Running With John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats

The tenacious novelist and indie songwriter unpacks the power of a good playlist.

by Isaac Hunter Page

The first Mountain Goats song I ever heard was my dad’s cover of Sunset Tree’s “Lion’s Teeth.” I remember, one night — or possibly an amalgamation of a few different nights — my dad was playing the rough mix of his cover in the car. Talking about the song led to him playing as many Mountain Goats songs as he could in the hour-long car ride we had ahead of us. Being in middle school at the time, I was too young to fully grasp the “mature” content of some of the songs, but I immediately connected with their emotional weight.

No matter where you know their music from, it’s hard to forget the first time you heard it. As the singer and songwriter behind The Mountain Goats, John Darnielle has proven himself to be one of the most prolific and creative musicians working today. He’s released more than 20 albums, and written three novels. In the past year and a half alone, The Mountain Goats have released three albums; most recently being the auspicious Dark In Here, which they recorded in March 2020 amid the chaos and calamity of the pandemic. Darnielle’s songs have been the soundtrack to many people’s most emotionally volatile moments of their lives, as well as the literal soundtrack to many TV shows and movies, such as The Walking Dead, Weeds, and the movie adaptation of John Green’s Paper Towns

When I reach Darnielle by phone, he has just returned home from a six mile run, something he’s been doing for a while, and does quite often. “I started (running) in 2017,” Darnielle says. “But then, like most exercise habits, you start and stop. October 2019 was the first time I went up to 5K. And then once I got up to 5K, it was all guns blazing. I now run every other day.”

While on his runs, Darnielle listens to a few different playlists that he’s made. “I got in the habit over the course of a year of ‘every time I run — new cool playlist,’” he says. “But now if I want to get up to 16-17 miles, it takes me a long time to put together the playlist, so I now have a cycle that I use.” These playlists contain a wide variety of artists and songs: from “Fool For The City” by Foghat (“a very classic, dude, beer-drinking, 70s rock tune” according to Darnielle), to Parliament Funkadelic, Brazilian heavy metal band Sepultura, and lots of contemporary Christian music, including Rich Mullins, Amy Grant, and Sarah Groves (“Rich Mullins is probably one of the best songwriters that contemporary Christian music ever had”). “One thing I’ve learned is that when you’re on a long run, after the two hour mark, it’s very good to have your playlist be stuff you know well. You don’t want to be hearing stuff and trying to figure out how you feel about it, whether it’s good or not, you want stuff that just hits your pleasure centre. You want the stuff you loved when you were 12. That’s the stuff you need to push you through.”

I could have talked to Darnielle about his running playlist for hours, but unfortunately we only had half an hour. As we moved on, I was grateful to realize that the way Darnielle assembles his running playlists shares similarities with the way he assembles the setlist for his shows. Ultimately, Darnielle is looking for a balance between the familiar and the undiscovered. “I have played ‘This Year’ more times than anyone has heard it. When we get to it in the set, I’m ecstatic to play it, but I’m not curious about it. I’m more interested to see how ‘Tidal Wave’ goes live. The bass rides a single note, and it’s kinda trance like, and we haven’t really chased that since my solo days. I used to bare in on a single chord and play it for 32 bars, and you get into drone space. We don’t really do that as a band. I’m curious to see where we can take it. When I put the setlist together, I’m conscious of the balance between the stuff we’re excited to play that’s new, the stuff people paid to hear and want to hear, and then older selections and more obscure songs for the people that have seen me play a dozen times.”

Time has also played a big part in how Darnielle puts a show together, how he views his relationship with his audience, and how a show comes together. “When I was starting out, I was cantankerous; I never wanted to play a song that had been released for over a year. But once you’ve established a familiar relationship with an audience, you know that your task is to show them a good time. It’s actually a high calling. To show somebody a good time is to give them respite from a world that can throw things like a pandemic at them. If you can take somebody out of that for two hours, and take them into a space where we all get to experience pleasure or sadness in a safe environment, that’s awesome and you don’t really need to think about things like ‘are they hearing things off the new record.’”

The familiarity that Darnielle has with his audience has afforded him many opportunities to push himself and explore new avenues as a writer, or as he puts it, “We’re very lucky to have an audience that is willing to follow me down every dark alley I get curious about.”

“I learned that after releasing The Life of the World to Come. Well shoot, if these people are willing to follow me after the Bible album, I think I’m good to go. You’re allowed a lot of permission to do a lot of other stuff after that.”

With each new project, Darnielle is driven by curiosity and humour. The individual songs on the album will likely not be humorous, but he is attracted to the overall ideas that he finds humour in. “I’ll write a song, and then by the second song it seems like it either, obviously, has another bible title or it’s a wrestling song. Then at some point, I’ll write a third song, and that third song has another bible verse, and then at that point I’ll go ‘what if it was all that?’ I’ll have written other songs as well; I don’t write linearly, I’m not writing ‘the album.’ At some point I’ll go ‘oh, there are four bible songs. What if I did a full album of bible songs?’ And almost all the ideas I run with are ones that strike me as funny. ‘The bible album, that’ll be great! That’ll be hilarious!’ I think the main reason we start a band is to amuse ourselves. It’s fun, funny, and a little pretentious to think that you have something to offer.”

When it comes to curiosity, Darnielle can keep his views brief on that: “That’s what keeps you interesting, if you stay curious. People notice if you’ve lost your curiosity.” 

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