Don’t think you know him because you know the hook to “Bald Headed Hoes”
John Darnielle made my favorite record of last year. A couple of weeks ago, he called me out online for shitting on the new Dr. Octagon record. Darnielle and his band, the Moutain Goats, have a new album called Get Lonely coming out soon. It’s a peculiarly sad and quiet album, and it doesn’t have the fierce drive of The Sunset Tree. I’m still digesting it. Darnielle says I won’t really get it unless my fiancee leaves me, but I think he was kidding. I introduced myself to him Saturday afternoon at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. We set this interview up for the next afternoon, where I met him at the hotel where all the festival bands were staying. He was really nervous after meeting my fiancee when he found out she had a cold. I started running the tape after I asked him about the Geto Boys t-shirt that he had draped over the guitar cases in his hotel room, after which we’d gotten to talking about The Foundation, the last Geto Boys record. It’s more of a conversation than an interview, really.
I mean, Scarface makes great solo records, but when they get together, they really all contribute something to a bigger part. Especially Willie D; he’s so much better than he used to be.
Yeah, his voice got better with age. It got a little bit more husk to it.
Yeah, and his philosophy! Did you hear his solo album, Controversy?
Oh, it’s a quality record. It’s so old school that it’s more old school than old school. It’s got the classic “Bald Headed Hoes” on it. But now, he’s sort of honed his egocentric nihilism to a more interesting point.
“Take an interest in politics, Chopin and Van Gogh / Shoot a motherfucker up and then go vote.” That’s my favorite line from that whole record.
Let me just indulge my hypochondria for a second here: your girlfriend lives here, right?
No, we live in New York.
So you guys hang out all the time?
And you’re not sick?
OK. I can’t overstate my hypochondria. I’m not a guy who never leaves the house, but if you get sick on tour, you can’t even imagine. It’s like working sick, but it’s worse because you show up and you suck. I can’t help it. Doctors are like, ‘Don’t play when you’re sick. You’re going to end your fucking career.
So you actually have a voice doctor?
I have several. I fucked my voice up once in 2001, and pretty much once you fuck it up, it’s going to be a constant battle. It sort of wants to fuck up.
Do most singers have voice doctors?
Well, I mean, they’ve visited them. They’re expensive, and so it’s a question of your priorities and how long you want to stay in the game. I’m in it for the long fucking haul. I enjoy making music, and I get super self-conscious about how what you say sounds, but I feel a special responsibility toward people who like my stuff. So I want to keep it up rather than go back to nursing it if I can help it. So I saw a doctor the first time I fucked up my voice right before I went over to England for a show, and then it was fine for a couple of years, and then I was on tour a couple of years ago and I had a very bad night in Chicago. First I got sick and sang through it, but I made it. And then in Chicago, I was feeling a little bit better, and so I got hammered onstage and sang a two-hour set. There’s video of me; I’m up onstage smoking and drinking champagne out of a bottle. Surprise surprise, the next day I feel like ass. I still made it through the next couple of shows, and there’s also tape of me at the show two nights later where I just had nothing to give. But yeah, all singers and especially all rappers must have doctors because the problem isn’t with singing. The reason I’m always turning down interviews: talking is way worse for your voice. You talk it out. If your job is to holler at someone for two hours a night, you have to have someone treat you.
The way you sing on the new album, you don’t do the whole bleat thing.
Yeah, that was sort of an accident. It’s weird because somebody just asked me a whole bunch of questions about voice treatment, and I didn’t want to talk about it. And the reason I don’t want to talk about it is internet critic culture. There’s people who hear you’re singing quietly and think he’s losing his voice. You saw me yesterday. I got plenty of voice. But I’m really not as interested in singing like that anymore. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I don’t want to do something painful, but I just really prefer something darker. You can’t really be properly dark yelling at somebody.
But you’ve done it. A lot.
Yeah, but it was on The Sunset Tree when we did “Dino Lipatti’s Bones” and it was my favorite track on the whole album. My two favorites were “Dino Lipatti” and “Pale Green Things.” They’re both really quiet songs, and I was more interested in those. I had a bunch of loud songs written for the new one, and when it came time to record, we did record a couple of them. One was a super shouter-stomper, and it was huge. And when we listened back to it, I was like, “I don’t like it because I don’t want to sing like that anymore. So we retracked the vocals quiet, and I still didn’t like it because the whole song had that punch-you-in-the-face quality, and I’ve already got four hundred songs that punch you in the face. So it’s time for me to explore other things.
So you think it’s going to be a permanent shift?
No. I mean, there are no permanent shifts. You do whatever; you follow your muse. But with this record, I was pretty surprised. On The Sunset Tree, there’s three or four louder numbers, but most of it’s pretty middle. But the first song I wrote for this record was “New Monster Avenue.” Vocally, it’s in that middle falsetto that I really like using, which actually is a harder thing. It sounds like it’s not straining, but actually it’s much harder when you’re singing than shouting. But I really like the sound; I like the way it feels, and most of all I like listening back to it. When I hear some of my stuff in playback, I say, “Well, I see how that sounded good when I was making it.” And the thing for me with my records is that either you’re going to be listening to them, or if they’re on as background music, then you want it off. It’s really annoying. I’m keenly aware of that, and I enjoy records more that I can decide what I want. Even the best death metal records are records that you can have on at mid-volume. You ever hear of Atheist?
You can leave Atheist on as long as people are familiar with the style of music, and not be paying attention, and you can listen to it, or you can turn and give it a hundred percent of your attention and really have a great experience with it. That, to me, is a more interesting and complex way of making music than making this music that’s all or nothing. I think in most genres that’s true, except for maybe classical, because you can’t really listen to Mahler as background music.
Most rap you can’t listen to as background.
But Southern rap you can. Not Lil Jon, which is one reason why I don’t care to listen to Lil Jon, because I don’t like getting yelled at. But what the hell is the name of the great Scarface record from a couple of years back?
Yeah, of course. You can play that at your party. You can put it on middle; you can put it on loud. I think that’s a strength in music, even if that’s an old man way of putting it. When you’re eighteen, you want music that’s going to be showering you in blood or nothing. I understand that too, but I’m leaning toward music that can fill two or three or four roles.
Obviously you listen to metal so much and all this other stuff. But you’re this really interesting case to me of somebody who listens to all this stuff and it doesn’t perceptibly influence you at all musically.
Yeah, I guess not. I don’t know what feeds into making music. It’s all leading stuff. I started making music to set lyrics to get what I was writing out in a way that people could hear because nobody pays attention to poetry anymore. But yeah, maybe it does influence it, I don’t know. In different ways, certainly in terms of vibe. But in terms of style, I’m not a shredder. I listen to a lot of hip-hop, too, but I’m not about to wreck the mic. Except today at the Aesop Rock show.
You got some shit?
You’d be appalled!
Craig Finn did it with P.O.S.
Yeah, P.O.S. is one of the Rhymesayers guys, and he’s on that record kind of sort of rapping. He’s doing what he does, but it’s on a rap track. And he’s talking about the movie Predator, how it’s his least favorite movie, which is ridiculous because it’s a really good movie.
This is the geekiest thing to bring up, but have you seen this thread on some sci-fi discussion board that gets linked a lot where guys are arguing about Alien Vs. Predator, whether it would be possible? It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. The movie wrote the backstory of Alien so that one of the ships was a Predator ship. Now, I’ve never seen Predator, so I don’t know, but there’s one guy who’s taken the position that this is retarded, there’s no way that could’ve been a Predator ship because the movie Predator wouldn’t be made for five or six years. Well, yeah, but it’s all fiction, so you can mess with it, right? But that’s his position, and he gets really aggro about it.
Continuity is such a weird thing, especially when you’re dealing with these long drawn-out stories over a number of years. I imagine that being a comic-book writer, it’s got to drive them insane.
Well, they’ve got some different writers, too, so they have to have somebody who keeps a file open and keeps track of the stories.
You’d have to read the whole thing, like to make sure you don’t bring somebody back from the dead without realizing it.
You’re a comic book guy?
Who’s your man?
Spider-Man. He just unmasked publicly.
It’s part of the Civil War storyline, which is going on in half the titles in Marvel right now.
They always do that nowadays.
Yeah, which I like. I stopped reading for years, but then at my last apartment, there was a comic book store on the way to the subway, so I’d stop by to get something to read on the train, and it sucked me right back in. There’s this thing in Marvel right now where the government has passed the Superhero Registration Act, where all superheroes have to turn themselves in and start working for the government.
Marvel’s at its best when it’s engaging with politics.
Well, yeah, of course. And Iron Man is pro-registration, and Spider-Man’s on board. And Captain America is anti-registration, and he’s strung together this big group of rebels.
Captain America? That’s excellent. That’s really interesting. When I was a comic-book reader, Captain America wasn’t a joke, but he was nobody’s favorite superhero. He had a cool sidekick, the Falcon. I like Dead Man. That’s DC.
I don’t mess with DC.
You know, I didn’t for a long time. And I met some guy when I was a comic book collector, who was like, “You know, it’s all the same guys.” And it is; they’re going back and forth. Some of them work for the two companies at once. Half the good writers went from Marvel to DC. And Dead Man, he’s a spirit. He inhabits other people’s bodies. But Man-Thing’s better than Swamp Thing.
Yeah, I like Man-Thing. He’s got that weird trunk. Swamp Thing didn’t look so cool.
Well, Swamp Thing speaks, too. Man-Thing’s just this creature of pure emotion.
So I wanted to ask you a little bit about the new record. The Sunset Tree, from what I understand, it’s your first record that’s really grounded in personal experience, and it’s obvious what it’s about. The new one seems to be about sort of free-floating disconnection.
Yeah, it’s less narrative, which is kind of a weird thing to do because I think people respond best to stories. But I tried to keep it good stories in the songs; half of them tell clear stories, and the other half are sort of what it feels like to be in those kinds of stories.
It’s all written from the same persona or perspective, right?
In concept. It’s not a guy, but the people are coming from various depths of the same emotional space. So you’ve heard it a few times?
Yeah, I’m still processing. It doesn’t grab me the way The Sunset Tree did right away, but it’s not…
It’s not that kind of record, which is one thing that makes the culture of file-sharing, which I have a complicated relationship with, difficult. People tend to download a record, listen to it, and that’s it. The way that [producer Scott] Soulter described it is when we were three quarters of the way done making it is it’s a root fire of a record. You can’t see that there’s anything there, but then you put your foot on it, and it starts to burn the soles of your feet. It’s smoldering where it looks like there’s nothing. It’s not the most commercial move to make, I guess, but for me and Peter [Hughes, bassist], it’s been remarkable. Usually by the time the album comes out, for us, you don’t want to hear it anymore. You heard enough of it when you were making it and when you’re sequencing it and when you get the promo to check it out. Usually by the time the record comes out, you’re sick to death of it. I really enjoy this one more than I’ve enjoyed any of mine for listening to. It’s really something; I usually don’t listen to my own shit, but I have listened to this record several times. I didn’t really know I was capable of making something like that. The Sunset Tree, I knew I had that in me. I knew I had something big like that if I was just willing to feel bad for a while. But this one, it goes to a whole different place for me. I worry a lot, of course, because you want your record to do well, that people won’t sit with it for long enough to figure out what’s going on with it. But then again, I’ve gotten some e-mails from people who’ve downloaded it who said that this is the best one. And again, I was talking about responsibility to my audience. A lot of people who listen to my stuff listen to it for comfort when they’re in a sad place. That’s the record I want to make this time; I want to talk to people who feel bad.
William Bowers was saying that it’s a record he didn’t get at all until one day he was breaking down boxes to put in the dumpster when it was raining and he heard it coming from a car stereo behind him. I’m waiting for that moment.
That’s the thing; it’s very dark. “This Year,” you don’t have to be going through shit to find that shit. That feeling is so accessible. And this record is about alienation and loneliness and emptiness, and it’s a really dark record, but not dark in a gothic sort of way. I’m really fascinated by it because it took so long to write it. I went through a whole bunch of different things, thought about stopping writing; you always think about that. And then I dug out “New Monster Avenue,” which was a few years old, and it took off from there.
So do you write a whole album at once?
I mean, I just write random stuff and feel like I’m not getting anything done, and then of the stuff I’m writing, a couple of those will suggest themselves as part of a direction, and I’ll follow those. Usually when I hit my stride, then I’m writing the album. There were a couple of songs that hung around for a long time, and then when I found my direction, I went on a tour and wrote most of these songs on tour. And then I came home and finished it up.
When you play live, it seems like the songs people respond to most are the shouty…
The barnburners, yeah.
Are you concerned about that at all?
I was, and then I got sick on tour on the West Coast. I had to do three shows where I couldn’t really raise my voice at all, and I was like, “Well, we’ll find out now.” And they were great. It was a whole different deal. If I keep going out there and doing the stomp-and-shout shows my whole career, at some point it’s a caricature. You do have a responsibility to give people what they paid to see, so it’s not like I’m going to kick these songs off the set list. But if you only give people what they already liked, you’re not growing as an artist, and you’re sort of doing a disservice to your audience. What’s exciting to see, I think, is the moment when an artist or somebody is finding that connection between themselves and what they’ve written, or what they’re singing anyway. And when you see that connection happening live, that’s realness. That’s what you respond to, like “Oh shit, it’s as real for him as it is for me to listen to.” That’s awesome. Well, if you’re doing a type of performance that doesn’t really work for you so well anymore, then you’re a hypocrite, and audiences will eventually catch on to that. You’ll become a nostalgia act, or in indie-rock, you’ll become nothing because there is no nostalgia. We think about it, but we played these three quiet shows on the West Coast, and God, they were the best shows we’ve ever played. I just loved it.
The show yesterday…
Yeah, yesterday, a crowd with that many people, you’ve got to bring it.
Yeah, I was talking to my friend Zach about it, and he was saying how when you play you always do these big rock gestures. And here you’re actually doing big rock gestures in front of a big rock crowd.
Yeah, I’m never really conscious of my gestures. I had about four or five beers in me by the time you saw me yesterday. But yeah, I get really into it; I get kind of lost. And that’s the challenge with doing quieter stuff. We opened with “Wild Sage” in LA, and it was dead quiet, sold out room, nobody saying nothing. I loved it.
When you play, do you do club shows everywhere?
We go to Australia, where we’ve got a pretty big audience. And yeah, we play clubs, some bigger clubs, one giant festival over there that was really fun.
Do you like doing festival shows?
You know, being the guy with the acoustic guitar at an outdoor set, you’re kind of climbing the hill. Everybody’s going to think that you’re trying to play folk music or whatever because you don’t have a drummer. But at the same time, every time I play one I do enjoy it. But as the guy with the acoustic guitar, you’ve got to live in fear of the outdoor set. If people start wandering away, you’re going to feel impotent. But I had a blast yesterday. Was it a good set? What did you think?
I’d just gotten there, and I was still getting my bearings. And this thing is weird to me because there’s all these writers everywhere, and last year was the first time I got to get anything good out of writing rather than the occasional paycheck or whatever. I think yours was the only full set I watched yesterday.
I caught most of Art Brut. They were awesome, really engaged.
Was there anybody else you were psyched about seeing?
Yeah, but it got so hot. I couldn’t really watch anybody; I had to just chill. I watched Destroyer, and I heard Band of Horses from across the park and thought they sounded great. Today, I’m looking forward to Aesop Rock.
Are you, like, boys with that guy?
Yeah, he’s my friend. He is the only person, I can pretty much guarantee you, who will ever mention the Mountain Goats in a Murder Dog interview. He did that.
Are you eternally grateful?
Yeah, that was really cool! And yeah, I think he’s really excellent.
How’d you get to know each other?
He is friends with a friend, and she told me that he liked my stuff, and then he introduced himself at a Knitting Factory show. We’ve been forever talking about doing something together.
We’ve been talking about it on and off. Sooner or later, who knows. If you bring in a guy to rap over your indie-rock song, what is that? That’s an invitation for Pitchfork to make fun of you. So you don’t want to do that. Nor do you really want me to come in and bust a hot indie-rock solo over an indie-rap track. So it would be something very different. If collaborating is done thoughtfully, you can do something interesting. But I think the error that people do is just like, “OK, we’ll have this guy rap.” Well, rap is a wonderful genre, but rapping doesn’t belong over everything. Although it does belong in all commercials. All commercials can be improved by a good MC. But yeah, we don’t know when it’ll happen.
Have you ever done anything with a metal band?
No. I don’t have the chops for that.
Would you want to give it a shot, ever?
If I could learn to play guitar. I’m a good indie-rock guitarist, but there’s hardly any guitarists in all of indie rock that are fit to carry carry the shoes of a second-string metal guitarist. Those people are the real deal. The guys in Spoon, those guys can play. I know those guys are awesome, and I’m not saying everybody sucks.
Spoon could play metal?
I bet they probably could.
I’d like to hear that.
I’m sure Yo La Tengo could play whatever music they wanted to make. The National could. But for the most part, these metal guys, they’re Julliard student types. They’ve been playing scales four hours a day since they were fourteen because they like do, so they can do all kinds of shit. I don’t have those kinds of chops.
What are the best metal records right now?
Right now? I like the new Severe Torture; I’m kind of alone in that. It’s a death metal band. Death metal is utterly stagnant; you might as well be listening to…
Yeah. There’s nothing new going on in death metal. But I don’t care. I think the search for newness is itself rather played out. I don’t much care whether someone is breaking new ground or not. I’m more interested in whether they’re making something I like. And Severe Torture is making straight death metal with a particularly nice vibe to it. And I listen to Krisium. Do you know them at all?
I think I might’ve seen the tail end of their set when they were opening for Morbid Angel.
That sounds awesome.
Morbid Angel was terrible.
Really? Was that the recent show in New York?
Yeah, I think they were doing all old stuff. I’m such a dabbler in metal. I’m trying to find my way around it.
How were the solos? Because that guy is fucking awesome.
They sound like a cat in a blender to me.
Oh, man! I love a Trey Azargoth solo!