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coverpic flag US - California - Full Moon 90 - 02/06/04

The Mountain Goats
- another interview with John Darnielle

The next piece in the puzzle
It's been just over a year since The Mountain Goats released their terrific 4AD debut Tallahassee and despite the fact that John Darnielle and his band have toured extensively last year, they have found the time to record a superb follow up. Reason enough for us, to ask Mr. Darnielle some more questions, especially since We Shall All Be Healed is notably different to his huge previous output, according to its creator.

John Darnielle: "This album is quite different from all my others I think. There are no love songs on it, when usually I write almost nothing but love songs; also, much of the material is autobiographical, which I've always resisted in the past. To Peter [Hughes, TMG bass player] & I this album seems quite a different creature."

LK: Last year you said it seemed like the logical next step to record Tallahassee in a real recording studio - the new album seems to imply that you were willing to use the advantages a studio like that has to offer even more this time around. Was that sort of a conceptual thing or was that just due to the fact that you toured a lot with a band and the right people to work with happened to be around this time?
John Darnielle: "I think the fuller sound is the result both of being more comfortable in the studio and of having a little more time to play around while there. But it's also true that Peter commented, when he first heard the songs, that they sounded like they'd been written with lots of instrumentation in mind. The right people to work with didn't just happen to be around, though - Bear Creek Studio is way up in the woods an hour from Seattle! We had Christopher McGuire, the drummer, flown in from Minneapolis, and Franklin flew up from L.A. Nora the violinist came up from Portland, Oregon. So the idea of using more people was there from the start."

LK: You said before that the lyrics are always your main focus - so was it sort of a challenge to arrange the songs in a way that would a) allow you to use more instruments on at least some of the songs and b) still keep the focus on the lyrics?
John Darnielle: "I trusted the lyrics to fight for themselves in most cases. There are two songs that don't have any additional instrumentation; one of them was recorded at home in my old way (one take, live, no overdubs: this song is "All Up the Seething Coast") and the other, "Home Again Garden Grove," just sounded so good the way it was that we decided not to add anything else."

LK: What role did the producer John Vanderslice play in this process, especially since you've called the band "a dictatorship run by me" before?
John Darnielle: "John is so great, and so is his engineer, Scott Solter. The two of them are like this amazing super-duo of sound. John gets the vision, you know? He hears a song, and if he likes it, he says: "This is going to be great," and then he thinks about how he can help make it great: looks at the microphones he's got and tries several different ones, listens hard for the sound of the voice or instrument in various rooms, and so on. Scott places the microphones, seems to have perfect pitch (he tuned my guitars with a full set of tuning forks!), and when he's mixing a song, he can hear even the slightest variation in placement, volume, etc. I let John make a lot of decisions about throwing out certain parts, songs, and so on. It was hard to do but I trust him because he & Scott are such a genius team and you can tell from the minute you hear the sound of their recordings."

LK: Last year you said of your songwriting: "I feel like I've gotten past some of my older, weaker points" - so are there any specific areas where you think there's still room for improvement?
John Darnielle: "Funny you should ask because I've been writing songs this week. I think We Shall All Be Healed is certainly my best songwriting so far - it's lean, you know, there are fewer wasted words. I still want to cut and chip and chisel away at my songwriting until all that's left is what's absolutely necessary for the song & the image to come through to the listener. I want to write songs that are like Chinese puzzle boxes. I'd like to get to the point where some lines or so compact that every word intensifies the one before it, like in the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Things Done Changed" ("my mother's got cancer in her breast/don't ask me why I'm motherfuckin' stressed") or Smog's "Cold Blooded Old Times." I'd say that any songwriter who doesn't think there's room for plenty of improvement in his songs is either insane or a fraud, though - I mean, what if I had answered this question "No - I have reached the zenith!" That would be crazy."

LK: Taking of the lyrics - is it just me or is the theme of this album "songs about people not living up to their full potential or ruining their lives, because they don't take care of themselves enough"?
John Darnielle: "That's about right - well done! It's about people who are fraying at the edges like old shirts - threads loose everywhere, buttons missing, etc. It's also about some very specific people I knew when I was younger, and it's about me, which hasn't been true on my other records (except for maybe "The Coroner's Gambit," where a few of the songs were personal). When I was very young I liked staring in the abyss to see what you happen, if you know what I mean - this album is about the things I saw when I liked staring into the abyss. To be more specific: I spent a year in Portland, Oregon when I was eighteen years old. I was maniacally depressed and very self-destructive. It was a very rich year, if you know what I mean by rich: thick like mud, you know. For a long time I didn't like to think about it. When I sat down to write "Palmcorder Yajna" it all just sort of came spilling out, and I said to myself: "Why not take away the mask, at least a little?" And the songs came out violently as if they'd been waiting for permission."

LK: What do you have in store for us in 2004 apart from the rather splendid new album?
John Darnielle: "Lots of touring! Thanks for the kind words on the new album - there's another single coming out, "Letter from Belgium" with two non-LP b-sides recorded in Paris at the MoFo fest with Kimya Dawson and Dave Tattersall - I'm excited for people to hear the B-sides, I think they're lots of fun. As I say I'm writing songs right now but I always try not to say too much about the stuff I'm working on. Superstition, maybe."

LK: Silly last question, as always - is there anything that should be mentioned that I completely missed out on?
John Darnielle: "I love this question, but I can never think of a good answer to it! Perhaps the question that so many people ask me at German concerts: "Is the next album going to be released on vinyl?" The answer for this one: yes, actually! And the main reason I wanted vinyl was because so many people at the last three concerts in Germany prodded me about releasing stuff on vinyl. So: here you are!"

Copyright © 2004 Carsten Wohlfeld e-mail address

You may also want to check out our Mountain Goats articles/reviews: Tallahasse, an interview with John Darnielle, The Life Of The World To Come.

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