We’ve Got A File On You: John Darnielle
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
Nobody, not one single person on this planet, has had a career quite like that of John Darnielle. In 1991, Darnielle, a college student and recovering addict, started recording the songs that he’d written, using a boom box to tape himself braying poetically over his own acoustic guitar. Darnielle called himself the Mountain Goats, and the tape hiss on his songs were nearly as aesthetically integral to those early records as the sound of Darnielle’s spirited holler. For many years, the Mountain Goats were an object of cult fascination that didn’t make enough money for Darnielle to quit his job as a psychiatric nurse. Decades later, Darnielle is a respected man of letters, and the Mountain Goats are an indie rock institution.
Somewhere along the way, the Mountain Goats became a full-on band, picking up members one by one. Darnielle’s ambitions grew. He fleshed out his songs with richer, more ornamental arrangements, and he turned his writerly focus on different subjects — sometimes drawing on his own life, more often taking his characters on extreme and desperate jags that only intersected with Darnielle’s own experiences in tertiary ways. The Mountain Goats have kept working like that, endlessly fleshing out their discography.
As the Mountain Goats’ discography has grown, Darnielle has taken on a number of side projects and other gigs. Not too long ago, Darnielle became an acclaimed novelist, racking up a National Book Award nomination and pushing his writing into different directions. Earlier this year, Darnielle published Devil House, a book that works as an affecting coming-of-age tale, a dread-soaked horror story, and a searing satire of the true-crime boom, among other things.
As his focus has expanded, though, Darnielle has kept the Mountain Goats humming like a machine. Last year, the band got an unexpected surge of publicity when their scorching 2002 marriage-alienation anthem “No Children” became a TikTok hit. Darnielle responded to that moment by making “No Children” a regular live-show closer and by talking about the weirdness of unexpected social-media success at live shows, but he didn’t let it derail him. Now, the Mountain Goats have a new album called Bleed Out, and it’s yet another fascinating turn in a run full of them.
Darnielle has spent years moving away from the full-bodied shout of his older records, singing more softly and sweetly. On Bleed Out, Darnielle reverses that trend. These days, he’s making rockers, but he’s not reverting to the Mountain Goats sound of old. Instead, the band worked with Bully’s Alicia Bognanno, who produced the record and who also plays on it. The band has found a strident, purposeful sound that’s still full and resonant. Darnielle uses that sound to fulminate on the aesthetics and ideas of old action movies — the kinds of things that I once wrote about in this AV Club column.
I’ve interviewed Darnielle a great many times over the years, and I’ve always found him to be one of the greatest conversationalists on the musical landscape. With the new album out, I took the excuse and jumped on the phone with Darnielle to talk about action cinema, death metal, the time he played keyboards for Jandek, and a few other moments of interest from across this man’s long and fascinating professional life.
Bleed Out (2022)
You have a way of writing albums about things that I’m already interested in.
JOHN DARNIELLE: It’s because I like the cool shit!
Exactly! What’s your relationship with action movies? Are you a completist in any way?
DARNIELLE: No, I’m a flaneur in most things. I’m not a single-item guy in anything. I have a really ravenous appetite for books. Less so for movies, usually, for complicated reasons. I like movies a lot, but there’s never time, given how much books and music run my life. But here’s the deal with me and movies: I like science fiction movies. I was a young science fiction fan before I was 13 or 14. And around 13, I became a real snob on purpose. I wanted to be an intellectual. I wanted to watch foreign movies. I wanted to watch Warhol movies. I got into Fassbinder and Pasolini — all these guys, the big auteur European names. That was my stuff for the longest time. I wasn’t about to go see anything that people liked.
As with everything in my life, if there is a genre or a style that I reject or somehow place as not me, eventually I get really curious about it. Anything you hear me hating on, you can probably set your watch on me coming around to it later. I like that about me. I like the process. With the Smiths, right? I hated the Smiths when they were here. I couldn’t stand them. And then [Mountain Goats bandmate] Peter Hughes had a line in one of his songs: “I sure hate those people who like the Smiths, but I sure as fuck don’t trust nobody who don’t.” I was curious about that! At this point, I’d been hating on the Smiths for five or six years. Well, eventually, I got into them. Now, of course, I don’t like them again — for different reasons.
You had that line: “I never liked Morrissey, and I don’t like you.”
DARNIELLE: At that point, I was deep in my Morrissey hate. That was real. But that’s how I always come around to something. When I got to Steely Dan, I had been a person who only wanted music to be hard, to be propulsive. The same way, I got into Joni Mitchell. I hated soft-hearted folk music because I grew up around that. And then one day, I was in a record store in Norwalk, and I was like, “Oh, Joni Mitchell’s Blue record, I heard that was supposed to be really good. It’s five bucks; let’s see what happens.” And obviously, it’s a masterpiece. I don’t do nearly as much hating as I used to.
With action movies, when I was probably 19 or 20, my friend Joel would call and say, “You wanna go see a movie?” This was in the high days of malls in California having a dollar theater. It would be all second-run stuff on eight screens. If you were a young man on a day off with nothing to do, you could do a lot worse than to take a dollar to a dollar theater and see three of ’em. We did that a fair bit, and we’d see movies like I Come In Peace. A lot of horror movies, too — stuff like Army Of Darkness. Universal Soldier. Normally, I’d be holding out for the foreign movie, but I got super into it. I was like, “Oh, wow, these are a lot of fun.” And if you’re a good reader, you don’t need an intellectual text to do stuff with the text. You don’t have to have someone speaking to you from the same sort of vantage point. All those movies are just as smart; it’s just that they’re doing something different.
That’s where I got into it, but I’m not a genre completist. I couldn’t tell you who the people are. I do know, in recent years, the Indonesian stuff is really worth looking into. It’s a vast world, too. There’s martial arts movies, which count as action movies. There’s war movies, which are mostly really action movies, especially from the ’80s onward. Like any subgenre, it winds up not being such a subgenre but an expression of narrative art.
There are so many rabbit holes to go down, especially now that stuff is readily available online.
DARNIELLE: Yes, which is good. But I’m always a big defender of the idea that, when there’s a little scarcity to be had, then you wind up on accidental paths that can be really great. It’s like how I got into music through tape-trading. Like: These are the tapes that I have, so that’s the vantage point I got. It leaves unique imprints on a person if their choice is not infinite. But the more I think about this, also within infinite choice, you’re going to wind up down a pathway. No two people will take the same road just because the choice is so vast.
For me, I like stuff with a little grit to it. I like to look into other countries’ stuff. French action stuff is super interesting, super fun. It’s a little harsher and a little more explicitly political, often. The politics are bubbling right there. I like that stuff a lot.
Have you seen the French movie Lost Bullet?
DARNIELLE: Have not seen that one. There’s a thing where it is hard to find time in my house to watch them. I have children, and since the pandemic hit, they’re here all day.
And you can’t expose them to this stuff. It’s when they’re asleep only.
DARNIELLE: And I’m 55 years old. I have maybe an hour of good time left after the kids go to sleep. They don’t go to bed until nine now! It’s actually how I got into writing this record. I want to watch a movie, but every time I start one of my foreign movies — because I still am like that — every time I start something with subtitles, by 10:15, I just can’t. My eyelids are drooping. But if you find something where people are spreading brains all over the walls, that’ll keep you awake! The adrenaline charge will keep you going.
When I started writing this record, everybody, for the better part of a year, had been constantly posting about bingewatching things. I just wasn’t watching anything. I have to force myself to do it. I have other stuff I want to be doing. But I was like, “This is missing from your diet. We should watch action movies because those are the ones that you will actually go ahead and watch.” We started watching Indonesian stuff and ’70s stuff. I had some DVDs that had been sitting around for years now, like Red Sun, which is a pretty fascinating movie. I’m fascinated by Charles Bronson, and that’s an amazing flick.
So I started chewing those up because I knew they would keep me awake, and I got into my super-old early-days-of-the-Mountain-Goats writing style. You’re watching a movie, and I’m a college student at heart. When I’m watching a movie and I find something interesting to draw on narratively, I grab a notebook, and I go, “Oh, look what just happened!” Before you know it, I hit pause because I have a little bit of an idea, and I’ll work out a version of a song. Everything on the early tapes was written this way while watching VHS movies. That’s how a lot of samples will get into these tapes. I’m watching a movie on VHS, I hear something cool, I rewind it, I catch it on cassette, and that opens the song. I didn’t do that this time. It’s hard to work those kind of samples into a big rock record.
I love hearing you rocking out again, really shouting.
DARNIELLE: It’s funny. Everybody does, but I don’t want to commit to staying in that zone. The luxury of coming back to it is this: If you don’t do it all the time, then you really feel it when you do. If you make it your thing, then it becomes more of a performance. I am a performer, but one of the things you get from us is that we’re very in the moment. We’re not doing anything that we’re not loving doing for the sake of it. I’ve always wanted to give myself the freedom to not be yelling if I don’t feel like it, if it doesn’t come from the gut.
But we hadn’t been on tour in almost a year when I was writing this stuff. I live out there. It’s exhausting, and I complain about it all the time, but it’s also a big part of me. So I had a bunch of energy. That was the idea when I started on “Training Montage” — I think that was the first song, that or “Mark On You” — what if you laid it out there? And the second thing I thought: Peter would love that. And so would Jon [Wurster].
I saw you guys in December, and you seemed very, very happy to be up in front of people again.
DARNIELLE: Oh my god, yeah. We love to play music. It’s who we are. Peter loves being on tour more than I think anyone has ever loved being on tour. I complain about tour. Tour is hard on my body, and I don’t sleep while on tour, but the time we spend onstage? That’s a gift from God.
One more action movie question: Do you have a favorite star or director?
DARNIELLE: Bruce Lee! I think about Bruce Lee a lot lately. I say “lately,” but I was actually doing a collection of poems about Bruce Lee 15 years ago. Bruce Lee was such a giant figure in my childhood. I am lucky to be in the generation of people who were alive when he died, and there were all these rumors — if you’ve read Devil House, the sort of suburban legends that spread among children about how he’d been murdered. These things are still out there, but with kids, it was “Bruce Lee didn’t die of a heart attack! He was poisoned!” That was a narratively exciting space to be in as a budding writer.
Beyond that, I was in central California when I was a child — not a super-diverse community, but more diverse than other parts of the US at that time. And it was really cool! We worshipped him. Every kid on my block wanted to be Bruce Lee. He and Evel Knievel were the dudes. But you knew Evel Knievel was out of his mind. Bruce Lee was hardcore. Maybe sometimes he used nunchucks, but the deal was: No shirt and bare hands. That’s the coolest. That’s as cool as it gets.
But also, I’m a big defender of the Van Damme movies of the ’80s. I love those movies: Lionheart, Kickboxer. I think those are fantastic movies. They have what I want from action movies, part of which is that I want to feel uncomfortable with the moral ground that the movie is on. That’s why I think Van Damme movies are many orders of magnitude better than Steven Seagal movies. But I find the moral vacuum of Steven Seagal very fascinating and fun to play with. My friend Joel had a fake Steven Seagal movie title, which was Killing For Pleasure. Steven Seagal in Killing For Pleasure! I like that, but he’s become a very strange figure. But my dude, at the end of the day, is Bruce Lee. Introducing him to my younger son Moses was one of the happiest days of my life.
“The Legend Of Chavo Guerrero” (2015)
The last time we talked, Beat The Champ was coming out, and the video for “The Legend Of Chavo Guerrero” had not yet come out. So you got to work with Chavo Guerrero, Sr. You got to hang out with him. And not long after that, he passed.
DARNIELLE: Yeah, it was a couple of years later. He became a friend. He would text me on my birthday. He sent me his autobiography, which he wanted me to write an intro to, but he died right before it got released. His son invited me to the funeral. This was profound for me. When I say that was my hero when I was a kid, that was my hero when I was a kid. I was on tour, so it wasn’t possible. But we stayed in touch. The Guerreros are a great family. They’re strong people, legends in Mexican and California and Texas wrestling. It was a tremendous experience.
Chavo was so present for us. He told lots of stories, crazy stories, about having dinner with El Santo and Blue Demon in Mexico in the days when everybody was kayfabe and they had to come in through the kitchen to be seated, so they wouldn’t be seen. I was in awe listening to Chavo’s stories, but I was also asking about various obscure figures, like Al Madril, who I mention in the song. Not a lot of people remember Al Madril. If you’re talking about Santo and Blue Demon and those guys, Mil Mascaras, those guys are larger than life, and any story is going to be a legend. But Al Madril, I was like, “He was so hot! What happened?” And Chavo would be like, “He had a lot of heat, but I think he owed somebody money.”
When you guys are together in the video, Chavo doesn’t look like he’s there for a paycheck. He looks like he’s having a great time.
DARNIELLE: He was having fun! And he gave me lessons in the ring on how to grapple. One thing that was stunning to me: Picture two wrestlers in the ring with their hands on each other’s shoulders, pushing and straining, right? Well, there’s way more acting in that than I thought. I had assumed that you grip the shoulders and push and pull. I started, and he said, “You don’t have to do any of that. It’s a work. You put your hands on, and you rest them. It looks like straining because of what you do with your face.”
There’s a lot of silent movie stuff in it, which is another of my passions — though I have a giant library of silent movies and I never get to watch those. They’re so great if you get into them, but you have to allow yourself the time to understand the different vocabulary of cinema. But also, Japanese silent film is its own thing. So is Swedish. It’s a whole world. It’s worth looking into. But the older you get, the more you realize that the world is full of cool stuff and you don’t have time to take it all in.
33 1/3 Book On Black Sabbath’s Master Of Reality (2008)
With your writing career, one thing that I don’t think gets discussed enough is Master Of Reality. It’s fair to say that’s your first novel, right?
DARNIELLE: Yeah, I would say. It’s more of a novella, but close enough.
That thing blew my mind when it came out.
DARNIELLE: It’s pretty good. The first two books, I’m writing like I was on the first full-length Mountain Goats album. I can feel in my own writing this idea: Maybe this is the only time I’m going to do this, so I’m going to make every sentence extraordinarily dense.
You wrote this book for the 33 1/3 series, where most of the books are based in criticism and history. Instead of doing it like that, you wrote this story that I presume is based on your experience working as a psychiatric nurse. Was that how you always envisioned it? Did you have pushback on the idea?
DARNIELLE: Most people pitch 33 1/3, but the editor at the time approached me and said, “How come you don’t pitch us?” Everybody else was pitching like crazy. I had done a fair bit of music writing in the late ’90s through the mid ’00s. I had written a bunch of stuff. I had presented at EMP. Doing music journalism was a second job for me. I said, “Well, you guys don’t seem to do metal, and that’s mainly what I’d want to do, like Black Sabbath or something.” And he said, “Well, you should pitch.” So this put me in the kind of position I like to be in, which is now I have an assignment, which is to put a pitch together. On my own, I won’t come up with anything. I need, in some sense, to be told what to do. I can self-motivate for writing records, but for writing stuff, it’s ideal if somebody gives me something.
I forget how it went from there, but I went into it. I started writing the diary, and that was that. I liked it better as a way of doing criticism because I do think most people don’t want to read extended music criticism. I love that stuff, but I wanted to write something that was really readable and got the sense of liking Black Sabbath. And also, I didn’t want to do the thing that people still do a lot with metal, which is to intellectualize it and sort of insist that what justifies it is on academic grounds. I don’t think metal requires that kind of justification, or needs it, and I think it’s condescending to say, “Oh, the reason this is good is because I can do academic stuff with it.” No. The reason this is good is because it kicks ass. It makes you feel awesome when you listen to it, and you work your anger out to it.
I am not an anti-intellectual. I enjoy parsing things and relating one text to many other texts that come from different places. But there’s something that’s always felt, especially in the examination of metal… Early white writers on rap would always try to compare it to, like, Shakespeare or whatever. It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare! It’s very good by itself! It doesn’t require the imprimatur of the academy or of established writers. It’s the same way I feel about metal. I wanted to do something that was visceral, that communicated the feeling of getting your head peeled back and your issues taken care of by Master Of Reality instead of doing something that was over-analytical. And that’s a funny thing for me to say because, again, I’m the guy who reads the analysis all day. And I enjoy it, but I also kick back against it a little bit. I like the struggle between those impulses within myself.
The thing that I loved about the book — there’s a certain type of music that, when you’re young and you’re in a mental space, it can save your life. It can be your lifeline. I’ve seen it happen so many times, and that’s a thing that music criticism has a really hard time wrapping its hands around — this visceral, important connection to something when you’re at your lowest. That’s not something that you can write out in a traditional way.
DARNIELLE: This is something that I’ve talked about with respect to, like, goregrind and the violent gangsta stuff of the early ’90s. People always say, you know, “good art has to be punching up.” But sometimes you need music or art that’s just punching. If it’s punching up or down, then it’s taking a moral stance. But you’re looking for something that expresses a pure violence that you need to be experiencing in art. That’s the function that that stuff serves, at least for me. A lot of metal is like that. It’s not punching up or punching down. It’s just punching. I imagine the political argument is that you can’t punch laterally, but I don’t think that’s true. I think it goes 360 degrees. It’s a little different than an aimed punch.
The Extra Glenns (1992-2010)
You and Franklin Bruno had the side project the Extra Lens, and I think you guys were on the second album before I even knew that it existed.
DARNIELLE: The journey of the Extra Glenns is a very slow growth where we did one 7″ and a couple of compilation appearances. Then, about a decade later, we did an album. And about decade later, we did a second one. And that was the end of that.
Did you guys know each other from zines?
DARNIELLE: Franklin was in Nothing Painted Blue, which is the band that Peter Hughes came from. Peter Hughes replaced their original bassist when their original bassist Joey Burns went to play in Giant Sand. So he moved, and Peter replaced Joey and became the full-time bassist for Nothing Painted Blue, who was one of the first bands in our area, the Inland Empire, to really be trying to do it. There was Wckr Spgt — those were my friends Mark and Joel. They were trying to do something on the art-damaged side of things — post-punk, but, you know, they used a drum machine and a guitar after two members left to go to college. They didn’t replace them; they just got a drum machine. And then it was Joel and Mark making noise, doing really weird stuff. That was its own zone, and I was part of it.
We were unaware, for several years, of these guys in Upland who were doing their own thing — Dennis Callaci, who was doing his own thing, first with the Bux and then with Refrigerator, and Franklin, who was writing these songs. He was inspired by Elvis Costello, XTC, the more ornate songwriterly bands of the post-punk era. The Shrimper scene and the Spgt people — me, Joel, Mark, Halo, which is Ian Smith, a guy I’d been in a band with since high school — met up.
I became friends with Franklin. We would hang out, and we had similar tastes in terms of literature and somewhat in terms of music. We knew a lot of the same stuff, so we joked about forming a band. I had a bunch of stuff, and the first sessions were at his parents’ house over in Upland. We did it on a four-track. We did one 7″ for Harriet Records out of Massachusetts; I was pretty proud of that one. That would’ve been ’92.
In ’99, we did the Absolutely Kosher album Martial Arts Weekend. And then many years later, we dropped the G and became the Extra Lens, and we did the Undercard record for Merge.
I think of both of you as OGs of early 2000s music blogging.
DARNIELLE: Yeah, Franklin’s a more careful thinker on music stuff. I was listening to anything he had to say. I think he’s still writing a book on the bridge, as a part of music. He’s an incredibly insightful guy.
I think I encountered you on the I Love Music message board before I ever heard a Mountain Goats record.
DARNIELLE: Yeah! Well! We all posted very intemperately in those days.
Did you enjoy that? Is that message board culture a thing that you miss?
DARNIELLE: That was part of my scene! Pre-social media, that was where we hung out. There was a bunch of boards like that. I think there’s a lot of bleed-through from Hipinion to ILX, but I don’t know because I don’t know anybody’s name. Everybody except me was also talking in AOL Instant Messenger, so they knew each other, and they were involved in each other’s lives. But I don’t hang out, you know? It’s blurred. From posting on a board, I became friends with Dan Perry, for example, who I met there and who now has been on Mountain Goats records and who has written arrangements for us. So I formed real friendships off of there. But in those days, the AIM chats were this whole thing. It was pretty cliquey. But there are several people who are important people in my life who I met there.
Aesop Rock’s “Coffee” (2007)
You have a couple of tracks with Aesop Rock, and I was always curious how that happened. Who approached who?
DARNIELLE: He came up to me at a show in New York, on the lip of the stage at the Knitting Factory. In the duo days, we didn’t have anybody selling merch, so the way the merch worked was after I finished my set, I would go to the lip of the stage and sell stuff from the box. When the box was empty, I was done. He came up and said hi. Somebody else told me that he had been mentioning me in interviews. I forget how we got put in touch, but we hung out some at his place in New York. We hung out some after he moved to San Francisco. He hollered at me first for “Coffee,” and then I hit him back for the “Lovecraft In Brooklyn” remix.
I got to do the verse from “Coffee” live once in Baltimore. It was after our own show. I got in a cab and went across town. It really felt like a very rap video moment — spilling from the cab, straight to the stage, to drop one verse and be done. It was two or three in the morning. It was pretty great.
I remember when “Coffee” came out, I was like, “What the fuck?” And then I was like, “Oh, but they’re both writers, so that makes sense.
DARNIELLE: Well yeah, he’s one of the wordiest of the guys. His whole schtick is extremely dense verse — very GZA-like. You have to unpack what’s going on phrase by phrase.
Back-Page Column In Decibel Magazine (2004)
DARNIELLE: Decibel is so incredible. There’s never been an American metal mag like it. It’s so cool.
Were you writing the column right from when the magazine started?
DARNIELLE: Yup, from issue #1. I should know when the conclusion of my run happened, but I’m glad I stopped before I started going, “Well, I’m out of ideas.” To do a humor column monthly — and that’s what it essentially was; they’re all funny in one way or another — a humor column has to know its end unless you are a natural humorist. Dave Barry can probably write until he dies. The other thing was that I wasn’t quite as up on metal as I had been at one point. That happens, especially when you have disparate interests like me. I just stopped being as into it. The whole American scene got so, like, everybody keeps up with it at a very dizzying rate. I didn’t want to be forcing a take. It came to a natural conclusion. Albert [Mudrian] and I are still pals, and I’ve enjoyed the few things I’ve written for them in the last couple of years. I say “couple,” but I probably introduced Evoken at their 100th-issue show six years ago.
Singing Backup On Superchunk’s “Digging For Something (2010)
DARNIELLE: I’d been in Durham only seven years at that point. I saw “only.” At my age, seven years isn’t that big a deal. I wound up on a Superchunk record just right around the time that we joined up with Merge. Mac [McCaughan] just wrote to me and said, “Hey, I had an idea. Let’s go into the studio.” The studio was over in Durham, a seven-minute drive from my house. It was cool.
I also got to be on Fallon with them. The funny thing about that was we were in the middle of pregnancy stuff. I needed to be home that night. I didn’t want to spend a night away from home. So I flew up, did the show at five in the afternoon, jumped up and down, went directly back to the airport, and flew home, which is a very cosmopolitan-feeling thing to do.
Was it fun to do Fallon, or was your head in another place the whole time?
DARNIELLE: It’s impossible to not be thinking of the music that you’re playing when you’re with Superchunk. It’s exciting stuff to do. I got to be onstage with them a few times, and then Mac came out with [his side project] Portastatic opening for my solo dates last year. I’ve sang a few times with him on stages in the post-pandemic thaw of touring, which was fun.
The other thing about me and Mac is that many people who are our age… In my thirties, I used to really go in on people for failing to stay current with stuff — for failing to stay engaged, at the very least. People just settle into patterns of liking what they liked 10 years ago. You see a lot of this as a Facebook phenomenon. You’ll see your friends in their fifties like “here’s a good song from back when music seemed better to me.” I’m more forgiving about that than I used to be. I get it. But at the same time, I don’t get it.
I may not be current on stuff, but I am discovering new music every day. It’s one of the few good things about the digital age — how you can find new music every single day without spending a dime on it. You have a subscription service, but you don’t have to leave your house to learn something new about music today. That, to me, is so exciting, and I know Mac is the same way. He’s very enthusiastic about hearing stuff. He’s not like, “I’ve heard enough stuff.” He’s very excited. When he’s promoting new records on Merge, he’s super into it.
That’s one of the things that people often comment about with music — my enthusiasm. You can tell when you’re hanging out with me or talking to me, I’m pretty into the stuff I get into. That excitement does not end. The quality of it changes over time. Over the last few years, I think I do less listening to stuff that really makes me cry a lot, which is sort of my favorite zone, but it’s not usually where I’m at these days. If I want to do that, I’ll bring up records that I was crying to five or 10 years ago. But Mac and I are kind of kindred spirits in that way.
Recording With Erik Rutan Of Hate Eternal & Morbid Angel (2011)
Years ago, I asked you about actually making metal and why you don’t do it. I’m sure people ask you the same thing all the time. Back then, you were like, “I can’t do that. The people who do this are these specialists who have devoted their lives to mastery of certain ways of playing their instruments.” But you did work with one of the dudes from that world.
DARNIELLE: All Eternals Deck was the record where I had this idea that I wanted to do it in a bunch of studios. I had noticed, over the course of nine or 10 years, that you go to the studio and it opens up your possibilities every time. There’s excitement to a new room. And you only have so much time. If you record in a different studio every album you make, you’re still going to miss a lot of classic, great studios.
I wanted to go to Electrical [Audio in Chicago] again; I’d been there once at that point. I also wanted to do something in New York City; I’d never really spent any time there in-studio. There are great studios there, but there are fewer now than there were then. I’m glad I got into Mission Sound because a lot of great studios in New York have been priced out so that people can have condominiums. It’s really bad because those rooms were legendary and legendary records were made in them. It sucks to make them playgrounds instead. This is a theme I get into too much. We had a development here in Durham that erased a lot of amazing stuff.
When I got the idea of doing at least three different studios, I thought, “Erik Rutan has a studio! We could go down there and work with him!” I hit him up, and he’s a very game dude. He was like, “I listen to all kinds of music. I would love to.” We’re still friends. He wound up playing guitar with us at a show in Tampa. That was the greatest thing of all time. He brought his amp, his monster amp.
We had a blast. We got into a heart-to-heart backstage about “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton.” He’d gone in deep on the song. He was talking about, “Wow, this is relatable stuff for me, actually.” It was really cool. Most metal dudes — they may play mainly metal, and they may listen to mainly metal, but like everyone else, they have a depth of field. All musicians understand that genre is just a way of expressing your musical self, but it’s not the entirety of your musical self. Hardly anybody over 18 is going to be like, “Well, no, my identity is entirely tied up in this genre.” Nobody is limited by genre. You would think that sampling would’ve proven this. A hip-hop track can sample anything from any universe and fold it into that, and yet it will retain something of the sample’s musical identity. Music is infinite in that way.
But yeah, we drove down 95. We replicated the journey that Cannibal Corpse had taken in — I want to say ’88, but it might’ve been earlier — down to Morrisound, which was the big Tampa death metal studio at the time. They documented this. You can see footage of that on the four-hour Cannibal Corpse documentary Centuries Of Torment. It’s got them as young men going down 95 to record their album, and we did the same thing. We brought our phones and documented a bit of it.
The story I’m always telling is that Erik said, “I have a pro reference kit if Jon doesn’t want to have to bring his kit.” I asked Jon, and he said it would be fine. We get there and set the drums up. Setting drums up is a thing. You need to get a good setup. Jon looks at the kit and says, “This is great! Um, I’m only going to need one kickdrum, though.” Erik says, “Really?” And I said, “Erik, have you ever recorded a band in this room that didn’t use two kickdrums?” “No!” It was the greatest. It was exactly what I wanted because then we have people whose understanding of how to make music is coming from different places. And then you meet in the place where you’re all working together and find something new.
I think “Sourdoire Valley Song,” of the four songs that we tracked at [Rutan’s studio] Mana, is unique in the catalog. The way that it gets to its quiet place is different than on the other quieter songs. It was interesting to me that we wound up doing quieter songs down there instead of barnburners.
Playing Live With Jandek (2009)
Speaking of people who have a different understanding of music, you played with Jandek.
DARNIELLE: I did! And they finally just released that [on the live album Chapel Hill Sunday] — finally, after years! It just came out.
Have you listened?
DARNIELLE: Yeah! I’ll tell you, I had been nervous for years about listening to it. I was pretty new at coming back to keyboards at that point. When they hit me up to ask if I wanted to play with Jandek, they didn’t say, “What do you want to play?” It was just: “Do you want to play?” He was doing this realm of very pure improv where it doesn’t matter what you play or how well you play at it. The idea is to meet in a space of improvisation. But I had been playing some keyboards. I know I can’t play that as well as guitar; I’m a little better at it now. But I have some backing in jazz piano, so I was like, “I can give it a try.” I was really nervous. They hooked me up with a Nord, and I don’t really like to play Nords. I don’t like to play things that don’t have weighted keys.
It was me and Dave Cantwell and Anne Gomez and Jandek, and there was no real preparation. You meet at soundcheck, and you run through the lyrics that he’s brought, and you run through some concepts. Then you have dinner, and you go play. It was really incredibly great, but the whole time, I was like, “God, am I ruining this? Am I the weak link here?” It was very nerve-wracking. Dave and Anne have extensive experience in improv. They know what they’re doing.
I was pretty pleased by the CD because I think I held my own. I think I overplayed a little on it. At that time, I think I would’ve felt really out of place not playing onstage because I’m a frontman. Normally, I’m up there, I’m playing. But the thing with improv is knowing when not to play — the spaces between the notes, that kind of thing. But I think I made some decent noises on there! I was relieved because I was like, “God, did I show up to that party with a lampshade on my head?” But I figure it’s actually pretty good.
“Song For Sasha Banks” (2018)
Did you ever hear back from Sasha Banks about “Song For Sasha Banks“? [The WWE star asked when Darnielle would write her a song when he was coming out with his wrestling-themed album Beat The Champ, and the Mountain Goats released “Song For Sasha Banks” a few years later.]
DARNIELLE: Yeah, she DM’ed me, and we talked a little bit. She was pleased with the Iowa references. I don’t know if you caught that, but she lived in the types of places where I worked, in children’s placements. She was in one. We didn’t meet up or anything, but we had communication, and it was pretty great.
It’s a great song! Just to be thrown out there as a loosie, with such a fun backstory…
DARNIELLE: Yeah, it’s one great thing about the internet and with having a great manager. You can just get something going: “Hey, I had this idea for a song. Where should we do this? Well, let’s just do it down there with Chris Stamey.” Stamey’s a genius. You go to work with Stamey, and you leave the studio that night. By morning, he’s put arrangements all over it. He loves to work. It was just very quick. I had this song, and I had a couple of others that were probably sitting around in notebooks. “They won’t wind up getting folded into whatever, so let’s just go do those, make an EP out of it.” It was super fun.
Bleed Out is out now on Merge.