John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats has spent nearly 20 years making music, a length of time that for many artists can simply mean diminishing returns on an initial burst of inspiration. But if anything Darnielle has constantly moved from strength to strength, as his band's performance this Tuesday night at the Detroit Bar in Costa Mesa will doubtless show.
The group's latest album All Eternals Deck, their first for the similarly long-lived stalwart Merge Records, is a showcase of both Darnielle's ear for imaginative, arresting lyrics and instantly memorable melodies, while at the same time showcasing how he and his regular bandmates Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster fully click as a musical unit, not to mention with the help of everything from string soloists to understated choral backing.
Reached by phone in the middle of what can seem like an unbroken set of world tours, Darnielle was as engaged and thoughtful as one could expect:
OC Weekly: There's a lot of sonic variety on All Eternals Deck–did this result from the decision to record it in short bursts rather than one long studio session? The album does feel of a piece, yet it's always changing up a bit.
Darnielle: This was actually the second record we had done with the “studio tour” approach; I didn't mention it in the press kit at all the first time through, so nobody noticed! But that approach really for me provides constant inspiration. If you go in for ten days or two weeks–and it took me five or six albums to find this out!–have a couple of songs, sit down and record them, that's very inspiring. There are a lot of albums that would have been a lot better if the usual way of recording wasn't the system, which is in place because of economics. It cost twice more than usual because everyone keeps flying in and out of different places, yet I want to make the record that I wanted to make. So at the end of a tour, I wanted to be in Chicago, recording one day by myself, two with friends. We got six songs in 10 days, which is totally unheard of. There's a bunch of advantages of doing this, it's like a soldier of fortune kind of thing.
All Eternals Desk is very, very well sequenced–is this something that has grown more important with time?
It varies from album to album. Around the time of Get Lonely Peter and I noticed that it's hard to cling to the idea of the platonic version of the album: which song to leave out, which to do a final verson of. On Tallahassee we agonized over that, We Shall All Be Healed we went to and fro about it. After The Sunset Tree, I remembered thinking, “Well, it doesn't matter so much, you know where it starts and ends.” For this one, I said to Mac (McCaughan, cofounder of Merge Records) “I don't know what to do! I tend to want to have the slower stuff up front and have it build up to something.” It seems that there are not a lot of people listening to the full album in sequence, knowing where to start and where to end, yet it flows nicely.
There was a limited release of a cassette as well, All Survivors Pack, with demos and some otherwise unrecorded songs. Was this a way to showcase what can be lost in the transition from demo tapes to studio? Also, given this was a cassette-only release, do you have any take on the idea of one media format being better than another?
It was mainly an idea I had for a while since tapes died on a commercial level, but in the underground they kept functioning with them. I missed seeing them around and I was recording onto cassette as a safeguard against files being digitized and lost. A really fun thing about Merge is that they're from that frame of reference as well, and it was more just for a fun thing to do, you have to keep it interesting for yourself. It's a tape, but I recorded it digital to digital to analog – when I proofed the tapes, I proofed two WAV files!
You've spoken in other interviews about the balance between the necessity of hitting the road to support your releases and make a living and the recognition that it can be a burden. Do you find your opinions on it shifting each time you head out?
Touring is what you do on the way to the shows – crammed into a car, dealing with everyday pressures, skipping breakfast. But there's a 90 minute to two-hour span on stage every night and it is exempt from the complaints! I enjoy being on stage more with time, realizing what an awesome place it is. It's like a nucleus, an area of incredible power that can be shared in many different ways. The show part exists outside of time, a time outside of time, where you're able to step outside of reference in the world, in this moment.
Does the evolution of the band's lineup over the years help keep things from being a blur, or does everything inevitably blend as time passes?
I do think of eras and times, like when it was me and Peter in a car, one of us driving. We recently showed up in Baltimore, didn't seem like it's been a while. Turns out we hadn't been to Baltimore since me and Aesop Rock did “Coffee” on stage because that was the only time I've been able to do that with him live – that was ages ago, but did and didn't feel like it. People talk about 'the road,' a loaded metaphor, but there is a place where time seems to blur, but because we have these eras, it draws a line between things like 2007, the solo era, when Rachel (Ware) was part of the band and so forth.
What writers, fiction or nonfiction, have held your interest most this year, whether in capturing the stresses of the present historical moment or providing a lens to consider the moment through?
I'm reading Gogol! That kind of answers your question. This has been my position for ages, which I would address in songs – I don't consider a historical moment unique. People will argue that technological changes make this time unique but all that stuff is window dressing. You necessarily feel your time is unique because it's yours. The whole reason I don't keep current on writers is that continuum, so I'm reading Gogol, a lot of stuff in translation. The rest of the world can reads stuff in translation all the time, in the English speaking world we tend to mistrust it. If more people would read translated literature the result would be a broadening of knowledge and experience.
Finally, what's the best rush recipe you've ever made when time was short but you knew you wanted to have something more than fast food?
Pad thai del trailer court – spaghetti or linguini, a tablespoon of chunky peanut butter, soy sauce, cayenne pepper and sriracha.