004: John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats)
An interview with musician John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats
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John Darnielle is a musician and singer-songwriter known for fronting the indie rock band The Mountain Goats. While originally starting the project solo back in 1991, he has since been joined by other members, and the band’s lineup currently includes Peter Hughes, Matt Douglas, and Jon Wurster. The band’s newest album, Getting Into Knives, is out on October 23rd. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Darnielle on October 1st, 2020 via phone to discuss the immense shame in cooking poorly, the difference between a musician and a singer-songwriter, the importance of ensemble playing, the newest Mountain Goats album, and more.
L-R: Peter Hughes, Matt Douglas, John Darnielle, Jon Wurster. Photo by Jade Wilson.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hey! Is this John?
John Darnielle: It is John Darnielle, how’s it going?
Good! How are you?
I’m pretty good, thanks.
How’s your day been? Have you done anything fun?
I mean, yeah, but I’ve been on the phone for three hours.
(laughs). So it’s just interview after interview today?
That has been my day, that is what I have done. I’m afraid a thing that happens is that, the more I talk, the more I talk. The more I go on, the more I tend to speak in long paragraphs and the interviewers don’t even need to ask any questions! (laughs).
I mean, that’s a beautiful gift!
Well, if you say so! We’ll see how you feel in about an hour from now! (laughter).
Do you have an interview after this, so I can be mindful of time?
No, this is it. After this I have to figure out the dinner time routine for the children, so that starts to kick in.
Ooh, what’s for dinner tonight, do you know?
We don’t know yet. When I say the routine starts, what that really starts with is figuring out what we’re gonna do. So I’m not sure what we’re gonna do, I just offered to get off the phone and go out as soon as I’m done here, but we’ll see. I know there’s a lot of vegetables this year, there’s squash out there, last night I made lo mein that was good. We’ll see.
What’s your favorite thing to eat nowadays? I feel like with quarantine, a lot of people are trying new things with cooking, or being more adventurous. Is there something that you’ve been really into?
There’s no one thing. I cook, that’s one of the things that I do. It’s a big thing for us, we’re a big cooking household. The only way quarantine changed that, is that normally we go out and get food once a week, maybe. Instead, I cook at home every night. So we really honed our game a lot. We make all our stuff. I have my favorite foods to make and my favorite foods to eat—I have a list of my favorite foods—there’s a floating five, several of them never leave the top five, but two spaces kind of rotate. Those are not dishes, those are foods. Watermelon never leaves the list, peanuts never leave the list, popcorn never leaves the list. Those are my three favorite foods. Eggplant used to be on the list, but I developed an allergy to eggplant, so it left the list! (laughter).
I like natural food. Fruits and vegetables are my favorite things. Short of that… What do we do these days? We’ve made a lot of pot pies. We’re sort of at the mercy of the children—not that we’re bad about it, we’re not the sort of parents that make our children clean their plates. However, you want to serve the kids something they’re gonna eat. You want them to eat, so you serve them something they will like, because that’s how they will eat. We do a fair number of pot pies and pasta dishes—we love pasta. I often wonder, because pasta came to the U.S. with Italian immigrants—what did parents do before pasta came to this country? How did they live? (laughter). How did they survive? Kids will eat pasta morning, noon, and night, and they’ll think nothing of it.
It’s a common food to churn out when there are no ideas for what to cook or eat.
Yeah, it’s that, and it’s easy and it’s fast, and it doesn’t have to be that artful. You can do a super simple pasta. And if you make a sauce that involves blending vegetables you can totally get away with sneaking your vegetables in and have them taste good.
What are the vegetables that your kids are most willing to eat?
It varies. Their habits don’t seem set. (thinking). What did Moses used to be into… I’m drawing a blank on what they will and won’t eat, vegetable-wise. They don’t have anything that they’ll always say no to. They like spinach, they like greens pretty well. They like squash. What else do they like… my younger son, we thought he liked broccoli, but he meant cheese (laughter). He would ask for more broccoli, and he really meant cheese.
That’s incredible! How old is he now?
He’ll be six next month. He was like two, and he had very little speech so he was like, “More broccoli!” and we were like, “Oh how fantastic! He likes broccoli!” But no, he was asking for cheese (laughter).
When cooking now, like you said, you have to make food that you can be sure your children will eat. When you approach making food, are you the kind of person that straight up follows a recipe, or do you just feel things out without hard measurements and just experiment? If you were to have your choice of however you wanted to cook without having to cook for your children, what is the approach you would take to cooking?
I’m very much the former. I’m Catholic (laughter). I’m not in the church anymore, but there are Catholic tendencies and habits. Catholics are a rules-functional people. Catholics like rules, and I like rules! I also, like all Americans, like to think that I don’t like rules, but I do. With cooking—especially with baking—if you’re baking stuff and you’re like, “I like the feel of that,” then you’re going to mess everything up.
But it depends on the cuisine, some are more forgiving than others. For the most part, the cooks who are sharing the recipes with you, they’re not trying to keep your creativity down, they’re just sharing with you what works. But yeah, I’m very much a rules-based guy, and it takes me a long time to feel free to vary at all. Some people are better at handling kitchen disasters, and having something go wrong. Have you had dogs before?
I have two dogs, yes.
You know how if you have to take your dog to the vet to get a shot? Some dogs—not all, but many dogs—after they get a shot, they walk around like they just suffered a terrible humiliation? They’re not mad or anything, they’re just down, and you’re just like, “Aw man, I’m sorry buddy! I know you didn’t want it, but it’s good for you!” And the dog is just like, “Man, life sucks now. I had this shot, and I just don’t feel any joy in my life right now.” That is me when something goes wrong in the kitchen. I’ll have this experience of like, I’ll serve the food and everyone will try and and I’ll think, please don’t say it tastes fine, I know it’s terrible. I know it’s terrible and I hate it because it’s very, very bad (laughter). I’ll just be inconsolable about it. And that’s me, that’s totally me.
With the kitchen, if I’m making something and it goes wrong, it really ruins the rest of the night. I get embarrassed; it’s a terrible feeling. So that’s why I follow the rules, because if I follow the rules and it goes wrong then I don’t have to feel so bad. If I follow the script and it goes wrong, I’ll be like, “What did you do? All the rules were right there, and you had to substitute something and now what happened?” (laughter).
I think that’s a very normal feeling, to feel shame after you mess up a dish. Like, if this is something that you’re going to be making for other people, there’s that component, but also the idea that it’s something that’s supposed to nourish—
Yeah, I don’t give nearly as much of a shit if it’s just me. When you’re serving it, people are counting on you to feed them… and you give them this garbage! (laughter). A very common thing that happens in my house—not that common, I hope I don’t mess up that often—but what happens is people will say it tastes good, but it was supposed to be something really cool, and now it’s just edible. Edible is the lowest bar to clear when you cook (laughs). That’s how I feel about myself!
With this idea of cooking and feeling shame, when you think about your life—from a child up to now—is shame something that primarily occurs because what you’ve done wrong impacts other people? Is this all just a cooking thing?
I think I can find a way to feel ashamed about almost anything (laughter). I think I can work that into my practice if I’m careful. Again, when I say I’m Catholic, I wasn’t raised in a strict Catholic family, I actually opted back into Catholicism after leaving it—I left it after my parents divorced when I was five. St. Augustine talks about this: there is something sweet in shame. If you feel bad about something, there is something in it for you as a Catholic. I don’t even know how to quantify that, but it’s a sick thing to talk about!
I feel the same way actually—to turn towards music—when something goes wrong in the studio. When you’re listening to playback and you spend a few hours laying down parts for an idea. I get into arguments about this, because I’m the guy who doesn’t want to put down an idea that I’m not sold on yet. Other people will say, “Look, we’ll try, it and if we don’t like it we’ll take it off.” And I’ll just be like—it’s taken me years to get out of this mindset—“No, I don’t want to hear it, just explain it to me.” Because if we put it down, and I don’t like the way it sounds, it’s going to ruin something. That’s a false and bad way of thinking, it’s not useful. But that’s absolutely what happens in my brain. Umm… I lost track of the original question.
That’s okay—I think that’s a really interesting thing. In the earliest part of your music career, would you say that all the stuff you released had to be something you felt was, to some degree, good or acceptable or meaningful?
Well, yes, but the stuff that I was releasing back then was so much a product of its own moment. It was so tied to improvisation and spontaneity that the values were entirely different. If you caught something that only happened once in the moment—which is the case with all the old recordings, that’s what they’re like. If I caught something like that then I didn’t feel bad about it. I thought, “That’s great!”—whether or not it was good or bad didn’t really enter into it for me.
When you’re in the studio, when you’re chasing a vision—the early stuff is not vision-based, it’s moment-based. It’s very improvisational. Even if I’d written a song, the song you’re hearing in the early stuff—for the first four or five years—it was always a song that was written five minutes ago and there’s always going to be an element of spontaneity to it. It was only when [we were recording in the studio] that it ceased being true. In the studio—this goes back to the cooking thing we were talking about—there is this feeling of waste, where something doesn’t have a function. Like, what was the good of that idea, you know?
Can you provide an example of a moment in these newer releases where you did not think an idea, or a recording, or a take was good, but then you had to be convinced by one of your band members to keep it?
Oh my god, I wish Peter [Hughes] was on the call. Peter would remember those. I know there have been at least half a dozen of those, where I say, “You’re right, that was a good idea, and I have to give it to you.” This has been a dialogue for us since Tallahassee. The thing is, some of the times, I’m right. I wouldn’t say all the time, but there are times when it’s like, “Look, I told you that if we follow that road we were gonna burn four hours and we’re not going to get to the song we wanted to get to because we wasted all this time on something I told you was going to be bad!” (laughter).
The thing is, as you can hear, there’s a part of me that is still very connected to that—“I told you that thing wasn’t going to be good!” “Now there is another song we were hoping to track, and that song will never be released because we chased the horn part for four hours, or whatever.” There is a synth part on the song “Southwood Plantation Road” that we A-B’d two different takes of it for what felt like hours! I’m sure it was only an hour or two but it just felt like… isn’t there something we can be doing besides determining which synth part sounds better? I mean, I got into it too. Then, when we got into the mix I couldn’t tell the difference between the two parts at all! They sounded exactly the same (laughter).
I’m trying to remember a specific instance where—there are many where, especially in the past three or four years where I’ll be feeling resistance and I’ll be trying not to worry about it and trying not to sweat it too hard and I’ll be open to what it is. The first time I should have learned it was with “First Few Desperate Hours” where Peter had a vision for the song. I had already tracked my part and I had a splitting headache and I left the room. I just laid down and watched some baseball. He kept coming upstairs and saying, “Dude, it’s coming out really great!” And I’m sitting there feeling very resistant like, “Yeah, whatever, you’re going to put a bunch of stuff on there that I’m not gonna like.” But it was perfect, the track was perfectly realized almost entirely to his vision. It’s my song and lyrics and chords, but the whole development of it—the drum part, that’s him playing a ride cymbal unaccompanied! (laughter).
It takes a long time. I don’t give advice when I’m speaking to young musicians but if you get into that “asking what’s possible” headspace, that’s the best headspace to be in. I know it’s very hard to let go of the idea that, “If I fuck it up, everybody is gonna look at me. They’re gonna say that song is fucked up, it’s your fault, it’s your song.” If the song goes south, it’s not gonna matter whose fault it was. It’s going to be John Darnielle’s bad song (laughter). And it’s true! People credit me with way more power than I actually have on any of these records. They think I’m telling everyone what to play like fake Captain Beefheart legends—which also never happened. That’s the legend that both Captain Beefheart and Jeffrey Lee Pierce both urged to be printed for years, that they told everyone just how to play their parts. I think Duke Ellington was probably pretty good at saying, “"Here’s what you should play,” but I don’t think he was a tyrant, I think he was a genius. I’m 100% certain he was like, “This guy could play, he knows what I want, I don’t have to tell him what to do.”
Anyways, I’m not that guy at all! People think I am, people have a very strange notion of the band leader as auteur, and of that being of value. That’s not of value at all, the notion that that would make for good art is just absurd.
With any given art, there’s always this pedestalization that occurs because people want to latch on to this notion of a singular artistic genius.
It’s a toxic myth. At the same time, I totally get it because of our experience of art. It feels so personal, especially with music. If you listen to—one of the most famously composed yet improvised pieces of music is A Love Supreme, right? We know about Coltrane’s charts for A Love Supreme, they made their rounds on social media lately. They are studied, he wrote a thing he wanted to play, but he is also working with Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner, and those guys can go out when they go out. He couldn’t have done it all by himself at all, but you do feel when you’re playing it, that you feel the man’s vision. You feel like you are connecting with a person’s idea of something new.
It’s so powerful that you want to ascribe this thing we call genius—which is a total myth! The genius is present in the work, it’s not present in the person. Ever. I don’t think we’ll ever be free of that because the work is conveyed by people. We’re so resistant to collective—and when I say we I say Americans, I don’t know how this kind of thing is parsed in other cultures. But I think the thing with our culture is that we don’t know how to say, “These guys are a genius!”
Right, you never hear that!
These guys, when they get together, they can do something so amazing. And yet, when you’re in a band, when you’re in an ensemble, you know that that’s what it’s actually about. When I’m writing, even if it’s not a good one, I feel strong, I feel powerful, I feel good. I feel like that’s my thing, that’s what I can do well that other people can’t do. And I feel it! It’s good! But there is nothing like when there are four or five people all playing together and they hit the zone. It’s like, none of us can do this by ourselves, this doesn’t exist by ourselves. Unless you’re Keith Jarrett. (laugher).
You were mentioning earlier when we were talking on Twitter that this notion of ensemble playing has been a really transformative thing for you, in terms of growing as a musician and a songwriter. Could you explain what the process was like in the past, and how it was limiting, and how this new form of ensemble playing allowed for a new form of freedom and growth?
It’s funny, when I think about—this will probably be, I’m really sorry, a very long response. My stuff transcribes… it just comes out like novels, I’m sorry.
I transcribe all the time, so don’t worry!
Okay, so I think some of the development charts back to how I behave romantically, or used to. I’ve been married since forever, 20 years or whatever. When I was dating in high school, the person I fell in love with was the only person I wanted to hang out with. My bros would disappear. I remember my friend Joel saying, “So you aren’t hanging out anymore, huh?” I said, “No, I got a girlfriend! That’s who I want to hang out with.” That’s totally been me forever. My first adult girlfriend, we just holed up in an apartment and we were each other’s company. That’s my natural position. I don’t consider it healthy. I don’t know why I do that, and I’m not a very introspective guy, I don’t just sit there at bars thinking about what my damage is, and how I tend to behave.
When I met my wife I wanted to try not to be that guy (laughs). We try to branch out, we try to get out of our shell. I think that that behavior, for me, conveyed into how I make music when I started making music with fellow grown ups when I was 23 or so. I partnered with Rachel [Ware] who played bass. So it was me and Rachel, we had backing singers that had been in her band, but it was mainly just me and Rachel. Nobody else had any say. If we wanted to make a record, me and Rachel would be the absolute final arbiters of what the record would sound like, how it was sequenced, everything. It was the John and Rachel show.
Then I moved to the Midwest and Rachel stayed on the West Coast. It was just me for a while, I was the sole arbiter. When I signed with 4AD I called up Peter Hughes who I toured with and I asked if he wanted to make a record in the studio, and he said sure. Then it became me and Peter. It was still the same thing, it was sort of a fidelity to a two person project, and it was very much a me and you against… I’m going to say against, but I don’t really mean that—against everybody else. It’s two people who understand one another’s ideas. Two is different than three. I’m not a numerology guy, but I do think groups have distinct numerical identities. Two people are very different from three people, three people are different from four. But two is different from everything else; duality is its own thing.
We would often borrow the drummer from the opening band if we had to play a song that needed a drum track, and that would always be fun, but I was like, “Yeah, I don’t really trust people could know where we’re going for this.” I trust Peter, I’ve trusted Peter for a long time, we’re old friends. Although Peter will often say, “John, trust me,” but he also shoots down a lot of my ideas! (laughs). But then we got a drummer in 2007, and that was Jon Wurster. He’s a very, very fine drummer. He’s very, very intelligent, his knowledge of the history of rock drumming, and pop-rock drumming specifically—he really gets it. He can tell you the difference between drummers that most people may not. Most rock listeners aren’t tuned into the drums. The drums may be the foundation, but Jon can really talk at length about Jim Keltner, Steve Gadd, Hal Blaine who played with The Carpenters—well, Karen Carpenter was the drummer, but Hal Blaine was one of the great drummers of the pop era. He can talk about these people at great length.
Once Peter, Jon and I toured a little bit, it really opened up to me. I started to really feel something present in the music that you can’t attain until you get at critical mass, when several voices interact. I felt sort of foolish because I grew up in a jazz household. My dad was a jazz pianist, I should know this! (laughs). But I’m also a poet, and poets are very solitary types that think they can do the whole thing by themselves. Right around 2008 it began to dawn on me that there are whole other worlds to explore that I can have access to. I did understand that about other people’s music, but I didn’t understand that about my own.
It really started to open up around the time of Heretic Pride, the first record that Jon Wurster worked with us on. Playing with Wurster was like… I have enough going on musically that Wurster and Peter and I can find an interface where something bigger gets born, and feels worthy of jazz. I grew up venerating jazz as an elevated form—I can’t play jazz, my left hand is club, but I have some ideas about chord formation. That was the year a very big year happened. It was 2008, and that was when I got tinnitus in my right ear. I went into a very deep depression, it was the worst depression I have suffered in my adult life because I thought I fucked up my ear. I wrecked it, it was my instrument. I needed that! I had to go to therapy, I was in therapy for a long time. I could not function for several months. I entered this state that I called crying while awake. I would wake up, and I would have 30 seconds where I would forget who and where I was, and as soon as I would hear the pitch, I would get very depressed and have a hard time functioning.
One day during the middle of all that, I sat down at the piano. I figured I would have to go back to music anyway, so I played some music. I couldn’t do tours, I was just sitting at home feeling sorry for myself. I just sort of randomly played a C Major 7—most of my life when I hear a C Major 7 chord, it just sounds kind of saccharine to me, I don’t like it. When I played this Major 7, it was like a wall of water going up in front of me. It was a synaesthetic sort of feeling, but there was a texture to the Major 7. It was like, “Look at you, you’re like a Major 7, that’s weird. I didn’t think you’d look like that.” (laughter). I didn’t! I would always react viscerally to the Major 7. And I played it, and I could hear textures in it that I couldn’t hear before.
I realized that the tiny missing notch at about 4kHz in my right ear was reconfiguring the way I processed sound. The way that the sounds come in, that missing frequency was somehow changing everything. I burst into tears, the Major 7 just had this depth. You can hear in all the songs I wrote this year, on the Satanic Messiah EP, on the Black Pear Tree EP, that I’m suddenly way more interested in 7ths and 9ths (laughter). You’ll have to go a long ways to find a Major 7 chord on a Mountain Goats recording before then. But at that point I just fell in love with extensions, like “My god, I can do this!”
I don’t know if I would really have called myself a musician prior to that, I would have called myself a singer-songwriter. And I’m still a very poor musician indeed, I can’t play very well at all. But I do have some musical ideas that I’m able to get going. I found that if I surround myself with people who are good at playing, I’m able to be the mover and that ideas can originate with me. I hope to become a better player, and that’s happening daily.
After that, the next album we made as a band was The Life of the World to Come. We didn’t have any outside visions on that, that was just us. You can totally hear the development starting to happen there. Especially on the piano stuff, you hear a lot of 9s. If the song is in C, then I’ll be throwing Ds in to the chords to see what happens, and 13s. Because I’m stubborn and slow, over the next few years we start adding people, bringing people in to see what would happen. Every time we would bring someone else in they would be like, “This is sick!” It’s a very funny thing about myself, how idiotic I am! (laughter).
The first time we brought in an outsider and it kicked ass, I should have figured that the secret was bringing in more people. But it took me until In League with Dragons when Owen Pallett brought in three of his friends. We had these guys play and I thought, “I don’t know these two guys, what if I don’t get along with these guys! I need my vibe preserved in the studio!” “Oh, it’ll be fine!”, they all said. And it was more than fine, it was fucking amazing! We all embarked on the project of making sound, and it was game changing for me.
I don’t have any regrets, but I do hope to play in as many situations where I’m hearing other people’s voices as much as my own from now to when I die. That’s what I hope to do is to be open. Once you do that, you listen to the people you already play with better. You start looking at them differently, hearing them whole.
Can you point to an example of an artist that was brought in for a record who you really feel dramatically changed the way you thought about the music, or impacted the album in a way you know you couldn’t not have done with your own singular way of thinking?
It’s very hard to answer this question without—I don’t want to leave out the guys. The backing vocalists on Goths and In League with Dragons aren’t the first instances where I think, “God almighty! We have a vocal quartet adding harmonies!” I had already worked with the Anonymous 4. I was asked by the Ecstatic Music Festival to come up with a program—Judd Greenstein wrote, he said, “40% of your tweets are about classical music. I connect people with classical musicians. Do you wanna do something?” I was like, sure, and I fired a shot across the bow. “I doubt you can get me Anonymous 4, but that’s who I would love to work with.” “Oh we can try.” And he hooked it up, he set it up. We met up and I took the songs from Transcendental Youth and had Owen Pallett set new vocal arrangements of some Latin texts to go underneath them. We performed this three times—here in Durham, and then in New York and in London.
They wouldn’t like to hear this, but to be playing music when the Anonymous 4 is singing, if you don’t feel profoundly inadequate then there’s something wrong with you, because they are so—the purity of their craft. Not just the craft, it’s these voices that God has given them. Ruth Cunningham, who is one of them… Owen and I touched base about this the first time we sat in all together. You hear her voice and you feel like you’ve heard a siren! I just want to listen to that forever! I want to listen to that until I starve to fucking death! (laughter). That’s what it was like!
Great auteur musicians feel entitled to this. I think Prince by the time he was 16 was like, “Someday I’m going to work with Joni Mitchell.” Whereas guys like me go, “I’m a good poet, and I’m proud of my poetry, but I don’t think I have a right to ask these great musicians to play with me.” When it happened, we made something really special and great, and I was like, “No, no, you get to do that, that’s cool. If people enjoy it and musicians enjoy it, what’s the harm?” My Catholic tendencies also prevent me from seeking access to things. I know we sort of automatically—as people who live in America—want to say that that’s bad, but I don’t think that that’s bad entirely. A piece of that is healthy, you should feel awe and veneration for people who are better at stuff than you. You should feel that, you should live with it and be respectful. At the same time, you should be open to the idea that maybe you have some of that too. That’s true for me anyway.
The first time we rehearsed with the Anonymous 4 was at one of their apartments on the Upper West Side. These are four women that have won multiple Grammys. They are known throughout the classical world for being some of the best interpreters of medieval polyphony. The second they start singing—I have tapes of it because we recorded our rehearsals—the second they started singing I felt that unmoored, woozy feeling you feel in the presence of life-changing music. I think most people, the first time they hear a Steve Reich piece they feel this, where they go, “Oh, wow! I’m being transported someplace!” It was like that, but in the actual room, in the living room. I said hello to them. “Hey, good to meet you, real pleasure, okay let’s do this first one here,” and then they started singing and I felt like I was going to pass out!
Before that, Erik Friedlander played cello on The Sunset Tree, and that was the first pedigreed—he would hate that term, I don’t blame him—but it was like, this is a guy who played with [John] Zorn for 20 years. This is a guy that does not have to take a gig if he doesn’t want to, a guy who is better than me in every way. He came in, and what he did for the tracks he played on The Sunset Tree was just like, wow! I’m proud of the songs on Sunset Tree, I really am. “Up The Wolves,” that’s a good song. But we tracked the take you’re listening to in the same room together, in a small room at Prairie Sun Studios, which is where Tom Waits recorded a fair bit of his early ’90s material. It’s a former chicken coop room.
To play with other musicians is to be afforded the opportunity to better understand the dignity of your own efforts. I don’t have low self esteem—I’m proud of the stuff that I do—but I often am a little dismissive of its potential to take on scope. I think my music is really good, but I also tend to think it’s very small, and has a very limited appeal. By default, I assume only four or five people are gonna care. When you play with better musicians you open yourself to the possibility—well, maybe something you do has something to say to 20 people, to 40, to 40,000. That particular song, “Up The Wolves,” has a lot of plays on Spotify. It was Erik’s work on that song that made me feel like I could swing for the fences, you know?
All that comes from the feeling of playing together. There is a song on that record, “Magpie,” where we didn’t have any tracking ideas for it. It was late in the session, and the way a session works is you make a song list, you go through them, say “What’s next?,” and you sort of pick one at random. Usually I try to plot out the sessions—“Today we’ll do these three, tomorrow we’ll do those three.” I’m like a director about that, I plot them out weeks before we get there. It’s not set in stone, but I figure that it’s best to go in having a plan.
In those days, you write out a list of songs, tape it to the window of the tracking room or the mixing room, and you check ’em off as you go. “Okay, here’s what we have to get through, here’s what’s left.” “Magpie” was late, and we didn’t know what to do, but me and Peter already performed a version of it for British radio, so we kind of knew how to do it. They said, “Hey Erik, do you play anything else?” “Yeah, maybe a little mandolin.” “Sure, play some mandolin!” (laughter).
So we picked up a mandolin, I played guitar, and Scott Solter played a drum. I think there was a fourth person playing guitar also, I’m not certain. But it was one of those moments where there was spontaneity, and it made it much bigger thing than it actually was. It already felt pretty big, the song has this cutting quality to it, but once you let it loose into the hands of other people… this was also a moment.
When you track by yourself, you’re seldom going to remember what it’s like to track. You’re just there, you’re just doing whatever you’re going to do during your day. You have memories, not encyclopedic—some you remember, some you don’t—but you will flash more readily on, “Oh yeah, Erik is sitting over there in that chair with his mandolin, and we had no idea he could play.” He absolutely shredded the mandolin. I remember clearly that he was over here, I can picture where I am in the room, and where Erik is. I don’t think I picked up on the importance of that moment until several years down the line, but it was a big one.
The thing is, I grew up in Southern California in the ’70s, and my first band experiences were with people who wanted to jam. I wasn’t playing instruments at all, I was a singer at the time. To me, as soon as you start jamming, I am not interested. There’s nothing for me to do except adlib vocals or play the blues harp, and I don’t want to! This is with people who were getting stoned before rehearsal, it was all just for kicks. When I make music, I’m having fun but I’m always thinking about whether it would be fun in performance, whether it would be something that could communicate to others—it’s never insular.
I developed a real hatred for the idea of jamming, which is hilarious, because I’m now a big Grateful Dead fan (laughter). I have gigabytes of Grateful Dead shows! But I had a huge hatred of jamming. I was very, very against the notion of jamming which is so weird because I grew up listening to jazz. Jamming in a rock context always seemed to me an excuse to not be working on something bigger. That was a moment where I was like, “Well no, we didn’t really have an idea, we just had a structure for a song.” With “Magpie,” one of my favorite smaller tracks on the record, it’s got a ferocity to it that comes from not having tried it before. Erik hadn’t even heard it before he got there. The thing is, Erik is a master improviser. If you want to learn the power of improvisation, spend an hour or two with Erik, he really gets it.
The Grateful Dead, one reason they are the way they are, is for the better part of a year they lived in a house together and they weren’t out playing any shows, they were just testing Owsley [Stanley]’s acid all the time. They were in a house playing music all the time, that’s all they were doing. They became a band like no other band, whether you like them or not there is no one really like them. That’s how they got there. They sounded niche by playing together for six to eight hour sessions. They would all wake up at two in the afternoon, they’d drop acid, and they’d play until four in the morning! (laughter). Wow, I wish more bands could do that.
Right. It’s just unfortunate that creative pursuits aren’t valued the way they should be. They can’t be, just with the way the world is.
Back then, rent was cheap! It’s really a more recent development, later capitalism, that rent becomes such a big part of your life. You can’t think about dropping out! They didn’t have jobs, they could figure out a way to get $200 a month for rent, they figured it out. Rent is no longer something you can just figure out. You have to be very focused on it, or you will be on the street! That wasn’t the case back then. You had landlords you could argue with and go, “Hey, there is no money this month, and I can’t get it to you, I’m sorry. I’ll get it to you next month.” This was more real, you can’t do that anymore. The predatory capitalism that took root in the ’80s and became the default was not the case at all in the ’60s. In the ’60s you completely—you hear stories of people being like, “Okay, the landlords coming by tomorrow, so let’s not be here.” (laughter). That’s unimaginable to us! They will find you, they will email you, they will call you. Back then, if they couldn’t find you, they couldn’t get your money.
It’s weird, these things. There are probably more positive aspects of our situation, in terms of individual production, but it does become harder to get a bunch of people in a house together making music.
The way you’re talking about your history with jam bands and jamming is interesting. I’m thinking about how you said earlier that early Mountain Goats stuff is moment-based, and now it’s more vision-based. There’s this notion, with these new records, you’re sort of embracing this “live performance, seeing what happens” mentality. Do you feel there is a melding or a merging of vision- and moment-based writing now?
Yes, and the other thing is I think my antipathy towards jam bands was entirely misplaced. It was what I call cultural positioning. When people hate on Phish, most of those people have never listened to Phish, ever. They just know they don’t like the way they look on stage. I have lost all patience for that way of thinking. I do not care what a musician looks like, what he’s wearing; I’m embarrassed I’ve ever cared about that. I get it, Bob Weir—I’m a big Dead fan, like I said—if you look at pictures of Bob Weir in 1978 on stage, he is wearing shorts and a tank top every time, playing his guitar, and he looks hilarious (laughter). There’s no buts about it! It’s a pretty funny vibe. But I don’t give a shit! That no longer informs the way I listen to music at all.
A lot of people who hate on Dream Theater haven’t really sat down and listened to a Dream Theater record. When people are hating on them, Dream Theater stands in for a bunch of stylistic values that people think they oppose. I don’t have anything to do with that kind of discourse anymore. I’ve really gotten to a point of thinking of music in terms of whether it’s interesting, whether the music itself sounds like there’s something creative going on in there.
For years I was on the other side of that. I saw Sisters of Mercy twice in one week in the ’80s. One of the shows, Andrew Eldritch is wearing some floppy cowboy-looking hat. Well, this informed my entire take of the show! (laughter). I was like, “I don’t like this dude’s hat.” This is a moronic take—who cares what someone is wearing! But that’s the reality for many people—the vibe of something, where it sits in the culture, whether you want to conceive of yourself as a person who likes that kind of music. For many people that’s a very heavy thing, I know it was for me for years! If I had listened to Dream Theater in 1998 and liked it, I wouldn’t have told you, I would have kept that to myself because I’d be like, “Dream Theater? C’mon. That’s this wanky prog stuff.” I’m not even a big Dream Theater fan, but now I’m more likely to listen to that and think, “What are these musicians saying to each other? What’s going on?” It’s an iffy sort of stance.
All elements of scenes and style are only interesting to me if they’re entertaining. I do like when a genre is so reified. I heard a record by a band called Executioner’s Mask this past summer. This is a band doing old school goth, and it’s amazing how completely they peg it. Those types of genres have strict rules about what you can and can’t play. As a rules-based guy, I have an affection for that! But I now recognize that affection as somewhat pathological (laughter).
The important thing is that we should be hedonistic in the way we approach music, in the sense that we want to enjoy as much of it as possible, preventing as much of this extramusical stuff from shaping our judgement. With any artist in any genre, the approach should be to see what they’re trying to do. I’m wondering, what do you feel like you can do? What do you feel like The Mountain Goats can do?
It’s hard to answer that because I really have a fear—not a fear, a dread of seeming too self-important. I talk a lot. Everyone who talks as much as me has to come off as pretty self-important. It’s just a tick I have, I don’t consider my opinions better than anybody else’s. This is all just stuff that’s going on in the brain that God gave me.
So having said that—this is going to sound sort of self important, but it’s how I think of my own stuff—I think a lot about preliterate culture. I think a lot about how by the time people start writing down the songs that they know, especially in English, they’ve been singing those songs for a very long time. A whole culture exists around the receiving of poetry, not just song but poetry, where people will sit around and there will be a bard or a poet or whatever, and it’s time to hear a poet because it’s entertainment. That’s what there is for entertainment. That poem that they’re receiving is a story that’s told in a formal way, it’s told in a formal way before it’s told in a melodic way. We know that this existed before notation. We have documentation back to fifth century Greece that people would meet up and that somebody would tell this story in song, and other people would respond.
That level of transmission, of making some story or image come alive in the air, both for the player and the hearer—which is also an important thing for musical performance—is that when you make something happen as a band, or as an individual performer, it doesn’t really exist until the listener and the player are both hearing it at the same time. When that happens, that’s fucking magic! It’s why every time you play live, even at your worst show, you should be giving thanks to God that you get to do it, because it’s magic! Every time it happens, it never happened before. It’s different every time. I’ve played “This Year” at least 200 times. Every time we play it, it has slightly different textures, a slightly different flavor. Yet it has a continuity that goes throughout. Oh gosh, I’m getting so lost, so far away from the question. (laughter).
Oh, it’s okay! (laughs).
So you’re asking me what I do. What I sort of think I do is something that connects the performance of song to the rule of an older oral tradition where the importance of what happens is what happens in performance. I always try to keep some of that close to recording. I also love records, but records are a totally different thing. When we are talking about music, we should put up a gigantic wall between talking about recorded music and live music. Even if you’re in a studio recording live, which I’ve done a ton of times—most of my home recordings are completely live—it’s still not the same because the presence of audiences changes everything. The person behind a mixing board is not an audience, it’s not the same.
When I’m talking about what I do, there are two different things. The songs that I write I hope are stories, or useful poems, that people are able to be entertained by. I think we minimize the importance of entertainment. I don’t think that’s a minimal thing. Between the earth and the grave, to be entertained is a beautiful and great thing. If I can entertain somebody, I don’t think I have to move a mountain for them. I think it’s a pretty valuable thing. I feel the same way about other performers. When we’re young we try and draw a line between people doing serious art and people doing funny stuff. No! The funny stuff is every bit as valuable as the serious stuff. There’s no division there, it’s all entertainment. That’s like saying grape and peach are not both fruits because sometimes you want the grape, and sometimes you want the peach. (laughter).
That’s one thing I actually hate about the internet, how everyone is ranking things like that. (in a mocking internet diplomat voice) “Look, we can all agree that grape is better than peach.” No, we can’t! (laughter). We can say that grape is the best at being grape, and peach is the best at being peach.
So I feel like what I do is related to oral tradition. I am presenting something that takes birth in front of people, and because of people. I’m not just presenting something; when a communal experience takes place, that’s magic. When I’m making records, I’m sort of setting the template for that, and hoping that people can have a version of that for themselves in their home or in their car.
This is going on a tangent, but I’m interested in how you view yourself as part of the lineage of oral tradition. I’ve been thinking a lot about—I was talking about this with a friend, how in the past in the Homeric era, people memorizing thousands of lines of poetry—
That’s the most incredible thing to imagine, right?
Right? (laughs). I’ve been thinking about—and you mentioned this—how that got whittled down by writing, removing at least some partial need for oral transmission.
One of my professors could connect to the people who thought that. He shares this opinion somewhat, because writing makes other amazing shit happen. But there is the position you can take where, as soon as you start writing something down, that’s when it all goes to shit (laughter). Because something incredible disappeared from the earth, and there are people that feel this way about recorded music too! And the other thing I’m talking about, this magic between the audience and the performer, that’s all there was! When you start recording it, you’re creating an artificial environment.
Now I happen to be of that opinion, yes, but you can do incredible things in that environment. You can make incredible shit happen. But, it does displace—and, really, severely misplaces—the more primary experience of communication, of direct, sometimes terrifyingly direct communication. You see music performances with people screaming or something. Physical presence: there’s no substitute! We’re all feeling this in quarantine right now. You can Zoom all day, but there will never be a substitute for being face-to-face with somebody.
I’m also feeling that. I’m a high school teacher, and that’s so obvious. The way I’m teaching and the way students are receiving things are so different. I’m thinking about how you said you were not into the idea of presenting yourself as self-important, which of course is good, but there’s this idea of you being in the lineage of oral tradition. Not to be curmudgeonly, but with technology, I think about how I don’t know what they’re doing in elementary schools—are they on their phones in elementary school during recess? Are they still telling stories to each other? Are they still telling jokes? Are people still telling ghost stories? Are these forms of oral storytelling still present?
Yeah, those are so important too, on the playground!
Capitalism necessitates that everyone work absurd hours compared to in the past when societies could be spending far more time in communities, playing games, sharing stories, whatever. I feel like, in a sense, if you see yourself in the lineage of this oral tradition, that in itself is important.
You’re kind to say so. And that’s why I feel it’s important. When I think of that tradition, I think about Chaucer. Whether it was him or his scribe, he would not have been reading anything, he would have been telling you the whole fucking thing. I mean there aren’t artists around that can do what those guys were doing. What they were doing was a feat of memory! That’s another thing in that field—memory is one of the most priceless commodities you had back then. That was how stuff was gonna travel. It wasn’t gonna travel otherwise unless it was by the miracle of your memory.
When you say capitalism, I think the issue is technology. I lean anarchist, though I wouldn’t call myself one. Anarchist ideology informs me, and I think that technology displaces habits that we formed as animals. They were good habits, they helped us a lot. Technology makes a lot of things easier—you can’t argue with the good effects of technology. One can argue the internet is bad, but what about the distribution of food? The distribution of food is good. Capitalism is to blame for making that a shitty thing (laughter). It cuts off like 25% of the world because they don’t have the money to pay for it. But the actual ability to get food across the country because of refrigeration—these things are all good. You can’t argue with refrigeration (laughter).
The victims of the industrial age are oral tradition, and community. We have a techno-community now and it’s really helping a lot of us. I have to say, I think about that a lot because during the Black Death in Europe you didn’t have a Zoom call. You had whoever was in your house, period. If you don’t like it, well you can go outside and… die! (laughter). We bemoan Zoom, and I hate it too—I can’t bear it! But some of that stuff has eased things somewhat. I don’t really do social media, but my friend is checking in on Facebook right now, and Facebook is terrible. But I’m 53, and it’s a good way of knowing who’s sick and who’s going to die soon. So you keep track of your friends so you don’t hear four months later from someone else, “Oh, you haven’t heard from him for a while because he’s gone, he got sick.”
I try for The Mountain Goats to be primitive in that way, in touch with older traditions of writing and performance. In writing, it’s always going to be illusory. You can’t communicate the wordless roils inside of you, that’s prelinguistic. Once you bother to shape it into words, you can still get a pretty tight connection. What I’ve always wanted was for people to hear that immediacy when they hear my stuff. I want them to feel like they touched something that was alive and electrical.
What’s been a miracle for me, since we’re talking about ensemble playing, is that I felt like the only way you could do that is by following one person’s vision. But that’s false. It’s actually way more alive if people are listening hard enough to hear what happens when I’m communicating that to a bassist, and a saxophone player, and a drummer, and that all of that is coming from all four of us. There are more points of connection. Then it becomes polyvalent.
You mentioned earlier the dating habits you have where you’re just with that one person. Is that courting process something you feel also exists with non-romantic relationships? Does that exist when you’re writing songs, such that when you’re writing a song, you become obsessed with it? Not necessarily after it’s done, but in the process of writing it.
I write really fast. Yes, absolutely yes, to answer your question, but the time cost is minimal. Almost invariably, when I sit down to write a song, I don’t sit down until it’s done. It takes me anywhere from one to five hours. I’m lucky that my wife has been with me so long. I remember when I was writing In League With Dragons, I kept going into the zone. [It was] in December 2016, I think. Nowadays when I’m doing that, I’m also doing multi-track demos. I used to just write the song and get it finished and note every single thing. Now I get more ideas and put them down in multi-track before I get them out to the guys. I noticed, and it’s weird because I’m totally in a manic state when I’m doing this, but I noticed my wife suddenly quartering off my work area and shielding me from the children (laughter). Because when the children come in, they don’t give a shit. Why should they care? They just come in and want to tell me about stuff. I noticed her clearing space, “Looks like daddy has gone into the zone here, so we’re just going to protect the zone for a minute.” (laughter).
So yeah, I sit down and there’s almost never two sessions for a song for me. There’s one song that almost always comes to mind that’s a real outlier in the catalog, and it’s one of my favorites and I would love to pursue this line further, but I don’t know how many other people [consider it a] favorite. I feel a responsibility to people who listen to my stuff to give them stuff they enjoy. A lot of people would be happy if all 12 songs on album were loud and fast and I was yelling at everyone, but I don’t want to do that, to me that’s not entertaining. So if you want that, I feel bad, I’m sorry, but there are a lot of old records that are like that already. But I also think to branch too far afield and say, “Here’s my drone record.” (laughter). I don’t want to be an artist that’s too presumptuous, like it’s me you like. No, what you like is what I do, and I should satisfy you to that extent.
Anyway, there’s this song on Beat the Champ called “Fire Editorial.” It began life when I was imagining a weird period of time in rock and jazz—the fusion era, from ’71 to ’75 or so, with bands like Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra. They did these composed songs with improvisation—they’re couched in jazz understanding.
I was talking with my wife and I said if I was to write a song like Steely Dan, it would sound like this. And I play that opening riff, (imitates opening riff of “Fire Editorial”), and I landed on a Major 7 there, and I was like, what if I actually did that? So I sort of challenged myself to do it. I found that I had to write all of the music first. My whole process revolves around writing the music and the lyrics at the same time—writing chords, improvising vocals, and when I come up with a line I like I scribble it down, and it toggles back and forth. With this, I had to actually be doing counts, 1, 2, 3, (leads into “Fire Editorial” riff), 1, 2, 3, (continues “Fire Editorial” riff). It [sounded] very big band. (laughs). Sorry, when I get into the actual music stuff I get really lost in it.
No, this is good! I enjoy it, there’s no worries.
What was the original question I was answering?
The original question was about the recording process. If you being with a partner is something that exists in your relationship with a piece of music.
Right, and I was talking about sitting down to do it once. That was the song where I had to write it one piece at a time. I had an idea for this song, but I lost my ability to read sheet music. I could read it as a kid, but after that atrophied I would have had to spend hours learning it again. So instead I have a weird, idiosyncratic system of transcription. I would write like, eight bars of it, transcribe it and be done with that part, and the next day I would come back and work on this complicated song. It was really exciting for me! It was so unlike anything I’ve ever done before. Of course, nobody noticed and nobody cared (laughter).
The first time we succeeded in playing it live I was so stoked! I couldn’t wait to send it to Peter. “When you hear this thing you will not believe how far afield it is from anything else I’ve ever done.” Peter, of course, noticed, he thought it was completely insane. We tracked it, and Peter was the one who said we were gonna play it live. We thought that was crazy, that would never happen. We only played it on one tour, it never came back to the repertoire, but I remember thinking, “It was good tonight! We actually nailed every point of that one tonight!” (laughter).
Earlier you said you consider yourself a singer-songwriter primarily, and that you just started thinking of yourself as a musician. What’s the difference between those two things for you?
Matt Douglas, who’s in the band—Matt would be angry with me if he heard me refer to him as a musician and me as an aspiring musician (laughter). Matt went to NYU and Matt can play anything. When we were talking about the Dream Theater stuff earlier, there is a position that real musicians have that I have only lately learned to adopt, and it comes naturally to Matt.
Here’s an instrument that’s good to think about in this way: the cowbell. These days, if you say something about the cowbell, everyone thinks about the Saturday Night Live sketch where Blue Öyster Cult is tracking and the producer keeps saying, “More cowbell!” For many people who hear the cowbell, that’s the first thing they think of. That’s how it goes for them. For the best musicians I know, no instrument, no tone has has an automatically coded sound. The only question about those sounds is how they fit into the song, how they feel in that context. It would literally not occur to them to say, “Oh yeah, the Blue Öyster Cult sketch,” because they just don’t think of it this way. Not to get all hierarchical, but that’s because music is better than that (laughter). You know what I mean? If you told [Dmitri] Shostakovich that the cello has an austere feel to it he would say, “Well I don’t care, I’ve written this quartet and it sounds like the voice of God.”
There is no absolute value to any sound, sound is just sound. To ascribe a value is a sort of cultural arrogance. It’s a funny sketch, you may think so, but who cares? It was a funny sketch, absolutely, everybody laughs their asses off the first time they see it. But the notion that that sound defines the cowbell is absurd. It doesn’t merit any comment.
Matt’s one of those guys that understood that by the time he was 16, whereas I had to work to get to that point. I used to hear a 12-string guitar and think, “Bah, hippy stuff.” What a moronic position! What a dumb position to hold! Many people hear a fretless bass, they picture the haircut of the guy playing the fretless bass (laughter). This is a moronic position to hold! You don’t even like music if you think like this, you like scenes. You like feeling cool, and that’s great, but for me, it’s been a lifelong journey to understand that sound is where I want to live.
If I could transform my being from being human, I would want to be in sound. That’s what seems like the infinite field. I would choose sound over color, and color is incredible! If you break things down to light and sound and matter, and you had to choose between being light or sound or matter, I would not hesitate to choose sound. Sound is the spectrum that speaks to me as a spirit. I can be really intense about it. Once you’re at that point with thinking about things, then the idea of hearing a fretless bass meaning the guy [playing it] has a funny haircut, it’s just a very kindergarten idea.
Guys like Matt, these are ideas they understood very clearly by the time they were 16. Sound is a vast field that supersedes all other considerations.
Thanks for explaining that. I love that. I’ve never thought about music in that way, just how quickly people will associate an instrument with something, and how that can be super limiting, and how people are just readily in that mindset.
I only know it because it was my own limitation. I’ve been like that for years! When The Sisters of Mercy gave way to The Mission—who are a post-Sisters goth band—they were more indebted to The Byrds. They clearly listened to The Byrds, there was 12-string stuff in there. I thought, “This doesn’t sound like the harsh, foot-to-floor driving sound of The Sisters of Mercy, this is way more hippy.” I didn’t even listen to those records; I heard one of them, pegged it for what it was culturally, and I never listened to it again! When I was a grownup I listened again and I was like, “Oh, I missed out, these are good!”
What’s funky about that is, in the U.S., that stuff also codes racially, that people peg Black music as being music from a community that wasn’t their own community, and you [miss] some of the greatest music ever recorded in the ’70s because it doesn’t fit your own rubric of what you listen to. If you listen to the soul music of the ’70s, you are listening to some of the greatest music ever recorded! The musicianship on an Earth, Wind & Fire record is so far above most of their rock peers. But you could not pay rock dudes to check it out because they would think in racist terms, but also in scene terms. They would think, “That sound is not for me.” And that is an inherently amusical take. There are no sounds that aren’t for you. We all probably have our things where some instrument or musician [doesn’t click with us]. For me, my blind spot is Brian Wilson. Something about the harmonies he favors, when they hit me I feel them resonate in my teeth in a way that I don’t enjoy (laughter). I can’t lock in. It’s been that way since I heard his music as a kid. People say, “Are you kidding? He’s a genius!” I get it, but there’s something visceral there for me.
But yes, I think having enjoyed music all my life, I come to this place where it’s not about genre, it’s not about whether people like me or not. It’s just about the human effort to communicate through sound.
I love that. I love how so many parts of this interview are interwoven.
Thank you! When I saw that you wanted to talk I was like, “I like this guy!” You think about music. You talk to people like [David] Grubbs, and he’s a guy who thinks about this at a much deeper level than I do. His guitar stuff is so great.
Yeah, I love talking with Grubbs. He’s a great, intelligent person. I’m actually going to have an official interview with him in a couple of weeks or so, I’m excited for that.
Cool. You will have fun, he’s wonderful. He’s such a good and giving thinker about this stuff.
I guess, to make press people happy: Is there anything you want to mention about Getting Into Knives?
I guess. Sure (laughter). But like, when I was a kid, I would gobble up rock press. I didn’t care what they would say about a new record, I just wanted to hear what [bands] had to say about what they were doing! But I will say, as far as the ensemble playing stuff we were talking about earlier goes, there are points on the record where you can really hear that it’s not just theory talk. This is stuff where the theory proceeds from the practice instead of the other way around. That really is true, as I mentioned earlier, on the song “Younger” from In League with Dragons. When we track eight people playing at once, something really special happens. I thought it was going to be a catastrophe. They put everyone in different booths and were just like okay, let’s go! I thought there was no way it was gonna be good, but instead it is utter fuckin’ magic!
So I took this idea to the next session and recorded “Picture of My Dress,” and I think we had four acoustic guitars, bass and drums, possibly also keys, and live vocals going—all at once. When you do that, if you’re grown ups—if you’re a little younger I think you get a different result—what happens is that everybody holds back because they know that if everyone is trying to possess the take then it won’t be any good. Everyone has to occupy a position. It’s teamwork, it’s team playing. So everybody plays the song instead of playing their part. What happens is everybody is in touch through the mix, second-by-second. You really hear it! But it’s a really commercial-sound song, it’s a country and western sounding song, it’s not free improv where the voices rising above tend to cut through the piano—it’s a pop song. But you can bring that energy to a pop song if everybody is expressing their own voice, and everyone is just contributing to the song.
There are a number of songs on the new record where you can really hear that. “Corsican Mastiff Stride” is one of them, “Picture of My Dress” is one of them. “Tidal Wave” came together in pre-production where Peter pitched an idea and I just said go for it. I asked John to play a drum intro that was long because on the song “Younger” we left a long drum intro in and I loved it. I wish I had a 24-bar drum intro on every song now (laughter). It’s such a great way to get into the song! Instead of relating to it on a chordal basis, if you hear the rhythm, if you hear what the beat is saying—beats are all different! Just because it’s in 4/4 doesn’t mean that’s the only 4/4. Every 4/4 beat has its own taste. “Tidal Wave” came together in the same sort of way. It’s definitely three pieces but you can still hear us listening to each other. I think the growth in my music has been toward being more about musicians listening to each other in the hopes that what they make makes something really communicative for the listener.
I love that. It’s always really encouraging to see someone who has been a musician for years and years, and seeing how they’re continuing to grow.
You know who was like that? Miles Davis. For years people minimized Miles’s late ’70s, early ’80s work, and now it’s coming back into favor. Miles was engaged his entire life. People will say that he is an unpleasant person—I’m sure that’s true, whatever—but the thing is, you can hear that on all of his records, he was restless his whole life. I think that’s the most important quality for a musician to cultivate. Not for commercial success! (laughs). It’s not an important quality to cultivate if you want to succeed in making much money (laughter). But if you want your work to be satisfying to you, I think restlessness is the single most important [quality].
The great composers bear this out too. We used to expect composers to grow. We used to expect the 9th Symphony to be considerably better than the first one. In rock talk, everyone always says that your first album is your best one. Gosh, I can’t even imagine that. If people think that, more power to them, but you should be growing, you should be saying more.
The last question that I want to ask you is—I always ask something like this—do you mind sharing one thing that you love about yourself?
(thinking). Oh man… I do love that I hope to always be getting better, you know what I mean? I don’t think I’m particularly great in any sense. I was a drug addict, I was a bad person to be around for a long time. When you get out of that, you don’t automatically become the greatest! (laughs). But I do like that I’ve maintained this as a value—this is something I like about myself a lot—that I’m always striving to improve. I don’t see any ceiling for that. The fact that I don’t think I’m going to get to a point where I’m good enough and stop—that will never be the case for me. Never ever. I will go to my grave a little dissatisfied, thinking I can do a little better. Not in a way that I’m wagging my finger at myself! I’m okay with where I’m at, but I’m always wanting to do better. Not in some macho way either, not like I need to kick more ass (laughter).
I am extremely restless. I have a desire to continue growing until the minute they put me in the ground. That’s something I do like about myself, that I hope to pass along.
Thank you for sharing that, I really appreciate that.
I knew this interview was going to be great! I love what you do, and I was sure this interview was going to be a good one. It’s my third [interview] of the day, and the other ones set the table for this. It’s totally great.
Well, I appreciate it. I’m flattered! Thank you so much for all your music, I love the new record. I’ve only heard it a few times but I can already tell it’s going to be something I’ll be spinning a lot.
Thank you! There’s more stuff coming down the line that I can’t wait for you to hear. We’ve been very, very busy. Last year was an immensely productive writing year for me.
Are you able to share anything that you have coming up after this release?
Not for publication! (laughter).
Okay! We can have something off the record, that’s fine.
Well, I just wanted to say thank you again!
My pleasure, man! Thank you!
I was a little worried, just because I’ve had a long school day. I was really swamped with stuff, but I was just like, “Okay, let’s do this!”
Sorry to bombard you with non-stop verbiage! (uproarious laughter).
No way, you have to understand, I love this! My favorite thing in the world—I tell people all the time that I care about music a lot. I think music is the most incredible art form, but I think even beyond that, the reason I do music writing and listen to music is that ultimately I care about people, and I’m including myself as one of those people. That’s why I do the interviews the way I do, because I feel like the way they’re conducted and presented in other publications is dehumanizing. It’s sort of frustrating.
It’s interview season right now, I’m in this season where I do three or four interviews a day. We get these questions that are visibly and directly from the press kit, and I’m like, “God, I can’t answer this again!” (laughter). You want to start lying, just to say whatever, trying to get a rise out of them. I’m not that guy! It’s a Catholic thing, I want to please the interviewer. I want the interviewer to be happy with what they came to get! If I didn’t it would just be like, “We’re both suffering here!” (laughter).
John Darnielle during the first week of March at Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis.
Thank you for reading the fourth issue of Tune Glue. Please don’t make John Darnielle suffer.
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