John Darnielle has recorded under the name "The Mountain Goats" since the early '90s, and in that time his records have gone from crude boombox recordings to polished, sprawling efforts. The fidelity has cleared up, but Darnielle's way with words and flawed-but-noble characters has always been central to the proceedings.
His latest, Transcendental Youth is devoted to spending time in the heads of people in dark places. Amy Winehouse, Judas, Satan, the jonesing junkies of "Lakeside View Apartment Suite" -- Darnielle speaks for these people in uncannily empathic ways.
But the record has an undaunted sense of optimism too, a joyful glee spurred on by the celebratory horn arrangements of Matthew E. White (whose own 2012 release, Big Inner, works as a sort of spiritual counterpoint to Transcendental Youth) and the loping rhythm section of Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster.
We spoke with Darnielle about the album, where he catalogs these disparate characters in his head, and becoming a father.
Up on the Sun: It's been awhile since you've played Phoenix.
John Darnielle: Yeah, I don't think we've played Phoenix since the Baptist Generals tour. That would have been quite a while ago back. Is there an art gallery called Modified in Phoenix?
There is, but they don't generally do shows anymore.
How do I remember that is the more important question? [Laughs] Because we've played a lot of places since 2002 -- maybe 2003, I think that's when that show would have been. But it was a really fun time. You never know what to expect when you're playing an art gallery, whether anyone is going to show up, but it was a really good time.
Transcendental Youth is a joy to listen to. I'm curious, when you sing about the "Diaz brothers" in "Diaz Brothers," which set are you singing about? There are three notable sets: the famous MMA fighters, some Miami hip-hop producers, and the brothers mentioned in Scarface. It kind of speaks to the beauty of Mountain Goats that I could imagine you writing a song about any of them.
I wasn't really writing about anyone, it was kind of a fever dream deal, but...It comes from the movie Scarface. They're these characters you never see, but they are mentioned a couple times. You hear about them, and next thing you hear, they're dead. [Laughs] In the first draft of the song, there was a line about 'a whole life lived in a brief, passing reference' of screen time, without any actual face time, which I think is sort of tragic. If you are writing a piece of fiction, and you mention someone, and the next time you mention him he's died, you've kind of consigned his life to this tucked mention. It's about lives that don't seem to have any meaning to others, but they have meaning to themselves.
The record cover seems very evocative. These guys seem to be leaving one thing, but go toward something maybe even more terrible than whatever they are escaping.
It was commissioned by an artist named Aeron Alfrey, who I worked with on the "Satanic Messiah" seven-inch, which was this self-released thing back in '08, or maybe '07. He does a blog I follow called "Monster Brains." He just re-blogs all this horror art from throughout the ages, Italian horror stuff that I like. I bought a painting from him from this series of paintings he had done of a whole bunch of little monsters that were really cool. So I called him about the album, and I gave him a description. What was the line I used -- I said, "Picture people swimming through face and there being demon faces up in space." [Laughs] He worked from there, and we talked about the number of demons, and how much relief they should be in, and whether they're heading toward them or maybe they don't know they're there - all those ambiguities. Aeron is a great, great artist, and he really knocked it out of the park.
Also, there's more art in the rest of the sleeve, which was designed by Robert Carmichael of Seen Studios -- he does a lot of work with Animal Collective and he runs a label called Catsup Plate, a totally great label. Rob's design is sort of under-praised, partly because the front cover is so striking that you miss [his work], but under the text in the sleeve, in the booklet, and on the back cover there are peoples faces that are hiding, that are worth seeing if you look for them. They are sort of "ghosting" forward.
I've got a copy of the record, but I don't think I've stared at it enough.
You have to take a good hard look, and I kind of like that. So few people do. Most people look at something, maybe read through the notes once, but you don't really gaze at it. Hardcore vinyl heads from back in the day, you'll sit with your vinyl, and once you're done reading it you just sort of gaze, and the idea is these people who are hiding in there will just sort of "magic eye" their way forward.In addition to the characters you create, there always seem to be a few real folks who show up in your records, sort of marginalized figures. What drew you to the story of soul singer Frankie Lymon? [Referenced in "Harlem Roulette"] How do you find these characters?
You know, for the most part I will have read about something at some point, and it will sort of go into the bank of stuff I've heard about. In many cases, by the time the stories come out [of me] they've been transformed because they've been sort of confabulated with other stories inside my brain. I'll get the details wrong. Someone will say "Hey, you wrote this song about this, but that didn't actually happen," and I'll say "Oh, that's right, that must have been something else."
With Frankie Lymon, I think I was listening to this doo wop box-set I got as a premium for donating to public television at one time. Doo wop is this amazing genre; it's just incredible that it happened. There's this explosion of young people, 18, 19, or younger than that. Kids! Teenagers. And they'd sing in harmony, this great, gorgeous, really musically very accomplished stuff, but they'd be doing it with that insane energy of someone who's 17 or even younger; I think Frankie Lymon was 12 or 13 when he got scooped up. So that incredible, wall-painting energy of youth is [added to] this incredibly complicated musical thing to do, four-part, five-part harmony.
I probably listened to a song, and said "God, listen to all this energy," and went looking for his bio. He died so young. He was sort of "washed up" when he was quite young. I had heard that the last label he did sessions for was called "Roulette," and that it was a Harlem label, and I was really interested in that, too. Back then, there were little labels everywhere, you could start one and get someone [of Lymon's caliber]. He had gone AWOL from the Army, and he was looking for work, and he tracked like 24 sides for this little label and they gave him a session fee and he went home and he overdosed. So, that information was in my head, and I just started to write how I write, which is to ad lib, and I the first couple lines came out and I thought, well, this is pretty interesting.
"Spent Gladiator (Amy)" is about Amy Winehouse. Did you listen to Amy Winehouse?
No. She's a very good singer, obviously. It takes me years to hear stuff. If it's going on currently, I probably haven't heard it. I think my main exposure to her one track someone put on a mixtape for me and a hook she sang on a Ghostface [Killah] record. But, yeah, I didn't know her stuff. I'm more interested in her as someone who didn't make it through her dark hour.
In that way, she feels connected to other characters on the record: Satan, Judas, Frankie Lymon.
That's the thing -- I didn't know her music but I got really upset. For one thing, you think in your daily life that if you could only have this thing or that thing, or this comfort or that comfort, or this ability to not have to go to your day job or something like that, you'd be okay. But then you see someone like Amy Winehouse and it's a horrible object lesson that "No." You know it from being a child: they try and tell you that no amount of material comforts will fill up an emptiness in your heart, but you go into the adult word and think "Well, that may be true, but if I wasn't poor I'd feel a lot better." [Laughs] But when you see someone like Amy Winehouse you realize that if you really lose your way, hard enough, you wind up down a tunnel.
The characters on this record share that trait, they give into those dark impulses. But at the same time, you open with the line "Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive." I wonder, is that a conflicted line? It's hard to take literally, but also really wonderful to take that way.
Well, I don't know that it's hard to take literally. [Laughs] I think I mean that.
You just became a father. Is that the sort of thing you think you can one day share with your child? In a sincere way?
Well, no, because this is thing. That song is a series of imperatives. If you're a parent talking to your child in a series of imperatives, you're an asshole.
You don't sit there and tell your child what to fucking do all day. That's a very terrible style of parenting. So it's something that I hope he learns, and the sort of thing I hope he gets from me in a sense as he grows some. But I'm not gonna sit down for "nightly wisdom with dad." That's terrible. Seriously! People ask me that, and I'm like, "No, I'm not going to give my son advice. You know why, because when you give a child advice, you're basically begging him to not follow that advice. You have to live your life as an example. And you know, if it's a good example it looks enviable and your children will follow it.
The Mountain Goats are scheduled to perform Saturday, December 8, at Crescent Ballroom.