A Chat with John Darnielle of The Mountain GoatsWritten by Nicola Goldberg
Photos by Catherine Berry
The Mountain Goats have provided the soundtrack for the most important moments of my life, and I know I’m not alone. “You Were Cool,” provided me with background music as I tried my best to ignore those last months of high school. On the second day of college, I sat on the floor of a total stranger’s dorm room as we screamed the lyrics to “This Year” at one another. During the nine long months my boyfriend and I spent on different sides of the country, “Sax Rohmer #1” provided us with a mantra. John Darnielle has a unique talent for making listeners feel that he is on their side, a gift that translates into his work for social justice. The Mountain Goats’ latest album, Transcendental Youth, continues Darnielle’s career of creating anthems for proudly permanent adolescents everywhere.
Nicola: You have a significant internet following: more than 44,000 followers on twitter, as well as a popular website, oft-frequented forums, and a fan-run, extremely thorough database of lyrics. To what extend does your internet life affect your "real life" and your music?
John: Well, like most people I know, internet life is sort of part of real life at this point—it's not like I'm Thor on the internet and Dr. Donald Blake at home. At the same time there's a sort of, the language of talking online is different, it's a different style. So I don't think of an "internet following." I think what the internet does is the dividing line between work and private life blurs a little. In the past, when I'd come home from tour, that'd be it for the Mountain Goats for a while; now the Mountain Goats are part of my day every day. I don't think online time really informs my writing, or if it does, no more so than television, or movies, or any other sort of inflowing datastream. Except books, which have a sort of place of primacy for me.
Nicola: There's a lot of resistance on the internet towards the term "feminist." Some of this is from your run-of-the-mill misogynists or people who misunderstand the term as an insult. Other have qualms with the movement's historical exclusion of women who weren't white, straight, and upper-middle-class. Can you talk about why you chose to identify yourself as a feminist? How important do you consider the term itself to be?
John: I identify as feminist because that's what the term was when I was first learning basic concepts of egalitarianism, about the women's movement. These are some heady questions you raise, and there's a sense in which they really aren't my questions to answer: I'm a dude! I think of feminism as everybody's struggle, because I think injustice affects everybody, but at the same time, I always feel like the last thing liberation movements need is a voice like mine policing the terminology; it's my place to hear what the people most affected by the imbalance of power have to say about what terms are useful. Having said all that, I struggle with the idea of tethering a word to what its historical uses have been. It would be hard for me to part ways with a word which to me has meant a good deal, and which I think has been important to many over the years. But that's just me! I go the way the movement goes, and as it rightly moves toward being genuinely inclusive, if people previously left out say "we need a new term," well, then those people's voices should be heard, in my opinion.
"Womanism" used to be an alternate at one point ages ago when I was reading lots of theory, I feel like, but I'm unfamiliar with where the discussion's gone since then.
Nicola: The internet is a notoriously unwelcoming place, especially towards feminists, as has recently been displayed by the violently misogynistic response to Anita Sarkeesian. Have you experienced hostility online, and if so, how have you dealt with it?
John: Not much, really—I get some "shut up and play music" or "I don't like your music any more because you share your politics" stuff from time to time, but it's pretty rare. I take the early internet rule DNFTT pretty religiously—that's easy for me to say, because I'm not likely to get that sort of slimy outpouring of misogyny that women often get, but even so. But it does seem the most sensible approach or me anyway.
Nicola: In an earlier interview, discussing with Paste how feminism manifests itself in your songwriting, you said "my feminism is for me." You tweet frequently about reproductive rights, queer activism, and other feminist issues. Is there any conflict between the very personal feminism expressed in your songs, and the more open, political feminism that is part of your web presence? How the two effect or inform each other?
John: This is an interesting question. The thing is—my songs occur in a vacuum when I'm writing them: they're not explicitly political, usually, and I'm not writing them for anybody, generally. I am just working. It is kind of a meditative practice, I guess, though it's not like I'm in a trance state or anything. But it's a place apart from the world. At the same time, I'm still me when I'm writing them, and politics are part of how I'm working over the course of my life to become the person I want to be: to better myself, to become a better person, to become a person who was somewhat useful somehow. So the me who writes these songs in this sort of different zone, he writes from whatever place the daily-life person has taken him to. The voice I can access when I write is given form and shape by my beliefs and by how clear they are to me, I think. It's also true that writing is a place where I can work out stuff that isn't clear to me, where I can say things before I'm sure what they mean. As I say, this is an interesting question, there's a lot to say here really.
Nicola: I was at one of your concerts last summer in San Francisco, and you introduced "Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton" as being for "all those seventeen-year-olds about to turn eighteen." This was a few weeks before my eighteenth birthday, and I remember being hugely moved by that. A lot of your music—this new album in particular—seems to focus on young people. Why?
John: Because my youth was a very desperate time: it left a huge mark on me. I don't much like who I was when I was young, but I understand how I became that way, and I remember feeling like as soon as I could get free I'd maybe be able to start restoring myself to some much earlier ideal, to being more like the good kid I'd been when I was very young. Going through high school, in the U.S. anyway, it's like—there are so many rich experiences to be had, but it's also when you start to get smart enough to realize that if you want to get jaded and stop feeling things so deeply, those tools will be available to you. But you also know, when you first start noticing that that particular skill-set is now in your power, or beginning to come into your power: you know then that you'll be sealing off a door maybe for good. And all that's really clear to you when you're sixteen, seventeen, later on too, I feel like high school kind of doesn't end until you've been gone from it a couple of years. Your youth is a huge part of what makes you who you are for better and worse! And for me it was, you know, in the real sense of the word, formative.
Nicola: Another common theme of your songs is dysfunctional romantic relationships. A lot of pop music comes under criticism for glamorizing domestic violence. I'm not sure if you're familiar with Eminem's "Love The Way You Lie," but its video sends a pretty horrifying message. What do you think separates a song from one that talks honestly and powerfully about a difficult relationship, and one that just romanticizes abuse?
John: I have to say, when I'm answering this question, I'm talking about a sort of song I haven't really written in some time; I lost interest in writing about dysfunctional relationships a while back, not that it isn't a fine theme but I think I've said what I had to say on the subject. Romanticization is always the problem in writing about anything that's not good, because writing is awesome, you know? Anything I read, no matter how dark, is going to have some of the magic power of descriptive language—when you read about Sauron in Lord of the Rings, say, I haven't read it since the sixth grade but I can still remember that incredible vibe of EVIL. Baudelaire I think had this phrase "the shimmer of evil" —when you write about things that are hurtful or threatening or where people are doing wrong, there's an attendant gleam. (Listening to music is included in "reading" for me, if I ever end up teaching a seminar class there will be a big and surely very exciting lecture on that proposition.) But I think there are some very phoned-in ideas about abuse, and then there are some more complicated ideas, and former are generally going to be what makes it into songs, because it's very hard work both to write a song where a complicated subject is allowed to be complicated and to listen to such a song.
Nicola: “Cry for Judas” contains the line “Mistreat your altar boys long enough/and this is what you get,” which strongly echoes “Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton.” Is it fair to say that vengeance, especially on behalf of teenagers, is a recurring them in your work, and in the new album specifically?
John: No, no, I mean, the "this is what you get" in "Cry for Judas" isn't a vengeance visited upon an external party but on the victim by himself. The full line is: "And this is what you get: sad and angry, can't learn how to behave/Still won't know how in the darkness of the grave." It's kind of naively hopeful that the imagined victimizer would think about the effects of mistreating someone and feel bad about that. So, no, I have to say, I don't think about vengeance much. I think about cause and effect, and what makes people treat themselves the way they do, but I rarely think much about vengeance. Jeff and Cyrus obviously are a special case.
Nicola: Some of the motifs from earlier albums pop up again on Transcendental Youth, Satan and Florida, for instance. Can you talk about some of the symbols that you return to, and how they’ve evolved across different albums?
John: I haven't really done a whole lot with Satan before—I think it seems like I have, because "The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton" is a well liked song and one we play a lot. But I don't think I really wrote much about Satan otherwise before—maybe use a phrase like "the devil's work" here or there, but on this record it's a very specific sort of thing, this allure that evil and its symbols (whether commonly accepted symbols like pentagrams or personal symbols from one's own sort of alphabet) have when you feel lost inside yourself: Satan here is the sickness you carry if you carry one, that you make peace with because you can't ever kill it entirely, but which you agree to get well from, to be healed of: that's a hard thing to do if you have been in a dark place, to give yourself permission to leave. So here Satan is sort of that principle of attraction to and comfort with the things and places and people who you know will do you harm.
Nicola: You’re known as a literate and literary songwriter. Were there any writers you had in mind while creating Transcendental Youth?
John: Not really. I mean, I assume everything I read leaves some kind of a mark (this is a deeply Catholic assumption, I think), but I don't sit down and say "let me here invoke this writer I'm reading." The one thing is that I discovered Merce Rodoreda for myself sometime in 2010 or '11 and she is kind of the perfect writer, just phenomenal: I read Death in Spring and A Broken Mirror and all her short stories, and those two novel especially—I feel like they made a big impression on me. It's hard to say what that impression is, it's kind of not for me to say either really, but I wonder if there's not a little trace of how much those books got to me in my stuff now.