Since forming the Mountain Goats in 1991, John Darnielle has sung about remarkable people: wounded couples, Texas death metal aficionados, doo wop singers, professional wrestlers, horror authors, heretics, prophets, long-dead classical pianists, and occasionally, John Darnielle. He works along the fringes, building up narratives around his pop cultural obsessions and consistent empathy. In a John Darnielle song, no matter how sad, human beings are never reduced to caricatures. They are always treated with a profound respect.
On the Mountain Goats’ new album, Goths, Darnielle turns his attention to the death and darkness obsessed subculture that emerged in the U.K. in the early 1980s. In typical Darnielle style, the songs are sweet and understated. It’s a record about aging and identity, about cultures shifting around us. Goths talk to other goths, and outsiders try to figure out goths: in “Rage of Travers,” Darnielle crafts a fictional epic about ’70s blues rock guitarist Pat Travers wondering why the hell Bauhaus won’t let him sit in at a gig at the storied London nightclub the Batcave. It’s a record about time moving on, whether or not we’re okay with that sort of thing.
The record is occasionally nostalgic — “Outside it’s 92 degrees/And KROQ is playing Siouxsie and the Banshees” he sings longingly on “Stench of the Unburied” — but the record also charts new ground for the long-running band. Though the group’s recent records have embraced a certain smoothness, Goths leans even heavier into AOR gloss and sheen. Darnielle doesn’t play guitar on the album, sitting instead at a Fender Rhodes, and presents his distinct voice is new, tempered ways. It’s a band record; the interplay between rhythm section Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster shines on “Unicorn Tolerance,” and multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas works in crafty, engrossing woodwind arrangements on “Paid in Cocaine” and “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement.”
The album comes hot on the heels of Universal Harvester, Darnielle’s third novel, following 2008’s Black Sabbath: Master of Reality for the 33’…“ series and 2014’s Wolf in White Van. It’s about a video store in Nevada, Iowa. A clerk there, Jeremy, and the store’s owner Sarah Jane, begin to discover disturbing scenes recorded over chunks of VHS tapes returned to the shop. Their investigation brings them into contact with a mysterious woman named Lisa Sample, and face to face with the concept of grief.
Both Goths and Universal Harvester center around the ways we ask art to speak for us, how we ask it to offer forms of expression for things that sometimes feel too deep to name. The book and the record are both informed by Darnielle’s stubborn and pervasive humanism. Aquarium Drunkard called him up to discuss his ethos, vocal jazz, and growing as a writer. Here’s that conversation.
Aquarium Drunkard: You sing really incredibly on this record. Was that something you worked hard to do for Goths?
John Darnielle: I really worked hard to sing as best I could. I really think I’ve grown as a singer. That’s a hard thing to sell people on when they think of you as the guy with the pushing, nasal voice, which I do have. I have one of those assaultive registers. I have a register that a lot of people really like [but] either you love it or hate it. But I’ve grown as a singer a lot over the last couple records and I’ve embraced that.
AD: Was there any connection between this being a guitar-less record and you wanting some extra space for your vocals?
John Darnielle: On guitar, I’m essentially a folk guitarist. I’m not Woody Guthrie, but that’s the legacy I’m from, sort of, in terms of guitar. I’m faster and punkier, right, but still, that’s the legacy: a guy wailing on guitar, yelling out loud about something he gets passionate about. On piano, I’m not a great pianist, but I do have jazz chops. That’s how I understand the piano, in a jazz way. My left hand is still kind a club, so I’m not a good jazz pianist, but that’s how I understand how to write on the piano.
You’ll hear, right before before the instrumental bridge on the third song, “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement,” the way we get to that bridge is I go from a major 7th chord to a diminished 7th; I couldn’t do that on a guitar if you had a gun to my head. But on piano that’s easy, it’s a Duke Ellington trick. It’s a super sweet thing that takes you into the modulation in a really nice way. That’s stuff I can do on piano, and when I write like that, the melodies that suggests to me are way more from the jazz tradition. I think so many people think about jazz and think about bop and post-bop…but vocal jazz is something people ignore. Everybody listens to Billie Holiday, but there’s Carmen McRae, Ella Fitgerald, Joe Williams, Lena Horne. There’s so many great jazz vocalists to think about. I’m not any of them, but I listen to them and think about their moves. Betty Carter, good lord.
AD: I keep drawing back to the lyric in “Rain In Soho,” “Fumble through the fog for a season or two.” For a lot of people “goth” is a thing you sort of grow out of, something you do for a little bit and it makes sense, and then it doesn’t. This isn’t a gothic sounding record but…
John Darnielle: The first song is this big head fake where you think it’s going to be a big goth tidal wave, but then it goes into the second, “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back To Leeds,” which is of course the Kinks-style tune.
AD: Were you a goth kid yourself?
John Darnielle: Well, briefly and kind of. I was never fully immersed. I wasn’t a 24-hour-a-day goth, right? I did dye my hair black and I had some fashion dictates I adhered to. You wouldn’t have caught me wearing clothes that weren’t either black or white for several years there; it was white oxfords and black jeans. I had a real specific look. But in the early to mid-‘80s, it was way less stylized than it became as it spread broadly. In London, the goth look was extremely ornate, the sort of thing were it takes two hours to get ready. My whole thing was “look like an undertaker.” “Look like you work at a mortuary, but a little more extreme.” Your boss at the mortuary would be like, “Hey, play it down a little. We don’t actually need to remind people about death all day.”
I dyed my hair black and shielded my eyes with sunglasses usually, but the thing is, you’re quite right. That was only a couple of years in my life, 17-20 at the latest. By the time I was 20, it started to feel to me like that wasn’t where my head was at anymore. I was hanging out with different friends, doing different stuff, and listening to heavy metal more. At that point because the style was a trend. It really was. The “goth sound” is not like jazz, it’s not like you can say here’s all the ways you can play it and here’s the ways it grows. It grows a little, but there’s not room for a lot of growth within the style.
If you listen to the bands that did [evolve] within that zone, they really didn’t think of themselves as goth at all. Listen to Dead Can Dance. Most goths like Dead Can Dance. That band grows a lot over the course of their career. They really go different places. Which is why they sort of resented being called goth. People listening aren’t looking for growth. They are looking for a certain sound and vibe, which I totally get.
I think the better bands all resented the term. Like Nick Cave. Every goth loves the Birthday Party, but I don’t think Nick Cave ever identified as a goth person. [Laughs] At the same time, I think if you were friends with him you’d say, “Look dude, if you’re singing strictly and exclusively about death and violence, spiking your hair giant, dyeing it black, and calling your records things like Drunk on the Pope’s Blood, it’s fair to call you a goth.” [Laughs]
Most of the people in the scene…were drawn to darker themes: death, impermanence, and loss. And those are just literary themes. In gothic literature, there’s a certain images that are often very appealing to goths, but I think as you grow as a writer, if you weren’t just into goth as a scene, you grow on to make it bigger, to understand that’s more of a color in your palette than it is your whole deal.
AD: This record feels as expansive and sonically lush as a Mountain Goats album ever has. It’s funny and sweet. I think that’s why people are drawn to your songs, because of the empathy you weave in. It maybe would have been easy to make a record about how funny goth culture is – and this is a funny record – but it’s not mocking at all.
John Darnielle: That’s not my style at all. I don’t make fun of people, I’m not into it. The Mountain Goats’ style is one of empathy, I hope.
AD: These songs address the same human themes your whole discography does. Whether you’re singing about a wrestler, a goth kid, or a soul singer, you’re kind of always singing about the same kind of people. I think that itself is instructive to the listener, to remind us that these are not different kinds of people, they are actually the same kind of people.
John Darnielle: That’s the thing. I think I have the essentially humanistic conviction that all people are the same kind of people. They do different things and go down different paths, but down at the core they are children who grew into bigger people and the experiences they had as children shape them as they grow up. Those are my big assumptions, I think.
AD: Your new book, Universal Harvester, is very much a book about people shaped by what that happened to them as children. The hook about the book is that it’s very scary. There’s a creeping thing always lurking at the edges, like Twin Peaks or X-Files or something, and I don’t want to spoil it for people, but what ends up being the scariest thing in the book is the enormity of grief. Did you want to center the book on a kind of terror we all know in one way or another?
John Darnielle: I never really program what I’m trying to say. I started writing the story and when as it went the way it did, I discovered a thing I hadn’t really thought about, which is that grief is terrifying. It’s a country where you don’t have any maps. You have to draw one. And have you ever tried to draw a map? This is something I learned from role playing games – you sit down to draw a map and it’s fun, but there’s also this terror of the infinite. You have to make decisions about what is where and what the confines of your world are gonna be.
In grieving, the terrain is there, you just haven’t seen it before. Even if you have, I think every grief is discrete. Just because you’ve done it once doesn’t mean you have a good map for the next one. It’s a scary thing – it’s a frightening thing to have to grieve, or to decide you don’t want to. That’s the thing that Kübler-Ross noted, not everyone goes through these things in order. I don’t know how current that thinking is, but…whether you choose to grieve or not, grief will go through you in its given time. There’s a sense in which it’s involuntary, and I think everything involuntary is frightening. [The book is] a horror story about horrors that are universal.
AD: Was there something about the expansiveness of a place like Iowa that made you want to set the book there? How soon in the process did Iowa present itself as the setting?
John Darnielle: That was the first decision I made. I made the decision to put it in Iowa before I had a story. The first scene I wrote in the book is the first thing I wrote, a conversation between two Iowan men. I wanted to write in that style of dialogue I noticed when I lived there, which I hadn’t heard much of since I moved to North Carolina, where men talking to each other had a much different conversational style. So I started there. There’s some personal stuff…one of the people I’ve lost is my wife’s mother, Nancy, who was from north Iowa. She died young, at 59, so I was working on that and thinking about where she was from. I was thinking about the way that families, at least as I had seen them, seemed closer in Iowa.
Where I grew up, more people are divorced…California is one of the first places to really normalize divorce in the U.S. And most people I would meet in Iowa still lived closer to where they’d grown up. Everyone couldn’t wait to get out where I was from. There’s a line on the new record about that, from “We Do It Different on the West Coast”: “You can’t shut people up once they get back from their Christmas” in New York. Growing up, everybody couldn’t wait to go to Germany or wherever, but in Iowa, people seemed happy to be there, and to take the idea of leaving pretty seriously.
AD: I also feel like Universal Harvester is a book about the way we ask art to communicate for us.
John Darnielle: That’s a good read. My editor had to point that out to me. [Laughs] This is the thing that makes doing interviews about books, and music too, to a lesser extent, really funny. I don’t sit down intending to make a point or convey a message. I just want to write a story and do something cool, [something] that feels scary, intense, or sad, whatever thing I’m focused on. I trust a story, if I’m telling it well enough, to cohere around a theme that will reveal itself to me. But it took my editor, Sean McDonald, to say, you’ve made two books where the main characters are artists. Sean in Wolf in White Van is an artist, and so is Lisa Sample [from Universal Harvester]. Her art doesn’t present itself as art. She’s hiding it, it’s not for anyone to see. But she’s kind of a true artist. She’s working something out in the space of her art. She’s an Emily Dickinson. She’s not doing it for other people.
AD: She’s not doing it for other people to see necessarily, but it does have to go out into the world to exist, you know?
John Darnielle: You have to let go of it. I think that’s only because you have to say you’re done at some point. Otherwise, there’s a line in critical theory, I can never remember who said it, that “the work is never finished, only abandoned.” Everybody who’s ever written anything looks at it a few years later and says, “Ah man, I could have said this,” or “There’s a lot more to say there.” If you don’t say that, I totally don’t trust you as an artist. You gotta look at it later and say, “Here’s some stuff I’ve learned since.” I think Ian MacKaye is really good at saying, “Look, this is where my head was at the time, so it’s a perfect representation of that.” That’s a cool stance. But that’s how you finish art, by letting go. You say, “now it’s done” and put it out there.
AD: And let people have at it.
John Darnielle: Even if no one is going to have at it. words/j woodbury