John Darnielle on Songwriting 101 and the next Mountain Goats LP
Given John Darnielle’s fecund imagination, projecting which kind of characters the Mountain Goats’ leader will next channel, or which topics’ underbellies he’ll expose, or what kind of narrative device he’ll use to do it, is a fool’s errand. Goats’ shows in the pre-viral days — let’s go with the 90s and early 00s — often featured Darnielle test-driving new material from upcoming LPs.
Alas, over the last few years even the iconoclastic Darnielle has succumbed to the Internet’s all-pervading eye and shied from playing new songs before they’re released. Well, no more. The latest Mountain Goats’ tour will feature scads of new songs (well, five or six, he promises) getting road-tested into shape before the band goes into the studio this Spring for a possible Fall release.
Darnielle expounded on the as-yet-untitled new release with Shuffle’s John Schacht.
Shuffle: So what can you tell us about this new material without ruining all the mystery?
John Darnielle: It’s kind of like a cast of characters, a one-act play festival kind of deal. It’s in the vein of We Shall All Be Healed, but that was really more of a street kids’ kind of record, and this is more about people once they have their own places in the world. It’s kind of about mental illness. I don’t like to say that because as soon as you say that the album’s about, say, a divorcing couple — and that’s why my press kits are always kind of impressionistic — it just sounds very dry and saps all the life out of the action to me. But everybody in the record is, to some extent, pretty deeply psychologically damaged. It was not something I sat down to do, it was something I noticed. I had a narrator in this song called “Counterfeit Florida Plates” who was schizophrenic — he was starting to see things and he had no place to sleep at night. Seven or eight songs later, I noticed that everybody’s got a little something that makes it impossible for them to function in — and put a whole host of air quotes beside this — normal society. It’s a small community of outliers, and I put them all in the same town, it’s Snohomish in Washington. It’s Richard Hugo territory (Editor’s note: Snohomish is where a writer’s retreat in the poet’s name takes place), it rains all the time up there, so I envisioned this place where people are spending their season hurtling through difficulties, coping and hopefully learning how to get somewhere, but having a hard time.
Shuffle: That can be a gloomy atmosphere up there…
JD: It’s not gloomy so much, the thing about the Pacific Northwest is that it’s this grayness that isn’t darkness. It’s a middle station; a waiting platform. If you live there and you’re not into it, that’s what drives you crazy about it. If it’s going to be cold, let’s have Chicago whiteouts; if it’s going to be hot, then I’m going to move to the South. Instead, you get this whole long string of 49-degree days, and it’s very intense. But it’s also sort of, well, metaphorically it feels like this agreement to be between places when you live there.
Shuffle: Are you done writing the songs?
JD: We’re never done until the day we go in. Because starting with The Sunset Tree, I’ve often written one or more songs in the studio. There was one that I showed up with, I hadn’t sent it to anybody, ‘let’s try this one, none of you have heard it.’ So ever since, I’ve always tried to bring one that isn’t finished yet to the studio. So I don’t ever say, ‘okay, I’m done writing.’ Because the best ones always tend to come during the last month before you go in; there’s always this flurry of activity. But I have like 11 or 12 now that we’re getting arrangements done for now. We’re not touring all of them, we’re only bringing along five or six because we haven’t figured out how to play all of them put together and we only get so much rehearsal time before we hit the road.
Shuffle: Do you have some ideas on how you’re going to flesh this one out?
JD: We have some ideas, but that’s part of why we’re touring — let’s see what they sound like. Once you play them live a few times, you might get ideas in your head about what might sound really good in there. When you go into a studio, the most time you have, when you’re an indie band, is like 10 days, and we get like six or seven. Often you’ll think the advantage of those 30-day sessions in the 70s was guys could sit around smoking weed and going, ‘you know what? That song we recorded last week? I was wondering if we could put tuba on there.’ But nobody has the time or money to do that anymore. If I take them out (on the road), then every night I play them I feel like, maybe I hear a cello here, or whatever. So we don’t really know for sure yet. I do know I have some horn stuff that I want to do that I’m pretty excited about, that I’d like to do on several songs. I hear some sort of syncopated horns on one and then some more mournful horns elsewhere. I might get some strings, too, but I’m not sure. There’s a lot of piano on the record — but you never know. Sometimes I write it on piano but it ends up moving over to guitar.
Shuffle: I’ll drop this new stuff now, but…
JD: Hey, I’ll talk about new stuff all day! That’s the thing — whatever else you’ve got, my head is in new stuff. Most musicians will talk about the album they have out now just to sell some, but I’m neck deep in playing new stuff.
Shuffle: Any idea what season we’ll see the new one?
JD: I assume in the fall because we’re going to track it in the spring at some point, and it takes time to mix. Brandon Eggleston is recording it, he’s our tour manager — he produced a third of The Life of the World to Come, and he assisted on the Erik Rutan sessions last time, and he recorded “High Hawk Season.” So he’s recording the whole thing here in Durham and then Scott Solter is going to mix it out in Monroe. Scott is a friend, he’s amazing. The thing about Brandon recording my stuff is that Brandon is literally in the room when I’m writing the songs a lot of the time. We’ll be on tour and I will be sitting on the bed and I’ll get an idea and I’ll say, ‘Hey, Brandon, is my guitar in the van?’ He’ll go get it and I’ll write, and he’s there watching it get born. I can literally hand my laptop to him and ask him, ‘What do you think?’ I was writing one for this bunch and it makes sense to have Brandon be here if he was already there for most of the way. He’s been tour-managing us and doing our live sound for several years. It’s kind of exciting, it’s a family record, which sort of fits in with me with this theme of this community which is fractured and the members are manufacturing their own families — so that’s kind of what we do.
Shuffle: Are these songs separate vignettes or character studies?
JD: There are various characters and actions. That’s why I don’t want to tell people too much of what goes on just because it’s exciting to find out. Let me look at the playlist…oh, yeah, yeah, yeah (chuckles). You know how you sit in an empty room and remember the people that have passed through the room before the depression really set in? They almost have this video game aspect to them; you imagine them with their narrative this fully constructed thing. This is sort of people having visions of that and sharing them with each other. They’re individual pieces, the songs don’t talk to each other. That’s one reason I avoid the term ‘concept album,’ I can’t stand when a rock album feels like it’s trying to be an opera, you know? When a character comes in and announces, ‘I’m thus and so and I do this.’ I hate that because it’s such a waste of a line, to have a guy just type in what his function is. Opera can do that, but opera’s usually written by poets. So, I want to say these are dramatic monologues, but a lot of them are dialogues — it’s just half the characters in the dialogues are ghosts.
Shuffle: Now you’re just toying with us…when did you write these?
JD: (Laughs) I started writing while we were on tour. People say I’m super prolific, but I don’t actually think that’s the case, I just keep working. But there’s always a little lag time between records where, if I start to write, I’ll get half a song but I won’t like any of that. But I’ll finish it, peck at it for weeks — there was one called “Italian Guns” that I was working on for what seemed like months. Every time I started working on it I can’t be honest with myself: this song’s not going to be any good, it’s not going anywhere (laughs). I had several of those, too. I remember the Get Lonely ones, too, because I worked so hard on those ones. I’d finish the demos and go, ‘I don’t know, maybe I’m out of sync,’ you know? You can’t find the little vein that you’re supposed to be following. That happened starting at the beginning of the Spring tour.
Shuffle: You read a lot about you being more of a storyteller than songwriter, and there is this remarkably broad range in your writing — do you consider yourself a biographer, a poet, a journalist, a memoirist? A mix of all them?
JD: I think I’m just a songwriter — almost a balladeer. Except they’re always using the term “personified monologue” or something, because what I do is — it’s funny, because in my fiction I feel like the area I’m most challenged by is dialogue. That’s true for a lot of people. When I do write it, it’s hard to write convincing dialogue. But I do seem to write fairly convincing monologues. They’re persuasive, they sound like voices that we run on little reels inside our heads, you know? Playwright is what it’s closest to, but that’s what old medieval songwriters were doing — they’d tell these little stories, like about a guy who gets hung, and recite it in terms of his beloved who can’t confess — which song is that I’m thinking of, it’s an English ballad? (Editor’s Note: Our semi-educated guess is “Long Black Veil”) Where the guy’s going to the gallows and the person singing it is the person who could acquit him by saying ‘He was with me that day,’ but she can’t because she’s married to his friend? A classic story, right? But the way it’s framed is for the lover to be singing about her silence; that’s the old art of storytelling.
Shuffle: Do you find it easier to create out of whole cloth or tweak your own experiences?
JD: I don’t think about it beforehand. When I sit down to work it’s very spontaneous — it’s just like having a conversation but I’m the only one there. I think what I wind up doing when I look back at it is a combination of making stuff up and remembering stuff. But it usually takes off from a phrase. I’ll run across a phrase or somebody will say something — I keep lists of titles and they really are the sorts of things that occur to you in a drug haze. They don’t, it’s not like that, but I have a notebook and I’ll have a phrase in my mind and I’ll write down “Counterfeit Iowa Plates.” Well, I don’t even know what that would mean. It’s three words that seem to tell a story by themselves. But why would you have counterfeit plates from Iowa? But then “Iowa” didn’t sing as well, so I changed it to “Florida.” The song is about a guy’s turn into paranoia, so then I think, ‘well, all my experience with that is from comes from when I was a psychiatric nurse — so I know a lot of things people think and say when they’re in their paranoid moments.’ So then I started thinking, ‘well, they’re the persons who’ve often been out on the streets for a while, and seem pretty sick. He hasn’t bathed in a while — some of that is because maybe he’s afraid if he bathes something bad will happen to him.’ So you work all that in, but it just starts with some random phrase that seems to communicate some idea.
Shuffle: You talked about how the ideas often appear as you go along rather than beforehand, but once that idea appears how does it land in a place like Washington state, for instance? Was it just like moving a story from Iowa to Florida because it suited the song?
JD: No. It had to do with the fact that I spent — I won’t say the deepest trough of depression I went into, but a defining depressed season — was in Portland. That was when I was 18 or 19 years old and I was getting really high all the time, and I didn’t want to be exploiting that scene again. I’d already written about that several times. But I did want the same mood, just a little further down your twenties. Depression’s very real whenever you get it, but when you have to make rent, it’s different. The inability to function when you have bills to pay is a little more pressing than if you don’t. So I wanted something that was a little more, you know, a group of people who have a little more to lose than I did when I was in Portland.
Shuffle: Can I ask what decade this was?
JD: No! These things date me, and I am eternal! (Laughs)…