March 11th, 2007 | Interviews

John Darnielle started the Mountain Goats out in the Inland Empire and made a deep musical connection between Loudon Wainwright and Joan Didion. He is now working with bassist Peter Hughes and released most recent album Get Lonely on 4AD in August. Besides playing music, he also maintains the world’s only blog at Darnielle emails between interruptions in Internet accessibility while somewhere on the west coast.

You’ve said that you take your self-image from your early surroundings—how does a childhood in California still affect who you are?
Yeah, I think living most of my younger life there (‘til I was twenty-eight really with the exception of one year in Portland) defined me in a lot of ways—feeling like the rest of the country was really a totally different world, like California was its own de-facto nation. That southern California, really, was like a separate republic. It makes one feel like a sort of half-castaway/cyborg/alien creature, maybe.
How prepared were you for work at the Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk? I’m not trying to get any lurid horror stories out of you but it does seem like a job that could leave a mark.
I was well-prepared: I went to a two-year nursing program to study for the job I was working then. I think the public perception of state hospitals gets a little skewed by the occasional bad incidents that happen. The state of California has been gutting the mental health budget yearly for a long long time, so it’s not surprising to hear that an understaffed and underfunded hospital would be having a progressively harder time providing care to its population. It didn’t really “leave a mark” on me, no, though I learned plenty. It was my privilege to be able to be of any service I could to the patients there. I miss them a lot.
You said Joan Didion is the best living writer now. Are there any living writers you feel creatively or personally connected to—a literary analog to the Mountain Goats?
I don’t really know—I feel like usually when people answer this question they’re really saying, “Here’s who I like to read.” I like to imagine that my aesthetic peers are actually choreographers and dance troupes, but I don’t really know enough about the field to actually say that. Still. I like to think so.
You wrote in the Los Angeles Times about how important it was that the songs for Get Lonely not feel dishonest. But you’ve also written about the “terrible tendency” for listeners to demand “authenticity” from music. What’s the distinction?
Yeah, I think I’ve gotten a little less strict about all that stuff—I used to hate anything that smacked of “guy with acoustic guitar spills his guts!!” or that sorta thing. Actually, I still hate that. Because it carries a whole set of dictates about what counts as “spilling your guts.” These days it usually means “caterwauling,” right? As if all feelings were best expressed at high pitch. And I think that’s pretty stupid. But honesty is a whole separate field—you know, I mean, Frank Lloyd Wright buildings could be described as “honest,” if you look at the word from a certain angle.
If you bring back a musician that no one’s heard from for years, who would it be?
The obvious answer is “Axl,” and I don’t think anything we’d be compatible collaborators, no. I guess everybody’d like to hear new stuff from Kevin Shields too, right? I don’t think anything I do would really mesh with what he does either though.
What characteristics define excellence in death metal? Do these transfer to other genres or do we need two different vocabularies to discuss Karen Dalton and Cephalic Carnage?
Different aesthetic priorities, obviously, though it varies from band to band. As in any other genre, obviously the first priority is to excel at the rudiments of the craft—evoking a general atmosphere of violence and dread and playing fast and loud usually with the drums keeping cut-time. Beyond that, I mean, each band has its own voice—Origin, one of my favorites, shoots for this sort of cosmic-dread feel, whereas Incantation is more of a Bosch-like horrific vision. I’d say that excellence in any field is defined by “Did the artist evoke something interesting with which we can engage?”
What is your currently most unrealized ambition? Why isn’t it realized yet? Let us know if we can help.
I still cannot play a shredding guitar solo. I made it my goal two years ago to shred honestly and thoroughly once before I die. You can help by believing in my cause.
Have you ever spent a night in jail?