John Darnielle Wants to Tell You a Story

John Darnielle Wants to Tell You a Story

John Darnielle, the leader—and, at times, the only member—of the band the Mountain Goats, writes songs that are narrative, literary, and full of recurring lyrical motifs: cruel stepdads, grief, sci-fi, death metal, small southern towns, religious ephemera, delusion and ambition, the blurred lines between love and hate. It sounds teen-angsty, laid out like that, but Darnielle, who is now in his mid-fifties, has had from the time of the band’s formation, in the early nineties, a knack for avoiding the maudlin in favor of the uncannily precise. His songwriting style drills into the intimacy of small moments, telling stories about specific people in specific times and places. One of the Mountain Goats’ most famous songs, “This Year,” from the 2005 album “The Sunset Tree,” is the semi-autobiographical story of a teen with a miserable home life, finding joy where he can. The refrain is an ecstatic threat: “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me.” In 2020, when the pandemic turned the world upside down, “This Year” broke out, reaching beyond the Mountain Goats’ passionate, occasionally insular fan base, to become an agonized anthem of the moment. Readers of the Guardian voted the track to the top slot of their “Good Riddance 2020” playlist.

Darnielle grew up in California and moved to Portland, Oregon, after receiving his high-school equivalency. He returned to California following the darkest period of a drug addiction and worked as a psychiatric nurse. In 1991, he enrolled at Pitzer College, where he studied English and classics, and began recording as the Mountain Goats. After four years of prolific lo-fi releases, the Mountain Goats started recording in a studio; three decades and twenty-odd albums later, the band is a pillar of the indie-rock world. Today, Darnielle lives in Durham, North Carolina, and when he’s not making music he is writing novels. (His second book, “Wolf in White Van,” was long-listed for the 2014 National Book Award.) I met up with him recently, when he was visiting New York on tour, in the uncommonly luxe indoor-outdoor greenroom above the newish venue Brooklyn Made. A bandmate floated in a small body of water on a rooftop deck. (“Listen,” Darnielle said. “I would never tell anyone what to write, but, if you didn’t mention that you found my bassist lounging in a hot tub, I’d be so unhappy.”) Later, when Darnielle was back home in Durham, we continued our conversation by phone. He was on a break between tours and preparing to release his latest novel, “Devil House,” an elegant and unsettling story of a true-crime writer unravelling a nineteen-eighties Satanic Panic killing. We spoke about art as labor, the value of religious faith, the beauty of Chaucer, and, more or less, the secret to happiness. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

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Was that early-pandemic hiatus the longest period you haven’t been on tour?

In pretty much my adult life, yeah. I mean, I started my “adult life” late, because I was a nurse before. But in my Mountain Goats life, yeah. It was really bad in a lot of ways. For one, you worry about money, because this is what I do for a living, and sales of records doesn’t make it up, although our fans were incredibly good to us during the downtime. At first you go, Wow, I’m home for three months, and I’m sleeping well—it’s great. But then I miss my band, and I miss playing. What goes on specifically between the Mountain Goats and our audience is a circuit of musical communication that’s really precious and amazing, and it’s pretty rare. We’re not the only band that has a connection to its audience, but we do have a unique one. If you’ve been to a lot of Mountain Goats shows, you know: there’s a thing that happens. There are people who get something from what we do, and it’s very important to me to provide.

Does having been a nurse make you more attuned to that?

You become a nurse because you’re already the kind of person who wants to do something for people. You feel like you have something to bring. They’re called the caring professions: providing care is the thing, and you don’t go into the profession unless that’s something you want to do. It becomes a big part of who you are. You see some amazing things happen. Spiritually, I think, to be able to help anybody, your existence now has some kind of meaning. I don’t think of my audience as patients, you know, but I do think that, in my nursing years, I learned to identify myself, or to be happy with myself, based on how much good I had done for somebody. The good that I did back then was helping people medically, and the good that we do now is entertaining people. It’s different. But to me, when somebody entertains me, I get a feeling that fills in the pieces of something I didn’t know was missing.

In a YouTube video you uploaded last year, you mentioned that you often think of the titles of your songs as keys to unlocking what the song is actually about. This idea of solving a puzzle—playing games, uncovering secrets—is a through line in both your songs and your novels.

I work in reveals. The reveal is a big part of what I do. The unveiling and the unmasking is a constantly recurring theme, I think. As with a lot of stuff for me, I think it ties in with my spirituality, which is Catholic. I left the Church a long time ago, but you’re always Catholic, right? This is what we say in the mass: “Let us celebrate the mystery of faith.” Catholicism is all about mystery. It’s about approaching the unapproachable, it’s acknowledging that, when you get close to that, it’s not definable, not knowable. Yeats uses the word “mystery” in some amazing ways. That’s the stuff for me, always. I like things that I don’t understand.

With some of my work, to some people, this is frustrating. Especially in the Internet age, people want to annotate things, to say “this means this, this means this.” With my stuff, I always want it to reach a nexus of, Can you sit with something that doesn’t resolve, and be happy there? Or not even be happy, but be present. That’s what I like, in art. That’s what I like in novels, especially. With songs, if the lyric doesn’t resolve, the music does. When that happens, that’s mystery itself; you can’t state what the music did, but it completed the thought. This is the job of music: to express things that are beyond language. It also plays into primal stuff. Remember in grade school—it depends on your grade school and what your background is—remember when some kid came in one day in December and went, “Santa Claus isn’t real”?

I’m Jewish, so it didn’t quite go like that.

So you already had this knowledge. But I was at Catholic school when this happened. The kid who does that is a kid who doesn’t like mystery, and he’s extremely happy to demystify things for you. And I knew, but I was still bummed: You didn’t have to tell me that. You didn’t have to say it out loud. You don’t have to go around saying “There’s no God.” What good does that do? We all very strongly suspect that we’re alone, right? We really don’t have to go spoiling things for people and taking away so many nice things. Don’t get me wrong—I also want to note that in the name of religion so many atrocities have been perpetuated.

The negative proselytizing of the Internet atheists is sort of—

I was one of them, briefly. In my brief apostasy.

There’s something very adolescent, and I mean that in a value-neutral way, about awakening to something, or seeing something, and feeling angry that other people are not seeing it, too.

What it took, for me, was people reminding me of the role of the Church in the civil-rights movement. And then you look at that, and you look at the tradition of charity in the Jewish tradition and the Islamic tradition. You can dwell on the Inquisition; there’s plenty of terrible stuff being done in the name of Christianity, all the way to today, but it’s really a matter of focus. And you can’t weigh it, either—only God could weigh things like that. What you do is you focus on—well, you get to some bromides like, “if you don’t like it, make it better.”

They’re bromides for a reason.

What you come to understand is that, within a religion, what you’re looking for is a progressive organization—something that understands its own complicity in the past. It’s one conflict I have with my own lefty discourse: People want the Catholic Church to do a complete about-face, and I go, Hey, you can’t ask that of the Catholic Church. What you can ask is that they atone for bad things, and acknowledge bad things. But you can’t ask them to be you. I won’t be going back, because I’m relentlessly pro-choice. It’s a big part of my identity, but I cannot, in good conscience, ask the Catholic Church to respect that. I can ask them not to work to outlaw things that are none of their business, but I can’t ask them to have my position on every topic.

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