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.