Editor's Note: This is the unedited email interview with John Darnielle, the man behind the band The Mountain Goats, and sometimes the only member of the band. This interview was used for a story that originally appeared in The Berkshire Eagle on April 17, 2014.
Amelinckx: When you finish writing a song do you have an idea of how you plan to approach the recording process -- just you and your guitar or lusher arrangements, (drums, backing vocal, cello, piano, etc.).
Darnielle: I'm usually not thinking of arrangements when I write - if I am, it's only if I'm thinking "this one should remain somewhat skeletal." These days, though, I'll sometimes sketch out some
other instrumental ideas in the demo - a second guitar line, or a small keyboard idea. Once I've got the songs together then I start thinking about what other textures might complement the songs - woodwinds, strings, and so on. We flesh out the basics, the drums/bass/me stuff, when we get together to rehearse, usually - though Peter sometimes overdubs bass ideas onto the original demo I send him & then sends it back to me for feedback.
Amelinckx: In a related vein, are there certain songs you prefer to play/ don’t like playing when you go on the road solo or with the rest of the band.
Darnielle: The songs take on such different...not "moods," but "aspects," I guess, when I play them solo - I can get looser with tempo, and be more improvisatory with dynamics (which sounds very high-minded but what I mean is "I can get real quiet if it feels like the right move and I won't be acting unilaterally in a group context"). It's really fun and interesting to see how a song feels when I take away everything but the chords and the words and the vocal melody, especially if it's already spent a lot of time getting played in the trio format. Some songs it becomes a real challenge, when there's an especially strong drum part, say - "Sax Rohmer #1," for example. But meeting that challenge solo is really fun and rewarding.
Amelinckx: When you perform do you feel forced to play certain songs because you know fans really want to hear them?
Darnielle: Well, there's a few songs that I know everybody wants to hear - not a huge number, maybe three or four - but that's an honor, really. I saw Lou Reed in 1986 and he gave a spiel about how he never got sick of playing "Walk on the Wild Side" because he loved knowing that there was a song everybody in the room wanted to hear, and that stuck with me - I can legitimately say that I enjoy "This Year" every time we play it. Although I don't feel like it works as well solo and of the three or four Mountain Goats "standards," it's the one I usually bench in solo sets...Peter's bass line is a huge huge part of that song.
Amelinckx: I once saw a Dylan show in the early 90s where you could tell he was just burning through his hits without any heart, but then completely shifted gears when he played his newer stuff. Do you still enjoy playing your older material?
Darnielle: I do - I'll say that it does take some work, sometimes, some diligence, to make sure I'm connecting with the song - but when that happens, we all know it, and we talk about it, and then we give the song a rest for a tour or two. But I don't tour nearly as hard as Dylan. Dylan is a tour monster who goes out for months at a time, huge worldwide tours, and I'm sure that when that old stuff was new, he played it literally hundreds of times. He's in a bind, really, anybody that big is, because he's pretty much obligated to play the big big old songs or people will be mad since they paid a lot to get in, but how can you connect with a song you've been playing 200 times a year for thirty years? The Dead benched "Dark Star" for a number of years, I consider them the model of how to keep the set fresh even if it means nobody gets to hear "St Stephen" for a while.
Amelinckx: Certain images and themes float through your work -- animal, ghosts, cold water -- what draws you to them?
Darnielle: It's really hard to say - weather, too, I'm always having some wind or some rain, or hot sun - I try not to interrogate my inspirations too hard but just let them work it out for themselves.
Amelinckx: With We Shall All Be Healed and The Sunset Tree you moved into autobiographical material. Was it a surprise to you how listeners responded to more personal material?
Darnielle: It was a huge surprise. I was really nervous, especially on The Sunset Tree - it was pretty raw. But that opened up whole new avenues of writing for me, really - it made the story songs I make up more personal, put me in touch with something in myself. It was like a system reboot for me as a songwriter, really - I think of the stuff before that as stuff from a different age.
Amelinckx: Do you prefer making up stories with your lyrics or going to that well of your own life?
Darnielle: I mean, at this point, there's a sort of synthesis for me - when I'm telling a story, I feel like it's also necessarily somehow about me, somewhere - if not directly, then in spirit, you know? It's not really either/or.
Amelinckx: Born in the Midwest, growing up in California, and now living in the South, in North Carolina, have the places you lived at all influenced your approach to music? I grew up in Louisiana and when I go back home there is a brief period of adjustment and then I find myself slowing down, the way I talk, even move. Has the South changed you at all?
Darnielle: Sure, I assume so. But I am not super reflective about what I'm like, how I'm changing - that's really for others to say. I think my work's gotten a lot better since I moved down here ten years ago, that I'm just a more diligent, more honest writer. I feel like you have to put some of that down to the people around me, and the cycle of the seasons being something I connect to (I happen to love the miserable summers, can't get enough), and the terrain.
Amelinckx: Has fatherhood changed your outlook on life, specifically the life of a touring musician?
Darnielle: It is harder to leave for tour. I fly home a few times during longer tours. That's the main thing. I try not to make any broad philosophical observations on fatherhood - I've only been a dad for two years, I don't figure that short amount of time is enough to really say what's changed about how I look at life generally. It's made me more aware that I'll die, though - this I think is Goth Dad's destiny, to think about how, when you become a parent, that means that somebody you will no longer be around to be a parent any more. It makes me want to fill my days with good work, I have become more aware of time.
Amelinckx: It seems in much of your early work the songs have an instantaneous or conversational feel about them, without a ton of revision and that your newer work is in a sense a completed thought, fully formed, a paragraph rather than a single sentence. Has age, time, affected your approach to making music in the sense that as we get older there is a tendency to not just blurt things out, but rather approach things in a more measured way?
Darnielle: Well, I think my aesthetic priorities changed a lot - the very early stuff, spontaneous expression was a huge value for me - although it was more revised than it sounded, some of those lyrics took a lot of work to sound tossed-off. I'm a better musician now than I used to be, and with that comes a feeling of awe for how melody and lyric sort of elevate one another into this one-of-a-kind style of expression - but I still write pretty quickly, I've just gotten better at it.
Amelinckx: Was it a challenge going from writing songs to writing a novel? (Darnielle's novel "Wolf in White Van" is soon to be released). Was it difficult to sustain the writing process over weeks/months? Has writing the novel influenced your songwriting?
Darnielle: Too early to say on that last question. I was writing prose before I wrote songs - when I was a teenager, I wrote short stories all the time, it was my heart's desire to become a science fiction short story writer. I think the energy feeds from the songs to the prose - that sense of play, like when I'm writing a song how I'm not thinking "this has to be good" but just following ideas that seem cool to me - that's something I tried to remember always while working on the book.
Photo credit: Steven Keys and KeysPhotography.com