The Mountain Goats – At His Peak
December 2, 2008 § Leave a comment
Published: The Big Issue, #318, December 2008.
Even after 17 years and as many albums, inspiration is still endless for the Mountain Goats’ prolific front man John Darnielle.
For John Darnielle, life is a fabric rich in narratives. Its stories are inestimable, are boundless.
“How can anybody run short on inspiration in such a gigantic world with so much history and love and blood and warmth and snow in it?” he urges.
It’s a relatively unsurprising assertion when you’re to consider the 41-year-old’s endless catalogue of literary musical endeavours. Since the Mountain Goats first formed in 1991, Darnielle has penned 17 staunchly lo-fi albums – including this year’s opus Heretic Pride – a recent book Black Sabbath: Masters of Reality for the renowned 33 1/3 series, and crafted countless EPs, singles and b-sides. In the process, the Durham, North Carolina resident has become one of the most highly regarded lyricists of independent rock.
“I think where writers go wrong is in thinking: ‘If I didn’t do my best work, I must not have been inspired’,” he says. “No, you were inspired, but you weren’t at the top of your game that day, that’s all. I mean, not everybody can do their best work every day of the week, but in what profession is that possible? None I’d guess!”
He’s not offering excuses. In song writing terms, Darnielle – who reels off his currently inspirations as “the history of modern Ethiopia, cowboys and religious fanatics” – has none to give. The songwriter hides behind little but an acoustic guitar, the toned down bass of long-time collaborator Peter Hughes and occasional rattle of drums, cello and piano; his nasally vocal and storytelling vernacular bare and stark.
“I still have that indwelling sense that you shouldn’t keep working on a book after you’re done telling the story, and that it’s better to leave some spaces empty than to fill them in with too much junk,” he says.
“This makes me something of an anachronism, I fear, since the world keeps tilting toward the ‘fill more spaces in with more junk’ aesthetic, but so be it!” he laughs. “I want to be able to hear a little wind blowing in between the players.”
Music and the written word were there from the start for Darnielle. Born in the small town of Bloomington, Indiana, he remembers his father playing the piano and cello and flute. “When our family built an additional room for our old house, it became the music room,” he recounts. “It had a piano in it and my dad’s records – jazz and classical mainly – and I would hang out in their scrutinizing the album sleeves.”
But Darnielle’s childhood wasn’t necessarily a happy one. His parents divorced when he was still in elementary school and the family, along with his new stepfather, moved to California. As a teenager he began exploring poetry and fiction, but his growing affiliation with the written word masked an increasingly abusive home life. It was something that Darnielle would only go public about his stepfather Mike Noonan had died in 2004, on the Mountain Goats’ seminal 2005 record The Sunset Tree. It was one of Darnielle’s only forays into non-fiction, but not necessarily a planned one.
The intensely personalised narratives that peppered the album spilt out whenever and wherever, no matter the circumstances. “I wrote the lyrics to ‘Dance Music’ in a Dutch hotel room and ‘Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod’ in a parked van somewhere in Paris,” he pauses. “You know I never used to write on the road at all, but I started doing it with The Sunset Tree, but it just kind of happened.”
“I thought to myself, maybe there’s something to the idea of writing from a sort of anchorless perspective, writing when you’re in some in-between place.”
This year’s Heretic Pride sees Darnielle return to his fictional roots. He breeches topics as divergent as Orientalist writer (and “rather foul dude”) Sax Rohmer in ‘Sax Rohmer #1’ to imagined religious cults in ‘New Zion’.
And it’s the latter song the most interest for Darnielle. “It’s this religious cult maybe in California or Oregon in the 70s who are sort of drifting apart,” he explains. “So I thought, you know, these last hangers-on, the remaining faithful, what’s it like for them?” he pauses. “To me that’s fascinating.”
“You know, I would argue that inspiration is infinite for everybody,” he says. “Everything’s a source of inspiration, and if you exhaust all that, there’s books, infinite books!”
by Dan Rule
The Mountain Goats tour in early December
Heretic Pride is out through Remote Control/Inertia