"It's weird, pulling into town from tour," The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle told the crowd at the Cat's Cradle last October. "I don't fully realize I'm home."
One of the newer additions to the Triangle's musical family, Darnielle moved to Durham just over a year ago, setting up house just over a mile from my place off Hope Valley Road. Feeling hospitable (and perhaps a little competitive), I challenged the literate singer/songwriter to a game of Scrabble.
"You think you hold the high hand, I've got my doubts
I come from Chino where the asphalt sprouts...
You send your dark messengers to tempt me
I come from Chino, so all your threats are empty" --from The Mountain Goats' We Shall All Be Healed
Darnielle grew up in Claremont, Calif., about 40 miles inland from Los Angeles and not far from Chino. He's a solidly built fellow, with square shoulders and a strong square jaw. Not the frail, wimpy singer/songwriter you might expect. From the beginning it sounds like he's trying to sandbag me.
"I'm gonna lose, I can guarantee. The only games I win are actual physical games," he says.
"So I should bring over the Rock'em, Sock'em Robots," I say.
"No, we're just going to have to take it outside," Darnielle replies with appropriate menace.
The game starts slow, with him immediately trading in his rack and me taking a quick lead with the early combination of "neon" followed by "vixen" (double letter score for "X"!) to his mere "demean." We start to talk of his earliest musical experiences.
"I had a little record player. I don't remember when I got it. So far as I know, I always had it. I completely loved and obsessed over my children's records; I would play them over and over. I thought people lived in the grooves, who would sit in here waiting for you to put on the needle," Darnielle recalls. "Their job is to sing and play instruments. And I was really impressed that they did it the same way every time, with the same enthusiasm."
"Then I'm awake and I'm guarding my face
Hoping you don't break my stereo
Because it's the one thing I can't live without
So, I think about that and then I sorta black out" --from his new album, The Sunset Tree
Darnielle worked as a nurse in California, forging his identity as The Mountain Goats in his spare time on a series of home-recorded lo-fi cassettes, distributed through the little West Coast indie Shrimper. Spare, with nothing for accompaniment but a steady acoustic strum and the tape hiss, the attention inevitably turned to the songs, full of cinematic detail, canny metaphor and rich narrative. He penned many song series, collected across the albums, such as the "Going to...," "Songs for..." and the "alpha couple" song cycles, the latter of which became the basis for 2003's Tallahassee.
It traces the sordid journey (more downward spiral) of a co-dependent alcoholic couple who move from California to Florida, only to discover they brought their troubles with them. At turns angry, wistful and lost, it's a powerful ode to the dark emotional forces that tie us together for better or more often worse.
"I handed you a drink of the lovely little thing
On which our survival depends
People say friends don't destroy one another
What do they know about friends?" --from Tallahassee
The album was his first for 4AD, and after a decade of lo-fi releases recorded at home on his Panasonic boombox, was his first full-fledged studio effort.
"I felt with [2002's All Hail West Texas], I had reached a turning point. For me, of all the boombox records, that's the best one. The songwriting is consistent across the whole album. I felt I had achieved--if not what I set out to do--the best example of what I'd been doing and I didn't see it getting a lot better. I could do it again, but you always want to do something different," Darnielle says.
Darnielle is not the only one responsible for the more sophisticated arrangements on Tallahassee and especially his two subsequent albums, We Shall All Be Healed and The Sunset Tree. He often deferred to others, including his producer/friend John Vanderslice and Vanderslice's protégé Steve Solter (Spoon, Court and Spark).
"You have to trust them. If a singer/songwriter guy goes into the studio and thinks he knows what he wants and tries to tell people what to do, he's going to end up with a disaster of a record. You have to let the people who are good at what they do, do what they do," Darnielle says.
The evening is winding to an end. The journalist has trumped the lyrical genius in Scrabble, which is only fair after he stole my heart with Tallahassee (where I attended high school, incidentally). I say a final goodbye to Darnielle and his slender, black-haired wife, Lalitree, and, in parting, ask how he's adjusting to his new home.
"It's the perfect combination--plenty of stuff to do, but it's not a damn city," Darnielle opines. "I'm not into cities; I think they've run their course."
Well, if anyone can trace that path, it's The Mountain Goats. Maybe the next album can be about the decline of Western civilization....
The Mountain Goats play the Troika Music Festival Thursday, Aug. 25 at Duke Coffeehouse.