Additions: Probably the biggest surprise sound-wise on The Coroner's Gambit was the addition of drums on a few tracks. Perhaps it was me assuming too much from some random comments you've made live, but I had for some reason assumed that you had an anti-drummer stance. Am I totally off-base, or is this something that's changed, or are these tracks just anomalies?
What'd I say about drummers?9 I like drummers fine -- I'm a heavy metal fan, I gotta love drummers. I have said, repeatedly, that the absence of a drummer from a band is not a good reason to consider that band somehow less valid than a standard guitar-bass-drums-vocals set-up, which some people will even go so far as to call a "real" band. Under which definition, the Doors wouldn't count as a real band. But percussion is great. Anybody with a love of classical studies has got to love percussion; it's where literature started.10
The second-biggest surprise was the inclusion of an old record at the start. While it's appropriate, it's an "old-school" Mountain Goats tactic that I don't recall from Nothing for Juice or Full Force Galesburg. What inspires you to include or not include other recordings on your albums? And what is the fragment that opens "Jaipur," anyway?
Well, both Nothing for Juice and Full Force Galesburg were sort of res-ipsa-loquitur ("the thing speaks for itself") records; I didn't think they'd benefit from sound-snippets, whose main function is usually either to point a listener in a certain direction or to provide stark contrast (there's a snippet on "Yam, the King of Crops"11 that I'm thinking of with respect to this second one). "Haunted House Blues" by Bessie Smith seemed like a good way of locking all the doors before the proceedings began on The Coroner's Gambit, if that's not too strained a way to put it. There was a Celine Dion sound-collage that was actually going to be the lead-off bit where I had her saying "Made a deal with the devil" over and over, and eventually just "deal with the devil" a few times, but it's probably best that I left it at home when I went to transfer the songs from cassette to quarter-inch.
For the first time, I came into this record knowing several of the songs beforehand from having seen/heard them performed. Having heard many of the songs from Full Force Galesburg (particular "West Country Dream") performed live more ferociously, I rather expected that that was a result of becoming more comfortable with the song. However, hearing the more reticent version of "There Will Be No Divorce" (compared to the live version) seems to contradict this theory. Do you intentionally subdue recorded performances of songs, or do you just happen to have the adrenaline cranking live, or is all of this much less thought out than I intend it to be?
When I was a kid going to concerts or buying bootleg LP's, I was always most thrilled when the live version was signifigantly different from the recorded version. To me, that said that the performer was still engaging with the material, and still involved in the blood and guts of the song. You wouldn't even believe me if I told you how many different recorded versions there are of "There Will Be No Divorce." But I don't intentionally "subdue" the recordings; I just figure that a person listening to a record at home is less likely to want the spectacle of some guy kicking and spitting than a live audience, who have made it plain that they're happiest when a performer sweats. Which I am more than happy to do. I think that any performer who doesn't give the audience their money's worth is an asshole; if people come out to see you play, you oughta be willing to bleed a little.12
Quotation marks around "Bluejays and Cardinals" in the song title listing -- presumably not an arbitrary stylistic tic? If not, what is it a reference to?
The answer is actually really simple, but I'm going to pay tribute to my late friend Rozz by not telling. Rozz's band (Christian Death) had an album whose title was in quotes ("Ashes"), and his answer regarding those quotation marks was one of the less satisfying answers I've ever been given about anything.
Did you have a specific Tolstoy quote in mind in "Family Happiness," or is that just a general allusion to acts of intentional obliqueness?
It's just the Tolstoy short story of the same title, about a particularly unhappy marriage. It is probably translated under various titles.13
Sort of a general question: it doesn't take a genius to figure out the theme of the record (i.e., death).
Don't sell yourself short, man. You'd be surprised.
But I'm curious how you arrive at a thematically-aligned record; in other words, do you divine a theme and then write songs around it, or discover after writing a series of songs that they fit together neatly?
This record took so long to write, you know -- it went through so many different themes and had so many songs -- but there was one song from early on, when the album was still called Jab-Jab, that pushed it toward being a record about death and terminal places. The song didn't end up on the album. It was called "Tampa." If you can get a tape of the set I did at Terrastock in San Francisco, I think I opened with it there.14 It was a terribly dark song about someone who finds a body buried in the snow, and when I noticed that both it and "Family Happiness" were probably going to be on the same record, I thought: "Why not point the whole album toward the grave?" Then I looked at some other songs from the preceding months and saw how they'd fit into that theme, and it sort of grew from there, and new things came in and pushed out the old ones. So the answer is that I do both: I look for a theme, and then I see if there isn't a different theme that's actually going on underneath.
And a super trivial question: now that you've entered the Digipak world, do you intend to stay there or return to the jewel case? Or is this an arbitrary album-by-album kind of decision?
Album-by-album. I was hesitant to do the Digipak, but it seemed like the best thing for this album. I will probably do a Digipak with a booklet for the next one.
2. RANDOM QUESTIONS ABOUT OTHER PROJECTS:
I've heard that recordings of the Orange Trees existed, although I've never seen any proof. Do they? Can we expect to hear them? Or did we already miss our chance?
There will be no Orange Trees. It was just going to be the Mountain Goats' new name after Rachel started playing bass full-time.
The liner notes to The Coroner's Gambit reference Stage Bidet. How and when should we expect Stage Bidet to manifest itself publicly, if at all?
Run screaming if you ever hear that Stage Bidet is playing your town. Stage Bidet, when it comes, will not be pretty. That is all I care to say about it this early in the morning. I don't even want to think about it.
Any chance of collecting all the Extra Glenns recordings in one place? (And Franklin Bruno also mentioned that there might be more on the way; care to elaborate?)
The Extra Glenns have recorded an album! At a big fancy studio and stuff! For real! It will be out within a year or two. You are the first person to hear about it.
3. ART APPRECIATION QUESTIONS:
The "play it like it lays" lyric in "The Alphonse Mambo" reminded me of your appreciation of Joan Didion.15 Any other contemporary authors you've been reading up on lately that you'd recommend, or should we all just go back to Euripides?
Sophocles. Euripides is awesome, but he is a dilettante. Sophocles talks directly to God. Lately I am reading history, but last summer I read a lot of short stories. Carol Emshwiller is a terribly underappreciated writer; I read a completely amazing story called "The Keeper of the Virgins" by a Lebanese woman named Hanan al-Shaykh, and I bought a book of her stories but I haven't gotten to it yet. I can recommend her just on the basis of "The Keeper of the Virgins," though -- just incredible. Didion's most recent novel affirmed her status as the finest writer presently working in the English language. James Thurber, while so misanthropic as to be pretty off-putting sometimes, was incredibly funny. So those are my recommendations, I guess -- you can't go wrong with Sophocles, though. For real.
Considering how some of your songs reference film (such as "The Lady from Shanghai"16 and "Song for Tura Satana"17) and others seem to use it as a model (or maybe I'm totally off-base, but "Horseradish Road" has the taut pacing of a great film noir to me...)
Thank you for that!
I'm curious what your tastes are in film, and how often your music is actually influenced by film. (And if you're a fan of the New Asian Cinema, particularly Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien18, or if you just liked the title for your 12".)
You'll hate this, I bet. I do like a lot of Chinese movies, and naturally I'm a huge Bergman19 fan, but generally speaking I hardly ever watch any movies at all any more. I like horror movies a lot, especially when they're good (I did go to the theater to see the rerelease of The Exorcist), but outside of that I prefer documentaries. If I had my way, the documentary section of the video store would be twice as big as any of the other sections. When there was an avant-garde, it was interesting -- I'm a Fassbinder20 enthusiast -- but in place of the avant-garde we have "independent cinema" now, which is a careerist feeding frenzy, as far as I can tell. That said, American Job21 is a completely great movie.
Which reminds me: Sweden uses a picture on its back cover from Marcella Zita's Walking on Snow, a film I have looked for without success. What is this film and where (if anywhere) can one find it?
I don't know if you can find it. I lost touch with Marcella. It really was pretty much the best film ever, though. If I ever get my hands on a few copies I will send you one.
And what have you enjoyed on the turntable and/or CD player lately?
Right now I'm listening to an advance of the new John Vanderslice album, and it's soooooo good. The second song on it is almost painfully great. I've been listening to Lifter Puller's Fiestas and Fiascos (hands-down the best album of 2000), the last four Rotting Christ albums, with special wonder for 1997's A Dead Poem, Window by the Microphones -- great one-man-and-tons-of-guests band from Anacortes -- and Bill Direen's terribly underappreciated 1996 album, Human Kindness. (I should mention that Bill dedicates one of the songs on it to me, though, so I am potentially biased. But it really is a great record.) I am also listening to lots of Jackson Browne and had a three-day period where the only song I wanted to hear was "Fear Not of Man" by Mos Def. I am really into listening to music right now, so your question is a dangerous one to ask unless you have a lot of time on your hands.
Potentially-related question: you often seem to go out of your way to espouse the quality of some popular music (most famously, of course, Ace of Base).22 Myself, I find that I never listen to mainstream radio, and frankly have no idea what's on it. Do you deliberately keep abreast of popular music to seek out the nuggets of good, or do you just find yourself being exposed to it throughout daily life?
I think popular music tells us who we are -- who we all are, not just "the normal people," who don't really exist. We are all Backstreet Boys fans, whether we admit it or not. When we do admit it, we will feel better about ourselves. I think it's the duty of anybody who wants to have an opinion about things to know what's going on. People say how much popular music sucks without actually listening to any of it, or at least without giving it much close attention. The surrealists engaged actively with popular culture and that's how they got all their ideas. I think the surrealists are a good model for any countercultural artistic movement, since they tended to have a decent sense of humor. So I do make a point of hearing the stuff that the public likes best. Shame on you for not knowing what's on the radio! At least listen to Casey Kasem once a week or something, if only to know what grain it is that the stuff you like is running against.
What painting, if any, has changed your life?
Marc Chagall, "Around Her." I am fairly ignorant about painting and should just leave it at that.
4. THE FUTURE:
First of all, I'd like to do a rumor update/double-check with the source: Ghana (CD single comp vol. 3) is coming out next year?
Sooner or later, Ghana will be out.
Another Yo-Yo 12" coming out in January ? A third coming out some other time? And should we expect all of these to be collected at some point down the pike?
I just got two boxes of the new Yo-Yo 12" in the mail yesterday! Damn, do I ever love fresh vinyl. It's called "Isopanisad Radio Hour." The third one, "Devil in the Shortwave," will get done eventually; I'm enjoying the super-leisurely pace of getting these three made. I'm not sure if or when they'll all be collected. Being an ornery sort of person, I'm disinclined to put them out as a single CD, but it may happen at some point in the distant future.
Is the "hi-fi" version of The Coroner's Gambit dead and buried, or should we expect it? And do you expect that future records will continue in the "non-hi-fi" vein or do you intend to get back into the "hi-fi" vein?
The version of The Coroner's Gambit that's out is the only one that's coming; I was just too happy with it to want to go through with making a second version that might relegate the vinyl to a secondary status. I don't have concrete plans for how I'm going to record future things, though there are some studio ideas I've been kicking around. The next Mountain Goats album will be pretty brutally "lo-fi," in the popular sense of the term, though as I've said so often that I can hardly stand to hear myself say it any more, "lo-fi(delity)" actually has a much higher degree of fidelity to the source than so-called "hi-fi" recordings. "Lo-fi" is "hi-fi," in point of fact. The Mountain Goats are the most hi-fi act on the planet.23
A long time ago, I could swear that Craig from Emperor Jones told me that they'd be putting out some 12"s by you, too. Is that as dead in the water as I assume it is?
Yeah, that won't happen -- we talked about the Mountain Goats having something to do with those remix 12" things he was doing. The next Mountain Goats LP will be on Emperor Jones, though, which is a truly wonderful label.
I think Franklin Bruno said something about Shrimper re-issuing a bunch of stuff onto CD at the start of this year, including The Hound Chronicles and Hot Garden Stomp. True?
Not soon; sometime, though, probably.
It seems that the output of seven-inches and compilation tracks that used to be a hallmark of Mountain Goats music distribution patterns has waned dramatically. Is this an intentional decision, and if so, why?
People were always complaining about it, especially reviewers. I got really sick of hearing that I released everything I wrote (which I never did) or that I was just turning on the tape deck and recording whatever came to mind (which I wasn't). So I stopped releasing as much stuff. There are probably two albums' worth of songs that will never see daylight in order to give people a rest from the constant onslaught of Mountain Goats records, but that's OK.24 It's also the case that I worked harder on The Coroner's Gambit than on anything since Sweden, really struggling to get the exact songs and sequence I wanted.
And when can us greedy folk expect a new proper full-length to come down the pipe? Or is that too far to imagine?
The new full-length is nearly done. It may well be done. I have 120-minutes-plus of songs to winnow down. At the risk of sounding even more arrogant than I probably already do, it's my best stuff yet. I am writing more now than I have since 1994, so it shouldn't be too long a wait -- sometime in 2001.
Since you've taken to actually playing some of the songs live (i.e. "I've Got a Radio"), will we ever see Taboo VI25 resurface? Or do you intend to keep that dead and buried for perpetuity?
"Leave the dead to bury their dead," as Christ put it -- the world is a better place without Taboo VI fouling its already-polluted air.
How do you keep track of all of these projects, anyway?
Oh, they're like people to me -- they have little personalities, and I think of them like you'd think of your friends. Some of them disappear from my view for a while, but they come back.
Is a song I heard you play in Chicago with the chorus "Goddamn, I love John Coltrane!" ever going to see print?
Can we hope for a tour? Or is Iowa way too comfy to make it worth the hassle?
No tour soon; I did an east-coast tour with the Extra Glenns in early October. It's very hard to tour the west, due to driving distances and financial considerations. I'll be playing in Olympia for the next Yo-Yo. It looks like there'll be some Canadian shows in the spring or summer. I still haven't played Seattle and I'd like to remedy that, but it's hard to get out that way. If somebody wanted to buy me a plane ticket I'd love to do one or two nights out there, but plane tickets from Iowa are expensive.
And a more existential question: do you anticipate the Mountain Goats having any sort of lifespan, or do you intend to continue indefinitely? (I root for the latter, but imagine I have less say in the matter than you do.)
I ask myself this question a lot, but I don't have any answer to it. There is a morbid sort of appeal to the idea of still putting out Mountain Goats records when I'm in my eighties, you know -- out-Jandekking Jandek, sort of, except that I'm not the real-life recluse that Jandek27 is, and I'd hope my stuff is a little more user-friendly.
A final question: I recently saw an interview with Andrei Tarkovsky28 where he was asked what advice he had for "young people." It seemed to me an excellent question, and I pose it to you.
Don't eat meat. Be as passionate as you can all the time. Don't use the word "soundscape" if you can help it. Work for social justice. Don't let the right wing convince you that "feminist" is a bad word; proclaim your feminism loudly and publicly. Listen to heavy metal. Cuddle your beloved more than seems reasonable. Write. Buy multiple copies of Mountain Goats records, since John's unfortunate Zinfandel habit is getting unmanageable. Give money to charity as often as you can, and give a little more than you're comfortable giving. Remember the homeless always and everywhere. Thank whatever God you worship for your inestimable good luck in being loved, and if you are not loved, love someone as best you can. Some of these bits of advice are rather weighty, but you have posed a weighty question to a guy who's always been a sucker for weighty questions.
I hope this finds you in the best of health.
Fond regards from Iowa,
1Most famously, "Going to Georgia," from Zopilote Machine, one of the two songs that I'd be most likely to describe as a Mountain Goats hit (the other being "Cubs in Five," off of Nine Black Poppies). I put this song on repeat one night when I borrowed this CD from a friend back in the summer of '95, and when I woke up, I was a fan. But there's plenty of other great ones ("Going to Lebanon" and "Going to Tennessee" leap immediately to mind), and until this answer it never occurred to me that they were all from the same narrator (or at least the same type of narrator).
2Yes, the Steely Dan song. He's also played "Dr. Wu" live, and perhaps others I'm unaware of.
3This song is from their second album, In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, and is astounding. I'd love to hear this, although it likely provides less of a contrast from the original than many of his other covers (of which Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on my Trail" and Chet Baker's "Moon and Sand," both on his Nothing for Juice CD, as well as an incredible live cover of The Birthday Party's "Wild World" and the various Steely Dan songs, leap immediately to mind).
4Or NWOBHM, as it is commonly abbreviated. Identifying Witchfinder General by name from a movement that includes such more famous names as Iron Maiden, Diamond Head, Venom, and even early Def Leppard is one of those acts of deliberate obscurantism that John often publicly partakes in (another would be including a non-translated Latin quotation on the back of Nothing for Juice), and it's simultaneously highly charming and just a little annoying to me. I suspect that those who find it not at all charming and highly annoying will not be as fond of The Mountain Goats as I am. Anyway, those curious about this whole NWOBHM thing are directed to http://www-cse.ucsd.edu/users/bruss/Metal/Metal.html.
5The Extra Glenns are John Darnielle and Franklin Bruno, the latter of whom is both of solo fame and Nothing Painted Blue fame. They both have roots in the Shrimper/Upland scene of the early '90s, which is really too far in the past to bother talking about here other than to identify Shrimper as a record label that used to specialize in cassettes but also now releases compact discs, and Upland as a region of southern California.
6Not every song on those early Mountain Goats releases was acoustic; some were driven by a cheesy-sounding Casio. Frankly, I don't miss it all that much, especially after hearing "California Song" (off of Sweden) live and realizing how much better it was with guitar accompaniment, although I can understand how some people would find a whole record of acoustic guitar tedious and welcome the intervention of the Casio. Of course, having discovered The Mountain Goats around the same time everyone else in the world was using a Casio may have also affected my perceptions, as well as the fact that the last two albums represent his finest writing to date. Still, I'd rather have "Going to Malibu," "California Song," etc., in Casio form than not at all.
7Who was occasionally the second Mountain Goat (particularly on Sweden and Nothing for Juice, which features lots of her voice and bass). There's also the Bright Mountain Choir, but it's best not to get into that, either. Let's just reiterate that The Mountain Goats are, at this point in time, just John Darnielle, although other people may show up for a couple songs (such as Simon Joyner, who plays on a few tracks on The Coroner's Gambit).
8He's probably right, but man, do I wish he had included this quote on the CD somewhere. I like the music and the ephemera.
9At a show in Houston in 1996, when I sat down near the stage at the start of the set he said, "What are you doing sitting down? If I had a drummer, you'd be standing up!" Which, admittedly, is shaky ground for making any sweeping generalizations, but that's never stopped me before, and it did seem to reveal some issues he had with drummers. I'm guessing that it's all rooted in that "real band" comment in his answer.
10What I'm guessing he means here is that early literature is all poetic and based on specific meters, and is therefore rooted in percussion, which is itself a tool for the communication of rhythm. I could be completely off-base, though.
11He's actually referring to the song "Coco-Yam," off the tape of that name, I believe, although your best chance for finding it now is on the Protein Source for the Future...Now! anthology.
12And he's definitely willing to. I strongly urge you to see a show any chance you get, as he'll most likely rip through his songs with a ferocious intensity, play at least one interesting and unlikely cover, and provide some very entertaining stage banter. (Which is not a "stage persona"; he talks exactly the same way off the stage, aggressively erudite and funny and highly opinionated.)
13This answer really makes me wish I had asked what all the rest of his titles meant, which I avoided for a fear of appearing really dumb, which is a fear that I often have in the face of aggressive erudition. But I really don't know where, say, "Baboon" got its name.
14He did, and it's a really great song, but I can also see why he left it off the record; its aggressive fear is of a separate mood from the rest of The Coroner's Gambit.
15Who wrote a book called Play It As It Lays, which is pretty darn great, although I happen to think Didion's non-fiction (as collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, and After Henry, and perhaps elsewhere) is her best stuff. I've heard John sing her praises before, so I'm pretty sure it was a conscious reference. By the way, "The Alphonse Mambo" is, for my money, the best track on The Coroner's Gambit, although "Family Happiness" and "There Will Be No Divorce" are in heavy competition.
16A later-period Orson Welles film noir, which is from the period where he had trouble getting funding, so he'd have to film in spurts, thus leaving vast inconsistencies in hairstyles, accents, etc., throughout the piece. Any connection between it and this song is elusive to me, but presumably there's some beyond simply sharing the name.
17Tura Satana most famously starred in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!.
18Two Taiwanese directors of relative obscurity in mainstream cinema but who are very well respected in film critic's circles. Check out Yang's Yi Yi if you get a chance, as it's one of the best flicks of 2000 and a wonderful piece of humanist cinema. HHH's work is a lot more difficult to get into but fascinatingly powerful in its austerity.
19Ingmar, he of Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, etc.
20R.W. Fassbinder, incredibly prolific (43 films) though short lived (16 working years) German director of melodramas, of which I've only seen the terrific Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Fox and His Friends, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and many others are also praised.
21The first movie by Chris Smith, who is much more famous for his second movie, American Movie. I've only seen segments of American Job, which is a fake documentary, but what I've seen is pretty great.
22He covered "The Sign" on a 7" and frequently performs it live, often with long diatribes about how great Ace of Base were and how they got screwed by their record label.
23The issue of "lo-fi" and "hi-fi" is one that you can hear Darnielle rant on at length in numerous interviews, and not one I particularly intended to broach, but that's how the two proposed versions of The Coroner's Gambit were referred to in the article in which I read about them.
24I disagree that it's okay, because I'm omnivorous of the Mountain Goats' output, but mostly I'm pissed off at idiot critics who jump to stupid assumptions with no cognition about how they affect the artist whom they're reviewing.
25The very first Mountain Goats tape, which is long out of print and which has been slagged by John at every opportunity I've heard him mention it. I've never heard it, so can offer no objective opinion on the matter.
26A goddamn shame, and if it has to do with the previous answer about limiting his output, I'm gonna slug some reviewer. Any song with the lyric "And the resonating in my bones/the precise crisp drumming of Mr. Elvin Jones" deserves a larger audience of some kind, even if it's on the B-side of a 7" with four other bands on it or some such.
27The Jandek myth is way too weird to get into in much detail here; suffice it to say that he's put out a record on Corwood Industries (a label that seems to exist for the sole purpose of propagating his recordings and may or may not be him) every year or so for at least two dozen years, he operates out of Houston but never plays live, and nobody knows who he is. And his music is pretty difficult listening by most standards, while the Mountain Goats aren't (although I know a number of people who can't abide by the "whiny" quality of John Darnielle's voice, a problem I've never had but that I should alert you to in case you're sensitive to such things). For those looking to explore the Jandek myth, check out http://www.cs.nwu.edu/~tisue/jandek/.
28Director of Stalker, Solaris, and Andrei Rublev. The interview appears on the Criterion DVD of the latter film, which is an astounding movie and terrific DVD as well. END