond that, there is a basic playground enjoyment of watching people having a good time, beating each other up. You know, because I’m not that guy, but it’s fun to watch when they are getting paid to do it and enjoying themselves. You have permission to enjoy that, it’s socially acceptable, so that’s kind of cool. I liked wrestling as a kid too,” before finally giving up on the explanation and proclaiming “… I like watching people beat each other up!”
We delve a little into the new album and John’s working methods, “for me it’s really important that I’m really interested and passionate and a little uncomfortable, otherwise I don’t think I can make a good record. So there’s a little twelve-year-old inside of me that’s always going ‘you have to make a really interesting record’” So, where does the uncomfortable aspect enter into things? “When you have a style that you’re always comfortable in, if you duck out of that comfort zone, people might not like it. So the more you do what you do and the more people like it, the temptation is there to do what you already did. But I feel you’ve always got to be travelling and moving forward and I feel there are some vocal approaches on this record that are quite different. I think there are little shades and moods of things that I’m not known for doing.” In fact the album flourishes under these new vocal explorations - the actual vocal arrangement of High Hawk Season perhaps proving the albums most unexpected - and the subtle tweaking of John’s vocals on Liza Forever Minnelli sees the band at an ever evolving stage.
Reviews have only just started to drip in, as we have our conversation, is it something John pays attention to? “I try not to, but I’m a singer and all singers are egotists! Every time I sit there looking at them I think ‘man, you’ve got to try harder to be a normal human being instead of a narcissist’, which pretty much what every lead vocalist on the planet is, including me. You’re not a lead singer unless you have these little crutches of thinking that you deserve attention. I’m healthy enough to know that’s not healthy, but I’ll never be healthy enough to not want to be that guy!”
As our winding path of conversation covers territories unknown, I query as to whether he still has fans that are stubbornly clinging onto The Mountain Goats days of old and refusing to embrace the journey? “There will always be a small number of people for whom that stuff, and that includes myself, is special. What interests me about that era is that lots of people were recording on four-track but there was, and I’m not boasting here, but there was nobody more primitive than me. There was nobody pointing it at a boom-box and doing it all live, and for a long time, you were hearing the first take of a song that I just wrote, over and over again. So I think there will be a small number of people, especially who were there at the time, that miss it. I don’t think there are people who view that against what I’m doing now and go ‘oh yeah, I prefer the stuff from ten years ago that was raw’, but I think that’s what the rawness was about - this is it, it just came into the world like a month ago. But for most people who like what I do, I think it’s about the songwriting and I am a better songwriter than I used to be, I think that’s kind of undeniable. Those old songs held a lot of energy, they held a lot of freshness and rawness that’s really appealing but lyrically I think I’m more able, and in rock ‘n’ roll there is this funny idea that your first album is your freshest look, but I’m more of a writer than a musician and most writers get better as they age; you read Dickens, he gets better and better and better. Wordsworth didn’t though, he lost everything and just became a terrible poet, but for the most part that late stage can’t even compete with the early stage. So for most people, yeah, I make music, but I’m a writer and I think people can relate to the fact that I’ve got better at articulating what makes us hurt and stuff like that.”
We go down the writing avenue more somewhat and John discusses that he is currently working on his second novel - much to my embarrassment I didn’t realise he had written a first. John has also written one of the 33 1/3 books, covering Black Sabbath’s Master Of Reality, however instead of approaching the album with the sense of fact finding and academia that can often lead many titles in the series cold and sterile, John wrote his book as a piece of fiction. From the perspective of a young man incarcerated in a mental hospital begging for his Black Sabbath tapes, as we uncover the depth of what they truly mean to him. Arguably, John’s youth makes an appearance in there, both in that he worked as a psychiatric nurse, and that no doubt Sabbath was a great source of inspiration and escapism for him as a child. John is working very slowly on his second novel, taking his time in order to make it “perfect”, he also adds, “it’s very odd for me, as I’m used to working very fast. I’m being a professional about it and taking my sweet time, which I’m enjoying. I’ll finish it eventually! I want to write a second novel and then a third one. I’ve got seven chapters now that I feel are perfect and I also feel I have seven more to write. So we’ll see what happens, but I’m just enjoying taking my time with it. The thing is that if you have two creative pursuits, the one always becomes the refuge from the other. When I was working at my day job and writing All Hail West Texas and Tallahassee, I was like ‘Oh boy, I get to not be at my day job now, I can write songs’ so when I’m working on fiction, I’m trying to make it that special refuge.”
We soon discuss the Mountain Goats live shows. For those who have never been in attendance, they possess a special kind of atmosphere and are often plagued with fans that have a passion and intensity to match the men making the sounds themselves. “It’s awesome!” enthuses John, “It’s so awesome.” I state that I rarely see such shows in the UK in terms of fan participation and concentration, “Wow! The thing is, I don’t know that, because the only shows I go to in the UK are Mountain Goats shows! So they are the only ones I have to judge on.” Is it always an enjoyable experience? Or can it be demanding based on the amount of adoration? “I don’t think it’s really adoration. I assume, and I have to assume, that it’s not me that anybody is experiencing adoration of, they are enjoying the music that me and my band are making, and we’re enjoying it too. It’s not just the crowd, you know, if shows jump off it’s because everybody including us is enjoying it, it’s a party. But it’s a party with emotional content, there’s an emotional theme to the party, like when everybody had one or two. There are moments when you sit and think about something emotional and you feel you’ve made contact with it. I assume it’s not anybody saying ‘John Darnielle is so great’, because I’m not so great. I write some good songs, I hope, and I make good music because I have a couple of great musicians in my band and we do a thing we do that really elevates the room, but I really don’t think it’s any kind of idol worship. Or I hope not, because I’m not anybody’s ideal, I’m just a guy who has a gift for a phrase.”
With such a huge back catalogue behind John and The Mountain Goats, can he remember all the songs he’s written? “About seventy per cent I would say. I usually just need a cue for the first line…although saying that I have played shows where I’ve sang the first verse and chorus and then have no idea where I am, so maybe seventy is high.” Is writer’s block something that you suffer from? “No, I don’t believe in it. I think writer’s block is a bourgeois luxury. If you showed up for your brick laying job and said ‘you know what, I can’t work today, I have brick layer’s block’ you would instantly be done, right? If it’s your job to write… I mean, some days you don’t write with as much flair as others, but your still writing - it just means you’re not always hitting it. That can be accepted because at any given Monday-Friday job you’re not your best every single day, but some days you are really good at what you do. So people who believe in writer’s block have this idea that it’s magic, it’s not magic - it’s work. It’s a great fucking job and the notion of writer’s block is just, well, if you compare it to any other work you’ll understand it - the child inside the writer wants to affirm himself and say ‘oh no, my gift hasn’t come to me today’ come on now! It’s a craft that you learn and practise. On any given day a writer should be able to write something,” I mention that hard work and perseverance are always attractive qualities to some young people I interview these days, “young writers want to tell you they have writer’s block a month into them starting writing, it’s like they look forward to complaining about writer’s block. It’s a pathology but I don’t believe in it, I believe sometimes you’re not writing well, I have evidence of it. I was looking through old tapes the other day and found some from 1998; I did a lot of crap in 1998! I couldn’t find my zone, but to me when you’re doing that, you’re going somewhere - you haven’t found it yet, but every step of the journey is important. I listened to a fifteen minute tape of stuff and it was just directionless, I hadn’t found the spot. But then I listened critically and I thought, what are you doing? I realised I was trying these little melodic things to try and break free and then shortly after what I wound up with ‘All Hail West Texas’, which is one of my favourite records. Even if you don’t produce anything of worth, it’s practise. Practise is a meaningful word, practise isn’t necessarily accomplishing anything, but it’s keeping your muscles limber. Painters do multiple studies before they get to the one they are going to do. There is this weird thing in literature, poetry and writing that your waiting for the lightening to hit you in the brain and you’ll spontaneously create something great but it’s not like that.”
As our conversation starts to come to a close, it’s been a wonderful insight - the kind of talk that may occur down the pub, one that is directionless but contains passion and comprehension and as a result is more enlightening, I feel I have extracted something from John that would not have been possible had I reeled off a series of questions in succession. What would have been a mere formality became an encounter, an encounter with a man who, while he may accept some of his skills, is irrefutably modest about the scale and sheer brilliance of others that he possesses. Without steeping too far into sycophant territory, there are few characters in music like John Darnielle, and while he repudiates the notion of lightening striking people to burst them into creativity, I think it’s fair to say that he’s unleashed a few bolts himself onto others, from his endless musical and lyrical output. Long live The Mountain Goats.