Photo by D.L. Anderson
Critical Questions: John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats
Mountain Goats leader on dark times and horns.
A full two decades after John Darnielle's first homemade solo recordings as The Mountain Goats started creeping into the early '90s indie underground, much has changed. Comfortably settled in Durham, North Carolina, with a new baby and (since 2008's Heretic Pride) a stable core band consisting of himself, bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster, Darnielle is a far cry from the mysterious figure whose early lo-fi albums often fixated on characters stuck in abuse, addiction and anomie. On the other hand, those people still populate Darnielle's songs, but the new Transcendental Youth (out now on Merge Records) focuses more overtly on the survival of the human spirit even in dark times. Also, it has horns.
CM: The first thing that struck me about Transcendental Youth was how perfectly the horn section fits into what's otherwise a fairly stripped down record. What made you decide these particular songs wanted horns?
JD: I've been thinking about horn arrangements since Get Lonely, which had two-piece horn arrangements that I enjoyed. But ever since then, it's been a matter of budget. Quite often, we travel very far away to record. And this is indie rock, so if everybody has to fly someplace, there's often not a lot of budget left over for more musicians. It's not the most romantic part of the business, but it's true. But we recorded this record in Durham, where I live, not far from my house and not too far from where Jon Wurster lives. So our travel and lodging expenses were reduced enough to be able to be able to start talking about hiring someone to write real horn arrangements. And I had seen Matthew E. White [horn arranger] do his Sounds of the South project, and he has this sort of Mingus-y, little bit of Ellington thing. He has a lot of different voices in his voice, which I really like.
I had noticed that. "Cry For Judas" and "Transcendental Youth" almost sound like they were arranged by two different guys.
Yeah, Matt is amazing. We talked a lot about the horns on Van Morrison records. That was my cue for "Cry For Judas," that I wanna hear something that you'd hear on "Wild Nights" or "Tupelo Honey." But on the other hand, the title track has...not a giant big band, but a big band sort of feel.
Particularly since All Hail West Texas, your albums have tended to have themes. Do you think of them as concept records in the traditional prog-rock sense?
I think any record is going to have a concept, unless it's something the artist didn't put together himself. There's going to be some unifying idea. And when we talk about prog-rock concept albums, we're usually talking about something that's trying to represent a novelistic development, where you have a story that begins with the first track and ends with the last one, like The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. I don't really do that...well, Tallahassee, I suppose...but other than that, I tend to write a bunch of things from a similar space. And I do think that whether that intention is there or not, the fact is that the songs are from the same time and place.
So is each new album a specific set of songs you've written since the last one, or do you reach back into the notebooks?
I never -- almost never...sometimes I reach back for a title. But even when I don't use up everything I write for an album, when I go on to the next, the old stuff doesn't get used. There are several songs from the last couple albums that someday could see the light of day as demos or whatever.
How many songs do you start for each one that you finish?
I don't know. I have no idea. I will start writing something, and if it isn't going anywhere, I won't even look at it again, I prefer to view it as a study. You know how they use studies in painting, you paint the same thing a few times? The songs that don't work are kinda like that. I don't consciously do it, but the ones I don't finish are reabsorbed back into the general pool of available images and chords.
What was the first song you recorded that came out exactly how you'd first envisioned it?
I'll let you know if I ever get one! You see, the thing is, the longer you do it, the more you know that there's no such thing as a perfect version better than the one that you came up with. I don't remember what the first one would be where I just thought, y'know "That's IT!" But I do remember listening back to "Letter From Belgium" [from 2004's We Shall All Be Healed] and hearing the drums and the big roaring feel of the track, and thinking "Okay, I know how to do this now."
How many takes did you tend to go through during your solo boombox recordings? I remember that on "Golden Boy" -- which to this day is probably my single most favorite of all your songs -- you included that little message to Paul Lukas [editor of the late great '90s zine Beer Frame and producer of the EP the song was first recorded for; it's now available on the 1999 compilation Ghana] saying in part, "I listened to it and I thought, 'It can be done better.'"
Yeah, the previous take was just okay. It wasn't unhinged enough.
I think that a lot of people thought at the time of the boombox recordings [the majority of the Mountain Goats' 1991-2000 releases were recorded by Darnielle on an inexpensive portable cassette player] that you were just doing these songs off the cuff, only once.
Oh, yeah, no, I mean, that is an assumption that people bring to stuff like that, and that's completely untrue. I have boxes full of tapes. "Going to Georgia," I did seven different versions of that song the morning I wrote it.
I just saw a guy post a complete document of all the recording sessions of the Sex Pistols. By the time they record Never Mind the Bollocks, they have already recorded all of those songs at different studios around London, three and four times! They bounced all over London, tracking those songs, taking other stabs at them, then going back out on the road and then back into the studio. And that's interesting because at the time, that was considered a pretty raw, visceral record.
There was much discussion when We Shall All Be Healed and The Sunset Tree came out that you were writing more overtly autobiographically: was there an actual shift in your songwriting around that time, or were you just publically acknowledging the autobiographical elements for the first time?
It was a conscious choice. The first song I did [for We Shall All Be Healed] was "Palmcorder Yajna," where I set it on Holt Boulevard, which was a place where if you got arrested and the cops asked where you scored, you'd say, "Oh, Holt Boulevard," because that wouldn't reveal too much because that was a place where people would go to get hooked up. And when I did that, it was a funny feeling because I had been resisting confessional stuff my entire life. I didn't want to write confessional stuff, I didn't want to be a confessional singer-songwriter. But of course, when you set these things that you don't want to be or do...if you transgress your own rule, it feels very powerful, right? "Oh, I don't want to do that, I'm not gonna do that...hey, I broke a rule! That's cool!" (laughs) And that's exactly what happened on We Shall All Be Healed. And then my stepfather died and I was having all sorts of, uh, emotions. Memories and stuff. And I just went for it [on 2005's The Sunset Tree, an explicitly autobiographical album about Darnielle's abusive childhood]. Peter and I talked about it: "Should I do that?" "Yes, you should."
I mentioned to a friend of mine that I was interviewing you and he immediately told me this intensely personal story that related to your song "The Mess Inside" [from 2002's All Hail West Texas]. And it occurred to me that people must do that directly to you just all the time! What are your interactions with your fans like?
Well, you know, it varies. I don't want to analyze too hard about, you know, "Who is my fanbase?" I'm not a big demographics geek. But there are people who want to get married to one of our darker songs, and to play it at their wedding. And I'm like "You know, some of these songs are cautionary tales. They're not celebrations of the ways in which we can do each other harm!"
You know, particularly on the new record -- but I think this stretches all the way out to your very earliest releases -- I've always thought that even in your absolute darkest songs, there's this kind of hard-won optimism.
Yeah! Oh, yeah. We just talked about autobiographical stuff in my music, but I think that's actually autobiographical. That's a character trait of mine, from a very early age. My mom observed that the difference between me and my sister was that it sort of didn't matter what you gave me for Christmas. It didn't matter, like, at all! Whatever it was, I'd be thrilled. And I think that optimism sort of hardened into the core of my being. I get nostalgic about my worst days. I take very seriously the idea that every day you're above ground is a good day.
That's always been the one thing that's resonated most deeply with me in your music.
I mostly don't like to think of myself as having a message, but that kind of is my message: if your situation is fucked, right, and you can't see light six inches ahead of you...well, that too is an interesting place with all kinds of colors to describe, you know? The presence of something, in the final analysis, is better than the absence.
|In Memory of Satan (live on Soundcheck, WNYC)|