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Acclaimed Singer-Songwriter, John Darnielle, On Compositional Development, Finger Painting and the Band’s Latest Album
Like a jovial and wise sycamore John Darnielle has been a poignant totem for the pathos-powered indie music of Generation Y. Having led The Mountain Goats through more than twenty years of straight-to-tape recordings and supple tree sadness, his catalogue alone holds more cards than the average fake Jamaican tarot reader.
Their latest LP, Transcendental Youth, is an honest sonnet of powerful pianos and indie-rock ideals that wades through seas of doubt, trundle bed talks and analog admiration.
In addition to releasing Transcendental Youth, what are you aiming to accomplish in the next year?
Well, we are gonna tour until our feet fall off. When we get done with that I have plans to release a book. After tour I am going to bore down on the book. I can see the path to the end of it so I am pretty excited. But who knows what’s in store for me.
Describe your creative process.
It varies; there is no particular formula. I immediately think about the album and how I wrote the various songs.
“Harlem Roulette” I wrote in a brief gap when the baby was napping. “Until I Am Whole” I wrote in a hotel room in Minneapolis, so it really varies from song to song.
Usually there will be a phrase or an image that I will have either run across right then or will have written down a while back and I’ll see it and feel that there is something in it, then try to find a melodic area that expresses that phrase and build upon it. Like paper mache; adding layers to a core until you have a shape.
Who produced Transcendental Youth and what was the recording process like?
Our tour manager, Brandon Eggleston, produced the record, which is really a different thing in itself. Because, often when you record an album, you do pre-production—we don’t—and meet up with the producer in the studio, but we pretty much live in a van with Brandon, I share a room with him on the road and, if I am writing songs on tour, he hears them right as I am writing them.
He has recorded with us before, but this is the first time he has done a full album with us.
We recorded here in town [Durham, NC] which is also rare for me, usually we go far away where we don’t know anybody and go on a sort of quest where you dig in for a week. But, this time we recorded over at Overdub Lane which is a mile and a half from my house, so I would drive there in the morning and come home at night, which was very, very novel for me. And awesome. [Laughs]
Studio stories can go on all day when you do a dug in session where you go in for 7 days and work until you’re done. It’s like spending a semester abroad; you come back with more stories than you could ever tell.
What are some of the programs and instruments used in the making of the record?
Programs? We actually recorded in the analog domain. It’s only done digitally for mixing, but we recorded to 2-inch tape [Laughs] and I write on ‘hard instruments’: piano and guitar. Though like everybody else I will occasionally, while at home lay something down on Garage Band. But, we tend do it the old fashion way [sarcastic explanation]: sit around with instruments causing them to make sound, then record them through things that transmit sound via electrical impulse.
For the most part I played my 1964 Gibson LG-1 and I also used a John How guitar that was made for me that is really awesome. That one’s made of walnut and cedar.
That’s where our craft usually is; in the wood and the bone and the skin.
What would you say sets this record apart from your previous releases?
I think this is a really focused group of songs that coheres around a theme and really develops it. I would say that the idea of development is a big part of it—I wonder if this is interesting to people outside of the process?
So, I feel that the idea of development, in regards to a musical piece, is something that is under discussed outside of music studios and where we’re working. Like the idea that some of those Beach Boys tracks work so well is the development; the song starts one place, then an instrument or tone is added with each verse or chorus and it grows and goes somewhere.
That also works thematically over a group of songs if you have little melodic bits that refer to each other or chords. In the case of this record there are a lot of major seventh chords, which I don’t even know if there is more than one or two on previous Mountain Goats records. [Laughs] Well, maybe when Franklin Bruno [singer-songwriter] was playing piano on Get Lonely, The Sunset Tree and Heretic Pride there might have been some because I don’t stand over his shoulder and watch what he’s playing.
The songs here are building around a major seventh, like “In Memory of Satan” has a ton of them and “White Cedar” has several. It seems like there is something in that, tonally, where I hear different emotional terrains that I maybe usually address.
It’s a dry thing to say, but to me, the major seventh is the story of this record. The songs that anchor around it are the ones that open onto the broader themes.
What was the greatest challenge surrounding Transcendental Youth?
Ya know, I don’t know if I think of making music as overcoming challenges. It’s more like finger painting; doing kid art. Pre-challenges. Tinkering around doing stuff until you find something that you like.
There is a degree, since I am talking a lot about mental illness and depression, that I wanted to sound some depths that are, maybe, a little uncomfortable, but I am used to that. Its what I do. I don’t know if “challenges” is as much of what I do as it is…more like playing with mud.
How do you feel you have grown since All Eternals Deck (2011) was released?
Well, I’m a dad now so a lot has changed in my life. [Laughs] Artistically, I am a much better pianist. That has really been the story with me since 2005. Piano is the only instrument I have any professional training on. I played when I was a kid, but didn’t come back to it until 2005. Now I’ve been at it for 6 or 7 years and I am starting to get somewhere.
How did the song “Spent Gladiator 2” come about?
The chord progression came first, but the title ‘Spent Gladiator’ has been in my notebook for a long time. I think I wrote that one down during the Heretic Pride run up. I like the way the words sound together; I like the word ‘spent,’ how it can mean ‘exhausted’ or ‘out of resources.’ So, I was sitting at the dining room table, for whatever reason, and played that chord progression which is: C to an E minor to an F to an E major. This kind of touches on the idea of growth, because if you look at my old stuff you won’t ever find anything that complicated, which it’s not even that complicated—hardly Steely Dan—but it is a thing where you are trying to get a major and a minor of the same chord to work inside of the same progression. That’s a step up for me, compositionally. I played it and liked the way it worked. When it gets to that major and resolves on an A minor, it was interesting to me; it sounded nice.
Then I looked at the title and tried to use the words directly because I had already used the term in ‘Spent Gladiator 1,’ but didn’t use it in the body of that song. ‘Spent Gladiator 1’ is more the concept, where ‘Spent Gladiator 2’ more broadly teases at the idea.
For someone who so heavily associates his art with locations, how has your move to Durham, NC affected your writing?
It is hard to say. When using location it has more to do with the ideas of locations rather than actual locations. I am always using the word ‘resonance.’
Where are you calling from?
So, if I say to you, ‘Miami.’ You get a vibe, even if you have never been there. You have some images in your head; a groove; a vibe. It’s kind of a key, like A minor or something like that. Well, I guess with Miami it’s probably more like a big, bright B major. [Laughs] That is the role of location in my stuff. It is tonal. It’s my version of a color pallet.
Would you explain the title Transcendental Youth and does it in anyway allude to your recent move into fatherhood?
No. That’s been so weird to me that people are saying that. When I think of ‘youth,’ I don’t think of childhood as youth. I think of your teenage years and just on the other side of those as ‘youth.’
My son will be a youth when he tells me ‘to go fuck off.’ [Laughs]
Transcendental Youth was actually kind of relating to ‘infertile youth.’ But I looked it up and there was a band in London that was using it, so I started thinking what I really meant by ‘infertile.’ I decided it was about pushing outside of the way people are thinking about things; trying to transcend. Also, I was looking around in some of my old Vaishnava literature [major branch of Hinduism] I have a big collection of and the discuss Krishna as being a ‘transcendental youth.’ And I really liked that idea.
It is the idea of ‘youth’ as being a transcendental condition that is pervasive. When you ‘leave it behind,’ you are not actually leaving. Also, it is that feeling of being in a very intense period of growth where you feel outside of the physical world and you are somewhere off in a transcendental place.
What is it about what you do that keeps you from doing something else?
Well, I do a lot of stuff. All of it is inherently rewarding in that I like writing and also that I like playing out.
John, thanks for your time and good luck with the tour.
Hey, nice interview. I don’t often get a chance to talk about the compositional stuff and the actual nuts and bolts of writing. It is way more interesting to me than the press cycle stuff that I usually get asked about. It was very rewarding for me.
Well, thank you very much.
Photos by DL Anderson