Meet John DarnielleThe Mountain Goats frontman talks about lyrics, life
There’s something raw and deliciously invigorating about The Mountain Goats and frontman John Darnielle. His songs can be moody, angsty or kind of sweet, and yet they almost always have a core of relatability. Like life, his tunes can get messy, but they can also grab you by the horns and make you pay attention.
In advance of his Asheville show — slated for 9 p.m. this Thursday at The Grey Eagle — Darnielle had a few minutes to email some thoughts about his music, its 20-plus-year longevity and the direction of his upcoming album, “All Eternals Deck.”
Stina Sieg: This may sound incredibly basic, but I’m curious, why do you make music? What do you love about it?
John Darnielle: It’s kind of an impossible question to answer — music is basically like breathing to me almost. Obviously that’s an overstatement, but just barely; I couldn’t really tell you why I like to read, either. I have been reading ever since I found out it was a thing you can do. It just seemed so naturally pleasant and rewarding to me; the same’s true of music.
SS: Your music has evolved far from its lo-fi beginnings. How would you describe your sound these days?
JD: I have to say I think we’re sort of getting into some pretty cool ’70s-album sounds the last album or two: a little more spacious than I used to let things get, more room for the sound to breathe, more of a spacious area for the lyrics to inhabit. I feel like this is kind of related to how highly I think of some of the late-’70s California rock scene records, but I don’t know. Live, we’re still pretty torrential — we like to sweat hard and jump up and down.
SS: You’re at the beginning of a tour. What do you want people to take away from this most recent batch of shows?
JD: I gotta say, honestly, and this isn’t a particularly interesting answer, but “I hope they have a really awesome night out” is really the truest thing I can say. I hope there are elements of the show that are cathartic or make space for epiphanies or whatever but the main thing I feel is that being put in charge of somebody having a good time is kind of a sacred trust. We take a lot of pride in showing people a good time for the price of admission; it’s a big thing for us if people have a good time.
SS: You’re making a point not to squirrel away the unreleased songs you’re planning to put on your upcoming album and are playing some of them during this tour. Can you explain what prompted this decision?
JD: Yeah, I sort of started looking at putting together a master list for the tour and I thought, “I am most interested in playing new songs.” That’s always true, but for some time now I’ve always tabled that urge. I just kinda woke up one morning and said to myself: “Let’s play the shows we want to play. People will like it best that way.” Because the show, that’s always the most important thing: whether the people in the room are getting something special and cool. And for me right now that means playing some new stuff.
SS: Does it feel any different now when you step onto a stage than it did 20 years ago?
JD: Sure — there’s more people watching! And I’m a better musician, and I also feel like people have expectations now that are different from what they were when I sort of felt like I had to get up there and immediately force people to drop their preconceptions of what guys with acoustic guitars do. So it’s more comfortable, and I don’t feel like I have to just sit down and scream through the first five songs to make sure everybody’s paying attention.
SS: Do you think there’s a secret or some kind of special recipe behind The Mountain Goats’ longevity?
JD: I think maybe it’s that people can sort of intuit that I’m really passionate about expressing something lyrically that’s unavailable elsewhere? I don’t consider myself the best lyricist alive or anything, that’s not for me to say, but I do think that what I do is something nobody else really does — that the way I think about things, and the way I describe what’s true for me, comes out in a voice that’s unique. Obviously that’s a goal for everybody, but I think people who like what I do locate something in my stuff that’s exclusively available in my stuff. I guess the constituent parts of it are “slightly garish and memorable images” and “trying to tell the truth about the life of the emotions” and then divided by “a sense of humor about all this,” if I thought of it, but I mean ... trying to describe what goes into a single authorial voice is a tough task, tougher when it’s your own voice I think.
SS: As a musician and just as a person, what’s the most important thing in your life?
JD: Well, I’m a new dad, so the answer is “my son,” but more broadly, kindness: learning to become a kind person, learning what that means.
For more information about The Mountain Goats, visit www.mountain-goats.com. For more info on Thursday’s show, visit www.thegreyeagle.com.