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The Mountain Goats

The Mountain Goats:
Alpha Song Writer

 
story by tim mcmahan


 

 

Lazy-i: Nov. 13, 2002


The Mountain Goats
w/ John Vanderslice, Fizzle Like a Flood
Friday, Nov. 15
9 p.m.,
Sokol Underground

13th & Martha
Omaha

The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle is more of a storyteller than a singer/songwriter.

His stories, performed with guitar on stage and documented in hundreds of homemade recordings, are highly literate snapshots of the down-and-out side of life. His new CD, Tallahassee, whose release this month on 4AD Records brings him to Omaha's Sokol Underground Nov. 15, is no exception.

Tallahassee is a concept album of sorts, based on a drunken couple, once in love now futilely holding onto each other as they head hand-in-hand toward a drunken oblivion. Think "Leaving Las Vegas" minus the affection and set in the thick, redneck backwoods of Northern Florida.

Known as "the Alpha couple," the sad losers have appeared in a number of Darnielle's songs over the years. "They're a couple of people about whom I once had something of a vision back when I wrote poetry, except that I don't like to properly call it a vision since that sounds awfully pretentious," Darnielle replied in an e-mail interview.

"This image sort of insinuated its way into my mind: It was a couple waltzing in a hardware store sometime long after midnight, no lights on in the store, the moon coming through the window. They were dancing because they once loved each other so much, and they were trying to hang on to the physical sensation of being in love since the feeling was right about to flare up and extinguish itself."


 

 

Darnielle said the ex-lovers still do feel a sort of love for each other, but it's really quite sick and destructive "so I would say on balance that that's not love. That's alcohol."

Why Tallahassee for the location? Darnielle said he picked Florida because it was on the other end of the country from the couple's point of origin. His vision had them fleeing as far as possible from their problems. "Since they spend all their money on booze, they couldn't fly any place, so that left them with a car and a road Atlas. Once they get to Tallahassee, they figure they've gone as far
as they need to get."

If the storytelling seems precise and detailed, soundwise Darnielle's past recordings have been anything but. He's known for his aggressively low-fi homemade productions, many recorded on a Panasonic dual-cassette boom box with a built-in condenser microphone. "For me, the music is there to sort of help slip the words under people's doormats," he said.

His new CD is a departure from those typical hiss-filled tapes. Tallahassee was recorded in Tarbox Road Studios in upstate New York with producer Tony Doogan (Mogwai, Belle and Sebastian). While he enjoyed the experience, Darnielle said he still prefers home recording. "Working at home I have absolute totalitarian control, and losing that in the studio is a little frustrating," he said. "Working in the studio results in a lot of synchronicous little events, like the piano on 'Have to Explode,' that are really neat."

On "Have to Explode," Darnielle with guitar quietly sings a description of the Alpha couple, close to passing out, lying on the tile floor of their bathroom "trying to keep cool, restless all night, sweating out the poison" and once again contemplating the end of their relationship. The piano is a subtle addition, like fingers walking over the bare melody, but enough to add even more broken-hearted atmosphere to the already-desperate proceedings.

Like Omaha's Simon Joyner, an old friend and tour mate, Darnielle's stark music lays bare any influence of sentimentality, giving just the facts, for better or worse. "I'd say the main difference (between his and Joyner's songs) is that I set my dark stories in major keys and he sets his in minor ones," Darnielle said. "I think we work on the same side of the street, anyhow, fighting the good fight."

The Mountain Goats CD, Tallahassee


"For me, the music is there to sort of help slip the words under people's doormats."


 

 

The Mountain Goats

The above story was published in today's edition of The Omaha Weekly. Now, as a Lazy-i exclusive, here is the complete e-mail Q&A with John Darnielle:.

Where are you as you read this? What were you doing before you read this and what're you going to do when you're through? How do you keep yourself entertained when on the road?

I'm standing at a computer terminal in a hallway adjacent to Donovan's Pub at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. Beforehand I was catching up on other emails since I haven't been near a computer in four days. There is something of a backlog at this point. Entertained on the road? Books I guess; while driving, listening to lots of music; I really enjoy reading newspapers to an almost unhealthy degree, and reading local papers punches all my what-if-you-lived-here buttons, so that's what I do. I play pinball if I get a chance. The pinball machine here isn't working so good. Damn.


Tell me about the "Alpha couple" song cycle. Who are these people? Where are they headed? Why do you write about these characters? All the literature says they're no longer in love, but they sound like they're in love to me?

There a couple of people about whom I once had something of a vision back when I wrote poetry, except that I don't like to properly call it a vision since that sounds awfully pretentious. But this image sort of insinuated its way into my mind: It was a couple waltzing in a hardware store sometime long after midnight, no lights on in the store, the moon coming through the window. They were dancing because they once loved each other so much, and they were trying to hang on to the physical sensation of being in love since the feeling was right about to flare up & extinguish itself.

They do feel a kind of love for each other, sure. But it's really quite sick and destructive so I would say on balance that that's not love. That's alcohol.

Have you ever been to Northern Florida? Is this your interpretation of the Sunshine State? I've been there and it seems pretty accurate to me?

When I started writing about these people I hadn't ever been -- I'd just picked Florida because it was the other end of the country from their point of origin, and I had this idea to have them flee as far as they could to try to escape their problems. Since they spend all their money on booze, they couldn't fly any place, so that left them with a car and a road Atlas. Once they get to Tallahassee they figure they've gone as far as they need to get.

I've since been to Tallahassee twice -- I like it a lot. So the short answer is yes: I'd been there before I wrote this album.

What comes first: The words or the music?

Trying not to be monosyllabic but it's the words, the words, the words. For me music is there to sort of help slip the words under people's doormats.

Reading your bio, you record a lot using a boom-box. Imagine my surprise at the crisp audio quality of Tallahassee! So what are the trade-offs of working in a studio vs. recording in your home? Which do you prefer?

Working at home I have absolute totalitarian control, and losing that in the studio is a little frustrating. Working in the studio results in a lot of synchronicitous little events, like the piano on "Have to Explode," that are really neat. I'd say I prefer working at home, but I'm pretty happy with the way the new album turned out -- the two ways are too different to compare, really.

4AD, huh? As in the home of The Breeders, Throwing Muses, Dead Can Dance, Pixies, Cocteau Twins? How do you like being on this rather historic indie label?

It's great! They've been really wonderful, and I've been a Cocteau Twins fan since forever, and when I saw the album art for Tallahassee I practically passed out with glee. I don't think a person could ask to be on a better label, really.

I've got a copy of "Why You All So Thief?" -- your split single with local (Omaha) genius Simon Joyner. How long have you known Simon and are you still in contact with him? He seems to have a lot of musical similarities to you, but his music is much darker...

Simon and I have been friends since 1992 or thereabouts, and we've toured the U.S. together twice. He also produced a handful of songs on my 1999 album The Coroner's Gambit, which featured a bunch of other Omaha musicians helping out.

Dark? I'd say the main difference is that I set my dark stories in major keys and he sets his in minor ones but I hear what you're saying. I think we work on the same side of the street, anyhow, fighting the good fight.

When was the last time you were in Omaha and what do you think of our fair city?

It's been a couple of years -- since recording The Coroner's Gambit, I think. I've always liked Omaha a lot; it's not dissimilar to Claremont, California, where I grew up: lots of people who've known each other forever and who follow each other's work.

Your music is smart. Most music on the radio is rather dumb. Is this disheartening to you? Will American popular culture ever rise out of its current depths? Should we care?

We should care, but you can't spend too much time worrying about it. I think there are lots of good things around, though -- it's just that radio is so centralized and monolithic now. Internet radio has lots of exciting things going on, as does college radio -- I don't get disheartened about the state of music because there's really an embarrassing surplus of great music if one's willing to do a little digging.

In this dark era of conservative angst, have you ever thought about writing a straight-on political CD?

My one or two attempts to write political songs haven't been very successful, though I'd consider the first song on my last album a political song: It was called "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton" and was about a couple of young men who get sent to reform school for listening to Morbid Angel or Slipknot too much. I work with children and have strong feelings about the sort of misguided parenting that leads people to tell their children what they can and can't read/see/listen to/think.

But generally speaking, no -- I like to tell stories better than I like to preach. Which isn't saying anything against preaching; it's just not what I do best.

Are you happy? What would make you happier?

I am pretty deliriously happy, mostly because I am so fond of my wife. I'll be happier still if the legendarily poor Tampa Bay Lightning keep winning hockey games at the pace they're presently keeping, because I've got a thing for teams that aren't expected to do much. Should the Minnesota Wild also hold onto first place in their division, my happiness will reach an absurdly high point.


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The story (not the Q&A) was published in The Omaha Weekly Nov. 13, 2002. Copyright 2002 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved. Photos by Brooke Williams.