Arts Desk

The Extra Lens’ and Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle on His Character Sketches: “Writers Are Spies”

extralensLest you be confused: Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle's current collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Franklin Bruno is called The Extra Lens. His last collaboration with Bruno was called The Extra Glenns. It's the same project. Sort of.

Let Darnielle explain:

  • "It didn’t really have any brand loyalty."
  • "The Palace Brothers used to change their name  every album or so—it’s equal parts annoying and cool.
  • "It’s like a couple of letters have decayed."

You won't get that sense of decay from The Extra Lens' new record, Undercard, however. Even in its tense and somber moments, it's a remarkably energetic, easy-sounding record of character sketches and electric folk. The band performs tonight at Rock & Roll Hotel.

For the most part, though, Darnielle and I didn't talk about The Extra Lens. Durham, the college town in North Carolina where Darnielle lives, came up early. He's a fan of how the city has developed in recent years. (Read: lots of artists, musicians, and good restaurants. Not so many Chipotles.) When he gets out ("I don’t leave the house a lot—I’m at home cooking or writing"), he'll shop at Bull City Records. More often, he'll find rare vinyl online.

Although the Mountain Goats helped build its fanbase in the 1990s with cassette releases, he's not too big a fan of the current tape resurgence. He had boxes and boxes of cassettes before moving to Durham; now they're in storage. "The appeal of tapes was the immediacy of it," he says. "You can now do that with a digital file." Still, he did pick up a few cassettes recently—releases by Ares Kingdom (Mountain Goats fans know the affection Darnielle has for metal) and Scott Tuma.

After finishing up the current round of Extra Lens dates, Darnielle will get back to assembling the next Mountain Goats record. The band used to dig in for long sessions, but now it'll come together and record for two or three days at a time, three or four times per record. Though this time, he says, it'll end up being five or six separate mini-sessions. He already has a lot of songs: "I’m sifting through them, figuring out what they do, if there’s a theme."

I complimented Darnielle on the liner notes that come with the Extra Lens record, in which he explains, usually with requisite archness, the album's vignettes. I remarked that some of his notes have a fairly voyeuristic tone.

"I consider myself pretty voyeuristic," he says. "That’s what you’re doing. Writers are spies."

But he says the characters in his songs more frequently come from him, not people he knows. "Writing is like therapy in this way," he says. "If you go in and talk about these people, you're really talking about yourself."

The Extra Lens performs tonight with John Vanderslice at Rock & Roll Hotel. $15.

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