Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle On The Joys Of Writing Songs In Hotel Rooms And The Best Ways To Feel Bad
John Darnielle is quite a character. Having listened to his kaleidoscopic back catalog of Mountain Goats releases since the early 1990s, I felt like a I had a pretty good handle on what he might be like as a person. After sitting down to chat with him about Transcendental Youth, the Mountain Goats’ excellent new record (the band’s 14th proper full-length, not including the gazillion singles and rarities that they have unleashed over the years), my assumptions about Darnielle turned out to be true: He is both very kind and incredibly chatty. His love of storytelling makes sense, given that so much of his prodigious musical output has been wrapped up in the creation of unpredictable narratives. As a person who has released so much music that he himself doesn’t even have copies of all of it, Darnielle is apparently never at a loss for words or lacking in ideas … which makes him a really fun person to share a cup of coffee with.
Stereogum: In between this record and the last record, what was going on? Did you take a lot of time off? You seem to never stop working.
Darnielle: I don’t rest. I’m not good at it. The other thing is, I start writing the next album usually almost as soon as the last one is in the can. This one, I remember writing the first song for it — the first two songs for it — in a hotel room in Minneapolis in June of ’11. So I guess, when did All Eternals Deck come out? I want to say February of ’11. So I monkey around with other stuff, but I write really well in hotel rooms these days. On the tour for Sunset Tree I started doing that, and discovered that it tended to be useful.
Stereogum: What makes hotel rooms so great to work in? Is it just the anonymity of the space?
Darnielle: No, it’s that you’re pressed for time, there’s nothing else to do — unless you want to walk around, which I generally don’t. It’s also that you’re in an emotionally compromised space when you’re touring a lot of the time. You’re more vulnerable, you’re away from home, so you’re a little looser. It sort of shakes things loose. It’s something I resisted doing forever, and the reason that I started Sunset Tree partly is that I thought “No Children” was one of the most popular songs, and I wrote that one on a plane. I wrote the idea while driving to the airport, wrote the lyrics on a plane, finished it up in a Days Inn in Athens, GA, and set it to music when I got home like two days later. But I feel like I’m a little looser when I’m out because the thing is, you notice in a lot of people’s second albums, as soon as people start thinking of themselves as a writer, the writer suffers. This is why first album syndrome is so bad. Your first album, you’re just writing to have something to do, it’s fun to do. And then people say, “You are good at what you do,” and you say, “Yes I am!” And then you get very serious about it and your stuff suffers — so you want to get to a place where you’re not thinking of yourself in any self-regarding way. You want to be just writing from a position of, “This is what I’m going to do right now,” and see what happens.
Stereogum: I had this very same conversation with a band earlier today. This is their second album and they said, “Yeah we made the songs on the first album without the knowledge that anyone would hear them, and that album was really not so much an album — just all the songs we had.” And then album number two comes along and you have six months …
Darnielle: Yeah, you have all your life to make the first record and then six months to make the second. I’m a much better writer than I was early on, but you’re always going to be trying to harness that energy that’s not so self-regarded, self-important.
Stereogum: In terms of how a record comes together, when you realize these songs make sense as a group, is it something you work toward or is it something that reveals itself?
Darnielle: It varies from album to album. It depends. And it’s funny because when you get your first song, for one, you sort of know. It’s like, oh, that feels like something a little different. Often there’s some space between records where you don’t feel like you’re on any path. It’s not like your album is some radical departure, but usually there’s a little something that opens up that feels like a different path. But on this one, the first one I wrote was “Till I’m Whole,” and it was really dark. It was a super dark song with a lot of death in it. And I thought, “Wow that’s pretty good, that’s very bleak.” And then the next one, the same two-day stay at the hotel, was explicitly about schizophrenia, so I had a little pocket of two there. The first thing I was thinking about was, “Oh a seven-inch!” But I also think it’s really dangerous to immediately announce the theme to yourself.
Stereogum: Because then it becomes a guiding concept, whether you want it to or not?
Darnielle: When you have that then you have people writing songs where they’ve decided that the action is going to move from New York to Hoboken, so they have one song where they take the ferry to Hoboken, and it’s so visibly moving the narrative along, and you sort of want it to develop naturally. I’m lucky — it doesn’t take me too long to get my stuff together. I’m generally able to work from a spontaneous place.
Stereogum: So after you had those two songs then how did it evolve?
Darnielle: I was on tour. I assumed when I had those two in a row that I really liked, I assumed I was going to write a lot more down the West Coast, but if I remember correctly, I feel like I didn’t. I feel like I got in a mood. And I don’t think I wrote anything else. And then I got home — it must have been June, and my wife was pregnant. Then the baby was born, and it’s great because then you live in a sleepless world. I hate to say this, because I don’t want people taking my advice on this, but if I don’t get enough sleep, I go into some very emotional spaces. If there’s a baby around, I can channel that into positive feelings. Generally speaking I just go insane if I’m not getting enough sleep — legitimately very depressed, floors opening under me, it gets rough. But that’s a very creative space to be in, and that’s when I do my best writing, when I’m sort of receptive to feeling. So the baby is born, Mom’s trying to sleep upstairs; I’ve got a tiny creature in my left arm, a piano on my right. That’s how I wrote “Lakeside View Apartments Suite.” On the demo for it, you can hear him start to cry at the end of it. But yeah I started making room, carving out space for all this dark stuff, because generally speaking, fresh baby in the house, everybody’s in a good mood except for not getting enough sleep. But it was great because every time I’d open the door to songwriting, all of this stuff that isn’t part of my daily process would just flood in, there was plenty of room for this dark stuff that I like to play with. So I worked on that, sending it on to the guys, and sending it to Owen Pallett to arrange, and getting this idea to tour with them and really live with them before recording them. And that worked out very well.
Stereogum: It’s nice to be able to do that. I feel like a lot of music could benefit from the process of actually being played live for a while.
Darnielle: People talk a lot about ’70s music and part of the reason that it sounds so good, besides the fact that there was a higher standard of musicianship for entry, but beyond that, people toured the hell out of stuff. Jackson Browne’s Pretender, like half of those were written and tested on the road. They were playing that song every single night, long tours, they were always on the road. The Dead, Bowie — they were touring the hell out of it before he’d go into the studio. Now if you play a new song, everybody gets to hear it within the hour. That’s fine, that’s reality — there’s no point in being mad about it. We decided this time, “I don’t care.” If people want to listen to live versions and not have any surprises when the record comes out, that’s really between them and the guy that made them. If it helps the album be better, then they should play the song and not worry about it. They came out so differently when we recorded them anyway, so it’s cool.
Stereogum: It’s funny how that comes up. I was talking to a band yesterday, and they were saying they have this really great record and they’re on tour right now, and I’m like, “How is it playing these songs?” And they’re like, “Well we can’t play them, the album’s not out yet!”
Darnielle: But they can play them. It’s very liberating. I’m just not going to worry about that. Because if you seek out live versions of new stuff actively, and then you’re mad when the album comes out and there’s no new songs, that’s not my fault. The important thing is to do whatever it takes to make the record as good as possible. It felt very liberating to not worry about that. I only played “Harlem Roulette” once because I sort of wanted to save that one. I think practically every song on the record has been played live — except for the first, the opener, which I’m totally glad I did put in my pocket and save.
Stereogum: Where was the bulk of the new record actually recorded?
Darnielle: All of it was recorded at Overdub Lane — my first dig-in session in a while. You know, where you go in and come out with an album. And that was up the street from my house in Durham.
Stereogum: How is that different from how you typically do things?
Darnielle: The last two records, All Eternals Deck and The Life Of The World To Come — those were the ones I said, “I’m sick of digging in.” Because the thing about digging in is that you book time at a studio, for five days or two weeks or however long, and for most bands who are not huge, you go in and you make The Record. Capital T, capital R. That’s pretty fucking stressful, you’re going to go in and basically define the course of your next two years. Hope you get it right, hope nobody gets sick, because you can’t afford to do any redoes. You’re going to have to live with what you do. That is really stressful. The less budget you have, the more stressful it is. For Tallahassee, we tried to make 17 songs. You learn to relax a little more as you get longer sessions — up to seven days or whatever. Life Of The World To Come — at the end of one tour, I told Brandon Eggleston to book some time at Electric Audio. I had a couple of songs I wanted to do, and got Owen Pallett to come down. And I played stuff. Three days at the end of a tour — that felt pretty low stress. Just a three-day session. So we did that again at two other studios, maybe three. Album ends up costing a bit more than we budgeted for, but at the same time, it worked such good magic on our ability to work in the studio. In a long session usually there’s the power struggles, there’s the disagreements about the directions that you’re going. People get tired, you work really long days, and people want to go home. But with these three-day sessions it’s just really chill. And being relaxed is kind of the key to making good music, probably not for everybody, but as far as I know, especially for bands that tour together, if you’re relaxed you can listen, be in a pocket, and make some good music. We were super happy with that album, so we did it again for All Eternals Deck and recorded it at the Auditorium in North Carolina, and up here at Mission Sound, and at Monarch in Florida. But for the new one, Peter has a baby, I have a baby, I don’t want to be leaving town any more than I can help it, you know, since Mom is working really hard. So Overdub Lane happens to be up the street. And I had done a session there and I asked Brandon, our tour manager, who’s produced with us before, and dug in for six days. Maybe seven. One day was horns, one day was just enjoying watching the horns play. It was my favorite of the dig-in sessions that we’ve done. I’ve stopped doing those because somebody always gets sick, and if it’s me, it just puts a huge hamper on the whole session and things go South. Then even if everybody likes the record, you’re unhappy with it because you know you could’ve done better. But this time I was driving home every night and sleeping in my own house. Very unusual for us — usually we go very far away, fly across the country.
Stereogum: One thing I really love about this record, it’s something I love about my favorite of your songs, is the balance between what’s happening in the narrative of the song and the way the song sounds. Even ostensibly the darkest material can have the most euphoric vibe, which on this record I think happens amazingly.
Darnielle: Yeah, I think I’m maybe getting better at that. It’s long been one of my things. I’m gonna tell a personal story. This is a rough story, so I’m going to say this first: These stories that happened to me, they took place a long time ago, so they don’t have any capacity to wound me anymore. But when I was a kid and things were getting really, really bad in my house with my stepfather and my mom — right before this point where I had to leave my house and live with my dad and all my friends were freaking out because I was 14; the event that triggered that — there was some huge violent outburst at the dinner table, screaming and yelling, and I said, “I’m gonna go back to my room.” I got this idea to show how mad I am, how deep it hurts, and my Mom comes in just saying, “Come back and finish your dinner!” And instead I put my fist through the window. I felt so fucking good. Everyone’s screaming, everyone’s mad, people freaking out, I’m going to get my ass kicked. And it just felt amazing. It was so eruptive and expressive. I knew it was trouble, it was going to make things much worse for me. Visibly, I’m bleeding, it’s not good to be bleeding. But it felt awesome. There’s always that contrast — sometimes the way to feel bad is to feel awesome about it. You really really live it, inhabit it, be that feeling because it can’t really take control of you. Just fully allow it to be the thing that you are. Well that’s exuberant to do. That’s freedom, to go, “I have this feeling and it can’t really damage me.” Feelings are actually safe, but they don’t feel safe — that’s why you try and stop yourself from feeling tense so you won’t burst. But you won’t burst. You can contain all of that. So I think that’s where the exuberance is: When you’re feeling shitty, you’re powerful.
Stereogum: Reminds me of when I was in grad school in Kansas. I was teaching a writing class and everybody was talking about these pieces they’d written. There was this woman in her 60s who had written a poem about storms and tornadoes — which is a prevalent topic of conversation in Kansas. So I asked her where this fascination with storms came from, because she was also talking about how she’d become an amateur stormchaser. And she said, “Well I think it’s because when I was a little girl we lived on a farm and there was a terrible thunderstorm. The power went off in our house and during the storm some men broke into our house and they shot my parents.” And she’s saying it very matter-of-factly and I can see the whole class behind her with the most horrified expressions on their faces. As the teacher I had to respond to her in a way that seemed appropriate, which was hard because it was a horrible story and also because she was really nonchalant as she told it. I thought it was interesting that she’d later become an amateur stormchaser, even though storms were a reminder of the murder of her parents. It was a way to conquer the fear for her.
Darnielle: Ooh. That’s good.
Stereogum: Do you enjoy touring? Your shows are so emotional; it must be both amazing and really exhausting to do that over and over.
Darnielle: I like playing. And I like playing a lot of different places. The touring aspect of it I’ve never been much on — spending too long away from home. But the thing is, you can’t get to the high points of touring without agreeing to do the tour part. There’s no way you can experience what happens if you go to Denver and you have a really good show and there’s that part of you that goes, “Holy crow, Denver, Colorado, far from my home.” You think of what your first associations were with a place and there’s an endless opportunity for reflection. It’s really exciting. But it’s exciting too when it happens in Charleston, SC. It’s a permanently exciting thing for me, anyway.
Stereogum: You have such an expansive back catalog of work.
Darnielle: The thing is, David Bowie used to fuck with writers all the time. I really wanted to go, “What are you talking about? Mountain Goats? Who do you think you’re talking to? I’m from Billy Goats, this is our first record.”
Stereogum: I have a lot of your records, but not nearly all of them. I have a good friend in Lawrence, Kansas, who was something of a Mountain Goats superfan. I’d venture to say that he has almost everything you’ve ever done — which is saying something. Do you often cross paths with people who are completists, who try to have copies of everything?
Darnielle: It’s so hard to actually to do that. I know some of the people who have come closest. But it’s pretty rough to track it all down.
Stereogum: Do you yourself have copies of everything?
Darnielle: Probably. I don’t have a shrine or anything. I realized the other day that there was something that I probably don’t have anymore, but I can’t remember what it was. But usually if you put out a compilation tape, you get five or six copies. I have all the tapes for sure, but it would be compilation seven-inches or CDs … aw man, I’m pretty sure I don’t have the thing that came back in ’96 titled Dog So Large I Cannot See Past It. But I have almost everything. Some of it’s a shoebox over here, in a drawer over here.
Stereogum: Do you have an enormous catalog of discarded songs?
Darnielle: Yeah. I don’t consider them any good, so I’m not going to make a rarities comp out of them or anything. I used to feel like — this is what I learned as a studying poet — that you’ve got to write through more bad ones to get to a good one. And that was true for years — I always felt like it was like three or four that I didn’t like, and then if anything I’d get like three or four in a row that I might like And you can find on my old tapes, there’s a system of saying which is one I think is worth using, which is if you find an arrow pointing to the song. And those are the ones that wind up on albums, for the most part. But nowadays I think my ability to know when I’m in the groove is solid enough that if I’m not, I don’t bother to keep chasing the song. If I start writing and it’s not coming out, then I’m not going to demo that one. I’ll just leave it in the notebook and consider it a pass.
Stereogum: It’s a good skill to have — the ability to know when it isn’t working.
Darnielle: It’s funny. There’s a song I kept trying to make called “Italian Guns.” I liked the idea, I think I did three different versions of it without ever tracking it. I had some rhymes I liked in it, but I could just never quite flesh it out into something meaningful. I feel like if I bothered to track it, It’d be something that five years later you might go, “Nothing wrong with that song!” There was a song we left off Tallahassee that we had the opportunity to revisit and we listened to it and said, “Nothing wrong with that.” There’s also a second mix of “Southwood Plantation Road.” I remember nearly coming to blows between version A and version B. Like, a true battle within the band about which recorded version was better. When we listened to them back to back last year, no one could tell them apart.
Stereogum: That’s funny. Sometimes things that seem like make-or-break moments at the time end up being really inconsequential later on. Still, you don’t want to go through the rest of your life wincing every time you hear a recording because you hate the version that made it onto the record.
Darnielle: It’s pretty hilarious. I think those fights are worth having anyway. I have a philosophy that’s very against the way that most people track. Most people in the studio throw every idea you have on it, and don’t keep the ones that don’t work. But I’m very mystical about stuff — don’t make a gesture because you can’t undo a gesture. Yes you can just erase it from the recording, but the spirit of it is still there. There’s no such thing as erasure. It was already there, and I’m going to have to fight to take it back off, and I don’t want to do that. So I have to think harder about what I’m going to do.
Stereogum: That’s a valuable skill as well. Restraint. I feel like some people suffer because they have a ton of ideas and they need to use them all.
Darnielle: It’s a youthful error.
Stereogum: Will the touring scenario, bandwise, be the same as before?
Darnielle: Well we’re going out as a trio. One thing I’ve discovered is, it’s higher octane with less people. The fewer of us there are, the more compelled I feel to go nuts, which can be a little taxing for the first couple nights of touring, but you do settle into a groove. It can take a little while to blow the dust off.
Stereogum: I’m excited to see you play these new songs.
Darnielle: I’m excited to have rehearsals. We haven’t figured out a set list yet.
Stereogum: I didn’t even consider that. That must be another huge puzzle — creating a set list when you have a back catalog of a million songs.
Darnielle: We did really well with it last year. The problem is that we all live really far apart, so we only have so much time to rehearse. We just played a show in Tampa, and we haven’t played in … I don’t even know when our last show was. A few months ago. Maybe in Australia? But anyway, we met up in Tampa, I made our set list at the hotel, got ‘em all and it was fun. But last June, I wanted to resurrect old stuff that hadn’t been played, because if you’re out there doing the same songs — I don’t even care whether the audience is happy about it — it’s not cool. You’ve got to do different stuff. Even with this new album and the stuff in the back catalog you’re playing, you’ve got to trade out stuff, put some stuff to bed for a while. But when you’re in setup time like this, it’s hard to find time to do that. That’s at least a day’s work to try to sift through songs, and for me I’m so reactionary about only liking the new stuff. It’s how I feel. I’m like, “God I don’t want to play that, let’s never speak of that song again.” Over and over again, until finally you say, “Oh there’s something there, let’s play it again.” It’s a delicate balance because there are people who haven’t seen the band before and they want to hear “No Children,” they want to hear “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton,” and those are always fun songs to play, but at the same time you’re aware that somebody who’s seen you 10 times and has seen all those songs and doesn’t need to hear them anymore — you have to balance that with someone who just turned 21 and has been waiting to get into this club for years and wants to hear all these songs for the first time.
The Mountain Goats’ Transcendental Youth is out now on Merge/Tomlab.
10/06 – Durham, NC @ Reynolds Industries Theatre
10/09 – Richmond, VA @ The National
10/10 – Baltimore, MD @ The Ottobar
10/11 – Philadelphia, PA @ Theatre of the Living Arts
10/13 – Brooklyn, NY @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
10/14 – Brooklyn, NY @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
10/15 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
10/16 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
10/18 – Boston, MA @ House of Blues
10/19 – Ithaca, NY @ The Haunt
10/20 – Toronto, ON, Canada @ Phoenix Concert Theatre
10/22 – Grand Rapids, MI @ Ladies Literary Club
10/23 – Milwaukee, WI @ Pabst Theatre
10/24 – Minneapolis, MN @ The Varsity Theatre
10/26 – Iowa City, IA @ Blue Moose Taphouse
10/27 – Chicago, IL @ The Vic Theatre
11/04 – Huntington, WV @ Mountain Stage
11/29 – Atlanta, GA @ Terminal West
11/30 – Asheville, NC @ Grey Eagle
12/01 – Nashville, TN @ Mercy Lounge
12/03 – Tulsa, OK @ Cain’s Ballroom
12/04 – Dallas, TX @ Granada Theatre
12/05 – Austin, TX @ Emo’s East
12/07 – Santa Fe, NM @ Santa Fe Brewing Co
12/08 – Phoenix, AZ @ Crescent Ballroom
12/09 – Tucson, AZ @ Club Congress
12/10 – San Diego, CA @ Irenic
12/13 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Troubadour
12/14 – San Francisco, CA @ The Fillmore
12/16 – Portland, OR @ Aladdin Theatre
12/17 – Seattle, WA @ The Showbox