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Your Legend Gathers Around You: John Darnielle Talks The Mountain Goats' 'In League With Dragons'

Thursday, 25 April 2019 Written by Huw Baines

Photo: Jeremy Lange

You don’t just walk up to the mound with a baseball in your hand and throw a good pitch. First there’s the matter of a technique honed through years of graft, then some tactical decisions in the moment, and then the resulting mechanical adjustments—by the time you’ve nodded to the catcher and drawn back your arm you’re firmly in the realm of physics.

But, for all the wonder that can inspire, the fundamental dynamic is also very simple—in that moment it’s one-on-one, pitcher versus hitter, me versus you. It’s the basic poetry of sports frozen in a snapshot; it’s a gunslinger at high noon with six bullets and the idea that they might live to see 12:01.

“Three years ago in this town they sent their best and brightest to me, I sent them all back down,” John Darnielle laments on Doc Gooden, a standout from the Mountain Goats’ sumptuous new record ‘In League With Dragons’. He’s singing in the voice of the former Mets ace, who is years removed from his flamethrowing, Cy Young-winning best when we meet him. As he weathers jolts from potholes through his seat on the team bus, his former glories feel more former than ever. “Maximum respect to all the warriors who choose to fall down on their spears,” Gooden concludes.

“The form of throwing a baseball is one of the most crazy things that we have come up with doing, if you watch what people have to do to their arms to make the ball go across the plate at 90 miles per hour,” Darnielle says. “It wrecks the body, and you have to deplete the resource on which you’re trading. It’s very warrior-like. It’s exactly the same thing—you go into battle, you take a few blows from the flat side of a sword, maybe you get poked a couple of times. There’s less of you to go into battle next time, no matter how good you are.”

Gooden isn’t the only one who’s feeling their age here. Darnielle’s latest character gallery is packed with people who can’t stand around for as long as they used to without their back kicking up a stink. ‘In League With Dragons’ is an ambitious conceptual piece that crosses tropes from fantasy and noir with detailed, sometimes heart-wrenching, studies of people in the real world who are fighting the last real fight. Here be dragons, and cops, and baseball players, and arms dealers, and rock stars, and the hourglass is eyeballing each and every one of them.

“What is the nature of the effect of time on the warrior, or the dragon? Dragons are  always thought of as being aged, but ageing is tending towards dying,” Darnielle says. “When we meet most dragons they’re old, but their legend has gathered around them. Their power goes before them at that point—another interesting thing about growing older is that if you have established yourself as capable in some way, you are granted a little leeway to speak. You don’t have to come out of the gate swinging, and people will wait to hear what your point is.”

Darnielle makes these observations at a near 30 year remove from ‘Taboo VI: The Homecoming’, his first cassette release under the Mountain Goats banner. During that time he has graduated from cult classics recorded on his trusty Panasonic boombox to the nuanced, expressive quartet he leads in 2019 without losing sight of what made his music work in its most basic form.

“There’s a beauty in all of it,” Craig Finn, a friend of Darnielle’s and long-time frontman of the Hold Steady, observes. “Even these songs that are strummy, upbeat and funny, there’s always beauty and grace.” In this instance, part of that comes from better understanding, and even submitting to, the ageing process. To borrow his own phrase, Darnielle’s legend has also gathered around him.

“You’re probably going to have less physical strength, it may take you longer to remember things,” he notes. “Hopefully you don’t get crankier or less hopeful, though many of us do. We see it happen—people who were extraordinarily tolerant and open when they were younger seal themselves off as they age and they become more afraid of what may be lurking around the next corner.

“That’s something to be resisted, but there’s also what I think of as concentration of power. As you age you become more in contact with what your values were if you’ve been careful about keeping in touch with them and more capable, if you’re an artist, of getting the effects you want when you want it. Your amount of control increases.”

On ‘In League With Dragons’, the next stage in that process involved opening up the Mountain Goats’ inner sanctum to an outside producer. Owen Pallett, a friend and former collaborator of Darnielle’s who has also worked with everyone from Haim to Titus Andronicus, stepped into an environment that hasn’t always been welcoming to outside ideas. “There’s a story about John Vanderslice once suggesting a lyric change and me shooting him a look that caused the temperature of the room to drop a degree,” Darnielle laughs.

“I think one reason I’ve been so insistent on putting my sonic spin on everything all these years is I’m afraid that if I let someone else do it they’ll fuck it up, but then I would take the heat for it anyway,” he adds. “Take Billy Squier and Rock Me Tonite. The truth is probably more complex, music was changing, but he had been big just a couple years before. He hired a video director, who went on to become like a major video director I think, to direct his video. It’s just a video, he’s a musician and he doesn’t really care, and he does exactly what the guy says. But he looked ridiculous.

“The set was decorated with actual Warhol stuff and it was very pastel, and he’s sort of dancing a dance that isn’t really him. This is a case where he let a director tell him what to do and it wrecked him. You hear stories like this growing up in the industry, about the record that got away from you or the producer had an idea and you went with it. Every record is very special to me, so I want to make sure I’m happy with it. And you also know, if you did let one get away, you can’t really cancel it. People pay a lot of money to make the record. It doesn’t work like that.”

Pallett’s fingerprints are all over ‘In League With Dragons’, from some stately arrangement choices, and his trademark strings, to the fine performances coaxed from Darnielle’s regular sidemen, multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas, drummer Jon Wurster and bassist Peter Hughes, and guest musicians including Bram Gielen, Thom Gill, and Johnny Spence.

But he also had a hand in the shape of the record from a narrative perspective. As its title might suggest, ‘In League With Dragons’ began life as a straight up, wizards and magic fantasy narrative about a seaside community called Riversend, with the noir elements slowly bubbling up as writing continued and the literary magpie in Darnielle left its nest. Pallett then helped move things along by throwing a curveball of his own once he was approached to produce.

“This time I wanted to challenge my own control freak tendencies,” Darnielle says. “When I talked to Owen he made this long pitch where he said: ‘Look, I would bring the following musicians, and we would do this…’ and when I sent him a link to my Dropbox, it had a bunch of stuff in it that was not intended for the record. He immediately grabbed a couple of those, ‘This one and this one’. And I said, ‘Oh no, those aren’t part of it’. He said, ‘This one’s the single’. And I said, ‘Y’know what? You’re producing. Let’s just do this.’ It was super interesting and it was fun at this point because I didn’t feel like there was any pressure for me to let anybody make choices, I wanted to see what that’s like.”

Noir is one of pop culture’s greatest hyphenates, yet at first glance the alliance with fantasy is an uneasy one. But with Pallett’s ambitious approach bolstering the fabulous melodies of songs like Waylon Jennings Live! and Possum By Night, which is further lit up by Gielen’s majestic piano, there is musical cohesion to allow as many lyrical flights of fancy as desired. ‘In League With Dragons’ hangs together like one rambling conversation because we never lose sight of where we started out.

Darnielle slips into different modes of writing when required, tying the creation of the record to its examination of ageing by displaying elements of craft developed over time. On Clemency For The Wizard King and Sicilian Crest he is exuberant in a way that only fantasy writers can be, while on Cadaver Sniffing Dog he cuts back against the grain of a jaunty hook with a lyric that draws from the dissociated, clipped prose James Ellroy uses to describe moments of ultraviolence.

“When I was a much younger writer, I wanted to be florid,” he says. “You want to show off how many adjectives you know that other people don’t know, or whatever. And then as you grow, not everybody is like this, but for me growing is a process of paring back and learning that you don’t need to show everybody all your skills. They’ll come out. You don’t have to actually walk up to the front of the stage and show people your playing, you can just play. Anybody who cares will notice good playing, and people who don’t care aren’t going to be persuaded by how you dress up your guitar. That’s true in writing, too.”

For all that ‘In League With Dragons’ pushes the Mountain Goats along fresh creative avenues, it also doubles down on the things fans of the band have obsessed over for years: wit, fastidious cultural asides, and a Jenga tower of lyrics ready for deconstructing. That’s comforting, but it also feels like Darnielle has revisited a few dog-eared chapters of his own and discovered that he hasn’t quite finished telling those particular stories. Maybe he never will—there will always be outsiders, even if their hair is white these days, and we can always find fresh ways to dress up the things that make us tick.

“You have a complicated relationship between the themes you want to return to and also the fact that you always want to be growing,” he says. “You don’t want to be the guy who has a riff, right? At the same time, writers do tend to circle themes. Even if they’re writing different genres, their concerns are likely to emerge. I think that’s because in writing, you are somewhat inevitably telling somebody something about yourself. And that thing is usually what you care about, or what’s interesting to you. Maybe it’s what’s repellent to you. You’re disclosing your obsessions in some way.”

‘In League With Dragons’ is out on April 26 through Merge.

The Mountain Goats Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri November 15 2019 - LONDON O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire
Sat November 16 2019 - LEEDS Brudenell Social Club
Sun November 17 2019 - LEEDS Brudenell Social Club
Mon November 18 2019 - GLASGOW St Luke's
Wed November 20 2019 - DUBLIN Button Factory

Click here to compare & buy The Mountain Goats Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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