The 20th Mountain Goats album was written in a burst of creative energy in December 2020. Songwriter and primary Goat, John Darnielle, had been cooped up at home, unable to tour or perform in front of live humans, and had not done since the previous February. Raising two young kids during a pandemic was a full-time job, and he barely had enough energy to watch movies. He found himself out of touch with the binge-watching discourse, the shared experience we all had of being home during the pandemic, and all watching the same thing.
He says, “At some point, nine months in, I was like, ‘John, you gotta be like a normal person. Watch a movie after the kids go to bed; mellow out a little bit.’ But normally I watch highfalutin stuff, and when you’re out of gas, you can’t be parsing subtitles, right?” So he began forcing himself to “normalize” by watching an array of pulpy foreign action thrillers.
“The way I watch movies is not normal because I always take out a notebook and start writing down stuff interesting to me to harvest images, ideas, and stuff, so I started, and I got really excitable, pretty quickly.” This brought him down a rabbit hole of films that all had a common throughline of revenge. Whether it be 2008’s Mesrine (tag line: “Nobody kills me until I say so”), 1991’s The Taking of Beverly Hills, Ip Man, or his beloved Charles Bronson titles, like Red Sun (The Mountain Goats also have a tribute song to Charles Bronson on their 2011 album, All Eternal’s Deck), Darnielle’s syllabus of revenge thrillers ran the gamut of eras, film movements, and even nations and languages.
“In these movies and elsewhere,” he said in a press release, “it’s such a dearly held trope, when in fact, I don’t think anybody really exacts much revenge in this life at all. Because we all know that revenge is bullshit, right? The Greeks knew this. It’s never a zero-sum game. And yet the idea is so delicious, you can’t get enough of it. It’s more of a grail—because you can’t have it, it starts to seem really appealing. That’s why you want to get revenge because you know you’re never going to get revenge.”
The album that would become Bleed Out does not have the distinction of being his first album written during the pandemic; in March 2020, he banged out a delightful ten-song album called Songs For Pierre Chauvin, who wrote a book about ancient pagans. It was released in April of that year.
The Mountain Goats would release two more albums after this, Getting Into Knives (2020) and Dark in Here (2021), recorded almost back to back in March 2020, right before everything shut down. Then came the fruitful December of action movies, then Bleed Out was recorded in a studio out in the woods outside Chapel Hill, NC, with everything done in a week in January 2021.
Spiritually similar to 2016’s Beat the Champ, an album that is about his love of professional wrestling, Bleed Out is head to toe inspired by his love of the cheese and the sleaze of revenge thrillers. “When people say ‘it’s so bad it’s good,’ that’s not correct. That’s not what I’m talking about. It’s that there’s, in a sense, obviously, not anyone can make a great movie, but sort of anyone with the capability can make a great movie, but every ‘off’ movie is off in its own way, and there’s real humanity …” (He interrupts himself to talk about Carnival of Souls).
The album’s tone is set by its opening track, “Training Montage”, in which he declares quite decisively, “I’m doing this for revenge! / I’m doing this to try and stay true! / I’m doing this for the ones they had to leave behind! / I’m doing this for you!” This song lets you know exactly what you’re getting into here, in much the same way an action movie needs to set its tone in the first five minutes, lest it is mistaken for a romance.
Keeping things upbeat and amped up, “Wage Wars, Get Rich, Die Handsome” embodies the glory of the action hero, maybe the leader of a heist gang, maybe not the kind of guy you’d want to invite to a dinner party, but certainly one you’d enjoy watching blow shit up on-screen. Even its liner notes stay on theme.
The album is a rocker with some flares of saxophone and accompaniment by Alicia Bognanno from the band Bully, who also served as producer. Darnielle is a master storyteller, and Bleed Out is a kind of short story collection of heists, gang wars, car chases, and shootouts (less about plots and more about the feelings of the humans doing the action), utilizing all of the themes and tropes from his favorite titles. It is an album made up almost entirely of bangers, but it closes with a sigh of relief as its protagonist prepares for death. Reflecting on the ephemeral nature of existence, the narrator sings, “There’s gonna be a big spot where I once lay / And then there won’t even be a spot one day / Bleed out / I’m going to bleed out.”
The first movie John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats saw in a movie theater was The Wizard of Oz. It was 1971, and he was four or five. “That night, I very solemnly announced to my parents that I was going to marry Judy Garland when I grew up.” Aside from remaining a lifelong, dedicated Judy Garland fan, the screening of Oz left a lasting impression on him. “It was a very big experience for me,” he says. “I was utterly bowled over.”
This relationship with film would continue into adolescence during the late 1970s when parenting was less strict and he would get dropped off at the movies after school by himself. One standout from this time was 1977’s Orca, about a killer whale that gets revenge on a fishing boat that killed its pregnant mate. This thirst for stories of revenge started early. Of course, there were the daytime monster movies that would come on TV when they were living briefly in Milpitas, California (a location that appears in his latest novel). A favorite at the time was The Crawling Eye, a film that would appear two decades later on Mystery Science Theater 3000. A number of these elements would influence Darnielle’s more lurid cinematic tastes.
His entry into foreign films came courtesy of his stepfather (a character fans will remember as the villain of the Mountain Goats’ Sunset Tree album) and a recurring Sunday night film series at Pitzer College. Of his stepfather, Darnielle tells me: “He had grown up in a small Indiana town and aspired to be greater and learn things, and he would take me to foreign movies and teach me about Bergman, Pasolini, Fellini—those were his, sort of, big names.”
Darnielle favored Andy Warhol and was able to see his film, Trash, as a teenager. “It was a big night for me when I was 14,” he says. “If you wanted to see a Warhol movie, you just couldn’t; they weren’t around. He was, for those of us who listened to the Velvets, this legendary figure. You wanted to see what his movies were like. And Trash was a big, big thing for me.”
The programming at the Pitzer College Sunday night film series in Avery auditorium was every Sunday night for Darnielle. This is where he saw Kurosawa‘s Ran and Rashomon, Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, Wim Wenders’ Paris, TX, and of course, Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. These were formative, taste-making years. He was hooked—a certified cinephile. “We would all go, me and my friends Tom and Steve, the would-be intellectuals. We’d go to movies from seven to nine and then at nine go out for coffee and argue about what we’d seen.”
In the same way that Beat the Champ led to a newfound interest in professional wrestling amongst normies (or at least a quiet respect for the life), perhaps so too will Bleed Out but for foreign action thrillers. Perhaps Darnielle will act as a kind of tastemaker for lurid revenge plots and an esthete for pulpy training montages. What would a John Darnielle Criterion series look like, where he “presents” his favorite films, maybe provides a commentary track? He isn’t sold on this idea.
“A lot of the stuff I like is high literature, high culture stuff,” he says. “Bergman, Pasolini. I’d kind of want to do those, but those already all have Criterion editions, and people much smarter than me doing the commentary. I also really like ’70s and ’80s horror a lot; that’s sort of my thing. There are also lots of people doing commentaries on those.” Darnielle considers. “It’s a very hard question. There was an amazing director, he did Magnificent Obsession (I’m conflating his name with Richard Widmark) He’s a legendary guy for his visuals and mood and also for his relentless positivity…”
At this point, we are assisted by the promoter who set up the interviewer, Eloy, who suddenly says, “Sorry, I’m just going to chime in and say, it’s Sirk.”
Darnielle is endlessly delighted by this exchange. “I will go to my grave so happy that the person arranging the interview was able to chime in with Douglas Sirk. I saw some of his super early stuff, his lighter comedies, and the later ones have these ambitions of edifying and comforting, and that’s the sort of thing that when I was younger I would have been like, ‘Who cares about this?’ But l also was a fan of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He was a huge Douglas Sirk fan. Now, Fassbender is also on a lot of cocaine his entire life pretty much, so it’s hard to say what governs his taste, but he’s a huge fan of Fassbender and it shows in his movies, in the arrangements of the scenes and stuff. So, yeah, I think maybe a Douglas Sirk fest is what I would do today since that’s what I’m interested in right now.”
For his part, Darnielle’s own contribution to cinema may come in the form of an adaptation. With three novels under his belt, there have been talks, rumblings, and rumors of movie versions. He keeps it vague but says, “I’ll just say, all the books have something going on.” Of course, early talks of options and film rights are common, and many options fall through; in fact, the vast majority do, but you never know.
When asked for Darnielle’s thoughts and feelings on the current state of film, the major releases coming out now, and the business end of things, he has less to say. “There’s not a lot in it for me,” he says. “That’s the way that I put it with anything that I’m not that into. I never want to be the guy decrying the state of this or that. If people are enjoying it, then I’m happy they’re enjoying it. You’ll have noticed if you’re over 30, if you have a Facebook, your friends start talking about how much better music was when they were in high school. But weirdly enough, it doesn’t matter when they went to high school: that’s when the music was good. So then you realize, well, no, this is an expression of … your life was a certain kind of way, and music was soundtracking it. That’s why the music sounded so good to you then.
“And for those of us who are music fiends, we never stopped listening to it, so you’re like, ‘the music I liked then was special in one way, and the music I like now is special in a different way.’ I’ve always had that perspective.
“I don’t want to be saying that modern cinema is bad, but I will say, I don’t go to a lot of recent movies,” he continues. “So many of them are franchise-based, and so many people care so much about whether the movie is successful or not. Fanbases get excited about whether it goes to number one; I just don’t care. At all. If it has a high or low rating on Rotten Tomatoes, why should I care? I just don’t, you know? I mean, there are some directors I like. I’m friends with Rian Johnson; I think he’s really great. But I don’t get out that much; when I do I go to children’s movies with my kids.”
He also clarifies, “We’re talking about movies, but I’m more of a books person. The reason I never see anything is because if I had to choose between books and movies, it’d be books all day. Books are literally the greatest entertainment invention that could possibly exist. And I love music more than anything, but books are books. But when I’m having to parcel out my time between parenting and writing music and playing Magic and exercise and cooking, books take first priority.”
Being beholden to the whims of parenting, Darnielle is now going to more popular kids’ movies than he otherwise would have. It is quite sweet to imagine a film nerd subjecting himself to the formulas of movies intended for an audience of six-year-olds. How does one manage?
“I find myself defending them even when they’re not that great, or they’re super formulaic. We saw the new Minions one recently. It’s pretty good, actually. It’s not great, (every single children’s movie has to have an extraordinarily extended fart joke in it, and it’s so formulaic, you see it coming up Fifth Street, ‘Oh, here comes the fart joke,’) but they’re super well made, and my wife and I talk about this some; they’re considerably less, sort of … pernicious than children’s entertainment from when we were kids. The violence tends to be … not so brutal. I’m a big defender of the last Smurfs movie, which I don’t think anybody saw, but it was quite moving.”
Still, Darnielle can convince his boys to see things more to his taste, to pass on that cinephile bug, just as his stepfather had before him. Darnielle’s happy place, the Carolina Theater, located in Durham, North Carolina (a blue enclave in a slight-majority red state), runs a series called Retro Classics that runs the gamut of classic titles: Citizen Kane, Brazil, Busby Berkeley films—titles spanning the decades. A true arthouse feast, programmed by Jim Carl, who once did programming for a grindhouse in Times Square. Darnielle took the kids to see Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster, a kaiju film from 1964. It is technically the fifth film in the Godzilla franchise and shows Godzilla joining forces with his two enemies from the prequels, Mothra and Rodan, to defeat Ghidorah. They must exact revenge upon him for attacking Matsumoto city. They have to make him suffer. But it also has a surreal quality to it, with aliens from Venus and other other-worldly delights.
“It has this Japanese vocal duet called The Peanuts, who were a popular pair of sisters who sang. Because they were sisters their vocal timbre was almost identical, so they had sort of a ghostly quality to their singing together. And they play these 12-inch high twins who live on Infant Island with Mothra.”
The film was a hit with the Darnielle pack. “My kids are used to seeing super high-action stuff, so I’m wondering how it will go over with them. They absolutely adored it; they had such a good time, and it didn’t really batter them the way that … this is the main difference between any modern film and film prior to the digital age. Now it is possible to overwhelm the senses completely, and that seems to be what they’re going for. And that seems to be what people are growing up to enjoy, and that’s fine. Whatever works for other people. But for me, I want my senses to be tantalized and stimulated. I don’t want to feel flooded. I don’t want to feel spent when I leave the theater. I want to feel curious. I want to talk more about it. My younger son, who’s seven never talked as much about a movie when he came home from the theater as he did about that one. He wanted to tell his mom the whole story.”
If the best revenge is living well, then between the glory of crowds of fans screaming along to your songs, your published works being New York Times bestsellers, and movies once a day with your beautiful family, maybe Darnielle has gotten the best revenge of all of us.