Out of dark­ness

With John Darnielle’s sec­ond book and his band The Moun­tain Goat’s lat­est al­bum, the in­die-rock­ers are bound for the lime­light with a pow­er­ful point about art and artists, writes James Kidd

The National - News - The Review - - Music - James Kidd is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The Re­view.

If the name John Darnielle doesn’t ring any bells, that may be be­cause his band, The Moun­tain Goats, has been one of in­die rock’s best-kept se­crets for at least half of its 30-year ex­is­tence. Now a fourpiece, their early al­bums were of­ten made us­ing only the most rudi­men­tary meth­ods. Their bril­liant 2002 al­bum, All Hail West Texas, was largely com­posed and taped at home over one soli­tary week with an acous­tic gui­tar and Darnielle’s beloved Pana­sonic RX-FT500 boom box. The re­sult­ing songs are shrouded in tape hiss, giv­ing the im­pres­sion that Darnielle is singing about “The best ever death metal band in Den­ton” from in­side a card­board box with a gas leak. Early al­bums such as Swe­den and The Coroner’s Gam­bit sold in small enough num­bers to keep Darnielle in his day job as a psy­chi­atric nurse. But their nec­es­sary prim­i­tivism couldn’t ob­scure Darnielle’s gifts with melody and lyrics: “We were the one thing in the galaxy God didn’t have his eyes on,” he writes of a heady mo­tor­bike ride with his beloved (“Jenny”). Fans were few but de­voted, cre­at­ing an in­tense bond with the band that per­sists to The Moun­tain Goats’ more com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful present. “We hit this point of com­mu­nion [in con­certs] where we say: this may not be the fullest room in town but there is a tighter con­nec­tion be­tween the stage and au­di­ence than you get with other bands,” he says.

Darnielle’s for­tunes changed on two fronts. The Moun­tain Goats en­tered a proper stu­dio and recorded break­through al­bums Tallahassee (2002) and The Sun­set Tree (2005). Diehard “Goat-heads” might have grum­bled about the more pol­ished sound, but it won Darnielle a broader fan-base, in­clud­ing Lou Reed and Stephen Col­bert. Then in 2014, Darnielle pub­lished the novel

Wolf in White Van. “I have been writ­ing songs with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess, but enough suc­cess to make a go of it for 30 years,” he says. “I have been writ­ing prose my whole life, but I never re­ally tried to write a novel un­til Wolf in White Van. It is all very new ter­rain.” In con­trast to his slug­gish climb up rock mu­sic’s greasy pole, Darnielle’s lit­er­ary im­pact was in­stant. Af­ter rave re­views, Wolf in White Van was nom­i­nated for Amer­ica’s pres­ti­gious Na­tional Book Award and was named one of the best de­buts of the year by Bri­tain’s The Independent. Donna Tartt is a fan, a friend and, ap­par­ently, a source of in­valu­able ad­vice. “We did an event in Brook­lyn and some­body asked what I was writ­ing next. [Donna] phys­i­cally reached out to make sure I wouldn’t start talk­ing,” says Darnielle. “Guard­ing the sub­ject mat­ter is al­ways the way. If I say I am writ­ing about Vikings, peo­ple will ask: Is it some to­tally hi­lar­i­ous thing where Vikings play heavy metal? You don’t need that on your mind when you are mak­ing it.”

I spoke to Darnielle when he was sand­wiched be­tween his two artis­tic selves. His sec­ond novel, Uni­ver­sal Har­vester, has just been pub­lished. At the end of this month, The Moun­tain Goats re­lease their 16th al­bum, Goths. To­gether they should ce­ment Darnielle’s sta­tus as what Rolling Stone mag­a­zine called “rock’s great­est sto­ry­teller”.

Tartt did well to stop Darnielle from talk­ing. By turns eru­dite and witty, thought­ful and lo­qua­cious, he comes across as a pleas­ing em­bod­i­ment of his lyrics and prose. The dif­fer­ences be­tween writ­ing songs and fic­tion are dis­tilled into a few pithy lines: “When you sit down to write fic­tion, your space is in­fi­nite. When you are writ­ing a song, your space is vast.”

In full flow he is hard to stop, skip­ping from one sub­ject to the next. One mo­ment Darnielle is as­sess­ing the mer­its of Me­gadeth’s first three al­bums, the next he is un­pack­ing the ex­per­i­men­tal nature of sem­i­nal English nov­el­ists such as Henry Field­ing, Laurence Sterne and Sa­muel But­ler. “Do you know Thomas Nashe’s Un­for­tu­nate Trav­eller?” he asks ex­cit­edly. “It’s the weird­est stuff. There’s a post-mod­ern book if ever there was one, but he doesn’t know it’s weird be­cause the rules are not re­ally in place.” When I ask why the new Moun­tain Goats al­bum is called Goths, I am treated to a his­tory les­son about the term’s prob­lem­atic mu­si­cal prove­nance. “Goth is one of those move­ments where ev­ery­one says: we are not a Goth band. I am sure if you use the word in an in­ter­view with Peter Mur­phy [of Bauhaus] he will as­sault you. I know Nick Cave hates it. An­drew Eldritch [of The Mis­sion] hates it. Ev­ery­one hates it ex­cept for the fans who used it to iden­tify their own peo­ple.”

The fans in­cluded an ado­les­cent Darnielle. “I am writ­ing about a mu­sic that was re­ally im­por­tant to me as a teenager,” he says. “If you were lucky enough to be turned onto some­thing by some­body, it might be a life-chang­ing mo­ment of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. Here’s mu­sic that speaks to my sit­u­a­tion and to what I like to think about.”

Here, per­haps, is a clue to Goths defin­ing theme, what Darnielle calls “the ap­peal of dark things”. The song Uni­corn Tol­er­ance asks what it means “when what you want is the stuff about the grave and death”. Darnielle has ex­pe­ri­enced his fair share of dark stuff, which pos­si­bly ex­plains the ap­peal of Goths mu­sic and the grim­mer hon­esty of his own writ­ing. Mem­o­ries of Darnielle’s youth­ful drug ad­dic­tion are dredged up on We Shall All be Healed – “And the head­stones climbed up the hill”, he sings on Palm-corder Ya­jna.

The finest ex­am­ple of Darnielle’s lyri­cal sober-sweet­ness is 2005’s The Sun­set Tree, in which he con­fronted the phys­i­cal abuse doled out by his step­fa­ther. “I am go­ing to make it through this year/if it kills me”, Darnielle de­claims on the rous­ing This Year.

“That was an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal ex­er­cise,” he says. “I was pro­cess­ing that weird grief you have when a per­son who has done you wrong but is also im­por­tant to you has died.”

Darnielle is also quick to put his suf­fer­ing into con­text. “I’ve had my strug­gles. But I have worked [as a psy­chi­atric nurse] with chil­dren who would have traded their lives for my young life any day of the week. All abu­sive house­holds should not be abu­sive. That is an ob­vi­ous truth. But it is all quite ob­vi­ously true to say, some­one who gets beaten ev­ery day has it worse than some­one who gets beaten once a month.”

The ap­peal of dark things – death, loss, grief, suf­fer­ing – is writ large through­out Uni­ver­sal Har­vester. “Har­vest­ing is a great metaphor. You are go­ing to cut down all these plants that once en­joyed life as much as a plant can. You are go­ing to kill them all,” he says with a laugh. “But then ev­ery­body will sit around tables and eat the fruits of these plants and have com­mu­nion around these good things.”

The novel’s premise draws on hor­ror tropes con­tained in The Blair Witch Project or The Ring. A se­ries of un­set­tling, lo-fi home movies are dis­cov­ered em­bed­ded on video­tapes of main­stream Hol­ly­wood films. Are the fig­ures glimpsed in the grainy footage vic­tims of tor­ture? Or are they com­plicit in a sur­re­al­ist con­cep­tual art project? The footage fas­ci­nates ev­ery­one who sees it, prompt­ing sev­eral char­ac­ters to try to find the mys­te­ri­ous film­maker.

The even­tual rev­e­la­tion turns ev­ery­one’s pre­con­cep­tions on their head, in­clud­ing those of the reader. What proves ul­ti­mately sig­nif­i­cant is the film not the di­rec­tor, the song and not the singer. “I think what the artist makes can be very spe­cial, but the artist him­self isn’t. We know artists who think they are spe­cial. They are in­suf­fer­able,” says Darnielle, laugh­ing. “You want to stay as far from them as you can.”

This scep­ti­cism about the cult of the artist re­minds you that The Moun­tain Goats was forged in the in­die-rock wars of the 1990s, when mu­si­cians such as Kurt Cobain yearned for star­dom only to ag­o­nise about sell­ing out their punk-rock ideals. “I have a dream of pub­lish­ing anony­mously,” Darnielle tells me. “Not from any rea­sons of shame. Just so that the work would be forced to stand on its own two legs. This very ro­man­tic idea makes my heart swell. An artist that de­nies his work even though he knows it’s good. That to me would be a real artist.”

If a sim­i­lar “ro­man­tic idea” in­formed Darnielle’s lo-fi work in the 1990s, he ad­mits that even then he was not im­mune to the al­lure of sell­ing records and play­ing con­certs. “Back then I re­ally wanted more peo­ple to hear [The Moun­tain Goats], al­though I was very ob­sti­nate about it. I went out on tour. When you go out on tour, you are say­ing look at me.”

There will be plenty of peo­ple look­ing at John Darnielle and his work in 2017, whether this is in a con­cert hall or book­shop. His present suc­cess means Darnielle can sup­port his fam­ily (he has two young sons) by do­ing what he loves, even if it means long stretches away from home. Af­ter 30 years of pa­tient and, fre­quently bril­liant, striv­ing, Darnielle sounds con­tent with his place in the cre­ative uni­verse. “What I do was never go­ing to ap­peal to the boss at Capi­tol Records. I am never go­ing to play The O2 arena in Lon­don. So, we fo­cus on our craft. We fo­cus on play­ing for the peo­ple who are look­ing at us. If it goes beyond that, it’s nice. If it doesn’t, that’s fine too.’

Suzanne Cordeiro / Cor­bis via Getty Images

The Amer­i­can in­die­rock band The Moun­tain Goats, with singer­song­writer John Darnielle in cen­tre, re­lease their 16th al­bum – Goths – at the end of the month.

Uni­ver­sal Har­vester John Darnielle Far­rar, Straus and Giroux Dh92

Goths The Moun­tain Goats Merge Records Dh51

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