John Darnielle, the frontman of the beloved cult band The Mountain Goats, recently stopped by the BuzzFeed office to chat about his love of Mary Chapin Carpenter and talk a bit about feminism. He also graciously answered some questions submitted by Mountain Goats fans at BuzzFeed HQ.
How intensely did you have to study the Bible in order to synch up the lyrics and song titles on Life of the World to Come, and did your knowledge come from how you were raised or just general curiosity?
I didn't have to work too hard because I know a lot of Bible stuff to begin with. It was about half and half, because some of them I would think of the verse and start from there, and others I would write the song and then I comb the Bible. It doesn't take long to find something that fits one of my songs, generally, because there's a lot of apocalyptic stuff. But not just apocalyptic, but often working in ideas about forgiveness, caring, guilt or shame. Those are things I write about. Or, you know, a person being given permission by his wife to make a baby with somebody else because she can't, that's a common theme. For that story, it's a story about personal sacrifice, and the Bible has got all the stories. It's like The Canterbury Tales in that way. To me, the Bible is a pleasure. If you're into literature, you need a passing familiarity with the Bible or you're probably missing a lot in literature.
Have you ever felt like your songwriting impeded on your emotional health or fed your neuroses?
That's a really good question, and like most good questions, I don't have a satisfying answer for it. Has it impeded my emotional health? It's more in listening to music that I worry about going to unhealthy places, I like to listen to music that messes me up. I have these ideas, and I don't know if it's actually true, that I just indulge feeling bad. In songwriting, it's not as purgative as people think it is for me. The music is the product of purgative work I've done elsewhere in my life, thinking things through, going through experiences, what's left for the song is to wake stuff up. I'm a fairly controlling writer, it's not a primal scream process for me. I'm not bleeding out from my pen. I will say the Black Pear Tree/Satanic Messiah era, that was a hard time to be writing. That, and Life of the World to Come. I do remember getting pretty upset while working.
Did you write "There Will Be No Divorce" specifically to make me cry every time I hear it?
Yes. Yes I did, sir or madam. I'm so glad to hear that! I remember working a little hard on that song. Some songs can be pretty automatic, but I was tinkering with that one.
How did you make it more sad?
It's the recording. There's a lot of ways to play that song, but with a lot of stuff on The Coroner's Gambit, I did multiple versions to try to find it. That one, we were very poor at the time, and it was a free-standing house that we lived in, cos that was something my wife and I wanted to have. When we moved out, the city bought it from the slumlord who owned it and knocked it down because they did not want that building in their town anymore. Not that we had been so awful, but it was a pit. Which I remember fondly, but my wife does not, because I tend to remember my pits fondly. Anyway, it had a little tool shack, or garden shed. God knows what it was there for, it was probably 80 years old. It could have been quarters for a handyman that lived on the property. It was a little old shed full of cobwebs, and I took the 4-track that I was recording the Coroner's Gambit stuff on out to the shed to try recording in there, to see if I could get the right feeling. And that was it. That was where I got that, but I don't think I recorded anything else in that shed. So the sadness comes from a building that is now gone.
What is your favorite Mountain Goats song and why?
There's a lot of them. I'm pretty fond of "Tyler Lambert's Grave." I'm really fond of "Age of Kings." I really like "Thank You Mario" right now. I like the ones where I feel like I express something that is true, which is a corny thing to say. I tell stories, I do this and that and they all have some expression, but when I locate some level where I get myself upset… "Tyler Lambert's Grave," I was very, very proud of that song.
"Thank You Mario," I think there's something in there that I don't think I was fully in touch with when I was writing it, and every time I play it I get a little closer to what it's really about, and I get a little happier to tell that story. With that one, I'm pretty proud because there's also a hidden thing and then there's a true thing, and you can sing the one and be totally blissfully ignorant of the other reading of it and enjoy it.
But "Tyler Lambert's Grave," that's one of the better things I've ever written, so of course, I released it for free on the internet.
You can always put it on the greatest hits.
There will never be a greatest hits. If you see one, you will genuinely know that I am starving to death. And that I have some crazy idea that if I'm starving to death, the thing to do is to release a record, because people buy lots of records. Because who doesn't love physical media?
If you could be any rapper, who would you be?
Ummmm. Yeah, I don't know. The thing is, it's hard to say because some of the best rappers are dead. And you can say Tupac, but, well, Tupac is dead. Which rapper's talent do you envy the most, whose lifestyle would you want to emulate? Obviously there's these giants, but Tupac, Biggie, Eazy-E, in my mind. They're all gone. I like Planet Asia's style. Not many people have heard Planet Asia. He's not the best rapper, but I really like what he does. I sort of like that he fills his own niche. It's hard to say.
Now that you have regular bandmates, is it less lonely on the road?
I feel that the correct answer is, it's the same lonely everywhere. [laughs] The thing is, no, because we've been touring a long time together. Peter [Hughes] and I have been living in a car together for 11 years now. So Peter and I can do a 500 mile drive in dead silence and no one is actually feeling bad, it's just that we've already said everything. We just sit there and watch the road together and be quite fine. I didn't really do any touring by myself, before I had a band I wasn't out there pounding it by myself, I didn't go out much.
How does Jon Wurster change your dynamic?
He's funny, of course. John Vanderlice had this genius line about this the other day, I'm not sure if you saw it, it deserves more shine than anything I've seen tweeted this year. But he said, "If you think the Internet is making us lonelier, then you were never lonely before 1995." That's fucking deep, right? You know what you no longer have to do? Sit in your room with nothing. There is someone, even if it's just some dude arguing about Alien Vs. Predator, right? There's somebody out there who you could reach out to, and be talking to. Prior to 1995, that stranger was going to have to be some stranger at a coffee shop, and you'd have to muster up some courage that you might not be able to find.
Having said that, tour vans these days are quite often four guys doing this. You can't see me on the recording, but I'm staring at a cell phone screen and touching it with my thumb. And that's what a tour van looks like now. To me, that's kinda good because I don't like to talk in the van because I'm saving my voice and talking in loud vehicles is a good way to wear it down. But there is this weird feeling that everyone's off in their own planet, that it's not a shared experience, that everyone's in the web.