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The Mountain Goats On Growing Up, And Growing Older, In Goth

"[Goth] was a convenient shorthand for the type of music that you liked if you had a kind of a morbid imagination and favored minor keys," says John Darnielle.
Jeremy M. Lange
Courtesy of the artist
"[Goth] was a convenient shorthand for the type of music that you liked if you had a kind of a morbid imagination and favored minor keys," says John Darnielle.

John Darnielle was a goth kid. Maybe not Siouxsie Sioux levels of cool-goth, but enough to wear a little black eyeliner and sport a gloomy undertaker look. "A bad undertaker, I guess, because a good undertaker doesn't remind you of death," he tells NPR, laughing.

For Goths, Darnielle and The Mountain Goats don't so much mine the bleakly romantic sounds of Sisters Of Mercy or The Birthday Party, but explore what it means to grow old in goth and, by extension, grow old in any youthful outcast culture.

Joined by members of the Nashville Symphony Chorus, album opener "Rain In Soho" is a pounding barnburner chorale that has more in common with the over-the-top theatrics of '70s arena-rock than the soul-tinged soft-rock that unexpectedly permeates Goths. When Darnielle sings, "No one knows where the lone wolf sleeps / No one sees the hidden treasure in the castle keep," the choir responds with a sassy "No, no, no, no," like a '60s girl group wagging fingers.

"Rain In Soho" paints a bleak-but-loving picture of a nightclub London goths called home in the '80s and that goths worldwide sought out in reports from friends and magazines. "You could meet someone who's lost like you," Darnielle sings. "Revel in the darkness like a pair of open graves / Fumble through the fog for a season or two."

Goths wrestles with impermanence and the past with a mixture of humor and empathy for which Darnielle has become known. It's a different record for The Mountain Goats and is quickly becoming a new favorite of mine.

From his home in Durham, N.C., Darnielle and I talk about how to navigate the past without falling into nostalgia, how a two-year-old foiled plans for another guitar record, underrated goth bands and, of, course, his own goth apparel.

Lars Gotrich: "Rain In Soho" makes reference to the London nightclub Batcave. Does it occupy a memory for you or your bandmates?

John Darnielle: In a pre-internet age, when stuff would be happening in England, if you lived in America you would hear about it from friends who had been there or who had friends there, or you read about in magazines. Where I grew up, on the West Coast, MTV came late because cable was opposed by the TV stations out in Southern California, so everybody else had MTV before we did, which meant that we heard even less about music scenes. I think everybody was still looking pretty hard to London and New York for news in the post-punk age. You grow up with a chip on your shoulder on the West Coast because you think, "We got cool stuff here," but everybody comes here last.

But the Batcave was one of your classic, English-press next-big-things. It was a club where it was decorated like The Munsters or something, with cobwebs and spiders and tombstones and dark, dark lighting and people who were taking a lot of cues from Siouxsie Sioux. I think Siouxsie was a pretty major fashion influence and a sonic influence in goth.

I mean, young men and women have been obsessed with death forever and forever — you know like Baudelaire, the Decadents in Paris. There's plenty of Roman poets who like to think a lot about death. But the expression of it then was to dye your hair black and sort of look dead, which was kind of a new-ish thing. Put on white base coat and blacken the bottoms of your eyes to make you look sunken — which actually Bob Dylan did on the '74 tour, I think, and he looks like a proto-goth in that.

So anyway there was this club, it was pretty short-lived. I remember stories about it in magazines like Sounds and Melody Makerand smaller ones like Flexipop! It came and went in the way of a lot of post-punk English trends. You know, the New Romantics — they existed, but they didn't. They dried up after about nine months, right?

But some of those bands were really important to me — Sisters of Mercy and The Birthday Party. All these bands who absolutely rejected the term goth and hated it. But it was a convenient shorthand for the type of music that you liked if you had a kind of a morbid imagination and favored minor keys.

Were you a goth kid?

Yeah. I mean, here's the thing. There's a song in the record called "We Do It Different On The West Coast," which is about how West Coast goth kind of precedes, I think, the Batcave scene — I'm pretty certain it does. On the West Coast people were sort of flexing a little bit of a gothic look, without the word goth, as early as '81. Pretty sure that's true. Christian Death was huge in the whole thing and they were around since at least '80, I think.

So when I was 16 I dyed my hair black and I started wearing white Oxfords. It was all pretty proto-goth, because what happens to goth in the wake of the Batcave is the style becomes a lot more ornate. It becomes a lot more lace and a lot more expressive. What I was favoring was a sort of an undertaker look — a bad undertaker, I guess, because a good undertaker doesn't remind you of death. [Laughs] But you know, cut my hair short, dyed it black. I would wear a little bit of eyeliner. The gothic look later becomes this extremely Tim Burton-y, very, very performative, you-can't-miss-him-walking-down-the-street look. But mine was more understated, although it seems that way to me in memory. I wonder if there were any pictures of me from that era, if I wouldn't go, "Oh, you know, there's a goth kid there."

You've featured keys on Mountain Goats songs before, but onGoths, there are no guitars. The liner notes even close with this proclamation: "NO COMPED VOCALS. NO PITCH CORRECTION. NO GUITARS."

I'm glad it makes you laugh, because often when you make big pronouncements people don't notice that they're funny. I think anything like that — you can to be funny now or you can look funny later if you're making big programmatic statements of intent, but at the same time they're so addictive and so great, like when you hear a poet who says, "Well, you know, rhyme is over." [Laughs]

What makes writing a song on piano, or, mostly in this case, on Fender Rhodes, different than writing a song for guitar? Because your songs feel different, the way that you sing feels different.

It's a long answer. So a few things: I'm trained on piano, I'm not trained on guitar. In terms of theory, I'm better on a keyboard than I am on guitar, although I've played so much more guitar than I have piano that technically I'm more adept on my guitar. What I can't do on guitar is inversions. I can't form chords without thinking about them too much. I have to look it up if I want to play a diminished chord on guitar. On the piano, I know what I'm doing. I have some jazz chops and so I can do simple Hoagy Carmichael-style moves of major sevenths, diminish sevenths in these kinds of simple tricks. Not great pianist stuff, but they're really effective tricks in writing when you're trying to modulate. This album has multiple modulations and most Mountain Goats [songs] don't because I'm writing on guitar most of the time. I'm just a simpler guitarist.

So that's one thing, but the other thing is the first song I wrote was "Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds," which I wrote as a sort of a Johnny Cash-style song. I was on vacation at the beach. And I said, "Okay, stop working, you're at the beach, put the guitar away." When I came home, I had a two-year-old who's five now. But when I went I try to write it, he's crawling over my guitar. I discovered that he was more distractible — if you're playing piano and I'm here in the middle 44 keys, your child can bang on the upper and lower ones without distracting, whereas with a guitar if the kid decides he doesn't feel like you playing guitar right now then you're done. [Laughs] So it began sort of as a necessity of where I'm going to be writing. Then, once you have two songs in the same vein, if you're me, you go, "What if I get 12 of those? That might be fun to have." Plus the Rhodes tone is so — I really just love it, you know, old Roberta Flack records have this just gorgeous tremolo Rhodes tone.

So I was not at all a goth kid — I was a late '90s wannabe punk. Throughout the album you reference goth bands both known and relatively unknown. Who are some of the unknowns that really deserve to be heard?

That's a good question. They called it "deathrock" in Southern California before the term goth. Tex & the Horseheads never really got big — I don't think they ever actually achieved their their potential, but they made some good stuff.

Kommunity FK was a band that also didn't really break out. They had an album called The Vision And The Voice and another one called Close One Sad Eye, which is such a fantastic title. When you listen to them now, they're basically post-punk records that happened to be a little more interested in minor keys, that happened to be a little more morbid than Gang Of Four.

T.S.O.L. was a punk band that had sort of a goth turn for a while. One thing that a lot of West Coast acts suffer from, and this is weird, is that production tends to not be as good as East Coast or England stuff. It feels like they were in a hurry to get it done. My guess is because studio time was more expensive on the West Coast and if you wanted to get into a really good studio you probably couldn't afford it. I mean, this is a theory, but a lot of them they sound pretty hurried and they're sharing the same chorus pedal. [Laughs.]

Another band is Sex Gang Children, who I don't think anybody remembers. They're sort of your classic goth-not-goth band. They're not really a goth band, but there's enough goth tropes in there that you can't say what else they are. They don't fit anybody else's scene as well. They made some really interesting records. And like a lot goth bands, because the 12-inch single was a hot currency at the time, they often would have like a dub mix or an extended mix on the other side. And that was where a lot of interesting production work was being done in those days. You know, Martin Hannett — Joy Division's dude — just playing around with stuff, seeing what noises sounded cool on extended mixes. The Mauritia Mayer 12-inch by Sex Gang Children is something that I think bears exhuming.

I had a thought about this record. It has some pretty serious soft rock and soul vibes. I half expect Michael McDonald to jump in on verse about Rozz Williams or something.

It's funny because I am a big Michael McDonald fan. I know people use him as a punchline, but that's one of the most remarkable singers of his generation.I'm a big fan of that kind of stuff. And also I think I do my best singing of my whole career on this record. Part of me is learning to go from being a nasal guy who can get your attention, but can't really sing, to learning how to sing. I think the last couple of records have been making inroads.

It channels the kind of music that the parents of '80s goths would have resented, I would think. I wondered if that was intentional, given that one ofGoths' themes is about growing old in goth, maybe even becoming your parents.

So I wouldn't say I sat down and said, "Let me do this, that would be clever of me." But I think that's in there. When you know you're writing about a style that, although it exists in revival and there's traces of it to our culture, it's a time-bound thing. You're writing about a lot of bands that don't exist anymore, whose members are older now.I think all that stuff is really forming it.

But the other thing is, when [Sisters Of Mercy singer] Andrew Eldritch would get interviewed, they would ask him what music he likes and he would always insist that he didn't really like anything made after 1969. He would reference Hawkwind and Motörhead, which is a little later. Sisters Of Mercy would cover "Gimme Shelter" — he had this goth romantic vision of the '60s. And I think a lot of their parents were submerged in goth stuff anyway. I mean, a lot of those horror movie images, those are '50s images — those aren't '80s images. Those are actually older tropes being made by young people. I think goth has always has been for younger people who are steeped in old things.

Your bandmate Peter Hughes wrote about what it is to grow older in goth, that this thing that is so youthful projected something so old and deathly, and how it still has resonance with you as an older person.

One thing you can do with the stuff you used to be into is to ask yourself, "What was in there for me? What was it about that that called to me then?" Once you have a better view of who you were then — why did you like it?

I think being able to look at the past without getting nostalgic is a challenge for those of us who've been writing for a while because I think the trap of nostalgia is always going to be there, especially in the age of Facebook. All your friends posting and saying things like, "Well, here's when music is really good." I think it's so toxic. But at the same time, the older you get the more of the past you have to mine. Most of the writers I read are pretty obsessed with the past: the past is where most of the stuff is. There's a lot more stuff in the past than there is in the present.

So it's fertile territory if you can resist the nostalgia bug, which is hard to do, especially when you're writing music because people do mine that vein as far as feeling nostalgic for the music when they were younger and could stay up later and had fewer responsibilities and stuff like that. But I'm always trying to avoid that that particular angle.

Goths comes out May 19 on Merge.

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