THE MOUNTAIN GOATS
Haw River Ballroom, Saxapahaw
Strolling around Durham’s Maplewood Cemetery as the sun sets on a balmy Black Friday, John Darnielle and I are talking about life, not death.
After The Mountain Goats singer-songwriter and his wife of twenty-one years, Lalitree, became parents (Roman is eight; Moses is four), she began running for exercise. He did not. But recently, as she neared 5K-fit, her husband felt shamed (or inspired) into unmooring his indie-rock arse. Now, the ex-smoker faithfully jogs through this weatherworn resting place, and feels better than he has at any time in his fifty-two years.
In other words, Darnielle is following the trajectory of many of his songs’ characters, who are scattered across about forty EPs and albums—including this year’s more sonically sophisticated In League with Dragons—and two novels: He’s facing the maddening grind of mortality, but instead of conceding to time, he’s putting in the road work for the next fight.
The INDY caught up with Darnielle just after his European tour, before this weekend’s two-night stand (with Reese McHenry) at The Haw River Ballroom, to discuss making music in middle age, the possibility of him writing a rock opera, learning to guitar solo, and other twists in this mortal coil.
INDY: So, really, how much did fear of your impending demise play into all this physical activity?
DARNIELLE: [Laughs] Well, it’s like what that Free Solo guy [rock climber Alex Honnold] said, and I’m paraphrasing: “The purpose of your body is to do stuff.” For my thirties and forties, I basically did nothing. When we moved to Durham [in 2003], I joined a gym; I joined a dojo. Nothing. It didn’t take. It’s been a long process. So, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to cheat death. I strongly suspect you will die when your genes have programmed you to die.
We’re about the same age, and I think about death and decay a lot. It’s weird.
It is. My father died last year, and his wife followed shortly thereafter. I do ruminate on it, but now that’s mainly because I’m a parent. I think that’s the major thing that parenthood does to you. Before, I didn’t give a fuck whether I lived or died, honestly. Some people would’ve been upset if I were gone, but they would’ve been fine. With children, you can’t imagine them existing in the world without you in it. I want to be there with them every minute. So, I do think about getting weaker—although I’m feeling stronger than ever now—and at some point, your strength declines. But I’m like, “No, I have to be strong for my sons!”
In the pop-music marketplace, it seems like it’s best to be young or almost dead. That’s when people find you the most interesting.
That’s right, that’s right. When it comes to aging, I think Lou Reed navigated it about as well as you can and still made the records he wanted to make. I mean, I have a combative, Lester Bangs-like relationship to Lou Reed. I worshipped him when I was fourteen or fifteen. When I grew out of Genesis, that was my dude.
Famously—to me—I had about forty Lou Reed records, including bootlegs. Of course, if you love an artist that intensely, when you move on, you usually don’t care at all anymore. Like [Reed’s 1984 album] New Sensations, I could not relate to, “I am enjoying middle age.” That was the theme of the record. I mean, what a brave thing to do, if you’re the junkie poet guy, to go, “Hey, I’m married, I’m riding my motorcycle, and it’s kind of awesome.” It takes great artistic courage to say, “This song is great to me, and I don’t care what anybody else thinks.” If I have a song that’s too embarrassing or fragile—like, there’s a song that didn’t make the last album, “Witch Academy.” I thought that a lot of people would really hate that song.
“I’m reasonably certain that I have the most complete Robin Trower collection in Durham—on vinyl.”
Why did you think people would hate it so much?
Its emotional range was hyper-vulnerable. “Possum by Night” from the last album is a vulnerable song, but that one was just so—there was something about it. The melody was very keening, the song was very romantic, a little sentimental. It was about somebody leaving a town they didn’t want to live in anymore. See, now this is making me want to revisit it!
You talked earlier about listening a lot these days to early proto-progressive rock bands like Camel, Renaissance, and The Strawbs.
A lot of those lesser-known guys were actually better bands than a lot of the stars of the scene. They didn’t have somebody to, say, get up there and wear a flower mask like Peter Gabriel. They just buried themselves in these long, complicated songs. Also, as a side note, I’m reasonably certain that I have the most complete Robin Trower collection in Durham—on vinyl.
You’ve used specific subcultures as inspiration in the past. On the past three albums, there was wrestling on Beat the Champ, goths on Goths, and In League with Dragons started as a rock opera about an aging wizard. Have you ever wanted to follow through and make a full-on musical or opera? Could the next album be called Proggers?
I don’t know, I approach things very slowly. I mean, I’ve got a big book I’m working on. To embark on something big and new means pushing everything to the side, and I just had the most bonkers-productive summer I’ve had since 1993, probably. I wrote twenty-something songs, and I kind of want to explore that zone.
So, would I want to do a musical or opera? To start, I’d need a musical director, though I’d just get [Mountain Goats multi-instrumentalist] Matt Douglas. So, OK, I’ve thought about it. Early opera appeals to me because it was usually based on a story that was popular at the time or in myth. I listen to a lot of early opera, which is all Bible stories, and I don’t think there’s ever been a Jonah opera. Jonah is probably my favorite book in the Bible, and I actually have a new song, “The Shores of Tarshish,” that is a Jonah story, except that it takes place in Alabama.
A lot of songwriters have notoriously tried musicals or operas—Pete Townshend, Paul Simon, Kanye, Randy Newman—with varying success.
OK, I’m gonna take you back. I reviewed Randy Newman’s Faust for [San Francisco zine] Puncture in 1996! And remember, not that many people were reppin’ for Randy Newman in 1995 [the year Newman wrote the score for Toy Story]. But Faust is a good, good, good opera that only got presented a handful of times. It’s soooo cynical and amazing. James Taylor plays God, Don Henley plays Faust, Elton John is an angel. It’s really something.
But would you do an opera or musical?
I could see myself doing—of course, any sentence that starts with “I could see myself doing,” you know it’s never gonna happen. So, “I could see myself doing” an opera using the kind of music I do, but more sophisticated. Working with collaborators, doing a Biblical story, sure, I can see that. Let’s get that funded! That’ll absolutely get bankrolled! [Laughs]
The main problem, aside from the money, is that nobody wants to see that. Truthfully, what’s important now, and what’s been important for the past fourteen years [since Darnielle, bassist Peter Hughes, and drummer Jon Wurster became a trio], are the musicians and engineers I work with, who have made my stuff sound better and more able to express finer and finer feelings.
“I’m sure it sucked both times. My left hand is still a club. But I’m just looking to challenge myself to play better, to get better.”
The playing on the records, with the trio, started at a high level, and has just gotten better.
Peter or Wurster’s response to the song in the moment is just as important to creating the song as the lyrics. When you have a drummer like Jon, he hears your stuff, he absorbs it, and his contribution elevates it and makes good on the promise of the lyrics. That is very real.
On “Sourdoire Valley Song,” Jon has a fill after the last line of the song that’s the greatest thing on a Mountain Goats song ever. It’s just a quick, skipping ba-da-bum ba-da-bum ba-da-bum. I remember hearing that live in the studio for the first time, and I was like, “Oh my god.” People really respond to the song “This Year,” but a big part of why they like it is the piano part, and that’s [frequent studio Goat] Franklin Bruno; he wrote that part. Peter’s bass line on “Up the Wolves” is a giant part of what made that song what it is.
You’re playing more live, on both guitar and piano.
About a year and a half ago, on the song “Wear Black,” I asked Matt—he’s a serious jazz dude—to just improvise for a couple of minutes before we start the song. It’s exciting to me, and a couple of times on this past European tour, I joined him a little, sat in on piano.
Now, I’m sure it sucked both times. My left hand is still a club. But I’m just looking to challenge myself to play better, to get better. On the song “Heretic Pride,” I set an intention to play a guitar solo on this past tour. I’m still not there. I soloed on that song twenty-one times and only played two solos I’d stand by. But then, I remember at the end of the tour, at the Fillmore show [in San Francisco], I did a solo on “Cadaver Sniffing Dog,” and Peter yelled at me, “That was a real one!”
Thanks, it only took me three weeks. When you really work at your craft, music can be so complex and amazing, you know?