The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle on Internet Addiction, Metal, and the Lifetime Movie Network
Transcendental Youth is the latest album from The Mountain Goats, singer-songwriter John Darnielle’s primary outlet for stories of heartbreak, ecstatic pride, drug addicts, memories, and monsters. The new record is also the band’s first LP with a full horn section. That shouldn't shock any fan of the band’s last decade of work, but it's definitely different from the Darnielle’s early years with The Mountain Goats, when it mainly operated as a guitar-and-voice, straight-to-boombox solo project.
In July, Merge Records will reissue All Hail West Texas, the band’s last “lo-fi” album; the remastered release of the 2002 LP will include rediscovered tracks from the era, as well as a new essay by Darnielle.
The Mountain Goats’ upcoming tour, which brings it to the 9:30 Club on Monday, also nods toward the band’s past. The group is touring as a two-piece, once the norm for the now-expanded band. The duo consists of Darnielle on guitar, piano, and vocals, and longtime band member Peter Hughes on bass guitar. The band hasn't played here with such a stripped-down lineup since a September 2007 show at Black Cat.
I caught up with Darnielle over email to talk about his social media use, the Lifetime Movie Network, and the Gothenburg sound.
Washington City Paper: Did you communicate with your audience through etters or email before the rise of social media? You've occasionally been on Mountain Goats forums, but Twitter and Tumblr seem to have made you much more accessible to the public.
John Darnielle: I used to answer mail-mail, yeah—there was never all that much of it, I remember writing really long letters in response sometimes. But really—before the Internet, I did not have a super big audience. I'd get a letter from Germany or Sweden and think, "Wow! Somebody a world away likes The Mountain Goats!"
WCP: Do you feel the threat of an addiction to the Internet?
JD: I feel like I'm online too much, I think this is a common feeling—probably common among everybody whether they were around before the rise of the Internet or not. Like, if I check my email before I go outside in the morning, there's a risk that I end up sitting with a cup of coffee and a laptop for a couple of hours without actually tasting outside air; I try to avoid that, it's easier to remember to get out now with a toddler in the house because he loves to go outside. At the same time, the Internet is more or less like a giant book. Parts of it aren't exactly great literature and other parts of it are really complex, but, like, if I were reading four or five books a day and some were great literature and some were trashy pulp novels, I wouldn't worry about addiction, I'd just be happy for having access to all those books.
WCP: You've written extensively about your love for metal. What led you take the musical path you did with The Mountain Goats, as opposed to a metal approach?
JD: Well, I'm not really a guitarist. I can play, I've gotten kind of good at what I do, but metal is a discipline. There are polymaths here and there, and I'm good at a couple of things, but the only thing I've really studied as a discipline is poetry: meter and rhyme, how to write in verse in such a way that it feels natural and comes out like something you just thought up on the spot. I started The Mountain Goats as a vehicle for some poetry I'd been writing that felt like it needed to be said out loud to really work. To play metal would involve living a different life, making different choices about what to study when I was younger.
WCP: How do you choose songs for a setlist when you have such a big catalog?
JD: Actually it takes a lot of back-and-forth emails between me and Peter to come up with a list—we'll talk about stuff we used to play but don't now, and stuff that's on records that we've never played together, and stuff that people tend to wanna hear, and then from these emails we'll come up with a working master list of maybe 30 or 35 songs to rehearse and know for the tour. And from these maybe 18 of them will form a basic core with six or seven more to be traded in and out here and there from night to night so we're not doing the same set two nights in a row very often.
Beyond that, it's a combination of "which songs am I feeling connected to," "which ones seem like they'd be fun to play," and "which ones do I think the audience will enjoy." Trying to find the sweet spot in there. I don't write a given night's setlist out until an hour or two before we play so I try to make each one in some way, usually a small way, a stray song or two in the middle, reflect the vibe. The energy. New-age concepts like that.
WCP: With the duo tour you'll be on soon, do you have plans to play older material to reflect this older iteration of the touring Mountain Goats?
JD: The master list is all over the place right now—we talked about some stuff from way back, but also stuff from the duo touring we did from 2002-2007, stuff we played and enjoyed to smaller audiences than the ones we get now. But yeah, there's a fair bit of pre-2005 stuff that's never been put in trio form that we're digging into.
WCP: How did you and Peter Hughes meet? How did you two begin playing music together?
JD: In Pomona there was this club called Munchie's and we had a scene that had formed in Claremont/Upland/Pomona in the early/mid-'90s. Dennis Callaci of Shrimper Records had found this little sandwich joint with a stage in back and was booking shows there for Refrigerator, his band, and other bands he knew from around there. I played a show at some point, the energy was really starting to get high and amazing in the scene and the people there had that burgeoning-scene feeling of, "We have a thing that's happening and we're the only ones who know about it and it's really a cool thing that came up naturally and there's no money in it, it's just a great way to spend as many nights per week as possible," and after my set Peter came up and said how much he'd liked it. He was a total stranger to me and I was really blown away by how engaged he'd been with my set, and then I saw his band—Diskothi-Q—play and was completely knocked over, they had so much personality and the songs were about everyday life and told cool stories. We didn't start playing together for several years, but when we did it was kind of a natural thing, everybody played with everybody else in the scene.
WCP: How did the upcoming re-issue of All Hail West Texas come about?
JD: People kept asking! [The band’s old record label] Emperor Jones hasn't made records in a while, and it's never been on vinyl, and I had the original reels that the tapes were transferred from in a closet—it just felt like, this should be in print, you see copies of it starting to fetch collector prices and you think that's kinda dumb, it's just a record, put it back in print so copies are available to people who want 'em. Plus, we've been on Merge for a while now, so it made sense to get something that wasn't in print any more on the same label we're on now, every time we play "[The Best Ever Death Metal Band In] Denton" people want to buy the record that one's on and we haven't had copies of it for years.
WCP: Do you like watching TV? Any recent favorite programs?
JD: I don't watch a lot of TV—I watch boxing on Friday nights, and I watch hockey, and some baseball. I get the boxing pay-per-views if the card seems worth getting. I am kind of obsessed with the Lifetime Movie Network, I should admit. Like I'll sit down and watch two movies in a row. The movies are mainly movies you've never heard of, but they're about ripped-from-the-headline cases you maybe read a Page 17 story about once somewhere, and they follow some pretty reliable patterns but... they're kind of oddly comforting. I get the same satisfaction from them I used to get from watching Days of Our Lives. I have this dream of hosting a theme week worth of Lifetime Movie Network movies. I understand and admit that as dreams go this one is bizarre and unheroic. Still. I would do an awesome job.
WCP: I have read that you're writing a novel. Do you know what this book will be about?
JD: Yes, I've been writing it for some time. I don't like to talk about the subjects of work in progress, though. Always seems to deflate whatever you're working on, to expose it to the light too early.
WCP: The Mountain Goats have an album titled Sweden. Are you a fan of any contemporary Swedish music?
JD: I love Sweden the country, we've always had great shows there—it's really a wonderful place. Obviously Gothenburg is one of the biggest towns for heavy metal anywhere, I don't know if you know this but there's actually a sound called "the Gothenburg sound"—Dark Tranquility's from there, At the Gates too. Katatonia, whose early stuff is some of the best metal ever made, is from Stockholm. Bathory is Swedish, they're one of the most important metal bands ever. I also have a record by the Swedish Radio Choir, vocal music, which is just monstrously great. That doesn't really count as contemporary though I guess.
The Mountain Goats perform with The Baptist Generals June 3 at 7 p.m. at 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. The show is sold out.
Photo by DL Anderson