Searching for John Darnielle

Released at the end of 2002 by 4AD, The Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee was the bell at the end of the first round. Its liner notes — a small booklet one had to fish for in the cardboard digipack, was a jumble of thoughts: an arcane inquiry into cannibalism backed with an abstract, meterless poem that contributed to the loose theme of that record, frustration and fear and shattered love, a thread strung through the 13 tracks about the Alpha couple, the broke-down lovers who have appeared in numerous other Mountain Goats songs. This time out, the couple is confined to Florida, but they had traveled the globe in the 15 years since he first began to commit their tales of woe to a cassette boombox recorder.

The same year, Extra Glenns, his long-time collaboration with Nothing Painted Blue’s Fran Bruno, finally begat its first LP, Martial Arts Weekend. Like Tallahassee, that record was a much higher fidelity affair than many Mountain Goats devotees had ever hoped to hear, but again Darnielle found himself with another song series to burn through, three ‘Going to…’ tracks making it on the album. Also, the same year saw 3 Beads of Sweat reissuing much of Darnielle’s early lo-fi work. So an abundance of Mountain Goats recordings were circulating, but the enigmatic air about Darnielle had hardly diminished.

At the time, the San Francisco-based literary magazine Kitchen Sink printed a story with the admittedly bizarre hypothesis that Darnielle and Destroyer’s Dan Bejar were, in fact, the same person. The piece cited shared references, influences and aural similarities; what tied the strange hypothesis together, however, was the anonymity that still played so large a role in Darnielle’s image — or lack thereof. A Mountain Goats cover of “Two-Headed Boy” had begun circulating around file-sharing services around that time, and judging from the amount of shouted requests for the song the band received during its live shows in those couple of years, people may very well have been confusing him with Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, another infamously reclusive indie rock star. Fortunately for Darnielle, his loving cover of Ace of Base’s “The Sign” didn’t elicit the same response.

Though the Internet was mainly how the gospel about Darnielle spread, information on the man was scarce and images nowhere to be found. “I just don’t like being photographed,” Darnielle explains in an e-mail, his preferred method of communication. His official explanation for this has to do with saving his voice, a reasonable concern given the high volumes at which his vocal chords resonate his emotional musical outbursts, but one suspects it has as much to do with an aversion to non-musical oral communication, a holdover from whatever led him down the path of secrecy in the first place. “Given that what I do is in a tradition that’s associated with confessional writing, pinning the work to a picture of a guy is kind of sending the wrong message.”

After the release of Tallahassee, Darnielle’s two sides were at critical mass. He could try to seize the chance to become an indie-rock superstar of sorts (the record had critics saddling him with this-generation’s-Bob-Dylan comments they had heaped upon Beck six years earlier) or see anonymity through to its logical extreme, embracing the secrecy that his one-time candidate for kindred spirit, the ominous Texas folk-blues man Jandek, had shielded himself with since the late ’70s. “Once there’s an audience, you can either make anonymity a big part of the point or let it go,” Darnielle concedes. “It was sort of a lark for me, not a huge concern.”

In 2004 Darnielle peeked out behind his wall of distortion, enigmatic lyrics, and equally impersonal writings of his liner notes and zine, Plane to Jakarta. His release We Shall All Be Healed furthered the studio-produced sound of Tallahassee and Martial Arts Weekend had hinted at and marked a million changes for his band — for one thing, it wasn’t just Darnielle’s band any longer. Peter Hughes, the bass player who had signed on for Tallahassee, was now a permanent member, the first since the mid-90s period with occasional co-vocalist and bassist Rachel Ware. Both Darnielle and Hughes were featured in the numerous, sometimes goofy press photos that accompanied the release, a full immersion into the world of mass market appeal. San Franciscan über-audiophile, John Vanderslice was also onboard, alongside a full backing band.

It was the sort of project that can alienate longtime fans, the people with shoeboxes in their closets full of stolen set lists, clipped reviews from long-defunct zines and cassettes taped off of college-radio stations, and leave them yelling “Judas” at their poorly-dubbed copies of The Hound Chronicles. “There’ll always be a small and vocal group of people, may God bless them richly, who liked me a lot better when what I did appealed to a much smaller group of people,” Darnielle says, sympathetically if unapologetically. “It does seem that that whole dynamic has a lot to do with aesthetic concerns other than music, but who am I to say that, really? If they like the old stuff, there is no shortage of the old stuff; I prefer working in studios now and working with other people.”

Compounding on Darnielle’s sudden interest in disclosure, We Shall All Be Healed also represented, hands-down, the most self-evidently autobiographical song cycle of Darnielle’s career. While the imagery was ambiguous, the record’s portrait of the artist as meth-addicted teen offered a more detailed glimpse into his background than anything he had produced in the dozen years prior. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve really resented that creative writing maxim that you can only write what you know; it seems an empty sort of assertion, or did to me for years,” explains Darnielle. “I may have recently joined the enemy on this though, because I’ve read and heard a lot of stuff written by dudes who’d have you believe they’ve lived pretty hard, and my inner ex-speedfreak’s radar goes, ‘Hold it, no way in hell this dude ever spent a night on the street.’ Or people whose narrators talk about experiencing a whole lifetime of romantic hurt and then you find out these guys are, like, 22. That means this lifetime of romantic ache has lasted eight years, assuming they didn’t get on the dating scene before they’re 14. Eight years? Like the cons on Law and Order say when they get offered a bad bargain: ‘I can do eight years standing on my head.’ Once you’ve made that connection (‘all my life’ equals probably ‘for the last year or so’), you realize that the most confessional songwriters are also really augmenting reality pretty heavily for their own aesthetic purposes.”

Two albums later, and keys to Darnielle’s life continue to flood in. In the press shots for 2006’s Get Lonelyhe dons a black metal T-shirt and stares pensively at the lens from inside a boxing ring. And the previous year’s The Sunset Tree, composed in the wake of his stepfather’s death, contains the dedication, “Made possible by my stepfather, Mike Noonan (1940-2004): May the peace which eluded you in life be yours now.” Despite some tracks that temporarily shift things away from his own personal catharsis, lines like, “I played video games in a drunken haze / I was 17 years young,” set the scene for the LPs before and after it, in a way that no prodding interview ever could.

As Get Lonely opens, Darnielle’s first-person narrator finds himself leaving his ‘house as soon as it gets light outside / like a prisoner breaking out of jail’. It’s the product of a Darnielle expressing his endless stream of ideas in ways old school fans never could have imaged — such as writing essays for the L.A. Times, for one, where he described the new record’s genesis with uncharacteristic frankness. “At first I tried just writing stories like I’d always done: I began a cycle of songs about an imaginary religious cult in the Austrian wilderness, which went nowhere, and a projected group of songs about monsters, which sort of lit the way for where I eventually went.” writes Darnielle, in story that ran in the paper, this August. “The songs about monsters I’d been trying to write began to seem like they’d had a purpose after all: that they were portraits of creatures who couldn’t ever really have any friends because their makeup was deficient or excessive.” Aside from the singer-songwriter stand-by, lost love, the record is populated with references to mirrors and Frankenstein-like allegories. In fact, should we resurrect old Dylan comparisons, then Get Lonely becomes Darnielle’s Blood on the Tracks, an achingly belated piece of musical catharsis in response to abandonment by both a lover and an entire family.

Still, despite the recent spat of autobiography, there is still a lot that we don’t know about Darnielle. I ask him to piece together a bit more of his life for me. “When I’d gotten my head together, I went to vocational school and became a psychiatric nurse,” he begins, picking up where We Shall All Be Healed left off. “While working in that field, I began to wish I’d studied literature formally: When I’d read books I’d wish that I had more to say about them than ‘Damn, that was awesome.’ So I went to Pitzer College in Claremont, where I studied English and classical studies. During this time, I started showing up at an open-mic night on campus and playing the songs I’d been writing. People seemed to like them, and things sort of took off from there.”

It’s as detailed a piece of personal information as I could have possibly hoped for, I guess, but it can’t possibly begin to explain all the gaps. Even should Darnielle choose to fill them in later on whatever unpredictable path his songwriting should take, there would probably still be a million little unknown pieces devoted fans would yearn to lovingly file away inside those weathered shoeboxes in the closet.