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[Q&A] John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats on North Carolina, destroying demos, and twitter fame // 10.18 @ House of Blues

I take great pride in the fact that I used to hang out at the same Durham, North Carolina record store that John Darnielle of THE MOUNTAIN GOATS used to frequent from time to time. He's an icon in my home state, and steadily becominging an icon all over. His band's 14th record, Transcendental Youth, was released October 2, and charats the evolution of a group of Seattle-based characters over its 12 tracks. I talked to him via phone in September, right before we went to cover Hopscotch Festival, and his sets, one comprised only of metal covers, and the other a b-sides and rarities performance, were the best of the festival. You'll have your own chance to see some of the magic that the man brings to the stage, as Darnielle will be bringing his brand of beautiful folk music to the House of Blues on Thursday.

How did you develop the concept for Transcendental Youth, with its series of interconnected stories in Seattle?

Well, when I come up with a story, with the one exception of Tallahassee, I usually just sort of let it happen, and there’s always some songs that fall out because they don’t actually fit in, but it’s a weird... it’s an interesting thing. The way it works is that you write songs that occur to you, and then at some point, you write a second song that seems to be referring to the previous one or an earlier one from the year, or you know, even an earlier one from a couple of years before. It might be that it borrows a phrase or that the characters you’re seeing in your mind look the same, or the environment feels the same or the weather or whatever, and instead of going “Oh, that’s the same thing, I just have to change some details,” you go “Well, what if it’s the same town?” And then you sort of flesh it out there. It’s like improv, that you let each line inform the next one, but you have the luxury that you’re not working in front of an audience, so you can throw out the ones that don’t fit. So, it was that, combined with... you know, one of the earlier ones that I wrote was “Counterfeit Florida Plates” and that guy is so visibly unmedicated and in need of some treatment that it was sort of a nice radiant point for the rest of them.

You’ve had some controversies in years past with non-album demos being leaked to the public, and you’ve claimed once or twice that you burn all of the unused masters after the recording process ends. Has this changed at all in the past several years?

It varies. If I don’t like something then, yeah, I primarily take extreme pleasure in getting rid of the stuff, but for the most part, I’m also at a point where I’ve been writing long enough that if I don’t like something, I usually don’t feel compelled to chase it all the way down to a finished demo, you know? I spent so long over the past four or five years trying to get down the song “Italian Guns.” It’s an idea I had, it’s got a good chorus, [laughs] but I have never even bothered trying to record a demo of it because it’s not there yet. I can tell when I sit down to play it, I go “Eh, it’s not there yet, nor is it an interesting enough failure for me to want to demo it and see if it’s worth preserving.” I have songs like that, where I’m not sure whether it’s quite there yet, but it feels like it might be interesting enough to track, and so I go ahead and track the demo and listen to it, and decide whether it may be actually a step forward, and that’s why it doesn’t feel right. But, like I said, I’ve been doing this long enough where I feel that I can tell the difference. If it feels like something that I’m never going to want to hear then I’m sort of obligated to destroy it.

I’ve noticed that some of your fans miss the personal quality of the cassette-recorded records you put out in the early parts of your career, and prefer them to the newer studio releases. How would you respond to those criticisms?

I think that’s an overstated case, where a lot of people like to talk about that a lot, but I actually think that there are a lot of Mountain Goats fans who look at the early stuff and think “Well, yeah, that’s ok,” than those who yearn for the days of their youth. [laughs] You know, it’s fine enough, but if you do the same thing over and over and over again, there’s something wrong with you. If you don’t grow as an artist at all, then you are stunted. And so, you know, I don’t listen to anybody who makes the same record over and over again, because that is a boring artist. If it’s a known quantity every time, then I will stick with the one album that they made first, and I won’t bother with the rest. So, yeah, to anybody who misses the old stuff, there’s something like eight hours of it to enjoy. [laughs]

A good amount of your work is being featured in various film and television projects -- you even performed the theme for Showtime’s Weeds for its 8th season. What’s your experience been like working with Hollywood types?

Well, for the most part, my involvement is low -- the writers don’t call me and say “I’m writing a scene and I need a song, do you have any ideas?” It’s not really like that, more like “This TV show wants to use a song of yours.” Well, is the scene shot? “No, but here’s what the scene is, here’s what the show is,” and you’d read and you’d make a call and see if it sounds like it’d be a good fit. Weeds, by the time they asked me, everybody knew it was a good show, so that was great. They used a couple of things -- I forget what season it was -- but they used both “Cotton” and “International Small Arms Traffic Blues” in scenes that I just thought were beautifully shot and just really nice. It’s funny, with “Cotton”, it was weird because I consider “Cotton” to be a really dark song, but they found a sort of lighter, jauntier scene for it. I’m really into contrasts, so I enjoyed that. And then, I’m friends with Steven who writes for Weeds... on Twitter [laughs], so they hit me up to do “Little Boxes”. What’s interesting about that to me is that I grew up going to far-lefty meetings, so I’ve known “Little Boxes” since I was eight-years-old; we used to sing that all the time. But for the most part, me working in that field is a passive thing; I do what I do, and then the people that hear a piece that might want to use it will hit me up about it, and then we’ll see if we can make it work or not. I say yes to less stuff, I think, than most people, but that’s only because I’m kind of exacting about it. I sort of feel that a nice fit musically for something is really cool, and a bad fit is something that everybody can see.

So I guess there’s no plans to go out and score the next Indiana Jones or something.

I mean, the thing is, I don’t have any absolutes about that. I think that absolutes are really silly things to cling to, like, you know, I wouldn’t be in a movie that seemed misogynistic to me, or a TV show that I don’t like to watch, you know, which is a pretty high standard. [laughs] I basically only watch Breaking Bad, boxing, and Weeds now. I imagine that me and half of my peers would love to do something for Breaking Bad, it’s pretty much the best show on American television in God knows how long. But the other thing is that, since I’m not exactly plugged in to what’s going on culturally, there’s probably some really good shows out there that I just haven’t watched. But yeah, if there’s a new Indiana Jones movie and they said “We think that this song of yours would fit perfectly in this scene, and we were thinking specifically of you,” then I would have a look. I think that if I set up a “Nope! None of this!” than that’s an unmusical way of thinking. You want to think of where your music would be nice or not nice. We don’t do ads, I just don’t... If other people want to do ads, that’s great, I don’t stand here and say you shouldn’t, but it’s just not for me, I think. I don’t think it would be a useful way of putting my stuff out there.

True. I don’t think I’ve heard your stuff in any ads, and the biggest thing that could be considered an ad would be any of the TV performances you’ve done.

Well, actually, I think they used a little something in an ad for Rhapsody, and to me that made sense. Rhapsody’s a music service, and it was somebody talking about their relationship to the song, and I thought, “Well, that’s cool. That’s the sort of thing I can get behind, with somebody talking about what the song meant to them.” So, that was cool. But yeah, we’ll do TV. We won’t say “We won’t show up and play our music for people.” That would be stupid.

Your appearance on The Colbert Report was awesome, especially given the record you were touring, The Life of the World to Come.

Oh yeah, that was fun. We did Letterman last year, which was really great, both because I’ve been watching David Letterman for forever and he’s great, and also because Hank Aaron was on the same night, so Mountain Goats got me to meet Hank Aaron, which I can’t even believe. [laughs]

Earlier in the summer, you became internet famous for a comment you posted on Twitter towards Mitt Romney’s press account. How surprising was that?

[laughs] That had legs of it’s own. It was just a thing. When I say stuff on Twitter, it’s exactly like anybody else, I’m saying the thing that occurs to me, and then saying it before I think too hard about it. So yeah, that was kind of very surprising.

And on the flipside of that, you lashed out against internet critics and the media with some facts and figures around the time Amendment One passed in North Carolina to combat the tide of people rushing to call everybody homophobic or “rednecks.”

Well, I was in Australia at the time, and that is a thing that always bothers me, that people always do that. If it’s a southern place or if it’s a place that’s off their radar, then they go “Oh, this place,” and characterize it in a way, and you just want to go “You know, California was the test case, so put them at the front of your queue.” But I’m from California anyways, and you cannot generalize by the behavior of the few or even of the majority. Those sorts of generalizations are bigotry. So, you avoid it, earnestly avoid it. And I think that that style of thinking is very high-school style, in the worst sense of “high-school,” and it’s the sort of thing that you want to grow out of as quickly as you can. It’s like saying “Let me find a group of people to hate.” So, yeah, and especially because I live in Durham. I live in the pocket that voted something like 85% against the amendment. I’m conscious of my different position. You know, I’m not out west of here, where people voted 95% for it. It’s a different place, but I also earnestly believe that’s because life experiences haven’t shown them that the world isn’t just what it seems like when you’re sitting in a place thinking about the world.

You’ve moved around a lot throughout your career, but you’ve stayed in NC for almost a decade now. How would you say that North Carolina’s changed, or that you’ve changed, since you’ve started living there?

I mean, this is the most comfortable I’ve ever been living any place. My love of my hometown, something which I call my home now, is something that I don’t ever intend to shut up about. It’s just an awesome, awesome place. It’s got such breadth of experience; there’s just so many different people and so much stuff going on. The American Dance Festival is here every summer, which is the premier dance festival in the country and totally amazing. There’s so much here and so much history here, and a lot of that history is stuff you learn about and it’s hard to cope with if you’re from the West, like California didn’t even exist until a lot of questions had been decided in favor of the values that I hold. This was a slave state, and it’s the first former slave state that I’ve ever lived in. It’s weird when your friends point out to you that the names of the streets around here were all named after people who owned plantations. You know, you say “Whoa! That’s a weird thing to hear!” That’s weird to know, that you walk down streets that were named after slaveowners. And that’s the complexity of the South that people have been talking about forever. If you have any humanistic tendencies, you think that every place is full of good people, but if you live in a place where people’s best impulses weren’t the ones that were followed, for the longest time, for whatever reason, then you live in a place where you’re sort of living that complexity that people deal with overcoming that sort of past. It’s a beautiful thing, in some ways. Up here, six blocks from where I’m sitting, there’s an area called “Black Wall Street”, which is a block where black-owned businesses started popping up as soon as it became legal for black people to own businesses down here, and they forged their own place to be. It’s a really fascinating history to learn about, and there’s so much to learn, so much to know, and so much to listen to, instead of like out West, where everybody just does and burns past, and has to learn to listen. It’s an awesome thing.

Are any of the metal covers that you’re showcasing at Hopscotch going to be featured in any of the setlists on your fall tour?

Y’know, I’ve gotta say no. I don’t really want to bring them into the sets. I just want it to be a one-time only thing. In my ideal world, I’d play it, nobody’s recording it, and nobody’s holding up their cell phones, and it just happens in the room for the people who are there, but that’s my ideal scenario. I gotta say, a couple of them I like so well that I can imagine myself yanking ‘em out if the sprit moves me, but the plan is for one discreet evening. But, if it goes off really awesome, or if it doesn’t go off really awesome, then I might try them again. I try not to set absolute “yes or no” parameters around stuff.

What can people expect for the Boston show?

Well, we’re bringing a horn section. That’s a very exciting thing for us, because Matt White is opening for us. He’s an amazing musician, and we’ll be doing the songs that have horn arrangements on the record, we’ll be doing those live, with live horns, which is a first for us. It’s totally exciting, because it’s the sort of thing that you don’t think of it when you’re sort of locked into once you become a band or if you have a way of doing things, you go, “Well, we’ll go do the thing we do,” and if you have some new songs, you do that, and then you allow yourself to think a little big, and it’s just so exciting to think of doing the “White Ceder” arrangement live. It’s just so exciting to me. I can’t wait to play with a full section.

That sounds incredible.

It’s going to be awesome. See, on some of these stages - we’re playing the Bowery Ballroom. We know that place backwards and forwards, I know the guys who work the stage- it’s not quite like a second-home status, but it is a familiar and loved place for us, and it’s a tight space. I can’t wait to crowd that thing with horns and play “Cry for Judas.” That’s going to be fun. We’re all super amped- we road-tested “Cry for Judas” down in Tampa a little while ago, and we were shocked at how well it came out of the box because we hadn’t played it since we tracked it, and it sprung, which was really nice. So, yeah, the idea of hearing those horn lines behind us when we’re doing it, it’s very very exciting. We try to do this every tour, to bring people with us who inspire us, so that every night you can go “Holy fuck! I’m following Kaki King! What do I do? I’m playing with Owen Pallet, one of the best of his day!” [laughs] And this time we have Matt, whose releasing his record, which is a great record, and his horns are just really cool. It’ll be really fun.

THE MOUNTAIN GOATS :: House Of Blues, 15 Lansdowne St, Boston :: October 18 @ 7 pm :: All-Ages :: $22 advance / $25 day of show :: 888.693.2583or hob.com/boston

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