Scott Gries, Getty Fans of the folk rock band the Mountain Goats have issued…
- Posted on Jan 2nd 2013 3:15PM by Dan Weiss
John Darnielle released the excellent Transcendental Youth last October, all the more astonishing because it's his 14th album with the Mountain Goats, a solo project that he willed into a band over years of growing a fan base primarily obsessed with his incredibly far-ranging narratives. But he runs such a gamut of tones and subjects that his declarative style could sound uplifting when the characters are despairing, a bright tone when the words are gray, and it's easy to get lots in the shoots and ladders game of his many characters, which he swear he doesn't mean to bring up again and again-it just happens. He spoke to Spinner on his new son's strange affinity for "Scarface," his opinions of his own songs and the importance of throwing things away.
Would you say Transcendental Youth is one of the more positive, uplifting Mountain Goats albums?
Uh, well, I don't know. No, I wouldn't say so ... I guess this is where I'm looking at it from but "Until I Am Whole" is not particularly bright in tone and neither is "Lakeside View Apartment Suite." But I guess it's bookended by affirmative stuff, yeah.
I guess the contrast seems bigger because All Eternals Deck dealt largely with death it seemed, and many of the songs on this one seem to be, as you said, bookended with songs about surviving.
Yeah. No, I think that's by design. One, I think this one is a little closer to the bone. All Eternals Deck was kind of a throwback, a sort of cinematic record. The stories, I like that they're dark and doomy but I don't think they're really as...close or realistic. Well, realistic is not the word but vivid, maybe.
Two of those bookending songs on the album have the chorus "just stay alive."
And you made "Youth" a focus word and you've been a dad for a year now. Is bullying one of the subjects that's led you to write about?
No. I think the mistake is probably to connect me being a father to the things that I was writing. It's not my style to write in response to a recent life event, because I think that artistically I think that's kind of a bad idea. You don't have a lot of clarity on recent life events. You get what Wordsworth phrased as the "emotion recollected in tranquility." You need to get some space between yourself and that life event. That album you can look forward to in about 2038.
What was the last autobiographical record you've written?
Well, it depends on what you mean by autobiographical. Because the [2010 non-album track] song "Tyler Lambert's Grave" ... no, but it came from a pretty deep, deep place. I wrote a song called "You Were Cool" years ago, this was a direct song to a person I know. I don't generally tell a lot of stories about my life in songs. I do on The Sunset Tree, but for the most part that's kind of not what I do. Having said that, the building in "Lakeside View Apartments Suite" I put it in Washington, but it's actually in Portland. That's a real place. I do that, but I tend to not do confessional singer-songwriter stuff as a rule. Because confessional music is just not what I do, I tell stories.
Oh, I know that. It's just interesting to connect how you come upon these stories. Like a song like "The Diaz Brothers," does that pop into your head while you're watching "Scarface"?
Actually yes, and I will say actually that is the most "dad" song on the record. With a new baby, in the first couple months of the new baby's life, the baby's barely conscious although it's very funny that you'll find the baby is trying to communicate some sophisticated notion, but sometime in his second month or so, we were watching TV and "Scarface" is on and there's a moment where his business partner warns him to not step on the territory of the Diaz brothers. And he's angry and he goes, "The Diaz brothers? Bury those cockroaches!" Right? And I repeated the line and the baby laughed and I was very, very amused [laughs]. So that was the springboard for that. I mean what I did with it was different of course, I think about these character that you never actually see, and the next time you hear about them they're dead.
The paranoia of "Counterfeit Florida Plates" recalls the characters in We Shall All Be Healed, and you've mentioned elsewhere that the Jenny in "Night Light" is the one from All Hail West Texas. Do you ever find yourself trying to write new episodes for characters in your universe like the Alpha Couple or should they just be treated as small callbacks and asides?
I wouldn't say intentionally. If there are writers who do this, I don't understand those writers. I don't sit down and go, "Well I think I'll invoke We Shall All Be Healed." I mean writing is an inherently narcissistic act but that would be really narcissistic. "Yeah, I'll refer to one of my older pieces, that'll be awesome, everyone'll love that!" But the connections, it's more internal. If you're with your parents and they're old and then you'll see a facial expression or a gesture that you'll remember from when you were a lot younger and you'll go "Wow! That looks like the dad I knew when I was 6." It's sort of like that with writing, you revisit these themes and notions and tropes and images that come back up because they're part of the machine that made them, that is, the writer.
That's true, though there's a few bands like the Hold Steady that sort of bring back in the same characters.
Yeah, well Craig is on a very big Yoknapatawpha County [the fictional place where Faulkner often set his novels] kind of deal, where it's a whole big lifehood picture but every song I write I try to come from a new angle. But then when I do something like that lyric, since I write ad-libbing half the time, playing guitar and singing, seeing what comes out and then writing as it comes out, that line comes out spontaneously and you're like "haha, that's pretty cool."
Does tethering yourself to a theme help you finish albums or make it more difficult to fill one up?
It has its own challenges. I don't start with it -- I wind up with thematic albums. I know at some point in the writing that things are clustering around a theme and then I can decide to go with that or I can resist it. On this one obviously I decided to keep following it. It can make it a little easier but also you worry about being too repetitive, and that can be kind of stifling. If you're writing a bunch of individual vignettes, it's freeing every time you write. You can go wherever you want. Otherwise you think, "Well, am I getting an angle on this theme I'm addressing that I haven't already done with the other songs?" And you hear that often in the words that don't make the album. "Oh well, that one, that was another version of this one." Which is kind of healthy and awesome as a writer but at the same time can be frustrating when you put a lot of hard work on a song and you think, "Oh, that's a pretty good one. Hmm, no, you already did that one for this record."
Does the necessity of a song always depend on the words for you, or do you ever have great music left over where you couldn't complete the lyric?
This is a good question because I didn't used to when I was only writing on guitar. I did not write any music unless it was just for lyrics. But now that I have a piano, I play it and I'll write stuff and I won't always hear where the lyrics come in. And I'll record it and we'll say we'll say, "That sounds really good, do you have any good ideas?" And I'll record it and it'll just go away. I'll have little 30-second patches that don't get used but I won't really write a whole song.
Do you see yourself using those little motifs for say, a new album with Extra Lens [Darnielle's band with Franklin Bruno]?
Possibly but you know, I'm kind of a big believer in throwing stuff away. There's a real value to going, "I could use that, but I think I'll let it bubble back up."
Which is surprising since you're very prolific.
Yeah. This has become a stock line with me, but I don't consider myself that prolific. I know am compared to others but I think that's only because business concerns dictate so much of how people work. If you write 12 songs a year, that's not actually that prolific. You wrote a song a month, that's really not very impressive. Really, every 30 days you get three minutes of work! So it's a schtick I have but I think it's true. If business concerns mean that you can't release 24 songs a year and the only thing people say when they write about your record is, "Well, it's another record by the guy who writes all the songs." you get into an album every 16 months or so where people won't even listen to the music at all. They'll only talk about how prolific you are.
Do you have strong opinions of your own work?
I'm always, always into whatever is newest. Also by the time an album comes out I will have newer stuff that I'm working on that I'm more interested in and have to shut up about. But I'm actually not working on anything new songs right now. I'm working on other stuff, which keeps me busy. But the new one will always seem like the best one to me, because it's freshest and because I'm most familiar with where it's at. And also because the longer time since a record has passed the more I can see how it might've been better.
Do you return to the older records for pleasure?
There's so much great music out there. I like the Mountain Goats fine, but I'd rather listen to other bands. I like to listen other music to make myself cry. I can't make myself cry with my own songs. That would be like self-absorption to a very high level. Although, Peter [Hughes, bassist] did a thing where he listened to all our records on a long flight, which was pretty interesting. I revisit them to tour, and every once in a blue moon I'll want to hear a song that has some personal meaning. But that's very rare for the most part.
Would you happen to know what the best song is that's ever been written about Satan?
Um, no [laughs]. I don't.