John Darnielle, the leader – and sometimes the only member – of the band the Mountain Goats, writes songs that are narrative, literary and full of recurring lyrical motifs: cruel stepfathers, grief, sci-fi, death metal, small southern towns, religious ephemera , delusions and ambition, the blurred lines between love and hate. It sounds teen-fearful, so classified, but Darnielle, who is now in her mid-50s, has had a knack for eschewing the maudlin in favor of the eerily precise from the band’s inception in the early 1990s. His songwriting style taps into the intimacy of small moments and tells stories about specific people at specific times and places. One of the Mountain Goats’ most famous songs, “This Year,” off the 2005 album “The Sunset Tree,” is the semi-autobiographical story of a teen with a miserable family life, who finds joy wherever he can. The chorus is an ecstatic threat: “I’ll get through this year if it kills me.” In 2020, as the pandemic rocked the world, “This Year” erupted, reaching beyond the passionate, sometimes insular fanbase of the Mountain Goats, to become a haunted anthem of the moment. Readers of the Guardian voted the track to the top of their “Good Riddance 2020” playlist.
Darnielle grew up in California and moved to Portland, Oregon after graduating from high school. He returned to California after the darkest period of drug addiction and worked as a psychiatric nurse. In 1991, he enrolled at Pitzer College, where he studied English and classical music, and began recording as the Mountain Goats. After four years of prolific lo-fi releases, the Mountain Goats began recording in a studio; three decades and some twenty albums later, the band is a pillar of the indie rock world. Today, Darnielle lives in Durham, North Carolina, and when he’s not making music, he writes novels. (His second, “Wolf in White Van,” was long-listed for the 2014 National Book Award.) I met him recently, while touring New York, in the unusually luxurious indoor-outdoor greenroom above the fairly new venue. Brooklyn Made. A band member floated in a small amount of water on a roof terrace. (“Listen,” Darnielle said. “I’d never tell anyone what to write, but if you didn’t say you found my bassist in a hot tub, I’d be so unhappy.”) Later, when Darnielle was at home in Durham We continued our conversation over the phone. Taking a break between tours, he was preparing for the release of his latest novel, “Devil House,” an elegant and disturbing tale of a true crime writer unraveling a satanic 1980s panic-murder. We talked about art as labor, the value of religious faith, the beauty of Chaucer, and more or less the secret of happiness. This conversation has been edited and truncated.
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Was that early pandemic hiatus the longest you’ve been off tour?
In pretty much my adult life, yes. I mean, I started my “adult life” late, because I used to be a nurse. But in my Mountain Goats life, yes. It was really bad in many ways. First, you’re concerned about money because this is what I do for a living, and record sales aren’t making up for it, even though our fans have been incredibly good to us during the downtime. First you go, Wow, I’ve been home for three months and I’m sleeping well – it’s great. But then I miss my band, and I miss playing. Specifically, what goes on between the Mountain Goats and our audience is a circuit of musical communication that is truly precious and amazing, and it’s quite rare. We’re not the only band that has a connection with the audience, but we do have a unique one. If you’ve been to a lot of Mountain Goats shows, you know: something is happening. There are people who get something from what we do, and it’s very important to me to provide.
Have you been more attuned to that if you’ve been a nurse?
You become a nurse because you are already the type who wants to do something for people. You feel like you have something to take with you. They are called the caring professions: providing care is the thing, and you only enter the profession if you want to. It becomes a big part of who you are. You see wonderful things happen. Spiritually, I think, in order to be able to help someone, your existence now has some sort of meaning. I don’t think of my audiences as patients, you know, but I do think in my nursing years I learned to identify myself, or be happy with myself, based on how much good I’d done for someone. The good thing I did then was help people medically, and the good thing we do now is entertain people. It is different. But for me, when someone entertains me, I get a feeling that fills in the pieces of something I didn’t know was missing.
In a youtube video you uploaded last year said you often see your song titles as keys to unlocking what the song is actually about. This idea of solving a puzzle – playing games, revealing secrets – is a continuous line in both your songs and your novels.
I work in revelations. Disclosure is a big part of what I do. Revealing and unmasking is, in my opinion, a recurring theme. As with many things before me, I think it ties into my spirituality, which is Catholic. I left the church a long time ago, but you’re always Catholic, right? This is what we say in Mass: “Let us celebrate the mystery of faith.” Catholicism is all about mystery. It’s about approaching the unapproachable, recognizing that when you get close to it, it’s indefinable, not knowable. Yeats uses the word “mystery” in some amazing ways. That’s the stuff for me, always. I like things I don’t understand.
In some of my work this is frustrating for some people. Especially in the internet age, people want to annotate things, say “this means this, this means this.” With my stuff I always want it to achieve a consistency of: Can you sit with something that won’t dissolve, and be happy there? Or even not be happy, but be present. I like that, in art. I especially like that in novels. With songs, if the lyrics don’t dissolve, the music will. When that happens, that’s the mystery itself; you can’t tell what the music did, but it completed the thought. This is the job of music: to express things beyond language. It also plays into primal things. Remember when in grade school – it depends on your grade school and what your background is – remember one day in December a kid came in and said, “Santa isn’t real”?
I’m Jewish, so it didn’t quite work out that way.
So you already had this knowledge. But I was in Catholic school when this happened. The boy who does that is a boy who doesn’t like mystery, and he’s very happy to decipher things for you. And I knew it, but I was still bummed: you didn’t have to tell me. You didn’t have to say it out loud. You don’t have to go around saying, “There is no God.” What good does that do? We all have a very strong suspicion that we are alone, right? We really don’t have to go and spoil things for people and take away so many nice things. Don’t get me wrong – I also want to note that so many atrocities have been perpetuated in the name of religion.
The negative conversion of internet atheists is kind of—
I was one of them, in short. In my brief defection.
There’s something very adolescent, and I mean that in a value-neutral way, about waking up to something, or seeing something, and being angry that other people don’t see it either.
What I needed was for people to remind me of the role of the Church in the civil rights movement. And then you look at that, and you look at the tradition of charity in the Jewish tradition and the Islamic tradition. You can dwell on the Inquisition; there are many terrible things being done in the name of Christianity to this day, but it really is a matter of focus. And neither can you weigh it—only God can weigh such things. What you’re doing is focusing on — well, you’re getting some bromides like, “if you don’t like it, make it better.”
They are bromides for a reason.
What you come to understand is that within a religion you are looking for a progressive organization—something that understands its own complicity in the past. It’s a conflict I have with my own leftist discourse: People want the Catholic Church to make a complete turnaround, and I say, Hey, you can’t ask the Catholic Church that. What you can ask is that they pay for bad things and acknowledge bad things. But you can’t ask them to be you. I won’t go back because I’m ruthlessly pro-choice. It’s a big part of my identity, but I can’t in good conscience ask the Catholic Church to respect that. I can ask them not to work to forbid things that do not concern them, but I cannot ask them to take my stand on every subject.