Mountain Goats' John Darnielle on Transcendental Youth and Fatherhood
John Darnielle has recorded under the name "The Mountain Goats" since the early '90s, and in that time his records have gone from crude boombox recordings to polished, sprawling efforts. The fidelity has cleared up, but Darnielle's way with words and flawed-but-noble characters has always been central to the proceedings.
His latest, Transcendental Youth is devoted to spending time in the heads of people in dark places. Amy Winehouse, Judas, Satan, the jonesing junkies of "Lakeside View Apartment Suite" -- Darnielle speaks for these people in uncannily empathic ways.
But the record has an undaunted sense of optimism too, a joyful glee spurred on by the celebratory horn arrangements of Matthew E. White (whose own 2012 release, Big Inner, works as a sort of spiritual counterpoint to Transcendental Youth) and the loping rhythm section of Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster.
We spoke with Darnielle about the album, where he catalogs these disparate characters in his head, and becoming a father.
Up on the Sun: It's been awhile since you've played Phoenix.
John Darnielle: Yeah, I don't think we've played Phoenix since the Baptist Generals tour. That would have been quite a while ago back. Is there an art gallery called Modified in Phoenix?
There is, but they don't generally do shows anymore.
How do I remember that is the more important question? [Laughs] Because we've played a lot of places since 2002 -- maybe 2003, I think that's when that show would have been. But it was a really fun time. You never know what to expect when you're playing an art gallery, whether anyone is going to show up, but it was a really good time.
Transcendental Youth is a joy to listen to. I'm curious, when you sing about the "Diaz brothers" in "Diaz Brothers," which set are you singing about? There are three notable sets: the famous MMA fighters, some Miami hip-hop producers, and the brothers mentioned in Scarface. It kind of speaks to the beauty of Mountain Goats that I could imagine you writing a song about any of them.
I wasn't really writing about anyone, it was kind of a fever dream deal, but...It comes from the movie Scarface. They're these characters you never see, but they are mentioned a couple times. You hear about them, and next thing you hear, they're dead. [Laughs] In the first draft of the song, there was a line about 'a whole life lived in a brief, passing reference' of screen time, without any actual face time, which I think is sort of tragic. If you are writing a piece of fiction, and you mention someone, and the next time you mention him he's died, you've kind of consigned his life to this tucked mention. It's about lives that don't seem to have any meaning to others, but they have meaning to themselves.
It was commissioned by an artist named Aeron Alfrey, who I worked with on the "Satanic Messiah" seven-inch, which was this self-released thing back in '08, or maybe '07. He does a blog I follow called "Monster Brains." He just re-blogs all this horror art from throughout the ages, Italian horror stuff that I like. I bought a painting from him from this series of paintings he had done of a whole bunch of little monsters that were really cool. So I called him about the album, and I gave him a description. What was the line I used -- I said, "Picture people swimming through face and there being demon faces up in space." [Laughs] He worked from there, and we talked about the number of demons, and how much relief they should be in, and whether they're heading toward them or maybe they don't know they're there - all those ambiguities. Aeron is a great, great artist, and he really knocked it out of the park.
Also, there's more art in the rest of the sleeve, which was designed by Robert Carmichael of Seen Studios -- he does a lot of work with Animal Collective and he runs a label called Catsup Plate, a totally great label. Rob's design is sort of under-praised, partly because the front cover is so striking that you miss [his work], but under the text in the sleeve, in the booklet, and on the back cover there are peoples faces that are hiding, that are worth seeing if you look for them. They are sort of "ghosting" forward.
I've got a copy of the record, but I don't think I've stared at it enough.
You have to take a good hard look, and I kind of like that. So few people do. Most people look at something, maybe read through the notes once, but you don't really gaze at it. Hardcore vinyl heads from back in the day, you'll sit with your vinyl, and once you're done reading it you just sort of gaze, and the idea is these people who are hiding in there will just sort of "magic eye" their way forward.