John Darnielle, the creative force behind the legendary folk act The Mountain Goats, is about as agnostic as they come, so many an eyebrow was raised at the news that each track of his latest album, The Life of the World to Come, is based on a verse from the Bible. Was he returning to the proverbial fold? Or was it just an excuse for him to flex his literary-criticism chops and do a little deconstruction of the most sacred cow possible? Although Darnielle is a notoriously reluctant interviewee, he recently chatted with us about his new LP. What followed was a meticulous, no-holds-barred conversation about the Good Book, his feminism, his reticence at playing autobiographer, and his least favorite singer-songwriter trope.
Paste: Why a Bible album?
Darnielle: I don’t think I’ve ever successfully sat down and said, “This
is what I'm gonna do for the next album.” I write songs and I see which way they’re
going. That’s how it was with The Sunset Tree. I was on tour writing and those
were the songs that came out. With this one, I was reading a fair amount of the Bible. You’ve
probably noticed that most of those songs have a pretty elliptical relationship
to the text. "1 John 4:16" might have been the first one. I
think my first Bible chapter-and-verse title was on my second or third tape, it’s
something I’ve done a lot. I just went with it, I’ve always been interested in
the Gospels that didn’t make it in, and different translations. To me, it doesn’t
seem that unusual for me. But doing it all on one record, I guess it looks kinda aggressive [laughs].
Paste: You've said that you don't believe in God, but you’ve also said that you maintain a cultural
connection to Catholicism. So does that make this cultural exercise a literary endeavor?
Darnielle: It’s all of those, but it’s first and foremost a
personal and creative exercise. We were working on a bio for the album, and there was a lot of personal stuff in there. I’m always hesitant to
say, “Well, here’s what was going on in John’s life, and here’s how it came out
in the song,” because I know when I get sent records for review, and the press
kit says stuff like that, I think, “Dude, don’t sell it to me like that.” It
seems kind of cheap, I would want my words to stand on their own merits. But at the
same time, last year and the year before, I’ve been dealing with some tough
stuff that was all figuring very heavily in my mind. And
continued ripplings from the death of my stepfather, which is something I don’t
want to write about again, because I feel like I’ve said what I have to say.
But that’s the kinda stuff that revolves around these thoughts. It was actually my
stepfather who taught me to be an atheist in the seventh grade, so I would go
to school and tell people they were stupid.
Paste: The first track, "1 Samuel 15:23," is an interesting book to draw on to start to the
Darnielle: Yeah, how can people not love that story? That’s a really organic song, that was a lyric I had written down and
didn’t really consider finished. We were in Torneo, in West Texas, working late at night and
enjoying the session at two in the morning. I started playing something in the
guitar booth, and Peter [Hughes] started playing along, and it sounded good, so I
started to sing the lyrics from my notebook in front of me. It’s a song I
truthfully don’t know much about. One
reason I put it first is because I like the ambivalence. I’m not sure
what it’s saying, it sounds like it means to say that the nature of faith is a
playful thing, a game that you engage in out of choice. It’s about the
hucksterism and the fun that’s involved in that.
Paste: And that also ties into the last song, "Ezekiel 7." They
make for interesting bookends. That Old Testament version of
armageddon. There's this interplay between decay and rebirth, is there something outside of the text itself which inspired that?
Darnielle: Yeah, everybody was thinking a lot about the apocalypse 10 years
ago. I think every 10 years, there’s cultural swells around that stuff, with those millennial and apocalyptic movements. I actually don’t notice much
of that feeling out there in the world today, but, I am a hermit and I don’t get out
a lot except for when I’m touring. I don’t believe in “the end of the world.”
But at the same time, your own world sort of comes to end, repeatedly, whenever
you hit crisis, you have a "nice" apocalypse.
Paste: A personal apocalypse?
Darnielle: Exactly, you have these personal apocalypses
where you get the sense that whether or not the world is going to physically
end, there is such a thing as the apocalypse. There is the ultimate disaster,
and you feel it threatening to land on you. If there is that feeling in the
culture, it’s the function of people aging and beginning to confront the fact
that death is real, and it’s coming for you as sure as it’s coming for anybody.
And maybe there’s nothing on the other side and you will just cease to be; that’s the apocalypse. The end of all that you understand, your self.
Paste: As a fairly lapsed Catholic, I was wondering about the title of the last
Darnielle: [laughs] That was a shout-out to my Catholics.
Paste: Was that a nod to Calvinism and predestination, like the
“once saved always saved” mode of faith?
Darnielle: Well, it’s a song about someone who tortures someone to
death. So it’s about how various notions of grace address that. I think the
Calvinistic ideas of predestination can be taken to mean that it doesn’t
matter what you do, you’ll get in. But like any good Calvinist would say,
that’s your faith. I went to see
Amy Grant last year and her merch guy had a laptop with a sticker on it in the “got milk” font, and it said, “choose Calvinism.” Really great. Yeah, getting back to
your question, it’s a nod to both. And really, that idea is the cornerstone of
the whole album.
Paste: The choice for track six, "Genesis 30:3"...
Darnielle: I am a feminist, but I think that story is the most
beautiful love story I’ve ever heard in my life. I look at it from Rachael’s
point of view. The story is about womanhood and defining womanhood through
giving birth, and expressing love through that sense of family. In one sense,
and this is the type of reading that can get you in trouble with people who are
more strict with texts, to me it’s a love story about three people, plus the
baby, and how they make that work. All the relationships in the Bible prior to
that are working relationships, but there’s people and love in this story.
Paste: How does your feminism inform your songwriting, not to mention your reading of the Bible?
Darnielle: My feminism is what came squarely up against my faith. There’s a lot of ecstatic post-patriarchal Christians who have stuff
they do with that. But at that point, you’re doing Christianity with a
double-superscript. The Bible, and especially the book of Genesis, is pretty unapologetically patriarchal. But as a songwriter, I’m
actually really happy to be asked that. For years, I’ve written narrators who
aren’t gender-identified. When I do autobiographical stuff, that’s different,
obviously. But I’ve always tried to keep my songs as potentially not a man’s
thing. I think so many rock songs you assume by default it’s a man’s thing.
That’s a weakness of narrative. And when I was younger, my early songs employed
this trope that is popular to this day with indie singer-songwriters, where a
guy is gonna hurt himself or do something drastic and appalling in order to
show the object of his affection how intense his love for her is.
Paste: And we're supposed to celebrate his self-destruction.
Darnielle: Yeah! And you’re supposed to think that’s amazing when these guys tell these stories: “Oh, he broke something, he hurt somebody, he did something rash; his love
must have been so great!” instead of, “Oh no, he’s a psycho.” When I was
younger, I did those too. And then I thought, that’s kinda bullshit to tell
stories like that. I try not to write songs in which men glamorize their own
need for approval from women. That’s kinda a bogus way to go out. But I try to
do this quietly, I’m not about to go around telling people how they should or
shouldn’t think. My feminism is for me.
Paste: On the third track, you’ve got two lyrics about locks
and breaking in, which seems like a metaphor for the return to Eden. How much of your autobiography is in those lyrics?
Darnielle: Maybe. It’s hard to say. I like my writing best
when I’m not quite sure what I’m saying or whether I agree with it. That’s the
point at which your writing gets better, when you go out on that edge. That song, it’s not a true story, but it also kinda
is, because I have this pathological need to revisit these places I used to
live. Two years ago in Portland, I slipped into the apartment
building where I used to live. Not illegally, someone was coming out through
the front door and I just walked past like I lived there. And it was a very
intense experience; I almost died in that building. There’s this idea if you
can go back to this place where stuff got real for you, you will have some
feelings that will be hard to sort through. About who you are, versus who you
were. If you’ve ever lived poorly and gotten better, sometimes you remember
simpler times and romanticize them and maybe there’s something in that
Paste: That seems very personal for you, especially given what you've tackled with some of your other albums.
Darnielle: It feels pretty personal to me, that song. It’s like a noir, you can
sort of see what people are doing and describe it, but you can’t say what their
purposes are. We recorded a demo of that song, and when I
heard it I felt like there was something very personal in there. Part of me
doesn’t want to unpack it, because if I don’t explicate it out loud, then it
hits these secret spots when I sing it. For me, that’s when you feel
like you would love doing it even if there was no audience, that purity of