The Mountain Goats Gruff
Getty's got the Mountain Goat on the horn.
By Kate Getty, 11:28PM, Sun. Mar. 11, 2007
The first time I heard John Darnielle's voice, he ripped my heart out and made me cry cubicle tears. It was that voice – kinda nasally, totally passionate – that moved me. At the time, I streamed Seattle radio to my mouse-click of a job, an act of silent headphone rebellion that aided in my rapidly diminishing sanity. Perhaps it was my attempt at irony, the rainy-day radio station mocking the utter beige quality of my paper work-day. Perhaps it was even ironic that it was raining that day in Austin, where I was listening to the Mountain Goats, Darnielle's band, which is really just him and a few rotating friends and musicians; this time he was appearing solo, an umbrella morning, and Darnielle plucking acoustic, rainy-day, not-quite-love songs in the KEXP studio.
Toward the end of his live set, he unfolded a piece of paper (you could hear the crinkle if you craned your ear a bit) and cleared his throat to perform a song he had written a few nights before. It was unpracticed; you could tell he was still trying it on for size, stretching into the cozy corners of where the art really comes from. But it was simple and beautiful, perhaps ironic or prolific or dramatic enough to bring actual tears to my eyes. His lyrics were new to him, but spoken like his dreams must've had no other soundtrack for the past week. I remember, at that moment, thinking, wow, that John Darnielle; he really puts himself out there.
I told him so.
Gay Place: You really put yourself out there. Does John Darnielle think the same thing about John Darnielle?
John Darnielle: Thank you for the kind words, but it would be kinda vain for me do speak further on this matter, I think.
GP: Okay, do you drink sody pop? Why or why not?
JD: Generally not, just because they make it with high-fructose corn syrup instead of sugar now. High-fructose corn syrup is like flavoring your beverage with ass.
GP: You are coming to Austin soon for South by Southwest. When you think of Texas, what comes to mind?
JD: I think of West Texas, how huge it is, about how much sky you can see late at night out there.
GP: When picking a set list for gigs in Austin like this, what does that process look like? Old stuff, new stuff you're trying out, stuff you are feeling with that particular group of musicians in that particular venue on that particular night? How do you pick?
JD: I think with festival sets you mainly aim for the cheap seats, play the songs people wanna hear and can sing along with and get drunk to. Trying out a bunch of new songs in front of a festival crowd seems like a pretty cantankerous thing to do. Not that there isn't something to be said for cantankerousness.
GP: I have read that during your creative process, your best works can come from a dark place, perhaps alienation, depression, anger. Is this the only way you can tap into the way that you really feel?
JD: No I don't think so. Much of the time, really most of the time I think, I write from a place of curiosity and almost technical interest in the process. I'm not sure what you read about these dark places and whatnot; those do tend to be the themes I return to, but I'm no method actor. The Sunset Tree was kind of different though, I got pretty upset writing that stuff. Even a really dark and brutal song has a tendency to improve my mood. I'll start writing if I'm in a bad mood and then be engaged and interested inside of a few minutes.
GP: Do you sometimes fear that putting structure to such feelings, in turn, negates the spirit of the feeling itself? Or does it give it legs?
JD: See above!
GP: The theme of escapism is very prevalent to your work. Care to discuss? (Feel free to avoid this question.)
GP: Do you vote? Why or why not?
JD: I do now, mainly because people bullied me about it. I don't have much faith in the whole process and dislike all the candidates. I vote lesser-evil now like a good boy, but I don't feel really good about it, and every time I have to hear about a candidate who's "not really like that!" I feel nauseous.
GP: Do you like to roller skate?
JD: I used to! It's been a while.
GP: Where would you like to be tomorrow?
JD: Home with my wife.
GP: Why are you a vegetarian?
JD: Saw a hog get slaughtered for market by some rural farmers once, who often will just shoot an animal in the head and take it to a place that'll buy the carcass. It was real clear that the hog thought there was food in the gun barrel, he was sniffing at it like a dog sniffs at a Milk Bone. When I'd made that connection – that eating an animal isn't really different from eating your pet, it's just that you didn't personally know the one you eat – a light went on in my brain. That was January 1996. That's a sentimental and emotional way of coming to vegetarianism, I know, but once you're off and running, there are just so many advantages: ecological, okay sure, but also personally, politically, domestically. I eat better than anybody I know, I think my expanding waistline is proof enough of that, and I just enjoy cooking and eating a lot more than I did when I ate meat. Vegetarianism is kind of selfish in some ways, at least for me. Though I'm stealing this line from Propagandhi, I think: It's about me enjoying my life more, about having more outright joy than I used to have in my daily walk through things. Other people might not experience things like I do, but for me, the benefits were immediate and have lasted 10 years so far. That's all the sermon I got!
GP: Your latest album you have described as more emotional, but less autobiographical. Is it easier for you to delve deeper when it isn't about you, when it isn't specifically your head our there on the chopping block?
JD: No, I think digging deeper is just a question of honing the craft. I get more able to do it as I do it more. I'm writing songs now that I don't even know where they're coming from, but they're like deep-black-craters-in-the-earth-kinda, pretty excited about them, I don't even know if they're about me or not.
GP: But, when it was about you, is it cathartic at all to have lyrics that trail your life's existence, mapping out where you have been for all the audience to see? How does that feel to have a past that so many people can relate to, who stop you on the street, saying, "This song; it really spoke to me." (I know Dance Music for me touches on some painful childhood memories growing up and now allows me to vent, driving fast and wildly, windows open, my throat stinging I'm singing along so loudly.) I like to think this is just how you intend your music to be experienced. What is your response to this kind of reaction? What role do you take on as simply an artist trying to communicate himself?
JD: Yeah, I didn't wanna own up to how emotional singing those songs was when they were new and fresh, but it was a pretty eye-opening experience. I do like to imagine people getting fully invested in the songs when they listen, for sure. I write songs for people to sing to themselves, that's how I've always thought of them.
GP: How do you feel about gay people getting married? How do you feel about straight people getting married?
JD: I love my marriage, and I don't feel like anybody else's is really my business. I'm in favor of letting anybody do whatever they want as long as it doesn't wake the neighbors or frighten the horses. People who think that gay marriage somehow "threatens the family" or whatever are misguided when I'm feeling charitable and morons when I'm not, y'know? People oughta sweep around their own front door and not mind others.
GP: You were an English major. What is your favorite book? Favorite author?
JD: I don't really do favorites. Reading Jelinek write now [sic]. Austrian author, I'm only reading translations in 2007. Completely incredible.
GP: Do you drink coffee or tea or both? (I picture you as a green tea kind of guy.)
JD: Yeah, you're kinda off there. I drink coffee in the day time and herbal tea or liquor at night.
GP: That brings up a theme, that people who listen to your music or see you perform, they seem to create this preconceived notion of who you are: this nice, English professor-type guy, clean-cut, tips well, walks his dogs at night, with lyrics so smart and biting they have the ability to gut you with just one slice. Do you think that's fair, as you have a darker past than some, and involve darkness in your creativity? Do you think such a perception sells you short?
JD: I'm not really bothered either way, but it has always been kind of amusing to hear what people think I'm like. But really, it's not about me, it's about the songs, so however people like to think of me is fine.
GP: Are you a shy guy? Would your friends say you're shy?
JD: Not unless they were deliberately lying to you.
GP: And lastly, what's your favorite color? Mine's orange.
JD: Mine, too!