Unfortunately not reflected in this interview is the 20 odd minutes Darnielle and I spent talking about the Stanley Cup playoffs and his love of the Carolina Hurricanes.
By now it’s pretty much accepted that somewhere after Dylan on the mythic “Important Songwriters” list, John Darnielle’s name pops up. In that vein, over the last decade of making music he’s created somewhat of an Electric Dylan controversy for himself -instead of switching from acoustic to electric guitar, however, he’s graduated from solitude to team-building. The man who used to walk on stage alone and wryly introduce himself as “The Mountain Goats” can now justify the plural, adding Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster to the permanent roster, and their latest album, All Eternals Deck, reveals the fruit of those changes.
“We like playing together. It’s underreported,” says Darnielle. On the eve of a European tour behind the new album, Darnielle maintains that the change has been a welcome one. “And I don’t want to say that because I’m grateful for any reporting I get – but people don’t seem to notice that we’re a good band now and play well together. We do a thing that is musical. It’s not just about me doing my lyrics. About three guys playing together. When I have no voice, we can still play, and we can do the thing.” Darnielle admits, however, that a great deal of the band’s appeal still comes from his lyrics and singing, but not his voice. “People aren’t listening to me for my voice,” he says. “Half the reviews you read lead talking about how bad my voice is. The timbre of my voice is a take it or leave it proposition for most people. Singing and phrasing I feel I’m pretty good at.” It’s this reason why he does not insure his voice like many vocalists. “If my voice goes, I will still be able to do what I do. If I were a real singer, if I were Liza Minelli, I would insure the shit out of my voice.”
Though it might go without saying for an artist that has been making music solo for longer than many bands exist, playing with a group doesn’t make playing live a more comfortable prospect. “I’ve always been comfortable on stage. I enjoy being on stage. From the first time I stepped on a stage, I said ‘I like this’.”
Set to burst into the mainstream with his new film, Looper, director Rian Johnson has a few sterling credits to his name – the gritty high school detective noir Brick, the colorful international caper flick The Brothers Bloom, and a somewhat unlikely team-up with The Mountain Goats, Johnson’s favorite band. “In 2003 or 2004, my wife and I went to see Brick. Great movie, and the credits are rolling, the credits attribute the music to the “Hospital Bombers Experience”. And I was like, ‘Wait just a fucking minute here! I made that name up!’ And my wife was just like, no, no, no, I think that guy wrote to you at some point. And I was like ‘oh no, somebody I forgot to write back to!’” The experience was a positive one, resulting in the live performance film The Life of the World To Come. “You have all these names who are legendary names, but Rian is one who is a legendary name who isn’t legendary yet.”
All Eternals Deck is another riveting record from Darnielle, with all the lyrical eccentricities his fans have come to expect. But even with all the new changes, some things will always stay the same. “The lyrics, that’s still between me and the spirit of the universe. It’s very much a mystic pursuit with me. I don’t ask for anyone’s advice on the lyrics,” says Darnielle.
“I sit there with my thoughts and images. I do feel freed to write lines with more space in them.”