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."
John Darnielle lives just outside of downtown Durham in a tan two-story house with Lalitree and their two cats, Gretzky and Rozz, respectively and presumably named for the Los Angeles Kings center and the frontman of Los Angeles metal band Christian Death.
Built in 1950, the house is a prize-winning piece of domestic architecture, designed by N.C. Mutual Life building mastermind Marion Ham. From the outside, it looks like a stacked array of smaller homes, each unit offset slightly from the other. Inside, it mixes labyrinthine doors and cozy spaces with a wide, sprawling kitchen and a rear porch best described as a weekend haven. A wall of exposed brick borders the interior stairwell; in the kitchen, black chalkboard paint covers a few walls. Chalk sketches of littoral monsters stalk those spaces, courtesy of the Darnielles' friend Thor Harris, who stops by when he's in town with his bands Shearwater or Swans.
Darnielle has lived here since 2009. As he explains the Philip Glass portrait on the wall or talks about an upcoming nighttime garden party, it's clear that he's proud this is his home. He points to a framed newspaper page from the July 16, 1951, Durham Morning Herald that lauds this house. He grins and throws up his hands, "This is how Durham I am, man."
Of course Darnielle has a six-decade-old newspaper story about his house hanging near the front door: Perhaps the key component to everything Darnielle does, be it songwriting or blogging about music or simply carrying on a conversation, is his insatiable desire for information. Darnielle's brain is a jackpot of curios from a surprising number of disciplines. At breakfast at Elmo's Diner, Darnielle, a longtime and passionate vegetarian, defends eating cheese before launching into the tale of how he, at age 15, wound up seeing Steve Reich perform Drumming in 1982. Later, driving through Durham in his Mazda, Darnielle volleys between serial classical music and a boxing match he watched for the second time last night. He's written a book about Black Sabbath, and he writes a monthly column for the heavy metal magazine Decibel. He's blogged about most any genre you could name on his website, Last Plane to Jakarta, and he recently wrote about the NHL All-Star Game for the Independent Weekly.
"You could be talking about mental illness or Libya or John Berryman, and he's three or four notches above the emotional. He doesn't get ground down in the emotional level of talking about art or politics," says Vanderslice. "What you want in a conversation, you want to be surprised, you want to be challenged, and you want to be around sparkling ideas. And he has that."
When I finally leave Darnielle's house, it's without my coat but with a trove of things Darnielle insists I borrow: There's Issue 17 of Snakepit Heavy Metal Magazine, a 105-page plain white paper digest of meticulous interviews with metal bands most people have forgotten, like the Slayer from Texas, not California. There's Ritual, a heavy-as-metal four-album vinyl box set by Czech band Master's Hammer. And then there's Pure Country, a gorgeous collection of photographs of country patriarchs like Ray Price and Charlie Louvin, Ernest Tubb and Pop Stoneman. "Oh, this is so badass," he boasts, smiling deliriously as he pulls the square book from a living-room shelf.
"I think I read too much Arthur Conan Doyle when I was young, and got this idea that a gentleman should know a lot about one thing and plenty about most everything else," Darnielle told me in a 2006 interview. "I'd say that the more I learn about stuff, the more conscious I become of grave gaps in my knowledge."
Darnielle's aggressively absorptive mind is one of his chief assets as a songwriter. In the last 20 years, he's written more than 500 songs, and until 2005's The Sunset Tree, which offered a vivid, affecting look into his abusive childhood home, they weren't really about him. They involved his thoughts and his feelings, sure, but the images and ideas and emotions were famously nonbiographical. As he told a reporter after that album's release, he'd put off writing about his own life for more than a decade so that, when he finally did it, he'd be good enough at writing songs to tell his own story well. His mind works so that he has plenty of other topics for his tunes.
"Music is merely one thing that defines him as an artist and as a person," says John Congleton. A Mountain Goats fan since he stumbled into a show in the mid-'90s in Denton, Texas, Congleton has recorded chunks of the last two Mountain Goats LPs. Darnielle and Congleton originally bonded over heavy metal and horror movies. Congleton says that Darnielle's interests outside of his own music are what drive so much of his writing, preventing the dead-end solipsism that often litters indie rock.
"He knows a lot about a lot of things," Congleton explains. "His head is full of trivial knowledge of all kinds of historical events. It's kind of what makes him different as a songwriter, because he's not just interested in writing pithy lyrics or rhyme schemes that sound good. It makes you want to look into these things—'What's he talking about? Oh, maybe there is something to these 1920s boxers or whatever.'"
Indeed, Darnielle's lyrics are fascinating lattices of references and allusions. He's released around 50 songs about "going to" someplace—the Southern state of Georgia; the city of Utrecht, Holland; the small English village Kirby Sigston. On 2006's exquisite Get Lonely, he referenced both the North Carolina town Goldsboro and the local byway U.S. 15-501.
All of these name-drops are carefully chosen and contextualized so as to be communicative, not simply boasts of erudition. His 2000 album, The Coroner's Gambit, mentions Dvorak, Tolstoy and the bitterness of the earliest malaria treatment, quinine. He hangs "Scotch Grove," a wonderfully illustrative portrait of two angry lovers riding silently in a car, on the LeAnn Rimes number creaking from the radio—"that song you know I hate." "International Small Arms Traffic Blues," from 2002's Tallahassee, uses the border between Greece and Albania, volatile and contested now for the better part of a century, as a metaphor for "our love." The song ends with a quote from the ubiquitous 1977 R&B hit "Best of My Love," by the Emotions.
Each of the dozen songs on his previous album, 2009's The Life of the World to Come, keyed on a Bible verse; "Romans 10:9," for instance, uses the words of Moses to make a plea for perseverance. On the new All Eternals Deck, Darnielle writes about Judy Garland, her daughter Liza Minnelli and cinematic brute Charles Bronson, using each as an example of extraordinary people working through very ordinary problems. The tune about The Wizard of Oz starlet, Darnielle says, came from a process that used to inspire lots of his material. He'd watch a movie, grow anxious from sitting still and staring at the screen, grab his guitar and start channeling how he was feeling about the film through phrases and strings.
"I feel a vibe from this movie, and so I say, 'One clear shot or he gets away' because there's a train robbery happening. I'm looking at the action there that starts to inspire it. Except that was a Charles Bronson movie, but it became a story about Judy Garland," he explains. "If you look in the room where I wrote it, there's a biography of Judy Garland on the bookshelf facing me, right? So it's very much that I'm in this moment, soaking up visuals. That's the song."
Perry Wright toured with the Mountain Goats in early 2010, playing guitar so that Darnielle could sit behind a keyboard to play many of the piano-led songs on The Life of the World to Come. Years before, Wright's Chapel Hill-based band, The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers, opened for the Mountain Goats on several national tours, including those that Peter the Hitchhiker caught.
Like Darnielle, Wright has the sort of voracious mind that looks to gather new knowledge at every new turn. His songs are also hyper-referential, using cultural and literary touchstones as foundations. After Wright met Lalitree Darnielle at a concert in 2004, he and John became fast friends.
"It's not unlike certain monastic disciplines," Wright says of the information-filtering process behind Darnielle's writing. "He confined himself to reading only one type of fiction for a year because he knows that if you have an infinite line, you can divide that infinite line any way and it doesn't get you anything because it's still infinite. But if you have an inch, you can still divide it an infinite number of ways, but now you have something—this part of the inch, and that part of the inch.
"I think one of the reasons he has, for a long time, been able to write songs that have gotten better is because he continued to challenge himself. Every idea is an underlined blue word that you can click to find another one. You end up very far away from where you start sometimes, but there is a thread. It is his job now to trace those threads, because he's constantly mining for new things."
Michael Azerrad doesn't consider himself much of a Mountain Goats fan. The author of Our Band Could Be Your Life and an early Nirvana biography, Azerrad has seen the band two or three times, and he knows some of their records. Mostly, though, he worked as Darnielle's editor at the music website eMusic several years ago. When the Mountain Goats played a sold-out three-night stand at New York's Bowery Ballroom last week, Azerrad went as the band's guest.
During "The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton," the first track on that last boombox album, All Hail West Texas, Azerrad finally got it. Almost everyone in the room—"college-educated white people in their 20s, a huge proportion of them wearing glasses and who wouldn't really go to a metal show," he says—threw up devil horns and chanted along with Darnielle, over and over again, "Hail Satan! Hail, hail!"
"The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton" is a three-minute tune about two West Texas misfits named Jeff and Cyrus. The pair spends its schooldays conjuring up spectacular band names—Satan's Fingers, The Killers, The Hospital Bombers—and daydreaming about the fame and glory they'll find as rock stars. But Cyrus' teacher doesn't approve, so he's sent to the school for, well, the misfits. In Darnielle's mind, though, Jeff and Cyrus prevail: "When you punish a person for dreaming his dream, don't expect him to thank or forgive you/ The best ever death metal band out of Denton will in time both outpace and outlive you." That's when the chanting starts, when Azerrad understood.
"When you hear a Mountain Goats song, you're hearing the indie rock equivalent of death metal, on a cathartic level," says Azerrad. "Misery loves company, and there's something really comforting about someone who's gone through stuff and digested it in a way that you can relate to. John is a very wise and empathetic person. That comes through in the songs, and I think it comes from experience."
Erik Rutan recorded three songs on All Eternals Deck. A member of Hate Eternal and Morbid Angel, as well as the producer of some of Darnielle's favorite Cannibal Corpse records, Rutan is a heavy metal hero. He agrees that what Darnielle does is showcase the worst in life and then attempt to put it in relief.
"I feel like we all have this darkness inside of us," says Rutan in the Florida studio where the Mountain Goats recently became the first band not to use a double kick drum. "I've met people over the years and realized that, whatever darkness you have inside of you, you're not alone."
Darnielle was abused as a kid, a period he details in The Sunset Tree. He was a psychiatric nurse for children, too, a period he roughly outlines in his book about Black Sabbath's Master of Reality. And he was living-room deep in speed tweakers, too, the period that's the premise of 2004's We Shall All Be Healed.
"This song takes place a few blocks from here, at 253 N. Broadway at apartment No. 10," Darnielle told a crowd in Portland in 2008. "Then later, because we weren't quite done with the party, it takes place up around 13th and Taylor. That's where the shit gets real."
A career survivor, Darnielle sounds elated as he relays the story, as though his own suffering has now given him a chance to give other people encouragement. He adds a sense of humor and humanity to the tough times. And then his rock band rolls.
"At that point, I could feel natural when I write, versus not being afraid to dredge up the dark stuff and let it be good and dark but still be who I am," says Darnielle of The Sunset Tree and all his subsequent albums. "I'm the kid who, if you put him in a barn full of shit, he asks, 'Where's the pony?'"
That sentiment sparkles throughout All Eternals Deck, an album that—in perfect, familiar Mountain Goats fashion—guilds devastating times with perseverance and confidence. Recorded during several sessions over the last year with many different producers, Darnielle says it's a perfect snapshot of where he is in life. He's the leader of a tight, buoyant rock band with a family and a nice home. He wants to be, as he puts it, a good person.
"It's my goal in life to be a decent human being. That's my long-term goal," says Darnielle. "When I say I was a monster when I was younger, I don't mean I was a lovable monster—just not a good dude. It occurred to me that the way to live your life was to be a good person."
Perry Wright sees this as the ultimate Mountain Goats message. Darnielle has moved from recording alone in his tiny, hot California bedroom to a top-notch Florida studio with his best friends and heavy metal heroes. Darnielle doesn't offer blind hope as much as he presents evidence that life really can get better.
"He's a grown-up. He can look at whole years of his life that were terrible, whole years of other people's lives that were terrible, and treat them with perspective," says Wright. "He has worked through stuff, and he can articulate what that other side looks like."
Finally relaxing into the couch, Darnielle rolls his hands in a circle. "The idea is to go someplace. That is every good story. That's what you want—stories. You want stories in your life and in your practice. That story has got to be growth."
Roberta Miner just spent $3,350 on a used cassette that holds one song, "Eugene Sue," recorded by the Mountain Goats in May of 2001. She just wishes it would have cost a few thousand dollars more.
"I was kind of disappointed," says Miner, laughing. Her maximum eBay bid for the tape was $5,555.55, but, after a weeklong online auction, no one would compete with her high bid. "I was thinking it would be worth a lot more."
Two things are surprising about Miner's scenario: First, she's not some outrageously rich executive with more money than interests on which to spend it. Rather, she's the Tours Director at the Seattle Architecture Foundation who tithes her salary each year, meaning she distributes a certain percentage to her favorite charities. Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle sold the tape—the only copy in the world, he says—to raise funds for Doctors Without Borders, which supports recovery efforts in troubled parts of the world, after the recent tsunami that struck Japan. Miner's maximum bid was her annual charitable allocation.
What's more, Miner insists that she's not an obsessive Mountain Goats fan. She doesn't know every song on every album, and she can't rattle on for hours about the cassettes the band released for the better part of a decade. On a friend's recommendation, she saw the band play six years ago before ever hearing their music; she was immediately taken by Darnielle's words and the raw presentation.
"It's really hard to capture pathos in a way that's not mundane, and that's what John speaks to—the beauty of when things go wrong," she says. "For someone who writes a lot of songs with a lot of negative subject matter, he really conveys the beauty of the human experience."
That's actually the perfect synopsis of Miner's story, too. Last year, her father died, leaving her with a lot of money she didn't want. "I would have rather had him back than that money," she says. That money helped buy the tape; Miner also used it to fund a recent trip to the East Coast, where she followed the Mountain Goats on an eight-concert trip from Richmond to Toronto. She took her assistant from work, whom she actually met through the Mountain Goats' message boards. It was her gift to herself.
The tape, though, is a gift for other Mountain Goats fans. When Darnielle sold it, he gave the new owner control of the song. They could share it on the Internet or never let anyone else hear it. When the Mountain Goats play the West Coast later this month, she vows to squeeze as many people as she can into her living room for the track's big premiere.
"I am," she says, her smile nearly audible, "going to share it."