Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Interview: John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats

John Darnielle is the songwriting force behind the Mountain Goats. Their latest record, Heretic Pride, was released last month to glowing reviews and they are currently on the east coast leg of their tour (for you DC people, they will be at the Black Cat on the 22nd) with Jeffrey Lewis & the Jitters. We were lucky enough to get John to answer some questions about the album and other musical musings over email while simultaneously hoping the next time we talk to him the Cubs aren't playing at Pitchforktv Field.

: You’ve been recording since the early 90s and have a pretty large catalog at this point. When you enter the studio do you feel any sort of extra burden to approach things differently so that the album stands out from past work?

John Darnielle: A little, maybe. I mean you can't really be thinking too much about that - you wanna keep growing and shifting as best you can, but at the same time, you don't want to look like the guy who turned up with a whole new look one day for no evident reason. I try not to think much about it to be honest - I trust change will happen with or without my consent!

: Heretic Pride doesn’t seem to have as cohesive of a theme as some of your previous records but it does touch on religion quite often. How big of part did religion or the study of religion play in this record?

JD: Yeah I have just been having lots of religious thoughts the last year or two - also my whole life, really, but I think I wrote about four albums in a row (five maybe?) where most of the narrators didn't really share my interest in obsessive piety, icons, sects, cults, ancestor worship, self-abnegation, etc. OK wait so maybe on that last count the Tallahassee people are actually kind of very religious in their own damaged way. But I'm kind of a religiously inclined dude, even when I'm in raving atheist mode (rare lately) there's a pretty evangelical mood to it.

nql: The record had very good reviews when it was released. Obviously when you finish an album I would think there would be a sense of accomplishment regardless of what the critics think. But that aside, how proud do you feel when you complete an album and feel like people not only understand but appreciate and enjoy the album as well?

JD: You know I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel good. When artists say they don't read their own press I usually think they're lying. On the other hand I don't think Peter (Hughes) reads our press at all! With the last two albums though, not to sound arrogant I hope but if everybody hates them that's really OK by me - I like them better than all my other work put together, they make me feel happy; if I listened to my own records, these are the ones I'd listen to. So when somebody writes that they like it, I get a sort of childish little "Oh awesome! Me too!" feeling.

nql: Did anything prompt you to write a bit more of a happy record as compared to Get Lonely? And speaking of Get Lonely, what are your top-5 favorite break-up songs? (Please answer while holding a stereo over your head which should be playing some awesome Phil Collins$ song. Since this is an email interview you will need to bring in a friend to type down your answers, unless, of course, you can type with your feet.)

JD: Get Lonely was not a break-up album.^ Feel like I gotta throw that in there. Not for me, anyway. There are a million ways to be lonely and breaking up is only one of them and it's only about the middle circle of Hell. I didn't really have a "write happier" thing in mind or anything - I usually go in blind when I start writing, let the song sort of try to assemble itself film-of-a-breaking-jar-in-reverse style: I just drag in pieces, hound-like, sort of "here do you want this?" "what about this?" and then once all the pieces that smell good to me are in a pile I sort of see how they fit together.

There is only one breakup song anybody needs and it's "Living Without You" by Randy Newman but you might also go for "We're Gonna Hold On" by George Jones & Tammy Wynette. OK also "40 Hours" by Sarah Dougher, can't go without that one. Those three oughta do the job though since all you ever do with a breakup song is play it over & over & over & over anyway, right?

nql: I went ahead and made an assumption that the guy in “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” is wearing an LA Raider Marcus Allen jersey. Am I correct? He just wouldn’t seem as intimidating walking around Flatbush in Kansas City Chiefs gear bumming cigarettes.

JD: Yes.

nql: You're pretty famously vegan…

JD: Actually just vegetarian.*

nql: How hard is it to maintain a strict diet on the road? Any favorite spots you try to hit? Any cities or towns stand out as being particularly vegan-friendly? Brian wanted me to tell you if you ever go back to Bloomington, be sure to go to Roots at 6th & Walnut.

JD: It'd be harder if I were vegan! I do often stop by Vegetarian Paradise #2 in New York, it's near NYU. Usually in most towns I'll look for a Govinda's, which is like a vegan nightmare because they cook with lots of ghee. Where else....mmmmm, Chicago Diner. We had appalling service there last time, several members of our party died waiting for the food, but as one of the survivors let me say: damn that food is good.

nql: During your live shows, you are pretty interactive with the crowd and often have long-winded (and rather hilarious) narrative intros to whatever song you’re about to play. Without giving away any secrets, how much of that is thought up on the spot and is a result from a positive feed from the crowd?

JD: It's all ad-lib. Sometimes I repeat myself - probably a lot of the time - but I never go up there with a script or any "say this about this song" sort of thing, that goes against all my instincts as a performer. Some nights the patter just falls flat! But that's all right.

nql: Craig Finn of the Hold Steady gives “This Year” a bit of a shout out in their song “Girls Like Status”. Both of you are rather acclaimed for your lyrics. Has he, or anyone for that matter, ever written something that caused you to think, “(fill in any expletive or non-expletive of your choosing), I wish I had thought of that!”?

JD: Yes, every writer I like does that! Bill Callahan especially though.

: Your songs that resonate most with me are the ones that carry a grave sense of purgation and catharsis. What song (yours or anyone's) gives you the most joy to play? What song was most difficult to write? I am not musically inclined, but if I were, I would play "Red River Valley" over and over and over.

JD: I don't know that I can really give a good answer to this question. It varies from night to night. When we get to the bridge of "Michael Myers Respledent" these days I always get a huge charge. There isn't any one song that's reliably "oh hell yes lemme play that one," it all depends on how I'm feeling.

nql: You’ve seemed to be very complimentary of the acts that have opened for the Mountain Goats in the recent past. Do you have a lot of input into who gets to open for you?

JD: 100%! Why would anybody tour with somebody they didn't love? I strongly advise anybody who makes it to headliner status to only ever bring out bands they love. It makes life nice and increases the overall reserves of love in the world.

nql: Is there anyone you’d like to hit the road with in the near future that we should know about/give a listen to?

JD: We're finally taking the Moaners out, I've wanted to do that forever. Ideally for me it'd be great if the indie world were more open to mixing up the bill some, having country singers or bands from other countries that aren't playing indie rock in the opening slot - but you try something like that, like as not you're gonna get accused of exoticism, cultural tourism, all that jazz. Still: Hisato Higuchi. It'd be a totally weird fit and I'd get pissed off every night when the audience talked a lot through his set, but I sure would love to hear him play.

nql: Sam Zell is the new owner of the Tribune Company and also the Chicago Cubs. He is considering selling the naming rights to Wrigley Field. Your response?

JD: Oh, like any longstanding Cubs fan I think it's bullshit, but we all now it'll shake out - it'll be "Facebook Park at Wrigley Field" or "the Twitter Diamond at Wrigley Field" or something. Wrigley Field has such strong brand recognition that they're not just gonna throw that away, they're insane if they think Wrigley isn't as much a part of the mystique as the team itself, especially in this era of waning team identities. At the same time, though, people who get worked up about this - Wrigley is a brand name too, y'know. Maybe it's not as ugly a name as SafeCo, just 'cause it's a person's name, but it's still there to make you think of the company.

nql: Any up-and-coming black metal bands that we should be keeping our eyes on?

JD: The whole point of black metal is that "up-and-coming" is a meaningless designation; the good black metal bands are the ones that forge lasting identities. The indie incursion into black metal means that indie values ("if it's awesome this year, I'm tired of it next year") are sort of being forced onto this genre that's rather more comparable to jazz - if a band's good, they get good, they don't usually do the squander-your-creativity-on-the-first-album dance. Peste Noire is my big one right now, they've been around a while, their Lorraine Rehearsal is just awesome. They got a split 7" with Horna that's great too.%

nql: As a rap aficionado, how do you feel about the current state of hip hop?

JD: I haven't listened much lately - it seemed healthy enough last I checked! It's been all metal, classical & Asian pop for a while now. And the occasional singer-songwriter like Kaki King.

nql: Do you have any non-music plans or projects you see yourself embarking on in the near future? (You just seem like one of those guys that is involved in a lot of things. If I found out you put music on a short hiatus because to play AA baseball I don’t think I would be that surprised.)

JD: Ha, I don't know if Father Time is gonna let me do any ballplaying any time soon. I did write a book and I really enjoyed it so I'm gonna write some more, that's the most recent thing I guess.

nql : John, thanks again for the time, we really appreciate it. Hope you’re enjoying the current tour.

JD: Thanks!

$Or a Peter Gabriel song, if you want to be historically accurate.
^I listened to Get Lonely just this morning and I think I see what he means. It's not really a break-up record as much as it's a "We broke up 3 months ago and I'm still bummed and lonely" record. At least that's my take.
*I looked it up. There actually is a fundamental difference between the two. Who knew?!
%I really liked this answer.


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