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The Slow Climb: How the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle Became the Best Storyteller in Rock

The singer-songwriter on his tumultuous past, unlikely rise and new, wrestling-themed LP.

“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).

Related: Our Review of ‘Beat The Champ’

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.

Darnielle’s songs tend to inspire obsessive devotion; it’s been said there’s no such thing as a casual Mountain Goats fan. “Mountain Goats songs are beautiful, but also so human and complex that they hold me up when I most need something,” says John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars. “I think a lot of people feel that way. I like a lot of music, but the Mountain Goats are the only band that I’m actively grateful to on a daily basis.” When Darnielle appeared on The Colbert Report in 2009, the host broke character, immediately confessing his fandom and later joining the band for a performance of “This Year,” an autobiographical anthem in which a 17-year-old Darnielle royally pisses off his stepdad. 

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John Darnielle on Stephen Colbert’s show in 2009.

The Mountain Goats’ audience has swelled over the years, to the point that most of the shows on the band’s current tour of clubs and theaters (which includes three nights in New York) sold out well in advance. For a guy who assumed he’d be dead of a drug overdose by 21 and didn’t earn a full-time living from music until he was in his thirties, Darnielle has made out all right.

Darnielle lives in a modest two-story house in a quiet Durham neighborhood with his scientist wife, Lalitree, and two young sons. Today, he’s dressed in a denim jacket and jeans, with shaggy brown hair that makes him look much younger than his age (48). As he gives me a tour of the place, he talks excitedly about the hawks perched above the house, the new kitchen table the couple just bought, and the two Skymall “Freedom’s Pride” statues – bald eagles, wings outstretched – in his backyard. (They were a gift from Bachelor producer Elan Gale.)

Out on the back porch, Darnielle’s oldest son, Roman, is staring intently at a boombox playing a Canadian garage band called Demon’s Claws. At three years old, Roman is already a metal fan, just like Pops. “I could put on Dio’s greatest hits and he could tell you every song within seconds of its beginning,” says Darnielle, before noting that Roman is also way into Candlemass and Judas Priest.

Darnielle leads me to the living room, which contains a baby grand piano and a few kids’ toys. There, he mentions an awesomely nerdy game he plays on tour with his two bandmates, bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster. It works like this: Someone reads aloud the Wikipedia entry of a well-known band while omitting the band’s name and other key pieces of information. The other players get points for filling in each blank. Wurster, who’s also a regular on the excellent comedy podcast The Best Show, tends to dominate.

Darnielle drew on a different kind of knowledge for the Mountain Goats’ latest album, Beat the Champ, which channels his days as a young wrestling fanatic in Southern California. This was before the cable- and pay-per-view-powered boom of the 1980s, back when wrestling was still ruled by smaller regional leagues. Darnielle would watch Spanish-language telecasts to get his wrestling fix, and his stepdad would take him to see matches in person at the Grand Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. “You know how those early DC punk shows were in tiny spots, bands like Bad Brains just blowing up the room?” he says. “Territory wrestling was like that – it was a secret. Everybody who was there knew it was awesome, but outside the building, everybody was in the dark.”

Darnielle read vintage wrestling magazines while writing Beat the Champ, which is full of real-life characters like Bruiser Brody, a six-foot-eight powerhouse who was stabbed to death before a match in Puerto Rico in 1988, and Luna Vachon, a female wrestler who died of a reported drug overdose in 2010. Darnielle named the album’s first single after his childhood hero, Chavo Guerrero, a regional champ whose style Darnielle describes as “high-flying and scientific.” When the song was released online, Guerrero, who’s now 66, started retweeting seemingly every comment and news item about it, to Darnielle’s great pleasure.

Beat the Champ is the most musically realized Mountain Goats record yet, augmenting the band’s core folk-rock(ish) sound with strings, woodwinds and piano, which Darnielle has been playing more and more in recent years. (There’s even some squawking sax on the catchy bad-guy’s anthem “Foreign Object,” the chorus of which goes, in part: “I personally will stab you in the eye with a foreign object.”) But Beat the Champ is no novelty record; deeper ideas about love and authenticity bubble to the surface. If any songwriter can wring beauty out of a sport where grown men pretend to pummel each other with chairs, it’s this guy.

Darnielle’s wrestling obsession ended around 14, when he found new heroes, like David Bowie and Lou Reed. “I was sort of goth,” Darnielle says. “Goths were not into WWF.” By that point, his home life was chaotic. His parents had divorced when he was five, and Darnielle ended up living with his mom and stepdad, a hospital pharmacist and left-wing political activist who, according to Darnielle, was physically abusive to him. “[The violence] didn’t really accelerate until I was in adolescence,” Darnielle says. “That was when it really took off.” On Marc Maron’s podcast in 2013, Darnielle recounted an incident where his stepdad, who died in 2004, hit him hard enough to drive the post of his earring into his neck and draw blood. Darnielle’s response was to head to his room and put his fist through a window.

Around 16, Darnielle got into heavy drugs, including heroin; he would end up mainlining speed, too. On one rough night, he mixed codeine and Doriden with Sudafed and ended up handcuffed to a hospital bed. He later moved to Portland with help from his birth father, an English professor, but wasn’t yet ready to clean up his act.

Darnielle is so gregarious that it’s hard to imagine he’s ever been an asshole. And yet: “When I remember myself as a junkie, I do not think of myself as some poor person waiting to be saved,” he says. “I think of a shitty person you don’t want to know, a person who will steal your shit. I’d attack you and not remember doing it. I would see someone on Monday and they wouldn’t talk to me and I wouldn’t even know what happened. People think of me as a nice person because I think I have grown into a nice person.”

Darnielle’s troubled adolescence has become a rich source of material – he’s gone back to it, obliquely or directly, on albums like Transcendental Youth and The Sunset Tree, the 2005 record where he opened up about his stepdad. (In the liner notes, Darnielle said the album was “made possible by my stepfather, Mike Noonan [1940-2004]: may the peace which eluded you in life be yours now.”) “There’s a sense in which adulthood is much less interesting than youth,” Darnielle says. “Adulthood is interesting to adults. But I would never want to write about stuff I don’t feel everybody can connect to. If I’m writing about dope, not everybody’s into dope, but everybody knows what it’s like to feel desperate. Everybody knows what it’s like to feel degraded.” 

Eventually, Darnielle’s self-destructive streak began to peter out, and a therapist convinced him to enroll in a training program for psychiatric technicians. He got a job at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, in Los Angeles County, as a licensed nurse who could pass medications, give injections and teach patients how to manage assaultive behavior. Darnielle worked in the hospital’s Spanish-speaking unit. “If they didn’t speak English, they would come directly to my unit,” he says. “The patients were across a whole spectrum from chronic to acute. That’s almost what was great about it. If you have guys who just got there, somebody who’s been there for several years can say, ‘Look, I know it sucks, but it’s OK.’ Our unit had a family feel to it.”

It was in Norwalk, while Darnielle was working at the hospital and living in $200-a-month employee housing, that the Mountain Goats were born. Darnielle bought a cheap guitar and started writing songs, which he would often record on that Panasonic boombox, an RX-FT500 model he got at Circuit City. “It was the only one I could afford,” he says. “There were better ones, but I only had $110. I didn’t have $130. Actually, I think it was more like $70 and $90. Like I couldn’t see spending $100, so…” Early Mountain Goats releases, which often featured friends of Darnielle’s, were a mix of songs recorded on the RX-FT500, as well as takes from radio shows and scattered studio recordings.

Darnielle took the name Mountain Goats from a line in “Yellow Coat,” a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins song. He kept writing and recording while working toward an English degree at Pitzer College in nearby Claremont. In 1991, Shrimper Records, a local label, released the cassette Taboo VI: The Homecoming – 10 scratchy, warbled songs in 24 minutes, including a cover of “This Magic Moment.” Peter Hughes, the bass player, met Darnielle around this time. “We were talking to each other, and I told him I grew up in Chino,” says Hughes. “He said, ‘Chino! I just wrote my longest song ever and it’s called “Going to Chino”!’ He was very proud because all of his songs were like a minute and 30 seconds at that point and this one stretched to [4:30].”

Darnielle met Lalitree in 1994, when both were active on a mailing list about music in the Inland Empire region of Southern California. The couple moved to Iowa, where Lalitree went to college, and over the next decade or so, Darnielle worked on a grain elevator and at other health-care jobs. He wrote, recorded and toured when he could, sometimes with Hughes or a different bassist-singer, sometimes by himself.

Darnielle wrote many of the lyrics to All Hail West Texas – billed on its cover as “fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys” — in the margins of handouts he got during orientation sessions at a job working with troubled children. He was in his early thirties. “Younger songwriters will ask me, ‘What did you do?'” he says. “And it’s like, ‘Well, I worked a day job, and I didn’t stake anything. I didn’t quit my day job. I didn’t have any hopes at all. I just did the thing that I believed in, and I waited a long time.'”

Things changed when 4AD – a British label that had put out albums by bands like Pixies, Throwing Muses and Modern English – came calling. “I thought, ‘4AD, are you kidding me?'” Darnielle says. “They did the thing that labels do – they ask you to pitch something and you pretend you had an idea in your head. So I was like, ‘I have all these songs about this divorcing couple…'” 

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Peter Hughes and John Darnielle in 2003

Those songs became Tallahassee, the Mountain Goats’ 2002 album, a song suite about an embittered husband and wife (known to fans as “the Alpha Couple”) who move from Southern California to Florida. “I’d been thinking about divorce ever since I was five,” says Darnielle. “California was the first state with no-fault divorce, and so I knew a lot of kids whose parents were divorced.”

The Alpha Couple had appeared in Mountain Goats songs before, but here their messed-up saga got Darnielle’s full attention, and the result is, no joke, one of rock’s great concept albums. All of the passion, dense details and love for place names of Darnielle’s early writing are here – the couple, whose love is “like the border between Greece and Albania,” move into a crumbling house on Southwood Planation Road, where “the dead will walk again…and mingle with unsuspecting Christian men.” There’s deep bitterness – witness “No Children,” whose chorus goes, partly, “I hope you die/I hope we both die” – but the album also has some of Darnielle’s most beautiful tunes.

Tallahassee was the Mountain Goats’ first full-on studio album, a move some journalists have compared with Dylan going electric. Darnielle says that notion is overblown: “I think the number of people who went, ‘Nope, the only good Mountain Goats is pre-2001’ – you can probably count those guys on one hand.”

Within a few years, Darnielle was making a full-time living from music. His audience grew – which of course meant more obsessive fans, too. Over dinner in Durham, I mention that, during my twenties, I was a cocaine addict. While coming down from awful multi-day binges, I would often play Mountain Goats songs on repeat. I was especially drawn to dark but pretty slow songs like “Against Pollution,” about a liquor store clerk who shoots a burglar in the face, and “Song for Dennis Brown,” an ode to the reggae singer, who died of a collapsed lung after years of cocaine abuse. Ken Burns documentaries, my other comedown media of choice, were familiar from my childhood as well as tonally soothing, but Darnielle, through his songs, seemed to understand what I was going through.

I ask Darnielle how often fans do what I just did, confess their problems to him like that. “A lot. A lot,” he says. “But the thing is, there’s seldom space for it, because the only time that I see people is in the merchandise line [at shows], and there’s a lot of people there, which is great, but it means that you have to compress it. And also, I’m not a therapist. I want to make sure people know I don’t think I have any magic powers. I just have a story that I share.”

If you stayed here for a week you would think about moving here,” Darnielle says as we drive around downtown Durham. “It’s so fucking badass.” Darnielle points out the farmers market, Dame’s Chicken and Waffles (“the best restaurant in the South”) and the Carolina Theatre, which he talks about like he’s gunning for a spot on the Chamber of Commerce. “It’s probably my favorite place on the planet,” he says. “Built in 1926. They have a monthly horror festival that I’m a big supporter of called Retrofantasma. They also have one of the biggest North American documentary film festivals, Full Frame, and an annual horror festival called Nevermore.”

In 2003, Darnielle had just come off an Australian tour and returned to a hot Iowa summer when he and Lalitree decided they were ready for a change of scenery. The couple sat down with a book of atlases and started shopping for a new city. “We asked, ‘How much does it cost to live there, do they have good vegetarian food and do bands go there?'” Darnielle had always liked playing Chapel Hill. They ended up finding a house down the road, in Durham, and that was that. “We just jumped,” Darnielle says. “That was right before Durham took off.”

It’s true: The (Duke) university town and former tobacco hub is home to organic restaurants, art spaces and one of the nation’s finest record labels: Merge, whose roster now includes the Arcade Fire, Spoon, Superchunk and the Mountain Goats. Darnielle seems drawn to Durham’s easygoing Brooklyn-but-affordable appeal. But you also get the sense that, after a rough childhood, itinerant twenties and years as a touring musician, Darnielle is thrilled to have found what could be a permanent home. The guy who thought he’d be dead by 21 has what he calls “a dream life.”

It got a little dreamier last fall, when Darnielle released Wolf in White Van to near-universal acclaim. Darnielle had been writing for years. He maintained a blog, Last Plane to Jakarta, and in 2008 he published a book on Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality as part of the 33 1/3 series about classic albums. Some of Wolf in White Van takes place in a tortured-adolescent head-space that might remind you of many Mountain Goats songs. The novel is narrated by a man named Sean, who was disfigured during his days as a heavy-metal loving teen. (His story bears a glancing resemblance to that of Raymond Belknap and Jay Vance, Judas Priest fans who shot themselves in 1985, resulting in a lawsuit against the band.) Darnielle labored over the book intensely, jettisoning multiple narrators and eventually making the first chapter he wrote into the book’s last one. “I didn’t want one person to read this and go, ‘Ah, man, they gave him this [book deal] because he’s an established musician,'” says Darnielle. “So I really busted ass.”

“I was worried about it,” says John Green, laughing. “I don’t usually like novels by songwriters. But I remember being two or three pages in and turning to my wife and saying, with relief in my voice, ‘It’s really good.’ It’s a gripping and strange read that defies all genre expectations and captures a world that very few of us know about but that feels very real.”

Now, Darnielle is working on a new novel, to be set in Iowa. He’s also been writing songs we may never hear – several about Black Sabbath, as well as a series of animal-themed collaborations with Roman, his three-year-old. “I sing them and he does a dance,” Darnielle says. “We have ‘You’ve Got to Have a Mouse in Your Life.’ There’s also the ‘The Pig Song.’ It goes, ‘Oh, I’m just a pig in the sun/Friend to everyone/When the sun shines high in the eastern sky/I sing….’ And then Roman does the pig sound.”

You can talk to Darnielle about pretty much anything, though he’s not particularly keen to hear about how well he’s doing. He’ll protest, deny it, say facetiously (or not) that the Mountain Goats will go on for another 40 years – anything to avoid even a thought of complacency. “There’s a quote that Peter cites,” Darnielle says. “Jim Dandy from Black Oak Arkansas was being interviewed when the band was not at a high ebb. The interviewer is trying delicately to say, ‘What’s it like for you now? You guys were at this major record company and now you’re not.’ Jim Dandy interrupts and says, ‘Whether we’re playing to 30,000 people at Texxas Jam in ‘78 or 30 people here tonight at the Lightbulb Club, Black Oak Arkansas attacks the stage with the ferocity of a caged wolverine.’ This is a source of huge inspiration to me.”