The Slow Climb: How the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle Became the Best Storyteller in Rock
This is my occult shelf,” says John Darnielle, pointing to a row of books with titles like The Psychic World of California and A Gallery of Ghosts. It’s a Saturday in March, and we’re in Darnielle’s home office in Durham, North Carolina. There’s an electric piano in one corner and an acoustic guitar propped up nearby, and the room is full of years worth of lovingly curated pop-culture artifacts: a box of 78s from Southeast Asia that Darnielle calls “fucking badass”; another shelf devoted to boxing books; an advertisement for a fake monster movie called The Creature From Black Sabbath that Darnielle got from a local shop (he’s still kicking himself for not buying the Lemmy Kilmister oil painting the guy also had).
Darnielle often writes songs for his band, the Mountain Goats, in this space. It’s also where he wrote much of Wolf in White Van, last year’s best-selling, National Book Award-nominated novel about a disfigured young man who goes on to create a fantasy game played through the mail. In a drawer sits an item of supreme interest, for Mountain Goats fans at least, one that underscores Darnielle’s pretty remarkable journey from archetypal cult artist to something bigger. It’s a box of old cassettes – including the source tapes to some of the early Mountain Goats releases, large parts of which were recorded on a cheap Panasonic boombox.
The tapes go back to the early Nineties, after Darnielle had survived a tumultuous adolescence and was working as a psychiatric nurse at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, California. He points to a cassette of unreleased material, cut around 1990 using a friend’s electric guitar, rhythm machine and four-track recorder. “This is, I believe, the first tape,” he says. “Rough stuff. I have not tried to listen to this, and I probably never will. It will be burnt before I die.”
A quarter-century after he started making these tapes (and many years since the Mountain Goats started recording all of their songs in actual studios), Darnielle has built one of the more unique and impressive catalogs of any American songwriter: 600 or so tunes that touch on everything from the Chicago Cubs to Frankie Lymon to Darnielle’s favorite Bible verses, full of lyrics so finely turned that fans once started a petition to make him the United States poet laureate. He specializes in sharp, detail-rich story-songs like “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” about two teenagers who can’t decide whether to name their group Satan’s Fingers, the Killers or the Hospital Bombers. (Their tale takes a sad turn, though Darnielle manages to make “Hail Satan!” into a deeply touching refrain.) Darnielle’s slightly nasal voice can be an acquired taste. But over the years he’s turned into a commanding singer with a gift for melody and a quieter side that makes Mountain Goats records elegant as well as eccentric.