The Mountain Goats find ecstasy amid the darkness

With new album 'Dark in Here' and a Columbus show at the Athenaeum Theatre, John Darnielle talks about his pandemic-proof work ethic, seasons of solitude and the ecstatic experience of live music

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats

In the first quarter of 2020, the Mountain Goats recorded two albums back-to-back, decamping to Memphis, Tennessee, from March 1 to 7 to make Getting Into Knives at Sam Phillips Recording with producer/engineer Matt Ross-Spang, then taking a day to drive down to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to track the recently released album Dark in Here (Merge Records) at legendary FAME Recording Studios, where Ross-Spang helmed the sessions from March 9 to 14.

Prior to the Memphis sessions, Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle had played some shows in San Francisco, at which point reports of a contagious virus had just begun to make their way into the national conversation. But things ramped up quickly once the band entered the studio. 

“In the middle of the Memphis session, the vibe started to feel like, ‘Oh, this is getting a lot of attention.’ And by the time we got to Alabama, we actually saw a movie the night before the session started, and they were offering hand sanitizer at the door. And I thought, ‘That's pretty weird for Alabama. Somebody knows something,’” Darnielle said recently by phone. “Things got weirder as we went. The CVS next door to the studio, everybody bought all the toilet paper there. … By the end of the session, I was going to fly home, but I drove home to North Carolina because it didn't feel safe to get on a plane.” 

Those sudden, world-altering changes influenced the mood of the sessions for Dark in Here, which, as the record’s name implies, was never destined to be a sunshine-and-rainbows album in the first place; a quick sampling of tracks includes titles  “Let Me Bathe in Demonic Light,” “To the Headless Horseman” and “The Destruction of the Superdeep Kola Borehole Tower.” The album’s title track, though, had been hanging around for years alongside other words and phrases that Darnielle often jots down in notebooks, where they wait their turn to go from title idea to fully fleshed-out song.

But Darnielle isn’t one to sit around, hoping for inspiration to strike. “I don't believe in writer's block. To me, writing is work. And so I just keep going. I show up and I do what I was sent here to do,” said Darnielle, who’s also a novelist and National Book Award nominee (and judge); his third novel, Devil House, comes out in January.  

Like many people, Darnielle found himself at home more often in the last year and a half, which ended up increasing his creative productivity, despite “writing while under full-on attention assault from two children,” he said. “Tours usually slow me down a little bit in terms of making stuff … but externalities only affect me a little bit in terms of how much I am able to make, because making stuff is what I do.” 

Seasons of solitude are also not new to Darnielle, who has written about the topic for years on Mountain Goats songs such as “Absolute Lithops Effect” from 2002 album All Hail West Texas, as well as Dark in Here track “The Slow Parts on Death Metal Albums,” a song about “going to see heavy metal shows when I was 19 or 20 and being out of place, but also feeling like that was where I needed to be,” he said.

Darnielle recalled attending a Megadeth concert at Fender’s Ballroom in Long Beach, California, around 1986, and while everyone around him had the long-haired, glammy look of a heavy metal hesher, Darnielle had short hair and wore jeans with a blazer and tie. He didn’t fit in, but he wasn’t lonely, either.

“Sometimes you have seasons of being alone. … I think they're good. They can be really painful, because they can feel very frustrating, but for me, anyway, they’re part of the process,” he said. “It's something other than loneliness. … It’s like a particular station on a line.” 

In recent days, after a long stretch of seeing few people outside of his family, Darnielle has been touring the country with his Mountain Goats bandmates, which has given him a renewed sense of how much he needs others in his life. “Being on the bus, it’s like, ‘Oh, I'm around my people. This is a healthy way of being,'” said Darnielle, who will visit the Athenaeum Theatre with the Mountain Goats on Friday, Aug. 27, with opener Erin McKeown.

Even amid the disconcerting spread of the delta variant, which led Darnielle to require vaccination proof and masks for Mountain Goats shows, the concerts so far have provided a welcome communal catharsis. While disaster is threaded throughout the songs on Dark in Here, the live experience of them becomes something else entirely.  

“Music is alchemy. A song can be dark and calamitous, but the experience of singing it together — the experience of standing and sharing the music — is necessarily ecstatic, no matter how sad the song itself might be,” Darnielle said. “A big part of the whole Mountain Goats experiment is this notion that there's some sort of ecstasy at the core of even the darkest story.”