Turntable Interview: The Mountain Goats
The Mountain Goats are just about to release Transcendental Youth, which is their 14th studio album. In support of their album the group, comprised of John Darnielle, drummer Jon Wurster and bassist Peter Hughes, is about to set out on another nationwide tour. But before they leave, the band’s charismatic frontman Darnielle (above, center) met me in a Turntable.fm room to spin tunes and chat. In an almost two hour interview, Darnielle who does not shy away from personal revelations either in his lyrics or his IMs, elaborated on his love of Amy Grant, the fact that he doesn’t believe in genres, and gave this interviewer a tutorial on The Grateful Dead, whether she wanted it or not.
Melissa Locker started playing “Tokyo Á Go-Go” by The Magnetic Fields
JOHN DARNIELLE: They should have a “hide info” option so we have to name the track. Hello by the way this is JD
STEREOGUM: Hello! This is Melissa. I agree it would be fun to play “Name tThat Tune.”
JOHN DARNIELLE: I tend to type unpunctuated in chats I hope that doesn’t mess up your deal.
STEREOGUM: No problem! I am curious to find out what is in your playlist
JOHN DARNIELLE: Well my playlist hopes were dashed when I learned that Turntable.Fm doesn’t allow us to upload AACs
STEREOGUM: Oh dear. I did not know.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Nothing from Uncle Wiggly’s “Farfetchedness.” The Netrebko/Barenboim recital I’ve been listening to all morning…no. Still I found some stuff.
STEREOGUM: That is almost tragic, but I’m glad you managed to find something.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Are you on headphones or using speakers?
STEREOGUM: Speakers. You should click “start DJing” to begin.
Melissa Locker started playing “I Know Very Well How I Got My Name” by Morrissey
JOHN DARNIELLE: In an office? At home?
JOHN DARNIELLE: Cool
STEREOGUM: Why? Are you going to play something NSFW?
JOHN DARNIELLE: Ha! Yes I have some very important erotic jams. No it’s just that I think listening environment is really important, you know?
JOHN DARNIELLE: Like, that we are always listening at our laptops, I think this is one of the weirdest things about the changes in listening habits over the past 15 years or so. Looking at other stuff, reading other stuff.
STEREOGUM: To that point, where are you listening today?
JOHN DARNIELLE: Ha yes well…like everybody else, I’m at my desk, with about 20 tabs open in Chrome, and music playing
Melissa Locker started playing “This Town Doesn’t Have Enough Bars For Both Of Us” by Gospel Music
JOHN DARNIELLE: But what I wanna ask you to do is shut everything else out for a minute and a half while I play this Scriabin tune
STEREOGUM: You have to click on the spot next to my avatar to start DJing. Okay, but I actually don’t have anything else open though. I was concentrating!
JOHN DARNIELLE: Oh it wasn’t an accusation or anything!
STEREOGUM: But you do need to click on the Start Djing tab next to my avatar to play
JOHN DARNIELLE: Ah! okay
STEREOGUM: Perfect. You are a notorious metal head. Are you going to play nothing but Megadeth?
JOHN DARNIELLE:is something not playing for you right now? >: It’s only 9 am in Portland, I need to prepare myself.
John Darnielle started playing “Scarlet Begonias” (Live At Springfield Civic Center Arena, Springfield, MA, May 11, 1978)” by Grateful Dead [ed note: Linked to an approximate version of the song]
STEREOGUM: The Grateful Dead just started playing
JOHN DARNIELLE:….not sure why the tracks I’m playing aren’t working for you.
STEREOGUM: We just take turns. It’s your turn now. Then it will be my turn. It’s like kindergarten.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Right but I’ve hit play on this Scriabin track 4 times…it plays for me, but evidently you’re not hearing it.
STEREOGUM: Is it at the top of your DJ Queue on the right side?
JOHN DARNIELLE: No, the middle. aha ok I get it. So right now you’re hearing the Dead, right?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, and can I tell you something? This is the first Dead song I have ever heard. And I’m from Oregon.
JOHN DARNIELLE:Hahahahaa. Well.
STEREOGUM: Are you a Deadhead?
JOHN DARNIELLE: I should maybe find something more legendary than a Scarlet Begonias from the ’78 tour then
STEREOGUM: Is this going to be a Dead tutorial then?
JOHN DARNIELLE: Unfortunately it matters a lot which tour/year you’re picking with dead tunes & the turntable.fm interface won’t let you see enough data
STEREOGUM: What appeals to you about the Dead? What would you tell a newbie like me?
JOHN DARNIELLE: I’m not really a Deadhead proper. Never saw them live, only got into them because I’d reflexively avoided them for years. Because “you have to see them live” is something I’ve always hated being told. Though I think probably with people who don’t like what ~we~ do, that’s probably something people who do like us probably say, because I’ve had people tell me “I didn’t really want to come to this show, but my friend made me, and I’m converted”
STEREOGUM: Since they are no longer touring, is there a chance for anyone else to convert?
JOHN DARNIELLE: We’re listening presently to a 1978 tour version of “Scarlet Begonias,” which is a good live track. But the best live years for the Dead are probably ’69, ’72, and ’77, in that order, though you can get people arguing passionately about that
STEREOGUM: I mean, if you have to see a band live and then they stop touring what does that mean for them?
JOHN DARNIELLE: There are thousands of hours of live Dead shows on tape/CD/flac/etc and they are sufficient to hear the remarkable chemistry of the band – it really has nothing to do with the stuff we stereotypically associate with them, it’s about a band that plays well together. ’78, though, on the present evidence of this interlude, is not in the same class as the glory years
STEREOGUM: What other bands do you think fall into the “have to see them live” category?
JOHN DARNIELLE: Hmm. Wckr Spgt.
STEREOGUM: Do you pay for the show in vowels?
JOHN DARNIELLE: Ha. That was their joke – they formed in high school and then some of them went east to college and “took the vowels”. There won’t be any Spgt on turntable I fear.
STEREOGUM: Do you think Mountain Goats are better live?
Melissa Locker started playing “Yellowcake” by Kaki King
JOHN DARNIELLE: Ah here’s Kaki from when she’d just started singing. The first two albums are instrumental.
STEREOGUM: Is it nice to see your band’s diaspora spread out and watch them create their own music?
JOHN DARNIELLE: I’m not sure who you have in mind? Most of the people I play with already had their own deals when we crossed paths.
STEREOGUM: I was wondering what it was like to watch friends you’ve played with as their careers expand and grow and see their growth as artists
JOHN DARNIELLE: I wonder what Kaki thinks of this next dude I have queued up. Oh well yeah – it’s awesome of course
John Darnielle started playing “Sand” by Allan Holdsworth
JOHN DARNIELLE: It’s weird though, because once you know somebody, you experience their work differently
STEREOGUM: How so?
JOHN DARNIELLE: Well, for me, listening has a sort of heavy imaginary quality to it. I hear a song, and I imagine things: about what the people who made it are like, about what their music means to them, about what I’m “supposed” to feel in response to it. You know? Once you know somebody, all that mystery – all the unknowability of the artist – you have to give that up.
JOHN DARNIELLE:It’s not really a gain or a loss, but it changes your perspective, because you’re not in the dark any more. I’m making you listen to jazz fusion. I apologize.
STEREOGUM: I feel the urge to wear a beret, I confess
JOHN DARNIELLE: Ok so that sound is a guitar
JOHN DARNIELLE: A guitar synthesizer, to be specific
STEREOGUM: Wow, it sounds like a clarinet. Is there any genre of music you don’t like?
JOHN DARNIELLE: Holdsworth is one of the best guitarists alive & has long taken an interest in different sounds – a lot of fusion goes for new bells-n-whistles type sounds. No, I think not liking a genre is weird. Like when people say they don’t like reggae or country or rap. What the hell.
Some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century worked in those genres.
STEREOGUM: I feel like jazz fusion may be an exception to that rule.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Really feel like if you love music, the concept of not liking any genre should seem a little infantile to you
Melissa Locker started playing “Pale Blue Eyes” by The Velvet Underground
JOHN DARNIELLE: I mean I get that not everybody’s thing is the same, but…music is a continuum, genre’s just there so that people can declare allegiances, which is weird to me.
STEREOGUM: I may have an infantile reaction to jazz fusion from having worked at a jazz club as a minor.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Hahaha. Yes. For YEARS I couldn’t listen to any progressive political music because I grew up singing “Solidarity Forever” etc
STEREOGUM: Yes! My Quaker grandmother had that in heavy rotation. But you like it now?
JOHN DARNIELLE: Yeah I can dig it now. I sing that one to the baby, he is very progressive. But for ages I could not hear anything with a message without bristling.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of messages, did Mitt Romney ever get back to you?
JOHN DARNIELLE: Yeah he’s here right now. He heard I had a great grindcore collection and could not resist. Mitt say hi to Melissa.
JOHN DARNIELLE:HI MELISSA THIS IS MITT ROMNEY. GRIND TIL DEATH.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Ok I’m back.
STEREOGUM: Well, he’s won my vote. But going to back to a question I asked earlier that got lost, do you think the Mountain Goats are one of those bands that should be seen live?
JOHN DARNIELLE:I don’t know! I mean, I think what we do live differs a lot from what we do on record – live performance is very much its own musical sphere, it’s not about trying to recreate the record but trying to go somewhere & take people with you, so in that sense yes
John Darnielle started playing “St. Stephen” by Grateful Dead
JOHN DARNIELLE: Is there a skip track function? I got something else I wanna play.
STEREOGUM: Yes, if we both skip it can be your turn again.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Don’t get me wrong this is a jam.
STEREOGUM: And it’s part of my tutorial!
JOHN DARNIELLE: Where’s the skip track?
STEREOGUM: Just mouse over your avatar and it should pop up.
John Darnielle started playing “Out In The Open” by Amy Grant
STEREOGUM: Oh no you didn’t.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Ahh here we are. My favorite living pop artist.
STEREOGUM: I can sing every Amy Grant song from her Christian era. All of them.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Listen to the lyric with your eyes closed and think about singing this after her divorce. This is ’97 I think.
STEREOGUM: All I hear is Church Camp.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Well, this is a secular track.
STEREOGUM: I am trying to be open minded. What is it about Amy Grant that appeals to you?
JOHN DARNIELLE: I have 836.6 MB of Amy Grant tunes on my hard drive if you need further convincing.
STEREOGUM: Why is she your favorite pop artist?
JOHN DARNIELLE: Well -she’s a tremendous singer and a good songwriter and nobody sings a Rich Mullins song like her, and Rich Mullins is one of the best songwriters I know of. Also an underrated guitarist, I saw her in Tennessee a few years back and she can really play, but beyond all that
STEREOGUM: But if I listen to her lyrics vs. say your lyrics, yours tell a much more of a story. I mean, you wouldn’t use a line like the one that keeps repeating, “There’s no jury, there’s no judge, ready and waiting in the steady arms of love.”
JOHN DARNIELLE: No, we have different aesthetic interests as far as what we do, but if I only listened to stuff that does what I already know how to do, I would be extremely narcissistic.
Melissa Locker started playing “What’s Going Ahn” by Big Star
STEREOGUM: So is listening to Amy Grant sort of a lesson in pop music? Is that part of what you find appealing about so many other genres of music? That they are instructional in some way?
JOHN DARNIELLE: No – Amy Grant’s music makes me cry like a child. That is a thing I really value in music
STEREOGUM: What other artists do that to you?
JOHN DARNIELLE: Again I think genre kind of doesn’t exist? Well, Rich Mullins, the guy who wrote some of Amy Grant’s most emotional numbers, has this direct line to my tear ducts
STEREOGUM: Right, but you don’t make reggae or rap, so when you hold someone up as the best, isn’t it a bit normative?
JOHN DARNIELLE: Yeah – there’s things people are better at making but as far as listening goes, genre’s only useful for me trying to describe something
STEREOGUM: Gotcha, so who beside Rich Mullins makes you cry?
John Darnielle started playing “Why Shouldn’t We” by Mary Chapin Carpenter
JOHN DARNIELLE: This is MCC. literally everything she does makes me BAWL. Ok I’m gonna get emo on you.
STEREOGUM: Okay, I’m ready. Wait, Pete Wentz style? I’m not ready.
JOHN DARNIELLE:WE BELIEVE IN THINGS THAT WE CANNOT SEE. WHY SHOULDN’T WE? WHY SHOULDN’T WE? HANDS THAT HEAL CAN SET A CHANGED MAN FREE. WHY SHOULDN’T WE? WHY SHOULDN’T WE? AND WE BELIEVE IN PEACE WITHIN EVERY HEART. WHY SHOULDN’T WE? WHY SHOULDN’T WE? BURNING BRIGHTLY, BRIGHTLY IN THE DARK. WHY SHOULDN’T WE? WHY SHOULDN’T WE? Jesus there is just nobody in her class, she is the best
STEREOGUM: Do stunning lyrics always make you cry?
JOHN DARNIELLE:MCC is somebody working roughly the same corner as me who I listen to. They have to have an ache to get me. Some feeling or loss, or profound hope as in this case
STEREOGUM: Have you ever covered this song?
JOHN DARNIELLE:WE BELIEVE IN THINGS THAT MAKE US ALL THE SAME. WHY SHOULDN’T WE? WHY SHOULDN’T WE? No – there’s one of hers called “Here I Am” that I’d cover but I choke up.
STEREOGUM: There’s an album coming out of people covering your songs. How does that feel?
JOHN DARNIELLE: It’s wonderful that people cover my stuff if they do – I mean – this is hard to explain, but I try not to think too much about it, because writing songs is an egocentric enough activity, and I want not to be thinking about myself all the damn time, prefer to look to others who I think of as much much better than me (Amy Grant, Mary Chapin Carpenter, et many many al)
Melissa Locker started playing “Pitseleh” by Elliott Smith
JOHN DARNIELLE:so if people are paying tribute in some way to me I have to keep some distance because I don’t think it’s healthy to think too hard about how people really like my stuff. You’re not telling me anything about what you’re playing and why you’re playing it!
STEREOGUM: Well it’s still early here in Portland and we were talking about music that makes you sad and Elliott Smith seemed apt.
JOHN DARNIELLE: You know it’s funny, I consider him one of the best indie stuff ever produced but his music itself….it’s great, very great, but it’s not make-me-cry music. For me. “Indie stuff.” You know what I mean? We come from roughly the same scene, I’m a big fan of the last Heatmiser album. But there’s oddly a toughness to what he does, even in his tender moments – this guardedness. I think, to answer your question from earlier…ok hold up just listen to Christine’s song because this, this is the best song. The best song. I’m going to play you the cryingest song ever, if you have ever lost a family member you might wanna brace yourself.
John Darnielle started playing “Vertebrae” by Christine Fellows
[ Darnielle listens in silence as the song plays]
JOHN DARNIELLE:Well, there it is
STEREOGUM: I don’t know her, but I like it. It’s beautiful!
Melissa Locker started playing “Atlantic City” by Bruce Springsteen
JOHN DARNIELLE: I consider that the best song of the 21st century so far and I don’t expect to live long enough for somebody to write a better one. Springsteen!
STEREOGUM: This song gets me. But who is Christine Fellows? And does she know of your love for her?
JOHN DARNIELLE: She’s somebody, actually, who I toured with, because I wanted to hear her music every night. Her husband is John K. Samson from the Weakerthans, though I hate saying that, because her work is a towering monument to songcraft and she shouldn’t have to be identified by who she’s married to. She played “Vertebrae” every night and I sobbed like a guy who’d lost everything he ever loved every damn time. A literally perfect song.
STEREOGUM: Do you think that made it awkward for her?
JOHN DARNIELLE:Yes I do!
STEREOGUM: In the last minute of the interview, can I ask where you got the title of your new album?
JOHN DARNIELLE: Can we go long or are you busy? This is fun.
John Darnielle started playing “Then Came You” by Dionne Warwick
STEREOGUM: I can stay!
JOHN DARNIELLE: Cool. So “transcendental” was an elision of some ideas in the first drafts of the title, which were “satanic youth” and “infernal youth” but I thought about the people I was trying to write about/speak to/speak for and I thought, the imagery that attracts some of us when we feel broken or lost, the dark things that I, at least, find comfort in when I feel frayed or like I’m going to come to pieces, those images & mood & tones, colors, those are ways of achieving transcendence, of rising above circumstances
STEREOGUM: Is that what you’re going to tell your kid?
JOHN DARNIELLE: I’m going to tell my kid that banging his head on the floor may be fun, but will hurt his head. Naw, look I hope not to pontificate to my son, what is worse than parents saying “LISTEN, CHILD, TO THE WISDOM I HAVE ACCUMULATED”
Melissa Locker started playing “Down By The Water” by PJ Harvey
JOHN DARNIELLE: Never heard this one. Tell me about it and why you are playing it!
STEREOGUM: I like it because it sounds almost folkloric and I’ve always meant to Google it to see if it is based on an old tale or something.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Great build here
STEREOGUM: And I think some of your songs are also folkloric, so it seemed appropriate. Plus I hadn’t heard it a while.
STEREOGUM: BTW, I can only stay about 10 more minutes.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Noted! Wait, damn I’m only gonna get one more song
STEREOGUM: I’ll skip my next one so you can have two.
JOHN DARNIELLE:I love playing people music. Sorry I burned up your time with fusion early it’s just what I’m listening to lately. I’m gonna play you more CCM though.
STEREOGUM: We’re well suited then because I love people playing me music. Even fusion.
John Darnielle started playing “Calling Out Your Name” by Chris Rice
JOHN DARNIELLE: This is a Rich Mullins tune. I’m not a believer, but if you have any previous contact with belief, this song sort of….it reaches deep places for me. From the place where morning gathers, you can look sometimes forever til you see.
STEREOGUM: Are you looking forward to going out on tour?
JOHN DARNIELLE: I am! I love to play live.
JOHN DARNIELLE: What time may never know
JOHN DARNIELLE: How the Lord takes by its corners this old world and shakes us forward & shakes us free, to run wild with the hope
JOHN DARNIELLE: The hope that this thirst will not last long, that it will soon drown in the Song not sung in vain
JOHN DARNIELLE: I feel the thunder in the sky
JOHN DARNIELLE: See the sky about to rain
JOHN DARNIELLE: And with the prairies I am calling out your name
JOHN DARNIELLE: I MEAN COME ON. So this next one is Fight the Big Bull, which is Matthew White’s band. He wrote the horn arrangements on the new record and they’re coming out on tour with us.
John Darnielle started playing “November 25th” by Fight The Big Bull
JOHN DARNIELLE: So check me out, I actually talked about the new album/tour. Go me!
STEREOGUM: Well done!
JOHN DARNIELLE: Hahahaha. Hope this was not too terrible of me my interviewing confidence is kind of at an all-time low
STEREOGUM: The best Turntable Interviews never get around to talking about the usual interview stuff, so this was great.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Are you sure? I seriously have become Mr Neurotic Man in interviews this time around, like afterwards I feel like “well there’s another person who hates you now. Well done you schmoe” and then I have to ask for reassurance, which is a terrible look. Oh man listen to that trumpet.
STEREOGUM: I don’t hate you. Pinky Swear.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Ha! Thanks for tolerating my deadhead fusion ways. God this track is awesome. So in the pocket.
STEREOGUM: It is good. How did you meet up with them?
JOHN DARNIELLE: They played on the Megafaun “Sounds of the South” show down the street and they just MURDERED it and I asked Brad (from Megafaun) “what’s their deal.” Brad, such an inspiring guy, loves music like a cat loves canned catfood, is like: “DUDE. That’s Matthew White…he is incredible.” And Brad, like, I believe strongly is a person sent from the future to help us relearn that music is our birthright and that everything’s music so why not just celebrate everything, so I said, “Brad, introduce me to this dude, I want him on my record”
STEREOGUM: Ha! That is a meeting.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Phil from Megafaun also plays piano on “The Diaz Brothers” because it’s a pretty intense piano part and he’s better at piano than I am.
Melissa Locker started playing “Fergus Falls” by Field Report
STEREOGUM: Okay now I do have to run.
JOHN DARNIELLE: I want to play more songs, but you have to go! This was fun hope you get something usable out of my yammering
STEREOGUM: I did! But we can do this again anytime
JOHN DARNIELLE: Word!
JOHN DARNIELLE: See you “out there” as Roger Miller said to me once
STEREOGUM: Whoa, really? Roger Miller 4 eva
JOHN DARNIELLE: I know. I was in an elevator with him, flipping out, “well, it was good to meet you man, hope our paths, umm, cross, ummm…..” “Yeah I’ll see you out there.” A+
STEREOGUM: Wow! I look forward to seeing you “out there”
JOHN DARNIELLE: Yes!
Transcendental Youth is out 10/2 via Merge.