The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle learns to trust others
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John Darnielle is the impressively prolific musician behind The Mountain Goats, a name he’s recorded under since the early '90s. Until fairly recently, Darnielle was a kind of cult figure, recording songs on a boombox while toiling at any number of odd jobs. Beginning with 2002’s Tallahassee—his first for storied indie label 4AD—Darnielle began adding members, increasing the quality of his band’s recordings, and finding larger audiences, with 2005’s cathartic The Sunset Tree catapulting his work into the ears of mainstream critics. The Mountain Goats’ latest album, The Life Of The World To Come, is quiet and complex, with song titles named after biblical verses and a sense of studied contemplation that more than offsets the record’s lack of bombast. The A.V. Club spoke to Darnielle, before his Antone's show Nov. 18, about geography, religious mysticism, and playing well with others.
The A.V. Club: As with the past few albums, The Life Of The World To Come is an ensemble effort. When would you say The Mountain Goats became a band, in terms of having multiple members lending creative input?
John Darnielle: The old cantankerousness in me wants to say, “Well, the second I called it The Mountain Goats.” When it was me and Rachel [Ware], it was a band. That was back in ’94. It was a band then. Then it was mainly just me for a while, but it’s been a band for more of the life of the project than it has been just me. When it’s just me, that’s kind of fun, but to me it’s always better when it’s me and other people bringing their own ideas into it. The reason it’s called The Mountain Goats is because the whole “singer-songwriter person bringing his vision to life” thing always struck me as a little suspect. A Cat Stevens record isn’t just Cat Stevens’ ideas. It’s Cat Stevens and all the musicians who play with Cat Stevens, right? It’s “Cat Stevens,” with quotes around it. I think it’s always a band in some way even when it’s just me, but the present incarnation seems like the most coherent it’s ever been.
AVC: Why do you think that is? Is it the people that you’re playing with, or do you think your songwriting now lends itself more readily to multiple players?
JD: I think it’s just that we work really well together. Me and Peter [Hughes] have talked about this. We’ve been working together continuously since 2001 and we’d done some stuff before that. But we really had put in a solid foundation of learning to listen to each other. And then to bring [Superchunk drummer] Jon [Wurster] in, a musician we both admire so much, and find out what a creative drummer he is—a lot of people think of Jon maybe as a straightforward rock drummer, but Jon is full of amazing ideas. When I’m asking somebody to collaborate with me, I like to say “Well, what do you hear, what do you want to do?” instead of telling them what to do. Jon has no fear as far as that kind of stuff goes. He brings all kinds of incredible creative ideas. What we’re good at, I think, is functioning as three independent musicians—two of them better than me at being musicians—but as three independent musicians bringing ideas to some skeletal songs.
AVC: Were you familiar with Jon Wurster’s second career as a radio comedian with Scharpling & Wurster?
JD: I actually hadn’t heard his radio stuff the first time I played with him. I moved here to North Carolina where he lived and at some point I got asked to play a Christmas thing with him. I don’t really entirely remember how it came to pass, but Jon had given me all three of the Scharpling & Wurster CDs, and we listened to all of them all the way down a West Coast tour, like that was all we listened to. Mainly “The Gorch” over and over. It’s a great one, although my favorite is still the “Hippy Justice” routine, I think that’s the best.
AVC: In addition to adding musicians, you’ve also gradually increased the fidelity of your recordings—they’re now quite lush. To what extent is this a conscious development?
JD: I don’t know if there’s a single line of growth. Sometimes I feel very young and other times I feel like the side of a ship that’s got a bunch of layers of mussels and barnacles on it. On [2004’s] We Shall All Be Healed, we worked with [John] Vanderslice and we sort of started to indulge, but at the same time the vibe we were going for was rawness. It was a lot of distressed vocals and distressed drums and distressed guitars, everything in the red. And The Sunset Tree was more focused on the songs. I don’t remember very well, but I don’t feel like the musical vision was really where my mind was at. My mind was on getting the songs done.
AVC: You say you didn’t focus on the instrumentation with The Sunset Tree, but some of the songs on that album are innovatively arranged. In “Dilaudid,” you sing over solo cello.
JD: Yeah, I think The Sunset Tree is really the album on which I really learned to trust other musicians, which is so important. I always wonder what other records would have sounded like if I’d been able to go “You do what you do.” On The Sunset Tree, we brought in [cellist] Erik Friedlander, and that guy’s a better musician than anybody in the room. He asks me, “What do you want me to play?” and I’m like, “Why don’t you tell me what you feel like playing?” And every time he started to play, we would all just swoon. We would all just go, “Oh my God, Eric, you bring dignity to these songs.” And it really elevated all of us in a big way. You’ve got to understand, that record was a very emotional process for me, so the music was sort of coming out in a pretty automatic way for me. I was just focused on trying to sing the songs in some way that was true, in some way that would communicate what I was trying to get across.
AVC: The album certainly delivers an emotional wallop.
JD: It’s the one that sort of changed things a lot for me. People like to say how much they like stuff, but with The Sunset Tree, people shared stories about what it meant for them. And that stuff’s so humbling and amazing.
AVC: Over time, your song titles have become less geographically focused. There aren’t as many “Going To Georgia” or “Letter From Belgium”-type songs anymore. Is there a particular reason for that?
JD: My songs are still pretty intensely place-focused; I just don’t telegraph it as much. Practically any song you can name, I have a really strong sense of where it’s taking place on the earth. Take [2006’s] Get Lonely. If you look at “Dear Lonely,” it begins and ends specifically in North Carolina. The freeway named in “Wild Sage” runs literally two blocks from here. And then the last song, “In Corolla,” is at the beach where the narrator goes to drown himself. I’ve said this before, but the reason I started writing “Going To” songs was to make fun of people. I assume this is an issue everywhere, but I always just assumed it was an issue especially where I lived that you would constantly be hearing people say how “it sucks here, but things are gonna be better when I move to—” insert city. I’m very into representing your neighborhood. You need to be proud of where you’re from or you need to get the fuck out and shut up about it. I really can’t stand people sitting around saying how bad where they live is. I think it’s really pathetic. I hate it. Because when you move someplace, the only thing that changes is your perspective. People are the same everywhere, places are more or less the same everywhere. The thing that happened over the course of time was, I started to think, well no—these people are onto something. When you go somewhere, something does happen. I had really never been many places when I started writing them, and now I’ve been to all kinds of places. And so the places don’t have the same sort of talismanic allure.
AVC: Speaking of mysticism, the songs on The Life Of The World To Come are all titled after Biblical verses. What compelled you to use the Bible as source material?
JD: How awesome would it be if I said, “Oh yeah, that was the label’s idea. I wrote the songs and then they came up with this concept.” That would be a great answer. I wish I had the stones to do that. I would say for me there’s a continuum that runs from literature to liturgy. That’s part of a continuum. Literature is a mystical place for me. It’s not dry. It’s where miracles happen. So there’s already some sort of transformative thing going on for me in the idea of trying to impose order on reality, which is what anybody who writes a sentence is doing. I think my stuff was already religious to begin with, generally speaking—this just sort of explicitly takes one particular spiritual angle and tries to use it like a prism.