For almost 20 years, the Mountain Goats have been turning out literate, evocative folk-rock. Their latest album, The Life of the World to Come, is among their best yet, coupling religious images with stories both personal and fictional. It's their, I believe, 434th full-length release, and the group shows no signs of artistic fatigue. I was able to secure some talking time with frontman John Darnielle during a break from touring, via e-mail. He was awfully coy in places - especially when I asked him some questions about his appearance on The Colbert Report - but pretty open on others. Here now are his thoughts on touring, Barbara Streisand, anniversary shows, and the Bible.
Hi. Hey. Hello. How are you?
I'm doing great! Got home from a short European tour the other day and have been working in the kitchen ever since, I really love to cook and bake so it's good times for me right now.
How long did it take you to write the songs for The Life of the World to Come? Did you decide going in to incorporate the Bible for every song, or did the idea spring itself on you? How did reacting to the Bible affect your lyric choices, as of opposed to, say, discussing your relationship with your stepfather in The Sunset Tree?
It sort of came together gradually throughout 2008, and by early '09 I was well into it - first there was this song on the Black Pear Tree EP, "Supergenesis," which was the first Bible-related song I'd written in a while, and I noticed while I was writing it that it kind of woke me up in a way other writing wasn't - I used to write a lot more Bible-driven songs, way way back when in the cassette days. So, around the same time, I wrote "1 John 4:16," and it was a pretty emotional song for me, and I thought, there's something going on here - keep looking at this. And then I learned about a Biblical translation I hadn't known anything about, Young's Literal Translation, and I get pretty excited when I think about translation generally speaking, really inspired. So at that point I was kind of off to the races.
You described your new album as 12 hard lessons the Bible taught you. “Matthew 25:21,” “Philippians 3: 20-21,” “Hebrews 11:40,” and “Isaiah 45:23” all deal with declining health. Are they all about your mother-in-law? Other people? Care to explain their meanings? How did the Bible help you deal with loss?
I try to avoid doing too much "here's what this song is about" stuff with songs, because once a song's writer does that, it kind of puts the song into a coffin and nails the lid shut - no more fun playing with this song and its meanings, listener: the Author has spoken, nothing more to see here, keep movin'! At the same time, I like to be a good sport, so I'll take one: "Philippians 3:20-21" isn't about anybody I knew personally - it's for David Foster Wallace, whose work I don't even know that well but who had such a profound and positive effect on so many people, who was one of those guys about whom, when you get exposed to how he thinks about people and their essential eventual goodness, you think, man, if there were a God, God would have to like this dude, because this dude is so full of goodness and love of life and love for other people, compassion for their struggles, insight into both the good and the bad about people, into the raw humanity that makes the whole world hum. So then he goes and hangs himself, and you think, you know, how could a kind God not give a guy like that the basic equipment needed - the right brain chemistry, I mean - to be able to even bear being alive? You know what I mean? Suicide, the fact that people get to that point of total despair and hopelessness at all, that's like the harshest interrogation of the concept of the Christian God there is. Born-again types have a very simplistic explanation of the whole thing that involves cartoonish concepts like tempting demons and so on, but of course that shit is just infantile. How could a merciful and benevolent and loving God create a good, talented, giving person with a time bomb in his head? How can a good God unleash Hell inside a good man's head? This has troubled me since I worked in mental health. Naturally, if you're an atheist, this one's easy, unless you're a more creative atheist who's able to say "OK, let's posit 'God': how do things work if we do that?" Unfortunately we kind of don't live in a time when people are really able to do a lot of "if x then y" thinking, which in my opinion is what punk rock was all about in the first place, but that's another subject.
What kind of reaction have the new songs gotten so far?
Pretty good I think! I think people hear that this is a pretty emotional record, for me, and I think for the band too - that there's something at the core of it that's kind of freshly-wounded and raw, something physical in the feeling we're going for.
Would you describe yourself as spiritual or religious? What are the top three things you’d change about the Catholic Church, if given carte blanche? What does the Bible mean to you?
These last two questions would require a little more space than I can really stretch out for, but - I mean, yeah, I'm as spiritual as a person who's not sure there's any such thing as "spirit" can be. I think I know what people mean when they describe their "spirit," whether that's actually a construct within one's personality or the essential part of one's self that you share with the world (or not) - the part of you that's uniquely you, that either never dies or which dies forever when you do - I think there is such a thing as that, whether it's an eternal thing or just the most adamantine aspect of your personality. And I think it's an important thing, that concept of The You Which Is Uniquely You. The Church - I mean - part of its charm is its resistance to change. I am not a practicing Catholic though I do go to Church sometimes - I can't call myself Catholic because I don't believe what they believe, but I think it's kind of lame for me to say to the Church "you must change!" in order to please me. I am free to worship or not as I see fit; if the Church doesn't share my beliefs, no-one's forcing me to stay in it. The whole question is a lot more complicated than that, obviously, because of cultural identity (esp. heavy with Catholicism) and how one thinks about doctrine (fluid or rigid? dogmatic or descriptive?), but I think at the end of the day I'm kind of Old School Catholic, which means I don't think the Church should change its teachings to make anybody happy. The Church should be who she is. If over time the Church's understanding of dogma becomes more inclusive of more people, then I think that's great, but the Church isn't the scene or anything. It doesn't have to change for anybody, and it kind of shouldn't.
How has having a steady three-piece affected your songwriting? I know you’ve been playing with Peter Hughes for a while, but do you write differently knowing that Jon Wurster will be around for tours? How much do Peter and Jon contribute to the music overall?
The songwriting process stays essentially the same, though we have tried a thing or two that involved writing the song in the studio - not the lyrics; the lyrics I write in solitude, usually, even if it's the dug-out solitude of whatever corner I can find in a dressing room. Peter and Jon write their parts and the songs grow and change in response to what they see and hear and feel in the skeleton I bring to the table - I write the chords and the melodies and the words, but there's more to a song than that stuff, and the "more" is what they do: sort of putting muscle and skin and spirit into the bones.
You’ve been known to put out high quality vinyl. All of your 4AD stuff has stayed in print, and you’ve released some incredible tour-only vinyl and color variants. What’s your favorite record find and why?
I am more of a pack-rat than a "seek out essential items" dude but this very, very obscure midwestern vanity pressing thing by a band called the Cause that my wife and I found at the Ajax store in Chicago years ago, when we were first dating - that's a huge find, because it's very much its own off-in-space thing. I have a near-complete original run of Man is the Bastard vinyl, much of it bought directly from Wood himself, I take some pride in that. Especially the Born Against split 8", one of my favorite records ever.
Could you talk about your experience on The Colbert Report? Do you get a lot of TV requests?
What can I tell you - it was fun, we enjoyed ourselves!
Is there anyone left on your short list for collaborations? Perhaps a Boz Scaggs duet?
Mostly classical musicians right now - I have a whole lot of ideas for strings and I am hoping to work more with Miranda Cuckson. I would like to work with the choreographer Trisha Brown - would like to write music for her to choreograph. That's a dream though, she's a titan in her field. Me singing with Boz wouldn't be a very good idea, I don't think. He is a truly great singer whom I admire tremendously. I'm good at what I do, but I'm not in his league. Like, at all.
Call it now: What is the best Mountain Goats record? What’s your favorite song to perform? Have you ever thought about performing an album in its entirety? Maybe do an All Hail West Texas tribute when it turns 10, or teach your newer fans the wonders of Sweden?
Well, OK, this is five questions - taking them more or less in order: my favorite record is always the new one, which is not because it's the one being promoted, but because I'm always most interested in what's newest, what's freshest - I mostly lose interest in an album once I've moved on to the next one, I sort of say "here are the songs I loved best from that record and here's what I learned how to do from writing them and playing them and recording them and touring with them, living with them" and then move along, keep goin'. Swim, shark, or die! you know? So, my favorite stuff is the newest songs that nobody's heard yet, and my second favorite is the new album, and after that -- I don't know; I mean, I have an affection for The Sunset Tree because it's meant a lot to a lot of people, and that means a lot to me, and it was hard to write, so I got something from the whole process. And I'm super proud that with Get Lonely, we did what we felt instead of trying to do "Sunset Tree II" or anything - we followed our hearts and I'm proud of doing that and of the record we made. I have no interest at all in doing a pat-self-on-back thing like presenting an old album in its entirety, to me that's "hi I'm an old man now dwelling on past glories," fuck that in my opinion, no disrespect to anybody who's into it. OK maybe a little disrespect because seriously, art is about growth, not K-Tel commercials for the great hits from when life was simpler and we were all in high school. I don't go to anybody's "playing their classic album" shows, I hate the whole concept, it's like very major label Las Vegas. Though I would go see Streisand do Je M'Appelle Barbra but that's different because it's a whole different world. I don't think good rock music should be about ideas like "classic." The idea is keeping it new.
You’ve dropped so many more non-full-length tracks since your trio of rarities compilations in 2002. Any thoughts on doing another rarities collection?
There really isn't any point in doing a rarities collection now that everything's free, I don't think. Back when we started putting together the three singles comps, people who really wanted to hear those songs couldn't, or had to work super-hard to get their hands on dubbed copies. That's not the case any more, so the utility of the rarities comp is questionable now.
Your entry in the 33 1/3 series, on Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, doubles as a short story, in which a troubled youth describes the album in his vernacular while dealing with treatment in an adolescent psychiatric center in 1985. Have you ever though of writing/releasing more fiction?
Yeah I am working on another book.