Mountain Goats' John Darnielle: "I'm not interested in back in the day. We are always in the present moment"

Salon exclusive: John Darnielle's rare look back at Mountain Goats history with reissue of "All Hail West Texas"

Published August 3, 2013 8:45PM (EDT)

John Darnielle    (Merge Records/D.l. Anderson)
John Darnielle (Merge Records/D.l. Anderson)

In the summer of 1999, John Darnielle and his wife, Lalitree, lived in Ames, Iowa. Over the prior decade, Darnielle had written and released dozens and dozens of songs under the name the Mountain Goats. Sometimes he performed with friends such as Rachel Ware, Peter Hughes and Franklin Bruno, but usually it was just him and a cheap tape recorder. One week, John found himself attending orientation for a new job while his wife was away at hockey camp. Anyone who's been through a corporate orientation knows how easy it is to drift off into a somnolent haze. John wisely used the time and office supplies to develop rough lyric drafts, recording them at night on his trusty boombox.

Early in 2002, now-defunct indie label Emperor Jones released the results as "All Hail West Texas." Even by the high standards of the Mountain Goats' material to date, this was something special. Songs like “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton” and “Fall of the High School Running Back” were far more detailed and self-reflective than anything that had come before.  Without really adhering to a unifying concept, "All Hail West Texas" now appears to foreshadow the more thematic approach Darnielle would shortly adapt on such studio albums as "Tallahassee," "The Sunset Tree" and last year's "Transcendental Youth."

As you'll see in the interview below, Darnielle is not a nostalgic man.  He has made a couple of his early cassette releases available on CD (including the crucial "Hot Garden Stomp"), and has compiled three CD compilations of early music ("Protein Source of the Future ... Now!," "Ghana" and "Bitter Melon Farm").  However, these were all relatively low-key releases. "All Hail West Texas," with its new liner notes and recently unearthed bonus tracks, is the only Mountain Goats catalog item that has received the full-fledged reissue treatment.  We were curious about this, and how (if at all) he had changed his songwriting style in the intervening years.

What made you revisit "All Hail West Texas"?  You don't strike me as a very nostalgic sort. In fact, one of your Tumblr posts advocates “destroying Memory Lane.”

Well, it's out of print, and it's nice to have an object. I think people generally still like to have something, because it's been out of print for a long, long time and never been out on vinyl.  Emperor Jones doesn't exist anymore, so they can't get a good copy.  So I thought it'd be nice for them to have it exist.  But you're right: I don't do “band plays album in original sequence” shows, and yeah, I don't do anything backwards if I can help it.  So we're putting it back into print, but not really doing a reissue tour or anything.

You did work a few of those songs into the last live show I saw.

Oh yeah.  "Death Metal Band" has never left the set list. "Source Decay" was a mainstay for the show for a long time.  But this was a good opportunity for what has never been played before, because that's the sort of anti-nostalgic part that I like.  If I go see a band and they play, like, zero from any of their old albums, I'm very happy about that. I do not want to see the bands of my youth playing the songs of my youth.  I hate that.

It depends on the band, though.  If I go see Mission of Burma, I'm happy if they don't play any songs prior to this past decade.

That is why Burma is so special and why they're better than their peers.  When they came back, they had no interest in trading on their old songs.  To me, the only good reason to be touring is if you still have something good to share instead of just revisiting past glories. It's a challenge for me, because we now have five or six songs that everybody who paid to get in wants to hear.  And I don't want people to go away and go, "Well, it would have been a better show if they had've played 'No Children'," so we play "No Children” every night.  But at the same time, personally as an artist, it's a more rewarding show — and for me as a guy going to the shows — if I'm just chasing whatever the artist's vision is, so it's a sort of balance that you have to strike.

My understanding is that "All Hail West Texas" was the last album where you followed the approach of the previous ones: You write songs, you recorded them, you moved on.

The older the album, the more that's actually true. The cassettes are like that, but even the cassettes are often a mix of stuff from the boombox, radio appearances and maybe one of two live ones from Peter's radio shows.  West Texas was the only one where it's entirely the same machine, all done within minutes of being written, yeah.

But did you see that as an ending or a beginning? "All Hail West Texas" came out at the beginning of 2002, and "Tallahassee" came out at the end of 2002.  And "Tallahassee" marked a real change to the Mountain Goats as we know them now.

Well, I don't do things with big plans.  I wrote and recorded "All Hail West Texas" somewhere around there. Before it came out for sure, 4AD called and said, "Hey, would you be interested in making the record with us?" Or more specifically, my friend Jamie Tugwell, who used to run a label called Lissy's, called and said, "Hey, I was at the pub with these guys who run a venerable English label, and I asked if they were interested in the Mountain Goats."  I couldn't believe it.  So we were put in touch and talked about making a record and then we moved along,  But I didn't sit down and say, "Here, this will be the last boombox record we do."  It's not my style to be thinking about what a record is while I'm making it: I just write songs. So I just did what I do all the time, just write and record songs.

True, but some of the later albums, like "We Shall All Be Healed" and especially "The Sunset Tree" are clearly organized around a certain concept.

Yeah, but you don't hear the stuff I'm writing that gets left off.  Because for me, when I listen to bands who sound like they're working from a concept, it's so glaringly obvious. It's distracting that they have these songs that are place fillers that move the narrative along.  So I write and write and write and leave out a certain number of songs, including writing done during "The Sunset Tree," that just didn't have anything to do with what the theme wanted to be. At some point, usually at about six or seven songs, I'll go, "Well, it looks like this is the theme," and then I'll pour in a little more. But I can't be thinking of the big picture too far. Like right now, I'm writing thematically, but I don't let that constrain me when I sit down to write because otherwise, stuff will come out feeling unnatural and very forced. It's like if I tell you, "OK, Mike, stand up and talk about a birch tree." Well, then you won't be able to speak spontaneously because you have a theme you're forced to adhere to. I have to feel free — even if it's illusory — when I sit down to write. I want the process for the listener to be as exploratory as it was for me.

But at the same time, you wrote a lot of the "All Hail West Texas" songs, or at least the beginnings of them, while preparing for a job working with troubled children.  And that does come across in songs like "The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton" and "Absolute Lithops Effect." Your 33 1/3 book about Sabbath's "Masters of Reality" was in the same setting.  So how coincidental was that?

Well, pretty coincidental, because the place where I was working was a good place. For those songs, I sort of drew maps from reality from these locked wards they had in the 1980s, which were run by a private firm for profit.  There was this big wave of hospitalizing adolescents, and a lot of it had to do with the cultural changes that were afflicted on adolescents.  Parents would get frightened and lock them up. And I worked in Iowa with children who had no place to go and were generally happy to be at our place. It offered a lot of structure, so they couldn't rebel, but for many of the kids I was working with, it was the first safe place they'd ever lived.  Whereas in the locked facilities that were offered in the 1980s, outpatient therapy would have been a much better option than pulling some kid out of bed and bringing him to a locked ward. So it's drawing on much older experiences.  For example, Jeff and Cyrus [of “Death Metal Band”] were inspired by a real-life story of a friend of mine's boyfriend. I stopped by her house one morning in high school in the 1980s, and she said that two elders showed up at her boyfriend's house and said, “You're coming with us.”   And they took him to Utah, yanked him out of his daily life where he had a girlfriend and a life, and he woke up in a locked ward, 350 miles away.

It is interesting that you used music as an interest for Cyrus and Jeff, because you used to hear in the news about Parents of Punkers, and songs about the fear of getting locked up in an institution.

Sure, like “Institutionalized.”  But when I worked in a locked ward in Southern California, people were allowed to put up posters. Kids would bring in these giant posters.  The warden had Kix and I think he had Dokken, and I was always surprised.  It didn't seem rebellious enough, but then that tells you what kind of prejudices are.  But there was another facility I worked at in the past, where it really did seem like the kids were into Guns N' Roses because they knew most of the people there hated Guns N' Roses. But then I worked with a psychologist who liked Guns N' Roses.  He would engage with the kids and talk about what it was they liked about them.

I think youth will always be connected to the strongest music at the time because … I don't want to use the word "tribal," but there was this sort of familial affiliation that people would feel with the music they were listening to. That was a big thing in the 1980s, especially with metal kids.

Cyrus and Jeff were two of the first characters you explicitly wrote with names.  There was also William Staniforth Donahue from “Fall of the High School Running Back.”  Did that represent a new way of writing?

I just wanted a new strategy that happened kind of automatically.  I'd done a little bit of name play in a couple of earlier lyrics.  I called myself John in “Going to Cleveland" specifically to get a rise out of local audiences. I thought, "Well, everybody will jump when I say that," and it worked.  And there was another character named Amy Lynn.  The thing is, it's one of those tricks you learn because if you give someone a name, then suddenly flesh and blood is on the song, and you can overplay that. I think if you write every character as if you were a novelist, then you're probably posing.  For “Death Metal Band,” I wrote it the same way I wrote a lot of songs; I started playing chords and ad-libbing out loud.  Those first two lines came out after playing a drop D, which is a common metal tuning.  I just barked out the lyrics and they were funny to me.  When you say "the best ever death metal band," it sounds like a monolithic entity.

But Jeff and Cyrus: One's a common name and the other's an extremely common name.  To me, that's a process of ad-libbing a story that very quickly became very real.

And it's just two kids, not even a full band by metal standards.

Well, they're hardly even a band; they're a garage band.  They never had any shows or made anything.

At the end when you do the "hail Satan" part, I've always interpreted that as the narrator speaking in solidarity with Cyrus and Jeff.

Well it's ad-lib, so I can't really speak to intentionality.  One reason I'm adverse to revisiting stuff too heavily is that I don't like to nail things down and say, "Here's what I meant by that."  So when people ask, "Well, do you say 'hail Satan' because you wanted to invoke Aleister Crowley?"; no, there are other things on my mind.  So I like to eliminate things, but as far as positive definement of, "Well, here's what that means," I always think it's an uncharitable way to treat a text, you know? It's better to say, "Well, there's a number of things."  Improvisational writing is the ultimate space of freedom where you can say what you mean, because you spoke before you meant it. And I think that's a lot of the power of those records: You are hearing ideas as they are being born. I can't really tell you what I meant to say because I'm saying it before I figure out what I meant to say.

Even if you had a specific idea in mind, it doesn't even matter in a way.  When an audience is yelling along with "No Children," they are bringing their own interpretation to what they're hearing.

A concert is a very special environment of spontaneity where people are sort of caught up in the moment of how they feel.  But I think the experience of making music and playing music is so antithetical to the way we try to describe, you know, "Here's what happened, and here's what it meant." I think the 24-hour news cycle affects people's way of thinking and parsing meaning.  But a lot of those things [in songs] happened before there was any “why,” and anything after the fact is maybe over-analytical.

Was William Staniforth Donahue a real person?

No.  I knew this guy Staniforth, so I took his last name.  Then the other two names just rhythmically went in.  But my question to you is, do you really want to resolve that dispute? More fun than resolution [laughs].

Not necessarily, but it’s one of the few times, as we were saying before, that somebody gets called out by their full name, so I was just curious about the genesis of that.

It’s just a person’s name. I mean, the thing is, mandatory minimum sentences are not just a story. They’re a lot of people’s reality.  Back then, you’d see multiple "20/20s" about some guy who got the idea to buy a pound of weed to distribute in college and got caught and was doing 10 years. You can’t do 10 years and come out the same person you were, as the young person who made a mistake and wound up getting a sentence that a judge was compelled to give him. So yeah, that’s an explicitly political song about how mandatory minimum sentences are bullshit.

“Pink and Blue” always did strike me as one of the better songs on "All Hail West Texas."

It's one of the more complicated ones.  I don't know if you play video games, but when a video game starts going faster, before you actually end a level and go to the next one, things get a little harder because you are a little better at the game, and that's when you get to advance. And I have songs, where I go, "Oh, you leveled up, you got a little better somewhere along the line."  Rhythmically and structurally, "Pink and Blue" is a considerably more complicated song than I'd been writing on the last album.

But do you hear it differently now that you're a father yourself?

Oh yeah [laughs].  Like, for example, a 9-day-old infant does not eat any solid food.  That's not something that automatically occurs to you unless you're thinking specifically, "OK, well, what's the situation of an infant who is 9 days old?"  Although I remember thinking they have to feed him something  The story was written in the margins of a handout while I was in orientation for the job I ended up working. I wrote the lyric kind of automatically.  Probably during orientation they mentioned something about children being left in a place or something like that, and I ran with it.  And if I have what sounds like a good story, and the rhythm is nice and it works well and it reaches me somehow, then I don't worry too much about whether it actually is possible. I don't worry too much about that. Bill Direen from [legendary Flying Nun band] the Builders once wrote a thing in a book for me that says, "I believe every story I'm ever told until it's over," and I thought it was a really valuable thing to have heard.  So sure, the guy feeds a banana to a 9-day-old infant.  Now, you know, 9-day-old infants can't metabolize bananas, so it's a very terrible idea, but in the story … it's a sweet enough story.

I became a parent myself since that came out and I thought, "Wow, whoever this person is, they clearly don't have a whole lot of exposure to infants."

The song seems the most different to me now, but I still love to play it and sing it.  But in "Heretic Pride," a young couple has a baby in a motel room, right? But in the song, there's no screaming and there's no pain and there's no blood [laughter] and, well, those are chief characteristics of childbirth.  Or maybe just very loud yelling.  But very few people have the tranquil childbirth that seems to just naturally happen for these people in the hotel room, right?

Yeah, I don't think they're bringing in any epidurals or anything.

The first time I sang it I thought, oh man, this is a fantasy, but I'm still extremely proud of that song. But reality sort of puts it in perspective for you.

You mentioned in the "All Hail West Texas" reissue notes that you took a lot of fulfillment from the job you had. Was there any conflict about going for it as a full-time musician versus pursuing that line of work?

Well, I was splitting a lot.  When I wrote "All Hail West Texas," I was beginning full-time employment. Which I did for over a year, I think maybe two.  But then I was touring for months at a time. I kept having to say, “Well, I have to go away for two weeks to tour,” and that was hard for a bunch of reasons.  It was just hard job-wise, and also this was a residential house.  I know from a different side now that it’s hard to leave your kids for weeks at a time and say, “Well, Jeremy will take care of you, I won’t be, but I’ll try and call.” It was really difficult if the kids would be getting in trouble, or you get back and one of them has been discharged and you didn’t get to say goodbye. So that was really, really, really hard and stressful.  I think 2002 or 2003 was the year we started doing so much touring, and I was gone all the time. And I thought, well, this isn’t fair to my kids, and it’s not fair to the structure of the place where I work. Structure’s so important if you come from a place with no structure.

Were you beginning to become conscious of writing for an audience?  The reason I ask that is because the difference between hearing “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton” with just you and a boombox, and the same song with people singing along joyously, is pretty significant.  And by that point, you already did have a bit of a following.  Were you thinking more about telling stories to people?

No, I don’t ever think about that.  If you’re thinking of the audience when you write, you come out sounding a little pretentious. You’re like, hey, I got something you’re gonna like!  And these are the worst.  I won’t name any names, but I think with older, big rock bands, you can often hear them do, “Well, here’s the one those fans will love.”  And that’s often what turns you off about those records, because it sounds like they’re pandering and condescending. The chief value for me – and I want to say for us as a band, for all three of us – is we take a lot of joy in what we do and profound personal pleasure, and that comes across.  And I don’t think that would be possible if I said, “Well, I think you need a quarter cup of compassion,” or whatever.  So it’s corny to say it, but I’m writing from my heart.  Whatever is in there is coming out, and it’s really only for me until we’re talking about putting a record together. Then I do look and try to figure out which ones people would enjoy most.  I mean, sometimes you have to say, “Look, I love the shit out of this song, it’s going on the record.”  But for the most part, we start thinking about, “Well, which one do I think people will enjoy most?”

Well, you can’t really predict these things. You don’t write a song like “No Children” thinking it’s going to be a joyous singalong.

When I made the demo for that song and sent it to Peter [Hughes], we both went, “Oh my God, this is good [laughs].  But when I wrote “This Year,” I actually didn’t think much of it.  The chorus was actually supposed to be a placeholder until we got a real chorus.

See, that’s one of my favorites.

I know, right? But seriously like, that was scribbled in between verses, and this – I forget whether I wrote, “or something,” or something like that. Sent it to Peter, went on vacation, Peter emailed me or gave me a call being like, “Hey, sorry to bother you, this song, I’m really feeling this song, I’ve already put a bass on it and demoed that.” I said, “Oh, really? I can rewrite that chorus.” “No, no.”  So yeah, you don’t always know. But I remember with “No Children,” it had a little instrumental bridge.  It’s a much more complicated song than I was used to and it’s in 6/8, very complicated timing.

“This Year” was a big learning experience for me.  When people started to really respond to it, I was like, “Man, you almost missed that and everybody who enjoyed that song almost missed that because you were second-guessing yourself too hard.” So you learn to trust your initial instincts a little better, which has generally not been a problem for me, but usually so much of songwriting is strictly about instinct. When you’re writing a song that’s a little more complicated, you do start to overstep boundaries that are in place for good reason.  I have notebooks demonstrating that sometimes your first thought is your worst thought.

I’m envious of anybody who can get to that point, where they can go through a bunch of ideas in lyrical form to find the one that really hits home. It’s not something everybody can do.

I don't know what it takes besides lots and lots of writing.  It’s actually one thing I fret about in the age of the Internet: People share their work so early and it’s, like, I have tapes full of stuff that are just unlistenable.  And not just stuff from early on.  Between "Full Force Galesburg" and "The Coroner’s Gambit," there was about a year there where I didn’t have any good ideas. I recorded a bunch of them. The ones that did wind up being good wound up being on records. But there was some big concept I was chasing that I can barely remember now.  I find the notebooks and go, “Oh, god, there’s not a salvageable line in there.” Page after page after page after page – and then you run across “Indonesia,” which ends up being a bonus track on "All Hail West Texas." It’s like, that was kinda an OK song. So yeah, there’s no formula or solution.

You spoke about having joy in what you’re doing, and I want to tie that into the live show a little bit. I remember as early as 1995, the first show of yours I saw, a lot of the elements of a modern Mountain Goats show were already in place. You were already trying to get us to sing along to “The Sign.” You spent years and years playing in front of 40 or 50 people, and now you’re playing packed houses coast to coast.  Does it feel different?

It’s stuff that you try not to over-think.  I want to be introspective about whether I’m being a good person in my life and stuff, but I don’t wanna reflect too long or consider what the meaning is.  There was a horrible commercial not too long ago where a child whispered, “These are the days ...” It was the absolute worst thing you could possibly ever say, just to sit there and stop in the middle of a peak experience and reflect on how it was a peak experience. Good way to shoot the peak experience in the head. But my realization is actually life has way more peak experiences than we think, like multiples per day. We’re constantly confronted with this reality that has a great deal in it, that is awesome. So when you’re playing for 20 people ... if you can remember, I looked and felt like I was in an arena. I was completely on fire from playing music for strangers. That doesn’t really change no matter how big the room gets. I think I’m better at it now. I don’t think you could’ve put me in a room with 2,000 people in it and had me reach the back rows, and I can now. There’s a skill you learn just from being on live stages, just from watching other people. Judy Garland had her eye on the back row every damn second of the night and it’s amazing.  It doesn’t matter where you’re at: You should be showing up with your guns blazing, and you should be there with the hope that somebody has one of those profound experiences that we all had in concert. I saw Nick Cave play a show that I bet you he didn’t have a lot of fun at, at Perkins Palace. He was bored. But it changed my fucking life, and it’s because Nick Cave has always done that. It doesn’t matter when you see him, the dude has 100 percent every damn night, and that’s sort of what we do. There’s an extent to which it doesn’t matter. Of course it’s been gratifying, that more people like what I do. But I hope it hasn’t really affected what I do to any extent of being less personal or broader.  I don’t think we really could play arenas. When you play arenas, at that point you really do have to sacrifice intimacy, and what I do is largely about intimacy.  But again, you watch Judy Garland: You could literally put in her Wembley Stadium, and she could make the last person at the top feel as though she was reaching deep into their spirit.

Do you ever come up with songs where you think they might actually benefit from the boombox treatment, rather than a more produced sound?

I’m not planning on writing like that anymore, is the thing. Now I write with the intention of playing with other musicians. Back then, the recording was part of the writing, part of the process. I do feel like I did that a year or two ago, and I did it with Kaki [King], actually. I recorded the "Black Pear Tree" EP with a professional cassette recorder on my outside porch, just for the hell of it. But the thing is, with the boombox, it was not an affectation.  Everybody played tapes back then. It was the common currency.  Not everyone had CD players yet. Tapes were the biggest section of most of the record stores in California for a good year or two.  Making a tape was as simple as putting a tape in the thing you already listened to music on and pressing “record” instead of “play.” To do that now is to say, well, I’m gonna get out the tape player that I don’t actually listen to music on, and I’m gonna set it up and I’m gonna find out who in this town has my tapes, or maybe I’ll mail order some. And at that point, it’s an affectation. It’s like wearing suspenders. You don’t have to wear suspenders so your pants don’t fall down. If you wear suspenders, you’re making a fashion statement, and I think recording with the boombox now would be more of a fashion statement than a practical means of making music.

Speaking on revisiting, how is it going back to the duo lineup of you and Peter, not having Jon Wurster propel it in the background?

It was fun, and it was also sort of challenging, because we’d only done one show like that in seven years or something. It had been a very long time since we’d done that. I had done a couple of duo performances with Wurster, but it was different. This was sort of going back to what we used to do, but at the same time we’re both better musicians now and I think were much better listeners now. You learn over the course of touring that 90 percent of being a musician is listening. I mean, for me, pulling out old songs often to me exposes that they’re a minute and a half long and wouldn’t have a bridge if I wrote them today and would go more places. At the time I was a lot more interested in sudden songs, and sudden insights and visions that would terminate. It was like the song “Cheshire County,” which we played a lot on the tour, where the person sees a cow, thinks a thing, and then it’s over, completely.  And now I play something and I think, “Well, it might be interesting to see what else happens.”  It's interesting to stitch those songs with the more recent ones. If you’re doing something in a minute and a half, you might want to cover more ground.  There’s something valuable in this, to try and create a set every night that managed to weave both of those into a tapestry of a coherent performance.  It was fun and challenging. I think we both expected it to be a lot harder to fall back into a duo playing.  We started in Washington, D.C., at a show where it was going to be seated, and it sold out immediately.  And they said, “Well, we can sell more seats and let more people in if people are standing.” And Peter and I were like, “No, we were gonna sit for this tour.  It seems like it’d be better for fewer people not to ask them to stand up, and we don’t even have a drummer.”  But we hadn't toured with big audiences. When we were playing duo last, we were not playing to the 9:30 folks standing up.  But it was really interesting to me, to learn whether bigger rooms full of people would be able to enjoy this.  And as it turned out, yes.

When you played St. Louis recently, I met people who clearly had come on board after the boombox years.  This was not the experience of the Mountain Goats they were used to, and they seemed to respond really well.

It's important to always do something a little different on every tour, whether it’s a small thing, like opening with a quieter song then opening with a punchier song, or adding a keyboard or horn section or strings or whatever it is.  You have to always be changing or else you sort of calcify.  People always ask, “Do you want to make another boombox album?” and it’s like, “No, of course not. I did that. And to go back and do it again is an attempt to cross the same river twice,” which is something you can never do.

It was an amazing thing to stand with people, some of whom weren’t even born during your first tour.

Part of why that happens for us, and not for other bands who are just as good as us, has been my steadfast resistance to nostalgia. I’m not interested in “back in the day.” I’m not one of those guys who goes around saying the music was better when I was younger, ‘cause it wasn’t. You see this happen over and over again with people in their 30s, who start describing the music of their youth as some special place. Special to you, I get that, ‘cause you were going through youth. I think part of why our audience is miraculously all ages is because we are always in the present moment.  Always, always. And I think "All Hail West Texas" was expressing its moment. It doesn’t sound like it’s in 2001; it’s not trapped in any production mode, it’s just this thing.  But you won’t find us doing a 25-year celebration or anything like that.  I have some fairly corny rock 'n' roll values, and one of them is: Hall of Fame? What are you even talking about? Halls of Fame are for old people.

It’s like getting a Lifetime Achievement Award. You don’t know whether to take that as a compliment or as an epitaph.

Yeah, give me one when I’m 80, but until then ... I think you see that because we’ve held onto one of the chief values of music, which is that it’s ageless, that it’s permanently young.

By Mike Appelstein

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