A Meandering Chat With The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, About Loner Adolescents, Nerd Culture, And His First Full-Length Novel
"Who doesn’t like to imagine a world in which their secret dreams aren’t shameful, where they’re celebrated instead of hidden?"
John Darnielle is good with words.
This may seem like a bit of an understatement to make about a man widely considered to be one of the best songwriters alive. But it bears repeating, because few people can string a sentence together quite as well as JD. It’s as evident in the brutally perfect couplets he’s famous for as the lead singer and songwriter of The Mountain Goats as it is in interviews with Marc Maron and Modern Farmer, on his long-running (now-dormant) blog, and even film reviews for Slate. In 2008, Darnielle wrote his entry in the 33 1/3 series (slim, hip flask-sized volumes of criticism focused on individual albums) on Black Sabbath’s Masters of Reality as a novella, an impassioned riff on identifying with art from the perspective of an institutionalised teenager. His first full-length novel, the moody, elliptical Wolf In White Van, was published late last year.
The text of Wolf is the inner monologue of Sean Phillips, a still-young man who’s lived with a shocking and painful disfigurement since his late teens; mostly alone in his house in a windblown California town, he earns a living by running a text-based game he invented while recuperating. Trace Italian is played turn by turn, via mail, as players try to make their way through a post-apocalyptic California towards the Trace, a mysterious sanctuary in Kansas. As Sean deals with the fallout after two players take the game too far, his memories, routines and observations form a bleakly beautiful reflection on what it means to be normal, or alone, or passionate about things other people find strange.
With the acclaim for Wolf not slowing down and a new Mountain Goats record out in April, Darnielle’s running on two publicity treadmills at once, spending long days writing, doing interviews, and looking after his sons Roman, three, and Moses, now four months. From his kitchen in Durham, North Carolina, where he was making a stew and watching the baby, he spoke to Junkee in his characteristically garrulous, thoughtful way about solitude, the internet and the infinite space of fiction.
JUNKEE: What are you reading at the moment?
JOHN DARNIELLE: I just finished a book called We Are Amphibians by my friend Sam Deese. I think he published it under his given name [R.S. Deese], but all his friends know him as Sam. It’s a biography of the Huxley brothers [biologist Julian and Brave New World author Aldous], and it’s a scholarly book about what they meant intellectually, and what their visions were about on the amphibious nature of people – people occupy two worlds, the physical world that they live in, but also this aspirational world.
It’s a great book – not a novel, but it’s about the impact of ideas. So you’re reading it and you think, “Oh! How great that people are devoting their lives to the advancement of a good idea.”
It’s also not shy about saying that one of them was a eugenicist, which is not good, right? But it was a very popular thing with a lot of intellectuals in the early 20th century.
Congrats on the Alex Award, by the way! An adult book that appeals to teenagers, where young people can find so much in it even though it was written for an adult audience – that’s a beautiful thing to have created.
Since I was a teenager, I’ve always rejected the notion that there is stuff for teenagers and stuff for grown-ups. When I was a teenager I read stuff that was supposed to be for grown-ups, and I probably didn’t get the same things that grown-ups would have got from it, but that doesn’t mean there was nothing in it for me. I was just getting different things from it.
There’s this idea that somehow young people are Less Than because they’re Different. But Different doesn’t mean Less Than, it just means Different. My younger self is different from me, and there’s a lot of things about him that I don’t like, right? But he’s just a different person, not a lesser person.
I mean, I hope to become a Greater Person, but that won’t be simply because I’m older – it’s because I put work in. So when I write, I feel like the shared humanity between young people and grown people is a given, for me – they all count as as complex as one another.
The focus on young people and teenagers in Wolf got me thinking about the way genre fiction, stuff people get really obsessive over, particularly appeals to “loner” young people, a favourite subject of yours…
Somewhere, in the middle of adolescence, you do arrive at a point where you’re at an equal standing with adults, but you’re also a little better than them because your passions run high. I mean, this is where I share a lot with 19th-century Romantics – I think it’s good to have your passions run high, I think that makes you a good person if your passions run high, in some ways. Not always! If you give them full rein then no, but it’s good to be extraordinarily passionate about the things that move you, the things you find delightful, or hilarious, or evil.
And as you get older you have less space in your life to really give those feelings their wind, and that’s a loss! When you see it happen to your friends one after another, when they stop telling you about music that changed their life – that’s a loss! A huge loss. And so in that sense I think there’s this feeling that there’s something special about youth.
Do you have a theory about what often attracts those nerdy or less socially-adept types to genre fiction? I always feel that it’s the comfortingly neat internal logic of it, where swords kill enemies, and honour beats evil, and evil makes itself known – it’s all easier to grasp than real life.
I do have an idea – I wouldn’t quite give it the dignity of the word ‘theory’, but I do have an idea. If you are different, and a little outcast, and maybe people make fun of you for how you dress, or look, or talk, or the things you’re into, or whatever, then the sort of fiction, or fictive universe, in which the rules are different – a world other than the one you live in – has a natural appeal. Potentially, in that world, you wouldn’t have to be uncool. You wouldn’t have to suffer being picked on by your peers. Potentially you could be cool in that world – you might even master it because you know more about its terms than people who aren’t reading the stuff you’re reading. So I think if your life lacks something, the idea of living in a different world is extraordinarily appealing.
We talk about ‘nerd culture’, but I think everyone experiences that. It’s just some people are a bit more off the beaten path and a bit more honest with themselves. But who doesn’t like to imagine a world in which their secret dreams aren’t shameful, where they’re celebrated instead of hidden? I think that’s a world that everybody wants.
Yeah. I think that solitude though, that outcastness, has always been revered as a great creative force. But sometimes that solitude is imposed on people, and sometimes it’s chosen…
Yeah, and we’re in a bit of flux about that at the moment, which is kind of interesting. I read comics when I was a young man, and I knew one other guy who was into comics. You could not go find a whole bunch of comics people – you would go to the comics store and there would be two or three guys that were older than you, hanging around, and they would not want to talk to you. [Laughs] It was a very lonesome world.
Is that part of why you felt the need to set the book a bit earlier, to get away from the question of the internet creating connections you used to have to work harder to find?
I think the internet changes the nature of solitude. [Longtime Mountain Goats collaborator] John Vanderslice had a great tweet about this a few years ago, he said, “If you think the internet has made us lonelier, then you had never been lonely before 1995”.
If you think the Internet is making us lonelier, you were never lonely before 1995.
— John Vanderslice (@johnvanderslice) August 22, 2012
And that’s true! If you had some solitary pursuit, and you didn’t know anyone else who was into it in 1994, you were out of luck. That was your thing. You couldn’t find a news group for it, and you couldn’t find a Tumblr about it – you just had to say, “This is what I’m into, and I hope one day I meet somebody who shares my passion.”
Do you think we’ve lost something when those people who wish they weren’t alone, but were, because of that imposed cultural isolation – now those people can find people who are like them?
I think it would be a privileged thing to say that we’ve lost something. It does feel like it from this side, but if we’ve lost something it’s offset by the fact that people don’t have to feel like their passions are solitary. It’s kind of a precious feeling to say “I wish I was the only guy who was into this,” y’know? So if we’ve lost something it’s a very small thing.
At the same time, there are some bands that I’m into that hardly anybody else is into, and I cherish that. I’m one of three people carrying a torch for the Stockholm Monsters. Nobody remembers the Stockholm Monsters, whereas their album is one of my top ten albums of all time. And I like that, that there’s something that belongs to you. So if there’s a loss, it’s that – if you had some solitary passion, even if you were lonely in it, there was some sense that it belonged to you, that nobody else had it, it was just yours. And there’s something nice about something that’s yours, right? But there’s also something lonely about it.
I suppose it is a privileged thing to say. It’s like when people say, “Oh, I used to love this area – I miss when there were homeless people”.
[Laughs] Yeah, the homeless people don’t miss being homeless! A lot of people pine for ’80s New York, right? But you know who doesn’t? The people who were under threat of violence.
And the internet has helped so many kids who thought they were alone, and now aren’t.
Yeah I know, and it’s great. For so many people just to find one other person who says, ‘I care about the things you care about’ is huge. Lance and Carrie’s relationship [in the book] is like this, they have fun together – which is one of my favourite lines that Carrie says. And that’s important. And in the pre-internet age it was harder in many areas – especially in these smaller areas we’re talking about – to have fun with. And there are people who will say, “Well, you have to go out and meet people”. But what if you don’t like meeting people? What if you are a person who has a hard time talking to people? Then the internet is great, and you can meet people in a space where you don’t have to worry about whether they are judging you for your appearance, or what you wear.
People pine for the pre-internet days, and I get it, but at the same time you have to remember what’s been gained.
Wolf in White Van would be a different story if you tried to write it in the internet age.
Yeah, and I also don’t know about writing about the internet yet. It’s easier than it was ten years ago, but still, if you go look at a movie from 1996, or episodes of crime dramas from the early 2000s when they tried to use the internet, it’s embarrassing. They didn’t want to use the brand name, so they changed the name of MySpace to BeFriends, or whatever. It’s embarrassing! And it’s funny, because I don’t think previous technologies changed all that quickly – people started using telephones in movies pretty quickly, and that didn’t look strange.
Maybe it did! Maybe if you were a person who only got a phone in their house the year before, to then see it in a film down at the picture show you’d think how self-conscious it seemed…
Yeah, but people weren’t spending eight hours staring at their phones [laughs]. If you’re trying to represent the internet on film, the time aspect of it is big. Nobody opens up their laptop for two minutes, looks at a thing, says “OK, I’ve got the information I need!” and then walks away. It’s not like that. The reality of it is that it’s a time-consuming and very solitary pursuit. I think how to represent the internet remains a challenge for art, generally.
Have you had any offers from fans to try and make the game [Trace Italian] in real life?
[Excitedly] A couple of people have asked about it, but the whole point is that it doesn’t actually exist! [Sean] himself says that the final stages are theoretical, nobody’s ever seen them – there’s no sanctuary, there’s no shelter, there’s just the idea of one. And if you get to one then it’s sort of like the last pages, where it’s not actually a thing – it’s a thing that ends in madness.
And the other thing is, it always seems crass to me to port something from a novel – to say, “Look, here’s the action figure,” or, “Look, here’s the game that you read about in the novel!” To me, that does a disservice to the infinite space of the novel, whereas as long as you leave it where it is, then you have this infinity.
It’s the same as ordering swords off the internet, or through mail order as Sean does – that feeling of taking something out of the fictional world and holding it in your hand can be a bit magic.
It’s true, it’s true. But the case I’m always using when people ask about that is this: it was ‘72 when they made Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, right? And there’s this moment when all the children are watching Everlasting Gobstoppers come off the line. And Veruca Salt – no, not Veruca Salt, it’s Violet Beauregarde – says, “What are those?” And Willy Wonka says, “they’re Everlasting Gobstoppers, they’re candies for poor children, so that they can suck them and suck them and they never get smaller.” And if you’re a kid watching that, you go “My god, that’s great! My family has no money and they won’t buy me candy, but if I had one of those I would always have a candy that was fresh! Amazing!” Right?
Well, then four years later, when I’m eight, they make Everlasting Gobstoppers. But they’re not everlasting, they last about 10 minutes [laughs], so it’s a massive betrayal of an awesome idea. Now, that’s not to say that I don’t eat them – I still eat them by the pound – but it sucks, because the idea of them is astonishing, but the reality is ‘meh’. It’s sugar candy that I like.
So with things like that I feel it takes the dignity from the massiveness of what fiction is. As far as we know, other creatures don’t have fiction – it’s one of our things, that we can tell these stories of infinite space, of infinite possibility. And to render them finite in the world of known things…you have to think carefully about whether you want to do that.
There’s a lot of ambiguity around the adult Sean’s mindset at the end of the book. Do you have an idea in your head of what he does next?
No. Nobody exists beyond the concept of their narratives for me. I don’t do fanfic [laughs], I don’t ask what happened, I don’t like sequels! I like things to stay where they are, because then they’re infinite. Otherwise you limit them.
So I don’t know. That is his story. Whatever happens next, I don’t know.
So there’ll be nothing on the next album about the Continued Adventures and Glorious Revenge of Cyrus and Jeff? [The teenage protagonists of Goats fan favourite, ‘The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out Of Denton’.]
Nooooo, no no no no no. That would be implying that I hadn’t gotten the song right! That it hadn’t done its job.
I would never want to do that!
But that is what people do when they make a Broadway musical of their songs. ‘What happens next?’ But to me, that does a real indignity to the songs, like you’re inherently saying that the song failed to do what a song is supposed to do.
The thing is I did think that, the one thing I did think as far as a restaging was, well, if somebody made a stage play of [Wolf] – because I’m a musician, so I always like to think of the way that you can make the least profit off something: put it on a stage!
But I thought of that because of when David Bowie played The Elephant Man on Broadway – and it never actually came out of previews, but I know that he was doing previews of it – and The Elephant Man as a stage production had no make-up. He just held his arm – and Bowie was good at this kind of thing – he just held his arm in a stiff way, that he had read descriptions of Joseph Merrick doing, and talked in a way, and held his neck in a way. But there was no makeup, and you had to understand that he looked different just through the acting of the character, and understand the difference in his behavioural and personality characteristics instead, and not just a deformity. So I thought it would be interesting if you were to stage [Wolf] and have the character with no makeup – so he looked normal, but you knew that he was not.
The whole story turns on what happens to Sean as a teenager– there’s the before and after and we are privy to both throughout the book, but you put that fulcrum at the end. I re-watched that Colbert interview where you said you like moments of absolute desolation, because there’s only one way out of there, and that’s up.
[Laughs] That’s right, yeah!
Because when I closed the book I thought, ‘That’s a dark note to end on…’
That ending is now four pages, but it used to just be the last sentence. There wasn’t all that insight into where his head was at, and it was a very late flourish. Originally it came very suddenly and bluntly, and I liked that. But then I thought, ‘No, this person has read this far, they deserve to see inside’. And ‘deserve’ is a funny word to use there, because it is a pretty bracing note to end on. But at the same time, that’s what you get. If you want to follow this guy that far then you have the privilege and the – what’s the word – the burden [laughs] of having to see inside that moment.
And he’s not the only person who has been through that sort of mindset – lots of us have – and so to get there, I think it’s recognisable. I think it’s a human moment.
It reminded me of the line in ‘You Were Cool’, about having stared down demons and come back breathing.
Yeah yeah, but that line is very quick – that line doesn’t spend a lot of time with the demons [laughs]. That line doesn’t see the pock-marks on the demons’ faces.
And that’s a thing that comes through in your writing a lot – there’s been A Moment, or A Time, and that’s where you hit that moment of desolation, and you’ve got to come back up, and you’re on your way back up now.
Right, right. But there are a million different paths to that Back Up – as many as there are to the heart of the place, right?
John Darnielle is currently on tour in Australia to promote Wolf in White Van
The Mountain Goats’ new album Beat the Champ is out on April 3. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Caitlin Welsh is a freelance writer. She has written for The Guardian,The BRAG, Mess + Noise, FasterLouder, Cosmopolitan, The Vine, Beat, dB, X-Press, and Moshcam.