mountain goats interview

by erinohsays

originally published in February 2008 at FoundintheMargins.com here.

Borrow a pair of ears, place yourself within listening proximity of a sound transmitting device, and pay some attention to the story being told. Do these things and you will find – albeit to varying degrees – the following statement to be true: listening to an album of The Mountain Goats is like submerging oneself entirely into an utterly spellbinding novel.

John Darnielle first began writing and recording songs under the name The Mountain Goats in Norwalk, California in 1991. Although he began writing songs as a way to simply pass the time while working as a psychiatric nurse, the development of his song writing career now spans more than 15 years and has evolved in many ways. The most notable changes include his collaboration with other artists, the method of recording used, and his move toward songs which are increasingly autobiographical in nature. Despite these changes, however, one thing can be said to have remained the same throughout his ongoing musical career: Darnielle is one hell of a storyteller!

In earlier Mountain Goats recordings, the intimate element of Darnielle’s story telling is primarily a feature of the lyrics, but is also a feature of the method used to record these lyrics. Earlier recordings are marked by their distinctly low-fi quality which was produced using a boom-box to record songs directly onto cassette. Brilliantly enough, the design of the boom-box placed the microphone directly next to the cassette wheels so that the sound of the wheels turning was also recorded. Although subtle in volume, this contributed a great deal of intimacy to the story being told.

Darnielle’s stories are rich with references to other stories biblical, historical, mythological, and literary in nature, but the way that he makes these references is far from obscure. Instead, song titles are picked directly from poems and entire verses are plucked from novels. Here a song title is the last line of an Emily Dickinson poem. There a stanza is sung about the protagonist of Crime and Punishment. But surprisingly, when asked what his favorite books are, Darnielle says, “The funny thing is, I hardly ever re-read books, because there are so many I want to read and only so much time. So that makes the idea of a favorite kind of tricky, because each one is sort of a time-bound thing, right – with favorite albums, I’ve listened to them all several dozens of times, so I can sort of report a little more scientifically. One book I’ve read at least four or five times and that always registers sharply is Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, though – spent so much time with that one I hardly know what to say any more, it seems more like something that happened to me than something I read. I guess the main thing I take from it creatively is the idea that the emotional weight of any given scene lies in accurate reportage of its physical details, which mind you is an idea rather than an incontestable fact – but a good idea.”

Vivid imagery, poignant metaphors, and relatable characters are all integral to Darnielle’s story telling. When asked if the authors that he reads help to inspire the lyrics that he writes, he responds, “Occasionally – I mean, in a sense, I don’t know how much I believe in inspiration, I always describe writing as work. There’s the initial game-starting kick, for sure – whatever I hear or read or see that gives me a little idea – but after that it’s craft, and that’s how I like it – it’s like sculpture I think, hacking away at a piece of wood or rock until a shape begins to emerge. At the same time, for sure, especially good stylists, I crib phrases from all over the place and use them as springboards.”

In naming particular authors who have influenced the way he tells his stories, Darnielle explains, “Well, again, Joan Didion. And John Berryman, an American poet, and also Weldon Kees. But really as often as not it’s both the writing and the writers’ lives that inspire me – not as examples, but in the sense that (for example) both Berryman and Kees led strange lives full of false starts and failures and in Berryman’s case later riotous successes that he couldn’t really feel so well because (this is my opinion, not strict biography) at that point his gift was up against the Big Old Ones and that’s got to be a difficult place to stand for long – this sense of a struggle between the writer and the craft, this sort of dynamic, that’s something that has a sort of sexy appeal to me. Again, this is kind of sick. I suspect that maybe the urge to write is a little sick.”

If the urge to write is sick, then so may also be the urge to read. When asked what he gets out of reading, he responds, “This is impossible to answer – I’m the son of an English teacher, I wanted to read before I could crawl. Reading is sort of like waking from a dream, which is probably a sick way of looking at it. I mean, the short answer is “pleasure,” but what sort of pleasure is that – it’s like agreeing to be told what to think and dream for hours at a stretch, right? A lot of theories of reading talk about how it’s active, not passive, and I intuitively believe that, but at the same time, I’m pretty linear: I won’t skip ahead, don’t like to read anything about a book before I read it, and tend to find most narrators credible long past the point when you’re supposed to have gathered that they’re lying. Which is weird, because a good number of my narrators are terrible liars. I suspect that the pleasure I get from reading is essentially religious in nature, maybe fanatical, but who knows what “religious pleasure” would mean.”

In terms of favorite literary genres, Darnielle explains, “In 2003 I made a point of reading a lot of history and I figure I will probably read more history at some point. Biographies I don’t read many that are book-length but I do enjoy capsule sorts of lives – I always get a lot of pleasure from hagiographies, from Butler’s Lives of the Saints but also from hagiography from other traditions: Vaisnava saints, tales of mystics, stuff like that. And like most music people I know, I often end up reading a lot of books about rock and roll – this book about the history of bootleg albums, or oral histories of bands or labels. One reads these in tour vans and clubs a lot. They’re kind of situationally appropriate.”

Darnielle’s storytelling illustrates that relationships change, places change, and people change. However, his stories emphasize that with this impermanence comes a kind of hope in knowing that there must also be good things ahead. In both the case of reading a spell binding novel and in listening to an album of The Mountain Goats, we become personally invested in the story being told and the division between what is our own story and what is not becomes increasingly blurred. As the plot develops we continue to gain insight not only into the experiences of the characters, but into our own experiences as well.

The Mountain Goat’s most recent album, Heretic Pride, was released by 4AD on February 18, 2008.

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