Q&A: The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle

Photo: D..L. Anderson

I should warn you right up front, when it comes to John Darnielle and his band the Mountain Goats, I’m incapable of objectivity. If you were to tell me, “I don’t think John Darnielle is necessarily the greatest songwriter of our generation,” my first response would be, “Fuck you, what do you know about music?” That’s how unobjective I am. All Eternal Decks, the Goats’ 18th album — give or take a few cassettes — is probably not going to be his mainstream breakout hit. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is a blessing. I enjoy that being a Mountain Goats fan puts me in a minority. I like that their music is only played on college radio stations, and that I’ll never be standing in line at a grocery store and overhear a gaggle of teenage girls saying, “Yo, have you heard ‘Going to Georgia’? That shit is mad fresh, dawg!” There’s a weird comfort in going to a Mountain Goats’ show — and if you’re anywhere near the West Coast during their upcoming tour in late June, you’ll get the chance soon enough — and standing in line outside the venue with people who think just like you. For at least one night, you’re not the only one who wonders why there hasn’t been a new song about the Alpha Couple in years, or if Darnielle never released Hail and Farewell, Gothenburg because it was too autobiographical, or whether his songs about movie monsters are thematically linked to his songs about Christianity.

I called Darnielle as he was preparing to fly overseas for a tour of England. I’ll be honest, I was terrified to speak with him. No good can come from talking to your idols. More often than not, they turn out to be pompous douchebags or vapid navel-gazers. Darnielle was neither. It helped that he laughed nervously almost as much as I did.

I was thinking about starting this interview by screaming  “‘Golden Boy’! ‘Goooolden Boy’!” But is the reference too obscure and fan-boy nerdy?

Oh man, you’re getting off on a bad foot.

Because only a handful of readers are going to get the joke that “Golden Boy” is an old song you don’t perform anymore and you actually get annoyed when people loudly request it during your concerts?

I don’t know if I get annoyed. I just find nothing amusing about “Golden Boy” yelling. It’s boring and awful. I might play it more if people wouldn’t routinely wreck the concert moment by yelling it. I just don’t want to feed the troll.

Your new album All Eternal’s Deck is produced by Erik Rutan, the frontman for death metal band Hate Eternal. Which is kinda bizarre. Did you pick Rutan as some sort of ironic wink to your audience?

Not at all. I’m trying to make an assertion about the nature of genre. For the most part, people who are into music are into music as a form of expression, not just a specific genre. I don’t know any rap guys who only listen to rap. I don’t know metal guys who only listen to metal. I don’t know punks who only listen to punk. You may go through a six-month phase when you first get into something and you’re like, “This is the only kind of music I care about!” But nobody is that way all the time. You can tell by listening to most heavy metal that these guys are like any other music fan. They’re into sound and the nature of what sounds do when you corral them.

Is the obscurity of death metal part of the appeal for you?

It was a long time ago. Right now, pretty much every indie rock musician in the world is into metal. It’s not a private pleasure anymore, although much of the stuff I enjoy is still fairly below the radar. And a lot of it is dated because I’m not listening to the stuff that people are digging. But yeah, there’s that aspect of it where it’s nice to be a part of a mostly ignored subculture.

I’m trying to imagine you at a death metal concert. Do you wear all black? Are you the guy who sings along with every song, or do you just stand in the back and nod your head?

I used to get in the pit, but I’m getting a little long in the tooth for that. The last time was three or four years ago. If I take a knee now, I’ll be limping for a week. But yeah, I participate. I’m a member of the crowd. I don’t try to be aloof. When I went to thrash shows in the ’80s, I used to wear a tie and a vest, because I thought it was badass. But everybody thought I was from a record label.

Your most famous song just so happens to be about death metal. Because of “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton,” has Denton, Texas become a mecca for up-and-coming death metal bands formed by disaffected teens? Have you single-handedly created a scene?

I wouldn’t know. You would have to ask someone who lives there. That was one of those automatic composition songs where I was just playing a chord and ad-libbing out loud and the lyrics just sort of came out. Denton was a randomly chosen city. It could be any place with strip malls where suburban-thrasher kids might live.

You recorded an amazing cover of Ace of Base’s “The Sign” back in 1995. But you haven’t done a cover like that in almost fifteen years. What are your musical guilty pleasures these days?

I don’t have any guilty pleasures. “The Sign” was not a guilty pleasure for me. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If you like music, it’s fine. You shouldn’t feel guilty about listening to anything.

Okay, what are your non-guilty mainstream pleasures? Do you listen to a lot of Ke$ha or Katy Perry?

I don’t listen to much pop music, but just because I don’t hear much that I enjoy. Not because I think it’s bad or anything. It’s just when I hear it, it doesn’t really speak to me.

How about Beyoncé? [Sings] “Who run the world? Girls/ Who run the world? Girls.” Not doing anything for you?

Nope. It just doesn’t grab me. I’m the same way with country. I know a lot of smart people who love country music, but it doesn’t snap for me. I like to be able to hear a little of the amplifier. I’ve listened to Rodney Crowell’s records from the ’80s, and they have a very bright sheen to them. They’re not the so-called authentic sounding cowboy hat-dude music. They’re proper Nashville records. I love the way they sound. I also love Rosanne Cash and the way Interiors sounds. But the rest of it, I don’t know. Maybe it’s bad mastering or they’re all working off the same template. Nobody seems to have an original and exciting vision for how they want things to sound.

You’ve written pretty extensively about troubled relationships. Does that have any effect on your own marriage? Do you ever worry about making the same mistakes as some of the characters in your songs?

No, no, no. There’s not much risk of that. I’m just telling stories. It’s really not that hard to not be an appalling human being. I guess maybe younger songwriters would romanticize and secretly admire the bad people they’re writing about, but I sure don’t. I see no appeal in living a wasted life.

But all couples fight, and sometimes we say things we don’t mean in the heat of the moment. You’re telling me you never said something unfair or mean to the person you love and thought, “Oh shit, where did that come from? For like a nanosecond, I was the douchebag from ‘No Children’?”

The thing is, I have empathy for every character I sing through. But that song, “No Children,” is kind of funny and I’m not laughing with those people, I’m laughing at them. It’s funny to watch people who are that messed up. It’s maybe not the most admirable trait in a human being to be amused by that, and I think that’s why I try to have some empathy for them. But the funny parts of that song? That’s not me saying, “Hey, isn’t it hilarious how people treat each other bad?” It’s me saying, “You guys are wasting your single opportunity to occupy this human body.” I don’t have any admiration for them. If I had any admiration, it’s the same admiration you have for a smoking wreck. It looks kind of awesome. But you don’t want one in your back yard.

Hail and Farewell, Gothenburg, an album you recorded and never intended to release, leaked on the Internet a few years ago. You’ve been pretty vocal about your anger that the record is out there, but have you disowned it because it was leaked without your consent, or because the music isn’t up to your standards?

It was mastered at the wrong speed, so it’s kind of like … I don’t know. For one thing, it’s old. I’m generally just not that interested in stuff that’s old. I didn’t think it was good enough to release then, so I certainly don’t think it is now.

I don’t know if I should admit this, but I’ve listened to it, and it’s one of my favorite Mountain Goats albums.

Hey, if people enjoy it, that’s fine. I personally have no interest in it. I don’t think it’s very good. I do think some people think it’s good because I don’t think it’s very good. And that is a strange dynamic.

Maybe it’s just appealing because you have to hunt it down. It’s not something you just download from iTunes.

But here’s the thing, you don’t have to hunt it down. It’s the Internet. If you find something by typing it into Google, you’re hardly Sherlock Holmes. It’s strange to say things are mysterious when there’s no such thing as mystery anymore. The only Mountain Goats mysteries are the things I don’t tell anybody about.

Here’s a hypotheses, and you tell me if I’m full of shit: Bob Dylan hated his bootlegs. But as it turns out, many of his bootlegs were better than the officially released stuff. So is there ever a moment late at night when you’re in bed, and you wonder if maybe, just maybe, the stuff you think is crap is brilliant and the stuff you think is brilliant is crap, and you’ve been hiding the wrong songs?

I understand what you’re saying. But you’re also talking about things that are 15 years old, from before I got very good at writing songs.

I could not disagree with you more. I like your new stuff, but disowning everything that came before is like a 70-year-old Bob Dylan saying, “‘Highway 61 Revisited’ was a bunch of bullshit.”

Well, take an album like Heretic Pride, which I think is much, much better than a lot of Mountain Goats fans do. But that’s a different thing. You’re talking about songs that are pretty obviously workbook stuff, and the max number of people who were ever going to care about them or even hear them are in the low thousands. I think that Bob Dylan, if you were going to engage him on this subject of his bootlegs, would say, “I can see what people like about that, but that’s not what I like about what I do.” And that’s how I feel about it.

What’s your policy on stealing your music?

What’s my policy?

If somebody who adores your music has maybe illegally downloaded an album or two of yours, is that something you would consider unforgivable?

Well, it’s kind of like asking how I feel about radio. Anything that involves people discovering and being interested in my music, I’m in favor of. It does mean that I don’t play as much stuff when it’s brand new. Because the moment you do, somebody is gonna record it on their cellphone and upload it onto the Internet. You used to be able to play new songs on tour and get good at it before everybody in the world had a chance to hear it. Things are usually not very good the first time you play them. They’re only good after you’ve given them a little road work. It’s not a complaint, it’s just the reality.

So you don’t take it personally?

I can’t. Like for instance, there was an interesting thing once called oral tradition, long before the printing press. But there’s no point in really bemoaning the loss of that. Because what are you asking? For people to stop printing things? That would be ridiculous.

About a month ago, I wrote something about how I illegally downloaded an advance leak of All Eternals Deck, and I wasn’t sure how to make peace with that. So … I’m not sure why I’m telling you any of this, because it’s not like you’re going to give me permission to steal from you, right?

I’m really uncomfortable with being in a position of dispensing or denying permission. To me, if people are listening to my music, that is awesome. How they listen to it, that’s between them and what they enjoy. To me, I generally don’t want to hear something until it’s ready to be presented. I don’t generally go and grab people’s demos. There are occasional differences. I own every note that Syd Barrett ever committed to tape in any studio anywhere. There was stuff he recorded that was not ready to fly, and I don’t listen to that stuff. I’m sure there are Barrett-heads who are like,  “Oh yeah, the best one is where he fucked up mid-way through.” I don’t care about that stuff. I care about stuff that the artist generally thought was good.

Yeah, but that’s not what I’m asking. Bootlegs are one thing, but I’m talking about an album that was officially released, and I downloaded it for free. On a scale of one to ten, ten being you want to punch me hard in the throat right now …

Do I care if people grab an early leak? No. I don’t understand why artists would care about that. Do I care if somebody doesn’t buy it and has some bogus explanation for why they’re trying to not support the evil music business? I don’t, but I think those are ridiculous opinions. But I don’t care. The bottom line is, are people enjoying my music? Do they come to my shows and have a good time? If they do, then it’s all good.

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