John Darnielle talks songwriting, storytelling and ‘Goths’ ahead of the Mountain Goats return to Iowa City

The Mountain Goats w/ Samantha Crain

Englert Theatre — Wednesday, Sept. 13 at 8 p.m.

John Darnielle performs with the Mountain Goats at the Englert Theatre on Monday, Sept 26, 2016. The band returns to Iowa City this week. — photo by Zak Neumann.

Now a quartet, the Mountain Goats return to Iowa City just shy of a year after their last performance here, now promoting the widely acclaimed album Goths. A few months ago, John Darnielle read from his newest novel, Universal Harvester, at Prairie Lights. Darnielle’s conversational patterns are as frenetic, fast-paced and fascinating as his music would indicate. The band will play the Englert with opener Samantha Crain on Sept. 13 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $23 in advance, and $26 the day of the show.

In addition to the novel, what’s changed for you, or the band, in the last year?

Last time we were in Iowa City, we were touring between records, and since we’ve had to learn to play the new songs live. We had to learn how to play the keys. Also, there are more duo expressions. Peter [Hughes on bass and vocals] and I did some duo shows in Colorado — it felt cool and different, because we’ve grown as musicians. Matt [Douglas, multi-instrumentalist] and I did two or three shows together — that was 2016 stuff. We played around and had fun. It opened up a lot of ideas for how to play a show that will be different than a rock band. We’ve played duo at Carnegie Hall and that’s it. We’ve been looking at different combos, different expression. Each brings out a different flavor profile.

What would you say your strengths are as an artist?

That’s not for me to say. But I guess maybe my work habits. I wake up wanting to work. I work everyday. That’s my major strength. I think I’m a good performer. We have a lot of fun up there, and it translates to the audience. Most artists, the stuff we like may or may not be what sells. I will say I hope I’m a good storyteller.

You’re deservedly famous for your ability to tell stories, and you have an acute ability to do this within a song, and then to structure the songs throughout thematically inclined albums. How would you understand the relation of the part and the whole in a way that allows you to balance it?

You’re kind to say so. I can’t take credit. I do small parts, and I think that if I do it well, it will work later. I had a song, “Like Possums,” that I was working on for the album. It didn’t really fit—lyrically, it had more of a We Shall All Be Healed or Transcendental Youth feel, so I never finished it. I had a verse and chorus.

But part of it is knowing what to edit out. It’s the biggest part. I’m writing, always. I always write. You have to see what’s coming from the same spring — you can tell. You’re in a similar mood. Your subconscious is involved, in writing and theme.

But again: work habits are a part of it. I write down titles. It’s what I got from Harlan Ellison. When I think of a good title, I write it down in a notebook. When I got the theme for this, titles suggested themselves immediately. Good work habits are responsible for the best work that we see. If we see writing as work, and work as noble and good, and have habits without the romantic sense of self-expression, that helps.

What questions do you ask when you start to feel a theme cohere — whether wrestling, or goths? Is it more of a journalistic pursuit? More of a religious one? What are you wanting to find out when you embark on a new album, and how successful do you think you are?

I have a stock answer for this: I don’t pose a question and then write to get an answer. I write, and then figure out the question I was trying to answer. If it is a question. Sometimes it’s a cool story. The story tells me what it’s about. I tell a story, or paint a picture, or set a scene. What I’m interested in in the scene is what I gravitate toward. I’m not didactic. I don’t have a program, the way that [Joseph] Conrad [does] — he’s good, but not like me. He’s an amazing novelist, but really programmatic. He has a point to make — about colonialism, whatever. I’m asking questions, which are developed on the fly. I’m telling the story that opens up to fruitful meditations or contemplations. I don’t know what I’m doing; it’s more an exploratory surgery.


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What is it that makes you curious about a particular storyline?

With Goths, I had some songs that fit together. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. If it doesn’t, you don’t see it. I just do stuff, see what fits, and sometimes it’s a theme and I have two songs in a row that are good. In Beat the Champ,” I started with “Hair Match” and really liked the song. “Southwestern Territory” was next, and it was contemplative too. It’d be weird to have only two songs about wrestling and nothing else.

The thing that drives me — I find what seems funny to me. Peter talks about how the people who get it are those that catch that it’s funny. It’s not just grief work and sad stuff. Hopefully there’s some of that, but there’s also a sense of humor that runs through it. At the beginning of any album — even when I was writing about home as a child — it was funny to me because it was transgressive. Goths was funny — I was thinking one song for each band, and it was a funny idea. One thing that makes a good writer, a good writing habit: If it strikes you as a hilarious, follow it.

There’s so much joy in how you describe your work. What part of the music making process do you find most delightful? The initial intimation of a song? Developing it? Recording it? Performing it? Why?

Being alive is delightful, even if you’re suffering. It’s nice to have work. Iowa is where I soaked up the work ethic, at the Co-op in Nevada. And working the Co-op is punishing. But the guys who had a good attitude would come in on Saturday and dump grain all day long for the overtime. I couldn’t wait for Saturday, because I didn’t have to be there. If you love your work, it’s all good. Even when you can’t figure it out, it’s good. Even when you don’t finish it, it’s good. Washing dishes, too. I have a stereo in the kitchen for when I make the kitchen nice.

Speaking of your time working in Iowa, it was foregrounded in Universal Harvester. What do you think was going on in 2015 and 2016 that led to your immersion in the Gothic and Goths?

It all had different timelines because of production, although I think they have an illusion of timeliness, which is great.

Peter has graceful ways of putting this. You reflect on previous selves, you inhabit a lot of skins. You ask what it was all about. As you accumulate more past, you have more territory to mine. You don’t have to imagine things you don’t know anything about, but you can squeeze new meaning out. I engaged in first wave Goth in real time, ’84-’87, and I moved along.

Then I thought of Andrew Eldritch [of the Sisters of Mercy] more as a human than a guy on the stage in sunglasses. He was a young guy. Maybe he had a drum machine because he couldn’t keep a drummer, maybe he just preferred it. Then I started thinking of the scene in a way that you can’t as a fan, when the musicians have costumes that seem superhuman, and I could see it with what I have learned in the music business. Goths took a few years to write, altogether.

Goths seemed to follow Beat the Champs pretty quickly.

Quick is every nine months. By the time Beat the Champs came out, it had been in the can for a year. It takes a long time to get things to market. There’s the mixing, the cover art, all of that. The shortest time between me finishing writing and it getting released — that gap can’t be more than 9 months. It would have to be wrapped.

It sounds amazing.

A lot of people helped with the production. Everyone did great.

What made your process in writing Goths different?

[Darnielle moves to a room with a keyboard.] I learned from Owen Pallett that writing with a metronome is a good exercise. What I often do [with tempo] is pretty savage. This [keyboard] has a metronome — it’s a caustic, terrible sound. My son loves it, but it’s awful. But if you scroll up, you have beats. So: you can play … but the default is 120, so you can slow it down a little bit. Cool, right? Maybe even 100 [turning it down, playing chords]. One of the default things I do is make everything a one-four. But at the piano, I’m aware of the intervals. I can see the octaves in front of me. You never go one-two. So: I went … and just stayed at that [playing notes] chord progression. And then I start ad libbing lyrics. I make something up off the top of my head, [like] “Incoherent assumptional.” What’s that mean? Then I tell a story about people.

Goths announces itself as a departure from your guitar-driven rock. You’ve reflected on how you’ve trained more on piano but have more experience on guitar and some of the contingencies that pushed you toward piano on Goths. As you develop as an artist, and thinking also in terms of your literary output, how do you understand the relationship of the medium and the stories that you’re trying to tell?

I don’t really know. I don’t think about these questions too much, until after the fact. For example, here’s what’s important about telling a story about the book: If there’s a gun in the second act, it’s fired in the third. It’s true in stories too. If I introduce you to Ezra — he’s gotta be another guy than just in the store. If he’s in an accident, you have to follow through. You need a chance to say goodbye to the people you say hello to. This is where an editor is great — they remind you of what circles need to be closed.

In a song, you don’t have any of these responsibilities. They’re like an arrow. When I introduce something in a song, it’s enough. It’s more like a rock rolling down a hill, it’s getting faster and faster. My old songs used to do this. Sometimes I like to redeploy a phrase that came in at the top of a song, and bring it back — it’s a great novelistic trick. The chorus gives you a sense of continuity. A novel, you build the structure itself. It only exists in that novel, so you need to be attentive to the beams, the floorboards, the walls. The song structure already exists. You’ll have a verse, chorus, verse. It’ll sum up the promise of the song. Those are things already in place. I’ve been learning more about books and how it works in that format, but songs have a lot of flexibility.

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