John Darnielle confesses he “didn’t have a plan” when he began work on what would become his second novel, Universal Harvester, the follow-up to his acclaimed 2014 debut, Wolf in White Van. Instead the author — best known as the lyricist of long-running indie-band the Mountain Goats — started by simply documenting a typical conversation between two fishermen in Iowa. From that, the winding tale grew, centring around early-20s video store clerk Jeremy, who discovers someone has been inserting eerie home video scenes into various movie rentals.
“You always try to understand a place that you’ve lived and sometimes you understand it better when you’re no longer there,” says Darnielle of his decision to set the novel amidst the “older rhythm” of the Midwest. And while the placid setting plays an integral role within each of the novel’s interwoven stories, Darnielle doesn’t see geographical knowledge as a prerequisite. “The story is about grief, that’s something nobody is going to miss,” he laughs. “Everybody is going to get a chance to grieve, right?”
Darnielle’s fictional work takes a similar approach to his songwriting, where — since humble beginnings in the early-90s — his Mountain Goats output has often zoomed-in on specifics, whether covering religion, his own reflections, autobiographical tales or those involving various unremarkable or uncelebrated fictional characters, living ordinary lives in lost pockets of America.
Ahead of the release the band’s sixteenth album, Goths, in May, and headline Australian shows and an appearance at Bluesfest this month, Rolling Stone Australia caught up with Darnielle to talk about his new novel, the adapting style of the Mountain Goats’ music and how his two creative pursuits collide and compliment.
But first, there was the matter of his recent joke with Star Wars: The Last Jedi director, Rian Johnson, that led to Darnielle penning a new track, entitled “The Ultimate Jedi Who Wastes All the Other Jedi and Eats Their Bones”…
How did that ‘Star Wars’ song come about?
When they announced the Star Wars [title] I just made a joke on Twitter. [Rian Johnson] said: “you should write this song.” When I write songs sometimes it’s just an excuse to not do other work. I told him I had other stuff I needed to be doing, but you know what, what the hell I’ll work on this song. And by the end of the day it was on ninety thousand plays.
Rian and I are friends. We have actually been working together for a long time off and on. He wrote to us when I was doing a zine a long time ago, and then we went and saw his first movie Brick here in town, and it had a fake band name in the credits that I recognised as a Mountain Goats reference [the song listed as “Brain Hammer” is credited to The Hospital Bombers Experience, a reference to a fictional band from the Mountain Goats song, “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton”]. So I wrote to him and later I hit him up to do a video for “Woke Up New off of Get Lonely”. A couple years later he did a long-form video for [2009’s] The Life of the World to Come. I played the whole album solo acoustic on piano and guitar, and he filmed it for a limited edition DVD. It was just super great.
Reviews for Universal Harvester are now starting to trickle in, given the novel’s open-ended nature, have there been any comments or reviews that have surprised you?
I try not to parse the reviews too too closely, I think that’s a bad habit. You learn young not to sit there and obsess over your press because if you believe every nice thing they say about you, then you gotta believe all the bad things too.
I like that people notice the nuance Irene Sample’s character, that’s one thing. She doesn’t get to speak much for herself but I think there is real depth to her, I wasn’t worried about that, but I wondered if people notice that she’s a person too even though she’s mainly known as an absence in the book.
Where did the title Universal Harvester come from?
When we lived in Colo [in Iowa] we were driving out along Highway 30, there was a big corporate headquarters for a thing called ‘Universal Harvester’. It just sounds like a Metallica song title, really ominous, especially if you are not originally from farming county. If you grew up out there and you see a name like ‘Universal Harvester’, that doesn’t phase you. But if you come from out west, like where I’m from, that just sounds like something from a different world.
I had the phrase in my head for over a decade. Is there a harvest that is in fact universal? Well sure there is, we’re all gonna be gone eventually, we’re all going back to the soil life [laughs]. It’s that sense of there being some big machine, that eventually mows everybody down.
Obviously, the setting plays an important part of the story. Was there any specific reason why you chose to set the book in Iowa?
There’s a couple of things. What’s the scientific rule? If you’re too close to observe it you can’t measure it, if you’re too close to measure it you can’t observe it. Thinking about where you’ve been is always kind of fruitful when you’re no longer there.
The other thing is that we always talk about Paris or Rome or whatever. There’s big histories and big landmarks by which we understand these places. But Iowa is harder to pin down. It’s not hard to understand, but its hard to explain what it’s like, because people often think in terms of action, and there’s not a lot of action there, but people are a certain way.
It’s not distinctly Iowa — because States are kind of artificial divisions. It’d be pretty hard for most people to tell the difference between Iowa and Southern Minnesota and Northern Missouri – Iowa people might say different [laughs] — but it’s a way of being that’s tethered to a different sort of landscape and to a different source of traditions and to weather. But more-so it’s the turning of the seasons and the rhythm of the harvest and the old traditions. A lot of Dutch immigrants, a lot of German immigrants from over 150 years ago who established a rhythm that is still present. Those rhythms that go extinct faster in the bigger cities.
Were you concerned at all that the setting made the book just ‘too American’ for an international audience?
I can’t worry about that sort of thing, especially because I read more international literature than I do American literature. I think about Patrick White who sets his books in Australia or Peter Carey in Tasmania, they trust that the story will be good enough and the characters interesting enough. And that’s what I hope.
I haven’t yet done a long long book. I try not to bother people with ten pages of descriptions of landscapes or something, but at the same time I figure anyone can understand what another place is like through writing, that’s the idea. You can write something and bring someone into it just with the magic of language.
In Universal Harvester, Jeremy does seem to have some links to Sean Phillips, the main character from Wolf in White Van. They’re both lonely young man, both have been affected by a tragedy in their lives. What fascinates you about that period — the post-adolescence/adulthood border?
The difference between Sean Phillips and anybody else is that Sean is alone. Jeremy may be kind of solitary and quiet in the way, but he lives with his dad. He’s just a quiet guy, he’s not a loner. That’s one thing about the Iowan way, its not that they don’t have any friends.
In Australia, people like to hangout with their friends and have fun, it’s a very friendly country. The value of life is in the relationships you have with your friends. That’s the whole point of life, right? You have your job and you have your stuff, but at the end of the day you get to get out with your friends and have a good time.
Whereas in Iowa, it’s not that people don’t do that, but I think there’s a certain rhythm, an older rhythm. For some people the point of life is to work. A very American value. You build a family, you do have friends, but the main thing is to be productive. And to not waste words, not stern in an Amish kind of way. It’s something that struck me when I moved to Iowa — I’m from California, you can hear I’m just a jabber jaw, I yammer all day long [laughs] — in Iowa people do not do this. Iowans generally don’t sit there talking at you all day. They’re quiet, they speak when spoken to. It’s nothing rude, it’s just a different way of being.
That’s what Jeremy’s deal is. And he’s at that age, that for at least 75 years, American writers, especially American dude writers, have been pretty drawn to: late adolescence. It’s sort of when selfhood really becomes electric. Often in American fiction adolescence is a time of wild creative seeking and fertility, and demanding the most from the world, and all that kind of ‘live for the moment values’ — that’s the opposite of Jeremy. Jeremy is not a live for the moment guy [laughs]. He’s a guy who already sees what his adult life is supposed to look like and likes it. That’s what he hopes to do. And that was based on some young man that I met in Iowa, who at 13 or 14, I asked him, “you hope to see some of the world?”, and he said, “no I want to stay here and work.” Where I grew up everybody wants to get out and travel the world and go everywhere, and I realised that’s a bias. We all think of that as a universal positive value, but it’s not for everybody.
Was a specific spark that got the new novel started?
When I started writing, I didn’t have a plan. I just started writing a scene. It was the first scene in the book where Bob Peach comes in and he’s renting a video tape about fishing, and Bob, the old farmer, is trying to make conversation with Jeremy about “this is a good tape,” and, “where are you going fishing? Are you going up north to do some ice fishing?”. It’s a thing for a lot of Midwestern dudes, this is a thing they really look forward to all year — their week long time up in the hut, ice fishing. They wake up early, set up in the thing, crack open some beers and sit there fishing through a hole in the ice. Catch some dinner and some lunch, and that’s what they’re talking about.
I just wanted to realistically create a conversation between two Iowan men, because it was the sort of thing that I heard a lot when I was living in Iowa, but I couldn’t really participate. I don’t fish, I don’t eat fish, and I’m not from there. Even if I was doing it, I’d be getting all excitable: “dude you’re going to be just sitting in a lawn chair on the ice, are you insane?” It totally feels different to me, being from a different place.
So, I was remembering a time when my friend Steve Peach — who Bob Peach takes his last name from and Steve Heldt [another character in Universal Harvester] takes his first name from. I used to work with Steve and I remember somebody came into the office when we were working together and mentioned that he was going to Bemidji [in Minnesota] and I saw Steve light up. Steve was a quiet guy, but you could see on his face he was excited to hear that someone was going fishing some place for the weekend. And he said: “you going out for small mouth?” or something like that, and this scene lodged in my head. This delight, this very quiet delight, it’s not music fan delight where if I hear something like Robert Forster’s [album] The Evangelist, that he made a few years ago: “Have you heard the Robert Forster record, because it is spectacular?” that would be me. But the Iowan version of that sort of enthusiasm for the thing you’re into has a different taste, a different flavour. It’s not greater or lesser, it’s different and I wanted to portray that.
And the story just evolved from that? Is this the same process as your songwriting you’ve discussed in previous interviews, where you just start the creative process, without a specific plan?
It starts about the same. Presumably you could just go on and on and hope something good happens, but I wanted to tell a bigger story with the novel, even though it’s about the same length as Wolf in White Van. I wanted multiple characters and I wanted long timespans and I wanted to do something that was a tapestry. So, I wrote that first part that ends with “in one version of this story this goes on, and in this version he does something different and something else happens.” I finished that, and I looked at it and went “oh, wow.” I did a few what/when/where questions, but I left something open and I waited a few chapters to figure out what’s going on, making up stories as I went along and after that I did an outline. I know some writer friends who I’ve talked to about outlines who I’ve learned a lot from in the past couple of years. You know, you never have to share your outline with anybody, it’s not shareable creativity.
So, I did start to outline and to say what would happen, and some of that happened and some of it didn’t. It actually got a lot simpler. In the original outline there were all these unknowns about what they would do in the basement with jars and stuff like that, but I threw all those out and left it simpler. I sort of started discovering what the story was about- noticing that like several people don’t have their mothers in their lives anymore. So as I let the characters become themselves. I started to ask questions about them and then let them answer them.
At the moment do you have a clear segmentation between music-writing and novel-writing?
It’s a funny question because I’m in interview season [for the new book] and it feels like I’m not doing any writing at all — I’m just talking about my stuff. Most days though I’m working on a song, always in the morning. I get an idea for a song early in the morning and then I’ll start working on it before the kids go to school. I’ll do whatever I do with that and by 9:30am or 10am I’ll go into my office — I keep an office halfway across town. I don’t do music in the office, the office is just for books and stuff. I like to treat it like work. I open my computer, I do what everybody else does — waste half an hour doing Facebook and whatever. Half an hour is probably a conservative effort, right? [laughs] but eventually I look at the outline, look at any notes I have scribbled around.
With songwriting it’s like very compressed and it’s much more playful, whereas making a book you’re building something bigger. If I write a song and it’s not any good and you listen to it and you didn’t like it: what did cost you? Three minutes of your life, you’ll be alright [laughs]. It’s not an insult to either of us if you didn’t like my song, that’s fine. But if you read a full book you deserve a structure in which to live for however long it takes you to read it. It’s some intense concentration.
You’re heading out to Australia this month. Is the new material ready to preview?
We haven’t talked about what all we’re gonna do that much [laughs]. I sent an email out on what we’re gonna play and I remember none of them answering, so we’re trying to figure it out.
We didn’t get to come down [to Australia] for [2015’s] Beat the Champ, so one thing we can do is just play basically what we’ve been playing for a couple years — but that’s kinda not my style. I always like to do something special for every tour, bring out some stuff we haven’t tried. In-between interviews and going places I’m trying to figure out what all we’re gonna do.
I expect it will have a lot of the Beat the Champ set in part because we toured the hell out of that record and that set got really good. We were opening with that “Stabbed To Death” song, that thing is wicked live. I don’t mean to be overpraise myself, it’s my band, but man, with Matt [Douglas, the Mountain Goats’ multi-instrumentalist]. You guys haven’t seen Matt yet, that guy brings a lot to the stage.
With the full band set-up, are there any of the older songs now that you won’t play, even in a ‘greatest hits’ set?
There’s nothing really, but if it pre-dates [2002’s] All Hail West Texas it’s not really on my radar. I have dug up some old songs. We were doing “Maize Stalk Drinking Blood” [from 1997’s Full Force Galesburg] on the tour last year. It’s not like I have any animus for it, but more “that song’s not interesting to me anymore, it doesn’t speak to me anymore.”
For the most part nothing is really off limits, but when there’s four people in my band — there’s me and then there’s three outstanding musicians — the stuff that’s just by me from the old old days, that’s some pretty crude stuff, it’s got its charms, but I don’t want to ask these guys who are really really good at what they do, “hey check this song out, its got an A and a D, and then it goes back” [laughs]. And the rhythm is this, “bum bum bum bum bum,” and they’ll going to go: “well sure John we’ll play whatever you wanna play, but there’s not a lot of places to go with this one”. Whereas now where my songwriting has grown in a way where everyone can explore their own thing within the song and we can make something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts.
I’ve got a lot of love for the old stuff and we try to make room for it. With “Maize Stalk” we’ve even been doing some Van Morrison-style stuff, letting that stretch out on the sax is really fun.
The last few Mountain Goats records — 2012’s Transcendental Youth, 2015’s Beat the Champ and the forthcoming Goths — have all presented a far stronger musical presence. Do you think this’ll continue to be the direction for the Mountain Goats?
I leave it open-ended. That’s how I’m feeling with it right now. Matt has been in the band for two years now, and he just lets us explore all these new ways of doing things. Much of which involves everybody else playing much less since there’s somebody else to pick up the slack. When [previously] it’s me by myself on guitar and I’m trying to play all the parts. With Matt there’s all kinds of new things to consider, that does make me in my writing want to stretch.
I’m also a massive jazz guy, and my dad played jazz and my father’s father played jazz piano, and I’m pretty proud of the fact that I learned how to write modulation in a song. If you listen to the songs like “Fire Editorial” on Beat the Champ, it’s very different from anything else we’ve ever done. I’m trying to head in that sort of direction of exploring stuff that I already know about jazz, which I really haven’t used.
Do you think you’ll ever bring together your two creative careers and write a memoir?
I don’t want to write a memoir. I just don’t want to. For one thing, there’s just so many memoirs. Whatever I’m doing I try and make it different from what other people are doing. Right now, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a memoir [laughs].
The other thing is that although I do use things from my own life, they’re just taking off points. I share stuff that might be useful. I don’t want to focus too much on myself. I don’t dislike myself, but I’m not super into myself. I don’t want to sit around talking about myself, it’s just not me. Let’s talk about stuff that I like, let’s talk about stuff that people might not have heard of, that I can turn them on to. Weird stuff that I like — weird movies or whatever. While a memoir is mainly a person talking about themselves. Obviously, I must never die [laughs] — but eventually I’m gonna, right? I hope that people remember me as a guy that talks more about that stuff. I’m the sum of the stuff I’m into and the things that I love. That’s what makes me. If I’m talking to about the books I love, the music I love, the people I love, then you know who I am.