Q&A: Venturing into the unknown with the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle

From left: Jon Wurster, Peter Hughes, John Darnielle (thanks, D.L. Anderson)

John Darnielle, the man and voice behind the Mountain Goats, likes to talk. A lot. But for any avid fan — including this one — that's never a problem.


Calling from his home in Durham, N.C., Darnielle spoke much like he sings: often quickly and always telling a story. Occasionally stopping in the middle of a sentence to start a new one, the musician, who was dubbed one of the best living songwriters by Paste magazine, wasn't afraid to give his opinion on any topic (he referred to purity rings and conferences as "bulls---" and "creepy" ) or give a detailed history on a few Hollywood legends.

After insisting that he's "nothing special," Darnielle and I discussed the Mountain Goats new album, All Eternals Deck ,which was released Tuesday, and his love for Judy Garland.


Your songs are written like short stories, involving characters and scenes. Do you write with a plot in mind or is it stream of consciousness?

It's one from Column A, one from Column B. I never know where I'm going. I start with a title every time. It's sort-of like, "This song is going to be called this." The exception is "Never Quite Free," where I had the title later. I was giving each song three-word titles but then started writing "Never Quite Free" and didn't know what to call it. ... For the most part I'm writing as I go along and I'm surprised as to where it goes.

For someone who is listening to a Mountain Goats CD for the first time, what can they expect from this album?

I hate to frame that because I like people to be surprised and have their own expectations, [but] notice the string arrangements. They bring [the songs] to this place where it couldn't have gone by itself.

2009's The Life of the World to Come was somewhat of a concept album — each song titled after a Bible verse. All Eternals Deck focuses on the unknown and unfamiliar. Do the songs you write inspire the overall theme of the album, or does the concept come first?

I don't come up with a concept first almost ever except Tallahassee — I was going to write an album about these [certain] people. But whenever I listen to records and you can hear they're writing to the concept, it annoys me. When I write I don't write to the concept, I write songs. There's a bunch I throw out. You want … to cover as much distance on the record and zero in on a specific mood. I write songs and start asking myself after I have four or five of them, "Hmm, what do we have here?"

The first track on the album is "Damn These Vampires." Have you always had a fascination with the occult?

The title was really old — from the late '90s. There was a title on a blank page and I thought, "Man, that is a really good title." I haven't followed a lot of the vampire stuff. I probably stopped paying attention after "The Lost Boys."

The biblical feel of Life of the World to Come seemed to creep back onto the album in "High Hawk Season," the backup vocals bringing a hymnal feel to the song. Was this intentional?

I didn't write that arrangement. I wrote the song on acoustic guitar and voice and [singer] Daniel Perry, who lives up in Boston, shares a passion for gospel music and baroque arrangements. I got this idea where every time you make a record [I think], "What will be fun? What will challenge me?" So I flew up to Boston … and he had this arrangement and had guys sing on it. When I collaborate with people, I tell them to do what they do because I don't [like] most of the singer/songwriters who micromanage, I'm not interested in that.

"The Autopsy Garland" references Hollywood and Emerald City. You sing in one line, "remember Minnesota." I have to know — is this a tribute to Judy Garland?

It's about the death of Judy Garland, who died in London really young. To me, she was the first person I wanted to marry. I told my parents when I was 5 that I wanted to marry her, and my parents had to tell me she was dead. She was groomed as a child for show biz. You have to prepare them for public presentation. By the time she was 7, it was all she knew [how] to do.


I think the biggest question fans are going to have when they hear the album is "Why 'For Charles Bronson'?"

It's funny. I'm drawn to these people — say celebrities and people — who feel like they're trying to dodge an ill fate. Look up his story — I hope that's what people do; dig up the stories I'm talking about. ... The deal with Charles Bronson is he was desperately poor when he young, 10 kids in a one-room house in Pennsylvania and one pair of clothes among them. This is a guy who gets out of mining town and goes to New York and becomes a great actor. … It's fascinating — he never told the truth about his age. He was probably 43 when he hit Hollywood. I'm interested in people. In my songs are people who are [constitutionally] unable to be honest.

Those who aren't familiar with you or the Mountain Goats — and perhaps many who are — may be surprised to know that you're a big heavy metal fan. Which metal band would you kill to play with?

The thing is there are a lot of bands to see, but their fans wouldn't like what I do. To share a stage, you want the presentation to be able to be something for everyone. [Maybe] Mindless Faith, but Mindless Faith fans wouldn't be into what I do. We're not a quiet band. We're pretty loud, but we're a different kind of loud. I wouldn't play with KK Null, a Japense guitarist.

You'll be performing in Baltimore April 14. Which song off the new album are you most excited to perform live?

We were up in New York to do press and that's the first time we did a few live. We did "Liza Forever Minnelli" and "[Birth of] Serpents." We played around a bit. "Liza Forever Minnelli" is the most exciting song on the record. That one is very different, it's stranger, and I really enjoy singing it. "Never Quite Free" [will] be fun. I'm excited to sing "Liza Forever Minelli." By the end of [a show], if you can take a look at me, I'm not really there. I'm not in the room. I'm somewhere else.

Marissa Gallo is UGC wrangler for b. E-mail her at marissa@bthesite.com


Mountain Goats

April 14. 8 pm doors

Ottobar, 2549 N. Howard St., Remington

$18; missiontix.com

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