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Between the lines

An expanded version of OKG’s interview with The Mountain Goats


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John Darnielle will be taking the stage for the first time at the Tower Theatre this month.

Darnielle, the singer, songwriter and core member of The Mountain Goats, will be playing a solo show Sept. 17.

He will be supporting his most recent release, Dark in Here, his 20th studio record under the moniker.

Described in promotional materials as “12 songs for singing in caves, bunkers, foxholes and secret places beneath the floorboards,” the record was recorded in March 2020 in Muscle Shoals, Ala., just weeks after the recording of their previous album, Getting Into Knives, in Memphis, Tenn. That record was released in October.

Definitely the more somber of the two records, fans of The Mountain Goats will be pleased with the latest record. Darnielle is excited to be back in Oklahoma, a sentiment that even those with a hometown pride might find dubious. But Darnielle is a student of music history and while he loves the hell out of Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, which he has played, he also perked up when he learned that he would be taking the stage at a theatre that’s 85 years old, Tower Theatre.

“Interviewing” Darnielle was much more akin to having a conversation with a worldly, experienced friend who enjoys a spirited conversation. A voracious reader in addition to being a music fan, Darnielle ended the chat with a bit of news: his third novel, “Devil House,” will be released in January.

The questions and answers below are excerpted from a 30-minute interview with Oklahoma Gazette.

Oklahoma Gazette: Some dates you're doing full band shows, but here in Oklahoma City, you're doing a solo show. What was the decision to split the tour like that?

John Darnielle: Well, my drummer works multiple gigs, right? My drummer also tours with the Bob Mould band, and we can't stay out as a band for six or seven or eight weeks like young folks without kids can do, right? I can't bring my family on tour with me and I’m not leaving mom at home to hold the bag for longer than three weeks at a stretch. It's hard. We have two kids. We have a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old and we're in the middle of a global pandemic, so yeah. So we do three weeks or so, three weeks and change, and then we come home and then Jon [Wurster], as soon as he's off tour, his other people are like, ‘Hey, can we take you out?’ so he’ll be out with Bob Mould during that time. I want to get to Oklahoma. I have a giant crush on Oklahoma and so I had a list of places also that haven’t gotten solo shows because there's a lot of people who like my stuff who’d really like to see a solo show. You can run deeper in the catalog on the solo show. I can dig much deeper just because it takes less preparation for me to learn a song for me than for everybody to get her to get an arrangement together. So I'm trying to get solo shows in places I haven’t done solo shows. I've never played solo in Oklahoma. I've only done band shows at Cain’s and Opolis.

OKG: As a man who has lived here my entire life, I definitely do not have a crush on Oklahoma. What is it you like about this place? I mean, almost as an anthropologist, what is it that someone like you finds value in about Oklahoma?

Darnielle: The first place I saw in Oklahoma was Cain's Ballroom, which is a legendary spot. If you're a music historian at all, that's one of the few spots Sex Pistols stopped on their sole US tour in ‘76, or ‘77, I can't remember quite which, but also Hanks Williams stood on that stage. It was a legendary spot, so it's full of music like that. Oklahoma, generally speaking, gave a lot to the earlier country music scene when it was coming out of the mountain music that comes out of North Carolina and like, the pedigree of country and western kind of flows a lot from the Piedmont and from Appalachia and when it gets to Tulsa, there's a blowtorch radio station, broadcasting out of Cain’s that spreads music throughout the entire Southwest. It’s like a 10,000-watt station or something and the signal reached Mexico. That's music history. I'm really into music history. I believe Woody Guthrie is from Oklahoma. And the singer. Oh, my God, I can picture him. He's got silver-black hair. And I’m gonna confuse it with Merle Travis who's a totally different guy. He's donated his coat to the Woody Guthrie museum and it's in there. I've been in there. I can't think of his name. It’s going to drive me crazy. A 60s and 70s country act. [Darnielle is referring to Leon Russell] But yeah, so a lot of great music comes out of there. There's small cultural things that for me register in a way they wouldn't for you, like the University of Oklahoma Press published a translation of a Mercè Rodoreda novel. She's a Spanish novelist whose stuff until fairly recently was pretty hard to find, but my favorite of her books is published by U of Oklahoma Press. These are the sort of things that bind me to a place and so when I did a reading in Tulsa on my book tour a couple years back, I arranged to see a couple extra days, and to me, it’s a hip town, and it's a beautiful town itself. I know that most of us who are into music are pretty progressive, me included, and if you live in a kind of a place whose politics tend to be backwards, you can hold it against the place but I also know that there is no place in this country where there's not a bunch of bitchin’ people doing bitchin’ things. And I ate at this cool restaurant last time I was in Tulsa, they had a boxing ring inside. That's catnip to me, you know? So those are a few of the things.

[Editor's note: The Tulsa restaurant Darnielle mentions is Elote, 514 S Boston Ave., which was featured in the Aug. 18 Gazedibles]

OKG: It seems like, with your work, there are these creative bursts followed by production and editing and things like that. Has that always been your process?

Darnielle: Yeah, there's, there have always been, like periods of intense productivity for me … The way I always think of it is like, when you are working, when you're writing, you're always sort of circling a theme, you know, or a mood. For me, it's always a bit of a mystery … When you actually sort of tap the vein there, if you have the time, if you make the time to put in the hours, it's just there for you. And I also do think, for me anyway, that the more you work, the more you're going to work. Work produces more work, if you think of it a certain way. And I do always use the word ‘work’ or ‘labor.’ I don't think of it as magic. It's work. If I wake up and go to the kitchen every morning and start fixing breakfast, I will have a new breakfast every morning. And if I do that five days a week, the one I make on Friday is probably going to be pretty good because I've got a practice going, now I've got control of my environment and my tools, right? It's the same with writing. If you show up to it every day, it gets a little better. Now, with songs, you will eventually hit a point where it’s like, ‘Okay, I don't know, if I have much more to say’ and then you rest. I'm sort of resting now because I'm practicing. I’m rehearsing for tour, but two summers ago, I guess it would have been… COVID has messed with my whole sense of time the last year and a half has sort of made time hard to understand. But whenever I was writing these songs, I noticed, ‘Oh, you're sort of doing the thing where, if you wake up and you go straight to work, say hi to the kids, send him off to school and then sit down, something good is coming out.’ So once I had 15 songs or so, I said, ‘Well, let’s just keep going and see what else is in there’ and before too long, I had about 28 or so. My manager and I talked about how to put those together, whether to do a double album. He had the idea to do two different studios and they were going to be released on the same day but we decided to stagger them because there wasn't going to be any tour to support them.

OKG: This is kind of a two-fold question here. One, obviously, a lot of your stuff in the lo-fi days and beyond had pretty simple, straightforward art. What was the decision behind using this one? And secondarily, in an age of digital media, what does cover art mean to you as a musician? And what do you think it means to the audience?

Darnielle: You're right about this barrier and there's a hard stop in Mountain Goats’ discography between when I'm exercising either a very hands-on control or a very sort of, ‘Here's what I want, do exactly this’ control. And then in 2001, we got on 4AD. Now, I had a storied designer, Vaughan Oliver, who died just last year, working with us and with Vaughan, I discovered the process of working with designers, where you you sort of describe the album, you listen to it, you talk about the themes, you kick some ideas around, you say what you're interested in. There's other ways to do this, lots of artists might say, ‘Look, I want a picture of a dog on there. Put a picture of a dog on it.’ But with Vaughan, it would be like, I described to him an earlier album cover and he liked the description so he sort of did a much more high-res version of that for the cover of Tallahassee. Same thing throughout my time on 4AD. It was kicking ideas around finding something or Vaughn would stuff past me. That's the process with me, I like to let the album designer work and like to talk about themes and say, ‘Well, here's what I do want, here's what I don't want,’ With Dark In Here, it was going to be hard to figure out because it’s abstract sort of title, where like, for Getting Into Knives, well shoot, I put a bunch of knives on the cover. Why not? Find some cool knives, right? But with Dark In Here, that's an abstract statement. You can just make a black cover, but that's uncreative. But Daniel, the designer at Merge, sourced a bunch of paintings and he found some stuff. He had a bunch of different ideas. There was a theater stage, playing off the idea of a dark room and stuff like that, but this painting really just reached out and grabbed me.

OKG: Are you one of those guys, like I am, where you still like the physical thing? For example, I still can't read a book on a Kindle. I own one, but I can't use it.

“Yeah, with books especially. So last year, I was a judge for the National Book Awards in the translation category, right? But the publishers were all shut down so they couldn't send us books. I had been waiting for about a year, and expected that big boxes of books were going to show up on my doorstep, which I was gonna be happy about and my wife was gonna be furious about. But instead they sent us a Kindle that was loaded with the books. And I read the books and we picked a winner and everything, but I don't enjoy reading a book that way. I can do it, and I can get into it and I can have the experience. But that's not just sort of an antique thing. Since the book was new, writers have thought about, ‘What’s the nature of a book? What's special about this?’ And there is something about having an object in space, in the world, that contains the things, that is different from just thinking of it as information. To me, a book or a record isn't just information. It's the sum of its presentation. I listen to as much digital music as anybody else. I'm not a naysayer. We live in an amazing time when I can find any kind of music I want 24 hours a day. Incredible. When I was a teenager listening to the radio in the middle of the night, you know, high as hell and you want to hear something, well, you are limited to AM/FM and your collection and that's it. That's no longer the case. If I'm awake at 3 a.m., there's nothing I can't find somewhere.”

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