John Darnielle, the leader – and sometimes the only member – of The Mountain Goats, writes songs that are narrative, literary, and full of recurring lyrical motifs: cruel stepfathers, heartbreak, sci-fi, death metal, small southern towns , religious ephemera, delirium and ambition, the blurred boundaries between love and hate. It sounds nerve-wracking for teenagers, presented like this, but Darnielle, who is now in her 50s, has had a knack for avoiding the maudlin in favor of the surprisingly precise since the group’s formation in the early ’90s. . His songwriting style pierces into the intimacy of small moments, telling stories about specific people in specific times and places. One of the Mountain Goats’ most famous songs, “This Year,” from the 2005 album “The Sunset Tree,” is the semi-autobiographical story of a teenager with a miserable family life, finding joy where he can. The chorus is an ecstatic threat: “I’ll get through this year if it kills me.” In 2020, when the pandemic turned the world upside down, “This Year” erupted, overtaking the Mountain Goats’ passionate and sometimes insular fan base, to become an anguished anthem of the moment. The readers of the Guardian voted the track for #1 on their “Good Riddance 2020” playlist.
Darnielle grew up in California and moved to Portland, Oregon after earning her high school equivalency. He returned to California after the darkest period of drug addiction and worked as a psychiatric nurse. In 1991 he enrolled at Pitzer College, where he studied English and Classics, and began recording under the name Mountain Goats. After four years of prolific lo-fi releases, the Mountain Goats began recording in the studio; three decades and twenty albums later, the group is a pillar of the indie-rock world. Today, Darnielle lives in Durham, North Carolina, and when he’s not making music, he’s writing novels. (His second, “Wolf in White Van,” was shortlisted for the 2014 National Book Award.) I met him recently, while he was visiting New York City on tour, in the exceptionally luxurious indoor-outdoor greenroom above from the newish place Brooklyn does. A member of the group was floating in a small body of water on a roof terrace. (“Listen,” Darnielle said. “I would never tell anyone what to write, but if you didn’t say you found my bass player lying in a hot tub, I’d be so unhappy.”) Later, when Darnielle was back in Durham, we continued our conversation over the phone. He was taking a break from touring and preparing to release his latest novel, “Devil House,” a stylish and unsettling story of a true-crime writer unraveling a satanic panic murder from the 1980s. We talked about the art as labor, of the value of religious faith, of the beauty of Chaucer, and, more or less, of the secret of happiness. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
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Was this early pandemic hiatus the longest time you weren’t on tour?
In pretty much my adult life, yeah. I mean, I started my “adult life” late, because I was a nurse before. But in my Mountain Goats life, yeah. It was really bad in so many ways. On the one hand, you care about the money, because that’s what I do for a living, and the record sales don’t make up for it, although our fans have been incredibly good to us during downtime. At first you go, Wow, I’ve been home for three months and I’m sleeping well, that’s great. But then I miss my band and I miss playing. What happens specifically between the Mountain Goats and our audience is a circuit of musical communication that is truly valuable and amazing, and it’s quite rare. We’re not the only band that has a connection with their audience, but we do have a unique one. If you’ve been to many Mountain Goats shows, you know: there’s something going on. There are people who get something out of what we do, and it’s very important for me to give it to them.
Does having been a nurse make you more sensitive to this?
You become a nurse because you are already the kind of person who wants to do something for people. You feel you have something to contribute. They’re called the care professions: providing care is the thing, and you don’t get into the profession unless it’s something you want to do. It becomes a big part of who you are. You see amazing things happening. Spiritually, I think, to be able to help someone, your existence now has some kind of meaning. I don’t think of my audience as patients, you know, but I think in my years as a nurse I learned to identify with myself, or be happy with myself, depending on how good I had done for someone. The good that I did then was to help people medically, and the good that we do now is to entertain people. It’s different. But for me, when someone entertains me, I feel like I’m filling in the gaps of something that I didn’t know was missing.
In a YouTube video you uploaded last year, you mentioned that you often look to your song titles as keys to unlocking the actual subject matter of the song. This idea of solving a puzzle – playing games, discovering secrets – is a guideline in both your songs and your novels.
I work in revelations. Revealing is a big part of what I do. Revealing and unmasking is a constantly recurring theme, I think. As with a lot of things for me, I think it fits with my spirituality, which is Catholic. I left the Church a long time ago, but you’re still a Catholic, aren’t you? This is what we say at Mass: “Let us celebrate the mystery of faith”. Catholicism is a mystery. It is a question of approaching the unapproachable, of recognizing that, when one approaches it, it is not definable, not knowable. Yeats uses the word “mystery” in a surprising way. That’s the thing for me, always. I like things that I don’t understand.
With some of my work, for some people, it’s frustrating. Especially in the age of the Internet, people want to mark things up, say “it means that, it means that”. With my stuff, I always want them to reach a bond of, Can you sit with something that doesn’t resolve and be happy there? Or even not be happy, but be present. That’s what I love about art. That’s what I love about novels, in particular. With songs, if the lyrics don’t resolve, the music does. When this happens, it is the mystery itself; you can’t tell what the music did, but it completed the thought. That’s the job of music: to express things that are beyond language. This also plays into primary stuff. Do you remember in elementary school – it depends on your elementary school and your background – remember when a child came one day in December and said, “Santa isn’t real”?
I’m Jewish, so it didn’t quite happen that way.
So you already had this knowledge. But I was in Catholic school when it happened. The kid doing this is a kid who doesn’t like mystery, and he’s extremely happy to demystify things for you. And I knew it, but I was still disappointed: you didn’t have to tell me that. You didn’t have to say it out loud. You don’t have to walk around saying, “There is no God.” How beautiful is that? We all suspect very strongly that we are alone, don’t we? We really don’t need to mess things up for people and take away so many beautiful things. Don’t get me wrong, I also want to point out that in the name of religion, so many atrocities have been perpetrated.
The negative proselytizing of internet atheists is somehow…
I was one of them, briefly. In my brief apostasy.
There’s something very adolescent, and I mean in a value-neutral way, about waking up to something, or seeing something, and feeling angry that other people don’t see it. not as well.
What it took, for me, were people who reminded me of the role of the Church in the civil rights movement. And then you look at that, and you look at the tradition of charity in the Jewish tradition and the Islamic tradition. You can dwell on the Inquisition; there are many terrible things that are done in the name of Christianity, until today, but it is really a question of concentration. And you can’t weigh that either—only God can weigh things like that. What you do is focus on – well, you come up with some bromides like, “if you don’t like it, improve it.”
They are bromides for a reason.
What you come to understand is that within a religion, what you are looking for is a progressive organization, something that understands its own complicity in the past. It’s a conflict I have with my own leftist discourse: people want the Catholic Church to do a complete about-face, and I say, hey, you can’t ask the Catholic Church that. What you can ask is that they atone for bad things and recognize bad things. But you can’t ask them to be you. I won’t be staying there again, as I’m adamantly pro-choice. It’s a big part of who I am, but I can’t in good conscience ask the Catholic Church to respect that. I can ask them not to work to ban things that don’t concern them, but I can’t ask them to have my position on all subjects.