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February 19, 2008

Sam Means Interviews John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

The Mountain Goats latest album, Heretic Pride is out today. John Darnielle is the frontman for the band, and in my opinion the most talented singer-songwriter working today.

Sam Means is a writer for the Daily Show, and the genius behind the book The Practical Guide to Racism, written under the guise of professor C.H. Dalton.

Writer Sam Means interviews musician John Darnielle:

Sam Means: The video for "Sax Rohmer #1" is, to my mind, your best music video yet. Both because of the look and rhythm of the thing itself, but also because of the way it embraces the primacy of your lyrics in an interesting, visual way. How has making videos evolved for you? Is it something you enjoy for its own sake, or just another way to promote the music?

John Darnielle: Making videos is pretty grueling for me. I am kind of not an on-camera dude. I can get into it anyway, mainly because the energy of the people doing videos - the directors, the crew - is so totally different from what I'm used to that it's a real kick: like visiting somebody's workplace and helping out with the dishes there or something, you know, they all do all this mystifying stuff and I just stand there and do what I'm told. And that's the aspect I really enjoy, not having to make decisions about what to do. Catholic to the bone I fear.

SM: I don't want to say that the new album is a return to form, because I think Get Lonely was a brilliant record, but it was very quiet, while Heretic Pride is much louder and more upbeat on the whole (musically, if not lyrically). Was that a conscious choice, or was that just how the songs came out?

JD: A little of both - I didn't write any songs for about four months after we recorded Get Lonely, which is a long time. But the Get Lonely session was a really unusual time - things kept get quieter and more reflective and deeper and weirder for all ten days - and then we did more touring, and when I came home I gave it a little rest. Only then I wrote "Michael Myers Resplendent," and tempo-wise it was kinda mid/uptempo, it had a bounce that even the most uptempo number on Get Lonely ("half dead") didn't have, and I was like "Hmm, look at that." And then the next thing I wrote was Sax Rohmer #1 and that was the loudest thing I'd written in forever, just hollering real loud there in my studio, and my body kinda started sending all kinds of pleasure-on-impact signals to my brain: "yeah do that yeah do that ouch ouch do that" kinda stuff. Still there's some balance, i tend to enjoy subtle effects more than I used to - quiet hidden things in songs, or whole songs that're quiet hidden things.

SM: Your albums since Tallahassee all hang together remarkably well, this one included. Was Heretic Pride something you conceived as a whole, or did it come together one song at a time?

JD: It was the first one-song-at-a-time no-theme record I'd done in forever. Felt so good. I was just indulging all these old obsessions, interests, fetishes of mine - kind of like, you know, when you spend a night on eBay looking at stuff and thinking "I'm gonna buy all that stuff - old leather football helmets, stained-glass beer mirrors, really old loteria sets": really for me, in spirit, this album felt like when I was writing the songs that became Hot Garden Stomp - every little minor obsession of mine just blowing up and possessing me for a day. So, no, I didn't conceive it as a thing I was going to do, but I've done sort of "let the machine assemble itself" records before and I have a lot of faith in that process.

SM: The name "Heretic Pride" sounds almost Christopher Hitchens-onian -- is this an album about religion, or is it a deeper sense of heresy that you're talking about?

JD: Not an album about religion, no. There is a lot of religious imagery on it, and religious characters, partly because I'm a religious character, and partly because I have been really fetishistic about religion all my life. But that song, the title track, that's about a guy really getting into how he's about to suffer a really painful death. When people talk about "living life to the fullest" they often mean they're gonna have a bitchin' weekend or whatever, or an intense relationship, but to me, you know who lived life to the fullest? Martyrs. People who got thrown to lions and had to listen to tens of thousand of people applauding while the lions ate them alive. Those are guys who are really drinking life to the lees, right? So that's what heretic pride is - really enthusiastic role acceptance.

SM: Speaking of which, why did you change the title of the record? I thought the original was great, though it didn't exactly roll of the tongue -- proved by the fact that I can't remember the exact wording.

JD: Yeah that is pretty much exactly why. It was "The Vision As It Appeared to the Serpent." Which I still like, but then again, I like sentences that go on for whole pages at a time. The other working title, which I also still like but which Peter couldn't dig, was "Great Sterile Transparent Jellies" - I used the phrase on the CD face though, couldn't let it slip completely away.

SM: Recently, I've noticed a few songs where you talk about stage makeup, on Aesop Rock's album, or about getting the shot right while there's still light, in "Michael Myers Resplendent." Do you have a background in film or theater, or is that just a world that you've found useful or interesting, songwriting-wise?

JD: Good looking out Sam! I actually worked the stage makeup crew in high school for two or three years. I did technical theater too but I sucked at that. Makeup, hell yes, I will put my age makeup up against anybody's. Or would have, it's been years now, I would probably make you look like a potato now. The whole energy of the makeup room in high school theater is very much its own thing, or was at my school, because while everybody in the theater knows each other, the crews have their own things going on, and don't cross paths all that much during the production except at appointed times. When the actors come in to the makeup room at production time, though, it's like this remaking of acquaintances, and they get to leave the whole intensity of the production and the makeup people do this really focused thing, and it can be really quiet and meditative or stupid and fun -so there's this interesting intersection of real intimacy and strict functionalism, which, yes, I think that experience tangentially plays into how I write songs: know the craft, get up close, say something funny if things start to feel too heavy, play your position.

Well, that sounded like something out of one of those airport motivational books about applying what you learned in high school to making a trillion dollars in business or something. Still, analogy works for me even if it's a bit labored, I give myself a B+ on it.

SM: You've proven that you're equally comfortable with both memoir and fiction in your songwriting. Is this record more personal, or less so, than previous stuff you've done?

JD: Weird uncomfortable question for me because I think people have this bizarre equation of "personal" with "better" - I think songwriters are kinda programmed to say "this album's really personal" just because they think that'll help people relate to it. But The Sunset Tree and We Shall All Be Healed were personal - Get Lonely really wasn't, it just seemed that way, and Tallahassee certainly wasn't - "No Children" I consider a formal exercise, just a pretty successful one in that it comes out feeling like some huge purgative moment. So, yeah, new album is technically not personal - it's all just stories. On the other hand, "San Bernardino" kinda f*cked me up for several days, just 'cause I got really involved in the story - ditto "So Desperate"and "Sept 15 1983." Kinda the opposite of what you'd think - I think a lot of people assume that if a singer's really yelling super loud, he must be putting more emotion into the material. I could be wrong about this though, being a hermit who avoids people whenever possible.

SM: Your music over the years appears to me to reveal an artist increasingly at home in the studio. How is the experience of recording now different from when you first made the move from a boombox to a recording studio, and how has it evolved over the past few albums?

JD: Well, when we went to make Tallahassee, you practically had to lock me in a closet before you could put any overdubs on anything. I am often convinced that the wrong change will end up being permanent - that if you add something that you end up not liking, you won't be able to go back to where you were before and end up with the good thing you had in the first place. To be honest, there aren't many beliefs I hold more strongly than this one, which is extremely irritating to engineers, bandmates, etc, but I've seen enough good tracks get irremediably messed up by "let's see how this sounds" that I don't mind having to be a dick about it if I have to. Anyway, I'm now a lot more open than I used to be - I try to maintain a "let the musicians play what they think is good" attitude about 90% of the time. The other 10% I try to be like a chain gang overseer though I have limited success in this, it can be hard to rein people in once you give 'em multiple tracks and some studio space.

SM: Franklin Bruno played my book release party last month and he mentioned that guys were planning to work on some new Extra Glenns material. How's that going? How are the Extra Glenns different for you from the Mountain Goats, especially since Franklin often plays with you on tour?

JD: Well, the Extra Glenns have always tried to pick different songs of mine - the ones that are a little more formal, maybe, or that aren't hanging their hats on a more emotional/aggro hook. And Franklin does all the arrangements, I just do what I'm told. We also did a few of Franklin's songs, which was awesome. We are gonna change the name of the band though. Everybody will probably hate whatever name we come up with but I got personal reasons to not wanna call the band the Extra Glenns any more.

SM: "In the Craters on the Moon" talks about "the end of a long war," but it's not a political song...

JD: THANK YOU SAM DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW MANY INTERVIEWERS THINK THIS IS A POLITICAL SONG BECAUSE IT HAS THE WORD "WAR" IN IT. I love everybody but seriously people a signpost doesn't always indicate a road.

SM: Do you ever write political material? As someone who writes about politics all the time, I may believe more than most that "all politics is personal," but is it something that you're engaged with, personally or artistically?

JD: I don't very often. I save it for when I'm passionate about something. Back when I was recording into the boombox, I felt like my aesthetics were kind of inherently political, and I still feel that way about that stuff, but it was a losing battle - people were always satisfied to sum up the whole aesthetic as "lo-fi," lame term with no relation to the stuff it was trying to describe. Old news though, that. Otherwise, yeah, I think I've written maybe four or five political songs total, and they're always very personal songs: politics isn't what politicians do, as far as I'm concerned, it's what people do and are always doing to some extent. Trying to think of my total political songs - there was one nobody ever heard early on, and then there was "The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton," which is pretty explicit about what it's trying to say; and "Color in Your Cheeks"; and the one I wrote for Super Tuesday, "Down to the Ark." So that means 50% of my political songs mention Satan by name, awesome.

SM: I'm not sure when this will run, but it looks like I'm about to go back to work after a 3+ month strike. Any thoughts before you go on the writers' strike -- specifically, about the central issue of our strike, which was the internet as a medium for watching and downloading entertainment? That must be even more important to you as a musician, when downloading a whole album now only takes a minute or two, and file-sharing is a fact of life.

JD: Well your key point there is the last one - that the new means of distribution aren't things we as writers or singers or whatever ("content providers" UGH ICK GROSS) ought to be having dumbass discussions about at the level of "shall we? or shall we not?" Because yes, we shall, and no, we don't have any choice in the matter, and yes, actually, it's all to the good. You can whine about spilled milk, or about the horse leaving the barn, but these are negative ways of talking about it. I mean, in a sense, you might as well ask "how do you feel about people having conversations?" - how I feel about it is beside the point. The only question that big corporations ought to be asking themselves are, in this order: one, how can we do something with this that our customers/audience/whatever will enjoy, and, two, how can we make money off it so everybody gets paid and we can keep the ball rolling? For me the sticking point is mainly the moronic sort of talk that the whole new paradigm inspires on both sides of the discussion - people thinking of labels as The People In Suits!! t3h ev1L v1LLa1nz!! and labels imagining that they're going to be able to control the marketplace, which is a weird delusion anyway, because the customer has always controlled the marketplace. It's in the nature of marketplaces to be controlled by customers, unless there's some heavy monopoly culture, which there isn't. Although it's disturbing to me how much consolidation of resources of distribution channels there is across the board in business these days, but that's a separate issue. There are also ethical issues but the radicals on this question ("ethics are meaningless except to describe behavior") may have something of a point.

Bottom line is that you can't tell your audience how to enjoy what you do; our job as entertainers is just to do what we do as best as we can, and if there are corporations whose job it is to turn what we do into money, their job is to do that without being gross and embarrassing about it, and then to fairly share the profits. As a rule, the bigger corporations are 0-for-2 on these last couple of points though. In conclusion I would like to say that I didn't cross any picket lines during the strike even though I could have, so any of you writer dudes wanna work some of my songs into screenplays, don't be shy about it, I'm in the damn phone book lol k thx bye.

John Darnielle and Mountain Goats links:

the Mountain Goats website
The Last Plane to Jakarta
John Darnielle's Largehearted Note Books essay at Largehearted Boy

Sam Means links:

Sam Means' Wikipedia entry
C.H. Dalton's website
The Practical Guide to Racism's website
an excerpt from The Practical Guide to Racism
C.H. Dalton's video lectures
Entertainment Weekly profile
Village Voice review of The Practical Guide to Racism
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay for The Practical Guide to Racism
Sam Means' New Yorker cartoons

also at Largehearted Boy:

previous musician/author interviews

Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)