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Mountain Goats

Mountain Goats

Monday 9th August, 2010 5:51PM

John Darnielle manages to provoke all kinds of devotion from his fans with his band the Mountain Goats. It could be surprising for a new listener, given the apparent simplicity of his music (this is of course, ignoring his ability to write memorable songs). However, the reason why he has been so loved is that his songs convey a real empathy towards the misfits in society, the people on the fringes, society’s forgotten folk (Darnielle was a former psychiatric nurse). He has also been extremely prolific for two decades starting off with lo-fi recordings on his boombox, and moving to denser, aurally complex albums from 2002’s Tallahassee onwards. His latest from 2009, his seventeenth album The Life of the World to Come takes it cue from the Old Testament. In fact, each song is named after a biblical verse. He’s also heading back to New Zealand for the fourth time, giving audiences the chance to see his passion, distinctive songs, and wonderful story-telling once more.

I thought I’d start off with a basic question, why music?

I wonder if this is true for everyone who plays music, but I was interested in music from such an early age, that the idea of not playing music never ever crossed my mind. But I will say that writing songs came to me because I was writing poetry. At one point, I was thinking my poems are pretty good, pity that no-one likes poetry. So I settled into music, seeing whether I liked it. Music was at first a way of sneaking my poems across.

You could have made it as a prose writer?

I do write prose. I had one book that came out a couple of years ago and working on my second one. But I have to say writing songs, for a writer, is a perfect thing if you have the need that a lot of writers have [which is] to see whether people like what you’re doing. Songs you can find out pretty quick in front of an audience, but with a book you labour for a long time, they’re getting ready for press, and then you have to wait to hear about reviews. With a song, you can tell just by looking at them whether it’s registering. It’s a very raw gratification form of writing.

The fact the biblical themes are getting a lot of press, why did you name each song after a biblical verse?

The thing is, this is a question that makes me wish I was one of those ‘asshole’ interviewees who would make up a funny line. I could imagine saying ‘I did it to share my faith’ or whatever. It came about accidentally. I had one song where I noticed that the chorus was a biblical reference, so I thought I’d just title it after that verse. It looks pretty cool. I looked at it and thought it was bad-ass on the page. A month or two later I did it again, and it looked even cooler to see in a play-list like that and I thought ‘wow it looks really official’. I continued along down that road, and somewhere I thought ‘do it over the whole album, that would be fun’. For me, it was fun as a writer, if I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about, I could start reading the Bible and there are so many good ideas in there to work on from a literary standpoint. If I’m writing a song, and thinking what to do for a chorus, there are a lot of good choruses and songs.

Has it got so much attention because religion and indie music aren’t meant to mix?

It’s funny though because it is interesting the function of music historically, its basic function is liturgical. They are for expressions of religious feeling, of encounters of the divine, or rejection of the divine or whatever. It’s an essential early function of music. The only reason why we have musical notation is because church people wanted to record the melodies they were singing in churches. It’s a really essential function of music. It seemed natural to me. I can dig that people are always very wary of being proselytised at, but I trust that people know me. People who like my music – if I get new listeners that’s great – but I’m mainly writing for people who like what I do. I assume they know I’m not going to turn around and tell them how to live. I’m a storyteller. I tell people stories and hope the stories have some sort of emotional content that takes them on a little journey someplace. That’s my job. That’s all. If people listen to what I do, they know what I’m about, they know I’m trying to do something that’ll be a little cool and a little dark.

Is there a link between the fringe characters that frequently populate your songs, and a lot of Old Testament characters?

All of those people, if you’ve known people who are extreme proponents of religion – I’m not saying this is a good or bad quality - it’s just that it’s true that they tend to be out on the edges. Most of my narratives are pretty religious people one way or another – the Tallahassee couple, they sort of worship alcohol and each other in a weird sense. There are all kinds of weird relations to the divine and fate, but it’s always people out there on the edge. Most of the Old Testament prophets, they stopped bathing and cutting their hair, and they lived at the edge of the city. If they ever see anybody normal all they do is tell them ‘you’re on your way to Hell, you have to repent’. My characters have always been prophets of some kind or another.

Do you think fans have finally accepted you’re no longer lo-fi, given the last decade’s studio albums? A lot of reviews still seem to refer back to your ‘90s work despite the albums that have been around since...

I’ve gotta say, I’m grateful for you saying that, at this point, we have been making studio records longer than I have been making records on my boombox. Once a term attaches to you, I tell you this, you probably have had this experience - when I was a child, when I was like eight – they served me some meatloaf. I said ‘I don’t like meatloaf’. My grandmother and my mother both said ‘oh but you love meatloaf’. And I was ‘no I don’t’. ‘Oh but you used to always love meatloaf’. And I was like ‘I don’t even know who that infant was that you’re talking about now. I don’t eat meatloaf’. There are people who still call me a lo-fi guy. There are people who called Tallahassee a lo-fi record. The thing was produced by Tony Doogan from Belle and Sebastian and Mogwai, but you could find a dozen reviews going ‘it’s lower than lo-fi’. I never thought lo-fi was meaningful anyway, because it really doesn’t describe. All it means is that it wasn’t expensive, but it doesn’t really describe fidelity, where fidelity is ‘does it reproduce what happened’? I always thought those records were the most faithful to what happened, the sounds that I play.

Has it been harder to keep control on narratives, with this greater emphasis on studio recording, instruments and textures?

I write at home for the most part. The last couple of records, I always tried to write one or two songs in the studio to see how it goes, but trying to keep control is a losing game. The idea is to let the narrative take control, dictate where it’s going, and not be afraid that he’s going to be a bad person. Let him sort of inhabit you – it’s a sort of Method Acting kind of thing.

You guys are obviously a band, but so much attention is placed on you and especially your lyrics. How does that work in terms of band dynamics?

I’m blessed to work with people who I really love, who understand what I do. Peter [Hughes, the bassist] who I’ve been working with forever and ever, he knows what I do, that’s what – it’s not totally unique about it – but the thing is my lyrics are what the songs are constructed around, the lyrics are very much at the heart. It makes it fun to play live, because some people don’t expect a working band. Some people maybe expect to see me going off, instead as musicians we live on tour and play together every night, and we’re pretty tight at this point if I can say so knocking wood. So I think it’s kinda exciting when you get the impression people who maybe came to see a guy with lyrics, actually see a band who play together.

Given your lyrics are so important, do you find your audience tend to think they know you?

Yeah there’s a long and interesting answer to that question. In a sense, you do. It’s not like the songs are completely separate from me. They came from inside me, they have to something to do with me. I used to think ‘no’, but you mature, you realise that everything you made bears your mark. At the same time people often think they know what I’m like. They assume I’m really social because I like to talk a lot. But actually I’m a hermit. If you get me talking, I’ll talk, but for the most part, I’m not anti-social but I’m pretty shy. That’s weird, I think people expect that if you stand on stage every night, you must be a very gregarious person, but I’m not. It’s like ‘do you want to go out for a drink?’ ‘I don’t go out for drinks, and I go home and write in notebooks’.

What attracts you to writing about people on the fringes? Do you get pleasure in adopting different guises?

That’s a great question, it’s hard to answer without sounding like I’m on a mission or something. When the guy in ‘1 Samuel 15:23’ speaks I’m trying to give voice to somebody who doesn’t get to speak otherwise, or Jeff and Cyrus in the ‘Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton’ or this alcoholic couple who are divorcing who you only know of as your bad neighbours. I’m trying to let people speak who are only two dimensional characters because I really think – this is some grade school hippie stuff but I think it’s really true – that the people we dismiss are real people. They have voices, they have things to share which are of value, even if they are twisted and bizarre. Their voices count. I know a lot of them from when I was a psychiatric nurse. I tried to give voice to people who might not be able to share things otherwise. I know that sounds kinda big-headed and I hope not, but I try to give voice to voices that are a little hidden in the general mix of things.

I was going to say, has your writing been affected by your previous job as a psychiatric nurse – in that job you would have had no choice but to feel humanity for people who are ignored…

It’s the thing you learn and re-learn as a nurse, because when you have forty patients or so, you start to get a little jaded. You stop noticing if you get five new people a day, and you put five more people out, you lose sight of the smaller and more important things of each person you work with but then you keep being reminded each day of somebody who gets upset because they lost some small thing. You go ‘oh wait, this is a human whose life is in such disorder that they’ve locked him up involuntarily’. It’s really great, I recommend nursing to anybody, because it really reminds you that we’re good for as people is to serve other people. So yeah, I hope I have a feeling for people.

Brannavan Gnanalingam