Peter the Hitchhiker is a famous music fan. Just last month, he had an extra ticket for a concert in New York City by his favorite band, the Mountain Goats. He was standing outside the venue trying to sell the surplus when a drunk man, money in hand, waltzed up. But as though he were buying it from the band itself, the fellow stopped, stunned. He realized he was talking to Peter The Goddamn Hitchhiker.
"'Oh, man!' the guy said. He knew who I was, which seems kind of ridiculous," remembers the Hitchhiker. "I've run into that a couple of times, where I'm respected for what I've done."
In 2005, the Hitchhiker, or Peter Sohriakoff, had just finished college in his hometown of Portland, Ore. He didn't have a job or a plan, but he did have a list of bands he'd like to see play somewhere in America. When he stopped in Jackson, Miss., that spring, the plan was to see Durham's the Mountain Goats, whom he liked but didn't necessarily love, and move on. The show blindsided and sidetracked him. He hitchhiked his way to the last two shows of the tour, in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. That summer, with Sohriakoff back in Portland, the band rolled through the Northwest. Those shows were all the convincing he needed: The Mountain Goats were his new obsession, and he was going to follow them.
"I don't really know how it happened. There wasn't really a progression," Sohriakoff says. "Here I was checking out some music, and then I realized, 'Oh, man, these guys are the best band ever.'"
That fall, Sohriakoff headed east and spent most of October hitchhiking from one Mountain Goats show to another, bouncing between New York and New Hampshire, Toronto and Kalamazoo using his thumb. The band members knew his name, the indie rock press blogged about his adventures and, now nearly six years later, he's still known to allegiant fans of the Mountain Goats as Peter the Hitchhiker.
"Shit," says Sohriakoff, now a 30-year-old emergency room nurse in Massachusetts, "I didn't have anything else going on."
Sohriakoff's pilgrimage was surprising enough to earn him a reputation and a nickname among fellow fans of the Mountain Goats, the band the Indiana-born, California-raised songwriter John Darnielle has led for the last two decades. But that kind of dedication to the Mountain Goats is commonplace. Darnielle's fervent legion of fans is obsessive, driving hours to see him play increasingly rare solo sets, spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on limited-edition cassettes or albums he released more than 10 years ago, and meticulously cataloging the more than 500 songs he's written and countless shows he's played since the late '80s. Just two weeks ago, someone bid $3,350 during an eBay charity auction for a cassette tape containing the only copy of "Eugene Sue," a song Darnielle has never released (see "Tape sharing" below). A 2010 piece in New York magazine about Darnielle and his fans opened, "Stephen Wesley has three unconditional lives: John, Joy and God, perhaps in that order of importance." John, of course, was John Darnielle.
It's the kind of admiration you'd maybe expect from a band that sells out arenas or sells hundreds of thousands of records. Yet Darnielle still plays midsized rock clubs. His most popular album, The Sunset Tree, has sold about 46,000 copies. Still, each of his last five albums has sold at least 20,000 copies, a sure sign of a dedicated fan base amid a withering industry. All Eternals Deck—his latest and first album for Durham's Merge Records, and arguably his best since The Sunset Tree—had more preorders in a 24-hour period than any release in Merge history, including recent works by The Arcade Fire and Spoon.
"It's not like hard-core Mountain Goats fans have 15 bands that they feel the same about," says John Vanderslice, Darnielle's occasional producer and collaborator and longtime friend. "It's the Mountain Goats."
In truth, there aren't 15 other songwriters like Darnielle, 15 bands like the Mountain Goats or maybe even 15 people like Darnielle in the world. A trained poet with the performance spirit of a punk rocker, Darnielle's life and loves have been surprising ones, reflected in the sort of songs he's written during the last two decades. A compulsive songwriter, he's steadily developed his craft but long avoided making music his career. Meanwhile, he's taken chances and said things other writers just don't.
Hyperliterate and unafraid to examine the darkest corners of the world, Darnielle pens songs that offer what literary critic Edmund Wilson once called "the shock of recognition." That is, these are the songs that suggest you're never alone, even when the world seems to be collapsing.
"It's all about me creating a space out of inside of myself where we can all suffer together," says Darnielle, laughing as leans forward on one of his living room couches, "and raise our middle finger to the world to say that we're going to live through whatever suffering we're enduring."
"Our next guests are a critically acclaimed band whose forthcoming album is entitled All Eternals Deck," David Letterman said in late February. "Please welcome the Mountain Goats."
The Mountain Goats, at last, had landed one of the premier gigs in American entertainment. The quartet played "Birth of Serpents," a song Darnielle wrote for an acquaintance he'd made as a teenager while living among methamphetamine addicts in Portland, Ore. The old friend had died without many people noticing.
"Sink low, rise high," Darnielle howled, his nasal voice more acerbic than that of Letterman's typical guests. "Bring back some blurry pictures to remembers all your darker moments by."
When the song ended, Darnielle beamed like a poor kid at Christmas. He seemed genuinely surprised by where his music had taken him.
However limited it might be, the Mountain Goats' rise toward the mainstream has been in most every regard an unlikely one. For more than a decade, Darnielle's albums consisted of little more than the singer sitting in a small room, singing and strumming with diabolical gusto into a Panasonic boombox. The effect could be as irritating as it was intoxicating, but the implication that the words were the focus and that they were interesting was as obvious as it was exciting.
Darnielle released these recordings on cassettes, 7-inch records and, eventually, compact discs through a succession of tiny labels—Shrimper, Ajax, Sonic Enemy. What's more, Darnielle, at least then, was more of a yowler than a singer, delivering these lyrics with the uninflected voice of a teenager hurling invective toward his parents. It was aggressive and raw, the sort of music that seemed to duck popularity from the moment it was made.
And it was, for the most part, only Darnielle. Though he collaborated with people during the first decade of his career, like early bassist Rachel Ware and Nebraska songwriter Simon Joyner, the Mountain Goats remained a one-man band. For the last four years, he's toured and recorded with longtime bassist Peter Hughes and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster. But when he plays solo he still announces, without irony, "Hello, we are the Mountain Goats."
"To an extent, the Mountain Goats will always only be one person. We arrange stuff and we collaborate, but you could take me or Jon Wurster out of the equation, and it's still the Mountain Goats," says Hughes. "But you could take Darnielle out of the band and—well, by definition, it wouldn't be the Mountain Goats."
Darnielle never wanted to make this his livelihood. He wanted to work and write songs on the side. In California, he wrote tunes in his spare time while working as a psychiatric nurse. It was a very casual process, with Darnielle writing and recording in a tiny bedroom in Norwalk. He remembers designing the cover for one of his most popular early releases, Hot Garden Stomp, as a way to pass the time while his elderly grandmother, Umbra, napped. She was in her late 90s, so he'd visit her once or twice a week. While she rested, he sat on the porch with a notebook and a pen and drew a primitive picture of a tall plant and four strange crescents. He dropped it off to Dennis Callaci—the owner of Shrimper, the label that soon released it—on the way home.
"The new tape was not going to make me famous or anything," he remembers. "It was just a tape."
These songs were, as several of his longtime collaborators note, more of a compulsion than a career choice. "I had, by then, abandoned any hope of becoming a rock singer," Darnielle said in 2006, "though like anybody else I'd dreamt about that throughout grade school."
After moving from California to Iowa to be with his wife, Lalitree, in 1996, he continued to work as nurse at a children's mental institution early into the last decade. He played sporadically, but he avoided long tours. That lifestyle, he told an interviewer in the Netherlands in 1995, was no way to live.
"One of his things was, 'No, you cannot possibly tour and still be feeling it in any authentic way. The most you can play is three times a year,'" remembers Hughes, quoting Darnielle.
But Darnielle kept writing, and the primal, passionate songs that he seemed to write by the dozen kept finding bigger crowds. Hughes remembers the first time he saw Darnielle play, in the spring of 1992 at a festival presented by Darnielle's first label, Shrimper. Darnielle had only been writing and playing as the Mountain Goats for a year, but Hughes says he was instantly drawn to the immediacy and energy of what was happening. Darnielle's songs became increasingly nuanced, with more elaborate verses and structures.
"After the show, he asked me where I was from, and I told him I lived in Orange County now but I grew up in Chino," Hughes remembers. "And he said, very excitedly, 'Chino?' I just wrote my longest song, and it's called 'Going to Chino.'"
Mac McCaughan co-founded his band, Superchunk, and his label, Merge Records, only a few years before the Mountain Goats first hit a stage. Last month, Merge released All Eternals Deck; it's the culmination of nearly two decades of McCaughan's interest in the band. McCaughan thinks he met Darnielle during Superchunk's first tour to California in 1990, but he knows that he became a fan just a few years later, around the time that Shrimper released Hot Garden Stomp, the cassette Darnielle had illustrated on his grandmother's porch. The songs were addictive, McCaughan says. Each time one tape would come with a dozen or so songs, it would simply make you want the next batch. He remembers driving around town listening to the cassettes with Superchunk guitarist Jim Wilbur. Sonically, the music reminded them of the home recording they were doing on four-track recorders. But he knew these songs were different.
"At the time, Sebadoh probably still had that home-recording aesthetic, but John's songs were so different than that," he says. "There was something really surprising about those songs, some detail or turn that would make you go, 'Oh my God, did he just say that?'"
Vanderslice had a similar experience when he first heard the Mountain Goats in 2000, nearly a decade later. A friend brought over a copy of The Coroner's Gambit, one of the final albums Darnielle recorded with his Panasonic boombox. Vanderslice put it on after his friend left.
"I remember very, very clearly the sound of the opening—this taunting voice, this all-knowing thing," he remembers. "It felt dangerous to me, the amount of distortion, the amount of compression, the warlike lyrics, the terror in his voice. I'll never forget it."
That record became an essential for Vanderslice, a fact that in turn became essential to Darnielle's development as a bandleader and, really, as a full-time musician. After more than a decade of making records and playing live, Darnielle still worked as a nurse, a career he seemed prepared to keep forever. Even after he moved to North Carolina in 2003, Darnielle consistently thought of each new album as little more than a delay before he returned to health care.
That never happened: In 2002, Darnielle signed a record deal with 4AD, the venerable British empire that had released music by the Pixies, Cocteau Twins, Stereolab and dozens of other noteworthy indie rock bands. For the first time, Darnielle headed into a proper New York studio with a producer, an assistant and a band, consisting of Hughes and California pal and fellow songwriter Franklin Bruno. 4AD released Tallahassee in November 2002, just nine months after the Mountain Goats issued All Hail West Texas, the landmark finale of Darnielle's time recording on his boombox. He'd taken that sound and those songs as far as he could take them, he's since said. It was time to try something else, even if that frustrated fans who'd come to love the Mountain Goats by way of those spasmodic early recordings.
The year of touring that followed, remembers Hughes, convinced Darnielle that a life as a musician might not be as soul-and-sincerity-sapping as he'd once assumed. In the nine years since Tallahassee's release, Darnielle's recorded an astonishing seven albums with a cadre of close-knit collaborators like Vanderslice and North Carolina producer Scott Solter. Each has been its own successful studio experiment.
"By the time All Hail West Texas or The Coroner's Gambit came out—and I like those records and I listen to them a ton—I was really itching to hear something different," says Hughes. "The songwriting had developed so much that, for my sensibility, I wanted to hear it open up. Instead of it being in this small box of rigorous aesthetic limitations, I wanted to hear it on a bigger stage."
Darnielle consistently talks about how he doesn't have a plan or a goal for his music, how he just writes songs and treats them in the way that makes the most sense. His collaborators of 20 years confirm that choose-your-own-adventure approach. In the last decade, that process has led to some of music's most nuanced records. Darnielle has continued to develop not only as a lyricist but also as a bandleader comfortable ceding that tight-fisted musical control he held for a decade. Just as Hughes hoped, he's stretched his sound. As a band, the Mountain Goats have experimented with skipping reggae and woozy chamber music, thundering rock bursts and tender ballads. The Life of the World to Come, for instance, is a lush, swelling record anchored by piano and strings. On "Dilaudid," from The Sunset Tree, Darnielle puts down his guitar completely, singing over the roar and swoop of four bowed cellos. Get Lonely, from 2006, is the equivalent of a tone poem, with a muted mood of pain and, eventually, cautious renewal. Horns, strings and a vibraphone accent the songs and highlight the meanings in a way that a Panasonic boombox never could.
"Once he gets a tiger by the tail, he knows it, and he fills that frame," says Erik Friedlander, a New York cellist who has recorded with John Zorn and Kelly Clarkson. He played on three Mountain Goats records between 2005 and 2008. "There's a certain fierceness to John that's very engaging. He's so determined to capture the heart of whatever he is writing about."