The SPIN Interview: John Darnielle
"I used to assume no one would care, but I do think now I've written songs that are useful to people."
The Hold Steady may have sung the words “Me and my friends are like / The drums on ‘Lust for Life,’ ” but John Darnielle lives them. As he speaks in his living room in Durham, North Carolina, it’s easy to understand how he has ascended to cult-hero status as one of our greatest lyricists: He is as educated and evangelical about unexplored corners of art and culture as his fans are toward his own work. He name-checks obscure movies (“You’ve seen the three-hour Cannibal Corpse documentary Centuries of Torment, right?”) and reads a whole passage from his newest obsession, a Polish novel called The Mighty Angel, by Jerzy Pilch (“It’s a book about alcoholism; only 150 pages long, and I keep stopping because I don’t want to be done”). He has been profiled in The New Yorker, he enlists the death-metal heroes of his youth to collaborate on contemplative acoustic rock, and when the spirit moves him, he writes about hockey for the local alt-weekly.
It’s only 150 pages long, and I keep stopping because I don’t want to be done”). He has been profiled in The New Yorker, he enlists the death-metal heroes of his youth to collaborate on contemplative acoustic rock, and when the spirit moves him, he writes about hockey for the local alt-weekly.
For a guy who lived through child abuse and heroin and speed addiction, he’s pretty at ease with himself, and as evidenced by the Mountain Goats’ 16th full-length album, All Eternals Deck (his first for hometown kingpins Merge Records), he’s the rare ’90s survivor making his best music in his career’s second decade.
What was it like where you grew up?
As a little kid I lived in San Luis Obispo [California], which kinda had a hippie population in the early ’70s. Eventually I lived in Claremont, which was not cool by L.A. standards, but it is a cool little college town. It’s where David Foster Wallace spent the last six years of his life.
Did you feel connected to music and art there or did you feel isolated from it?
There’s a lot of music culture in Claremont. At my high school there were always kids carrying acoustic guitars around, which is why I named my band the Mountain Goats. I didn’t want to seem like one of those guys who brought his guitar to the party whether you asked him to or not.
You’re not the guy who busted it out?
No, I’m still massively uncomfortable with that. It doesn’t happen as much as it used to, but I used to be in airports out on tour and people would be like, “Hey, play me something!” “No, what I do is not really like that.” They always assume you’re just shy, like, “Oh no, I’m sure it’s great.” And I’m like, “No, no, really, no.”
Your 2005 album, The Sunset Tree, is about your experiences with domestic violence at the hands of your stepfather. If you could have told your 12-year-old self, “This will pass,” would you have believed you?
Nope. People told me that all the time, and it’s not something you need to hear. Because it doesn’t matter. “Someday you won’t be hungry,” is not something you tell a hungry person. You have to break it down so that you’re telling yourself, “It gets better by the end of the day. It gets better in half an hour.” I didn’t believe I was going to live to see 21.
Your drug period didn’t necessarily coincide with your music-making period.
No, it didn’t. Those were not creative times for me. I was writing poetry and the Mountain Goats was an outgrowth of that. But the idea of drug-fueled creativity is weird to me because I think a proper addict puts his creativity into his using: “Why should I worry about making something when I could be getting high?” You can’t court two mistresses, you know? I was sober by the time I started doing the Mountain Goats. In fact, there was actually a period of five years when I was clean on all fronts except for cigarettes and coffee. I wouldn’t even have a beer at all until I got into touring. You wound up having a beer once you got on tour.
Your first two releases were on a cassette-only label called Shrimper. Did it seem like a big deal at the time?
I had moved to Norwalk [Connecticut], where I was living on the grounds of a hospital. My friends were all back in Claremont, and they had met this guy named Dennis Callaci, who was trying to start this label. He was putting together a Beatles tribute tape, and I told him I couldn’t play a Beatles song, but he said, “Just give me one of your songs and we’ll give it a Beatles title.” So I gave him one he called “Within You Without You” and he put it on there. Wait! I have to show you something — you’re about to freak out. We’re doing a tape, hand-colored by yours truly, like the other 999 of them. The first 1,000 [All Eternals Deck] vinyl LPs will come with demos for the album on this lovely cassette.
And cassettes are making this weird, cultish comeback.
I went in [to the Merge office] and drew a cover. It was exactly like the old days, the same mind-set: Sit down, start drawing something, put a sticker there, go to the Xerox machine. I put it next to [his 1992 cassette release] The Hound Chronicles, you would think they were released on consecutive days.
You made a lot of music for Shrimper on a four-track.
Not a four-track, that’s a common misconception. [Holds up a boom box] I made them on that. There’s no overdubbing, everything you’re hearing on those records is 100 percent live.
So you’ve gone from about as primitive as it gets to full studio recordings. Would you ever go back to the primitive?
Now that it’s more of a band than just me, no. When I was writing what became [2002’s] All Hail West Texas, I thought the tape deck was broken. Then I tried again one day and it was working, so I used it to make that record. That was a good conclusion for that style.
Erik Rutan of the death metal band Hate Eternal produced four songs on the new album. How did that happen?
Something I’ve learned being in this industry for so long is that if you want to work with somebody, call them up. Very few musicians have any illusions about genre boundaries. They are useful descriptive terms, but they don’t really bind musicians. So I wrote to Rutan, and he wrote back 24 hours later and said, “Yes! I listen to all kinds of music — nobody ever hits me up for anything but death metal. I would love to do something else.” That dude had amazing stories — his first night of touring ever was when he was with Morbid Angel opening for Pantera on a world tour.
Does your fondness for metal date back to when you were a kid?
There’s always been this weird push-pull — my father was an English teacher, and to me metal seemed this weird meeting place between really liking books and being anti-intellectual. In metal videos in the ’80s, stuffy people would get their comeuppance. But at the same time, I was a goth — I listened to the Sisters of Mercy, worshipped Nick Cave.
Eventually, I heard people talking about how metal was the new punk — Thurston Moore was name-dropping thrash bands, so I saw Celtic Frost and Exodus and Megadeth around the time of their second albums. With all due respect to R.E.M. — and I later learned that they were good — anything that would jangle, I hated. I wanted stuff that was dark and aggressive. And a lot of people at that time were going, “Where are the edges of music? Where’s the most daring stuff going on?” And it was all metal and rap. Like early N.W.A, those first couple Public Enemy albums, X-Clan. I remember listening to Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock and thinking the melody is almost not there; it’s like a laser pointer drawing things in the air.
You were on 4AD, home to Cocteau Twins and Pixies, for six albums. How do you think your fan base changed after the jump from tinier labels?
The art and music on 4AD, everything locked in together and seemed of a piece. If you have a punk spirit, the term “brand identity” is offensive to you, but if you look at Grove Press or Factory Records, you learn that, well, no, it’s possible to have a coherent aesthetic that doesn’t seem like marketing. As for the fans, I used to assume no one would care. But I do think I’ve written a handful of songs that are useful to people that are having dark hours. That’s when you see the comedy and the humor of your darkness with a particular perspective that you can only really have at that moment. And I think my better songs come from that.
Is the ability to see the humor in darkness what prevented you from chucking yourself off a bridge?
I think so, yes. I also don’t hold a bad mood for very long. It’s pretty clear when I’m in a bad mood, but I am distracted by bright, shiny objects. At the same time I do have this attraction towards images of desperation and darkness and gore and loss and all that.
Does that also explain your love for horror movies? Your first release was called Taboo VI: The Homecoming.
When I was a kid, I liked monsters, but the slasher movies I would eventually get into, I was repelled by. When I feel that about any kind of art, I come back to it and look at it harder. I’m interested in anything that promotes in me that “Get it away from me!” reaction.
The new album seems to be about such dark moments — it’s called All Eternals Deck, which seems to be something of a riff on the tarot.
For me, every album is a concept album — whether you’re spelling out a story or not, it’s whatever mood you’re in when you’re making the record. I think there’s an idea of luck that tends to run through my stuff, the idea that you construct your own fate but you don’t get to look at it until after you’ve already been through it. That’s the heart of tragic vision, of Sophocles, who was sort of my muse: Our fate is not predetermined, but you will go through stuff because of the nature of how you are, and you don’t know what that fate was until you’ve come through the fire. It’s about coming to terms with your doom. [Laughs.]