a long talk

Genuinely John Darnielle

The Mountain Goats’ frontman on keeping the faith, loving the occult, and sad songwriting.

Photo: Lalitree Darnielle
Photo: Lalitree Darnielle

I’ve been meaning to pick John Darnielle’s brain for a long time — not just because of the literary brilliance on display in the catalog of his flagship act (the Mountain Goats, a band equally liable to break your heart with songs about divorce and abuse as to make you chuckle through an ode to Mexican lucha libre wrestling or the arduous quests of tabletop role-playing games) or his storied internet presence, documented in his 2000s music blog, Last Plane to Jakarta, and, more recently, his lively Twitter account. I wanted to know how the singer-songwriter who discusses matters of faith deftly and candidly in interviews and on albums like 2009’s The Life of the World to Come is weathering the growing nationalist sentiment percolating in the American evangelical-Christian community. On this month’s Bleed Out, the Mountain Goats’ 21st album, Darnielle celebrates the action films he grew up on and his old habit of workshopping songs in front of the TV over lean, loud rock riffs — parting for now with the smoky, jazzy, acoustic jams of recent releases like last year’s Dark in Here. The record’s preponderance of jilted, surly protagonists and depictions of fight scenes and shootouts offered ripe ground for a chat about surging American vigilantism and the mindset that nudges privileged people into acts of violence fueled by a (real or imagined) sense of victimhood. I spent a weekend buried in classic films about men exacting brutal revenge — First Blood, Red Dawn, Death Wish, Assault on Precinct 13, Billy Jack — and spoke with Darnielle for almost an hour and a half about his new record, his thoughts on moral panics, and his latest novel, Devil House. The studious music nerd and sometime music critic left me with a solid writing tip and recommendations for unheralded Yes and War albums.

Hard Times wrote one of my favorite joke headlines of the last few years: “This Year” by the Mountain Goats No Longer Cutting It in 2020.
You feel like you’ve assimilated into the culture when you’re something that we can joke about as a common point of reference. It’s pretty great.

More recently, “No Children” blew up on TikTok. How does it feel to be on the business end of potentially millions of people discovering the same song at the same time?
It was so awesome, because I come from a very indie sensibility. I have great publicists now, right? But even getting one in the first place in my scene was, like, the sort of thing you’d get clowned for. Mr. Big Guy has a publicist now! There’s this romantic idea that if your music is good enough to blow up, it’ll blow up because people love it. In the real world, if they don’t hear it, they’re not going to love it, so you hire people to work it. Obviously, I did 20 years of touring to get the music out there. And it was on Moral Orel years ago. This time, one teenager at some point was like, “This is funny.” And it was completely organic. I had a lot of pressure: “Oh, would you shoot a video of yourself doing the dance?” That would be the most herbed-out thing to do. Here I am, 54 years old last year: Hey kids, I’m doing the dance that you guys are doing. I said, “I’m not going to do that.” It belongs to them.

How do you feel about being pegged as a guy who writes songs that make people cry?
I love it, because that’s the kind of stuff I like. I don’t do it every day anymore, but you go through periods of your life where what you want is to be connected to the crying part of yourself. Other times, that’s not what you want. I think most people who like my stuff know there’s a nice axis in what I do. It’s sad and emotional. There’s also a lot of humor. For me, it’s only the Get Lonely album that kind of doesn’t have an exit. When you get real sad, one of the things that can help you climb out of it is laughing at yourself and how into your feelings you are. My sadness, however great it is, is one small story in a world full of stories. So you indulge it, but you find the season to escape it. There’s the legendary Method Man line: “Say what you like, just spell my name right.” I think of that. If they peg me as a sad songwriter, they pegged me. That’s cool. It’s good to be seen.

How does the exercise of writing a concept album start for you? How do you find time to do the job of a songwriter and performer while you fill your head with the ideas that feed the writing process?
When I start writing, I almost never start with the concept. Like with the wrestling record, I wrote one song about wrestling, about the Grand Olympic Auditorium in Southern California, where I went to matches as a kid — no, I think I wrote “Hair Match,” then I wrote “Southwestern Territory.” I thought, That’s two songs about wrestling. When it comes time to make the album, you’re going to have to either pick one of these songs or do a whole album’s worth. Otherwise it’s odd to have two songs about a fairly esoteric subject in the midst of other songs. Usually, when there’s a concept, it announces itself a few songs in. Tallahassee was different. Tallahassee was what happens when a label calls you to work together, and it’s the first time you’re ever having this experience, and they ask business-meeting questions like, “So, if we were to work together, what do you see yourself doing?” You feel like you’re on the spot. You want to pitch something, right? That’s what I did. I said, “You know, I used to write these songs about this divorcing couple. I’ve always wondered what would happen if I wrote a whole album about that.” We didn’t have any money at the time, so I was like, “I’ll make that record for you right now.” Then I spent the whole summer digging into these characters I had put back to sleep a couple years before, and it was like it was an errand.

But I can write anywhere. That’s how I work. I’m a guy who carries a backpack with a notebook in it, and I’ll pull out the notebook at the drop of a hat to write down ideas. Or if I don’t have my notebook, I have this program called Bear, which is a note-taking program that’s really cool, that I use to keep notes. I also have the native iPhone app I keep a list of song titles in. So there’s always raw material around. It used to be that I didn’t sit down to write a song unless I had the time to finish it there. I didn’t want to split a song into two sessions. Now it doesn’t really matter. If I don’t finish it, I can come back later and make it happen.

You workshop song titles separately from songs?
Yeah. With a title, it can be thoughtful but it can also be a random phrase I’ll hear and sit with for a long … [checks phone] What’s the oldest one here? Probably “Our Home Outside the Trailer.” It’s an idea I had somewhere. One of these days, I might get to it, but there’s dozens that I’ll never get around to. There’s a very old document in my iPhone that’s a list of song titles that I add to. Here’s another one: “He Will Appear in the Smoke.” I don’t know what that’s supposed to be. I was probably reading someone’s prayers or something like that. Like, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” I don’t remember. It sounded cool. That’s how it happens.

I thought your concept albums were lighthearted exercises when you were singing about wrestling and goths, but since the tabletop record and the one about pagans, it feels like you’re hyperfocusing on people in tribulations as a way to process or help others process the present.
I’ve always been interested in the term pagan. I’m Catholic. I’m not anymore, but I’m from the Catholic tradition. Pagan has a pejorative air. “These pagans — they have to go!”

When the fabric of society is unraveling, that’s who gets blamed.
Paganism, I know from studying classics, is kind of a fake term. It’s a garbage-bucket term for all the people who weren’t in the Catholic church. I was interested in that. This is another thing that’s good about being older. A lot of that stuff you’d play for glitz when you’re a younger writer. Then you read accounts of the deaths of pagans when you’re older and go, “These were living human beings persecuted literally for being themselves.” They weren’t doing anything — not even proselytizing. But if one of them got popular, woe betide that person, because the church would go, “We’ve got to quell the pagan uprising here in Alexandria. It’s getting intense.” I was reading some accounts of the late Roman Empire and how they treated pagans and really feeling it, because we are in a time of rising fascism where — and it’s never been easy to be genuinely on the margins, to be Black or queer or trans — because of the gains made for liberation in the past 50 to 100 years by marginalized populations, fascists are getting very bold. They sense an opportunity. It’s a scary time. So when you write about that stuff now, there is a sense of urgency to it. Those of us who have privilege, like myself, should be speaking about that sort of thing to some extent. But if I were to go write early Billy Bragg or early Bob Dylan–type stuff, I don’t think it would come across as genuine.

Everybody can’t do “Hattie Carroll.”
No, it’s true. People say that with me as far as playing metal, too, because I love heavy metal, but I can’t just wake up and decide to be better at guitar than I am.

We didn’t know Kanye as a vocalist or a rapper at first. Being dismissed for a perceived lack of talent is his fuel.
I have to say in the case of Kanye, though, I was very dismissive when he was deciding to rap. I said, “This dude is not going to be able to rap at the level of really good people.” And when he’s really in the zone, he’s very good. He has succeeded at becoming the guy who you have a lot to say about.

How do you feel about his contemporary Christian music?
So, you know, I’m a CCM guy. I like that stuff a lot — a big gospel choir, a mass choir. When he’s doing that, just the sound of it, whatever the content is and whoever is doing it reaches me at a very basic level.

It takes me back to my childhood.
So you went to those churches.

Southern Baptist.
My history is the same as a lot of white guys who were into gospel: I liked a lot of Motown when I was 18, 19. If you study it (and I was a music fiend), you realize these guys all came out of gospel. Then two things happened: Somebody wrote about the Swan Silvertones, an early gospel group, so I bought their compilation. Then I saw a thing in my early 20s called The Gospel at Colonus. It was a musical. Morgan Freeman played the narrator. It set Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles’ last Oedipus play, in a Black church on a Sunday morning. It’s a stage thing, but I’ve only ever seen the film. It’s an extremely important piece in my life. I rented it on VHS from Music Plus in 1986, brought it home on a Saturday morning, and just got my mind blown. The choir is big, but they’re singing Sophocles and connecting to this music that I know. Then, when I was 21, I worked the graveyard shift in a nursing facility. I would listen to gospel radio all night long. There’s a song called “I’m Blessed” that changed my life. It took me years to find it. It’s a giant choir and Reverend Clay Evans.

So when Kanye does that stuff, I’m thinking about formative times for me. I’m 19, 21. I’m coming out of a period of intense drug use and being a terrible person. I’m trying to locate my better self. I’m looking for Jesus. I’m trying to connect to the 5-year-old in me who believed strongly in God, and who, after my parents’ divorce, lost that. I was a raging, Nietzsche-reading, “You’re an idiot for believing in God” kind of guy for many years. Then, I’m 21 and I’m seeking God again, and the places I’m finding it are in music, where everybody finds God, because God is present in all music, in my opinion. The sound of a mass gospel choir … You can’t hear that and not feel some connection to something greater than yourself, because that’s what it is. When Kanye does that, anything I have to say about Kanye gets in the back seat.

How did you juggle faith and a love of occult tabletop games vilified in church circles?
I left the church when I was 5. The divorce happened, and I was no longer in the church. From the age of 5 to about 18, I wasn’t around the church anymore. By the time I’m seeking again, I’m a grown man, so I have discernment, as the Bible puts it. If the church says, “This is going to lead you to Satan,” I say, “No.” For one thing, Satan personified is a weird modern invention. That’s not what the Bible is talking about. So I wouldn’t believe in a radical evil force or in hell. I don’t think Jesus did either. None of it figured into my getting into games.

Let’s talk about your new album, Bleed Out. You were watching action movies during the writing process, and the characters began to bleed into the songs?
There is a very small but dear-to-me group of people in the Mountain Goats fan base for whom the early stuff is what’s sweet. That’s true of any fan base. There’s no fan base that doesn’t have a segment saying, “It was best when nobody was listening and the energy was the youngest.”

Sweden is good food for that argument.
It’s 19 songs. My energy level, if you find tape of me back then, was bonkers. It was probably a lot of nervousness. I still have a lot of energy, but I don’t play as if I’m never going to play again. I used to lose my voice on every tour in those days. When I was making tapes, like pre-Sweden (’93, ’94), I was in school. When you’re in school, you mess around a lot. I would get out of class and go back to my mom’s house, where I was camped out for two nights a week. I would rent some video tapes and sit there watching movies and study at the same time. I would get an idea while I was watching — the same way we were talking about grabbing lyric titles. Somebody would say something in the movie, and I’d go, “Oh my God, this is amazing.” I’d hit pause and grab my guitar. Those songs were being written very quickly. When I started doing this album, it was just that I was watching a movie that had a training montage in it. I thought, I should write a song about a training montage. I hit pause and wrote, “Water dripping from the pipes down into the basement, bare feet are on the concrete floor.” The next night, I watched another action movie, and I had the same thing happen. It was very much like when I was sitting on my mom’s couch in college, making what became Hot Garden Stomp, The Hound Chronicles, Yam, the King of Crops — which is not from movies but reading Achebe and Soyinka and getting ideas from West African literature.

Action films are a peculiar strain of Americana. You can see the best and worst of the place — patriotism, the nearness of violence, and the anti-government streak in these protagonists who are tired of playing by the rules.

It’s a subtype of American guy running amok right now, so I can’t help but see this album as commentary on the times we’re in — as much as it’s an appreciation of the spirit of the films that inspired it.
It’s impossible to talk about action movies without getting into those notions of vigilantism, especially in America, and guns. They’ve got amazingly violent action movies in every country. I got really into watching [East Asian] action movies like Ip Man. They’re all so gonzo. But with the American ones, they totally hit differently. If you tell a story about somebody shooting somebody in a country where nobody ever gets shot, it’s a shocking story. You can tell it in the first person, and we get catharsis vicariously. In America, when I listen to the album, if there’s been a recent mass shooting, it feels less sweet. I mean, it’s just writing. People shoot people, because people are messed up, generally speaking. If you put a bunch of guns in easy access, a number of bad things are going to happen. If you do it in an environment where nobody feels like they’re getting what they want out of life, it’s going to happen even more often.

It seems like you’re flipping slogans on their heads on this album — evaluating them in different contexts. The title track is a long action sequence, on paper, but the delivery is bone-tired like the protagonist is trapped inside this never-ending bloodbath. It sounds like a nightmare.
That was recorded at probably two in the morning, and it was live. There’s not an overdub on that song. So the exhaustion is real in there. “First Blood” is explicitly about how our action-movie stories are myths. In an action movie, none of the people who get shot have hopes, dreams, parents, or children. They’re just bad guys, right?

The Mountain Goats performing in 2018. Photo: FilmMagic

I’ve been making my way through your novel Devil House, thinking about your words on true-crime stories treating victims like their whole lives were setting up for the payoff of their death.
There’s two types of characters in a true crime book: The hero and his victims. Jack the Ripper got all the ink, not his investigators. The human tendency to dwell on the lurid is a thing that we don’t address. After the ’80s, it got so that nobody wanted to be seen as prissy. And the thing is, I’m the same way. I love violent movies. That’s something human, especially if you were ever a young boy. The first time you see somebody on a screen beating somebody else’s ass, you go, “That’s amazing. He’s beating that guy’s ass.”

One of the earliest Christmas memories that I have is sneaking down the hallway while someone was setting up my Rambo action figures and thinking I saw Santa. Characters like that are formative to a certain understanding of masculinity. They’re folk figures.
They’re types. There are analogs for most of them in Greek literature. Here’s the thing: People have been doing this forever, but it is different in an environment where you can die at a parade. There’s a degree of commentary in “Hostages” and “First Blood” especially.

“Hostages” made me go back and rewatch Red Dawn. My takeaway is that they got it all wrong. It’ll be our sense of entitlement providing the thread that unravels it all. It won’t be some existential enemy we’ve been battling all these years. It’ll be us. 
So many of the things we need to be doing will involve undoing centuries of human behavior. But scoundrels use context to excuse bad behavior. That makes it harder to talk about. Often, somebody does something legitimately wretched, and people say, “You weren’t in the room at the time.”

I don’t know if it’s about defense or discrediting disagreeable opinions.
That’s a human impulse. There’s not a young man I know who had a minute for anybody else’s opinion, you know what I mean? I was the worst of the worst. I remember when I had written a negative review or two, and I thought I was very clever with my words. When I started my zine in 1997 — so I would have been maybe 30 years old at this point — I was no longer that enchanted by the sound of myself saying something sucks. We already had Beavis and Butt-Head at that point. They kind of perfected the form, right? I decided I was going to make a zine where all I did was write about stuff I liked. That was a big thing for me. The best thing you can do to something you don’t like is to not write about it. Not that bad reviews don’t have a place in the world, especially if there’s something everybody loves but you find something people haven’t noticed that seems weird. Just the nature of the way things went from the ‘80s outward … I don’t blame social media. There’s a tone that came up in criticism probably around the ’70s where good writers have noticed that if you pour out some venom on something, it sounds cool. I remember my favorite line of any mean review ever: Robert Christgau’s Eagles review. It’s two paragraphs about who they are. Then he says, “Another thing that interests me about the Eagles is that I hate them.” It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever read.

I spoke to Daryl Hall last year, and he still remembered a Christgau pan from the ’70s.
I didn’t like Hall & Oates as a teenager. I want to apologize to Hall & Oates right now, because I was wrong. I knew nothing about Philadelphia soul when Hall & Oates were big, so I didn’t understand the language they were speaking. It’s bonkers how many bangers those guys had in a row. Anything I used to hate — I want to look at it later to find out why. If you find you don’t hate it as much, often it’s that, well, you were ignorant at the time.

So, you wrote Devil House, a book touching on the Satanic panic, just as a new one was manifesting.
I was there for that moral panic at the beginning. Throughout the AIDS crisis, there was a lot of moral panic too. There was talk about closing bathhouses.

A lot of bathhouses did close.
And there was argument within the community but also pressure from people who knew nothing about anything who were talking about lives that they didn’t live. But the Satanic panic — I was at ground zero for that. I was working in pediatric psychiatric care in … ’87, ’88, ’89? I was on a unit where children were being admitted with stories of Satanic ritual abuse, and we believed them. I actually almost got fired from the job the week I got it, because I had to write poetry and I had to bring my notebook to my job just in case. I was new to the job but very pretentious. I read a lot of Baudelaire, and all the French decadent guys were super into devil stuff, right? So I had a poem I was working on called “Regarding the Worship of Satan,” and I left the notebook on the unit. Rebecca and Mary Ann called me in the next day. “Hey, we’ve got to have a talk in the office. We found this on the unit. Would you care to explain yourself to us?” I think about how highly I’d regard myself now if I’d said, “That’s because I worship Satan.” But I didn’t. I said, “It’s poetry. I’m sorry. It’s not actually about that. I’m a Catholic. I go to church.” And that was true. They said, “We won’t tell you what you can and can’t write, but you cannot leave stuff where the children might find it.” Fair point. I have had to confront that, though I was not the one admitting the kids. I couldn’t say, “You’ve been held here wrongly. Go home, 5-year-olds.”

It was a moral panic, and we were all in it. In a moral panic, plenty of good people believe plenty of nonsense. The thing about the current one that seems to be forming is most of the people who are buying into it are actually just weaponizing the potential for a moral panic, because they see the possibility to gain more power for the incipient fascist movement that’s going on. I don’t think half the people doing that actually believe it in earnest. They’re weaponizing the possibility.

Is it discouraging seeing people of faith calling for their fellow citizens’ federal rights to be taken away, or do you dig your heels in further?
It is discouraging seeing megachurches going the wrong way when they have so much power and so much money. You can get depressed. You’ve also seen people like Brian Zahnd, Rachel Held Evans, William Barber. There’s good Christians. There are people doing what I believe is “the Jesus work.” There’s a big strain that says the whole point is ministry and teaching, and he can still be God if he didn’t rise again, no matter what C. S. Lewis says. There is hope within the body. There’s a Tom Waits lyric I always think of that articulates the despair: “Tell me, brave captain, why are the wicked so strong? How do the angels get to sleep when the devil leaves his porch light on?” Good never shines as hard as evil does. This is what true-crime allure is about. Action movies too. That’s what Baudelaire referred to as “the shimmer of evil.” There’s something that we groove on — hard. It reaches a primal place. We’re trying to cultivate moments of sublime beauty. You experience sublime moments and think, I love my action movies. I’m never going to put them down. But better still are the great things, the feeling of mercy.

If you could write another 33 1⁄3 book, what would it cover?
I might want to talk about Souled American, one of my very favorite bands hardly anybody knows of. I have the bands I like that they’re never going to do — like War. War did “Low Rider” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” but they have an incredibly deep catalog. I do think what we’re talking about plays into War. They’re a very positive band preaching a positivity gospel. In all their songs, there’s a real uplifting thing that I think kind of costs them. It’s a little too soft for people. On the West Coast, they’re legends, mind you. They have hits. It’s not like they were small. But they’re never first in the conversation. Them and Earth, Wind & Fire, for me, are the bands who — I mean, nobody doesn’t love Earth, Wind & Fire. I don’t think people love them enough. There was a long period of time where only a certain type of white auteur got to be thought of as trying to do a serious album. The Delfonics have an album called Tell Me This Is a Dream, a full-on concept album that didn’t get the same ink that, like, Tales From Topographic Oceans gets. And it’s a better album than Tales from Topographic Oceans. But you have permission to be writing a concept album if you’re coming from a certain place, and you don’t if you’re coming from another place.

You write a lot about underdogs. I wonder if there’s an aspect of faith in the sympathy for the outcast characters in your work. 
I mean, yeah. That is certainly part of the Christian story, although one thing that aggravates me about American Christians is that there is no realistic version of Christianity in America that you can portray as the underdog. It’s just not. You won. You got what you wanted, you know?

This is the core absurdity of 2022 — a winning team playing the underdog.
Everybody realizes that the best way to get people on your side is to say you have a grievance. So the people with all the power, all the marbles, and all the influence still say, “We are persecuted.” American Christians have not been persecuted ever. They came here and did the persecuting. You can make a case in China that you’re being persecuted. There are many countries where Christians are in bad shape. But it ain’t here.

But my work, for sure, my whole life pulls a bit from Christianity. I relate to people who get over who aren’t supposed to, people who survive who weren’t expected to. That’s the stuff that’s always spoken to me. That’s why you wind up cheering for the bad guy a lot of the time. It’s very easy to go, “How come no one asked him, ‘How’d you get this way?’” Some people take it as far as, “Here is why you’re supposed to like the Joker, who’s obviously a chaotic force for evil.”

The Joker keeps coming up in interviews, and I think it’s the key to so much right now. We’re on such a “What made him like that?” trip that even the Joker, whose share of blame for the accident that turns him into the Joker is core to the lore, gets treated like a victim of society. Now he’s the Joker because people made fun of him.
It’s such weird fan service too. The whole reason the Joker is as big as he is now, besides the fact that they succeeded at making Batman — cool, which, good on them …

Well, the new Batman is cosplaying Kurt Cobain.
But the main reason the Joker got cool was because Heath Ledger put in a completely incredible performance. That’s one of the great performances in film history. It’s just absolutely miraculous.

Joaquin Phoenix is putting on a great performance also, but the film around it … 
When I was reading comics as a kid, the guy who really seemed to be doing politics was Steve Ditko. Well, Stan Lee was doing the real basic, liberal, “Can’t we all live together?” stuff. But for the most part, it was cool stories, places to escape to. It became kind of reactionary as it went on. I don’t think it’s on the writers. I talk a lot about how readers have more power than writers do to shape what a thing says and what it means. That’s nowhere more evident than in comics. I don’t think the comic writers are going, “Let’s get a generation of young men to idolize a sociopath.” When you read the older books, villains are supposed to be hated. They’re telling you, “This is the bad guy.” It goes back to Paradise Lost. You read Paradise Lost, and you come away going, “I’m not supposed to like Satan, but he makes his case really well.” “Better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven” is a sentiment running through music ever since early rock and roll — the Rebel Without a Cause–type stuff. So much stuff is saying, “I would rather rule this six-foot space than have to kiss your ass outside of it.” Because I’ve had a lot of therapy, if I’ve got to kiss a little ass, it’s not going to kill me. Lots of people have had to do that. I think a mature position toward ass-kissing is, Whose ass must you kiss and why?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Mountain Goats’ second album, released in 1995. Early on in Devil House, protagonist and true crime author Gage Chandler recalls a convention where a colleague tells him, “There aren’t any villains in a true crime book. There’s the hero, and there’s his victims.” Darnielle is paraphrasing himself.
Genuinely John Darnielle