The Sound and the Fury: An Interview With John Darnielle
Literature and music have always had a complex relationship. At what point does a poem become a song? Is writing about music truly possible, and how can you capture deep literary themes in a 3-minute pop song?
If you’re John Darnielle, lyricist, singer, guitarist and main motivator behind America’s best folk act since Dylan, the answer to that last question is: ridiculously easily. Since acquiring an acoustic and a cheap Panasonic boombox in the early 90s, Darnielle has kept up a steady output of brilliant images and neatly drawn characters fighting at the confines of their crash-chord world. With his key personae, the Alpha Couple, over the past decade and a half something of a hidden novel has taken shape, winding up in the bittersweet finis of Tallahassee, singing into each other’s arms as their house burns down around them.
Few songwriters around today approach their work with such poetic skill and integrity as Darnielle, and therefore 3:AM’s Richard O’Brien thought he would be just the man to ask about the points where these two worlds collide, and how one feeds into the other.
3:AM: What was the last book you read? How was it – can you summarise, and would you recommend it?
JD: I read Houellebecq‘s book about Lovecraft — it was pretty good. It’s clearly the work of a young writer trying to reconcile theory and practice; my idea is that theory’s great for batting around and swimming in but most writers don’t think theoretically when they sit down to write; theory’s like warm-ups for a workout. I would recommend it to anybody who likes to think about Lovecraft. Before that I read some early Gide, which I recommend without reservation.
3:AM: If you could only read one author for the rest of your life, who would it be and why?
JD: Joan Didion. No question about it. Best American novelist maybe ever.
3:AM: Which authors or books do you think have the biggest influence on your lyrics? Are there any other writers or lyricists out there who you feel are similar to you in style?
JD: John Berrryman is the big one, that merging of high and low diction, and of personal and broader themes: for twenty years I’ve been trying to hit the vein he hits. Lyrically, I think Christine Fellows and John K. Samson are both working along the same kinda be-very-emotional-but-retain-formal-constraints guidelines that I always have in the back of my head.
3:AM: Your lyrics have been described (by me, at least) as poetic: do you read much poetry? If so, who, and what draws you to their work?
JD: I read lots of poetry but I don’t keep current — I think the idea of keeping current with poetry is kind of silly. The whole point of poetry is that keeping current is a mug’s game. I have been reading Donald Justice a lot over the past year, and James Krusoe. Very different poets: Justice is much more solemn but Krusoe is not playing around I think. Justice is widely recognized, Krusoe vastly underrated.
3:AM: Do you believe in the concept of a Great American Novel? Assuming that you do, what do you think are the prime candidates?
JD: No, I don’t really understand that concept at all — I mean, I guess the idea that there’s a novel that’d sum up what it means to be American, or German, or Russian, or English is tempting, but at the same time, novels are so big and and endless that…well really isn’t the idea of national character also worth interrogating? I think it’d be better to think of epochal novels than of national ones. If there were to be an American novelist who nailed us, it’d have to be either Nathaniel West or Dreiser I guess, but who wants to read Dreiser and can you blame them?
3:AM: The voices in your songs are often not your own, but they’re frequently in the first person. Do you find it easier to tell stories from the inside out? What is it about the perspective that works for you?
JD: Yeah, I think taking on masks, personae, whatever you like, is the easiest way to speak. I’m not vain enough to imagine that anybody wants to hear what’s going on in my head from moment to moment. (“I’m hungry”; “Think I’ll play some video games”; “Are we out of beer?”) Eventually the mask merges with my own voice and that’s when the good stuff happens I think.
3:AM: If you were a character in one of your own songs, do you think you’d like them if you heard them on the radio? That is, would your protagonists be Mountain Goats fans, if they had lives of their own?
JD: Most of my protagonists are people who are becoming progressively harder to live with. I think a fair number of them are at a point in their lives where they’re sort of past the point of music being able to help them. They might think, “oh, a younger version of myself might have liked this, but that person is gone now.”
3:AM: Do you write any prose or poetry yourself, apart from your lyrics? Would you ever publish it if you did?
JD: Yeah I write all kinds of stuff. I am working on a book for the 33 & 1/3 series.
3:AM: Imagine your life is a novel: who would you like to write that novel?
JD: Well, Didion first, though she’s pretty ruthless, so it’d be impossible for me to read it. Douglas Coupland also comes to mind — I rate him higher than a lot of people do, think he’s really a terrific writer.
3:AM: On The Road has been cited by many musicians as a book that catalysed their desire to explore the world, opening doors to them that they hadn’t known existed. Have you read it? Does that sound anything like your own experience, or is there a different book you identify more strongly with in the same way?
JD: I have never read it. When I was in high school the glorification of the Beats really turned me off. I spent high school reading Faulkner and Paul Célan.
3:AM: Which of the many songs you have written is your personal favourite, in terms of images, character or storytelling?
JD: I have written an awful lot of songs and the new ones are always my favorites. Of the stuff that isn’t brand-brand-new, I am especially fond of “Pale Green Things” which I think is maybe the deepest down I’ve ever reached, which is why I’ve only played it live once or twice.
3:AM: Which other contemporary lyricists do you admire for their use of these things?
JD: Christine Fellows, Craig Finn, Sarah Dougher, Bill Callahan.
3:AM: Craig Finn of The Hold Steady is one of the few rock songwriters I consider to be of a similar standard to your work. Would you ever consider covering one of Craig’s songs, or even a lyrical/musical collaboration?
JD: I don’t think you could really cover one of Craig’s songs — his diction is such that you’d just sound like you were trying to imitate him. If I were going to do one, it’d be “Positive Jam” though: that’s an incredibly good song. Collaboration would be sweet, but we’ve both been insanely busy for the last couple of years. Who can say? But, of course, I’d love to give it a shot, he’s an insanely talented writer.
3:AM: In “Cubs In Five”, you mention a perfect world where “the Canterbury Tales would rocket to the top of the bestseller list”. If you could influence public taste, what books do you think ought to be bestsellers? What are people missing out on?
JD: Well, as I say, I don’t keep current, so I don’t know of anything that’s out there that “ought” to be charting or whatever. I’m pretty surprised that Joan Didion doesn’t loom larger than she does, since I really do think she’s the best writer alive — every time she finishes a sentence American literature gets that much better.
3:AM: This isn’t relevant to literature, but how old are you?
JD: I don’t like to say! I am a great big diva.
3:AM: I read elsewhere that you work with disadvantaged children four days a week. Is this voluntary work or is it a day-job? Do any of the things you experience in working life make their way into your songs?
JD: Well, that must have been an old interview. I stayed in the working world as long as I possibly could, since I loved my work, but in the middle of the Tallahassee tour it became clear that I was going to have to prioritize and I stopped working that job before We Shall All Be Healed came out. I hope that the kids I used to work with informed my writing just with their boundless energy and resilience, but it’s really hard to say. One doesn’t take stock of one’s influences before sitting down to write.
3:AM: What other jobs have you had in the past before your music got greater distribution?
JD: Helped on a grain elevator, worked as a psych nurse, library aide, washed dishes, bused tables.
3:AM: Do you have any plans to tour the UK soon? Are there any songs that UK audiences are especially keen to hear?
JD: No immediate plans! I don’t have a sense of what audiences would want to hear over there, no.
3:AM: What material are you working on at the moment? Is there a unifying theme to it, like the last four studio albums? When is it likely to see the light of day?
JD: I’m writing now and I generally avoid talking about themes when I’m writing: I am superstitious. I have fourteen new songs and I like twelve of them.
3:AM: Finally, if you could body-swap with one writer, who would you choose and why?
JD: Other questions come to mind here just because there’s the question of what the body looks like and what advantages it has, eh? If I could get in Krusoe’s brain for a minute though, I bet I’d be able to harvest whole album-cycles worth of great images.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Richard O’Brien was born in Peterborough in 1990, and has been trying to escape ever since. He is currently still trying to get an education, and resides in a Lincolnshire village with his parents and his labradors with nautical names. He likes to act, listen to music, and write songs that will never be sung.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 13th, 2007.