Introducing From First to Last, where artists with very deep discographies discuss the varying differences between making their first record and their most recent record. Who better to launch this new series than John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, a prolific artist whose career has spanned nearly 30 years. KEXP's Jasmine Albertson talks with him about their most recent release, Bleed Out, which came out in August via Merge Records, and their first album Taboo VI: The Homecoming, which was only released via Shrimper Records on cassette in 1991. Listen and read below.
KEXP: First of all, we need to establish what we're even considering as the first Mountain Goats record, because Zopilote Machine is often cited as the first, and is your first studio album. But technically, your first release was the cassette Taboo VI: The Homecoming. What do you consider the first Mountain Goats record?
John Darnielle: Absolutely Taboo VI. 'Cause Zopilote Machine is no more studio than Taboo VI. It's not a studio album. It's recorded at home — not with a four track. When it was new, people would say, "oh, more four track stuff for the four track underground." I did not own a four track. It was live into a boombox. Most of the stuff on the first tape is live into a boom box, and most of the stuff on Zopilote Machine is live into a boombox. So, yeah, I consider the first tape, the first album.
Let's go back to 1991. I'd love to know when the first seeds of the record appeared and what your life looked like back then.
I lived in employee housing at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, which is a both an acute and chronic psych facility. I worked on a locked unit for Spanish-speaking males. I was a psychiatric technician. Employee housing was very cheap and was especially cheap when once a year, our contract would lapse and our union contract stipulated that if the contract lapses, that employee housing has to go back to what it was when there was no union. And that was, like, in the '60s. So, my rent would go down to like $35 a month until we got a contract. And it was not expensive anyway, but it was great.
And I had bought a boombox and a guitar to play with, to do stuff in my spare time, just for fun. I would sit around in my room thinking about music and thinking about books and writing poetry. I was really into poetry at the time. Several of the songs on Taboo VI began as poems. "Going to Alaska" was one. "One Winter at Point Alpha Privative" was one.
And I would set my poems to very, very rudimentary guitar progressions because I was an incredibly rudimentary guitarist. I was teaching myself to play. I had a chord chart. When I made Taboo VI, I couldn't even play an F except at the bar and not very well. I couldn't bar chords well at all. I mean, you're hearing somebody who's both learning how to write songs and learning how to play the guitar. There's a charm in that to me. It also is kind of like, you know, the charm has its limits [laughs], but I have a fondness for it because it's so crude, you know, and it's not affiliated with anything. I don't know that anybody else is doing this kind of stuff. I don't have any expectations for it.
The only reason it exists is because I had given a couple of songs to Dennis Callaci from Shrimper and he said, "Did you want to do a whole tape?" And I said, "Sure, let me throw something together." And I found some stuff that I had done and I gave it an album title and stuff, but I didn't even really have any intention or thought of going further with that. And then the next I saw of it was when he gave me my allotment of like ten tapes, like, oh, well, now I have an album out. Cool.
So, what did you do next? What do you do with those ten tapes? How did you get it in the hands of the people?
That was not my errand. Our whole scene was really insular and very few of us were into the idea of self-promotion beyond our own space, you know. So I didn't do anything. I played locally, as I had been doing already, but I didn't have any interest in touring. For the first several years of The Mountain Goats, I was adamant that we would never tour, right, because touring seemed to me a completely ridiculous and and destructive way to live. And I want to say, although I make my living doing that, I was totally right. [laughs] I am right. And touring is bad for people. It also gives you a wealth of rich experiences that you can't get any other way. And at this point, it is a big part of who I am, but for your mental health, there's very little worse. You know, I imagine going to war is worse. But touring, it just turns you upside down. If you have any depression issues at all, it's very, very bad for you.
And so I had no intention. I didn't promote it at all. I don't think there were any interviews about it or anything. It's the sort of thing, once you become adept in the business that you romanticize, it's about as pure a document as you can get. It doesn't care if you like it. It assumes that nobody will ever hear it, you know, except people who already are sort of sympathetic to me. Like, it got one very bad local review, and I was like, Well, who are you? I didn't ask you to listen to this. [laughs]
By the second tape, I'm aware that people are listening and that's a big gap in any musician's growth. I think plenty of people start with the assumption that they should be heard. I did not start with that assumption. I still don't have that assumption. My assumption is always that I don't have any expectation of anybody listening, but I'm also realistic and I know people will. With these, my only hope was to do something that did something interesting at the intersection of poetry and music.
I love that. That is so pure. And yeah, once you find a fandom, you can't go back to that.
No, you can't. Most writers are going to have to make peace with the fact that you have a readership once you publish. Choosing to publish is a big decision. There's an assumption that publishing is the natural fate of writing, but I think that's a bad assumption. I think to write and choose not to publish is profound, and I still do it to this day. I'll write stuff that I'll decide not to do anything with. Then that gets to have an existence of its own that's independent of having a readership. You could also challenge that and say, "Well, then that thing doesn't exist. A text doesn't exist without its reader." That's a valid take, too. But for me, I think the privacy of a thing that is written without any imagined or actual audience, there's an energy in that that I kind of cherish.
Let's jump to current day with Bleed Out. How would you compare your songwriting or recording process on this record to Taboo VI?
So, it is totally funny that this is the album that we're doing this segment on, because Bleed Out — not really intentionally, but just because of how it fell out — it is the first record I have written like the early records, in years.
Back in the old days, everything got written in one sitting. It was just the way I worked. I would sit down, write a song super fast. Often I would be watching TV at the time, or a movie. In the early songs, you can hear a sample usually from the tape or the TV show I was watching, or the radio station I was listening to, just to sort of situate it in where its composition took place, because all those early things, you are hearing something that has just been written. I wrote "One Winter at Point Alpha Privative" and as soon as the lyric was done and it had a chord progression, I hit record and play. I probably did a few takes until I got what I liked, but you're hearing something closer to the heat of composition than you can hear in any framework except improvised music. In improvised music, you're hearing it come into being as it happens, which, of course, is the greatest thing in the world. But all of these, you're hearing them within seconds of their composition.
As you grow as a writer, you don't do that anymore. You become more of a sculptor. But with Bleed Out, we'd been locked down. There weren't vaccines yet. We hadn't been on tour. I'm going stir crazy in the house. And everybody I know had been binge-watching TV shows and everything. I kept going, we should watch some movies, you know? And I decided I would watch action movies because if I watched the the highfalutin intellectual foreign movies that I sort of naturally gravitate toward, I'm probably not going to end up finishing them because my kids don't go to bed until eight or nine and I'm too tired to watch something that requires that amount of brainpower, you know? So, we watched action movies. As soon as I did, I remembered that I used to watch a bunch of stuff on VHS. There was a VHS store across the street from my Mom's house in the early nineties, so I'd stay with Mom for two nights a week and and rent movies and watch, you know, Universal Soldier, or I Come in Peace, or whatever. And as I'd be watching, I'd be fingering a guitar. And as soon as I'd see something that gave me an idea, I would hit pause, write the song super quick, get it on tape, hit play, and finish out the movie. Bunch of the songs on the early tapes were written exactly like that.
Bleed Out was written exactly like that. As soon as the kids went to bed, I'd say, okay, go get in front of TV, watch a movie like all your friends are doing. And then I would get interested in an image or a plotline or, you know, some sort of affective strain in the movie. And I would go, Oh, that's interesting. I would hit pause and I would write a verse, hammer it out on the guitar, and get a super quick demo into the phone, start the movie up again. Bleed Out to me is like if the guy making the early tapes knew more about writing songs, you know? Now, as we say, some of the charm of the early tapes is that I don't know what I'm doing. But to me, the energy of the new one is closer to the energy of the early ones than I've gotten in 25 years.
Is there anything you do now or know now that you wish you would have known when you were making Taboo VI? Is there anything you would change about the album?
Um, I mean, I wouldn't change anything about it. Not that I think it's that great or anything. I like, for me, that it's a document of where I was at at the time, which is what every album ought to be. Every album should tell you where where a band or writer was when it was made. It should be a snapshot of that time in their lives. This record isn't autobiographical and neither is Bleed Out, but they're both in some way a snapshot of me.
For years, I was embarrassed about the samples that come from this self-help tape, "How to Make Love to a Man" by Alexandra Penney. And they're very graphic and explicit. And for years, I found that a little embarrassing, and now I'm just completely charmed by it. It's great that those things are sort of there, interfering with the field so much, like making it a little harder to listen to, because once you're successful, you will find resistance inside your own band and organization if you say, Oh, I want to make this book harder to read. I want people to really have to overcome some resistance to listen to this record. Your manager and bandmates are not going to be hearing that. They're going to say that is a very fun, aesthetic position to take and we are not trying to make a record that puts off more people than it attracts.
But back in that day, I was so into that. I read a lot of stuff that has exactly that sort of dynamic. David Albahari books — look, no chapter breaks, the sentences go on and on forever, and there's no throughline on the plot that you can really follow unless you're really dedicated to it. Here, I've written a good book anyway. Taboo VI is so crude, but it's a pretty intellectual tape. It has an art project that it's trying to do. Now... it used to say on our Wiki or something, I forget why it said this, but somebody at some point described us as "nice boys who play the good rockin' tunes." Well, that's what we're trying to be now. There's an intellectual component to all of it, and a heady aesthetic component, but the main thing is, we're nice boys playing the good rockin' tunes.
What about each record are you most proud of that? These two, not all of them.
When you say "what about?", I immediately gravitate toward thinking about individual songs. With the new one, it's "Extraction Point." I'm very enamored of "Extraction Point." I'm very fond of it. I've been sort of trying since since [2015 LP] Beat the Champ to challenge us to to reach out into into longer forms of musical expression because The Mountain Goats begin as an act, saying, look, if it's longer than two minutes, you missed your job. So, every assumption that I ever began with, I want to challenge that and grow beyond it. And so, since around the time of Beat the Champ, I've been challenging myself to experiment with running longer, sometimes via improvization, sometimes through longer songs. And "Extraction Point" for me really hits the sweet spot on that. I'm just proud of it as a musical development. I love Matt [Douglas]'s sax part. I love that it's a pastiche of another band, Silkworm, but it doesn't sound like Silkworm. At the same time, you can see that it springs from the Silkworm lifestyle sort of-era, in my head anyway. I like the way the story is told. I like that I actually leaned into the real darkness of the way the story develops. It's not a pretty story at all, but it's a pretty song. And that's the sort of tension that I've always liked to do in music.
On Taboo VI, it's the first song, it's "Running Away With what Freud Said," because that is an autobiographical song, and I have completely cloaked the autobiographical moment in images so that no one but me — unless I tell you — will ever recognize it as that, or even know that there's any story going on that took place in the real world on a very difficult day for me in 1986 in Portland, Oregon. To me, that was a something I was always wanting to explore was, how could you mask? How could you not be writing autobiographical stuff and yet be expressing something true of yourself in it? It was a poem before it was a song. When I sing that one, I'm proud of every line. I think it's a good little song. It's very true to the essence of early Mountain Goats because it's very small, completely unrelatable to 99% of people. It's in that pure zone of just being its own thing and happy if it finds a friend, but not needing any friends.
The Goths album outtake re-emerges as a b-side.
Ahead of the release of In League With Dragons, Darnielle talks with KEXP about dragon-noir while playing fateful game of Magic