Songs & Stories: The Literary Life of The Mountain Goats

In his story-like albums and fiction writing alike, John Darnielle has made a career with his vivid imagination  
by David Menconi

When John Darnielle moved to Durham in 2003, he already had a national reputation as The Mountain Goats — which, despite the name, was less a band than a one-man show with a rotating cast of characters. But over the better part of the last two decades, The Mountain Goats has evolved into a full ensemble, incorporating local bandmates Peter Hughes, Matt Douglas, and Jon Wurster (also known as the drummer from Superchunk). And the Triangle turned out to be the perfect place for this well-traveled Indiana native to flourish as never before.

“My sense of home in North Carolina is considerably stronger than it’s ever been elsewhere,” he says. “This is actually the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere, including more than a decade in the same house. That’s especially unusual in Durham, because people are always calling to ask if you’ll sell your house. I’ve taken to telling them, This place is haunted, run away! A murder occurred here.

Since moving here, the quirky and highly literate folk-rock group has become one of the local scene’s leading lights, with both critical acclaim and commercial success to its name. The Mountain Goats has put 11 albums on the Billboard charts. And Darnielle has found success in another medium, as the author of two best-selling gothic horror novels, earning a National Book Award Longlist nomination for 2014’s Wolf in White Van.

Now 54 years old, Darnielle has always had a work ethic bordering on maniacal. But lately, he’s in the midst of a prolific stretch even by his standards, with three Mountain Goats albums released over the past year. Darnielle also has another book at the editing stage, although he declines to say much about that. “The book will have its time,” he says. “All I’ll say now is I like it and it’s really big.”

Released in June, the most recent Mountain Goats album, Dark in Here, is billed as “12 songs for singing in caves, bunkers, foxholes, and secret places beneath the floorboards.” It’s another highly idiosyncratic effort, pairing the sort of jittery nervousness of Darnielle’s voice with superb ensemble playing on vivid story-songs with titles like “The Destruction of the Kola Superdeep Borehole Tower” and “Let Me Bathe in Demonic Light.” For all that, it’s as accessible as the Mountain Goats have ever sounded, especially the gentle pop-rock lilt of “Mobile.” It’s pretty much impossible to pin down Darnielle’s musical influences, given his unabashed enthusiasm for everything from death metal to Dionne Warwick.

“John’s a unique character, a real live wire,” says mastering engineer Brent Lambert, a frequent collaborator. “If I do something to bring out an element he likes in the mix, he’ll literally jump off the couch and start running around the room pumping his fists in the air.” Lambert credits Darnielle’s gift for dreaming up stories to both his musical and literary success. “These songs of his seem to create real-life characters, which is why he’s a great novelist, too. He can write a three-minute song that feels like a short story or even a novel,” Lambert says. “It’s amazing how detailed a picture he paints with so few words.”

And as prolific as Darnielle is, those “few words” can be a lot to remember onstage — especially considering that he has 20 studio albums’ worth of original songs to draw from. He frequently takes requests during shows, but sometimes needs a lyric prompt or two from the crowd to recall some of the older and more obscure numbers in his catalog.

“Remembering lyrics is such a weird muscle-memory thing,” he says. “If I blank on a line and someone feeds that line to me, that will usually trigger memory of the rest of it. It’s pretty remarkable, how the neurons fire. Getting the first line of a lyric from 20 years ago will bring along the whole verse. We assume we’re just remembering words, but it’s more like this big block of stuff words are a piece of.”

Darnielle admits that he struggles to rein himself in — with songs as well as prose, but especially when it comes to writing fiction. He’ll go back to drafts and find himself thinking, “You’re really into this, but do you think anyone else will be?”

“Everybody hates getting older, but what I love about it is it gets you pretty over your own B.S.,” he says.

“A lot of stuff I think is ‘shining’ at first is really just me trying to impress everyone by going on and on, which seems less like a voice than a nervous tic.” Over time, Darnielle says, he’s learning to edit and revise his words, despite the ego that’s involved.

“The people I look up to are slower-talking and better listeners. I started to become a better writer 10 or 15 years ago when I started trying to take myself out of it as much as possible,” he says. “I know a pig can’t change into a dog — I’m a pig, but I try.”  

This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of WALTER magazine.