The songwriter, guitarist, lead singer, and sometimes sole member of indie-rock outfit The Mountain Goats, John Darnielle is famous for the literary quality of his lyrics and the fervor of his followers. Sasha Frere-Jones of the New Yorker called him "America's best non-hip-hop lyricist." In March, Darnielle and The Mountain Goats released their latest album, All Eternals Deck. Here he shares an early draft of "Dance Music," a track written for a recording session at John Peel's BBC studio, and inspired by the death of his stepfather.
We still lived in Iowa when my sister called in the middle of the night to let me know my stepfather was dead. This was December, 2002. He was this abusive guy, terrible, but also a major influence on me musically. So I heard, and registered it, and it must have been a full year and a few months later when I was on tour, in Paris, and in this emotional state I get in when I haven't been sleeping. Everything started to open up, all these inner passageways. I don't recommend it, but when you've been denied sleep, stuff starts to get loose inside your head. I needed to write some songs, because we were doing a Peel session. At the time I didn't normally write songs on tour, but I got out the notebook. And the stuff that came out was a bunch of long, not completely dormant, not completely repressed memories, but stuff you don't dwell on. And then it got very three-dimensional. It all came out in the back of our tour van.
The record I listened to when I was five—the first time the abuse broke out in our little apartment—was not in fact a dance music record. It was a colored flexi disk of one of the moon landings on a stereo that only existed to play those records. It was a little stereo with a rocket attached to it, and you put the little flexi disk on and the needle on and you heard the sounds of the moon landing, and I remember going up to listen to that stuff to distract myself.
But I also remember the scene from the second verse, the one I wrote first, of being in the car listening to the radio when the police pulled up behind us, to arrest me for possession of heroin. It was the '80s, and I remember the very new sounds of sterilized synthesizers making these chunky sounds and connecting anything you're doing in your head with that escape hatch you try to open with a form of dancing, with a form of being immersed in the music that makes you dance.
Here's the challenge of song-writing: when you write lyrics you're writing poetry. And people tend to read poetry as though it all has the same rhythm and the same vibe. But in fact, every poem has its own rhythm. Sometimes it's frantic and up-tempo and other times it's jumpy and swinging and other times it's slow and somber. And it's the songwriter's job to pick the right rhythm that sets the lyrics in their home, or contrasts them in some way. "I'm seventeen years old"—you want that to come out a certain way, you don't want to put that to a slow IV. I mean, you can. We actually have done this song slow, but for the platonic, initial look at the song I wanted something that conveyed the actual, in-the-moment speech rhythms.
The trick with songs, and with good poetry, is to make it sound like you're just saying what came to mind just then. Not that you're writing, but that you're just expressing. That's the magic of it, and I use magic in the sleight-of-hand sense. You're trying to pull off the illusion that this thing came out just like that, like you were conjuring a spirit. So I wrote this little note, on reading it back, that we'll put this to music that jumps like that, we'll put this to music that conveys that dance-like rhythm.
I didn't know what key I'd be writing in at that point, but I did know it was going to have a basic blues structure, like a lot of my stuff. That's "IV-I, IV-I" there in the margin. When we went to record at the Peel session a week later, I doubtless got out the notebook and was sitting on the floor of Maida Vale 4 at Abbey Road, figuring out what to do, and not sure yet what key I was going to wind up playing it in.
We have a drummer now, but I consider the version [of "Dance Music"] we did at Maida Vale the classic me-and-Peter [Hughes, bassist for The Mountain Goats] scenario, where Peter's carrying the entire job of the rhythm section, and I'm doing my fair bit, but it's very much this little construct. People are happy to hear it. I think everyone can relate to it, whether you grew up in the kind of house I grew up in or not. If you're the kind of person who's going to be listening to music for the lyrics, the likelihood is that you've sought shelter at some point, that you've used it to drown some of the other stuff out.
–John Darnielle, as told to Alex Hoyt