Just Stay Alive: An Interview With John Darnielle of Mountain Goats

The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle, named by several as one of the greatest contemporary songwriters, reveals what happens behind the scenes for the new release Transcendental Youth, among many other topics.

The Mountain Goats

Transcendental Youth

Label: Merge
US Release Date: 2012-10-02
UK Release Date: Import

The first time I heard a song by The Mountain Goats, my curiosity was piqued enough to seek out a record. When I took the deep breath and plunged into the depths of their (then his) discography, the lyricism of John Darnielle almost took my head off. Each new song was a successive blow leveled at my preconceptions of his songwriting ability. By the time I'd worked my way up through Tallahassee, I'd come to regard Darnielle as not only one of the greatest lyricists of his generation but one of the greatest lyricists of all time. A decision spurred on by the bruising but elegant portrayal of the loveless defeatism of the Alpha Couple, which was best exemplified in the now-classic "No Children".

Then Darnielle had another sharp left turn with The Sunset Tree, by taking an intensely personal route and delivering a knockout gut-punch. With The Sunset Tree Darnielle also finally found the perfect balance between lyrics, delivery, and mood, as demonstrated early on in the record by the unbelievably harrowing "Dilaudid". He was operating at the top of his game and, maybe for the first time, it was abundantly clear that it wasn't just Darnielle's characters who had their feet off the brakes -- Darnielle was right there with them. Through that fearless examination of an abusive past, he'd tapped into another realm of songwriting that had certainly been mined before but rarely with the finesse he exhibited on The Sunset Tree.

The knock-on effect of that record took hold through subsequent releases, with every release seeming just a little more personal even if the stories and songs being produced were rooted in fiction rather than difficult fact. The next important step for The Mountain Goats was to become a fully-functioning band, which they achieved gracefully on Heretic Pride, a record that exhibited even greater levels of urgency, which was especially evident on the towering "Lovecraft in Brooklyn".

As a full band, The Mountain Goats have been putting out records at an enviable pace, especially considering how consistently incredible and singular the records have been, from Heretic Pride's nervous energy to The Life of the World to Come's biblical exercises to All Eternal's Deck's subtly dark atmospherics to their most recent outstanding effort Transcendental Youth and it's warm glow, aided by the horn arrangements of Matthew E. White. At some point in that run, Darnielle revealed he was an incredibly effective pianist who was capable of matching and often exceeding his most affecting work on the instrument.

When I was given the greenlight to interview Darnielle, I'd amassed a bevy of unanswered questions, and his responses proved to be typically eloquent and insightful.

* * *

Was the decision to bring horns into Transcendental Youth a predetermined one

Sort of. On tour or on the record? On the record there are horn charts so we had to take the idea through. What we do is we tour the songs and some of them, especially the title track, have a real swing element to them. We thought what else could we do and I always wondered what it would be like to have a full horn section on a record. We had a couple of horn players on Get Lonely which was really cool but a proper horn section with horn charts and had these anticipated horn charts. I'd seen Matthew and his Sounds of the South presentation a couple years back. We hadn't really thought about the tour but once these were tracked you kind of go, "oh man"l once you record it live, you think it'd be fun, you know? So, we patched it out.

Both Transcendental Youth and The Life of the World to Come saw a greater emphasis on piano-based songs. Is that something you think you'll continue on subsequent releases?

I don't plan it but I will say I have a piano now (laughs). I didn't before but they have this annual piano sale at Duke and I'd had a keyboard for a while but now I have a baby grand and I just love to play the piano. I think I'm better at it than guitar and I know I can find more interesting chords. So, who knows, I can't think in advance. Part of me is like, well anybody else in my shoes could go, "well why don't I do a record that's all piano?" and I can't really do that or commit to anything sort of like that. I also have ideas like "what if I did a record that was all just acoustic guitar and vocals and then toured it as a band?" so there's all kind of ideas you can do. But I'm really into piano trio stuff right now. You get this really cool groove when you're playing just piano, bass, and drums where everyone's sort of feeling each other's space, which is the only way to put it, but it really is true and everyone's sort of sitting in their own pocket. It's kind of jazz-like. I don't get that on guitar because I'm not that good at guitar. So yeah, I'm at least looking forward to playing more piano in the future.

There's two tracks on the new record that both use the "Spent Gladiator" title. What was the inspiration behind that series?

Well, the second one was the first of the two to use the title, the first had the working title of "Amy" for the longest time but I realized they both shared the "just stay alive" line, which unifies them. Just the idea of a gladiator, which probably begins with vanquishing your enemies but by the end of it, you're fighting in broken form, probably just focusing on not dying- and that's enough. So that's sort of the unifying concept between the two.

What prompted the switch to a full band and how did the band initially form?

Well, we've been playing as a band now since Heretic Pride so that's four albums ago. I'd played with Jon Wurster as a duo just for a lark. I'm trying to remember which came first but there were two shows we did with Jon. One was a benefit for WKNC and the other was a Christmas show at [Cat's] Cradle for and we played as a duo, electric guitar and drums, total blast, and then we played as a trio... I can't keep it straight how it works because we did a whole set, like our first set with a drummer, I think, at a WKNC benefit. It had a really fun and natural feeling and that's always sort of been the way that we've grown, just sort of getting an idea, there's plenty of things that we've done, we've played with an extra person here or there, a long time before. It's fun but doesn't suggest the next natural move, you know, and with Jon he just really naturally fit in. He seemed to get what we do and he's such a natural player, so we play well together. It's hard to imagine being in a band with Jon Wurster and not playing well.

All Eternals Deck was produced by Erik Rutan. Did that differ from previous production experiences?

The main thing that was different about working with Erik is that in his studio they usually record all parts discretely so the drums and the bass mic track together but for the most part, it was recorded like death metal, so everything was recorded in pieces. We'd record part of a song, like the drum part, then the bassist would lay down the bass part. Everything is recorded in pieces to get that big, titanic, aggressive creature. What we do is mainly play live and we played it as live as we can. So songs like "The Sourdoire Valley" song were tracked entirely live, except the vocals, if I remember correctly. That's something that we were doing differently in his studio so it was really fun to have everybody not completely out of their comfort zone but still trying different things. We were really comfortable in the studio and the amp, which is something I don't usually get to talk about, but the amp that I'm playing electric through on those tracks, on "Beautiful Gas Mask" and "Sourdoire Valley Song" is this giant Engl Powerball which was made for power. But what I'm playing is a feather-y non-picked electric and it just sounds so big in a really unassuming way which sounded textural to me.

There's been a steady increase in instrumental experimentation over the past couple of records. Was that a deliberate decision?

You know, I don't make what are called deliberate decision, you know what I mean? I deliberate insofar as it's not an accident, other musicians don't just show up in the studio one day- but I'm not a big planner. I don't sit down and go "well, for my next move I will add a..." that sort of thing. As an idea occurs to me, I'll either follow it or not, but I'm more instinctive than master-planner about stuff.

Which do you find more important; literature or music?

I am not the sort of person to do this sort of which-is-better thing. Life is entirely unthinkable without any of the creative arts and they're all a continuum -- the force in question is creativity, not its mode of expression. Everybody knew this up through the 19th century, any presentation of art used to include stuff from pretty much all the areas -- costumes, sets, jokes, songs, drama, all on the stage.

How rewarding has the transition from bedroom musician to headlining name been? Was there ever a time you thought seriously about leaving music and doing something else?

It's hard to think of myself as a "headlining name." Like, even if that's demonstrably true, it's sort of not where I'm at in my head -- and this isn't a practiced humility or anything; I'm genuinely proud of what I consider my main accomplishment, which is becoming a better writer. But for me the focus is pretty exclusively on the work itself, its content.

I think everybody in every line of work thinks sometimes -- sometimes more, sometimes less -- about how life might be different in another field. And there's an allure to the unknown, to seeking out areas you know less about. But music is only accidentally a profession for me. If I ended up doing anything else, like focusing just on fiction, I'd still be writing music -- I'd probably just release less of it, or none of it, and play live less, or just locally. So, yes, leaving the business, everybody thinks about leaving their business and seeking out new horizons sometimes, I'm no different there. But I'll be playing music every day for the rest of my life, happily.

Is there a particular song you've written that stands out as one you're more proud of than the others?

I am really pretty proud of "Thank You Mario But Our Princess Is in Another Castle", even though it's not strictly speaking my most elegantly written song; the music's quite simple, the rhymes are nothing special or surprising. But the feeling, the story, is special to me. It's light, but sad. It's funny, but there's a sorrow down in there, too. That's what I like best in what I do, when the moods meet and meld right there in the middle.

Are there any places you find yourself frequently looking to for inspiration?

Places physical-places or "places in the heart?" I think I take much of what I do from books and a little less from movies -- and always some from "history", though I don't mean Big History, I mean little tiny bits of historical detail that stand out to me. Lesser-known boxers who did time in prison, influential heavy metal bassists who died young. That sort of thing. Any story that involves coming to terms with loss, I'm drawn to.

Was it difficult to revisit some of the darker moments of your life with The Sunset Tree? Do you think that record helped you develop further as a songwriter?

Yeah. Writing that record, I wasn't doing it on purpose -- ("Now I am writing this autobiographical album!"). It just started sort of happening and I followed the impulse as I went, and it was pretty draining. But draining in a weird way, insofar as every song would sort of goad me onto the next one. I did learn some things about writing songs along the way but I don't think I was really aware that that was what had happened 'til later.

In writing The Life of the World to Come, did you find yourself re-evaluating the Bible? Did you come to any new conclusions?

No, no. The relationship between the verses and the songs there is kind of -- the album's not a "commentary on the Bible," it's not an analysis or a gloss. It's a sort of spontaneous reflection on the poetry of some words in the Bible and on the ideas in those words. "The Bible" as a bigger concept, its historical function et cetera, that's not really in my radar there. It's a more personal album than that.

What do you think's a richer subject for songwriting; sports, religion, or characters that most would construe as misfits?

There's really no such thing as "a richer subject for songwriting", anywhere -- or for poetry, or fiction; it only matters how well you write. It doesn't really matter at all what you're writing about. All sources are equally rich.

Do you ever fear developing a reputation as a niche songwriter?

Well, I did early on, when I wrote songs with obvious punchlines. I'd notice, at the open-mic night I played at once a week, that people were really anticipating hearing a punchline, waiting to laugh. I didn't love that, so I took a hard left into darker stuff for a while. I think I'm more comfortable now -- young songwriters get pretty anxious about people having the "right" response to their stuff, but I don't any more, if people are enjoying it then I'm not gonna play cop on how they express their enjoyment. I'm not sure what anybody'd consider my niche now. My subjects are fairly wide-ranging. People writing about my stuff tend to gravitate toward a few songs that clump together thematically but I think most listeners are a little less in need of a governing conceit.

You've been endlessly praised as a lyricist, does that praise affect you or the way you approach songwriting at all?

Man, I gotta tell you I do my best to plug my ears and say "la la la la" real loud because I mean... you know, obviously when you work hard at something, it feels awesome to hear, "you are good at this and your work had a positive effect on me." But at the same time, you know, I only got good by listening to people who are and were way better than me, and that's where I try to keep my thoughts. Not how good I am but how much better I'd have to get before I'd have any right to feel puffed-up about it. When I write a song I focus still, always, on basics: natural cadence, flow of ideas, words whose resonance registers in my gut somehow. Trying to express a feeling as directly as possible while still telling an interesting or fun or dark story.

Are there any literary devices you find yourself returning to while writing lyrics?

I would say rhetorical devices, yes. Simple ground-level stuff that's always been interesting to me: use of the imperative voice ("Sing, in the night / In the nameless dark" on the title track from the new one -- this is an old Greek poetic strategy to exhort somebody [the muse, the chorus] to sing about the themes that trouble you). The introduction of characters by their names as if the listener already knew them, simple in-medias-res stuff. Starting a story without all the details evident and never giving them. But I always want to say: I don't sit down and saym "now I shall begin in medias res", you can't get any good writing done if you're over-thinking your approach. Most of my stuff begins as an ad-lib, and then I write down the parts that sound best, and then I revise, and I'm never thinking "what literary device shall I employ here?" because who would do that?

How much time do you spend editing the lyrics to any given song?

There's no one-size answer to this. Some songs come out fully-formed, others take forever. Some get revised so heavily only a line or two remains from the original draft, others are more or less ad-libbed into existence.

How did the idea for the alpha couple come about?

A dream I had about a couple waltzing in a hardware store and a horse comes crashing in through the north wall.

Where do you think your affinity for metal and hardcore came from and when did it first start developing?

Junior high, probably. I think the guitar sound on Back In Black was probably ground zero for my love of metal.

Who are the songwriters you admire most currently making music?

Joni Mitchell, though she's only sporadically active now. Christine Fellows. Bill Callahan. Mary Chapin Carpenter. Roseanne Cash. And the dudes from In Solitude, I'm not sure how the songwriting breaks down in that band but they are solid.

What's next for the Mountain Goats?


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