Concerts

John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats Talks Poetry and Pandemics

The Mountain Goats return to Colorado.
The Mountain Goats return to Colorado. Jade Wilson
In the early ’90s, John Darnielle struggled to be taken seriously. He was yet another guy with an acoustic guitar and poetic lyrics. A scourge on the metal scene. A nightmare of punks.

Back then, playing mostly solo under the name The Mountain Goats, he didn’t even have a drummer. He’d show up with emotions burning, ready to rage — and crowds would...sit down.

“I’d get cantankerous about it,” he recalls. “But I had energy to burn, and I had as much energy as any electric band. There was a resentful quality to it: ‘I want to melt your face off, and then when the rock band comes after me, I will have taken all your energy away. You won’t have anything left.’ I loved this idea.”

So he carefully built a career counter to the image of the dull, self-involved folkie crooning soft songs. He raged for a decade, sometimes solo and at other times as a duo with bassist Rachel Ware and occasional other collaborators, wailing with his mouth gaping wide, sweating, driving audiences from their seats as they felt every word he sang. On an endless tour, he built a cult fan base in the underground, becoming the rare singer-songwriter to dent the punk and metal scenes. His albums weren’t the tidy stuff of studios; they were recorded on a boombox, the buzz of the tape player's spinning cogs the dominant backing instrument. As he hammered his six-string with unforgiving brutality, his singing was far from polished.


Breaking through this sonic assault, though, Darnielle’s lyricism was as classical as his music was defiant — the result of a lifelong obsession with poetry. As a youth, he'd been drawn to free verse. Then he picked up a copy of Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics and studied meter, scansion and style, connecting with the rules of various modes of verse until they were hardwired into his imagination. He mastered his craft at Pomona College in California under his mentor — and former Little League coach — Robert Mezey, a merciless, measured-verse fundamentalist outraged by his students’ glib deviations in form.

“He was a very unforgiving professor,” recalls Darnielle, who studied Robert Frost and Thomas Hardy under Mezey. “He just loved poetry...and he was very harsh, and I really wanted to please him, so I worked really hard over the course of a couple of years.”

All of that work paid off for Darnielle, whose emotionally frenzied performances belie his structured approach to writing verse, which he views as more of a job than some divine, muse-driven calling or Leonard Cohen-like act of prayer.

“Learning to measure my numbers...is much more important in my stuff than most people think,” Darnielle says. “And if you want to talk about what the songs are about or their subjects, those are important, too. But the formal qualities of them, I think, are what set me apart.”
click to enlarge John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. - JADE WILSON
John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats.
Jade Wilson
As his career began to take him aboveground, Darnielle started to reconsider his aggro approach to songwriting and performance, and he became increasingly curious about other forms of musical expression and production. He no longer wanted his art to be an exercise in opposition.

“If your craft is taken forward by resentments — and that’s a time-honored thing among writers, but it’s also a limited shelf life — can you remain resentful when your success is growing? I guess some people do, but not me. Sometime around ’99, I started to go, ‘Wow, you’re really lucky to have gotten to do this for so long.’ And I sort of became much more curious about other places that I could take the music. You know, there's no real renunciation. I could still turn up the volume as high as I like, but at the same time, it's not as it used to be.”

So for the past twenty years, Darnielle has been expanding his musical range. He started building the current version of the Mountain Goats in the early 2000s, adding some of indie rock’s top musicians and peppering his songs with everything from gospel to free jazz while still managing to bring vein-popping raw energy to live sets, compelling audiences to scream along. His lyrics also shifted, from chronicling his own memories to tackling myth, history and pop culture, offering intimate details.

Today he traverses millennia within a single verse, nodding toward literature, biblical tales, medieval dramas, comics, role-playing games, sports, and the everyday struggles of characters living on the brink of self-implosion in a decaying world. Through it all, he clings to a spirit of resilience in the face of trauma and violence.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the two albums the band recorded just before the pandemic: Getting Into Knives, tracked the first week in March 2020 at Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis and released in October that year; and Dark in Here, which was recorded the second week of March 2020 at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals and released in June.

Both albums incorporate the sounds of a broad swath of collaborators, including appearances from Hiss Golden Messenger guitarist Chris Boerner, Al Green organist Charles Hodges, studio legend Spooner Oldham, guitarist Will McFarlane and pianist Bram Gielen. These musicians’ fresh styles bring new dimensions to the full Mountain Goats band, which includes longtime members Peter Hughes on bass and Jon Wurster on drums, as well as newer recruit Matt Douglas, a multi-instrumentalist.

As the Mountain Goats worked on both projects, gearing up to release them with a massive tour, news hit that the coronavirus was spreading nationwide. The band’s planned gigs — and livelihood — appeared increasingly at risk. A week after the musicians returned home from the start of the tour, all live performances across the country were scrapped.

Darnielle hoped to be back in clubs by fall 2020, but in the meantime, he was worried for his bandmates, crew, and all the others who depended on the Mountain Goats for a living. So he decided to raise funds in the best way he knew how: by dropping another album.

“I had one song idea, and I thought...it sounded cool,” he recalls. “And usually, if I have one idea, then I'll have two, and I said, ‘What if I did a song every day for the next ten days and put out this tape and hopefully sell enough of those to keep people's rent paid?'”

The result: Songs for Pierre Chuvin, a scrappy solo effort that would appeal to fans nostalgic for the ’90s Mountain Goats sound. Mostly it’s just Darnielle and his guitar, though there are occasional lo-fi drum samples and synths that wink at the full band’s newer sounds.

The Mountain Goats, which is set up as a business, also secured Paycheck Protection Program loans; Darnielle worked with his manager to put together a plan to ensure that everybody would make it through. The band played two livestreamed shows and recorded a live album, bemoaning the lack of an audience but still making music.

Seventeen months, three albums of new songs and a stunning two-disc live project, The Jordan Lake Sessions, later, the Mountain Goats are finally back on tour, making a living the way Darnielle has for nearly thirty years: crushing fans with honest, raw performances.

The band will play four Colorado concerts this month, including sold-out shows on August 19 at the Gothic Theatre, August 20 at the Larimer Lounge and August 21 at Washington’s in Fort Collins. Tickets are still available for the first night of the run: Wednesday, August 18, at the Black Sheep in Colorado Springs.

It's no wonder the shows are selling out. Over the past decade, every Mountain Goats concert has buzzed with the frenetic energy that Darnielle displayed when he opened for metal bands back in the ’90s. And even as he experiments with new sounds, he’s as alive as ever, screaming, crying, laughing — and dragging the crowd along for a memorable ride.

“I want everything I'm doing on stage to be very honest, to be coming from a place of curiosity and interest and wonder,” Darnielle says. “And that's true. Now it's like if you're hearing me sing and if I seem to be amused or happy, it's because I am. I don't want to be on stage going, ‘Here's the part where I pretend to be getting upset.’ I want to actually be working it up. I actually want to be feeling.”

For more about the upcoming tour, visit The Mountain Goats online.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris