February 18, 2008

The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle: Interview 2008

Heretic Pride is the title of The Mountain Goats new record which once again will be released on 4AD. It's the eleventh full length for John Darnielle and it continues the tradition of Darnielle songs teeming with sharp prickly lines that snowball into memorable stories which, in many cases, introduce the listener to people and places unknown beforehand. You know, kinda like what happens when you read a good and entertaining book. So, if you didn't know already... surprise!... that record, Heretic Pride, will be released tomorrow, Tuesday February 19th. There are also a whack of tour dates scheduled, beginning Tuesday in Fairbanks, Alaska, but I don't see any dates even remotely near Toronto... WTF?! (Sorry, I had to get that off my chest - let's hope somebody remedies this problem ASAP). Although, irrespective of this major oversight, I sent Mr Darnielle a series of questions and like magic they reappeared magically (funny how that happens, magic I mean) and as is always the case, his answers outshine my questions... which is how it should be, enjoy the read.

A special thanks to Lalitree Darnielle for the above photo. Check out her flickr page here.

BUY Heretic Pride.

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Sixeyes: I’d like to start by asking if you’re a heretic… in any sense of the term? (Not that there’s anything wrong with that - a la Seinfeld).

John Darnielle: No no, heavens no. I'm apostate, insofar as I hardly ever go to church any more, but actual heresy is something you kinda have to do with malice, and I think anybody who did any downtime reading the Church Fathers probably carries a horror of being branded "heretic." At the same time, though, I mean - if this is the middle ages? yes, no doubt, I am one, we're all one. What piety there is in the world is fake-ass piety, ugly self-righteousness, false austerities when there's any austerity at all. The world may have outgrown something as bizarre and cartoonish as the concept of heresy. Which is a shame from a narrative standpoint, but probably good for the rest (i.e., "all") of us.

Sixeyes: Heretic Pride opens with “Sax Rohmer #1”. I’ve never read any of Rohmer’s novels, so I can’t tell if his novels, or his life has inspired this song, or if you just like the name Sax Rohmer. Are you a fan of Rohmer’s?

JD: He's kind of a problematic guy to be a fan of - him and Lovecraft both are "products of their time" if you're being polite or "total racist assholes" if you're being realistic. So, you know, any fanhood I have of his stuff is mitigated by the way he describes Asian characters ("cunning", "inscrutable", etc, but that's just the tip of the iceberg) - my wife's from Thailand, I can't be down with tired Orientalisms. At the same time, though, the cartoonish danger-lurking-around-every-corner Fu-Manchu-about-to-invade-England-by-sea world he's imagining has this druggy bizarre filmic quality to it - as landscapes go, Rohmer's have got real depth, and texture, and grain. So a lot of the images in that song are stock stuff of the sort that Rohmer could do blindfolded - agents in the shadows, that sort of thing. In that sense, it's a tribute to his skills. But you always want to keep your distance from a dude like Rohmer. I almost changed the title but thought I should not front, I like to go with my first impulses in writing.

Sixeyes: And while we’re getting literary, just how do you know how Lovecraft felt when he was in Brooklyn, anyway?

JD: He left behind reams of evidence! H.P. "Dudebrah" Lovecraft, who incidentally was the meanest hacky-sack player of his day*, wrote letters to his friends and associates practically every day of his life. When he moved to Brooklyn from western Massachusetts, he felt horrified - the whole concept of New York City was pretty well beyond his grasp, dude was from western Massachusetts and the gulf between societies was greater then than now. (Or possibly not, maybe, you would have to ask people who've spent more time in western Mass. than I have.) His descriptions of Brooklyn are little miracles of misanthropy - he had a hard time in Brooklyn and took it all out in his mind on the immigrants among whom he lived. He was kind of like the silently angry neighbor dude who's going postal right under everybody's noses, only the only thing he ever did about it was write, write, write, eventually channeling his xenophobia into bizarre visions.

*this is a lie

Sixeyes: I know that you won’t talk about your process of writing a song, but I wonder if writing has become easier for you? Are you more self-assured, or is self-doubt always there, just now a smaller bump in the road?

JD: There are so many assumptions in this question - that notion that writers always have a little nagging voice of self-doubt, or feel a weight on them when they write - I can't speak for others but it's never been true for me. The feeling of writing is like body-surfing totally mongo waves - you reach a point of pure doing, where what you do is who you are and vice-versa, this really physical point of total bliss and engagement. It has always been that way for me. The reason I don't talk much about the process of writing is that it's private, and I believe in preserving some pleasures for the private realm.

Sixeyes (a): How do you go from being the hermetic songwriter to the communal process of bringing your songs to life in the studio?

JD: Lots of alcohol. This is kinda only sort of a joke. The studio is a difficult place for me on the best of days, I'm kind of a control freak with my songs and people have to constantly remind me "we're not trying to ruin your song, we're actually trying to do something cool with it." I have trust issues in this realm. I think these trust issues are largely rooted in the fact that everybody thinks reverb on vocals is just a terrific idea, when in fact there is nothing worse in the whole world. So that makes me think "I gotta be there for all decisions or people are gonna get happy on the reverb."

Sixeyes (b): And is it stressful when you first share new songs with others, or is it in any way a relief?

JD: Oh no I love sending songs to Peter. I mean, our relationship kind of has its origins, or at least had some early peak points, in me calling him up and goin' "Dude! You have to come over to my house and sing on this jam! It is a totally awesome jam!" (That song was "Cubs in Five" for those keeping score.) Writing and show-and-tell isn't really stressful at all, the only hard part is the transition from what I do by myself to the growth into a bigger, multi-faceted thing.

Sixeyes (a): I’ve read that Scott Solter and John Vanderslice helped out once again in studio.

JD: Yes: they are the producers. I have to say they do more than help out, they are the architects here.

Sixeyes (b): So, how prepared is your production team before you all meet up at Prairie Sun? Are Solter and Vanderslice familiar with the songs beforehand?

JD: Good and unusual question! On previous albums we haven't been all that prepared; usually Peter and I will have had a few practice sessions and then everybody else will just figure out what they're gonna do once they get there. This time Peter and Jon and I had had several practice sessions plus a tour, and really knew how we played together, and Erik had sent me demos of his parts and an early arrangement of "San Bernardino." Not trying to brag, but JV said that, for this album, we were one of the best-prepared bands he'd seen in the studio, and that made me feel proud.

Yeah, I start sending Scott and JV songs once I have an album-length bunch. Peter gets them hot off the press, one at a time, usually.

Sixeyes: Sticking with Prairie Sun, you’ve recorded there before, so why again? What is so special about this studio for you?

JD: It's been sorta like returning to the place where something good happened! The first one we did there was The Sunset Tree, and that album opened all kinds of doors for me; then we did Get Lonely, which was a little polarizing, but we were and remain really proud of it - it's quite different, really sort of a detour that gave me lots of pleasure. So then I thought, wow, if we can go back there and do something that different from what we did before, what else is possible up there? Also, and probably more importantly, a lot of crucial thrash metal bands have recorded there.

Sixeyes: From what I’ve seen you keep up to date with what's happening at the cutting edge of music. Is that done out of an ingrained desire, or a way of feeding your creative mind with ammunition, or both?

JD: I have to say I don't think this is true! I listen to loads of stuff, some of it quite obscure, but I don't think I'm actually up on what's going on that's cool or anything. I probably couldn't I.D. even one of the recent hot indie rock bands except maybe Vampire Weekend. I listen to a ton of music for the same reason anybody else does I'd guess - sheer visceral pleasure, a pleasant and rewarding use of my senses. Right?

Sixeyes: All right. Well, inspiration must be an elusive thing that an artist can’t really pin down, you can’t stuff it away in a drawer and pull it out when needed, but do you think that inspiration can lead to something hollow if the artist isn’t in the right frame of mind? Be it joyful, miserable, or lustful as examples. Do primal emotions, you think, make for better songs?

JD: No, there isn't much that I disagree with more than the last bit you raise there. Writing - any writing - is a cerebral process. Some people (I think of Artaud) have gone to great lengths to try to make it otherwise, but at the end of the day, you're imposing structure on something pre-lingual. Primal emotions don't take place at the level of language: they're screams and grunts and cries and whimpers, not rhyming couplets. While I'll acknowledge that some days a writer has the thing workin' and other days he doesn't, I pretty much reject the concept of inspiration: writing is work. Good fun hard rewarding work, but work. Not magic. Steady practice shapes a write the way a sculptor makes a statue, I think - not waiting for inspiration to strike.

Sixeyes: Keeping with the ‘On The Road’ aspect, while on stage do you ever feel that same rush you get from listening to a great metal song?

JD: No, they're different qualities - even the most active listening is at root a passive process, though I guess there are some theories of listening that'd find a statement like that pretty offensive. Come to think of it, I do, too, since I think the act of listening is what gives life to a song. Anyhow though performing is a whole different deal - playing is a whole different deal. Different channels getting engaged. There's a level at which the most important part of playing is listening, for sure, but it's a different sort of listening.

Sixeyes: On your website you’ve got some tour dates up and you’re starting off in Alaska, have you ever played that far north before, or even visited the state in the past? Is that ever a consideration when planning a tour, to go places you’re curious about?

JD: Yeah we played Fairbanks last year. Since most of what I see of a place is the inside of a club and then later the inside of a hotel room, I don't really think too hard about seeing places I haven't seen before. Though it is nice to cross another one off the list, we've played almost all fifty states now. I look forward to rocking Wyoming, North Dakota, Montana, Hawaii, Maine, and Delaware someday!

Sixeyes: Now, I’ll finish up with this: I hear you’re into cooking and have even been pulling out some old vinyl recently. What would John Darnielle serve up when friends come over? And what about that old vinyl, just how old are we talking about here? And what have you been spinning?

JD: Given enough prep time I would have to go with my samosas and a coconut chutney. Those are pretty much my calling card. Though I have a loaf of French bread I've been doing that's spectacular.

Old vinyl - I don't know, I listened to some old Caruso sides on an LP that had to've been from the early sixties at the latest the other day. I've been otherwise listening on the turntable to Barrington Levy, Peste Noire, Sadomator, and Chic's Real People, which I totally missed the first time around and is awesome.

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"Sax Rohmer #1" Video

Mountain Goats MP3s
From Heretic Pride
marduk t-shirt men's room incident [mp3]

From Get Lonely
new monster avenue

From The Sunset Tree
lions teeth

From We Shall All Be Healed
palmcorder yajna

From All Hail West Texas
source decay

19 - Anchorage, AK
22 - Vancouver, BC, Richard's on Richards
23 - Seattle, WA, Neumos
25 - Portland, OR, Doug Fir
26 - Portland, OR, Doug Fir
27 - Eugene, OR, WOW Hall
29 - San Francisco, CA, Bimbo's

1 - San Francisco, CA, the Independent
2 - San Francisco, CA, Bottom of the Hill (matinee)
4 - Los Angeles, CA, the Troubadour
5 - Los Angeles, CA, the Troubadour
13 - Northampton, MA, Pearl Street
14 - Boston, MA, Museum of Fine Arts
15 - Boston, MA, The Middle East
18 - New York, NY, Webster Hall
19 - Brooklyn, NY, Music Hall of Williamsburg
20 - Philadelphia, PA, First Unitarian
22 - Washington, DC The Black Cat

5 - Perth, The Rousemount
6 - Adelaide, Fowlers Live
8 - Melbourne, Billboard
9 - Hobart, The Republic Bar
11- Newcastle, The Cambridge
12 - Sydney, Manning Bar
15 - Brisbane, The Zoo
17 - Sunshine Coast, Lake Kawana Community Centre


  1. Informative interview... thanks! John seems like a pretty intense guy.

  2. Hey Rob - thanks for leaving a comment. You should go see him live to see just how intense he is... and if you do go, you wanna maybe tell him to book a date for Toronto?