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Acts of Joy
by Cory Perla
As a guitarist, poet, former psychiatric nurse, and now author, the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle could draw enough inspiration from his experiences to write impacting music for a lifetime. With 20 years worth of heartwrenching and witty indie-folk albums under his belt, Darnielle, along with bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster, continues to tackle delicate and personal themes on All Eternal’s Deck, the band’s latest album. This week I talked to Darnielle about the Mountain Goats’ vast discography, how he matches his poetry to music, and his thoughts on death metal.
The Mountain Goats will share the stage with Bright Eyes in a free concert this Wednesday, June 27, at Artpark.
AV: Have the Mountain Goats ever played Buffalo?
John Darnielle: Oh, yeah, we played at the Buffalo Icon. You know, Buffalo—for those of us who like death metal—is like a completely legendary town.
AV: I know. Cannibal Corpse, man.
Darnielle: And Tirant Sin, so many old school death metal bands came from up there. I love Buffalo a lot.
AV: You have a song called “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” on your album All Hail West Texas. How does humor play into your music?
Darnielle: The greater the thing I want to say—the truer it is for me—the more I tend to want to want make it into something that is ultimately funny. I wrote that song while I was recalling working with a bunch of kids when I was a psychiatric nurse. I worked with these kids and their parents would blame the music they listened to for the problems they had in their homes. I would see a lot of this, but I think that music is an entire net good in the world; no child has ever been harmed by music. So, I wrote a song about a couple of guys that get in trouble for playing death metal and get sent off to hospitals.
AV: You’ve been doing the Mountain Goats for 20 years now. How has the group evolved since you released your first songs on cassette tape in the early 1990s?
Darnielle: It feels really funny to say that we’ve been around for 20 years because it doesn’t feel that way at all. I started out just playing my guitar in my room, and then it was just me and Rachel Ware on bass. She wanted to live the civilian life so Peter [Hughes] became the bassist and we played as a duo for a very long time. Then we added Jon Wurster on drums for a show and it felt so good that we have been playing as a trio ever since. It’s awesome. It’s a collaborative, cooperative, really wonderful feeling. As for our first cassettes, they really had their own vibe. There was that window where everyone was listening to tapes. You never looked to the tape and said, “Oh, this is my prized possession,” but they always had this disposable, yet cool and worth-having vibe. That’s one thing about the digital age that is totally different. You used to have to take care of your music, now you don’t have to do anything except hope your hard drive doesn’t crash.
AV: Poetry is the focus of the Mountain Goats. How do you think the sound of your music complements the lyrical content?
Darnielle: I try to add in contrast. I think contrast brings out color, so I’ll often try and set a darker lyric in a more up-tempo setting. Like “The Autopsy of Garland,” one of the newer ones, it has a kind of clip-poppy western feel to it but the lyrics are really mournful about Judy Garland’s life. I think when you have those contrasts—where the music is up-tempo but the lyrics are desperate—it brings both aspects into sharper focus.
AV: All Eternal’s Deck, your new record, is not quite as minimal as albums like Get Lonely, which are a bit more depressing. How do you think All Eternal’s Deck compares to your previous work?
Darnielle: I made Get Lonely as a place where you can go to when you’re feeling that way. I’ve always had records like that. It’s like, I’m gonna go and hang out with this record, like the first Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds record, because it’s so lonesome and sparse. All Eternal’s Deck has a lot more musical looks; it’s meant to be a tapestry or a panoramic view of stuff. There are some sparse numbers like “Sourdoirse Valley” but then there are richer ones like “Age of Kings,” with its string section, or “Estate Sale Sign,” which has so much going on. The difference is that [on All Eternal’s Deck] I was trying to create multiple scenes in a really cinematic sort of way.
AV: It is easy to tell just by looking at the track listings on your albums that they are very heavily conceptualized and themed. Can you tell me about some of the themes on All Eternal’s Deck? I noticed a lot of animal imagery.
Darnielle: Animal imagery is pretty consistent throughout my career. I’m always thinking about animals. They figure in prominently even when I’m writing straight autobiography, like on The Sunset Tree there is a song where I envision my stepfather as a lion. On the newer one there is a lot more filmic stuff. It seems to me that it is one of the more heavily populated albums. There are a bunch of different characters singing through a bunch of different voices. I see it as like the soundtrack to a silent movie, except that the silent movie has totally different action going on.
AV: How does your live experience compare to the experience of listening to a Mountain Goats album?
Darnielle: I think people are surprised by how much energy we have live. To me, playing music, no matter what kind, is an act of joy. If I’m singing a sad song and I’m getting really into the feeling, there’s that quality of survival and exultance, which is really great. That feeling of being totally lost in a song—when I’m forgetting that there is even an audience in front of me— that is what I aim for.
AV: What do you think of sharing the stage with Bright Eyes?
Darnielle: We’re doing seven or eight shows with Bright Eyes, and we’re going all over. I haven’t seen Connor in many years, our paths haven’t crossed since the start of the new century, and so it will be exciting to share the stage with him.
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