Friday, 20 June 2008

Mountain Goats Piece

Published in the Stool Pigeon Jan 2008, under the title 'Summit Meeting'

“OK,” says John Darnielle, “Give me the Dictaphone and I will ask you some questions.”

It’s ten minutes into the interview, and I’ve already flaked. I didn’t want to write this article. I didn’t want to write this article because the Mountain Goats are to me what Michael Jackson is to Japanese people, and when you feel that level of hysteria for a person the last thing you want to do is humanize them. Steadily releasing albums for the best part of a decade, first on cassette then on 4AD, they’re the kind of band with a following so cult, you can’t imagine them with faces, let alone with a voice, body, knife, fork and napkin. John is the chief songwriter and only constant member, and he’s in the UK for some Christmas shows ahead of the new album release.

“I would rather you interviewed me about how much I love your band,” I joke. Ten minutes later, after I forget how to speak, he leans across the table, gently extracts the tape deck from my hand and asks, “Where did you grow up?”

I hope you derive from this that John is a nice guy. I hope you also derive from it that he’s a nice guy with a lot of charisma. Not the kind of charisma that makes you shy around Nicole Kidman, but the kind that puts a picture of King Bhumibol on every wall in Thailand. My band have been touring with him for four days, and by the second we are operating a ‘John Love’ competition – points for making him laugh, points for getting a hug. By the third day I am literally Googling fart jokes to try and get ahead, because nothing makes you feel better than when John Darnielle walks into a room, pats you on the back and says, “what’s up?”

It’s this touring business that makes me so nervous. If I’ve learned anything from traveling in a van with the Mountain Goats, it’s that I will do anything to make him like me, and also that he doesn’t like being probed. I have an email in my inbox in which he refers to himself as a cave dwelling hermit, and then ‘a troll’. As much as he joins in with the after-show dork talk (Peter from the Goats knows a lot about New Order), shows you the giant Mini-Cheddar he’s just found in his packet and shares his magazines (Metal Hammer, of course), there are times when you can tell he just wants to be alone. I bet the end of the press day after the last tour of the year is one of those times. I bet if I annoy him, I won’t get a hug at the end of the meal. I am literally speechless. I can’t think of a single thing to say.

“You don’t like doing press much do you?” I muster.

“There’s worse things to have to complain about,” he says, “But it does generally feel weird. I don’t like to talk about myself this much, I kinda hope my stuff does that for me.”

If you had asked the crowd after the Glasgow show what they wanted most of all from him, they wouldn’t have asked to know his favorite color. His stuff really does say something for him. It’s strong in its complicity, and it leaves you feeling part of a greater consciousness. You don’t need to know anything about him because, just by being there, you’re already in cahoots. Witnessing 200 people burst into song at the lyric ‘St Joseph’s Baby Aspirin’, our van driver leans across and tells me,

“I’ve never seen someone control a crowd like that before.”

Our van driver, by the way, has just been on tour with Anthrax. But this grasp of mass hypnosis isn’t something that Darnielle finds overwhelming. To him, it’s just a natural case of cause and effect. “I’m a huge music fan,” he says, “and when I go to a show I get really into it, so when I see someone moving their lips to my words, it’s a kick – in another audience with another artist, that person is me, right?”

You don’t have to be a top level obsessive to know that John’s really, really into black metal, but if you’ve read his webzine, or heard old-skool hip-hop blaring from his headphones on the motorway, you’ll have an idea of how much other stuff he’s into. Tonight, as he waxes lyrical about Cocorosie’s Akon cover, I suddenly realize that as a fangirl, I’m in the presence of my king. “I’ve been obsessed with records since I could crawl,” he explains, launching into a eulogy for Lifter Puller, “but if you’re listening mainly to vinyl these days you’re probably being a little precious…”

This is the kind of discourse you’d expect to find on his Last Plane to Jakarta, recently given a thumbs up from Pitchfork for its quality of writing, and between it and generally accepted Internet knowledge, you could probably draw a map of most of his likes and dislikes. Again I wonder why I’m asking him questions, when he could be doing the same of me – ‘Actually John, you didn’t listen to Hail to the Thief cause everyone was going on about it, but once you did you got pretty into it.” but the thing that you wouldn’t know from typing John Darnielle and any combination of words (try ‘burrito’, it’s funny) into a search engine is that he talks about the Mountain Goats like he talks about other bands. “I like Get Lonely better,” he shrugs, like a friend recommending which files to download, “but most people prefer the Sunset Tree.”

At the end of the meal, I’ve asked no questions, recorded barely any conversation, and spoken entirely in an American accent as not to be difficult. But if you meet your your heroes and still love them at the ed of the day, you’ve done pretty good. Wincing my way dow Tottenham Court Road, I remember something he told me earlier, “Sometimes I finish songs and they’re not very good, and sometimes it bothers me,” he says, “But where else in your life is everything you do perfect? If you work a five day job do you kick ass at it every day? No – but once in a while you have a day when you’re really good and you’re like – man, this place would have collapsed without me today. I am awesome.”

Today, I sucked at my job, but I still think the John Darnielle is awesome. Michael Jackson fans – nil, Mountain Goats – one million.


douglas martin said...

emmy- this was a GREAT piece. i deeply share your mountain goats superfandom (there's even a tag on my blog with that title), and if i can compare him to another mike, i feel about darnielle the way kids playing horse on basketball courts feel about micheal jordan. he truly is my favorite lyricist of all-time, and the closest thing my own singer/songwriter thingy has to a predecessor (only i'm not nearly as good).

very enjoyable read, for real.

tim_g said...

oh man so great! i was talking to one of the girls who runs the stool pigeon the other night at a bbq + i was telling her that i remembered loving this interview + now i can see that it's totally just as good as i when i read it in the first place.

also: john d is definitely the songwriter of our generation

Kami said...

well written, we all know the standard questions anyway :)