John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats Talks Poetry and Pandemics
In the early 90s, John Darnielle was struggling to be taken seriously. He was yet another guy with an acoustic guitar and poetic lyrics. A scourge on the metal scene. A punks’ nightmare.
At the time, playing mostly solo under the name The Mountain Goats, he didn’t even have a drummer. He showed up with searing emotions, ready to rage – and the crowdsâ¦ were sitting down.
“I would get acerbic about it,” he recalls. âBut I had energy to burn, and I had as much energy as any electric generator. There was a quality of resentment: “I want to melt you down, and then when the rock band comes after me, I’ll have taken all your energy.” You will have nothing more. I loved this idea.
So he carefully built a career against the tide of the boring, self-absorbed folklore image that sang sweet songs. He raged for a decade, sometimes solo and sometimes in duet with bassist Rachel Ware and sometimes other collaborators, moaning with his big gaping, sweaty mouth, chasing the audience from their seats as he felt every word he sang. Over the course of an endless tour, he built a cult fan base in the underground, becoming the rare singer-songwriter to rock the punk and metal scenes. His albums weren’t the tidy studio stuff; they were recorded on a boombox, with the hum of the cogs of the tape recorder being the dominant accompanying instrument. As he hammered his six strings with ruthless brutality, his singing was far from polite.
Breaking this sonic assault, however, Darnielle’s lyricism was as classic as her music was provocative – the result of a long-standing obsession with poetry. In his youth he had been drawn to free verse. Then he picked up a copy of Lewis Turco The book of forms: a manual of poetics and studied the meter, scansion and style, connecting to the rules of various worm modes until they were hard-wired into his imagination. He mastered his craft at Pomona College in California under his mentor – and former Little League coach – Robert Mezey, a ruthless and measured fundamentalist, outraged by his students’ flippant form deviations.
“He was a very ruthless professor,” recalls Darnielle, who studied Robert Frost and Thomas Hardy under Mezey. “He just liked poetry … and he was very tough, and I really wanted to make him happy, so I worked really hard for a few years.”
All this work has paid off for Darnielle, whose emotionally frantic performances belies his structured approach to verse writing, which he sees more as a work than a divine call led by a muse or an act of prayer to the Leonard Cohen.
âLearning to measure my numbersâ¦ is a lot more important in my business than most people think,â says Darnielle. âAnd if you want to talk about what the songs are about or their topics, those are important as well. But their formal qualities, I think, are what sets me apart. “
As his career began to take him above the ground, Darnielle began to reconsider his aggro approach to songwriting and performance, and he became increasingly curious about other forms of expression and musical production. He no longer wanted his art to be an exercise in opposition.
“If your profession is driven by resentment – and this is something enshrined by writers, but it’s also a finite shelf life – can you hold a grudge when your success grows?” I guess some people do, but I don’t. Around 1999, I started to think to myself, ‘Wow, you are really lucky that you could have done this for so long.’ And I kind of got a lot more curious about other places I could take the music. You know, there is no real renunciation. I could always turn up the volume as high as I want, but at the same time it’s not like it used to be.
Thus, for twenty years, Darnielle broadens its musical palette. He started building the current version of Mountain Goats in the early 2000s, adding some of the best indie rock musicians and sprinkling his songs with everything from gospel to free jazz while managing to bring raw energy to gigs, captivating the audience to scream along. Her lyrics have also evolved, from chronicling her own memories to fighting myth, history and pop culture, offering intimate detail.
Today it spans millennia in a single verse, tilting its head to literature, bible tales, medieval dramas, comics, role-playing games, sports and the daily struggles of characters living on the edge of the sea. self-implosion in a decaying world. Through it all, he clings to a spirit of resilience in the face of trauma and violence.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the two albums the band recorded just before the pandemic: Enter the knives, recorded the first week of March 2020 at Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis and released in October of the same year; and Dark here, which was recorded the second week of March 2020 at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals and released in June.
Both albums incorporate sounds from a wide range of collaborators, including appearances from Hiss Golden Messenger guitarist Chris Boerner, Al Green organist Charles Hodges, studio legend Spooner Oldham, guitarist Will McFarlane. and pianist Bram Gielen. The fresh styles of these musicians bring new dimensions to the entire Mountain Goats group, which includes longtime members Peter Hughes on bass and Jon Wurster on drums, as well as new recruit Matt Douglas, a multi-instrumentalist. .
As the Mountain Goats worked on both projects, preparing to take them out with a massive tour, the news was that the coronavirus was spreading nationwide. The band’s planned concerts – and their livelihoods – seemed increasingly under threat. A week after the musicians returned home since the start of the tour, all live performances across the country have been canceled.
Darnielle was hoping to be back in clubs by fall 2020, but in the meantime he worried about his squad mates, his team and everyone else who depended on the Mountain Goats for a living. So he decided to raise funds in the best possible way: by releasing another album.
âI had an idea for a song, and I thoughtâ¦ it sounded good,â he recalls. “And usually, if I have one idea, then I’ll have two, and I said,” What if I did a song every day for the next ten days and put out this tape and I hope to sell enough of it. to keep people’s rent paid? ‘”
The result: Songs for Pierre Chuvin, a mind-blowing solo effort that would appeal to fans nostalgic for the 90s Mountain Goats sound. Most of the time it’s just Darnielle and her guitar, though there are occasional lo-fi drum samples. and synths that nod to the band’s new sounds.
Mountain Goats, which were started as a business, also got loans from the Paycheck Protection Program; Darnielle worked with her manager to put a plan in place to make sure everyone got away with it. The band performed two live concerts and recorded a live album, bemoaning the lack of audiences but still making music.
Seventeen months, three albums of new songs and a superb two-disc live project, The sessions of Lake Jordan, later, the Mountain Goats are finally back on tour, making a living as Darnielle for nearly thirty years: crushing fans with honest, raw performances.
The group will be performing four concerts in Colorado this month, including sold-out shows on August 19 at the Gothic Theater, August 20 at the Larimer Lounge and August 21 at Washington’s in Fort Collins. Tickets are still available for the first night of the race: Wednesday August 18 at the Black Sheep in Colorado Springs.
It’s no wonder the shows sell out. Over the past decade, every Mountain Goats concert has vibrated with the frenetic energy that Darnielle displayed when he opened for metal bands in the ’90s. And although he is experimenting with new sounds, he is more alive than ever, screaming, crying, laughing – and pulling the crowds on a memorable ride.
âI want everything I do on stage to be very honest, to come from a place of curiosity, interest and wonder,â says Darnielle. “And it’s true. Now it’s like you hear me sing and if I sound amused or happy it’s because I am. I don’t want to be on stage playing. say ‘This is the part where I pretend to get mad.’ I really wanna work on it, I really wanna feel.
To learn more about the upcoming tour, visit The Mountain Goats online.