The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle: 'This isn’t a diary'

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The Mountain Goats (photo courtesy of Merge Records).

When John Darnielle sings, it sounds like he’s reaching through the speakers toward you.

Often, his notes don’t rise even to the point of singing. Sometimes his words come through as a clenched whisper. His language is unadorned, and he often repeats himself, as people do in conversation.

Going to a Mountain Goats show is like watching a telepath hold court. Gleaming charismatically below his floppy dad hair, Darnielle sings to each person as if he understands every trauma they’ve ever known.

Darnielle used to record Mountain Goats songs into his boombox in his bedroom, and those early songs play like an audio confessional, with a lovable darkness emerging from the static, like you’ve discovered the diary of a relative you never knew you had. It’s been 22 years since those first recordings surfaced. Darnielle now tours and records with a full band, and his songs play like the elaborate suites of musical theater.

Ahead of the Goats’ show tomorrow night at First Ave, we spoke with the North Carolina singer about his most recent album, Goths, his relationship to his doting fans, and the misconceptions some have about his songwriting.

CP: You’d said in a previous interview that you don’t know what your songs are about when you write then, but after performing them live, the meaning is revealed to you. Is there anything in the lyrics from Goths that’s revealed itself to you on this tour?

JD: One thing that’s been funny is doing [“Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds”]. Its mood has changed. I considered the album version a little wistful. The character -- who is a character, it’s not a real person -- is winding up back in this town he tried to get away from. It seemed a little sadder, but now when we get to that resolve, it feels kind of exciting. There’s a number of different ways of coming home, and the homecoming on the record, it sounded more wistful. The homecoming live is a little more boisterous.

That’s what happens. It’s less the performance, but more being in the space of the performance. In the communication from the performer. That’s what’s exciting about playing live -- the audience will help you understand what things mean to them, and you come around to that understanding.

CP: I think Mountain Goats fans are a particular breed. They connect very deeply to your music. How would you describe or characterize the typical Mountain Goats fan?

JD: I think the thing that unifies them is that, one, these are people who want to hear good stories. I don’t like to praise myself, but I focus really hard on the lyrics to write stories in ways that are entertaining. I put a lot of love into the live show, too, and people have noticed. I really think that, for what people pay to get into a show, they deserve for the band to seriously take it to the wall, so that’s what we try to do. I don’t think the people who want the most out of a live show are a demographic.

CP: A theme in your music has been this loving deference for misfits. You see it on Goths a lot. Is that something you’d consider part of your storytelling?

JD: People say that. It would feel weird for me to be proceeding from that kind of stance. To go, “OK well, I care about misfits, let me write about them.” That’s not how it works. I just tell stories that occur to me, and it’s more on the reader to tell me about myself. What they can see about me from the stories I tell. I don’t have a thesis statement that I proceed from. I just try to deploy some good images, because it’s important to me that the images resonate. And also I want the stories to be a little sad, because that’s something that helps me connect to music, if there’s a sadness running through it. I would never presume that I stand for the misfits.

CP: Let’s talk about the archetype of the goth. What is it about goths in particular that made you write this album?

JD: I had some song titles in a notebook -- “Andrew Eldritch” was one of them, and “Wear Black” was another. I started with the idea of stories, and when you have a couple of songs that both feature members of goth bands, you go, “Well, that’s kinda weird,” and you want to tell more of those stories.

Goth is the color palette of this record, but the theme is looking at your younger self and being able to get on nodding terms with them, to use a Joan Didion phrase. Goth is the window dressing, but the theme has more to do with aging and making peace with your younger self, who maybe wasn’t the person he or she could’ve been.

CP: This record seems to come from a time and a place, specifically your youth in California. When you look back at that version of yourself, what do you see now?

JD: I spend a lot of time trying to forgive my younger self. I don’t like who I was. “Unicorn Tolerance” is largely about this. I was in the process of trying to kill the good things inside me when I was 19 or 20. It wasn’t pretty. But I managed, miraculously, through friends and therapy and making the right moves in my life, to become the person my five-year-old self would’ve wanted me to become. Or at least I’m on that path.

My goth self is not a good guy. But you really have got to try to forgive yourself for losing the path for a while. It’s hard to do, because it’s a betrayal. If you betray your childhood self, you’ve betrayed someone who’s hard to make peace with. They will always come back -- you will find their face in some window.

CP: One of the major themes of Goths is growth, but the fact that you’re not romanticizing your former self on the album is a little obscured by how upbeat the music is.

JD: I’m an abuse survivor, but when people hear that a person was abused, they pity that person immediately. Most of us who have lived through that find ourselves employing all kinds of strategies to survive, and many of them are not noble or good. Many of them are not things we’d envisioned ourselves doing. But you always want to be honest. That’s the lifelong goal.

CP: People feel that honesty. They’ve been feeling it from those early bedroom songs, and following your journey into these big, orchestral set pieces makes them feel like they’ve participated in your music. Like this is an open diary.

JD: That’s where I want to stop you. This isn’t a diary. There’s more craft to it than that. A diary is not what you write to communicate to other people on. A diary is where you scream and put a lot of exclamation points. What I’m trying to do is frame things in a way that may be useful to other people. I get therapy to get therapy, but I write songs so that people might find something useful or entertaining. There’s a hard line there. I don’t think what I do is confessional. It’s more of a performance.

At the same time, just because it’s a performance doesn’t mean it’s not honest. Many of the greatest performers were not singing their own material, but that doesn’t make their performance any less real. It’s what you bring to it.

CP: That’s an easy distinction to miss.

JD: In the age of social media, people blur lines between private selves and public selves pretty severely. That’s something people need to think hard about. It’s good to have a life that belongs to you and other people aren’t all sharing.

The Mountain Goats
With: Mothers
Where: First Avenue
When: 8 p.m. Sat. Nov. 18
Tickets: $28.50; more info here


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