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What's Got John Darnielle's Goat?

Mountain Goats' front man on abortion rights, horror flicks, and feminists' treatment of Sarah Palin.

| Fri Mar. 25, 2011 9:35 AM EDT

When news of the forthcoming Mountain Goats record hit the internet this past December, obsessive fans—which is to say, most Mountain Goats fans—flew into a re-tweeting frenzy. All Eternals Deck, out March 29 on Merge, is the North Carolina-based indie group's 13th studio album, yet front man John Darnielle—immortalized in 2005 by New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones as "America's best non-hip-hop lyricist"—still enjoys cult-favorite status. His delivery can be raw, and his bittersweet, often confessional, odes to adolescence, religion, and divorce aren’t for everyone. But those who love his work hold it very dear: In 2009, when the group made its national TV debut on The Colbert Report, a friend of mine said it made him feel both sad and proud—like watching your little brother leave for college.

Named for "an apocryphal tarot deck" that captured Darnielle's imagination, the new album deals in the occult, with visions of deserted towns, dusty Trans Ams, and vampires layered over string arrangements and slide guitar. Besides Darnielle, who plays guitar, the Mountain Goats include bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster—with renowned heavy-metal producer Erik Rutan adding polish and weight to a handful of the new songs.

While Darnielle's songwriting often feels like straight autobiography, there are personal passions he leaves out of the music, namely politics. Darnielle grew up with Mother Jones on his parents' coffee table, so I figured he'd want to talk about things like animal rights—which he did. But what really has him fired up is the GOP's escalating assault on abortion rights (see page 2). The loquacious lyricist also gave me the lowdown on his love for horror flicks, the moment that made him a vegetarian, and that guy who won't shut up in your women’s studies class.

Mother Jones: What’s it like to be done with the new record but not have it out yet?

John Darnielle: I call it the bottleneck—and that's a longer and longer process. I think taking too long to work on a record you sort of lose some of the feeling, so I write as fast as I can; it's just this manic phase where I'm by myself and or on tour and I write and I write. And I send them to the guys, and we start planning our studio ventures. There's this '70s notion of going into the studio and you check in and you make the record and when you emerge you have this statement of where you are artistically. And really, we don't even live like that anymore. We go in for three days at a time, and we work like animals for those days, and after those visits you see what you did and stitch them together. Finally, at the end of what I think took almost eight or nine months this time, you have this thing, and you do the hard process of throwing out the songs that you don't think belong so you can get the leanest set of competitors.

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And then you go into the bottleneck. It makes me envious of anybody who can say truly that they don't care what anybody thinks of what they do, because I care a lot about the people who like my stuff. But at the same time, as an artist, you always have to be growing. You don't just want to do what you already know people like—or I don't, anyway. In the case of this record, we're incredibly proud of it. I'm very eager for people to hear it. I kind of can't wait until it leaks. Back in the day, you could give people tapes, but you can't do that anymore, because it would be available to everyone on the planet within an hour.

MJ: "The people who like your stuff" seems like a pretty distinct group of people—is that whom you're writing for?

JD: Well, no. I would be doing it if there were nobody listening. But I do think a lot about how it's sort of a shared journey. I'm finding things out about myself as a person—as a writer—as I write, and so are the people who listen to what I do. But they have this additional aspect of how they take the stuff that I do, and so it broadens the work and it creates this strange connection. It's really a way of strangers communicating through this third thing, which is a body of work. But really, I know it's a cliché to say I write for myself, but I write for myself. Sometimes we split the [listeners]: When we finished making Get Lonely, we felt strongly that we had done something special. Some people didn't want to come along that way—it was so down and slow and quiet; everything's just this dark autumn day for 35 or 38 minutes. But then there are others who really responded. I'm proud of the fact that we followed our vision there. 

MJ: One thing you’re known for is being incredibly prolific; All Eternals Deck will be your eighth album in as many years. How do you maintain that pace? And do you have any advice for would-be writers?

JD: I think it's mostly that I am a person of high energy. [Laughs.] That, and I sit down and I write when I get an idea—I put other things aside. Most of All Hail West Texas was written during orientation at a new job I had. I had basically worked this job before, I knew this stuff, so I was writing lyrics in the margins of all the Xeroxed material. I would go home at 3 o'clock, and my wife was out of town up at hockey camp in Vance, and I would sit down and bang out a song and then make dinner. Part of it is recognizing that while writing is a mystical process, it's also work. If you show up to work five days in a row, nobody's going to pat you on the back—everyone does that. Well, do that with your writing. Just show up. Be there for it. When you get an idea, write it down somewhere and then be a steward of that idea.

When I was kid, they always used to tell me to keep notebooks. I look at my shelves now and it's just nothing but notebooks. And if I haven't gotten an idea but I have time to work, I'll pull one out and I bet there will be five or six sentences that will kick me off. This whole album, all the titles came from that—I just started writing down phrases I'd hear with three words because they looked so orderly on a page. And then I would look at them after six months and be like, oh, Outer Scorpion Squadron, wow, what is that? What's that mean? What does that conjure up? At some point of distance it becomes like you're taking inspiration from elsewhere, which is a nice feeling: Instead of making the demand on yourself that you be inspired right now, you have this phrase that's a little distant from you.

MJ: Can you touch on the new record's horror-movie influences?

JD: I go to Retrofantasma, a monthly film series at the Carolina Theatre [in Durham, N.C.]. What I like is horror movies, including '80s slasher movies that politically I have all kinds of problems with. Which is an interesting balance, because I have this leftist puritan strain that, well, if you like something that goes against your politics, maybe you should train yourself not to like it. But I know that I like horror movies and that's what I watch when I get a moment. So, I went to Burnt Offerings, which is this remarkable film because it's almost all tone until the last 10 minutes. Very little happens, long stretches of nothing, and then this burst of disorder and chaos that's really magnificently done. I sort of wanted to capture that multiple-grayscale feel of a lot of '70s stuff, where there's this big textural gesture toward establishing all this color underneath, so when there's some action it just seems to arise from nowhere. I think Go Ask Alice is the same way, where it asks you to believe all these ridiculous things—but if you were in junior high reading it, and believing it, it just sounds like the world is full of these mystical and terrifying detours.

MJ: In one interview, you mentioned that All Eternals Deck has a general undercurrent of dread. Something about the way you said that made me think of the Rob Zombie movie, House of 1000 Corpses.

JD: Oh yeah, that one's good! Have you seen Red Devil? Again, there's not a whole lot that happens in it, but there are these reveal moments of like, suddenly you see this hallway that someone's walking down, and on the other side of the wall is just this scene of relentless carnage. So that's what I want! Except that I'm me, and if I'm singing about a room where there are bodies on the floor and nobody knows where they came from and something bad is about to happen, the one living person in that room is going to find something to feel good about. And that's kind of what I do.

MJ: You seem interested in narrative, so I'm wondering how you pick the order of your songs, and also whether, in this age of "shuffle," it bothers you to be sandwiched between, say, Katy Perry and Insane Clown Posse?

JD: [Laughs.] No! If my songs are being listened to between any other songs, that is awesome, and I'm glad people are getting something out of them. We go to countries like Germany, where I can't imagine that all of my fans are engaging with the lyrics first and foremost. I think they're catching a vibe, a feeling. I consider myself a lyricist first and foremost, but if you get something else out of what I do, that's fine too. I'm not sitting back here telling people how they have to take my stuff. We just want to play music, and hope that people like it.

As far as sequencing, I try to make an album that hangs together as a beginning-to-end piece that, at least once before you pick out your favorite songs, you'll be able to sit back and have a quasi-cinematic or novelistic experience. That if you start blank and the first song starts, you catch a mood from that and you follow that mood to the end of the last song. We've done this a couple of times—me and Peter take a special pride in it—where the second-to-last song drops you off in a certain place, and then the last song kind of does a "glass of water after you've emerged from the steam room" thing. I really love that that "Liza Forever Minelli" is the last song. I think it's one of my best vocal performances ever, with all of us live in a room, no overdubbing. When I sit down to listen to the album, I don't necessarily listen to it all the way through. I go to "Age of Kings," or "The Autopsy Garland," because I just really like the evil vibe of that one.


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