Seven Questions For John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats
John Darnielle has been branching out lately. He's avoiding concept albums. He's wrangled producer / songwriter John Vanderslice to help him in the studio. And in one of the weirdest collabs of 2007, he lent his voice to Aesop Rock's None Shall Pass.
Over the last two decades, Darnielle’s band the Mountain Goats has not only garnered endless critical acclaim, but his rather confessional outpourings have inspired its own amount of fessing up, even in this very space. But now the always-literary, consistently prolific John Darnielle returns with his sixteenth release Heretic Pride on February 19th. Darnielle’s distinctly nasal voice is ever present as usual, but there’s almost an upbeat, optimistic feel this time around, even when he’s picking his guitar amidst a soft cello on “San Bernadino.” After exercising those personal demons during We Shall Be Healed, The Sunset Tree and Get Lonely, the obvious choice for subject matter this time around would most definitely be swamp creatures, Michael Myers, and religious oxymoronism.
Let's get down to business.
I noticed that parts of Heretic Pride were recorded in Fairbanks. How'd you end up there? I'm picturing some sort of log-cabin studio. What type of set up was it?
I only wrote some songs in Fairbanks ("In the Craters on the Moon" and "Autoclave"). The whole album was recorded at Prairie Sun in Cotati, California, where both Testament and Tom Waits have recorded. It would be awesome to record in Fairbanks in February though—you would get mighty focused!
I've always noticed and appreciated your frequent choice in rounding up Erik Friedlander to help your last few records. How did you first recognize his work, and develop a relationship with him? And in terms of his musical parts, how are they written? Are you writing them for him, or is it a collaborative effort?
I found out about Erik when Brassland released Maldoror, his improvisations based on Lautreamont. Brassland asked if he could open a show for us in Manhattan, and he did, and I was just blown away by how great he was, and also how cool he seemed in the dressing room—just enjoyed visiting with him. John Vanderslice was on that tour, too, and we knew we'd be making a record together, and I was all, "JV, we should get this guy on the next record, right?" and JV was like "Yes. Yes. Lock it down." And so we set it up.
I don't write parts for people—I think people do their best creative work when you give them all the freedom you can stand to give. So, I tell Erik "Here's the song," and sometimes he'll ask what I'm looking for and I'll say "something staccato and nervous" or "some counterpoint to the vocal melody," but that's as far as my input goes—I like to be surprised by what he comes up with. I'm not a micromanaging kind of collaborator, I'd rather play with people for the most part.
Another inquiry along those same lines: I really enjoyed St Vincent's / Annie Clark's Marry Me record last year; did you write parts with her specifically in mind?
No, we just brought her in because we liked the way she played guitar—again, it's like, "You're such an awesome musician, please put some of your juju powder on my record." I think it was my idea for her to play a descending scale on "Sax Rohmer #1" though, I'll take credit for that!
Your last effort, Get Lonely is a solemn record. But with Heretic Pride’s tendency to have more instrumentation on each song, it feels like a “bigger” album. Were you gunning for a "larger" sound this time around?
Get Lonely sort of willed itself into being—we knew when we went in that the songs were kind of quiet, but we didn't know just how far in that direction they wanted to head. But as the session went on everybody got this feeling that there was something distinct going on and we should just get out of the way and let the record go where it wanted to go. In a sense, Heretic Pride is the same way—I wrote the songs, and we practiced them some, and by the time we were done with the first day's tracking, it was clear that the record was leaning toward a sort of high-spirits-on-fire sort of thing. Once you catch that feeling, yeah, you think maybe some "bigger" arrangements are going to be best. But really a lot of the credit for the bigness is on Jon Wurster, whose drums are so great, and on Scott Solter, who really knows how to record a big drum sound.
One of the oddest songs on Heretic Pride (to me) is "Lovecraft in Brooklyn." [It's a rock song that seems straight-forward until the three-minute mark, wherein we find Darnielle's protagonist buying switchblades, and seemingly fired up about it.] Can you talk about that one a bit?
Yeah, weird evolution on that song. I got the idea for it on an airplane going to Stockholm. I was listening to Eddy Grant's Greatest Hits, and I got the idea to call a song "Eddy Grant T-shirt." That was all there was, the song title. I sort of had this image of somebody wearing an ancient faded T-shirt not for fashion reasons but just to have something to wear—maybe the guy wearing it doesn't even know who Eddy Grant is. So that was the whole idea until I was in my hotel room in Stockholm and couldn't sleep, so I got out my notebook and went to work on the song. Only "Eddy Grant" is hard to say at that tempo, so I changed the Eddy Grant T-shirt to a Marcus Allen jersey. I'm a Raiders fan and Raiders fans have this sort of outlaw image they like to cultivate so that changed the vibe a lot—now I'm thinking about outsiders, people who place themselves apart from others, loners. But not lonely people: just solitary people, maybe. So I thought about how when you've placed yourself outside of everything else, then everything else starts to look distorted or monstrous. And that's what the song's about: aggravated alienation and how it makes the world seem weird and threatening.
Your following is very dedicated, to say the least. My old roommate used to tell me how much she adored you, while simultaneously threatening me with torture/mental anguish if I too didn't become wise to your talents. Knowing such adoration, is there any added pressure when you sit down to write new records?
I wouldn't call it "pressure," no—if you take that angle you wind up writing the same records over and over. I feel, like, really stoked about the way people get super-into my songs; "honor" is kind of a flat word, it's more like: cool! Way, way cool! People are doing with my songs what I do with the songs of the artists I love: really getting inside their skins! So it's not pressure, really it's inspirational. It drives me to write songs people might want to wear on their bodies, if that makes sense.
You're rather prolific in terms of your output, but your work is also consistently substantial. Do you ever get writers block?
I go through times when I don't write much, but I think "writers block" is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don't believe in it. I think the times when you're "blocked" are transitional times when your inspiration is sort of trying to re-direct you toward the place where you'll eventually end up. Thinking of this state as a "block" is really counterproductive, pernicious even: you're not "blocked," you're on a detour, and maybe the sights aren't as pretty, but they're still really valuable. That's my take, anyway. I mean, if you couldn't actually move your hands to make the pen go across the page, that's a legitimate block. Otherwise, sit down and work!
The Mountain Goats bring their own juju powder to Webster Hall on March 18th and The Music Hall Of Williamsburg on March 19th.