The New Yorker referred to him as “America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist”. John Darnielle has written, recorded, and released over 500 songs since 1991, under the name the Mountain Goats. His 16th, and most recent album is 2008’s Heretic Pride. “It has been observed by many that I’m not the greatest singer in the world, and I’m a pretty crude musician, but I write good lyrics, I think.” said Darnielle. “And so that is what I’ve been trying to do, and that was my goal in wanting to make music in the first place, to make songs that have lyrics that people attach themselves to or find something in (them) that’s useful to them.”
In addition to being a prolific songwriter, Darnielle is also an author and blogger. When you consider his way with words, his collaborations with motor-mouthed hip-hop artist Aesop Rock start to make a little more sense. “It was the first thing we ever talked about … when you meet somebody who you hit it off with and they’re in music, you’re like ‘oh, we should play together,’” said Darnielle.
Darnielle was born in Bloomington, Indiana, and grew up in California. “For the longest time, all I knew about Bloomington was that I was born there. I had never seen it with conscious eyes, because we moved out when I was 2 or 3.”
Around the same time as he got his first guitar at the age of 15, Darnielle became interested in heavy metal and death metal, passions which he still holds close, and writes about on a regular basis at his blog, Last Plane to Jakarta. “It’s what I listen to and respond to,” said Darnielle. “And I think part of what I like about metal is that I am not a person making it. When you become the person doing something, your relationship to the craft is going to change … If you’ve worked in a restaurant, eating in restaurants is never fully the same, you know. So as long as I can keep a little distance from a genre or two, then I can still be an awestruck fan..”
However, he did allow himself to get close enough to write a novel about Black Sabbath. The 33 and 1/3 series is a collection of books about critically acclaimed rock albums, all written by different authors. Darnielle wrote about Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality through the voice of an institutionalized 15-year-old boy.
With such a catalog, along with his written works, what constitutes a good introduction to John Darnielle’s work? Darnielle appreciates the superfans, who revere his more lo-fi days when he would record his songs into a boombox, as well as the late-comers who are attracted to his more recent, and by Darnielle’s admission, accessible music. “Old school Mountain Goats fans will always recommend a bunch of stuff that practically no one will like.” laughed Darnielle. “I love them that they like it, and it’s cool, and I like it too, but my earlier stuff is very… there’s an intentional degree of resistance. It could never be particularly popular. It can be well-liked by the people who like it.”
But according to Darnielle, if you really want to get an introduction to the Mountain Goats, come see him play live. “There are certain types of music that are better recorded, but what I do, a recording of it is always kind of going to be a shadow of what it’s actually about.”