Finbarr Bermingham waxes with head Mountain Goat John Darnielle to talk ambition, God and Santa Claus
There are few bands that combine durability with innovation like John Darnielle's Mountain Goats. Almost twenty years into their celebrated career, with a prolific turnaround rate of nigh on an album per year, the concepts seem to be growing more and more interesting. Darnielle's recent EP with John Vanderslice was based around an organ harvesting farm on the moon (think Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, gone lunar). But nothing could have prepared us for the challenges presented by their new album, The Life of the World to Come.
Each track is named after a biblical passage, each of which has resonated with Darnielle in some shape or form through his life. He has applied each one to an issue close to his heart, some personal, some global. Matthew 25:21, for instance, recalls the death of his mother-in-law, and is truly heartbreaking. "When you're in a room with someone dying of cancer, it's hard," says Darnielle when told how touching the song is. "I had some trouble getting through that one."
Another track was inspired by his diagnosis with a chronic illness last year, which led to the cancellation of an Australian tour and comes with the defiant chorus: "I won't get better, but someday I'll be free. I am not this body that imprisons me." John, a former nurse, explains that he tried to write the song from both patient and carer's perspective. "I've spent a lot of time in hospitals as a worker and clinics as a patient. It's a place and role that's been under examined by songwriters. I wanted to broaden it and give it a third dimension." And it works.
Listening to The Life of the World to Come is like cracking a code and its depth and quality combine to make it one of the Mountain Goats' finest releases to date. But when I put it to Darnielle that his religious zeal may alienate some of his fanbase, he laughs. "Believe it or not, I don't have any faith. I think that this, the guy talking to you today, is it. After I die, that's it. But I'm sort of the opposite of most people who don't have faith in that I think it would be awesome to have it. You have people like Christopher Hitchens who are happy to share his atheism, and that's cool for him. But I remember the morning that kids came into my Catholic school telling me that they'd figured out that there was no Santa Claus. I knew, but didn't wanna know. I was like: "Guys, it's way more fun if there is a Santa!"
Despite not possessing faith, Darnielle is a spiritual person. He attends church and prays, because for him, "there's a great deal of pleasure to be had in it". I suggest to him that in pursuing such activities he is merely hedging his bets. "No!" is the quick response. "If the great God the Christians talk about is real then there won't be any bet hedging. You can't say: 'Well, I showed up at church'. You really have to either take the leap or not. Americans really like to think, well, hey I did this and I did that, so he'll let me in, I'm cool. Of all the possible escapologies, that one's not right."
But Darnielle's seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of the scriptures is enough to put the most devout Christian to shame. For a confessed atheist, it's a peculiar specialist subject to have. John, however, refutes that claim. "I have a selective knowledge of the parts that resonated with me. If you were to quote to me a verse that I hadn't been using, I wouldn't know where it came from, unless it was pretty clear. I have a working knowledge of the scriptures."
As we approach the end of the decade, Darnielle is thankful for the fortune that has come his way. "Man, ten years ago, I never would have thought the Mountain Goats could have been full time thing. Well, certainly not at this level. I still don't expect much, though. I grew up with not so much money so my general hope each year is that by the end of that year I will have a roof over my head and a stove to cook food on. That really is as high as I set my goals." But when it is put to him that his ideas and songwriting ability should be enough to ensure continued trajectory, he is equally modest. "I feel as though all of my ideas have to be coming from somewhere outside of me. I don't really believe in invention, everything is probably a perversion of something I've heard somewhere."
Something suggests that the man described by the New Yorker as "America's best non hip-hop lyricist” is selling himself short.
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