“To Actually Tell A Story, It Feels Very Risky.” An Interview With John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats

At the end of September, a photo of John Darnielle and Lin-Manuel Miranda at NYC’s Drama Bookshop surfaced on Instagram. The portrait of two songwriters from very different worlds likely surprised long-time fans of each, but it wouldn’t phase anyone who’s ever asked John Darnielle about musicals. He’s been a fan since preschool, listening and relistening to original cast recordings of both traditional and non-traditional musicals—everything from the Music Man to the Rocky Horror Picture Show. When we talked, he was planning to take his kids to Wicked.

His latest album, Jenny from Thebes, draws on that love of theater, as well as a cast of characters first brought to life two decades ago. It builds a rock opera out of the story of Jenny from All Hail West Texas, continuing her trajectory from safe house proprietor to murderer on the loose. The album is also loosely based on the Greek tragedy Seven from Thebes and sonically overstuffed enough to keep your average Broadway pit orchestra challenged and happy. It is a lot, as is talking to Darnielle himself. He is as articulate and well-read as rock stars come, talking mostly in full, well-arranged sentences, but also prone to peripheral observations that zing in from unexpected angles. He touched, with equal fervor, on Aeschylus and Dr. Demento, and was a total joy all the way through. All hail indeed, here’s the Mountain Goats interview. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: What made you decide to do a rock opera?

John Darnielle: You know, I make all my decisions to change very slowly. For instance, the Mountain Goats added a second person and then seven years later, we added a third one.

But the “so-called” concept album. People like the term “concept album.” It’s sort of like a bet hedging of the rock opera, right? Because why not just go all the way? All Hail West Texas is not a rock opera. It’s got a bunch of characters in it. People have pitched me to make it a musical before. It was a bunch of little interconnected stories and characters.

But a rock opera tells a story. To actually tell a story, it feels very risky, you know, because there are a lot of people out there telling a lot of great stories on television and in movies, in books, and that requires of you, a sort of craft that don’t normally bring to making a record. It’s not that it’s a greater craft or anything. But the task of telling a story that goes from point A to point B in a tellable knowable way, that’s more of an opera sensibility. The opera wants to do that with music. Most albums don’t.

So it was a challenge for me, and since I have three novels under my belt, I was feeling my oats. Why not just lean into it?

AD: You mentioned being influenced by Godspell! and I do think that this record has more of that kind of theatrical, musical feel to it. Do you want to tell me how sonically you distinguish this one from the others?

John Darnielle: I’ve been listening to musicals my whole life. One of the first records I owned was a small label version of Fiddler on the Roof. This is the music that begins my music listening career. That and the Music Man, I was super into when I was four and five years old. The Aristocats soundtrack. These were my formative texts.

When I was in the sixth grade, I discovered the Rocky Horror Picture Show via Doctor Demento. And there had been some other musicals—Bugsy Malone is an almost forgotten 1970s movie where children played these gangsters. It had a Paul Williams soundtrack. The movie soundtrack was a big thing. But the Rocky Horror Picture Show, owing to the efforts of the Rocky Horror fans, in Southern California would routinely get one or more songs on Doctor Demento’s weekly top ten.

AD: I remember that show.

John Darnielle: Yeah. Sometimes there would be three Rocky Horror songs in the top ten, because the top ten was done by a petition. So all you had to do was circulate a big enough petition among your friends to get this going. And the thing is, I hadn’t seen the movie. But I got the album and I would try to piece together the story from listening to it. You wouldn’t know anything about that if you were a fan of Rocky Horror, but the song “Superheroes” on the soundtrack album seems to occupy a very important place, but it was cut from the film. So when I finally did see the movie in the seventh grade, I was like “Where is my favorite song?”

So these are all formative texts for me. And then I get to punk rock and stuff, and like everybody else you start rejecting, when you get into punk rock, you start to take in a lot of what I would call received thinking, shorter, faster, better, don’t be pretentious. Things that are, I think, pretty telling biases of their own. The whole mission in music is, if you have biases, to use them to get some better place and then to shed them. The eventual state of loving music should be an understanding that all music is expression. Regardless of genre. But when you’re young, you don’t do that.

So to come back to something like this is to embrace some early influences of mine musically and to embrace some of my baggage about what it would mean to do that. The generation I came up in, people very impacted by post-punk would have considered it very gauche to want to do a rock opera.

AD: Do you still go to musicals? Are you still connected with that?

John Darnielle: Well, I live in North Carolina, so there’s not a lot of them here, although we are going to see Wicked next week, and my children are so excited to see Wicked. It’s very exciting. But I haven’t actually seen one done in forever. I listen to the soundtracks.

AD: It’s very expensive to go.

John Darnielle: Yes. Where do you live?

AD: live in New Hampshire, but we would go to New York for these things.

John Darnielle: Oh, yeah, it’s insane. That’s not a problem with musicals. That’s a problem with capitalism. It costs too much to get into our shows now. Everything costs too much. Because it costs so much to live now. That’s a systemic failing. People should be able to go to the theater. Think about Shaw, think about Brecht, think about all the people that thought theater should be affordable, it should be open to everybody. And you see that with children. When they get to the theater, they go “Oh my god, this is such an amazing place!” And that it exists in this current, present, physical meat space gives it something so meaningful, but yeah, then you put it out of reach of 90% of everybody.

AD: Although my son is an actor in Chicago, and it’s very accessible there.

John Darnielle: Chicago is better. I almost flew to Chicago this summer to see a musical that’s incredibly important to me that I’ve never seen staged, The Gospel at Colonus, which is almost never revived. It’s literally probably one of my favorite musical texts.

AD: Oh, wow, well, that actually can lead us into the Oedipal themes of your record. You’ve got the cover which has classical Greek themes, and then you seem to be referencing the Oedipus cycle, maybe Antigone?

John Darnielle: It’s not Oedipus. It’s a play called Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus. Seven Against Thebes is the play that my professor David Claus said, if you like this one, you really like Greek tragedy. Because in most Greek tragedy there’s some moment that’s very stagy and exciting. And usually if it’s a wounding, it’s something that takes place off stage. Like when Jason’s wife tries on the dress, that’s offstage and you hear “What have you done?” And he says, “Now you get what’s coming to you.” And Oedipus doesn’t gouge out his eyes on stage. That’s a big part of it. But there are these big dramatic moments.

In Seven Against Thebes, there are none. There’s an advancing army. And a messenger has gone and seen the advancing army and they have seven shields, right, and he reads the insignia on these shields and comes back to report them. Here’s who’s coming, right? He describes the seven shields. That’s the central dramatic action of this play. Aeschylus is the earliest of the tragedians that we have, of the ones whose work survived. Aeschylus is the earliest guy. SO that’s the action of the play. Reading these shields. It’s very counter to our notions of drama, that one guy is standing there saying “Well, on the second shield …” It’s very, like, what? Like the pouring out of the cups in the Book of Revelation. “Lo the seventh seal was broken and I saw this…” So in Seven Against Thebes, these seven warriors are advancing against Thebes to assault the city. That’s the reference.

What’s interesting about it to me, and my own reading dates back to studying Greek tragedy at college, is that the nature of a Greek tragedy is that there is a symbol which, if you were able to read it, you would be able to avert the tragedy, but the only way you could learn how to read it is to experience the tragedy. So it’s this paradox that crushes you.

AD: Interesting. Is this structured so that each of the songs is from the perspective of a different warrior?

John Darnielle: No, no. The songs…there aren’t seven in this. The main dynamic is that Thebes is a city under assault. It’s brother against brother. It’s in the Oedipus story. This is Eteocles and Polynices, the sons of Oedipus who are doing this. But no, the connection to the record is that Thebes is a city under assault from which some people will emerge unscathed and others will not.

AD: I was not able to really follow the story line from the songs. Are they in order in terms of what happens first?

John Darnielle: No, it’s not that. That’s where The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is different.It’svery hard to follow, but it does happen sequentially. This doesn’t, but it traces a rough arc. “Clean Slate” sets the scene and introduces you to the house in which it’s going to take place. And in “Great Pirates” they ride off into the sunset. “Pirates” is a dream. It doesn’t actually happen.

AD: Yeah, because there’s a Kawasaki that she rides off on in the first song and then it reappears in “Murder at the 18th Street Garage” and it seems like it’s been a long time in between…

John Darnielle: So, the story of Jenny begins here and it ends, we know, on previous records. Jenny was a character in a record called All Hail West Texas in 2001. And the scene that we saw her in there, the narrator is hopping on the back of a motorcycle and they’re riding off. This doesn’t actually happen. Right? This is something that he wants. That character is the one we meet in “Fresh Tattoo.” He’s an addict who is crashing on her couch. The house that she rents is the place where people feel safe. It’s sort of the crash spot. And the general story in the record is that they try to evict her because they know that she’s violating the terms of her release by letting all those people crash there. It’s a very safe place where people who have passed into Texas illegally are able to stop on their way to wherever they’re going. It’s an oasis. A place like that is, one, an important symbol and, two, an important place where you can crash and be safe, a place where when you’re just getting out of rehab, you can lie on the couch for a couple of days. And that’s what it is. She develops a fondness, not necessarily a romantic fondness, for this person, one of her final lodgers. And around this time, they try to evict her, and she murders the mayor. That’s “Murder at the 18th Street Garage,” and she dumps the body in the water tower. And what do you have to do when you murder someone? You either have to go to prison or leave town. She does the latter. And we never actually see her again. She appears in other, earlier Mountain Goats songs, where it appears that life didn’t go well for her, as you would imagine, if you murdered someone and had to leave your home. She paid for it. But yeah, that’s the loose story. She runs a safe house and murders the mayor when he tries to evict her.

AD: Thank you. That makes sense. I feel like you’re really good at describing men. All kinds of men.

John Darnielle: All kinds!

AD: But especially the desperate characters, and there are obviously a lot of them in these songs, but you’re centering the narrative on a women, and I was wondering if that was a conscious decision.

John Darnielle: Conscious in the sense that I’m aware of it. It’s not polemical. I don’t sit down and say, “now I must center a woman!” I don’t think that’s an effective way of writing. But it does reflect my values because, you know, we’ve got plenty of central males. We’ve absolutely got a surplus, and so, in my reading and in my writing, I’m always wanting to in some way elevate something that hasn’t been elevated. Or recenter someone or something that hasn’t.

It’s a tricky balance for a writer because it does become very didactic very quickly. And nobody likes that. I don’t want to say nobody likes it, but for the most part, at least for me, that wouldn’t inspire me. Like saying “Now I’m going to sit down and I’m going to center a woman. I haven’t done that.” That’s not what I want. I’m glad that you noticed, but at the same time, for things to have the effect that we hope they’ll have, of other people doing that, of it becoming less unusual, you can’t overemphasize it. It just needs to be normalized. You have to have a diverse population of narrators and heroes and villains and all that.

But in this case, she was always the main character. The song in which the speaker gets on the bike is called “Jenny.” She’s the focus of the song. And in part that’s because she’s a presence only known by her absence. And in this album, I wanted to give her a presence that belonged to her.

AD: I know your long-time band was involved in this, but there were also a bunch of other people. Would you like to talk about why you decided to reach out to some of the others and who some of them were?

John Darnielle: So we have always been…well, not always, but we’ve gotten much more into guests since In League with Dragons. I remember when Owen Pallett produced that, he said, “I want to bring in the following four people.” And they were people I’d never met before. And it was like, “No, I don’t want you to bring all these people I don’t know into my session.” And he said, “Oh, they’re all great. You’ll love them.” And I said, “Four is too many new people.” We’re pretty insular. We bring in one guest per album. One guest. He said, “Okay, we don’t have to bring on this one guy. Let’s do the other three.”

 So we had Thom Gill, Bram Gielen and Johnny Spence. We brought them all. They all showed up on the same day. And I was like…we had all been fairly skittish about this. Especially me and Jon Wurster. Three people I don’t know? This could go a lot of ways, you know? But in fact, they were delightful and they were all great players and suddenly there were seven of us playing all at once. And the song has more chances to do more things if there are more visions being brought to bear on it. And it was amazing because they were great musicians, but they weren’t overplaying. It wasn’t everybody trying to play the song. It was everybody finding a spot to occupy and doing that.

AD: How much do you tell them what to do?

John Darnielle: I don’t do that. I ask people to play, and if I hear something I don’t like, I ask them not to do that. If it’s something I have in my head, once they’re playing, I say, hey what if you do this? And even to notes. I’ll say, what if you play this? Doo-dah-dah. And they’ll say, maybe. And sometimes they go, eh, really? But why not, why not? And they’ll say, well, it’s the way somebody else would do it. It’s a dialogue. My work is to let people do what they do.

AD: But it seems like the more people you have, the more dangerous that is?

John Darnielle: It is. It is. But that’s where you have to do an exercise in trust. In the case of Owen producing that record, I know Owen and he knows me. You also have to—here’s the thing, in making records, and usually I’m right about it, but there’s a sense in which I’m not. When you’re overdubbing, people will often say—and bear in mind that I’m coming from recording by myself, that’s my base, so normally, I get exactly what I want but nobody hears it. That’s my base.

If you go into the studio, and somebody says, hey man, I had an idea for a piano part, and you go, eh. I don’t know if I hear a piano in this. And they say, we’ll put it down and then if you don’t like it, you can take it off. I’m always incredibly cautious about that. Because I have direct experience of—when you do that and you end up saying nah, I don’t like it. And they say, here’s something else I’ll throw out. When we were all fine with it without piano on it. And now you’re forcing me to argue against putting something else on it, and I don’t like being in that position.

So it’s taken a long time to get to the idea that if we bring three people in and I don’t like anything they play, I’m not obligated to put any of that on the record. I will probably have to have fights about it. That’s part of it. There have been some things that have stayed on records that I wanted to come off, and it’s a band process. But once we get to that point, my voice is well-known enough, especially by the producers of that record, Owen and the others, that people aren’t going to do things I hate.

And there’s not much I hate anymore.

In the case of this record, the guests are Alicia [Bognanno] from Bully, who produced the last record. I know her voice. I know her melodic sensibility. I know how she works. And she plays really well with us. She fit in really well.

And then Matt Nathanson is the guy who ran the open mic night where the Mountain Goats began. I wanted him on this record specifically because this is the biggest sounding record we’ve ever made. It’s a giant 70 millimeter thing. Matt was there the first night I said, “Hi, we’re the Mountain Goats.” At his open mic night. So wanted to bring him back in. I texted him last December from vacation. I had “Fresh Tattoo,” written. I thought it was one of the best songs I’d ever written, and I said, “Matt, I want you to sing on this.” And it’s such a joy. That’s a 35-year circle.

You look a little younger than me, but in middle age, it is such a joy to trace those circles, to arrive at a place that’s the same place we’ve been but it’s new now.

And then Kathy Valentine from the Go-Gos, who I met backstage in London. She’s a friend of Jon’s and she said, I’m good at backing vocals, and I said, well you should come to Tulsa.

Those processes were all different. Alicia, we already knew. Trina Shoemaker, the producer, working with Kathy on the background vocals. It was just a wonder to watch it all come together. I could talk about it all day. The sonics of the record are very interesting.

AD: I wonder if you could just mention a couple of moments in the record, either sounds or lines, not even a whole song but just places where you think it came out great?

John Darnielle: The first one that comes to mind is…is it “Fresh Tattoo”? It’s a vibraslap that Jon Wurster overdubbed. I have to look up the track listing. It’s in “Cleaning Crew.”

AD: That’s a good song. I really like that one.

John Darnielle: Thank you. And there’s a vibraslap right at the climax that Jon overdubbed once we got back to North Caroline in Matt Douglas’ studio. The vibraslap…you know they have that sketch on Saturday Night Live, 20 years ago, with the cowbell. So now you can’t play a cowbell without somebody saying, “More cowbell!” It’s very tiresome and tedious and people should think whether it’s still great to be referencing an old comedy routine.

AD: We need to think of another joke.

John Darnielle: Get new material. Right? But I get it, it’s a very funny sketch. But in fact the cowbell has many potential applications. Any sound, you could apply it in a number of ways. One of the things you must learn as a musician is not to say, “Oh, it’s a slide guitar. That means country and western.” It doesn’t mean anything. No sound has an inherent quality. Sounds are what you make of them. And this is one of the lessons that music has for life, that there’s nothing whose inherent quality is so limited that it can’t be redeployed in some other way.

But the vibraslap. It’s this thing that you hit. (He makes a percussive rattling sound.) It rattles. And it’s very easy to overuse. The first time you hear it on anything, you go, oh that’s cool. How am I going to use that without it calling attention to itself? Because that’s the thing. The trick, I think, is actually to double down. To go nope, if we’re going to have it, it’s going to happen once, and it’ll be right there at the center. Very few bands get the chance to use a vibraslap. When you use it, it almost has an inherently comic quality because it’s so dramatic.

So Jon was texting me. He was like, I’m going to put the vibraslap on this and it’s going to be great. He was maybe fretting about whether I would have some pre-existing idea about whether to use vibraslap. Cos a lot of guys do that, “No, there’s no mandolin on my record.” I’m not that way. I used to be that way with synths and still with some synth sounds, you really have to sell it. But the vibraslap on “Cleaning Crew” is so amazing when it happens. It’s like the lights going on on a set. So that’s one.

Matt Nathanson’s harmony on “Fresh Tattoo,” which is a song I probably draw on too much because it’s one of my favorite songs. His harmonies, when he would sing them, that’s a voice from my past. This is a voice that connects me to a younger self that no one in this world will ever see again. And who is now doing much better than he was back then. And is older and hopefully wiser. But to hear our voices together again…the second he started overdubbing the singing, I was in the tracking room with Trina listening, and it was just a beautiful moment for me.

AD: Are you going to try to stage this, or are you just going to play it like a regular record?

John Darnielle: I don’t have any plans.If somebody backed a truck up to the house with the money to do it, sure. But as you know, even staging a tiny theatrical production involves mortgaging several houses, right?

AD: Not necessarily. We go to this New York Theatre Workshop at Dartmouth every year, and they do staged readings of plays, and I don’t think it costs a whole lot.

John Darnielle: Yeah, but if it’s your baby, you sort of want it to be something lasting. I’d be open but it’s not in my plans. The other thing is, I’m not a theater guy. I do write books but …

AD: I read Devil’s House and enjoyed it very much.

John Darnielle: Oh, thank you. But one important thing is that I don’t want people buying my book because they like my music, but I’m sure people do. I want them when they’re reading it, to say, this book stands on its own. You don’t have to like his music to like the book. And that’s important to me. I think a lot of people who are successful…if you’re a successful actor at some point, they’ll probably give you a directing gig. And maybe you’re good at it, maybe you’re not. I don’t think I’d have the chops to stage anything. I would have to put a team together. But I’d be interested. I would listen to any pitch on it.

AD: So you’re going to be stripping it down to tour it then?

John Darnielle: Somewhat. We will be adding musicians to take out. We’ll be bringing out a bigger cast than we normally do. We’re trying to make it sound big. And that’s the thing about his record. It’s a big record. It is a large vision. I normally prefer and dwell on more terrarium-style things, a bunch of things going on in a smaller space. And with this one, I wanted a bunch of stuff going on in a bigger space. So we’re bringing out at least one and possibly two other musicians to flesh it out. It will be really exciting for us. We’ve never done that before.

AD: What else are you working on? Anything else going?

John Darnielle: Yes. I have a million things in the hopper. But I also have superstitions about describing what I’m working on. But I’m always writing things.

AD: This is an opportunity to promote the things you’re ready to talk about.

John Darnielle: Yeah, I was talking to the previous interviewer…I have a cycle of poems that will never see the light of day. I was writing them in Chicago in a cab when I went out to see June of 44 play. I really like this cycle of poems, because I’m 100% certain nobody else will see it except for one friend. So that’s one thing.

AD: Poetry is a tough gig, I think.

John Darnielle: Yeah and that’s another thing, like, I like them a lot, but I also read a lot of poetry and I know they’re not as good as other people’s. So I don’t want to share them, but I like them for myself.

AD: Are you working on any more books besides the poetry?

John Darnielle: Yeah. But it’s not…it’s in the gathering stage.

Here’s the thing for me. In the early stages of a book when it can be anything and it’s so frustrating. You outline and then you write. I have a bunch of chapters from this next thing, but I’m going to throw them all out because I have a better idea. Those were all groundwork.

This is not something you get to do in rock music generally. You don’t write studies for the song. You do this in classical. In classical, you write a number of different versions and you go, oh, this is not a sonata. This is a symphony. I’m going to flesh out this theme that I wrote and make it four movements for a full orchestra.

With the book I’m working on, I know that it’s going to take a very different form. I have a vision for that form. This is really the luxury of books for me. Being in that state. You wish there was a way to have it last forever and have people pay you for it. It would be great if you could just be in this state. It’s a state of infinite potential. It’s like when you’re expecting a child. You know something amazing is going to happen. You hope.

AD: Or it’ll be a mess.

John Darnielle: But the likelihood is high that you’ll have a child in your arms. You don’t know exactly what they will look like but you have a sense, and that’s where I’m at with this next book.

AD: Are you reading anything good?

John Darnielle: Oh yeah. Reading is my …you can see all the books. [The room he is zooming from is filled with books.] That’s not even half of them. My wife and I are talking about how to find a place to put more books here, because underneath my working piano in my office, there are just stacks and stacks of them. When your book gets published, you’ll see. You go do reading tours, and now you’re at a bookstore and what do they have there? They have books. They’ll give you a discount on them if you’re reading there, so you buy so many books. Right now, I’m reading…I’m into detective fiction right now, The Eighth Detective by Alex Pavesi.  I just read Anna Karenina last month, which I loved. It was just so incredible. So I’m giving myself a crime fiction holiday for the next month or so. Because my tastes tend to run to very weighty literary fiction, and I have to force myself to broaden my diet. Crime fiction is great, too! And I’m really judgy when I start. I’m like, well, this is not as good as Tolstoy. They’re not trying to do Tolstoy. It’s a different thing. But once I get out of this, then I’ve got to read Dostoyevsky, I want to read Karamazov. I want to read Bulgakov. I’m really into the Russians right now. | photo Allison Donnelly

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