The Mountain Goats recently released their latest album Heretic Pride (4AD) and return to San Francisco later this week for three straight sold out shows at Bimbo’s, the Independent and the Bottom of the Hill for Noise Pop. John Darnielle, the songwriter, singer and, when it comes down to it, the Mountain Goats, spoke to us about his soft spot for San Francisco, adding members to the band and various side projects in this e-mail interview.
Adrian Bischoff (of The Bay Bridged): Last time you were at the Bottom of the Hill, Peter was talking about you guys playing there for so long that you’d played a show there where his now-ex-wife’s best friend was buying you guys shots and a fan yelled out that it was Old Grand Dad. It seems like you guys have particularly loyal and/or obsessive fans. What do you think it is about your music that causes that?
JD: I think it’s a combination of the lyrics, about which I kinda can’t comment further than to say I’ve always hoped to write stuff that moves people in some way, and of the live show, but particularly (and this is what I think Peter meant) the live show in San Francisco. You gotta remember, the first Mountain Goats show ever outside of southern California was in S.F. – it was at the Thirsty Swede, formerly Night Break. I actually have a full video of it somewhere, it was me and Rachel Ware playing as a duo. We were received really warmly that night and it sort of kickstarted some real affection between the Mountain Goats and San Francisco – even in years when I wasn’t touring, I’ve always come to S.F., and the shows have just kept getting more intimate even as the crowd grows. It’s like a big purgative laughing therapy session now or something, so much fun for us.
TBB: Your 33 1/3 series book about Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality is coming out in a few months. How did that come about? Do you enjoy the juxtaposition of you (not a metal musician) writing about a metal album?
JD: Well, once a year people can pitch ideas to Continuum about a 33 1/3 book, and I pitched that one because I was in my usual “you people aren’t focusing on metal, metal rules you bunch poseurs, get with the damn program” stance. And I thought, that was the whole deal, that people always think of metal fans in a two-dimensional caricature sort of way, and that’s bogus. Metal is practically all I listen to so no, there was no “weird juxtaposition” angle for me.
TBB: You seem to like plenty of music that people might not expect you to like. Metal and, I presume, reggae (as Heretic Pride has “Sept 15, 1983” which, after “Song for Dennis Brown” is at least your second song about a reggae singer) are two examples. What else do you listen to that people might not expect?
JD: Opera, I guess, and lots of other classical music. Plenty of west coast hip hop both past and present, I guess people might not expect that. But that’s so weird to me, people always ask but it’s just a weird question to me. Do people expect indie musicians to mainly listen to indie? Are indie musicians actually weird and territorial like that: “I mainly listen to stuff that sounds like me?” Christ I hope not.
TBB: What’s your favorite San Francisco venue to play at and why?
JD: I think I’ve played more shows at the Bottom of the Hill than at any other club in the country, so I have a real soft spot for it.
TBB: Some of Heretic Pride was written in San Francisco. Which song(s) can call the city home?
JD: I wrote “New Zion” at the Phoenix Hotel in the Tenderloin. I think I also worked on a couple of other songs while I was there, and I’m pretty sure I finished a whole other one that we didn’t wind up using. I remember it was a really lovely day when I wrote New Zion though – I had the door of my room open most of the time, just enjoying one of those super-awesome California spring days that I kinda miss sometimes.
TBB: Do you have any favorite stories from playing or visiting San Francisco?
JD: Oh, the “No Children” singalong from the time when I was too sick to raise my voice – that was pretty awesome.
TBB: This album marks a return of your trademark aggressive singing style after a break for Get Lonely. Was this a conscious decision? Does it have anything to do with John Vanderslice returning as your producer?
JD: It might have something to do with JV, actually – I don’t know! I mean, when I’m writing the songs, he’s not around, so probably not now that I think of it – I just started writing and these more spritely songs were what I had bubbling up. The songs on “Get Lonely,” you couldn’t sing those in a big loud style, it’d just sound stupid. It wasn’t just a different singing style for that album, it was an overall different style in singing, playing, writing.
TBB: Jon Wurster of Superchunk was on tour with you last spring and now he’s appeared on the album and in the latest promo photo. Is he a member of the band now?
JD: Yes he is! I mean, out here in NC, if you hear the Mountain Goats are playing, there’s still a chance that it’ll just be me, ’cause I live here. But otherwise, it’s us three. The power of the triforce! Oh snap I just made a video game reference, somebody stop me.
TBB: Now that you’re touring with a drummer and even playing electric guitar on occasion, I’ve heard people talk about the Mountain Goats “rocking out” more than before. Do you see this as a change in the amount of “rocking” or just its manifestation?
JD: I personally don’t, but that’s because I don’t equate rocking with instrumentation. My old solo shows back when I was just totally spazzing out all night, those rocked harder than any ten full-combo rock bands. Any day. Give me enough liquor and cause for a bad attitude and I’ll still put me & an acoustic guitar up against most any band who think they rock. I have always had something of a chip on my shoulder about this.
TBB: How did Franklin Bruno come to play on all of your recent albums? Do you foresee another Extra Glenns album?
JD: It’s just that he’s a good pianist & friend I guess. Yeah we did some recent recording here in North Carolina. We’re not going to call ourselves the Extra Glenns any more though. I predict that people who had no especial affection for the name “Extra Glenns” will get all aggro about us changing our name! Still, the Extra Glenns are so 20th-century. We must move forward!
TBB: After hundreds of fictional or mostly fictional songs, you took an autobiographical turn. Heretic Pride seems to be going back to songs based on made-up stories. Do you see more autobiographical albums or songs in the future?
JD: I don’t plan the future! I can’t imagine a writer saying “for my next move, I will write about this or that.” I just write about what’s keeping me up at night no matter what it is.