An Interview with John Darnielle

John Darnielle, the man at the helm of indie-rock band the Mountain Goats, has a passion for strumming hand-crafted tunes and singing his heart out.

Their latest major label album, We Shall All Be Healed, is a testament to this.

Additionally, Darnielle has recently released three compilations

– Ghana, Protein Source of the Future… Now!, and Bitter Melon Farm

– which collected together his early singles, cassettes, and other recordings that many first heard his shaky vocals and the low-fi sounds of his acoustic guitar and Casio keyboard.

At the Mountain Goats concert that night, the encore was “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton”. The lyrics were humorous, but the last verse elicited an unexpected reaction from the crowd.

It spoke of punishing a person for dreaming of their dream and not expecting them to forgive. The chorus concluded with “Hail Satan! Hail Satan Tonight! Hail Satan!” As the last “Hail Satan!” was sung, the audience joined in with genuine enthusiasm, no longer viewing it as a joke.

I drove to the airport to meet him for the interview and we went to Eric’s to have vegetarian Chinese food. I let him know in an email that we could converse about whatever he wanted. I was startled when he decided to bring up death metal.

–Daniel Handler stated

Humans are creatures of habit, and those habits can be hard to break. It can take a long time to unlearn old ways and replace them with new routines. Breaking out of old patterns and creating fresh habits requires dedication and persistence.


It might come as a shock to many of your admirers to find out that you are a fan of death metal music.

JOHN DARNIELLE: When it comes to singer-songwriter stuff, I get asked a lot why I don’t listen to more of it if I make music of that kind. To be honest, it can feel like watching my peers at work when I do. I’d rather go to a factory and observe people doing something different as I don’t do that kind of labor. Music-listening and music-making feel like two separate activities. An example of a one-issue band is Deicide, a death-metal group that is totally devoted to hating Christ. I find them quite amusing.

One may ask: Is it Christianity or Christ that is the focus?

JD said that Christians focus primarily on Christ and his teachings, rather than on the religion as a whole.

BLVR: Are they against cherishing those around them?

JD shared an experience of a computer taken over by a Deicide CD, with the “whir whir” of the drive unable to pick up the CD and the inability to eject it or force-quit iTunes.

He stated that he believed this incident to be an example of the “Sharks and Jets” concept, in which those who reject Christianity are pitted against those who practice it. He had to wait for his wife to come home and shut down the computer to be able to remedy the issue. He found the event to be “pretty great,” as if the art was haunting him.

Which Deicide album should someone get if they only want one?

JD: A lot of hardcore Deicide fans will tell you that their first album is the best, as is often the case with metal music. But, in my opinion, it doesn’t matter which Deicide album you begin with. It’s all about listening to Glen Benton’s anger towards Jesus Christ and how he conveys it in his music. Once upon the Cross is a great place to start.

BLVR: I do not feel the requirement to listen to the music that would make me want to go wild and cause destruction in a hotel room or something.

JD: To me, part of the allure is that when you first hear it, you may find it interesting but can’t comprehend being as enthusiastic as you are with music that you naturally gravitate to. This fascinates me and I am keen to learn what principles you use to be able to respond to the music. It is like when you watch a movie of a genre you don’t usually like and finding the language to describe it as a good light comedy.


BLVR: After I had heard some death metal, I was cooking dinner and then I put on an Isaac Hayes album. When my wife saw that, she came upstairs and asked me, “Are you listening to this as a joke or is it something you actually like?” This was a puzzling query to me. On the one hand, there are numerous amusing aspects to Isaac Hayes and his melodramatic “I want to make love to you” rap. On the other hand, I was by myself when I was listening to it, so it wasn’t for show, and I wasn’t pretending it was part of some act in my mind.

JD argued that there is no such thing as campy-listening. This is something that happens with age, where people may joke about liking the Backstreet Boys but really enjoy it. He believes that ironic-distance appreciation isn’t a lesser appreciation but rather a way to say “I don’t identify with this music, but I still like it”. Consequently, JD does not believe in ironic appreciation. He believes that if someone likes something, they genuinely do like it.

The other day, I had the pleasure of seeing you put on a show and you included a number by Ace of Base, which was a band that was particularly popular at that moment.

JD admits to loving Ace of Base and performing their music. He was aware that other people may have thought the song was good, but that they would be too embarrassed to admit it.


Is the extended depiction of youthfulness in indie rock music restrictive or limiting in any manner?

JD admitted to feeling isolated from an indie-rock environment, leading many to assume that she was a recluse.

BLVR: You are admired as a gentle singer-songwriter.

From the beginning, I wished that individuals would be scared of me.

No one that I know of is intimidated by you, BLVR.

JD suggested that the idea of suspended adolescence can be seen as a twentieth-century version of the William Wordsworth movement, looking back to childhood as a time when one was better than their current selves. He mentioned that those who listen to indie rock appreciate their adult reading skills and their capacity to listen to a song on multiple levels. He remarked that this concept of suspended adolescence is more of a cultural trope than an indie-rock one.

BLVR: Your newest album seems to have an attitude that could be compared to the “catcher in the rye” moment. It is as if those of us who have had a difficult life can come together to support each other. Is this feeling inspired by your work with kids?

JD remarks that We Shall All Be Healed is the first album reflecting on his personal experiences. He finds it fascinating that he is engaging with a past self he managed to put away many years ago. Usually he is just telling stories, but this album was a shift for him.

BLVR: It’s remarkable that you would say that. I interpreted the album as a collection of tunes about people who are in a difficult situation. Some songwriters get labeled “literary” and I always believed you were one of the composers for whom that truly applies. The music and the accompaniment seem to come second to the words, intentionally. Not because you couldn’t do it, but because the lyrics are more meaningful. Are there any authors you would be particularly drawn to?

One of the main sources of my reflections on narrative is JD: Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays. Even though I appreciate Raymond Carver’s work, in the past few years I’ve been engaging with French writers. For this album, I was reading Histories of Cambodia ’75-’79. I’m aware of the “Leaving Las Vegas” trope, although I haven’t read the actual literature. I think this vision of a group of lost people who are trying to lose themselves is something that has become part of our culture. I’m not sure if I took this from any other source than the current mindset.


BLVR: I found it intriguing that this piece was based on your life experiences. I thought you were a level-headed individual who composed stories about troubled individuals.

JD stated that he had fabricated much of it, although there were real people involved, yet he was confident that no one could bring a lawsuit against him.

The [record label] 4AD must be delighted by this realization.

JD: I had never fired a gun before making this album. I wrote it without a specific vision in mind and “Palmcorder Yajna” was the first song composed. The foundation of the song was a chord progression I liked and the lyrics were an intersection of Pomona which my friend Franz Writter had advised us about. He spoke of a street, Holt Boulevard, that was filled with drug dealers and could help us escape from the police. That’s when I decided to yell out the street’s name as a way of mythologizing the area. I also named the two other streets nearby and found it liberating to work in a different manner than usual.

What’s your normal process for working?

JD begins by jotting down whatever ideas come to him and constructing a narrative, rather than using details that he is familiar with and working outwards from there.

BLVR: Many of your verses feature puzzling and abstract imagery, and your track and album titles are frequently indecipherable.

JD expressed his preference for albums with titles that weren’t taken from songs on the album. As an example, he mentioned Dub Housing, which has a track of the same name, but for Get Lost by The Magnetic Fields, the title is a sentence when divorced from the band name, and it is an imperative: “Get Lost”. He found these types of records the most interesting, as there were multiple points of scrutiny. Furthermore, he began to write songs with titles that could not be connected to the song itself, believing it to be even more interesting. If someone were to attempt to make the connection, they would have to fabricate it or conclude it cannot be done. However, record collectors would never give up and just keep trying.

Do you come up with your titles at random?

JD made sure the title was not chosen at random. It was intentional and had a special meaning for him. In many cases, it was a nod to something that he experienced during the writing process.

BLVR: Deliberately obscure.

JD expressed that, for him, texts often have a purpose or meaning. He stated that if one were willing to put in the effort, most of the time it would be possible to glean a message from the text. However, he also clarified that it’s not necessary to do so.

V declared, “I’m a fan of a three-chord song that comes in, accomplishes what it needs to, adds a few embellishments at the end, and then exits. That’s what I like best.”

When you were fourteen, what kind of records were you most passionate about? It seems like fourteen is a significant age in terms of pop music.

JD recalled that his fourteenth and fifteenth years were important to him. He was an avid fan of the band Heart, despite the fact that the last two albums of the band had not been well-received. He then decided to purchase Jethro Tull’s Benefit and Genesis’s Foxtrot and Nursery Crime, which he found more enjoyable than Heart. His interest in prog-rock was also accompanied by an admiration for Lou Reed’s Transformer, something which his prog-rock friends couldn’t understand. They thought it was funny that Reed couldn’t sing, and that the songs were too simple. By the end of that year, JD had concluded that Genesis and prog-rock had to be put aside in favor of music that didn’t strive to be too musically impressive.

BLVR: Did your preference of a straightforward, uncomplicated way of doing things direct you to your first attempts at recording?

JD opined that there are individuals who should be working on more intricate compositions, whereas he would be better suited for something simpler. He mentioned that he had classical training on the piano, and that if he dedicated himself to it, he could do what Franklin Bruno does. He added that it all depends on where one’s heart lies; for him, a three-chord song that gets in, does what it needs to do, and throws in a slight variation at the conclusion before exiting is his favorite type of song.

Recently, it was as if all of your songs were just you and a guitar playing, with a bit of help from someone else every now and then, occasionally a bass, and a short burst of alien-sounding radio in the beginning, but not the extravagant production one would expect from a tenth album.

JD confessed to a strong-willed nature.

BLVR: Did you find it appealing to contribute one-off tracks to various collections?

JD expressed that he was surprised when his work began to be liked. He had been writing since he was quite young and even in the past had sent out stories to be rejected. During the compilation and 7″ boom, he was contacted to be part of a compilation.

On good days, he was able to write three to five songs, so when he was asked if he had any songs, he would take the opportunity to release them rather than waiting to put an album together.

He was hurt when people assumed he was releasing everything he wrote and he said that one day he will go kill those people.

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