In Conversation: The Mountain Goats

John Darnielle discusses the band's dark, intoxicating return...

It’s been two years since the last The Mountain Goats album ‘Goths’. As the title would suggest it was a dark and brooding affair filled with synths and reflections on being a teenager in so The Cure, Joy Division and Bauhaus.

Since then The Mountain Goats, or their de facto leader John Darnielle, have been busy touring and hiding in plain sight making the hit podcast ‘I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats’ with Joseph Fink from Welcome To Night Vale fame. Like that podcast Darnielle and the other Goats have now returned with their 17th album ‘In League With Dragons’.

Like ‘Goths’, and 2015's wrestling-themed ‘Beat the Champ’, ‘In Leagues With Dragons’ is a concept, but this time the subject matter is Dungeons and Dragons. But in true Mountain Goats style, after you dig a little deeper you find it kind of isn’t.

“It's very loose,” John Darnielle explained. “Just the title and a couple of the songs are derived from an older build of the record. It began life as a rock opera and it was a full on, there was a plot and there was a character and everything and I was following that through and I sort of, y'know, I sort of stopped at some point, I forget why, I probably looked to something else.”

He adds: “I'd written a couple of songs that struck me as kind of noir songs”.

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When the band realised they were getting ready to record again, they floated the idea about Darnielle letting go some of his creative control and letting a producer call the shots.

“I wrote the songs before we decide what we want to do with the album. By the time we've made the call to get a producer who we're actually going to give control to which is something that I don't normally do. Normally I have a lot of arguments about things and this time it was like, we decided to find somebody we trusted and let them make decisions.”

After some discussions Owen Pallett’s name came up and was approached. He agreed and Darnielle sent him the songs to listen to and pick the best of the bunch. “We hired Owen to be the producer and I sent him a Dropbox and I said, here's the stuff we've been working on.”

“My emails, as you can probably guess from the way I talk are verbose and if you have time, you don't have a lot of time, you might pick through the email to find the information you need and ignore the rest right. So Owen goes to the Dropbox and there's a whole bunch of other stuff in it, there was the stuff I had told him, here's the ones and he just grabbed a whole bunch, he grabbed the whole thing and he said, okay well I want to focus on this one, this one and this one. I said, oh no, those don't have anything to do with this album [laughs].”

Recite the songs that keep me whole, On the day I hand over control…

“And so what has been a pretty focused record with the plot about a wizard defending a seaside kingdom and all this stuff became sort of a ghost of that which is kind of exciting to me.”

He adds: “It was going to be my Lamb Lies Mines Down On Broadway. Heroes with some dragons.”

When talking about giving up control to Pallett, Darnielle says it was an act of faith and he was afraid he would lose sight of his vision for the album. But by handing over control to people he trusted, the band wound up with a vision that better reflects the one I hoped to express, but which I couldn't have arrived at by himself.

“It's the sort of abandoning the self in order to better locate the self you know. Giving up control and you get more control. You know, you also learn sobriety if you decide you knows to see to somebody, look I can't do this by myself, and you make some choices. Well you find out that you get everything you wanted more than if you tried to get it for yourself.”

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On ‘In League with Dragons’ Darnielle sings on every song, but only plays guitar on a couple. Along with the core members of the band Pallett brought in a collection of musicians who can play. This is evident on the album. The best part of any song is when the band gets locked in that groove and go!

“The rhythm section!” Darnielle says. “It’s really apparent on ‘Done Bleeding’. There's just really in this pocket that, I hope the lyrics are good, I hope everything's good but if you just focus on that. They really just hit a pocket hard”

“I'm always writing stuff,” Darinelle says. He started working on ‘In League with Dragons’ two years ago. “There was actually another bit of a rock opera sort of story about people exiled on an island. I had a couple of things that were early, half demos, and they were actually these big giant synth packets, it was pretty, we used these sawtooth synth sounds”.

“I think ‘Done Bleeding’ was actually the first thing I wrote that is on the record. And it's the kind of bizarre. The new ways of science fiction, as they called it in the early 60s, early 70s was a lot of British and American writers.”

“These guys, who write these stories that weren't exactly science fiction because they didn't have some conceit about technology or the future or other planets, but they took place on an Earth where the rule seems a little different. They had an element of horror and alienation to them, that's what ‘Done Bleeding’ sort of feels like it is to me. A person in a house where, you didn't just have a bad experience in the house, it sounds like something's really off about the place you live, generally speaking. You don't know what that's about.”

“It took place in this sort of very loudly fantastic space that opened up for me some places to go”. 

Write something down in illegible script, As we’re approaching the landing strip…

‘Younger’, one of the albums stand out moments started life years before. “So ‘Younger’ originally was a pretty audibly reference to a very old Mountain Goats song called ‘No I Can't’. And we go in to track it and we had actually sound checked it in Minneapolis at the end of the 'Goths' tour.”

“We had done a version where we tried it and it was kind of a Marshall sort of beat going, dum dum. When we got to the pre-production studio and we're just recording to see what it feels like to try to record. I had done a demo of that at home just as a way to find a beat and it felt risky and interesting.”

“Usually we haven't had the luxury of sort of playing around like that, hadn't had the time, don't have the money to spend in studios and this time we got a nice budget and we really took our time. I reached into my own pocket to go above budget because I'm sort of at the stage in my career where I want to take the time and make the record exactly the record you want to make.”

So the way that song turned out, it's one of my proudest moments and yeah, when it started life, it was this audible preview to the older song which it still is lyrically but it went some place entirely new for us.”

Maximum respect to all the warriors, Who choose to fall down on their spears…

Of the album Darnielle is incredibly proud and excited about this new direction. “This is the Mountain Goats? We get to sound like this?” he exclaims! “It's exciting because it's new but it is The Mountain Goats, you can totally hear it you know. I would say 'Younger' is where it goes so far out that I think people will be quite surprised. My voice comes in over that groove. It's in the 'Beat The Champ' age of stuff where I'm more interested in the structures of the songs musically and I'm trying to go to places and have the songs develop in a more complex way.”

“I mean every new album is always your favourite when it comes out. It's actually because that's the one you care about. The other one you've already seen how they work, you already know enough about them and even if you are very fond of them, you sort of have heard them, and they hold no surprises for you whereas I listen to this one in the car yesterday. I was like, wow, this is cool, and this is the guy with the boom box.”

John Darnielle, and The Mountain Goats, has come a long way from the guy who recorded an album full of in-jokes for his friends on a boom box that found its way to being released on Shrimper. But Darnielle is still that guy – yes he now records in studios with celebrated musicians and producers, but he’s still that guy. His songs are full of insightful lines, witty punchlines and harrowing pathos.

And this is part of his appeal and why he’s just released his 17th album, while some of his peers haven’t. Speaking to him for a few minutes you realise that he is still infused with that love of music and communication that made him want to pick up a guitar and write some songs in the first place.

If you let them seep in,then The Mountain Goats will entertain you, but also tell you things about yourself you didn’t realise.

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'In League With Dragons' is out now.

Words: Nick Roseblade

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