Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle mulls death, ‘Dragons,’ and why no one asks about his drummer
By the time Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle gave this interview, word had spread that the North Carolina-based band’s new record, “In League With Dragons,” was based on table-top role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Darnielle says those rumors are false.
“The record began life as an actual rock opera,” he says, about a “besieged” seaside community named Riversend ruled by a “benevolent wizard.” In other words, same genre, his own story. Despite its fantastical premise, however, the record’s themes are anything but — its characters face addiction, loneliness, and a fear of the unknown that we can all relate to.
Darnielle, whose band plays a sold-out show at the Wilbur Theatre Sunday, is no stranger to darkness. His songs are uniquely humane and emotionally relatable, but they often focus on death, abuse, and harmful relationships. Why these topics?
“I think it’s because I am going to die,” says Darnielle with a laugh. “Everybody has their own way of coping with the idea. The closer you get to the moment of truth, that’s pretty much the central question. One day you will be no more. I’m fascinated by sports because I assume if you are a pitcher, your craft gets better, but what doesn’t get better is your arm. [As a songwriter] your powers of writing and observation get better. I don’t think my oldest stuff is my best stuff at all. We face this as we go on. What’s the nature of our magic?”
Darnielle addresses these and other questions on “In League With Dragons” in typical Mountain Goats fashion: with humor, compassion, sadness, and plenty of hope. When asked about the challenges of incorporating these ideas, Darnielle spoke about working with producer Owen Pallett, a musician known for his string-based solo work and production. This record marks the first time Darnielle has given up complete production control, which he says felt “surprisingly awesome.”
“I wanted to see what would happen if I said, ‘I’ve written the songs, let me subject them to someone else’s scrutiny, and then let them take some out.’ . . . Somebody suggested Owen as an idea.”
Darnielle, already a fan of Pallett’s work, was onboard.
So was Pallett.
“The process of making the album was seamless,” says Pallett via e-mail. “The rapport between the musicians in the room was unprecedented. It truly, at the time, felt like something magical was happening. When I consider the work we did now, almost a year later, I am filled with feelings of gratitude, and excitement that these songs will soon be heard by a wider audience. I consider this album to easily be one of the best things I’ve worked on.”
Though working with a producer was new, other aspects of the process remained the same. Darnielle says the creation of a record always starts with him but, as band members contribute their own arrangements, the album morphs in ways he never imagined.
“It’s not just me,” he says. “I’m just the beginning of the process. I’m the guy who does the interviews, but I’m not the story. [The song] is important, but once they come into play, even though the lyrics stay the same, once you let them loose on the guys, instrumentation happens organically.” He adds with a laugh, “I would love for people to talk more about my drummer.”
That drummer is longtime Mountain Goats member and indie-rock stalwart Jon Wurster, whose propulsive and often surprising rhythms fuel many of the band’s best songs. Wurster speaks just as highly about his bandmate.
“In the studio, we usually try to get full-band performances with everyone playing at once,” he says via e-mail. “I don’t think a lot of records are made that way anymore. We like records where you can tell it’s a group of humans playing together, warts and all. The way the song feels and the emotions it conjures are way more important than technical proficiency.”
This collaborative approach wasn’t always the norm for Darnielle. He used to record solo into a boombox; the resulting recordings featured grinding tape gears and background noise. The shift to a full band, he says, reflects a change in his perspective on what can make music exciting.
“My younger self was very concerned with immediacy, preserving the original impulse,” says Darnielle. “I would turn on the boombox as soon as I had a draft: ‘Let’s do this.’ You’re getting the exact moment when the idea congeals around the structure of a song and you’re hearing it as close to the moment of composition as possible. That was what I wanted. Now I don’t think that that’s necessary. What I’m more interested in now is what happens to that original moment of introspection when you subject it to scrutiny.”