The lead singer of The Mountain Goats is also a critically acclaimed author. John Darnielle will be visiting New York City (Tuesday, September 1 at The Strand) and Washington, D.C. (Wednesday, September 2 at Busboys and Poets Brookland) for readings from his 2014 novel Wolf in White Van. Rather than talking about the book or NYC or D.C., we began with 10 minutes about Chicago venues.
John Darnielle is a considerate interview subject. He thinks about his answers. This shouldn’t be an oddity but it is. When you’re interviewing hundreds of people a year or dealing with hundreds of interviews a year, questions and answers tend to become routine. Though it may seem like a good question, “What inspired your new album/book/film/restaurant/painting?” is not a good question. The answer, “It’s always been a passion of mine,” is an equally bad response. Because Darnielle is someone who has created two of the best pieces of art in the pop culture spectrum in the last calendar year we wanted to ask questions better than the routine. Instead, we talked about the Empty Bottle.
We did chat about the book so we’ll begin with some of the author’s thoughts about it. We’ll cover this with as few spoilers as possible. It’s better reading Wolf in White Van with little or no knowledge of the plot. So here’s Darnielle’s thoughtful answer to an open ended, relatively spoiler free question. We began with a big one, do you view life as a game?
“No. I’m not the speaker of the book, but I don’t think he does either. It’s an interesting question because there’s a way of thinking of life like that, I don’t know, how one construes life is a pretty heavy question, but no. There are aspects of gaming. I think it’s how you approach life, look at all of the things people do, playing music, writing books, playing games, building houses, whatever, and use various processes in them as metaphorical ways to explain what you do. In gaming there’s an element of improvisation that I won’t say is controversial but some people don’t like it and other people prefer games, like in Doom, that old game Doom, did you play that old game Doom? In Doom your options are limited, you’re in a maze, you go room to room, you shoot, you’re not doing a lot of free play, where Sean (narrator and lead character in Wolf in White Van) really respects Chris Hayne’s free play moves where he’s making stuff up. In that aspect, life can be a game, a “yes, and” situation, improv. There are useful parallels but no, life isn’t a game.”
He could have said no and left it at that. He didn’t. He spoke with passion about the characters in his book, the fictional game within the book and more. Every question was answered with thought and nearly every answer was followed up with a clarification.
If you’re interested in reading an extensive piece about Darnielle in a major music magazine, we recommend the recent Rolling Stone feature. In it Darnielle says something quite interesting, “Adulthood is interesting to adults.” So we asked, are you hesitant to write from your current age?
“People keep saying that and I just don’t see it. The book is from the point of view of an adult, it’s about the repercussions he made when he was young but it’s narrated by his adult self until the last chapter. That’s interesting to me for a number of perspectives. People find oldsters saying to you, make these decisions carefully because you only make them once and you think, fuck it, whatever. Let me tell you a fact. Small things, if I started to get into exercising at 18 rather than smoke cigarettes and do drugs, now I have no discipline for exercise. Why? Small decisions I made a long time ago. That stuff is interesting.”
“I don’t think I’m writing about youth. If there’s a youthfulness of what I do, great.”
If you’re interested to hear Darnielle speak about the book, I recommend the Sydney Writers’ Festival podcast from earlier this year. He mentions the idea of , “an unreachable grail.” I asked him to expound on the idea and this led to the WWE. The Mountain Goats 2015 LP is Beat The Champ, a fantastic look back at wrestling before the WWF, and how WWE took the world by storm. Long before Cyndi Lauper was hanging out with Captain Lou Albano and Rock ‘n’ Wrestling was dominating MTV there was televised territorial wrestling. That’s what the album tackles and that’s what drew Darnielle in, the stories about those performers.
“Basically what wrestling is is theater. You have physical bodies on stage doing their lines. Because they have a little more room for improv than most actors, not that much more, they’re working with some pretty tight scripts, but it’s a different type of writing. It’s not as free as it looks.”
The Mountain Goats have been praised by Stephen Colbert, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and nearly every outlet that covers indie rock. Darnielle’s book has been praised by The New York Times, NPR, GQ and it was nominated for the National Book Award. He’s a high brow artist working in low brow art (pop music) and high art (literature). Wrestling, the subject of his newest album, is considered low brow. When asked about high brow vs. low brow culture, Darnielle had a passionate response.
“I do not differentiate. I don’t do a lot of meta-thinking about culture. I think meta stuff is sort of the plague of our age. I try not to think about why I like what I like. I disregarded those ideas about high and low culture in the mid 90s. There’s just stuff you like immediately and some stuff you have to work for. High and low are loaded words.”
“I remember driving around really high listening to pop radio and thinking, ‘Wow, this music is as good as that really brainy shit you like.’ It was Billy Ocean or something, and it was. Its textures are really good. I had a moment in the 80s or 90s with Billy Ocean and Kool and The Gang thinking this music is as a good or better but you like other stuff because it seems bookish.”
“When you start talking about this meta, talking about your taste stuff, people wind up doing these hierarchies, ‘It turns out that was the really good music and the stuff I liked was bad!’ and that’s not true. It’s a worthwhile goal to try to connect to as most stuff as possible. The first step in all that is disregarding ideas of hierarchical culture. They’re not useful designation. They were put in place by in part, by class mechanisms that are outdated and worth disregarding.”
“That being said, people won’t listen to classical music because it’s from a culture they can’t relate to, but classical music is visceral and you feel it in your body like any music. If people aren’t open to it because it feels exclusionary, that’s a damn shame.”
Then we talked about metal and music festivals. For 10 minutes we debated the merits of all day music festivals. What matters is the bands Darnielle is currently listening to and enjoying. Here they are: Nekromantix, Hate Eternal, Enslaved, Gary Numan, Eye of Nix, Death Penalty, Horrendous, Chaos Echœs, Cheer Accident, Propagandhi, Bell Witch, Annihilator, Anita Baker.
The conversation looped back around to wrestling and metal and festivals and connections with art.
We talked extensively about Chicago because Darnielle hit Chicago on his first book tour. He lived there for 6 months in 1995-1996. One of the reasons he moved there was The Empty Bottle. The Bottle was the first place to book The Mountain Goats outside the west coast. The crowd consisted of 30 people but they were treated well and fell in love with the city. The song “Cubs in Five” was released after that show. Though it really has nothing to do with the Chicago Cubs, as a listener and Chicagoan, it does to me (especially when the Cubs are doing well, they’re in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and last night Jake Arrieta threw a no-hitter for the Cubs against the Dodgers so I’ll be listening to this song on repeat all day). Darnielle writes the kind of books and songs that allow the audience to attach their own feelings. His art is open for interpretation and feelings. So many feelings. You will grow to love it or dismiss it before giving it a real chance. It’s nothing like being a Cubs fan.