Don't Write Songs: Chatting with John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats about the band's new album
on personal narrative, and telling on yourself, and crying in the back of the van
I write about the Mountain Goats a lot in here, in part because I love their music in the simple, open-handed way of longterm fandom. But I also write about them because the band’s relationship to personal narrative is unique and instructive, weird in the best way. If there’s any one thing I’m trying to do with this newsletter, it’s to make both an interrogation and a defense of personal narrative writing. I’m interested in the ways that the first-person essay— an umbrella under which many things that don’t present as essays, including many of my favorite albums, fall—is better and more interesting than its reputation. I believe most art and most writing is a disguised or coded form of personal narrative, and I believe there’s a way into personal narrative that is more artful than bleeding onto the page and more careful than the vulnerability that is often made synonymous with the form.
People assume the genre of singer-songwriter rock music into which the Mountain Goats can be awkwardly categorized to always be autobiographical, an assumption at which many artists understandably bristle. First person pronouns are a convention of the genre, and therefore it is easy to assume that the songs themselves are straightforward confessions. But the Mountain Goats are a perfect example— just one, out of many—of how much more nuanced and slippery the work of first person narrative composition can be. Their songs tell stories in codes, sometimes through byzantine fictional constructions or near-opaque languages of reference. Emotion pours out of their music but it often emerges slant and in disguise.
The Mountain Goats’s albums thread through my life, specific ones linked to specific eras, and particular songs summoning up particular days or moments. Love anything long enough, and it becomes a form of record-keeping. I think of the Mountain Goats’s writing as personal because I have made it personal to myself. I suspect many of their other fans do, too, and I suspect this is might be how successful personal narrative writing always works: The vulnerability we take away from it is our own.
So. Here’s the latest installment of Griefbacon’s ongoing Mountain Goats series. This one’s a little different.
I had the chance last week to chat with John Darnielle, who has been recording and performing as The Mountain Goats since the 1990s, about the band’s new album, Dark in Here, which comes out on Friday. Dark in Here is a twisty, echoey, paranoid, and gorgeous collection of songs, full of lyrics about isolation and hiding places, about desperation, grief, and loss. It is easy to read the album as a pandemic album. But it was recorded in the early days of March 2020, just before everything changed, and written even earlier than that. Hearing Dark in Here as a record of the last year is me telling on myself. Darnielle and I talked (over Zoom, of course) about the album and its recording process, about the project and history of the band in terms of autobiographical and confessional art, and about the surprisingly cathartic Jordan Lake Sessions livestreams from this past winter. Our conversation below is condensed in order to keep this newsletter to anything resembling a reasonable length and edited for clarity. I very much hope you enjoy it.
Helena Fitzgerald: Dark in Here feels to me like such a quarantine album, even though I know it isn’t, really. Can you tell me a little bit about your process with the album, and what it’s like to have it coming out now in such different circumstances than those in which it was recorded?
John Darnielle: In the case of Dark In Here, we were recording just as the looming possibility of a different future was becoming hourly a little more apparent. It was March, I want to say, like, 9th through 15th. So we were in the studio, and we started avoiding going out. They hadn’t shut the country down yet, so we really didn’t have a sense of what it was going to be like. On maybe March 12th, I called the band together to say, hey guys, I’m gonna do whatever I can to keep our lights on and keep our rent paid for however long this is gonna be. Not everybody really believed that it was gonna be as bad as it was, but then in a couple days it became clear.
And that's part of the story of this record. That actually informed me leaving off, well, sort of the “No Children” of this album. There was a song whose chorus was “all of you must die.” A fucking funny song! But I was like, there's no point in pouring a whole lot of work into this song, I pretty much guarantee you this song does not wind up on the record. We argued back and forth about it, like maybe people will want that kind of gallows humor, that’s what they expect from us. But my feeling was, I lost a bunch of friends to the AIDS epidemic. I worked in healthcare then, including at a six bed hospital, and I remember I would come back in to work at the end of my week, and three guys would be dead. Out of six. So when things are happening, your hilarious jokes about how you want to die are a lot less funny. And now I think well, thank god I had an excuse to leave this hilarious song off, because it doesn't belong anywhere in that sequence.
The album came out, I think, much darker. And the way that I wound up sequencing it, it ends up telling a certain story that is about that time in the studio. There's a sort of a somber quality to it, you know? It does feel very claustrophobic, not exactly withdrawn, but cloistered in a way. You know, the sort of record you might get into with three people that you're living with, when you’re not going out much. The lyrics were all in place already, but I think that the fact that there's some weird event looming probably informs the vibe of the way we're playing.
HF: There are so many songs on this album that are about hiding, or, you know, being a hermit, being isolated. But then again, a lot of your songs, on many of your albums, are about those same topics. It's tempting to graft current meaning onto something after the fact. Is your perspective on the album different now than it was when you were recording?
JD: Yeah, I mean, it raises so many questions about about how you write and how you think about putting your writing out there. There's a lot of music, especially now when you can get things out quickly, that people write because they're wanting to address the current moment. I think we have a sort of a mania for wanting most of what we think about to be about the current moment. But the thing about isolation, to single that out, isolation didn’t didn't come into existence in March of 2020, right? We were already pretty isolated to begin with.
HF: I’ve been thinking a lot about the Jordan Lake sessions, which I really, really loved. And I'll be honest, I was very resistant to livestream shows. So much of the thing of live performances is about bodies in a room. You talk in another interview from earlier in 2020, in The Atlantic, about not knowing if you want to do live streams, because the thing of live music is that almost church-y, liturgical feeling of a bunch of bodies in a space making noise together. But I got that same feeling from the Jordan Lake sessions, and I was really surprised it could be accomplished with a livestream. How do you think that worked, or what was it about those livestream shows?
JD: Did you have the chat window open?
HF: I did have the chat window open.
JD: I didn't expect that to happen, but then I watched it as it happened. Not only did the chat in some ways produce the feeling that I think people have when they gather at a concert, but in the chat, you could have conversations while the concert was going on and not be rude. The question of attention is a very intense question, but watching the chat was really cool. It was very awesome to see people experiencing community during the music and to be able to eavesdrop a little on that. It's not part of my normal experience. I don't hear what people are whispering to each while I play. It was a very unique thing, like, oh, this gives me an opportunity to sort of be a spectator of my own deal. It was cool.
HF: Yeah, I was really blown away by how much it captured that same cathartic feeling that a live show has.
JD: I think it was also the fact that we were, as a band, just having such pleasure playing music with each other, you know? You totally do take that for granted if you do it two or three months a year. You get tired, you're worn down, sick of being away from home and all that. Then God takes it away from you for nine months. And so then when you get to do it, every single song, you go, Wow, this fucking rules, this is the best thing. It was also the joy of having put in so many tours in the past, that when we sit down to play, even if we hadn't been touring, we're still playing pretty well. It felt good. It was pretty special.
HF: There's a line in the credits on Dark In Here that I wanted to ask you about. You say, talking about "The Slow Parts on Death Metal Albums,” that “all songs end up being autobiographical if you take the long view.” Can you talk a little bit about what that means?
JD: Sure. I mean, it's a pretty simple concept. But it’s one that was news to me, actually, because I used to resist writing autobiographical stuff very strongly. And then in 2004 or 2005, I very intentionally started doing it. But before that, there were some songs where it was like, oh nobody will ever catch me. There are early songs that I know are extraordinarily autobiographical, and if their subjects knew, they would go oh my god, it's literally a verbatim description of what was going on. But nobody’s ever going to find out. And I enjoyed that. It was a fun sort of covert activity. But I didn't want to write confessional stuff.
There's a way of reading dreams that I learned from an old therapist, where no matter how many people you have in the dream, no matter what they're doing, every person in the dream is you. Your brain doesn't even know that other people exist. You learn to differentiate, but there's a part of yourself that still isn't really persuaded that any of the other people stuff is real. That's your dream brain. And in a sense, that's also your creative brain. The reason people tell you to write what you know is that when you are writing other characters, your point of reference is going to be yourself. You don't know how anybody else feels. You can try; we train ourselves over life, we hopefully grow into empathy. But at the end of the day, you can only understand your own reality. So when you are telling any kind of story, everyone in that story is you, to some extent. This only goes so far; it doesn't mean that all songs are literally autobiographical stories. But it does mean that every song tells on its author a little bit. Every song is ratting you out to the public. Which is why I'm here to say, don't write songs.
But no, really, it’s true, and it’s why I think one interesting way to write is try not to write autobiographically, don’t write a memoir, just write whatever, and then notice, when you read it years later, oh, you know what I was talking about? I was talking about me.
HF: Do you think of the Mountain Goats as an autobiographical project?
JD: I employ tropes of autobiography, and sometimes of confession, in service of writing songs. I’m a perennial undergrad, I like to think about, you know, what good is art? To me, it's invaluable, I can't live without it. But at the same time, it’s all candy. We talk about it being nutrition, and it is; I can name for you the songs where I feel I would be dead if I hadn’t had them in my hour of need. Except we don’t actually know if we would have found something else. That song that you dug for and found? You’re the one who did that, it wasn’t the song. The Mountain Goats is just a writing project. It is a fictional project, and any way it’s being presented is a construct, right? It’s not all of me. There’s certain stuff I’m not comfortable sharing, and that stuff is almost entirely absent from my songs.
HF: You get to choose to redact that stuff.
JD: Yeah. And some of that is out of a sense of wanting to allow the listener to impose whatever they need me to be onto me. And some of it is just discomfort or privacy. But at the same time, I do I really strongly believe that if you're writing, whoever you are, whatever you're writing, I don't care if you're, you know, Tolkien, you’re telling me something about yourself. And everything you leave out tells me what you have chosen to prioritize.
I also think when you are anywhere in the margins, your radar becomes much more attenuated. When you have to look harder to find yourself identified, you get good at it. So I don't think it's an accident that certain people hear our songs and think, well, he's telling the story like this, but I also notice this other thing. Like, even before I started talking about my history of abuse, people who had experienced abuse would often hear the songs and think hey this guy sounds kinda like me, maybe we have some similar experiences. I think that's one of the ways that your own experiences surface in your writing.
HF: You mention that you specifically didn't write autobiographically, or at least confessionally, for a long time, and then around 2004 or 2005 you very consciously changed that. What was the reason for that change?
JD: So there's a few things. One, is that it always felt very transgressive for me, like transgressive of my own method. This is the Catholic position. Like, you have a method, right? You have a set of rules by which you live your life. And then you break one. And wow, it feels really good! And it feels terrible too! Every Catholic knows this. Like, yeah, go ahead and do something wrong. Go ahead and just walk into the church without dipping your fingers into the water. It’s the satisfaction you get from transgression. And so I would think, like, what can I sneak in? I did this with pronouns, for instance. Like, what if I sneak in a personal pronoun where you weren’t expecting one? One of the earliest times I do this —and this is not a confessional song— is “Orange Ball of Hate.” “I know that one of us, I'm not saying who, has got rocks in her head.” Well, now the narrator could be a woman, right? But it probably isn’t, because I'm the one singing.
I wrote We Shall All Be Healed in that same vein of cloaked autobiography. So that was sort of a dry run, and then my stepfather died. And when a parent of any stripe dies, when anybody dies, and when it was somebody you had an abusive relationship with and who was also a very important figure in your life, something happens to you. I was on tour for a couple months afterwards, and trying to cope with being on tour. I was exhausted, and not sleeping, and losing sleep, for me, puts me in an incredibly emotionally vulnerable place. The less I sleep, the more I'm going to cry. But it means I’m willing to actually touch the vein, and I can find some good shit in there. It’s not healthy, it’s not fun, but you do get, well, today sucked, but wow, that seems like a good song.
So I had started writing these songs [that would eventually become 2005’s The Sunset Tree]. I had these new lyrics, and Peter had heard none of these songs, he just knew that I was in the back of the van crying all the time. I’d written the lyrics to “Dance Music” in the back of the van two days earlier. And I said, Okay, I've got this, and I’ve got this Tetrapod idea. And we did those. And it was a very transgressive feeling, not only writing songs that tell true stories, but also not really pre-writing, letting them show up at the studio half-formed. We were figuring them out on the fly. So yeah, the way it felt to be doing that and telling those stories, it felt good.
Another thing about the Sunset Tree album is that I assumed the label was going to give me my walking papers afterwards. My assumption going into the Sunset Tree sessions was that maybe I was going back to a day job. I thought maybe this will be the end of this project. I've been doing this for about twelve years, maybe it'd be a good place to wrap at this point. To start out insisting that I’m not being autobiographical and end with this one very autobiographical album. It didn't work out that way. And I have no complaints. But one of the things that enabled me to do it was to say, okay, well, you know, try this. In case you’re done, try this.
And then that gave me permission going forward to maybe make more stuff like that. It’s the permission to go well, what if somebody cuts my head off the day after this record?
Dark in Here comes out on Friday, June 25th on Merge Records. It’s strange and weird and great, like what if a nighttime catacomb tour underneath an old city were also a rock album. If you want to read more griefbacon posts about The Mountain Goats, you can find them all here. If you enjoyed this post, maybe consider subscribing? This piece is very new and different for this newsletter but, hey, maybe I’ll do more Q&As with people I admire. I’ve been threatening to turn Griefbacon into a music blog for years now, so who knows. Listen to the Mountain Goats, email me with questions. xo