I recently interviewed Mountain Goats mastermind John Darnielle about his brilliant new album, In League With Dragons, for NOW Magazine. The article can be read here but I decided to start this website for the purpose of publishing the full transcript of our conversation. Over a spirited phone call, we discussed the origins of his collaboration with Owen Pallett, Dungeons and Dragons, and the encyclopedic drumming knowledge of Jon Wurster. Read on below!
I know you toured with Final Fantasy in 2009, but how did you first become aware of Owen’s music?
There should be a thing called “Indie Confessions,” like a sidebar to a magazine article. The Arcade Fire was just starting to get some steam. Funeral was out, but they hadn’t won a Grammy yet, or anything like that. You know how it is when a band is getting popular, there’s that energy or buzz or whatever you want to call it. They were playing in Chapel Hill and I was in Durham. This is back when I went to shows. My wife asked if I wanted to go and I said sure because we used to go to shows all the time back then. I went out there to Cat’s Cradle, which was about a half hour drive. I saw Owen’s set and he played “This Is The Dream Of Win And Regine,” which is of course such an amazing song, and I was just knocked over. I don’t remember the Arcade Fire’s set.
People asked if I wanted to come to the party afterwards, and I said sure. It was at a hair salon and Owen was there. I said ‘Oh my God, you were so great. I loved that so much.’ We danced to “True Faith” by New Order, which I remember because I ruined my heel that night trying to do the “True Faith” dance, which I suffered from for several years thereafter. It was great.
That was how I ran into Owen. The short version is that he was opening for the Arcade Fire and just completely blew me away. We became pals, and it turned out he liked my stuff and had been covering one of my songs. We started communicating and then I put him on The Life Of The World To Come. I asked him to do some arrangements, and we’ve been close ever since.
Why did you decide to work with Owen as the producer of your new album, and record it in Nashville again? Did you have a specific country-rock sound or approach in mind, or was that Owen’s vision?
The deal was this. We had a conversation at the end of the tour, and I knew which tour it was until recently, but now time is doing the thing it does. It ended in Pittsburgh at Mr. Smalls, which is one of my favourite places. We were upstairs and I said, ‘Well guys, we’ve been on the road all year, and I’ve got a new batch of songs. Let’s talk about what we’re going to do.’ I wanted to go back to Blackbird in Nashville, because it’s just such an amazing studio. You can record any kind of music there.
I had this idea of letting somebody produce. Usually I exert a pretty heavy hand over all decisions, and a producer does things I can’t do like microphone selection, placement, and organization. Generally speaking, I shoot down more ideas than I greenlight in the studio. So I thought after 20 years, why not let somebody actually produce us and make decisions?
We started kicking around names, and Peter said, ‘These are all good ideas, but you don’t know these people. You will probably not be able to give them the kind of power that you’re talking about giving to a producer. We were scratching our heads and I think it was Peter who said, ‘Isn’t Owen producing now?’ I thought that sounded pretty good so I called him up and he was into it. He wrote a pitch and said what he would do, enlisting the following musicians to come in, naming Thom Gill, Bram Gielen, and Johnny Spence. He wanted to use another studio, but I wanted to use Blackbird, and he said ‘Fine.’
He had a vision for how it would be with a lot of focus on playing the actual song as written, as opposed to going in and seeing where it goes. He wanted us to adhere, bringing a sort of krautrock diligence to playing our parts. That was cool because often you go in and your expectation is that the song will evolve from how it was written. Owen was holding me to the text, saying these were the songs I wrote. Even though it requires more planning, it preserves the original impulse faithfully.
It’s funny you use the term ‘krautrock diligence’ because Owen has said that he asked Jon Wurster not to play any drum fills on this album.
I think Owen is probably overstating that. Producers have a tendency to gild the lily, you know? ‘I told this drummer not to play any fills’ probably means asking for very few fills and getting the best mileage you can out of them. I know Jon has always been really interested in that kind of thing, talking about records that only have three fills. That’s exciting from a drummer’s perspective because fills are flashy, but good drumming is more about riding a beat and making it really count.
Jon really does seem to hold back on flashy playing, too, until the last song “Sicilian Crest.”
Yeah, but if there were no drum fills on “Sicilian Crest,” what a dire world this would be. That song needs a big old fill. I think there’s a modest fill or two on the title track as well. It’s a proper country-rock fill that’s not flashy but there to accent. If we want to talk about drumming, I can do it all day. Jon was a great player to begin with, but he’s also really dedicated to the growth of his craft and gets better every year. He has the whole history of rock drumming devoted to memory, so you can name a good old track and say ‘I’d love if we could do something with a Steve Gadd vibe here.’ He’ll say, ‘Got it!’ It’s exciting because I think his drumming on the really locked in songs on this record like “Doc Gooden’ he just absolutely nails it to the floor. It’s utterly beautiful playing, and a real honour to be a part of that.
I’m a drummer myself, and a big fan of everything Jon does, so I’ve definitely paid attention to his playing over the years.
He really knows every drummer. If you say you’re looking for a Jim Keltner kind of feel, he knows what you mean. There’s a song on this record where I said it was about Black Sabbath, and he totally brought a Bill Ward floor tom vibe to the chorus. You can’t miss it if you’re actually a fan of Sabbath for the playing. It’s like ‘Oh my god, a Bill Ward vibe in a folk-rock song.’ It’s really cool.
I love those kinds of musical references, as opposed to lyrical ones.
Oh yeah, it’s the best! There are a lot of them on this record, actually. I hate this about myself, and because I’m the charismatic frontman people tend to focus on me, but my band is so much more important to the whole picture at this point. I’m the guy who sets things in motion, so I may be a 51% vote, but the band is the story of this record as far as I’m concerned.
You’ve described their playing on this album as a “gigantic texture for you to sit in the middle of.”
That’s the thing. There’s a synergy to it that’s really satisfying artistically. I write a song and set the stage, then they inhabit and people that stage. They make it a place where I can come back in and bring the original text back to life under their stewardship. It’s a communicative process that I really relish.
I love all of the little musical flourishes like Johnny Spence’s organ playing on “Doc Gooden.” Him, Thom Gill, and Bram Gielen are kind of musicians’ musicians here in Toronto, sprinkling their magic on all kinds of releases. Is that what you had hoped for as well?
I knew Thom from the tour with Final Fantasy, and like everyone else in the world I totally fell in love with him. I was wondering when I would get to make music with Thom again, and then 10 years passed because that’s how life works. I was utterly thrilled to see he’d be on the record. That’s his guitar solo on “Cadaver Sniffing Dog” and one thing I’ll be attempting to do and failing nightly on our tour coming up is playing something that does justice to it. He laid down like seven solos, and I think that’s the second one. He’s a great singer and songwriter too!
The pedal steel solo on the title track is a really standout moment too. I was reading a bit about Dan Dugmore who played it and loved to learn that he released a Beatles cover record called The Off White Album. What was it like recording with him?
He was Linda Ronstadt’s dude in the 70s. He’s a session guy. For people outside of the business, they think of session musicians as people who just come in and play a part. But if you’re a musician in the trade, you’re like ‘Oh my God, we got a session guy!’ They can play anything, and they get done it very quickly. They’re usually getting paid by the hour or by the track, but we’re paying for the studio for the hour, so he knew he had to come in and get it done. When he came in the engineers were freaking out, and they were like, ‘That’s Dan Dugmore!’ He showed up in his day clothes, asked us what we needed, and did it. It was not many takes.
It’s such a different way that most people think about music, which is inspiration or being in the moment or all of these tropes that are sold to you about rock and pop music. Actually, there’s an architectural component when you know what a song needs. You need to find the person who has the best tools for that part of the song. They come in and show you several shapes that part could take. With a guy like Dan it’s hard to pick because everything he played is good. We had to get very granular to choose what was right.
I think the grander concept for your lyrics on this album really clicked for me when I read the Vanity Fair interview and you talked about “making peace with your dragons and enlisting them in your aid.” The metaphor of chasing the dragon in search of a high that you can never achieve the same as the first time is really vivid. Is that kind of what you had in mind when you talk about “dragon-noir”?
For this album, I’m talking a lot more transparently about how albums get born. Some people who work really fast might think about a concept for an album and then write to that. This one, like many records, had several lives. It started out as a rock opera called Riversend. It was about an aging wizard whose seaside kingdom is under siege. He’s rallying his people to try and defend their community. He’s probably going to die, and probably a lot of people are going to die.
So I was working on that and I sort of reached a point of not wanting to anymore. It’s not like I got sick of it, but one thing that happens is I struggle to write a song that doesn’t feel like it’s just stage directions. When I wrote Tallahassee I almost lost my mind with this stuff. I needed to write a song that got them to Florida and wound up setting the whole record in Florida to eliminate that problem. That’s the frustrating part when you’re writing an album that tries to tell a through-line story. You need to move the action, and at the same time it’s hard to find a hook. I decided I wouldn’t finish it, so I went on to write other songs like “Strychnine”, “Doc Gooden” and “Cadaver Sniffing Dog.” I’ve been reading a lot of crime fiction in the last few years, and those songs reflect that.
So I looked how they played together and the thing about themes is that they only drape the deeper themes. A dragon or a poisoner or an aging athlete are all skins around a different character, which I think is kind of obviously me. That’s the way it came together to look past these genre trappings. There are several different skins of genre fiction that go into the collection. I like the way they play together and expose each other’s veneers.
There have been lots of references to Dungeons and Dragons in coverage of this album, but you’ve said it’s not really about RPGs at all.
Somebody very fairly said to me, ‘you did announce the album from Wizards of the Coast.’ So fair enough. I said in the broadcast that it’s not that, but there is one song, the title track, that’s explicitly about a dragon. Then there are all these relics of the Riversend pieces. The thing is that everything is a concept album about Dungeons and Dragons insofar that we always end up playing as ourselves. You talk about ‘your character’ and the things they do, but it’s really just a skin for you to fit inside to better understand your tendencies and see how you react under fire. One of the major strengths of role playing games is that we get to do that with friends around a table and learn about ourselves.
Absolutely! I’m playing my first D&D campaign right now, funnily enough, and my character is very much me. He’s a musical necromancer.
Is he a wizard?
He’s actually a dark elf, but he played with a troupe of musicians who died in a caravan crash. Now his quest is to bring them back from the dead and play a final concert with his friends reborn as skeletons.
That is rad! How do you align?
I would say chaotic good, in the game and in real life, probably.
Yeah, I think a lot of us align that way. I’m always interested in lawful good characters, because I think most people immediately want a bit more flavor, but I like a nice wizard who calls all the rules.
My roommate is playing as a vengeful angel, so that’s a pretty fun character.
I’ve been thinking about Dungeons and Dragons a lot, so it’s excellent timing with your new album. I’m also so happy to have the new season of the podcast, I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats, with you breaking down every song.
I’m glad! If you listened to the last season, you know we don’t always stick to our subject. The conversation goes all kinds of ways, but it should be fun. The thing is I’m really into the transparency of this record. When we started recording the podcast, it didn’t even have the title that it has yet. I hadn’t given it a hard enough look yet, or located all of the themes in it, and was still learning about it as we talk.
Do you feel like you’re adding meaning to the songs after you’ve written them?
It’s not adding, it’s locating. This is a misconception people have about writing. I mean, I’m sure some writes work this way, but not me. There’s an idea that the writer formulates an idea, then states it to himself or herself only: here is my theme, here is what I mean, here is what I’m doing. Then they spell it out for the rest of the world to see. I don’t think that’s how it works for most writers I know. What happens is you write something because it seems cool, and then you get it done. At some point in the future you figure out what you’re writing about, but that process could take many years.
I’m always telling the story about how Franklin Bruno was reading through a couple of songs on the sessions for Heretic Pride. One of them was “Sax Rohmer” and he said ‘Oh, that song’s about touring!’ Now I’m not the kind of guy to write a song like Jackson Browne’s “The Load Out” or something like that. It’s just not me. But he was right! It’s about how you go on this journey and face all of these unexpected things. It’s hard to explain the life and the whole point of it is to get back home. I didn’t know that until we recorded the song, and hadn’t figured out what this album was about until we started tracking the podcast.
It’s interesting to me because people ask ‘what did you mean to say?’ There’s this idea that you’re standing behind the song with a battle plan that you’ve elucidated before beginning, but that’s not true for me at all. I write to find out what I’m thinking. To me that’s the strength of it. It’s exciting to hear someone come to that realization.
It’s the same as Dungeons and Dragons in that way! You’re revealing how you’ll react to a certain situation.
That’s right! In play, you find out if you’ll save your own skin or help out the party. It’s pretty fun.
Are you playing a campaign right now?
We’re doing Night Witches right now. It’s a Jason Morningstar game. In it, everyone plays a Soviet pilot in a squadron called the Night Witches whose job was to run interference by night against the advancing Germans, and hold the line until reinforcements could arrive. They flew terrible planes called PO2s with canvas-covered wings that couldn’t get a lot of altitude. So you’re flying low missions by night to deposit modest payloads of explosives, and fully expecting to get shot down half the time. The job is to waste German energy. They’re real historical figures, but you make up your own characters. It’s a game mostly about mitigating losses, conserving resources, and hard choices, which Jason Morningstar’s games are often about. It’s a good game.
Maybe I’ll have to play it next!
The only thing I hold against it is that one of the character skins has a magic thing going on. They’re a witch, but there’s an addendum that says ‘special note: witchcraft is not real. You can play this character however you like, but if you imagine that you can cast real spells, you are playing the game wrong.’ I always think, ‘we can’t say definitively there’s no witchcraft!’ I like my magic spells, but this is a game that takes place between 1941 and 1945 in the world.
Last question: What has Jon Wurster done recently that made you laugh?
He and I do a thing to each other for laughs. We find bands whose tour routings look absolutely suicidal and forward them to each other. I know bands who stick to the philosophy when you’re new in the business that every night off is a night you’re wasting money. You have to get hotel rooms, food, and all that. Many young bands avoid taking time off, but you’ll go crazy that way. It’s work whether you’re having a good time or not.
Then if you stick around long enough in the business, rise fairly high, but then dip a little bit in status, the first that goes again is the days off. You think ‘If we’re out for nine days and play seven shows, we get this much money. But if we play nine shows, we mitigate some of those losses.’ So you see these routings that are like 14 shows in a row spanning from Western Russia to England. You look at the routing and you’re like, ‘Wait! They’re playing Munich on the 9th and the London show is on the 10th. That’s madness if you owned a private jet, and these are bands that probably finish their show, drive all night, and hopefully get to the ferry by dawn.’
The last thing Jon sent me was a band that had 30 days in 32 nights. It was a bunch of guys are age too. Mike Watt is the guy who’s the most famous for it, because he’ll do things like 17 nights in a row including two border crossings. He doesn’t respect limitations.
Mike Watt seems like the ultimate example of someone who thinks ‘if you’re not playing, you’re paying.’ Jamming econo until the day he dies.
There’s one other thing Jon Wurster did recently that made me laugh. I had to write a statement about our song “Sicilian Crest” recently, and it made me think of this band from the ’80s called The Alarm. I asked Jon if it was OK to reference them, and he said, ‘I don’t mind at all but you must reference the drummer by his name: Twist.’ So I did. He’s the best.