Talking with John Darnielle about the horns, repetition, and fine details on his band's 14th album
The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle builds stories out of spare and forgotten parts. Characters and motivations emerge from sharp, tessellating imagery—small details that lock into haunting and coherent narrative. The new Mountain Goats album, Transcendental Youth, finds Darnielle tenderly observing a group of people in varying states of mental distress.
Started in the early '90s as a lo-fi recording project that drew vast critical acclaim, the Mountain Goats have dramatically expanded in sound ever since 2002's Tallahassee. The newer songs are harrowing environments in which Darnielle, bassist Peter Hughes, and drummer Jon Wurster root around thoughtfully and ecstatically. I spoke with Darnielle about his band's 14th record, out this week.
There are two different songs technically titled "Spent Gladiator," which are kind of two takes on the same idea. Could you explain more behind that?
It's interesting: If I looked in my demos I'd be able to figure out which one I wrote first. Because "Spent Gladiator 2" says "Like a spent gladiator" in the first line of the song, but the other one I remember just calling "Amy" when I wrote it, and then it had the same chorus. And I assumed I was going to kill one of them and I couldn't pick one, because I thought they were very different looks at the same idea. This is the sort of thing, you get trapped in ways of thinking where you go, "Oh, one of them's gonna have to go. They're the same words. Nope, one's gonna have to go. Which one's better? Just pick the better one. We'll record them all at the session and pick the one that comes out better... Wait a minute. We can use them both." It really is like one of those Sesame Street moments where you're, "We could try both." I was really glad because the opening track—I love the way that came out. I really feel it pretty deeply. It's a pretty emotional song for me, whereas the second "Spent Gladiator" is a colder look at the same sentiment.
Do you know "Provide, Provide" by Robert Frost?
No, I don't.
I should know it by heart, I feel bad. It's about seeing an old woman down at the market and realizing she was once Queen of Hollywood—a huge star, and now she's a woman who doesn't look spectacular. The concluding lines of it are the title of the poem—the same word repeated twice, but it has different weight in each iteration.
Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!
You see, what he's done there is he says "provide, provide" but it's not the same word twice. There's an urgency and intensity to the repetition, and a gravity and a deepening. A floor opens and you get to the ground-level meaning of what "providing" actually means—not just shoring up money but providing for yourself. And that's sort of where I was going with the idea of "to stay alive"—as a triumphant thing to do, but also sometimes you have to bite your lower lip and stay alive through things that aren't pleasant and you're not able to find the triumphant aspect of. You're not able to see it as a victorious thing, you just sort of go through it like going through a car wash.
One of the most surprising sounds on the record is the first sound on the record—the drum hits that open "Amy." They just sound really different. Is that Jon Wurster doing that in a specific way?
I think Jon did all of those. The idea came together in rehearsals. I feel like Brandon [Eggleston, producer] was pounding on the stage—the rehearsals were kind of loose. But I think Jon did all of them and did them all the way through the song, and then we took them out so they'd be more commenting almost. They're sort of like birds. They start out "duh duh duh duh" and then the actual percussion track kicks in, and they come back in and out as accentual percussion instead of the only percussion, and they sort of amplify the meaning of some lines and stuff like that.
There's a lot of accentual uses of percussion on this record.
Well, Jon Wurster is one of the best drummers in rock. He's just so good, and he's really so expressive. I think one great thing about our band is Jon really has room for styles he doesn't always get to explore. We've been doing much more groove-oriented stuff—weird to talk about [with] the Mountain Goats because we did not used to be a very groovy band. But since Get Lonely we've been traveling in this direction where we sort of find little pockets of feeling that are more exploratory.
There's this moment in "White Cedar"—when I first heard it, I compared it to the more mostly-piano songs from Life of the World to Come. But then I hear Jon striking two hits and it's just out of nowhere. It's an interesting, shocking effect.
I think this record more than others, the music is really interacting with the lyrics—I hate the word "interact." It's "interfacing"? That's even worse. The music is... is apposite to the lyrics in a really interesting way. That the playing seems to be responding to it, but not in a Carnival of the Animals way. An interesting conversation goes on. I think that's the most pronounced moment of it. That and the dropping on "Lakeside View."
I wanted to talk about the horn arrangements. Mostly because when I first heard the record I tried to think of many ska jokes as I possibly could.
That's driving me crazy, though. Horns does not mean ska.
I know, I agree. I just still thought of ska jokes.
Yeah, but... why not jazz?
Oh yeah, I think of jazz. You can just make more jokes about ska. Are you bringing horns on tour?
Yeah, Matthew White's opening and he's bringing his horn dudes in.
Why did you decide to go for horn arrangements on this record?
There's four horn arrangements. We had some very sparse horn arrangements with two players on Get Lonely.... I've wanted horn arrangements for a long time but there's so much that goes into it. You have to find someone who can write them, and he has to have people who can play them. You have to have room in the budget. And you have to have room in the budget in two ways: for them, and to have at least a day to do horns, because that's a full day of studio time. If you have a lot of songs, which I usually do when I go in, you really have to be careful in trying to bring in extra musicians or you will wind up with too many cooks and not enough time to let them all cook.
"This record more than others, the music is really interacting with the lyrics. An interesting conversation goes on."
But I was sort of bent on it. I feel horn arrangements really have a depth. I listen to a lot of Dionne Warwick. Usually I'm so vocally centered that I don't listen to the arrangements, but the past couple of years I've noticed that the horns are doing something so special and rich and deep. And a lot of ska also—early ska. Not ska revival stuff. Not my favorite Tony Hawk jam, I don't even know who it's by, where they're "Here I am!" You know that one? I think it's by Goldfinger. But the earlier ska stuff where it's just dudes who played in their high school and they're tight and can play together, and they hit these amazing smooth chords. You hear it all the way through Augustus Pablo records, through a lot of early reggae that's rocksteady and no longer ska. That stuff, there's a real emotional depth to horn chords, little horn movements. You hear it on records by The Band too, where Allen Toussaint is doing the arranging.