Realities & Fictions: The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle Interviewed

John Darnielle's The Mountain Goats recently released their latest studio album Transcendental Youth. Erin Lyndal Martin sat with with Darnielle to discuss piano tuning, his pro-choice activism and the tensions between fiction and non-fiction in his work

"Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive," begins ‘Amy aka Spent Gladiator I’, the first song on Mountain Goats’ recent Transcendental Youth album. "Play with matches if you think you need to play with matches," continues frontman John Danielle. "Make up magic spells, we wear them like protective shells." Its chorus, "just stay alive", is typical of the sort of anthem to begrudging survival that could only be written by Darnielle. It’s reminiscent of an earlier Goats song, ‘This Year’, where he sings about "playing video games in a drunken haze" at age 17 in order to avoid his stepfather’s blows.

Transcendental Youth is the Mountain Goats’ fourteenth full-length record, and it won’t surprise many long term fans. As the band have aged and become more successful, they have progressively left behind the lo-fi sound of their earlier recordings. The days of All Hail West Texas are long gone, although listeners are divided as to whether or not that’s entirely a good thing. Their latest album features some sonic departures from their previous work, including a horn section under the direction of Matthew E. White. There is also more piano present than on previous albums (played by Darnielle, with the exception of ‘The Diaz Brothers’, which features Megafaun’s Phil Cook).

What has remained constant is Darnielle’s songwriting, which manages to somehow remain uplifting despite oppressively heavy lyrics like "I hope you die / I hope we both die" from Tallahassee‘s ‘No Children’. Named by Paste Magazine in 2006 as one of the top 100 living songwriters, it’s easy to see why Darnielle’s stories, which generally situate themselves between the personal and the universal, appeal to so many.

Darnielle is also known on Twitter for his alternately funny and silly musings on music, politics, literature, and life. In addition, he’s present in public life in several other roles: metal fan (he wrote a book on Black Sabbath’s Master Of Reality for the 33 1/3 series), staunch pro-choice activist (he serves on the board of NARAL, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, in his current home state of North Carolina), and ravenous consumer of literature (while Joan Didion is his favorite, he did take the time in this interview to recommend Mercè Rodoreda, a Catalan novelist).

Darnielle sat down with the Quietus to discuss classical music, looking to Duke Ellington for inspiration, and why he considers piano-tuning the most noble profession.

I was going back through your Twitter for a while, and I noticed that you mentioned Morton Feldman, of whom I’m a huge fan, especially the Rothko Chapel album.

JD: I don’t have that one, but I have some quartets. My local record store has a classical section, so I saw that and thought, ‘Well, I’ve heard of this guy, so I’ll check him out’. So it was an impulse buy. Tranquil, amazing music.

What other classical or contemporary classical composers do you like?

JD: I like Mahler, I like Bruckner, I’ve liked Scriabin a lot for the past year or so. That’s been a big discovery for me the past year or so. I think the top composers tend to be the same group of ten for most people. You’ve got your Beethoven, you’ve got your Bach. Who decided to list Bach as a favorite, but Bach is the most amazing creature, right? But I’m a fan of big emotional effects, so Scriabin is my favorite. Maria Lettberg did a big Scriabin collection a year or two ago that is really, really worth hearing. So I listen to that a great deal. I listen to opera, which is a new thing for me. A professor in college tried to get me to do it; it takes such intense attention. It’s something you have to sit down with and really engage with, but I enjoy it. I like Puccini more than I should and Verdi at all.

If you like new opera at all, I would recommend Ainadamar by Osvaldo Golijov. It’s about the death of Lorca.

JD: I will check that out. I don’t listen to a lot of new operas, but I did get the Philip Glass In the Penal Colony one. I stopped listening to Philip Glass when he stopped being a pure phase music dude, so I’ve missed most of his career at this point. But I picked up In the Penal Colony, and it’s pretty doggone good.

To transition into your own music, I read that you changed the title of Transcendental Youth, that you had been thinking of Infernal Youth, but you wanted it to be more pro-survival.

JD: Well, it was more about thinking ‘what’s the function of defining as infernal? What is the deeper meaning there?’ And so, I sort of felt like, if you write a song that has "hail Satan" in the chorus, you have to be prepared to talk about Satan. The more you mention Satan, the more you have to talk about Satan. I didn’t want to lash the entire album to it. I wanted a different way of expressing people who are seeking some force far beyond themselves to engage with, so that they can not have to be too much in the world that seems to press down.

Is that what the ‘Spent Gladiator’ sequence is about?

JD: The whole record is about that, to a certain extent. But ‘Spent Gladiator’, as I was telling someone earlier today, is about how there’s lots of ways to stay alive. You can stay alive begrudingly by crawling across the floor insisting that you keep moving, or you can stay alive in a defiant way. And those are two of an infinite number of ways to stay alive.

I was reading the interview that you did with Rick Moody and Jonathan Lethem. You mentioned that your work prior to The Sunset Tree was fiction, and you considered The Sunset Tree non-fiction.

JD: Yeah, We Shall All Be Healed was fiction. It was kind of fictionalised stuff from actual life.

Where do you put Transcendental Youth on this scale of things?

JD: I have to go through it song by song. There are some people and facts. But, for example, the Lakeside View Apartments are not in the town in Washington where a lot of the stuff is set. This is an apartment building in Portland where I bought speed in in the 80s, and I was picturing sort of houses where people are living, but you can barely call it a life anymore. It’s more these waystations that you inhabit as you’re trying to find spaces. So, there’s places that are very specific, and people who are inventions or patchwork cobblings together. I wonder how much I’m in there, except that often – I haven’t tested it – but I wonder if I’m singing in the second person, if I’m not usually addressing myself. There aren’t any direct personal stories, nothing where I’m narrating confessional-style telling you what happened or anything like that.

Now, I know you’re a big fan of Joan Didion, and I wondered if her writing was what inspired you, in part, to become more nonfictional.

JD: I don’t know, but it wouldn’t be surprising if reading somebody for 25 years or so didn’t leave some sort of mark. Writing The Sunset Tree was really a purgative, spontaneous act. I didn’t sit down and say, ‘well, let me do this’. I just write whatever I’m writing and see what happens. And in the case of The Sunset Tree, I was in this perfect combination of being abroad and without sleep and having three months or less out processing my stepfather’s death, and I was on tour, and I was in a state of mental and physical exhaustion, and I started writing in dressing rooms, just sort of spontaneously. And that was the stuff that came out. I don’t plan my next move; that feels cheesy to me. What I do is related to improv.

I write fiction and poetry, and I have some go-to stories and poems that I use when I feel like I need to re-learn how to write a poem or a story. Do you have any songs or albums that are like that for you?

JD: I listen to people who I don’t consider myself in the same league as. I listen to Joni Mitchell, which is like, well, if I were a painter and I listened to Michelangelo for inspiration. I’m never going to be batting in her league. When I write music, I quickly am not listening to other music. The other thing I do is play some jazz from a fake book, or a real book, like some Duke Ellington stuff, anything that has really good and interesting changes. The sound of a piano and those big open chords like the major seventh became a huge portal for me. So I can play these chords and that’s where I draw my direct inspiration from, these seven notes on a piano put together. I think I take a lot more of my inspiration from poets and writers.

And you had Phil from Megafaun play piano on the new record, right?

JD: Yeah, he plays on ‘The Diaz Brothers’. The rest of the piano is me.

Are you going to tour with a piano, then?

JD: Oh, yes, we tour with a piano most of the time.

I saw you once in Birmingham, Alabama, and you didn’t have one, so I wasn’t sure.

JD: That was a long time ago! 2007, right?

Good memory!

JD: We added in the piano, in maybe 2008 or 2009. I wish I could be like Tori Amos, who can do a tour to places that have an actual piano.

She actually brings hers with her.

JD: That would be such a sweet luxury to be able to afford that. I mean, it’s piano! Moving a piano and it probably gets tuned daily, I imagine. I play a weighted keys, a digital piano.

I play the piano too, and I’ve noticed how they all have different personalities. Do you have a favorite piano?

JD: I’m not sure. The baby grand is new, and I need to get it tuned. It seems like the most noble job – [when] your job is to get a piano in tune. I think that’s the best.

Switching subjects to something that’s a little more grim right now, I know you’re very involved in the fight for reproductive rights, and I was wondering if you could tell me more about your history with that.

JD: I was raised far-left. Some people swing to the other end of the spectrum when they’re reacting. I became apolitical for a few years. But a couple things happened. One is, in the US, we have people whose preferred target is reproductive rights. It was intuitive to me that people should make their own decision about their body. I think there is some abuse survivor stuff in there about the idea that your body belongs to you and you are the final arbiter of what should or shouldn’t happen with or in it.

Being on Twitter, running across people linking to stories I might not otherwise have noticed, and beginning to get a sense of the big picture of how reproductive rights are being limited in the US right now, it’s really insidious. The restricting of access, because they know they’d never appeal Roe v. Wade, nor would they want to, because you take an issue away from people who are against abortion rights. They don’t actually want to repeal the law; they just want to make it harder and harder. There’s no limit to how hard they can make it. For people who don’t have the money to across state lines or go to multiple, multiple visits. There’s this very, very devious, underhanded way of trying to restrict what is a basic human right. I got fairly inspired by that. I don’t like to think of myself as getting older, but I think as you get older, you do start to care more about other people’s lives. I am actually on the board of directors for NARAL in North Carolina.

What do you think it will take to really turn things around?

For one thing, I think we actually have the numbers on our side. Polling isn’t something you can really trust, because polling depends on who you’re asking and how you phrase the question and sample size and so forth. I don’t think that every activist shares my opinion on this, but I think people should share their abortion stories, because everybody knows someone. It’s sort of similar to the experience of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. Everybody knows somebody who’s gay. It’s not like people who are opposed to gay rights don’t know somebody who’s gay. They just don’t talk about it. So I sort of feel like open dialogue – that’s an incredibly liberal thing to say – can eventually lead to justice. For me, one big focus is actually using the word ‘abortion’ because a lot of people say ‘reproductive rights’ or ‘reproductive justice’. That’s fine, but I like to keep the subject at the forefront: people’s right to get abortions when they need them.

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