There are few musicians able to tell stories unencumbered by ego, portraying lives and perspectives outside their own with compassion and clarity. Yet for 26 years, John Darnielle and his recording project, The Mountain Goats, have thrived on the knowledge that comes from examining subjects with this removed, yet empathetic perspective.
The Mountain Goats have long dropped mythological imagery and latin lines in their music, but they’ve evolved to explore relationships through world building with discretion on albums like 2002’s All Hail West Texas and Tallahassee.
Since then, Darnielle’s used the album format to recount his old friends’ crystal meth addiction (2004’s We Shall All Be Healed), his abusive childhood (2005’s masterwork The Sunset Tree), as well as explorations of his Christian faith and the catharsis of pro wrestling.
Tomorrow, The Mountain Goats release Goths, an album that goes beyond any stereotypical eyeliner aesthetics of the subculture to unearth the root of what it meant to grow up as a goth kid in Southern California. Darnielle explores what goth looks like now, dredges up the religious darkness embedded in eternal devotion, and he has a lot of fun doing it.
The Observer caught up with Darnielle recently for a thoughtful conversation about goth, writing, and Christian compassion in the age of Donald Trump.
How does it feel to be part of the Star Wars canon?
[Laughs] I don’t know that I am. Rian [Johnson] and I have been pals for ages—he directed the “Woke Up New” video and also the long-form Life of the World to Come video. So for me, Rian is less the director of the new Star Wars, which is wild, but this guy I know who makes awesome movies. [Laughs]
Are you a Star Wars fan at all?
To be honest with you, I’d only seen the first one, and when some friends who I play tabletop games with heard I hadn’t seen the other ones, they took me to see Rogue One. So I’ve seen the first one and Rogue One. I thought it was a feminist text, so I liked it. I’m a guy who tries to tease out the feminist perspective in lots of stuff—I remember giving this giant reading of the second Alien movie, but that was way back. I’ve been out of college too long to do long, performative readings of stuff, but yeah. It and the new Smurfs movie have that subtext, I think.
Rogue One reminded me of that famous documentary The Battle of Algiers, in that they both carry across the idea that there’s often no real clear right and wrong side when a war is actually going on.
Right, which is funny, because the thing about that with Star Wars is, I think Lucas got so into world building at some point that there’s more world than you really need to tell a story, right? To tell a story you actually don’t want the whole world, because the world is too complicated. An actual world has too many conflicting impulses to make a coherent story out of. Stories are things you impose on things, so yeah, there’s so much world building that writing a story with a straight thru-line is hard to do. That’s just my take on them, obviously.
“Those are the writers you should look up to, the ones who take every word as seriously as the ones before it.”
Well that’s a really interesting window into The Mountain Goats, because you don’t build worlds so much as comment on their relativity. You can pull out a piece or an image that proves your point or fits the narrative and amplify that. It’s almost a journalistic skill.
That’s interesting. Journalistic’s a good word. The things I do are because my stories all have people in them, and because I assume people’s perspective is, at best, pretty myopic that the amount of world that any one of us can see at any given time is limited severely by our own perspective, our own experiences, our own relationships, and constructions of power within that world, right?
So yeah, when world building takes place and my song’s a story, the question of who’s perspective we’re telling the story from is always primary. You can’t say, “Here’s a whole world, and by the way, it’s just one person’s opinion or view.” No, who’s view it is is always a central question to the story you’re telling.
Yeah, and the really classic writers have mastered that. Even Madame Bovary—
Oh, the ending is so powerful!
Well I love how [Gustave] Flaubert can describe a whole scene without needing to wax poetic. He can almost be omnipresent with his third-person intellectual discourse. The building can speak to the emotions of the people.
There were few people who would revise as intensely as Flaubert. He’s a guy who would just spend weeks on things. There’s a quote from him: “If I call stones blue, believe me, it is because blue is the exact word.” Those are the writers you should look up to, the ones who take every word as seriously as the ones before it.
You’ve written about the best ever death metal band in Denton before, and now Portuguese goth metal bands, so it seems you’re particularly interested in the stories around how these scenes are affected by their geography. You sing about a band like Moonspell “hauling these songs to the light from the mouth of the grave,” and talking about how these bands go from being anonymous to playing these festivals in Brazil pretty high up on the bill.
That song is more from the perspective of going to see metal bands in the U.S., because a lot of the U.S. market is often scene or trend driven, right? Because of arts funding issues and stuff like that, if something becomes less popular, then it becomes way less viable to do it. When thrash metal was big, German and Austrian thrash metal bands could come over and tour.
But when that style of music fades a little bit, we don’t have…in Europe there are these giant festivals that get a lot of funding from the government, and private funding, too, so the styles of music don’t have to extinguish if the hotness diminishes a little bit.
I was thinking about Moonspell and how they’re huge in some countries—I don’t know where they’d play in the U.S. Sometimes you’ll go see a club metal show and you can totally tell that the band is used playing for a much bigger audience…they’re too big for the room! Everyone wants to play the U.S., it’s a market you hope to crack as a band, and I was thinking about that. Everyone has their bigger markets.
I’ve never been to Japan. If we were to go to Japan, I bet we wouldn’t draw a lot of people there, and it’d be a different experience. So I was thinking about that, and how it’s such theatrical music that it must be quite a feeling to be doing something so broadly theatrical for a smaller audience, in less nice club, maybe without a dressing room.
People love annotating your lyrics on Genius, and I’m sure some of them are extraneous. On the “Rain in Soho” annotation, someone suggests your lyric about the “lone wolf gone” connects to “Never Quite Free” from All Eternals Deck. Are you that referential, or is this all fan projection?
No, I’m not. I reference a wolf an number of times, which I’m gonna do because I like the word “wolf” and like wolves. That’s an approach to reading that one is often encouraged to do in college. You have this writer with a whole body of work, but when she talks about this image she tends to mean this. We’re often encouraged to look at things that way. I don’t know that that’s a productive way to look at it, but it’s not my place to say.
There’s also this image of the writer who’s watching himself work like, “Now I’m gonna drop a wolf on ’em!” It’s not like that at all, it’s much more spontaneous. I’m not thinking at all about what I’m gonna do, I’m not sitting down to go, “Do I have a wolf or a fox or a goose?” That line popped up in a big, spontaneous burst of writing. That particular wolf in “Rain in Soho” is an unexpected visitor. The clear implication of the line is, there’s a danger that people haven’t noticed. The wolf in “Never Quite Free” is a metaphor for trauma that you live with.
Like on Beat The Champ, you don’t really seem content looking at this subculture as a simple aesthetic. In the same way that you plundered your love for golden-era wrestling, there’s a sincere attempt to uncover and elevate the subculture with a literary depth.
Sure. I don’t think there are any pure aesthetics. I think any aesthetic indicates something else.
Reframing that narrative around goth seems important to you, though. It’s a nice place to put the biblical imagery, too. “Rain in Soho” alone has allusions to Luke 7:32 and John 15:13.
Did you do that yourself or is that on Genius?
It’s on Genius, dude! But do you think goth gives you a special place to explore these themes you’ve always explored in your work, maybe without having to qualify it with dogma or politics?
Well I’m a Christian, I believe in the radical egalitarian message of Christ Ministry. [Laughs] But the thing is, I’m a bible-liking dude, and there’s probably not a theme I could not wrap Christianity around. You could do that with any religion at all, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism. A religion’s whole job is to describe the world for you, to describe the whole world and the people in it, and to cast the ministry in light, to give you a light to understand the phenomena of the world.
“The image of gothic Christianity is image of restriction.”
Especially with a text like The Bible, which is not a book, but a bunch of different books by a bunch of different people writing at a bunch of different times from a bunch of different social contexts, there’s no way you can talk about anything without finding some way of connecting to The Bible. The Bible is a very long record of very different people’s experiences from very different worlds, right?
And like most theological texts, the contexts can be adapted into so many different scenarios.
It’s so true, and that’s their function. They’re able to speak to you when you’re young and when you’re older, when you’re closer to death, when you’re poor and when you’re less poor. The function of any religious text is to be able to reach as many human beings as possible.
Tying that all to goth makes sense, because goth kids always seemed a bit hipper to theological texts and to the sanctity of devotion.
Yeah, what’s very funny about that is, the movement comes along at at a time when religion, as a defining function of daily life in the Western world, is in a very sharp decline. When goth becomes big, your experience as a young English or American person is probably not that you were being forced to go to church every Sunday, right? That’s a less and less common experience that will continue to be a less and less common experience.
So the goths are looking at Christian imagery and trapping more as aesthetic function, as iconography, a way of dressing something up and catching a certain vibe. This sort-of forbidden vibe. The image of gothic Christianity is image of restriction, and of the darker side of Christianity.
You opened All Eternals Deck by saying you felt like H.P. Lovecraft in Brooklyn, but you really go for it on here. I read Peter Hughes’ statement in the press release how the band all felt, as former goth kids, that this was The Mountain Goats record that created a strong common theme for you all to come together around.
Especially Peter! [Laughs] Peter and me both grew up in Southern California, during the same time, and so the themes that I’m addressing here are just things that were part of our daily landscape when we were very young.
This record got me going down a rabbit hole on D.B. Cooper. Some of your knowledge or trivia that fits so neatly into these songs has me wondering if you just have a living, expanding record of what interests you. Bits of history, or anecdotes that you want to address? Or are they also spontaneous?
More the second one. I just have a lot of stuff in my head. I read and listen to a lot of stuff, I used to watch a lot of stuff, but I do more reading and listening than watching now. D.B. Cooper, I remember hearing about him as a kid. People wanted him to have lived and gotten away with the money, which is kind of funny, because if you read the story, hijacking is not a cool thing to do. Especially hijacking to take a suitcase full of money from somebody.
“Anybody who thinks that they ought to have monuments built for themselves is unhealthy! The urge to create a relic to leave behind is not unhealthy, because it can be useful to people. But their function should be their use, not the celebration of the author.”
But it’s the wildest, weirdest story, and he was sort of a mythical figure, a Bonnie and Clyde figure, who people wanted to have lived. But, you know, the likelihood that he landed on the ground is a starkly goth fact—there’s a romantic story about a guy maybe getting away with a heist, just landing on his neck in the woods. It’s more “death metal,” maybe from the first Celtic Frost—“Only death is real.” Of course, you contest that, but at the same time, the realness of death is pretty incontestable.
Do you feel like you had to make personal records like Sunset Tree first before you could make records that pull back a little bit more and look at whole subcultures? How has that changed, and has your Wolf in the White Van novel affected it at all?
This is a disingenuous answer but it’s true—I write what I write. I don’t sit down and think about my direction. I try not to observe myself working at all, if I can. I think the age of the internet has led to a lot of people over-analyzing their moves. It’s good to know what you’re up to. But at the same time, one of my favorite French theoreticians, his name’s Maurice Blanchot, believed that the writer can’t ever understand what he’s writing.
There are people who say the authorial interpretation of a text is only one interpretation. That’s true, but this is something very different—the idea that the entirety of the work isn’t visible to the writer. The writer can’t get to the work, and all he’s trying to do is reveal something to himself that he can never actually see. That is something I celebrate and am into. I’m not just listening to my own stuff to understand it. I’m making a thing, and the process is the thing for me.
You don’t need to understand why Sisters of Mercy‘s Andrew Eldritch works so well as baby Moses in the basket.
Right, in fact, I need to not know that. Because if I already have the answer, I’m not gonna write the song. The worst kind of song is, “Hey, I’ve got something to tell you that’s gonna blow your mind.” I don’t wanna hear that guy. I wanna hear someone who’s confused, trying to shed light on something that he or she doesn’t understand.
To that point, arguably the only answer you arrive at is toward the end of the record, when you arrive at the conclusion that the world forgot about Gene Loves Jezebel.
Peter always points out that the last verse of that song is where the meat of the action is. This is not a guy who’s doing better than Gene Loves Jezebel, looking down on them. Gene Loves Jezebel, in fact, is probably playing the same festivals that these Portuguese bands are playing, I’m sure they’re fine. And so are The Mountain Goats!
You and me look at it in micro when we’re talking like it’s a big deal, but it’s not a big deal. Twenty years after I’m gone, not a lot of people will remember The Mountain Goats, and I’m a thousand times comfortable with that. That’s fine with me! I think the desire to be remembered is fairly human, but the desire to be remembered strongly is pretty unhealthy. I’m just a person. Anybody who thinks that they ought to have monuments built for themselves is unhealthy! The urge to create a relic to leave behind is not unhealthy, because it can be useful to people. But their function should be their use, not the celebration of the author.
To that point, we don’t deify Flaubert so much as look at the impact of the styles he perfected and what that book taught the literary world about the nature of obscenity.
Yeah. Contrary to how you feel day-to-day, your personality probably isn’t that important. [Laughs] Am I talking to you from New York?
“I’m a left-leaning guy and think you can dialogue with whoever, but at the same time, it would be unusual having this whole conversation with a Trump voter. The underlying issues in all that I do are issues of compassion, which is not where the admin is at at all.”
I’m in in Brooklyn.
How long have you been with this paper?
I’ve been there almost two years.
I’m curious, because I looked it up beforehand. What’s the deal with The Observer?
It was a sophisticated, sort-of luxury lifestyle and culture publication that catered to the upper crust for many years. Arthur Carter owned it, and then it was bought by Jared Kushner.
That’s why I’m asking! Wait, who am I talking to here?!
I hear you. It’s been interesting on the staff level, because most of us were Bernie Sanders supporters. I was raised by Democratic Jews in Florida, and my mom has a watercolor of Bill Clinton playing on the Arsenio Hall show hanging on the wall. So I think this is something a lot of us have been at odds with at Observer Arts. The nature of what I write about and who I talk to is about connecting over substantive conversations about creativity with people who, for lack of a better word, are a bit bleeding heart. And they should be.
The reason why I asked is, the whole time I wondered, am I talking to a Trump voter here? I’m a left-leaning guy and think you can dialogue with whoever, but at the same time, it would be unusual having this whole conversation with a Trump voter. The underlying issues in all that I do are issues of compassion, which is not where the admin is at at all. [Laughs]
For sure. Would love to send you my interview with this DC punk band Priests, who flipped the script on me and asked the same question. I really try to help Observer Arts exist as a progressive, subversive force to all of that, and hopefully we have. A lot of our reporting is really solid and fair. Some of our Politics stuff is a little right of Wall Street Journal, but it’s no Breitbart. And Kushner doesn’t own the paper anymore, which helps.
I noticed that, he sold it to a family trust. I don’t mean to hold your feet to the fire!
It’s totally all right, I love having this conversation. But it’s been challenging to write about music like this for two years.
It happens, man. It’s really hard to keep writing about music.
Well just understanding how so many of the conversations I was passionate about having are all now set up as branded-content allegiances, exclusive premieres, regurgitated press releases and general marketing.
For me, the issue is that it’s always about the release cycle. I worked very hard on this album, and I hope it’s still a good album for people three years from now, but there’s no way you or anybody else is gonna write a story about it three years from now. Maybe on the anniversary of it, if it does really well, but it’s so weird to me. The release cycle is tied to selling records, and we only write about records that are new. That’s absurd! [Laughs]
One of the most important things my long-form journalism professor in grad school taught me was, a good story can outlast the news cycle if it has a strong “b story,” if it’s about something else. So I’m talking to John about this new Mountain Goats record, but I’m also trying to tease out the theological resonance, how it connects from your past work to illuminate this genre. How do I find that in every story I do?
I’ll tie it back into the interview questions for a second, here, because I think you’ll find this interesting. There are two songs, “Unicorn Tolerance” and “Wear Black,” with “you,” the second person or addressee, where I went back and forth on whether to capitalize the “Y” or not. If I didn’t capitalize the “Y” it’s only because I wanted people to figure it out, right? I don’t like to telegraph my punches.
“Aside from Kid Rock and Ted Nugent, as a Christian, you sort of feel like music is the field where we celebrate that common good, in a way, and vulnerability—things that the admin doesn’t celebrate.”
So those are the big theological songs on this record. “Rain in Soho” has those biblical references, but it’s more true goth. That’s just there because when you make a biblical reference, you get to load up your musket. It’s like, “Oh boy, I get 2,000 or 4,000 years of tradition in my holster!” But those are the sort of God songs on the record.
The last thing I’ll say about Kushner is that I’ve quietly been criticizing the oligarchy from within. I wrote an annotated anti-fascist playlist right after the election, for example.
Well good for you, man. Aside from Kid Rock and Ted Nugent, as a Christian, you sort of feel like music is the field where we celebrate that common good, in a way, and vulnerability—things that the admin doesn’t celebrate. So when you’re talking to somebody, the chances that someone who leans right will wanna talk about music is almost infinitesimal. But I had to ask what the deal is.
Dude, I hear you. You should always know where your words are being represented.
It’s terrifying to do though because, again, I’m in the release cycle. I want your approval, you know? [Laughs]
Totally, and it comes back to narratives, too. Who’s telling your story? Some of the journalists coming out of school with me are kind of complacent that the press releases coming to them have prefabricated contexts ascribed to them, preordained pull quotes.
We try to circumvent that. This is something The Mountain Goats have always done. We always try to bring a realness and transparency to what we do. We want people to see us as we are, to know that they’re talking to people. I mean, it’s The Mountain Goats, none of us are gonna get rich off this. We might as well be authentic with the people that we’re talking to.
Yeah, but echoing your earlier comments about the futility of defining your own legacy, you ought to know that my friend has a mug with the last lyric of “This Year” written on the side.
I didn’t make that mug, I’m not that guy! I’ve never sold a “This Year” mug. I’m glad people celebrate what I do, but if I saw one at Urban Outfitters, I’d go after ’em. You don’t get to make a fuck ton of money off my stuff! But for the most part, if it’s on Etsy or something, somebody’s welcoming you into the territory of aphorisms. If it matters that it was you, you’re kind of small.