John Darnielle talks 'Goths,' jazz and keeping things fresh
Growing up mostly in California, the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle wasn't exactly a goth, per se. Goth kids out there formed their own distinct scene, as Darnielle explains in the song “We Do It Different on the West Coast,” from the Mountain Goats' most recent album, Goths (Merge Records).
“The super-heavy-clothing goth style was more of a London thing. Where I was, on the West Coast, there had been this thing called deathrock,” Darnielle said recently by phone, name-dropping quintessential deathrock bands like Christian Death and 45 Grave. “I dyed my hair black, and I had a teacher who said I dressed like an undertaker. But was I living [a goth lifestyle] and using white pancake makeup and stuff? No. My deal was largely music that was depressing and desperate and about death. I consider myself sort of a sub-category of goth. My tastes are very broad and always have been. I've never been the kind of guy who can commit to a scene.”
On Goths, Darnielle touches on everything from far-flung, hyper-specific scenes (“For the Portuguese Goth Metal Bands”) to Andrew Eldritch, frontman for goth legend the Sisters of Mercy (“Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds”).
Darnielle said the album's theme came about naturally after writing three songs that seemed to have goth touchstones. “I don't sit down and decide on a theme and then write,” he said. “I write some songs and then I see where they're going, and at that point I start following them. … I don't start with an idea to express. I tell a story and the idea comes out through it.”
Rather than listen to the goth-leaning bands he grew up with (“A lot of the West Coast goth records just sound so bad”), Darnielle kept to his typical listening habits of heavy metal, ambient music, classical music and jazz. “I'm listening more to jazz in my own compositional pursuits now to figure out what people like Bud Powell are doing,” Darnielle said of the jazz pianist. “I'm interested in the way that the jazz dudes do different voicings and modulation. Many of the songs [on Goths] have key modulation, which is something that previous Mountain Goats records don't have.”
Early Mountain Goats records from the mid- to late-'90s were lo-fi affairs, and even as Darnielle graduated to pro studios for 2002 album Tallahassee and 2005 fan favorite The Sunset Tree, the songwriter adhered mostly to a strummy, acoustic-guitar sound he described as “three chords and a yelp.”
But in the last several years, the Mountain Goats sound has veered in other directions, and on Goths, Darnielle ditched his guitar completely, opting instead for a Fender Rhodes electric piano.
“There's a resonant feeling, and it has a warmth to it,” Darnielle said. “When you take the guitar out, you have all this space, and space is good. Space is nice. When there's space, you can move into it. A lot of Mountain Goats records, I like them, but instrumental mixes of them you wouldn't have much use for. All the instruments are driving the vocal along in some way, whereas with this one, I have instrumental mixes of it and I like them.”
“Over the years we have listened to more and more dub records, and those are some of the greatest records ever made,” Darnielle continued. “Those guys were so aware that when you create space, you create something massive. You wanna stand back and take a look at it. That vibrato on the Rhodes gives that spacious feeling — this open, wind-swept feeling.”
Changing up the instrumentation and singing in new, varied ways helps keep things fresh for Darnielle and the band (bassist Peter Hughes, drummer Jon Wurster and multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas), who will make a stop at the Newport Music Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 15.
“You don't want to be pinned as the guy who does this one thing. If you stop growing, people are like, ‘Eh, I know what's gonna happen at a Mountain Goats show,'” Darnielle said. “For us, it's very important to say, ‘What can we do that's different? What can we do that will have us all growing as musicians?' ... Audiences want to get something that comes from your gut somehow. That has to be where you're at.”