The Mountain Goats: After the Harvest

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By: Jarrod Dicker

The Mountain Goats (L-R: Wurster, Darnielle, Hughes)
By: Chrissy Piper
An old Irish saying states that if you put silk on a goat, it is still a goat. But how about when you hand it a pen and paper? That, my friends, is a whole different animal all together.

Durham, North Carolina’s The Mountain Goats have been grazing the folk/indie scene since the early ’90s, producing 17 studio albums and participating in various other musical arrangements throughout their near 20 year history.

Led by singer-songwriter-guitarist John Darnielle, The Mountain Goats are a spontaneous and stimulating animal, rotating members and collaborators frequently, providing a new sense of existence whenever a new album releases. The “core,” however, consists of Darnielle, Peter Hughes (bass) and since 2007 Jon Wurster (drums).

Darnielle, the sire of the herd, had himself a rather eventful 2009. He and the Goats released their 17th studio album, The Life of the World to Come (released last October on 4AD), as well as participating in a collaborative project with solo artist John Vanderslice titled Moon Colony Bloodbath.

Primarily “folk-rock” in nature, Darnielle refuses to adhere to strict genre labeling. “Genre tags are only there for two reasons,” he says, “one, to get people to have something they can feel like they’re a part of, which can be both positive and negative, and two, to make it easier to talk about stuff.”

He’s previously collaborated with artists from all over the musical spectrum (Aesop Rock, Kaki King, Franklin Bruno), and Darnielle holds no prejudice when an opportunity arises to create and produce innovative compositions.

JamBase had the pleasure of speaking with John Darnielle about the reception of The Life of the World to Come, Moon Colony Bloodbath, the Bible, writing lyrical poetry, hip hop and more.

JamBase: The most recent Mountain Goat album has been released for quite some time now. How has the overall fan/critic reaction been towards The Life of the World to Come?

John Darnielle: Really good. I think, before it came out, there was some consternation about what it was going to be like…

JamBase: …in regards to the Bible references and other religious themes?

John Darnielle
John Darnielle: Yes, which I have to admit was a little surprising to me. I’ve been referencing the Bible in my songs since the first tape. I can’t imagine many American writers not at some point really engaging in Bible stories in some way. But once the album came out, actually once it leaked to be technical about it – there aren’t many people who wait ’til release date to find out what an album’s all about – I felt like people got what I was doing.

You pride yourself in the musical role of “storyteller” among, in my opinion, folk artists like Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Leonard Cohen.

Well, you’re super kind to put me in that company [laughs]. I would say that those guys would whip my ass in a songwriting contest, but it’s nice to hear that somebody feels like I’d be able to hold my own!

Who do you credit with originally inspiring you to create music and lyrical poetry?

My own path into writing songs comes directly through literature. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a capital-A author, and I wrote short stories on an old Royal typewriter all the time. That was how I spent pretty much every summer night when I was 12 and 13 years old, sitting at my desk in front of the typewriter writing stories and then sending them off to science fiction and fantasy magazines; getting rejection slips but feeling like I was getting somewhere.

That seems like an odd transformation, going from writing science fiction and fantasy articles to writing poetry and music.

Well, then in high school I started reading poetry and writing it, and I think that was where the kernel of inspiration was – reading John Berryman, Georg Trakl, Paul Celan, Sylvia Plath, of course. Later this American poet named Norman Dubie became a pretty big inspiration for me in the early days of The Mountain Goats. I felt all the power that’s in poetry, but at the same time, it’s not usually a super-immediate power. I’ve always connected to things you can really experience in their raw state. You know?

Can you elaborate on what you mean in terms of a “super-immediate power” in relation to your poetry and music?

The Mountain Goats by: Piper
Stuff that hits you immediately – not necessarily hits you hard – but stuff that makes this instant connection between the performer/writer and listener. And to me, music is where that happens. This is really how it happened: One day I had a poem and I thought it was good. I had a guitar, and I knew about four chords. I was messing around with the guitar and found a progression that sounded good. I didn’t have any lyrics so I started singing a poem. It sounded good to me; really different from stuff I was listening to. So, I moved all my poetry writing energy over into songs, and a whole bunch of years later here I am.

What were your intentions with producing the side project concept record with John Vanderslice, Moon Colony Bloodbath? Releasing it the same year as the latest Mountain Goats studio album, as well as producing it as a limited vinyl run, what was your philosophy and motive behind making this record?

Well, JV and I had had this idea for a long time to do a side project. We were gonna call it “The Comedians” but then we didn’t. I forget why. I’ve always kinda hated the idea that a person should only release one album a year, or every 14 months. To me, if a guy’s working and he’s got good work in him, then he ought to be making records commemorating that work, letting it out into the world to breathe. At the same time, I guess if you release too much stuff, people start to feel like they can’t keep up. This is where people who are good at thinking about business stuff come in, because I really prefer just to think about writing songs and making records. I figure if you make it a limited edition it’s not like people who want to hear it won’t be able to find it online for free; it’s out there as soon as the first person buys it. But for people like me who enjoy the whole world of getting records and engaging with them, there’s an artifact to get. So, we tried to make it really cool so that people would feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. We hired an awesome artist, Michael Pajon, to do the cover, and had Horse & Buggy Press put it together. We used a super-high-gloss finish on the sleeve, all that kind of stuff. Plus, it gave me a chance to work with Chris Stamey, who recorded it, which was awesome. He’s really something great.

You’ve collaborated with Def Jux “underground hip hop” artist Aesop Rock on his track “Coffee” off the album None Shall Pass. How did this collaboration materialize?

We’re fans of each other’s work. We had a mutual friend who told me, “Aesop Rock loves your stuff.” Then we met after a show at some point, real briefly, but we got in touch over email and started saying hi after shows when I’d go through New York. So, we became friends.

Continue reading for more on John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats…

 
One day I had a poem and I thought it was good. I had a guitar, and I knew about four chords. I was messing around with the guitar and found a progression that sounded good. I didn’t have any lyrics so I started singing a poem. It sounded good to me; really different from stuff I was listening to. So, I moved all my poetry writing energy over into songs, and a whole bunch of years later here I am.

John Darnielle

 
It just seems like an odd collaboration; you being in the folk/rock scene and him a part of the underground hip hop genre.

Really, I mean, this is gonna sound all blissed out, acid-comedown realization or something, but genre tags are only there for two reasons: one, to get people to have something they can feel like they’re a part of – which can be both positive and negative – and two, to make it easier to talk about stuff. I don’t know any musicians who’re like, “I’m only into music from this one genre.” Sometimes it’s fun to limit your listening to one genre for a period of time; just to get really immersed and see how that feels. But, I don’t think many musicians really think, “I can only work with people who play the kind of stuff I play.” For sure, I prefer to work with people who do stuff that I can’t do, who bring their own stuff to the table. That’s where creativity really happens for me.

Your records involve a variety of artists, often varying lineups for each production. Who else do you plan on partnering with in the near future?

John Darnielle by Eric Zimmermann
Well, there’s a horn quartet I have in mind, but I haven’t asked them if they’re interested yet, so I shouldn’t name them. It’s some people I saw singing and playing Christmas carols on a street corner last month. They’re kind of mind-bendingly good; great syncopated jazz style horn quartet arrangements. And there’s a friend of mine in Boston who’s a real singer of classical music and so on, and he’s got choral friends up there. I want to put together a male chorus for this one song in the next bunch. This morning I was listening to a Jeff Loomis album and thinking, “Wow, I would really like to try writing with this dude,” but that’s more off in dream world. He plays heavy metal [in the band Nevermore] and is an incredible soloist. Whereas me, I actually seriously have as one of my someday-in-the-future lifetime goals “learn to solo on guitar.”

Can you describe why you often separate your music into series such as Alpha, Pure, Orange Ball, etc?

Well, it doesn’t all go into series. The way it starts is that I’ll be writing a song and often I write in character – through a persona – and I’ll notice that something I’m writing sounds like it’s being spoken/written by somebody from another song. Like, “That’s something the guy from ‘In the Cane Fields’ would have said.” And then I’ll think, “Well, let’s let that guy sing this song, too.” From there, a broader, looser story will start to develop, and it really is a way of making any individual song take on greater depth, if it connects to other songs, if it’s already got a history when you start writing. Then, if you’re already writing inside of some loose framework of characters and stories, it can inspire you to be true to the characters and the little lives they have. When the songs connect to each other the core of each one seems to get stronger and more solid.

t5m awarded the recent album #7 on their “Best of” 2009″ chart. What are your sentiments on awards and rankings in music? Do you appreciate them or do you shy away from such achievements?

It’s impossible not to feel stoked when anybody names you best anything, right? Or seventh best anything, or tenth, or whatever. Everybody likes to be praised, I guess. It’s impossible not to pump your fist and go, “Hell yes!” if somebody names you number one at anything. At the same time, I assume for most musicians it’s kind of a joke. How can there be a best song? Fastest guitarist, okay maybe, but songs aren’t like knives; there’s no sharpest one. So, you can’t take a position on a list too much to heart, but still, it’s nice to hear that for somebody somewhere our album made some kind of difference in their year. If we’re #7 on that list, what that means is, for somebody, our music made some kind of connection, probably an emotional connection, that was meaningful enough that they were still thinking about it at the end of the year. That, to me, is cool to know. It’s satisfying, but it’s not like being on a list puts anybody above or below anybody else. It just tells you how somebody felt about your music, which is nice to know.

The albums you write are fictional; however, one, The Sunset Tree, is autobiographical. Would you ever consider going back to a factual context when writing future content for poetry and songs?

John Darnielle
I think The Sunset Tree sort of broke the line between autobiographical and fictional for me. Much of my writing since then has been a blurry bunch of stories that sort of relate to who I am and stuff that’s gone on in my past. I don’t know if I’d ever write a whole group of songs that were mainly trying to tell true stories from my life – that’s not my style. I have to be creating unknown worlds somehow to be really happy. But inside those worlds I try to express stuff that’s real, that’s really coming from somewhere down near the taproot. That’s the challenge for me. There’s this line I’m always quoting [from] Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” For me, in some sense, every story you tell has got to be autobiographical. I think I learned that best by touring The Sunset Tree, [and] seeing people take my stories and make them their own.

What should we expect from The Mountain Goats, as well as yourself, throughout 2010?

It’s only January now, so I’m not sure. I’m wood shedding now – writing songs, playing guitar and piano, sometimes playing just for the sake of playing and hopefully getting better at it. I have this idea to take lessons here in town and learn finger style, since I’m a pretty primitive player, but I’m never home long enough to make it happen. Sometime this spring we’re going to get together to start practicing the new songs I have. I’m always writing; I have a good-sized handful of tunes I really want to start working on. Hopefully we’ll be back in the studio before long. The last couple of sessions, The Life of the World to Come ones, were really a pleasure for us. We actually started doing some writing-in-studio at one point, on the song “1 Samuel 15:23,” and that was just incredibly exciting for me. So yeah, shows, writing, playing out when we can. There’s also this film of a solo performance I did back where I grew up that Rian Johnson directed, and we’re hoping to get that seen by more people. And that’s what I got!

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