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From lo-fi beginnings to last year's meticulously produced Transcendental Youth, indie folk group The Mountain Goats have retained a sound all their own for nearly 20 years. Built on aggressively strummed acoustic guitars, lyrical content that outstrips many short stories and a singer whose melodically pointed shouts can cut through the most raucous accompaniment. The songs range from tender to thundering, but they're never without a expertly rendered emotional core.
"Pretty much anything I do is instinctive," says Darnielle. With 14 full-lengths and over 500 songs spread across singles, tapes and compilations, it's believable that he's a man who trusts his intuition.
Lyrically though, he does spend a bit more time honing details. Many songs are marked by detailed references to place and time. Writing like this takes planning, but Darnielle tries to keep that to a minimum.
"If I did too much information-gathering, I'd get distracted. I need to have just enough to believe my own story."
The most important element in this believability for Darnielle is climate.
"I kind of zero in on it to an obsessive extent- I am one of those people who thinks of the weather in quasi-spiritual terms."
Darnielle's notable for a tendency to pull inspiration from anywhere. He's proudly sung about everything from reggae musicians to Greek mythology ("the common thread is 'stuff I like!' ").
"Writing is influence. The idea of a writer who's cut from whole cloth is ridiculous."
This doesn't mean he's totally against a little obscurity every now and then.
"If I were feeling academic, I'd think also about how not including what might seem like obvious possible sources/reference points is a way of encouraging harder reading/listening."
This harder listening is usually rewarding with The Mountain Goats. The band is always looking for new sounds and new people to work with.
Last year's Transcendental Youth represented yet another sonic first for the band: it was their first album to feature a prominent horn section on several tracks. Matthew E. White wrote the horn arrangements. Darnielle says,
"I think the fun of playing with other people is letting them bring their own expression to the music."
Of course, one shift for the Mountain Goats' sound came back in 2002 when they released Tallahassee, their first release recorded in a "real" studio. Naturally this brought new possibilities, but it also brought occasional frustration.
"I was very impatient with the studio for a long time- I still am to an extent. The whole day you have to spend just setting up the beginning of a session drives me absolutely nuts."
Despite that, he doesn't ever consider returning to the boombox. "The boombox was a different lifetime at this point. ... I don't really think about recording in other ways. That would be nostalgia. Nostalgia is self-hate and I'm against it."
Putting aside his aversion to nostalgia, he's recently helmed two reissue projects for the band: last year's re-issue of early cassettes Hot Garden Stomp with The Hound Chronicles, and All Hail West Texas, which is due out in July. He explains,
"Me having aesthetics is one thing, but all that stuff was so out of print and people seem to want it."
Even songs whose recordings don't really interest him anymore can find their way into live sets.
"There's a sense in which performance has nothing to do with albums. Performance is communion. It's a whole deal off on its own planet."
In addition to music, Darnielle is currently working on a novel (his second). He says work on the novel is necessarily different from his lyric writing.
"Writing longer things takes more focus, requires bigger vistas."
Obviously, writing a novel takes more time than a three-minute pop song. Asked if this more extended process ever chafes with his rapid-fire songwriting instincts, he says it's not an issue.
"I would have to be pretty naïve to think that I could build a ship using the same tools I'd use for whittling a spear point. ... If you've gotten good at whittling spear points and you say, 'Cool, I'll make a ship, I'll do it exactly like I do the spear points because I enjoy that process,' then your focus is all messed up.
More from our interview with Darnielle:
NUVO: I'm curious about the intermittent leslie vocal effect (I think it's a leslie sound at least) on the chorus of "Until I am Whole," in part because for some reason it immediately reminded me of a similar effect on Black Sabbath's "Planet Caravan." My first long shot questions is: was that intended as any sort of reference or homage? Beyond that, I wonder if you ever find yourself trying to import aesthetics of other genres that you enjoy but don't really play, however subtly, into your sound.
John Darnielle: Pretty much anything I do is instinctive - I don't select from available ingredients like I would if I were cooking - like, I don't say "well, there's a sound from bluegrass I'd like to have in here, I'd like to have a bluegrass trope so let me use a mandolin." It's much more "try a sound, see if we like it." In the case of that song, I was in a hotel room in Minneapolis working on it and I sang the harmony vocal, and it sounded nice enough but I thought I might put some echo or something on it, and I called up the various patches you have in GarageBand and the one with the Leslie effect sounded pretty hip. Everybody in camp liked it, so when we got into the studio, I sang the backing vocal and it was patched through the board through an actual Leslie and recorded from there.
The only kind of homage I do usually is lyrical - musically, I'm generally just going on instinct.
NUVO: Even if the sounds aren't necessarily imported from anywhere specific, your records, especially recently, have seemed to pretty regularly represent expansions sound wise. For example, the horns on Transcendental Youth, the increased use of piano on The Life of the World to Come, and so on. Do you consciously try to expand your musical palette from album to album, and if so, what is your goal in doing so?
Darnielle: Well, you just sort of want to keep it fresh. Curiosity, interest, the brevity of life - one wants to keep exploring, reaching further, asking questions. Seeing what new terrain is open. In music, one way of finding new terrain is trying out different instrumental textures.
NUVO: You've talked before about getting burnt out on songs and losing interest in playing them live. What leads up to that for you? Is it usually a sudden switch to that feeling, or does the disenchantment with certain songs build up over a longer period of time?
Darnielle: It's kinda like you notice that you don't rellly play it as well - my fingers tell me before I notice in my head. You start forgetting where you are in the song. But there are only one or two songs where I ever got to a point of thinking "you know, I don't want to play that at all any more" - you can usually do something to keep other ones fresh. The ones I don't play any more are songs I don't like any more.
NUVO: I'm curious about your relationship to some of the source material for some of your songs. I was interested when you posted on your blog recently about "Song for Lonely Giants" and the Robert Mezey poem it's related to or like "High Hawk Season" with The Warriors, and a whole slew of other things. What attracts you to the different sources like this that you chose?
Darnielle: I don't know! The common thread is "stuff I like"!
NUVO: Another question regarding references/sources: Some artists work pretty hard to hide their reference points, but for you, that seems to be less of a concern. Do you have any thoughts as to why that might be for you?
Darnielle: I don't know why anybody'd hide their references really, unless they were afraid of a lawsuit or something - writing is influence, the idea of a writer who's cut from whole cloth is completely ridiculous. There's a tradition in underground metal (and in post-punk, I think Big Black also did this on one of their records) of listing which bands you think are good on the sleeve. Back when, it was a way of turning people on to something they might otherwise never have heard about - but there's also an aspect of explaining where one sees one's work in context, how it relates to other stuff. And, if I were feeling academic, I'd think also about how not including what might seem like obvious possible sources/reference points is a way of encouraging harder reading/listening.
NUVO: Your musical career has been marked by a sort of forward lunge in many ways, and I feel like I remember reading you say somewhere that you were in general not too interested in re-issue projects. That makes it interesting to me that you've recently re-issued both All Hail West Texas and The Hound Chronicles and Hot Garden Stomp. How did these projects come about? Did something change in the way you thought about the albums or reissuing in general?
Darnielle: People just keep asking, is the thing. Me having aesthetics is one thing, but all that stuff was so out of print and people seem to want it. My main thing is I don't like to think or talk about old work very much. I have affection for it, but it's over and done with, except in the live arena, where anything can become new again with a little work. But I don't like to reflect too much on older work if I can help it There's less time for new work if I do, and new work is always a lot more interesting to me.
NUVO: I've read before that once Woody Allen finishes a movie, he never really goes back to look at it again. Since you have a somewhat similar capacity to be creative consistently over a long period of time, I wonder if you do anything similar, do you tend to avoid looking back at albums once you've finished them (and if so, does playing old songs live introduce any sort of tension into that desire to not look back at old releases?) Additionally, if you do make a habit of not looking back, what was the feeling like in returning to All Hail West Texas, Hot Garden Stomp, and The Hound Chronicles for the reissues?
Darnielle: I think I just accidentally answered this q on the last one! Live is just different, it's its own area. There's a sense in which performance has nothing to do with albums. Performance is communion, it's a whole deal off on its own planet. So playing old songs there isn't really playing old songs, nothing's really new or old in the context of a show. Or it's all new, kinda.
NUVO: You've had Aeron Alfrey's artwork on two albums now, both of which have dealt in some way with Satan- what is it about Alfrey's work that fits that theme so neatly?
Darnielle: Well, he likes monsters and I like monsters. We are into the same sorts of images and moods.
NUVO: You've collaborated a lot over the length of your career, with Kaki King, Franklin Bruno, Anonymous 4, and so on. I get the impression that you're generally a pretty solitary worker, so how does collaborating with someone tend to work for you? Does it usually represent a substantial shift in your approach?
Darnielle: Sort of - I mean, there are formal things, like how if you play in my band, you get used to how sometimes I'll drag out an instrumental break an extra four bars, or switch lyrics up, or (I don't do this as much as I used to) speed up as the song progresses. When you play with Anonymous 4, they're coming from a much stricter tradition: if a break between verses goes four bars, then it goes four bars; they won't have anything to sing if I run long, and ad-libbing isn't really a done thing in polyphony. So there's more rehearsal, and I use a metronome, which you generally don't do rehearsing for a club tour.
NUVO: Many of your songs are predicated of specific locations and rely on details about those locations. I also feel like I remember reading some time ago, possibly in an interview, where you describe plotting escape routes for characters on a map. How detailed do you get in your research about place when working on songs that have specific settings?
Darnielle: I try not to get too detailed, actually. I need a feel for the climate and for the roads, but I don't usually study a place's history beyond how old it is. Really, climate is the big one for me, I kind of zero in on it to an obsessive extent - I am one of those people who thinks of the weather in quasi-spiritual terms. Weather's always lurking somewhere in my little stories. But if I did too much information-gathering, I'd get distracted - I need to have just enough to believe in my own story, and then stop worrying about whether I'm getting the progression of streets exactly right or whatever.
NUVO: I imagine recording on the boomboxes was a very immediate thing, and I've read about how you would often write and record songs in the same day. What was the transition into "real" studios like for you with respect to that immediacy, since working like that sort of necessarily slows the process down? Was there ever any frustration that you couldn't just immediately commit something to tape and be finished with it? Also, since it's been over ten years since the last boombox release, if there was any frustration about that switch, has it subsided to any degree as you've worked in the studio more and more?
Darnielle: Yeah, I was very impatient with the studio for a long time - I still am to an extent, the whole day you have to spend just setting up at the beginning of a session drives me absolutely nuts. But I mean...I don't really think at all about recording any other way, these days; the boombox was a different lifetime at this point. I'm used to writing a song and fleshing it out at home and rehearsing it and then working on it in the studio; we've been recording in studios longer than I recorded on the boombox at this point. The boombox was '92-01, and there were plenty of trips to studios in that time, too. 2002-2013 has been studio. So it's really...I don't really think about recording in other ways. That would be nostalgia. Nostalgia is self-hate and I'm against it.
NUVO: When you're working with an arranger like Owen Pallet or Matthew White, how hands on do you tend to be?
Darnielle: I like to let people call pretty much all their own shots. Otherwise I should be writing the arrangements myself! Matthew asked me for some verbal sketches/reference points when he was writing arrangements but he's the guy who knows his way around the horns, so I just let him do his thing. I'm not an auteur type telling other people how to play, except maybe in negative terms sometimes - "don't bear down so hard," "not quite so many eighth-notes there, not so jaunty." But I think the fun of playing with other people is letting them bring their own expression to the music.
NUVO: Finally, I know you're working on a book right now for FSG, I wondered first off if you were able to talk at all about it generally. Primarily though, I'm curious about your work style when writing long form prose. It seems like, since a novel is such a long term project, that it would be difficult to work at with the same headlong rush that you can achieve in writing and demoing/recording songs very quickly. Is it a challenge to work at a different pace like that for you?
Darnielle: Sure, but -- songs are one thing. Books are another. I would have to be pretty naive to think that I could build a ship using the same tools I'd use for whittling a spearpoint. Ships aren't better than spearpoints, each thing has its purpose. But if you've gotten good at whittling spearpoints and you say "cool, I'll make a ship, I'll do it exactly like I do the spearpoints because I enjoy that process," then your focus is all messed up. Demoing songs quickly is good for me because it's good for the songs, not because of the feeling I get from it - that feeling's a side benefit. Writing longer things takes more focus, requires bigger vistas. It's just a different thing.