John Darnielle began making music as the frontman of indie rock band The Mountain Goats in 1991. The band has since gained a cult following, and Darnielle has been hailed for his eloquent songwriting as one of indie rock's greatest lyricists. The Mountain Goats' newest release is All Eternals Deck, and you can see them on tour in the US and Europe this spring.
JESSE THORN: It's The Sound of Young America, I'm Jesse Thorn. My guest, John Darnielle, is both a member of and pretty much all of the band The Mountain Goats. For 20 years now he's been writing and recording intimate songs that are intimate in unusual ways for a singer/songwriter. Often written in the third person; often taking a form that's as much of a short story as a confessional. His dozens of albums have earned him a rabid following. His latest record is called All Eternals Deck. Let's hear a little bit of a song from that album, this is For Charles Bronson.
John Darnielle, welcome to The Sound of Young America.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Thank you so much.
Click here for a full transcript of this interview.
JESSE THORN: I know that you're from Southern California, and I know that you lived the first few years of your life in San Luis Obispo, but I don't know where in Southern California you spent your childhood exactly.
JOHN DARNIELLE: A little town called Claremont for the most part. The journey was from San Luis Obispo, and then about a year or two in Milpitas which is a little town that not a lot of people outside of the San Jose area have ever heard of, and then we moved to Claremont and I stayed there from the time I was eight until I was - - I don't even know. I left there when I was 18 to go to Portland, but I came back. So, Claremont. Not the Claremont that's next to San Diego, but the Claremont that's inland of LA.
JESSE THORN: This is the Claremont that's the namesake of the Claremont colleges?
JOHN DARNIELLE: Yes, I attended one of them.
JESSE THORN: How did you start writing songs yourself?
JOHN DARNIELLE: The simple answer - - the one that relates to the Mountain Goats is that I was writing poems and I started setting some to music. Like everybody else in high school I tried to write songs, but they were just appalling. I was just writing lyrics that went with the bands I was playing with, I would set it to their music. My first band – my first real band-band -- had a process where my friend Mark would give me a title, then I would write down lyrics. I played bass in this band, then I would write a bass line and he would play percussion and we'd hit play and we would usually keep the first take. I would be making up the melody on the fly.
But when I started writing songs that I would call song-songs, as opposed to those that are sort of a formal experiment kind of deal, that was when I was living in Norwalk and I was writing poetry. I thought some of it seemed more appropriate to something a little more direct than the rarefied atmosphere of the poetry reading, so I started setting them to really simple chord progressions and really enjoyed doing that, because to me poetry exists in the air, not on the page. You have to hear it. So I came around to the idea that a song was actually a discrete construction, not a poem set to music, but its own thing, and I started working on those.
JESSE THORN: Here's a song from my guest John Darnielle's first Mountain Goats album, recorded in 1991. It's called Going to Alaska.
JOHN DARNIELLE: That song was a poem first. I was writing poems, and I had that and thought, the language in this is pretty decent, this is a nice piece of writing. I had a new guitar and I had a slide, a Hawaiian Fender covering slide, and I tuned the guitar to a chord and worked on it and thought, it sounds pretty cool. You can hear the rhythms, the speech rhythms in a way that you can't looking at it on a page. I'm sure the performance is kind of rough, I haven't listened to that in a long time, but I do know all the words and I think they're alright.
JESSE THORN: It seems rare to me in the world of singer/songwriters, and just people who think of themselves primarily as songwriters to not be one of two things. One is to be intensely personal in the conventional sense, and the other is to be emotionally powerful but generic in terms of specificities, like the way that a Bruno Mars song is very deeply felt, but is about the idea of love or something like that, rather than something that feels very specific. It strikes me as unusual that many of your songs do not feel conventional, but they feel extremely specific. I wonder if in starting your songwriting career writing based on titles that someone else suggested, led you down a path of not writing confessional songs; and I wonder if when you were performing in coffee shops you felt a pressure to write coffee shop songs?
JOHN DARNIELLE: I didn't really do a lot of time doing coffee shops. The thing is, one reason I think that I came to working with an acoustic guitar late is that I grew up in California, and I had an allergy to conventional singer/songwriter stuff. When I was growing up every other dude had an acoustic guitar, and when they weren't doing covers of Dark Side of the Moon, they were playing stuff that was very confessional; I liked Nick Cave and the Sisters of Mercy and Lou Reed, and I really did not want to be a confessional songwriter, that's a big part of the reason why I'm The Mountain Goats and not John Darnielle. To go out there with an acoustic guitar under your own name is to sort of say, care about my feelings because I'm just sitting here telling you about them. I only want people to care about good stuff I make if it's good, I don't want them to really care about me personally at all, unless the story I have to tell is compelling.
JESSE THORN: I think that the confessional singer/songwriter writes a song because he or she has something burning inside of them that they have to get out, and the externalist pop hit maker singer/songwriter writes a song because they want to move people in some way.
JOHN DARNIELLE: I want to say that I don't think that's true at all -- before we go any further with that -- I don't agree with that. But continue.
JESSE THORN: Sure. Let's hold off on the other stuff that I was going to talk about. What do you think motivates songwriters in those modes to write? The question that I was getting at is, what motivates you to write? Whether it's those things or something else?
JOHN DARNIELLE: I think I would not be comfortable characterizing any writing pursued as obedient to any particular impetus. I would say that many confessional songwriters are writing out of formal curiosity, or out of boredom. Or out of nervous habit. I think that the line that confessionalism would like to sell you, I had a feeling and I had to share it so here it is, we know this is untrue, because if I'm sad what does my feeling actually sound like? Does it come in rhyming couplets? No, it does not, it comes in the form of a wordless cry.
JESSE THORN: Has some melody but it's not very compelling.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Sure. It doesn't have a structure. All of your feelings are grunts and groans and cries and wails and moans, they're not words. If you put it in words, you're already really roping it in and framing it. A confessional songwriter might think that, but if they're directly expressing their feelings they're not writing songs. When you're writing songs you're doing something else, maybe you're talking to yourself about your feelings, but I don't think it's self expression anymore than Abba, who writes some of the most emotional songs you'll ever hear. The strings on Dancing Queen, you listen to that and just the chord changes accomplish so much emotionally. People will say that's not a direct expression of feeling, but I say yes it is. Feeling gets expressed in all kinds of ways. I think the confessional songwriter has a little parlor trick that he does to convince you that his pursuit is less formal than anybody else's, but it's not. It's all formalism to some extent or the other until you get into free jazz or noise or something like that.
You asked what motivates me, and it's kind of idle curiosity. I'll have a feeling, and I'll go, well, this is a sort of - - this mood, this urge to write, not to get anything out - - when I'm feeling sad I just indulge the feeling or I listen to other people's music. When I'm writing music it's more a state of curiosity. What is this? - - it's its own state of feeling, the desire to write. Then you start to write to see where it's going, and it's very much like building sand castles or making a finger painting. You start to divine the shape, and you say, oh, it's taking this sort of shape, only it has a more emotional tone than the sand castle. Oh, it's going in a sad direction, let me take what I know about sadness and put that in there. It's more automatic than that, but it's not just the cry of a suffering person. Hardly anybody, in my experience, ever writes directly from their suffering, they write about it afterwards. The same is true with joy or whatever else you're writing about. You're recollecting it in tranquility, in Wordsworth's phrase.
JESSE THORN: Do you have to do something - - first of all, congratulations on that Wordsworth allusion, you've earned your public radio merit badge.
JOHN DARNIELLE: I'd like to give credit to my professor Robert Mezi, without whom I would be unable to quote Wordsworth.
JESSE THORN: Do you have to do something to get to the place where you can find that off process of creating and refining a song?
JOHN DARNIELLE: No. I think all the really young writers try to come up with tricks that will do it. Theodore Roethke used to get ready for his poetry readings by doing calisthenics, I love this image, but for me one thing I usually need to do is be distracted. I think you can always hear when somebody was trying to write a song. The whole deal with what I do is it's supposed to sound natural and automatic; you are hearing me, or me with quotes around me. I want it to feel very direct, I want it to feel like at some point a hand is going to reach out from the speaker and touch you on the chest.
To do that I need to be distracted; a lot of my earlier tapes were written literally while watching television. I was actually listening to a tape from 2001 this morning, and I narrate what's going on on the muted TV while I record. I said, there's a Cub on base, and Joe Girardi - - no, the Cubs were up and ti was the bottom of the 13th in 2001, and Girardi was up and I narrate all this and then I go into the song. I don't remember writing that song, but I do know what happened; I was sitting there watching the Cubs game and I had a guitar in my hand, and the conscious mind is distracted enough that ideas are bubbling up from somewhere. For me, that's kind of vital. What I'm accessing needs to be a little underneath the too-intentional place. I think my images are at their best when I'm not working hard on them but letting them bubble up, and the way I do that is by keeping myself distracted.
JESSE THORN: I want to play a song that you recorded a few years ago called The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.
This is a song that came up with a lot of folks when I was talking to them about your oeuvre, pardon my use of oeuvre.
JOHN DARNIELLE: I condone your use of oeuvre.
JESSE THORN: Okay, thank you. I didn't give it the flair that you gave it.
JOHN DARNIELLE: I should also let you apologize because I think it's more oeuvre. My French is the worst, there's no language that I speak with less grace than French.
JESSE THORN: This is a really charming song about a type of music where the adjective charming doesn't seem like it would be the one that you would pick. What I wonder is - - I know from reading your blog that you're a fan of such a broad variety of styles of music, and I wonder what you get from different kinds of music, and whether you get something different from listening to death metal than you do from listening to classical guitar or something like that?
JOHN DARNIELLE: It is something different, it is something different. I was thinking about that this morning, I was listening to King Diamond, and I don't have the sort of direct experience of feeling that I get listening to Prokofiev or something, where you're taking this music and asking yourself, what is the emotion?
With a lot of the metal I listen to, it's kind of like immersing oneself in a science fiction novel, or a fantasy novel. It's no accident that so many old metal covers are images by Michael Whelan or The Brothers Hildebrandt, these fantasy artists. It's sort of a way of closing your eyes and journeying to distant realms. Black metal and death metal take that a step further and ask you to really imagine a place, especially with death metal where the intervals are different, where we're not just playing a loud fast version of rock and roll, we're doing something quite different in terms of scales and trying to evoke these different moods; all the death metal dudes are serious shredders, really good musicians, trying to craft this different space. For me it remains a kind of visually motivated thing. There's a lot of visions that you chase after listening to that stuff.
JESSE THORN: It's The Sound of Young America, I'm Jesse Thorn. My guest John Darnielle is the front man and the sole contiguous member of the band The Mountain Goats. His new record is All Eternals Deck. Let's listen to a little bit of a song from the album, this is called Birth of Serpents.
Tell me a little bit about how the way that you have created recordings has shaped your choices as a songwriter and musician. As someone who was very famous or well known for recording hastily and releasing albums on cassette tape earlier in your career and has worked extensively with a friend of this program, John Vanderslice, who makes the most specific recording aesthetic choices you could possibly imagine. Tell me a little bit about the relationship between your songwriting and singing and performing and musicianship and the medium through which it's heard.
JOHN DARNIELLE: My writing process is essentially unchanged. We record differently so we can capture the sound of us playing together, and because I enjoy taking the songs into that environment, but the actually process I'm kind of more romantic than I care to admit about it, that I'm sitting there having this in touch with the subconscious or mid-conscious moment when I write, and something comes out, and I no longer write as quickly as I used to. It used to be, I sit down, I'm going to write, it will be done when I get up, period. And then I'd record it before I got up and then it would be over and that would be what you would here. Now all that happens is that I sit down, most of the time I still finish it in that initial sitting, but I record a demo and I send it to Peter and John and then later we meet in the studio and do it, but the writing process is essentially unchanged, the issue now is that the way that I play demos, I'm usually trying to be a whole band, so then when we meet to work it out I learn what my part actually is, because my part is not to be the percussion and bass and the guitar, it's just the guitar.
JESSE THORN: Prince in the mid-80s was writing and recording so many songs that he couldn't release them all despite the fact that he was essentially recording as five different acts.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Tell me that you're going to play Smog's Prince Alone in the Studio at the end of this bit.
JESSE THORN: Okay, fine, absolutely.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Do you know that song?
JESSE THORN: I've never heard it before.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Totally incredible song.
JESSE THORN: Okay, well I promise we will. So he at one point was creating acts so that he could put out these songs that he was writing. He was Vanity 6 and Apollonia and instrumental The Family, Jesse Johnson and The Time, which he sort of transformed from a pretty legitimate band that wrote its own songs to just Prince playing all the instruments and then having Morris Day come in and re-track the lead vocal.
JOHN DARNIELLE: I love the Vanity 6 album. It's very strange that you should bring this up because there's a song that did not make All Eternals Deck called For Denise Matthews which is Vanity's actual name, and it's a song about her tailspin that she went into toward the end of her pop life.
JESSE THORN: I wonder how writing so much, how you look at this career where you've written and recorded so much and if you ever imagine yourself as a different kind of artist; one who slaves over refining ten songs and tries to put out a perfect ten song album rather than one who records a second album on cassette tape to release with his CD, which you are doing this time around.
JOHN DARNIELLE: That's just the demos, but to me it's like - - no, I am not - - for me music, or rock music anyway, has to have an immediacy to it. I am not a big fan of super baroque stuff, even though I listen to a lot of metal and stuff, which is considered careful music, but at the same time it's about immediacy. It's funny you should mention Prince, because his stuff is very considered and very careful, he just is not afraid of working, of staying at work, whereas there's this weird image that came up somehow during the 70s I think of it being asking a lot of a songwriter to write ten songs in a year. Let's imagine the worst case scenario of working five 8 hour days to get a song. You should still be getting four or five songs a month, right? I don't - - Prince is very productive just by comparison to people who I think are thinking too hard about the business end of like, you can't exhaust people's attention, you have to work on a release cycle and put out twelve songs and then work those twelve songs for 14 months, etc. etc. etc. I've always strongly resisted that.
At some point you have to accept it to a smaller extent because it really is the case that if you put out two records a year, then every time you do an interview the first, second, third, and fourth question will be, you release a lot of stuff, do you release everything you write and so on and so forth. It becomes difficult to say, look, I'm a writer, so it shouldn't be surprising that I write. The way I usually say this in a shorter version is -- it's not that I'm that productive, it's that other people are lazy. I really do think that's true. If you're a songwriter and you're only writing 12 songs a year, maybe they're 12 good ones, but there's this sort of governing myth of the songwriter that it's asking a lot of the songwriter to write songs. I don't think it is. I think if you're a songwriter you should pride yourself in being productive.
JESSE THORN: Have you ever considered combing the country for spectacularly beautiful, multi-ethnic women, with whom you can place your songs and you can write and record it and then have them re-record the lead vocal?
JOHN DARNIELLE: No, hahaha, no, I have not.
JESSE THORN: Well John, I really appreciate you taking the time to be on The Sound of Young America.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Sure.
JESSE THORN: John Darnielle is the front man and sometimes sole member of The Mountain Goats, although he does have a regular group of collaborators these days. His new record with the band is called All Eternals Deck.
Per John's request, we're going to close out the segment with this song from Smog, called Prince Alone in the Studio.