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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."