Talking with John Darnielle about his guest-starring role in Rian Johnson’s new detective series, Poker Face, is a little like taking an enthusiastic seminar in three different classes at the same time. One of them is metal, a musical genre Darnielle knows well and loves wildly, though it’s not the genre his band, the Mountain Goats, works in. Then there’s literature in translation, an interest Darnielle has shared with Johnson during their decades-long friendship. There’s a creative-writing workshop folded in, too, as Darnielle lays out the mechanics of creating a backstory for the fictional heavy-metal band he performs in for Poker Face.
The show’s fourth episode, “Rest in Metal,” follows a band called Doxxology that is desperate to claw its way back to success after one giant hit song. Darnielle plays the band’s guitarist, Al, and when Johnson asked Darnielle to consult for the episode, Darnielle was insistent that they could not just be a washed-up band that had sprung out of nowhere. There could be no winking or hand-waving about music history: Who are these characters? How did they get here? Who were their peers? How could they have had a hit song in the early aughts?
The episode is delightful in part because of the excellent performance from Chloë Sevigny as lead singer Ruby Ruins and because the story is such an effective framework for Poker Face’s loving attention to small, often goofy details. But it is also rife with exactly the energy Darnielle radiates when talking about it: fan-ish fondness coupled with clear-eyed curiosity and a core sense of self-knowledge. It’s an episode that makes it easy to remember why procedural television can be so fun. It also makes you long for a full-length version of “Merch Girl.”
This is your first role as an actor. How did this role in Poker Face happen?
I had no ambitions in that direction at all, but I’ve known Rian … Rian ordered a copy of my zine in the ’90s, Last Plane to Jakarta, and he ordered a T-shirt. We only did one run of T-shirts ever, and Rian was a Mountain Goats fan. My wife managed the orders of the T-shirts, so I wasn’t keeping up with that end of things, but at some point in 2004 we went to see the movie Brick. When the credits rolled, the music said “Music by the Hospital Bombers Experience.” That’s a reference to one of my lyrics, a song called “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.” I saw that and was like, This guy knows my stuff! And my wife said, “I told you! That guy ordered a T-shirt.”
I looked him up to say, “Hey, I enjoyed your movie!” And if you saw that movie — what I’m good at is chasing something and seeing where it goes. What Rian’s good at is seeing a globe and being able to ascertain all the points on it simultaneously. He’s got this 360 vision. So yes, Brick was amazing. Rian directed a couple Mountain Goats videos, which is how I had the great experience of being in a tour van, laughing at my phone: “Hey, guys, you know Rian — he did the video? Guess what his next gig is!” It was Last Jedi!
So we’ve stayed in touch over the years. I read a lot of literature in translation, and Rian likes a good noir, so I’ll occasionally say, “Here, you should check this out.” I was probably bugging him about something and he texted, “Want to talk to you about this TV show I’m doing with Natasha Lyonne. It’s basically Columbo with her as the detective. Doing an episode with a metal band on tour. May seek your musical expertise.” It just sort of spiraled from there.
So you began just as a consultant about the episode?
I’m a metal fiend. I hate it when all metal is cartoonified. As it turned out, the whole story is about a band that had a hit once, and I was able to say, “Look, if they had a hit, they’re not really that metal.” But then I was able to situate it.
I listen to lots and lots of heavy metal. But I don’t write that kind of music. I really judge, harshly, people who do a turn into a genre they don’t have any experience in. If a famous actor decides he wants to make a metal record, labels will say, “Sure! Your fans will buy it!” I hate that. When I got a book contract, I wished I could’ve done it anonymously. Anyway, I was happy to be called on for this because I was happy to be a metal consultant. Full-time metal consultant? God, great.
Then he texted me, “What’s your schedule look like for the next few months? I wanted to see if you wanted to act in this episode of my TV show.” We worked it out. He asked whether I could act, and I remember I sent him [Darnielle pulls up a video of himself on his phone delivering the “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” line from Macbeth]. So I sent him a half-remembered swatch of Shakespeare. I don’t consider myself an actor. But I think I did okay!
I think so too! But, wait, so you started by writing all the songs for the episode first?
Yeah. Well, I tried to write a melody, but I knew it would be passably metal only for anyone who doesn’t know metal at all, which was fine but it wasn’t fine for me. So I hit up Jamey Jasta, and before the ink had dried on the contract, he sent me his first three looks at the idea. We talked about what sort of era of metal we figured this band would be, who were their peers. I was writing backstory that’s not in the show. How did they have a hit when metal doesn’t chart? Well, maybe they were touring in the early 2000s, when TV placements were the biggest deal. If you had a song on One Tree Hill …
Or The O.C., maybe.
Yeah. And I think we’re having a moment again like that right now with “Goo Goo Muck.” But, at that time, it was happening to all my friends and not me.
Anyhow, this metal band had a song that placed there, which puts it about 2002, 2003. And that was a pop-metal moment, when you could see Lacuna Coil shirts at Hot Topic. So Jamey and I spitballed on the phone, and it was really fun coming up with bands — Lacuna Coil, Soilwork, Arch Enemy — and then Jamey started sending musical ideas. I wrote vocal melodies and sang scratch vocals on his stems. And then Jamey recruited the singer from a Judas Priest cover band, an 18-year-old, to come into the studio and do Chloë’s parts. It was incredible.
There’s a classic problem with fictional art: If it’s a story about a band with a hit single, the fictional song has to be a plausible hit. Which gives you the impossible job of writing a hit song.
I had the same question! One, you say it’s supposed to be metal, which means I have to write a backstory for that. But even so, like, if I could just write a hit, I would write a hit! But I thought the backstory I wrote was pretty good, and the vocals were nice. I thought “Staplehead” was a believable early-aughts hit!
But the other direction was that the songs the band wrote in the van, they were supposed to be bad. And that was harder for me — I like my stuff!
Partly because “Staplehead” is fully produced, and partly I’m guessing because you were writing with other people, it does sound like its own band. But I have to say, some of the songs your character sings in that van are immediately recognizable as Mountain Goats.
If it’s me singing, it’s going to sound like Mountain Goats.
There are two of those, little songs where you’re noodling around in the van. There’s one where your character is singing about his divorce.
Oh, yeah, that is a complete early Mountain Goats song. I cleared that with Rian first, when I was ad-libbing ideas.
And then there’s the song where your character confesses to the crime while Natasha Lyonne sneaks around in the background singing “You can’t unmurder someone!”
Most of that was ad-libbed on the set, but “You can’t unmurder someone” was in the script. There was a bunch of stuff in the script, but I did it in my style because I knew it would come across better. It’s easier to act someone else’s lines than it is to sing someone else’s lyrics. Usually if you’re singing someone else’s lyrics, unless you’re a professional singer, you’re picking a song you love. To sing someone else’s lyrics and just try to sell them, that’s an actor’s job. So I made it up, and I think I’m looking at the lyrics in the notebook as I’m singing them.
“We electrocuted a lamb for the keys to the kingdom”?
That one was in the script. “I’m gonna buy a new guitar / neck inlaid with pearl / to pay my passage to the afterworld,” that was me. “Crawl up through the afterbirth and wander lonesome on the earth” — if you don’t know that’s the Mountain Goats, you don’t listen to a lot of Mountain Goats [laughs].
I know that “Staplehead” and “Sucker Punch” are the intended hit songs of the episode, but I have to tell you that I and a few of my colleagues are huge fans of “Merch Girl.”
That’s what I’m saying! Jamey wrote the music for that one, and the direction was that “Merch Girl” was supposed to not be good. And was like, Well, but it’s going to be great, though! I like the lyrics!
I really want a full version!
We should Kickstart the full version! Because that’s all we wrote. Well, Jamey wrote the music, and I wrote the rest of the stuff — “last one to leave,” that’s all me. I was very pleased, I have to say. I’m about the 11th cleverest writer of my generation, but “Merch girl had nothing up her sleeve” I was extremely happy with.
There’s also “Sucker Punch,” the probable hit song that we discover is actually based on the theme music from the 1979 TV show Benson.
Jamey Jasta wrote that one. I did write new lyrics for “Sucker Punch,” but Rian said “no”: it had to be what was in the script because every single line is something he has in his pockets. So Jamey put the music together in an afternoon and sent it to me to put vocals over.
Your character is clearly adjacent to things you’re very familiar with in your own professional life — in a band, riding around in a tour van, writing songs — but what did it feel like to act out this “close but not” version of you onscreen?
You’re being directed! Which is the part I really liked. In Mountain Goats land, I’m the boss, but I don’t really like being a boss. But it was a real pleasure to have someone say, “Stand here. Say what you’re supposed to say.” It was a real treat.
Did you miss the immediacy of performing in front of an audience?
I have to assume that in acting you come to be able to feel in the room. You get enough relationship with the lens, with the director. A large amount of it has to be self-knowledge. I have that as a musician — if I’m writing a song in my room, I can tell when it’s going someplace, and I might as well be in front of an audience when I’m doing that. I feel that.
I don’t have any of that for acting. I assume everything’s going to end up on the cutting-room floor. They kept telling me I was doing well, and I assumed they were being nice to me. But for me it was a real treat to be in a place where I didn’t have any confidence in what I was doing — as an artist, that’s a place you want to go! You need to be pursuing those places or you’ll go stale. You have to be doing stuff that makes you work harder.
Did it make you want to act more in the future?
Here’s the thing — while it was going on, I was like, I’m never doing this again. They are long days. It is wild. What actors get paid? I don’t begrudge them a penny. Six a.m. every fucking day! I’m a musician!
John Hodgman, who’s also in that episode, was telling me, “Get used to sitting in your trailer. Bring a book.” Because half — more than half — of it is just waiting to do stuff. And remember, you’re part of a very big thing. It’s very different from being in a band or writing. In this, you’re a cog. I found that very enjoyable.
I can’t lie. Even though the whole time I thought, This is nuts. I’m never doing this again? I would totally do this again.