Spotify tells me that the only song I’ve listened to more than “This Year” by the Mountain Goats, ever, is “Logo Te Pate” from Moana, a song my youngest kid insisted we play every time we drove him to preschool for a full year until his school shut down for the pandemic. As soon as those daily, tribal-drum-heavy round trips came to a sudden stop, it was all John Darnielle, lead singer of the Mountain Goats. “This Year” was my pandemic song—is still my pandemic song, because the pandemic isn’t over. Its chorus—”I’m gonna make it through this year if it kills me”—is a mantra. For me, and for many others.
Darnielle writes songs that help people make it through hard times because they’re about people making it through hard times. As the frontman for prolific indie rock stalwarts the Mountain Goats—there’s no official total for the number of songs they’ve put out but it’s well north of 600—he tells stories of lives lived on the margins. His hundreds of songs are populated with brooding teens and bloodied pro wrestlers, bitter divorcees and desperate people far from home. It’s a rogues gallery struck through with loss and heartbreak but ultimately held together by hope. It mirrors his own life in ways both deeply complicated and very simple: everybody hurts, sometimes.
Darnielle writes more than songs, however. He’s been writing stories since he was a child (he’s 54 now) and his debut novel, Wolf in White Van, about a role playing game run by a recluse, was nominated for the National Book Award in 2014. His followup, Universal Harvester, a midwestern gothic about a video store clerk, was a New York Times Bestseller. And this week, Devil House, his latest, hits shelves.
In Devil House, a true crime author buys a house in the suburbs of San Francisco to investigate a grisly murder that happened inside the home a couple decades earlier. The setup is pure Darnielle: ’80s teens dabbling in weirdo art and satanism, which leads to a brutal night that leaves everyone forever changed. But the payoff, about unraveling complicated truths and discovering that what you find isn’t what you went looking for, resonates for far longer than the fading feedback of a three-minute song.
Devil House caps the end of two remarkably productive plague years for Darnielle. While the rest of us were making sourdough and watching Squid Game, he released three albums and a novel. But they were hard years for Darnielle as well: as a musician who lives much of his life—and makes most of his money—on the road, he had to learn to adapt to a reality where live music was all but impossible for much of 2020 and ‘21.
I spoke with Darnielle on the phone from his home in Durham, N.C. about creating art amid the chaos of the pandemic, being off the road for so long, unraveling his complicated truths while writing Devil House, and making it through this year without it killing him. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
I normally try to come into interviews feeling more put together than I am right now, but my dog was up all night last night shitting fire.
Oh my God, I’m so sorry.
Thanks. I feel like a mess today as a result, and I feel terrible about that. But also messes seem like where you thrive as a storyteller, so maybe it’s OK.
It’s true, it is. And not to overshare, but I had a colonoscopy this week, so I’m a bit of a mess myself.
Oh, perfect. We can be two messes together. The reality is that I’ve spent the last two years feeling like I’m a mess. It feels like simultaneously I’ve got too much to do and also that I’m doing nothing. But in that same timeframe, you’ve managed to put out three records, a couple of live albums, and now a novel too. How?
Well, I was coming around the corner on the novel when the pandemic hit. I had most of the moving parts in place because I’ve been working on it for four or five years.
With the albums, when the pandemic hit, I already had both Dark in Here and Getting into Knives tracked and recorded. We finished Getting into Knives just as things with the virus were getting gnarly. We were in Alabama and I had been going to fly home, but by the end of that week, it was like, “you know, I think I’ll drive,” because it didn’t feel safe to get on a plane right then. After I got home, by the end of the week, the children weren’t going to school anymore and the whole thing had changed.
But mostly, I just love to work. I’m a big hands to work, hearts to God kind of guy. I like to stay busy, so I’m always doing stuff. Lately, I’ve been so busy with returning to the world that I haven’t gotten a lot of new stuff written and it feels weird.
What does “returning to the world” mean for you?
Touring is the main thing. There was a time when we could have sold a bunch of physical media to pay the bills, but you can’t do that now, so touring is where all the action is. But there was no touring for over a year. Returning to that meant getting back into clubs.
I was actually a little worried about it because I see so few people at home. I’m pretty much a hermit. I don’t go out that much. I think everybody’s navigating the same sort of thing. The world has undergone a shift. I try not to be overdramatic about it because yes, it’s a change, but it’s only a change, you know? Change is the one constant in the world. This one was unexpected, but we can adapt, it’s in our nature.
What was it like to have performance turn off like a switch for over a year?
It was weird. Playing before an audience, there’s no way to substitute that. It’s sacred.
Our first night out again was August 6 in Nashville. People sing along a lot at our shows, and the first time I heard them sing again? Oh my god. It was just incredibly emotional. But then Delta started to rise and it was not looking good for us to continue.
Then Jason Isbell announced he was going to require masks and proof of vaccination at his shows and it was like, if Jason can put his operation at risk by taking a stand, then who am I to not take a stand, too? So we did it the same day he did. It was heartbreaking in a way because I had been having active fantasies of being in a room full of happy, singing faces. But they still sung! It was a little muffled from the masks, but it was still amazing.
When you’ve been touring for 20 years, you bitch a lot about your work back in the bus or wherever. It’s normal to have a job and to have to blow off steam about the parts that are getting on your nerves. But when we got back to the road, all the stuff that used to bother me just didn’t seem like much at all. All the good things about my gig became so much more apparent after we went back after over a year locked up.
In Devil House, you write, “You learn to find the stories you need,” and I found that the stories I needed during the last two years of being inside were different than the culture I normally seek out. It was a lot more nostalgic music, a lot more TV comedy, a lot more foreign shows. What stories did you need to get through these indoor years?
Everybody was watching a lot of TV, but I have two children and the days are pretty intense so by eight o’clock I don’t have a lot. I have all these movies that I want to watch, they sit there stacked waiting for me to actually make time for them.
I’m a books guy, that’s my big thing. Last year I got really into Croatian literature. I read Miljenko Jergović’s Kin. First I was exposed to Daša Drndić, who is a Croatian writer, and then I decided to really explore. If you set your sights on any place and start to learn more, it opens up just how ignorant you are about so many things. And Kin by Jergović, which is like a thousand page book—normally if somebody sends you a big brick of a book, you go maybe I’ll get to that and maybe I won’t, but I was like, well, shoot, I’m already reading Croatian stuff and I have time, let me do that—it was amazing. He’s an incredibly great writer writing stories about trying to pin down the truth of a long past.
Unraveling long truths is a lot of what Devil House is about. The main character is an author trying to separate myth from fact in the old murder he’s investigating, and it seems like mainly he discovers that there are so many blurred lines between the two. But I also feel like maybe there are blurred lines between the main character and yourself, too?
I try not to think too much about myself when I can help it, but I know if I’m telling a story, it’s going to have some of me in it, that’s inevitable. I don’t think it’s possible to write something without telling the world something about yourself. I used to really resist this idea, but I think it’s true. I think you can write only stories about wizards and dragons, and you’re still telling people something about yourself.
You’ve been writing pretty much your whole life. How is writing a book different than a song?
When I write a song, it’s like showing up to work: I clock in and start doing my thing, and I’m good at it. I finish a song in a day, almost always. I sit down at the piano or guitar, and I don’t get up till I’m done. But when you’re writing a book, you return to the same text over and over again over a period of months or years. With a book, there is a much more patient, extended relationship you go through where it changes so much over the course of writing it. Maybe some people end up writing the same book they sat down to write in the first place, but I almost never do. So much stuff gets deleted, so much stuff ends up getting changed. That’s not true with songs for me.
Has your approach to telling stories changed from when you started?
I have a much bigger toolbox now. When you’re starting, you haven’t done much. When you make your first album, I don’t care who you are, you don’t have any idea what you’re doing. You may have a bunch of ideas, but before you go into the studio you don’t have any idea what you’re doing because you’ve never done it. That can be the charm of first albums: you hear somebody who doesn’t know the rules. I’m not saying that the rules are some sacred text or anything, but there are some conventions you learn along the way that you usually don’t know the first time through. As you learn them you’ll lose a little of that crazy spontaneity, but hopefully what you gain is expertise, which generally speaking is going to take you to a more interesting place.
I’m often very interested in bands when only people who already know them are paying attention. That to me is always a very interesting moment in a band’s career. If you survive, if you manage to make rent off it, then you have a vast freedom to really explore all the stuff you’ve learned and then to try and find the things you still don’t know.
As a band or a writer or anyone that’s putting work into the world that connects with people and sticks around, eventually you find your audience and they find you and it becomes an interesting conversation because you’re both growing up.
But you had a really interesting thing happen last year where your songs suddenly blew up on TikTok and suddenly a whole different audience discovered you.
Yeah, it was nuts. We were on tour when it happened. That was amazing to watch, but I also wanted to keep a respectful distance because I feel like TikTok belongs to the kids, you know? If you made something the kids like to play with, don’t stand around and tell them how play with it.
There are a lot of people who couldn’t maintain that distance. People that see something trending and go “Oh shit, I need to jump on that.”
Well, if you’re in it for the short gain, you do that. But it also depersonalizes and dehumanizes you. There’s the element of celebrity that is depersonalizing and dehumanizing. It’s like you’re not an actual person, you’re an archetype around which people can drape things.
When you’re 12, the teacher isn’t really a person to you, and so you tell funny stories like what if the teacher wore a clown hat? You’re not thinking that this is a guy who goes home and maybe he serves himself some chili out of a can and watches TV. Maybe he’s divorced, he chose this line of work because he wanted to teach and he’s taken a few hits along the way. That’s not the teacher to you as a 12-year-old.
I think when you decide to profit off of a truly genuine organic upswell of interest in your song, then you agree to dehumanize yourself like that, and I don’t want to do that. Part of what the Mountain Goats have always been about is if you’re listening to me talk, you’re not listening to a rehearsed schtick, you’re listening to a person thinking it through. That’s a fairly punk way of conceiving of performance.
But there’s an intensity in some Mountain Goats fans’ relationship with you that feels a little like what you’re talking about. They feel no distance from you. In some ways you’re like the teacher you were just describing.
No, it’s not me. It has nothing to do with me. That’s not me, that’s a thing I made. It’s a practice I’ve cultivated. We live in a very celebrity-focused society, and also, when we’re younger, we often look for idols. I was doing this in high school myself, I’d say “Oh Bowie? Oh, he’s God.” Of course, whether you accept or reject the existence of God, I guarantee you, it’s not a guy making records. Don’t ascribe perfection to anybody, you know?
I do believe the vast majority of people that listen to my stuff know I’m not special, ‘cause I’m not. Am I talented? I hope so. I have a skill set I’ve been working on for a very long time, so hopefully I’m good at it. But the thing about that skillset is that it involves reaching people in their emotional centers, so it’s natural to think, “Well, that person made me feel something.” But no, I didn’t. I made a thing. And then you—as the reader, as the listener—you did all the heavy lifting. Reading and receiving is as much a part of the process as writing. When I’m done writing it, I’m done. I don’t have to do anything else with it, whereas the listener has to unpack it and relate it to their own life.
I think the relationship that most people have that’s intense is with my work. I think most Mountain Goats fans understand that I’m not special. I am literally just a guy with a bunch of books and records who wanted to do this his whole life.
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