Get Holy: An Interview With John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats

Jer Fairall
Photos: Chrissy Piper

Upon the release of the Mountain Goats' latest album, the band's founder and songwriter talks about the literary influences on his prolific output and the biblical theme of his latest opus.

The Mountain Goats

The Life of the World to Come

Label: 4AD
US Release Date: 2009-10-06

There is much about the work of John Darnielle that is potentially imposing, but sitting down to prepare for an interview with him I found the thing most daunting to confront is his generosity. Not the generosity of his vast body of work, necessarily, though there is that (since debuting his main musical outfit the Mountain Goats as a home recording project in 1991, he has consistently managed an album-a-year average even while eventually expanding beyond the lo-fi confines of his early work into the more refined sounds of his albums (beginning with 2002’s Tallahassee) for the label 4AD). Nor even the generosity of his extra-curricular output, which ranges from regular updates of his webzine Last Plane to Jakarta (which features some of the smartest and most eclectic music writing anywhere on the ‘net) to a recent entry in Continuum’s 33 1/3 book series, in which he turned his love for Black Sabbath’s classic Master of Reality album and his experiences of working in a psych-hospital into one of the most affecting pieces of fiction to be released in any genre during 2008.

No, what was staring me down as I attempted to probe into his latest work -- The Mountain Goats’ new Biblically themed album The Life of the World to Come -- in particular, was the generosity of his art itself, the way his songs and his albums exist as fully-formed worlds for the listener to submerge themselves into. Frequently addressing a wide range of harrowing subject matter (addiction, abuse, the sometimes impossible strain of coexisting alongside other people), Darnielle writes and sings with an intimacy that always feels bravely, unflinchingly autobiographical even when that may not be the case (although it often is). As a storyteller he is as clear and evocative with his words as he is economical, never leaving his listeners wanting for additional detail or exposition. What further illumination could I possibly request of him when he puts it all right there in his songs?

The twist to The Life of the World to Come is that each of the 12 songs is titled after the location of a particular Bible verse, leaving the knowledgeable or the curious (for which the searchable index Bible Gateway is recommended) to draw parallels between his words and those of scripture. It is a risky undertaking—one which, as Darnielle admits, caused no shortage of contention—but nonetheless a wholly appropriate one for an artist who so often wades, however secularly in the past, through the murk of sin, guilt and redemption in his work. I prefer to think of it, though, as an instance of one of our most literately adept songwriters taking on what is still, when you get down to it, one of our culture’s defining literary touchstones. As fans of this album will attest, he is more than up to the task.

Talk to me, if you can, about the literary influence on your lyric writing. I remember reading a roundtable discussion you had with Jonathan Lethem and Rick Moody a few years back in which you said that, to you, “musical influences were much less important than literary ones.” You then listed a handful of writers (Faulkner, Joan Didion, etc) that you considered your “chief sources.” How, if at all, do their prose and storytelling styles come to play in your songwriting?

Couple of things at work here. I'm not sure that their styles do come into play for me, although reading Joan Didion tends to improve one's ability to write sentences, so there's that. It's more in the sorts of images and scenes and paradoxes that attract them, the "themes" for lack of a better word. Irrevocable losses and personal vision (Berryman); human dignity (Faulkner in how gently he treats Caddy and Benjy for example, his refusal to deny genuine humanity the Compsons, even to Jason, despite what a catastrophe the family generally is); discerning patterns, old patterns, unbreakable patterns, at work in people and the things they do (Didion). Particularly Didion, I think she's kind of a tragedian with a great comic ear, which is a fantastic look for a writer; nobody does character like her. So since I write personified narratives, for the most part, I can get a sense of how to inhabit a character by reading writers whose characters are alive and real.

Speaking of that discussion, Lethem mentioned that Camden Joy had remarked that if Lethem’s collected writings were a band, they’d be Yo La Tengo. Inversely, who/what would be the literary equivalent of your lyrics? (I might argue Raymond Carver in your case, but I’m probably nowhere near as well read as you are.)

Well, several people have been kind enough to compare me to Raymond Carver, and I've always been very pleased by that, though really, I'm not in his league I don't think. That guy is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, somebody who infuses a form with so much inspired creativity. It's hard for me to compare myself to any writers, because I kind of idolize them, so it seems presumptuous to say "here's who I am." A way more emo Robbe-Grillet, maybe? Or Jean Lorrain, this guy I learned about from Christian Death liner notes.Very obscure pre-surrealist figure telling scary stories and then disappearing almost completely from history, maybe. I just kinda can't compare myself to the writers I love though, it seems uncouth.

When constructing an album with a really solid overriding narrative (Tallahassee, We Shall All Be Healed, The Sunset Tree) do you find literature, particularly the novel, influencing the way that the record takes shape? If so, is the structure of the novel so ingrained at this point from having read so much that it might unconsciously guide how you approach the narratives on your records?

I don't think so. I think of the album as its own form. I don't think it's a novel-in-sound or anything. Different deal. It develops differently. Both the listener and the author have a lot of free play and leeway. The thing is, though, that I think narrative is pervasive in all areas of life. Follow people's tweets: even when they abandon grammar and spelling, there's this huge yearning for narrative, for placing something in context, for making events have something to do with each other. So I think any effort one makes, in film or literature or music (instrumental music, too), narrative is going to emerge naturally from it. I'd say with my stuff, it'll usually be a lot clearer, because my stories are often pretty linear and even when I'm not, I'm a big horror movie fan, so I favor a nice garish effect whether it's in the imagery or the phrasing, so there's usually going to be a moment when the narrative sort of throws itself into relief. But I think everything's super-narrative at heart; the novel's just the most egregious example of it.

Though you write extensively and frequently on your website, was the experience of writing the Master of Reality book — really much more a work of literary fiction than one of music criticism — at all revelatory or educational? How different was it to spend a hundred pages with a single character and narrative thread rather than four minutes? Do you see yourself ever returning to book-length prose writing (whether fictional or non-) at some point?

Oh yeah, it was very, very different. Incredibly educational and satisfying and crazy-making. Because there was a lot more than those hundred pages. At one point I threw up my hands and re-started the book, changed the temperament of the narrator from acting-out confused adolescent to upright, well-spoken Christian youth in a Christian treatment center after a suicide attempt, sorting through his issues in a much less aggressive way. Worked on that for like fifty pages but I missed the original narrator. The new one... I liked him, but I didn't love him like I did Roger P. This doesn't happen much with songs -- if a song's not turning out right, I just abandon it wholesale, it's not a big ol' slap of sculptor's clay like a novel. I am working on my second one, yeah -- kinda wish I had a deadline, which I don't -- I keep changing directions, but I've got a basic structure now and some chapters I like and about 75 pages of stuff that I liked but which doesn't fit any more. It's sprawling, and I'd rather if I'm going to write books that they didn't sprawl. I favor focus.

In addition to feeling literary, your lyrics always come off as autobiographical, whether or not they actually are. Now you describe this new record as “twelve hard lessons the Bible taught me, kind of.” Is this new album the ultimate collision, for you, between an external source of literary inspiration and personal experience, or is this pretty much in keeping with how you always write? How did having this source guide the writing of the album? Did it make it easier/harder?

To me the thing is whatever I'm engaging with, reading, watching, whatever, I'm liable to personalize that no matter what (N.B. - this may be the function of some personal defect -- I don't think it's particularly noble to make everything in the outside world be about oneself.). But it does work, for me, as a writing strategy. Anything I read, I put myself into. This actually makes me kind of a bad reader critically: I'm always looking for somebody with whom I can sympathize, and by the end of any given book, that's usually everybody. I don't do well with villains unless they're, like, the Queen in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, of whom I remember being terrified as a child.

Anyway. I think writing with a view toward the Bible at all times really helped me tap into moods and feelings that are often pushed back by me: deeper fears, you know, of being alone, or of losing people forever, or of being or becoming a person you'd rather not be. More positive things too: I think the new testament's full of occasions to marvel at the empathy of Jesus for people who everybody expects him to ostracize, and that's a really wondrous thing. I don't think you have to have even a tiny spark of faith read about Jesus curing the young man possessed by demons and think, "wow!" The mind writing this story, and the people who believe it, are a people capable of real compassion, huge things in the world, you know? So that made some of the songs more challenging, because I was trying to set the bar high, but at the same time wanting to sound natural. That's always so important to me, to not sound like I'm saying "Oyez, oyez, attendez-vous to the awesomeness of my damn writing" or anything. You know?

How were the particular passages chosen, and in direction did the songwriting head from where? Like, was it always find a passage you saw potential in and then construct a song around it, or did you write the songs on this album with the Bible concept in mind and then go scurrying through the book for an appropriate passage?

It went a lot of ways. Sometimes the verse would pop up while I was writing the song and that would be that (“Romans 10:9” for example). Other times I'd run across something in Deuteronomy, say, and think "that is the saddest thing I ever heard, this whole race of people who're just a parenthesis now." It varied a lot.

I’ve been directing these questions in a way that treats the Bible as literature, but it is, of course, something much more significant than that. What exactly inspired you to take on such an imposing source, and why at this point?

Several things. I've been in pretty punishing physical and emotional health for the last couple years, buncha weird stuff, and that'll get a person thinking about his spirit just as a refuge from his body. I've always had a pretty dicey relationship with my body -- many survivors of abuse do -- so there's that. And also, I've had this lifelong thirst to believe, but I just don't. I try; I go in as deep as I can, but I wonder whether real faith isn't hard-wired. At the same time, I can't call myself a non-believer. I talk about "the spirit" and have a hard time accepting that "the spirit" is actually just a sort of Freudian/Jungian collection of personality traits and reactions to them. I've experience transcendence both as ecstasy and pain, and I think the life of the spirit, that's something worth letting loose in little songs, maybe. It's bigger than they are, so maybe it can knock a few teacups off the shelves, right? It's just, like, so much of what affects me emotionally is bound up in ideas of God and mercy and forgiveness and wrath and the sort of peace that we mean when we say "peace be with you" in the mass -- you know? Huge part of who I am in all this, and I think it's been darting around like a fish in my songs since at least The Coroner's Gambit, so I thought, "why not focus, start digging, really head into the cave and see what's there?"

On the Mountain Goats website, you make a point (somewhat jokingly) of refuting any questions you might get from people about whether this album represents a religious conversion, or anything like that. Even though your coming at it from this perspective that doesn’t feel (to me, at least) to stem from anywhere in current political climate, has the Bible really become such a touchy, unfairly politicized object that you feel the need to preempt concern? Consequently, is it time to reclaim the Bible, and spirituality in general, from the political realm and allow it back into the popular conversation?

Man, yeah... there were people essentially sending me hate mail about the album as soon as the song titles were announced. "You shouldn't preach to people," all kinds of things. People get real mad at the Bible. I think I inspired their anger by having this early song where a guy actually physically yells at the Bible. But, I mean, for me, when an artist I like does something that sounds to me like something I'm not going to like or something I'm going to have a problem with, that gets me excited. Because it means there's going to be some degree of resistance, and a lot of my favorite stuff is not stuff I loved right out of the box.

But, I'm not real sure about reclaiming anything. For one thing, there's a lot of hateful garbage in the Bible -- can't deny that. I kind of address a little of the thorniness of some biblical claims in that Philippians song - the Catholic church doesn't generally having a problem teaching that suicides go to Hell, and their case seems to be on solid doctrinal ground, too -- but do you really want to worship a God who'd make somebody without enough internal strength to resist the urge to self-annihilate? You can say, "He's not really like that," but again, you can make the case pretty strongly for the God of the Bible being a Person to Whom we can relate just in terms of what we'd call basic human values.

But, I mean, yeah, why people can't even have that conversation without breaking out in hives, that's kinda weird to me, it's not like the book itself ever did anything to anybody. People do things to people, books don't. Books are like rocks. You hold one in your hand and look at it in various lights to get a sense of it, and then when you get a good angle, you throw it through a window to see what happens.

The Life of the World to Come was released 6 October 2009.

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