In true Mountain Goats fashion, the band’s latest album, Transcendental Youth (Merge), couches heavy subject matter in light-hearted melodies and compelling, energetic tempos. Touring with the album’s horn wizard, Matthew E. White, and his nine-piece band as the opening act, John Darnielle spoke with me about the album, monsters, babies, and the (d)evolution of books. The conversation follows:
You’ve been recognized as one of the best lyricists of our time. As a writer, does your imagination and creativity ever shut off?
I always try to resist thinking too hard about creativity because to me it’s magical thinking and I don’t want to look inside too hard at the thing that makes the cool stuff. But at the same time, I feel like even if I’m not making stuff all the time, there’s a degree to which creativity is just an expression of yourself, not necessarily of the ideas that have been kicking around in your head all day. So what I do is almost like an afterthought. The creativity is sort of the things I do throughout the day and the thing I make is the expression of that.
Very creatively said, by the way.
(Laughs) Thank you.
I know you are an avid reader. I wanted to ask you a little about read—
Can I ask you a question? I’ve been wondering this more and more. We have a baby now and people get less reading done once they have a baby, right? But I can’t stop buying books and every time I hear about a book I figure I have to get it now or people will forget they exist—then I won’t have it. I’m looking at this one shelf and I’m pretty sure there are 300 books that I have not read yet. Now when I look at my books I wonder, realistically, if I’m ever going to read them! And I’m not a fast reader. The only time you’re a fast reader, for me anyway, was when I was in college and you have to have something read by Tuesday. Especially with the internet. I’m going to waste like 3/4 of my day doing absolutely nothing online when there’s the new Umberto Eco book. Um, I probably won’t get to that book for another two years. Like, I have one shelf of books that are supposed to be in line but then I get distracted by the stuff on another shelf. You still get some of their powers just by having them in the house (laughs). I’m working on a book of my own and have an editor for it. People who work in the book world have these lives that of course everybody is jealous of. You look at them and think, “Wow! This guy’s getting through two or three books a week!” People send me books and tell me to make time for it and I think, “You realize I’m not going to read this for another four years.”
So how do you feel about eBooks?
They’re fine with me. You know, I am in love with books. They’ve been a very, very early love of mine. One thing it reminds me of is the internet. People used to watch tv and do all their stuff while they watch tv, then the internet came along and there was a different screen to look at and get more information from and have multiple screens going at once. That’s the more sophisticated version of television to some extent. The dramatic arc of good television is something that’s missing and is lost. But then you have good shows like Breaking Bad and people start watching that. But a book is on a totally different plane.
What I do with a book is not something I want to do on a screen, myself. A lot of people do and whatever people want to read is great with me. When people talk about the future of the book as a book, I always think, “Well, if people stop reading hard books, there are so many books that already exist that I don’t think they would ever go away completely.” I personally haven’t tried eBooks and don’t see myself getting a Kindle Fire or any of those things. But I see people reading them on planes and they seem to be enjoying them. I’m sure they’re getting essentially the same experience, but for me there’s a physical aspect to a book. I like a book. I get affectionate and have a relationship with the cover and the heft of it and carrying it around. The tactile aspect is really something that, if I don’t have that, I’d rather get it from a pair of glasses instead of on a screen or something.
Speaking of covers, what can you tell me about the cover of Transcendental Youth?
Yeah, it’s by a guy named Aeron Alfrey, who I knew from an early tumblr blog called Monster Brains, where he would re-blog all these old appearances of monster stuff like in old comics and old horror posters. I love monsters, you know. I had him do a series of drawings I’d seen that he was putting up of demons that were really great and I just loved that. So, I hit him up to paint the cover of this because he does amazing work. We went back and forth about stuff, which was kind of fun because I’m not a painter and don’t normally talk about what would go into a painting. I had sort of a loose idea that I wanted to express of people sort of swimming through space toward an uncertain future but there’s demon heads in there somehow. He sent me sketches and we talked about how visible the faces should be. Rob Carmichael, who did the sleeve design, talked about having faces behind the text. There’s a lot more going on in the sleeve that you can only see if you have a physical copy.
You said you love monsters and I wanted to ask about some of your other interests, like death metal. I know you’re dealing with big stuff in your music, but it’s never comes across as a downer. How does that dichotomy come through in your songs?
I don’t know if this is true because there’s an extent to which I’m just doing what I do, and I’m never saying, “Oh, let me make sure that I’m happy here,” but I think to me if you are singing or making music in any way, you’re doing something affirmative. No matter what you’re singing about, that creative expression is extremely positive, no matter what your subject is. It’s true with the death metal I listen to, too. It’s very energetic and about dark subjects but it’s not itself a bummer. It’s actually very enervating, exciting. I think there’s an extent to which, no matter what you’re talking about, if you are talking about it and dealing with it, that in itself is positive. If you’re not letting it infect you, but getting it out and there’s a purgative aspect to it, then that’s super positive. Also, I don’t think any feelings are monochromatic. I think when you’re desperate and sad there’s always a feeling that there must be an exit somewhere and dreams of what lies on the other side of dark things. Feelings are pretty complex and there’s not any one unilateral color to [them]. Every mood or feeling is actually very rich to me so there’s always that aspect of jubilation or triumph in even the darkest things.
Did you see a lot of the darkness when you were a psychiatric nurse?
Yeah. This is sort of an interesting thing to relate it to because you’ll have patients who are not having it any easier than another patient who is chronically mentally ill, like I worked with. But for some people it’s really grating on them and other people are totally delighted all the time, living in the hospital. I had a patient once explain how he was unhappy with this patient who was sad all the time and standing near the window, crying. He said, “What’s wrong with it here? You get three meals, fresh clothes, and a shower.” There are some people for whom making the best of the situation and being locked up was the thing they had long practice at. It was kind of inspiring to see. I would leave the locked unit, go live my life and complain about stuff, after I’d been working with people who are in state-supplied blue jeans and white shirts all day and not complaining about it.
I wanted to ask about the horns that you introduced in this album. How did that come together?
I saw Matthew White do a presentation here in town with my friends in Megafaun and he had a big horn section that I really enjoyed. I’ve wanted horns on records for a long time. We had a couple horn players on Get Lonely but I wanted to work with someone whose main deal was horn arrangements. There’s this one thing in the studio where, when you have outside musicians in doing arrangements, you get most of that day off. You get to sit there and listen to people play music! It’s a great day. We’ve done this a lot with Erik Friedlander when he comes in to do some cello tracking. We do things live with him and that’s amazing but a lot of it is just watching Erik go nuts. With the horns there was a lot of stacking and some of the arrangements are a top on top of a part on top of a part and it was really amazing to watch it come together.
How has becoming a father affected your music, if at all?
I think the only thing now is that I’m playing more so I’m playing better because the baby really likes music. I have a shtick about this. People become a dad and then a year later they’re writing songs about what it means to be a dad. You don’t know shit about being a dad! Your experience is like a baby telling you what the world is like; he doesn’t have the language yet! I guess if you wanted to write on childbirth, that’s one thing. But when people start reflecting on their parenting in song, I am not into that (laughs). If it works for you, then go for it. I sort of feel it would be a betrayal of my muse to say I have been continually inspired by my interest in the intersection of darkness and triumph and now I’ll write about what it means to have a child. If that’s where my heart is at, if I sat down to write and had nothing to write about and it no longer spoke to me, I guess I would have to follow a new thing. But that’s not the case with me at all. It’s sort of mystifying to me how people get all perturbed before the baby is born when for the first three months after, you’re just fretting that something’s going to go wrong. Baby’s first fever! Oh my god, is there anything darker in the world than the first time you take your baby’s temperature and the light goes red?!
Like with most things, I think parenting requires some distance to comprehend.
I didn’t write about my upbringing until I’d been out of the house for a very long time. I sort of feel like you have to live with your life before what you have to say is of interest, which is a backwards way of thinking in a world where people immediately record what they’re doing or their impressions. Oh! I have a shtick about this too. Like at sporting events, what people do now is they always go up to the quarterback after an amazing play and say, “Take us through how you’re feeling right now.” I don’t care how he feels right now! How is that an interesting question? Nothing he has to say right now would be of value. It’s like asking someone how they feel in the middle of an orgasm. It’s stupid, you know? (Laughs) But we live in a world where people are privileging how they feel at the moment as raw and authentic and fun. I don’t think they’re raw, authentic, or fun but may just be very interesting personal experiences. I don’t think they’re useful to anyone outside that person. I think your impression after thinking back on that time, to mellow with it and examine it, to throw out the parts that are not useful is more important and just as strong. People put so much emphasis on the first response as the right response and, although that can be true, I think for that to be your soul and your principles…not good. I mean, improv can be an amazing thing but to say, “Oh, I just had this amazing experience. Now I must go write about it in a song”…really? You might want to live with that for a while. See which of your impressions are actually good before you go recording a song about it. I think right now is a good time to think about this when there’s a lot of emphasis placed on people reporting their experience from the middle of it, which I don’t think is as interesting as Wordsworth’s phrase of great emotion recollected in tranquility.
The Mountain Goats will play the following shows: For more information, go to mountain-goats.com.
10/11 – Theatre Of The Living Arts, Philadelphia, PA