Don't Look Back

24 April 2012 | 9:38 pm | Doug Wallen

“We haven’t recorded it yet. So who knows what’s gonna be on it? I’m just gonna play what I want, which is usually playing new stuff. People wanna hear older stuff, but if you only play older stuff, then you are a nostalgia act and I consider nostalgia a toxin.”

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With his wracked-nerves guitar strum and biting sneer, there's no mistaking The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle for anyone else. Even when he turns down the volume, the man's sharp, talky voice is as well known as his powerful lyrics. It's been a decade since The Mountain Goats graduated from a cult treasure to a mid-level indie mainstay, but it still feels somehow unlikely that so unfashionable and idiosyncratic a songwriter should have found such a reliable audience.

But let's be glad he has, because that success has kept the world in regular Mountain Goats albums and tours ever since Darnielle signed to 4AD for 2002's breakout Tallahassee. Now signed to Merge and backed by bassist Peter Hughes (Nothing Painted Blue) and drummer Jon Wurster (Superchunk), Darnielle's latest album was last year's All Eternals Deck. While it doesn't revisit the “going to” road songs beloved by fans, there are specific references to his native California.

One song that only made the cut as an Aussie bonus track nods to one of our own cities: the heartbreaking Brisbane Hotel Sutra was written at The Point hotel. But it ultimately didn't fit the album. “That's a really direct expression,” Darnielle admits, “and All Eternals Deck is not an album of direct expressions. It has a couple of windows that open where you can see something raw, but that song is fairly autobiographical and naked. When you're making an album, you have to focus on the good of the album and what's going to make the best shape.”

Unlike more autobiographical albums like 2004's We Shall All Be Healed and 2005's The Sunset Tree, All Eternals Deck is shrouded in allusions to kings, crusades, vampires and the mythology of popular culture, from Liza Minnelli and her mum Judy Garland to Charles Bronson and the Eagles hit Hotel California.

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The fact that Brisbane Hotel Sutra was penned in Brisbane at all is only because Darnielle adapted his songwriting habits. “I used to be really strict,” he recalls. “I'm the king of arbitrary rules. I decided when I was new: 'I don't write on the road. I tour on the road. I focus on my shows.' Then it got to the point where we were touring so much that to not write on the road would be to not write at all.”

He continues: “So I started writing on the road, and I was also in a super emotional state [at the time]. The songs I wrote on that tour turned out to be the core of The Sunset Tree. Well, that was a lesson for me. If you write when you literally only have an hour to do it and in an inconvenient location and during times of emotional duress, you can maybe actually tap something a little deeper.”

Now Darnielle writes both on the road and at home. For his tentatively named next album Transcendental Youth, however, he's also road-testing the ten songs planned for the record. That's despite YouTube's reputation for capturing early versions of songs live, before they've necessarily come to fruition on an album. That's not to say, though, that he'll play all – and only – new songs on tour. “There isn't even any new album,” he reminds. “We haven't recorded it yet. So who knows what's gonna be on it? I'm just gonna play what I want, which is usually playing new stuff. People wanna hear older stuff, but if you only play older stuff, then you are a nostalgia act and I consider nostalgia a toxin.”

Laughing, he adds in the same breath: “There's nothing wrong with older songs, but if you're not constantly moving forward and constantly trying to push yourself a little – and push audiences and let everybody have new experiences instead of just reliving songs they already know – then to me it's a lot less fun.”

If not a nostalgic person in general, Darnielle still loves plenty of music from the past. In March The Mountain Goats took part in a massive tribute to The Rolling Stones at Carnegie Hall, playing Paint It Black on a line-up that included such heroes of his as Rickie Lee Jones, Roseanne Cash and New York Dolls' David Johansen. He cites New York Dolls as well as Johansen's later band The Harry Smiths for changing his life. And on tour, The Mountain Goats have also covered the Silver Jews' Pet Politics and Plains by the late, underrated indie rock act Silkworm. Oh, and Thin Lizzy's The Boys Are Back in Town for a while there.

Despite having the charismatic drummer of Superchunk on board for years now, Darnielle doesn't like the idea that having a permanent drummer has made the band more “rock”. “[Maybe] in the ears of the listeners,” he says, “because few listeners will count something as rock unless it has a drummer. But I will contend that if you put me alone in front of any audience, I'm gonna bring more rock than half the bands you're gonna see. I know that sounds very egocentric, but I mean it. We rock no matter what our formation is. That's what we do.”

He may not agree with the distinction in most people's minds, but he's come to accept it. “I think that's a weird rule,” he adds. “I used to be really aggro about it when I would stand in front of audiences solo and people would all sit down.”

With what's soon to be 14 studio albums to the band's name, it's a wonder that Darnielle can keep track of his sprawling songbook, let alone retain lyrics and chords. And this is a man who earlier in the interview calls his memory “spotty.”

“My memory's not good or bad: it's weird,” he elaborates later. “It's like I meet people from my past and I remember [obscure] stuff, but then I forget things that are personally important to me. My memory is full of holes. It's something that somebody stood in front of with a machine gun for a while.” That said, he points out: “I always feel like the lyrics become muscle memory at some point.”

But then there's Riches & Wonders from 2002's All Hail West Texas, a song he can't play live because he can never remember all four verses in a row. “That will just not get itself into my head no matter what I do,” he laments. “Which is a shame, 'cause it's one of the best songs I ever wrote. But that's how it goes.”