Diving Deep into Distraction with John Darnielle

The Mountain Goats frontman can't stop creating

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Diving Deep into Distraction with John Darnielle

For most, a Mardu Magic: The Gathering deck, good old-fashioned noir movies, and semi-concept albums have little in common. For John Darnielle, frontman of The Mountain Goats, these things have everything common; each, in their own way, feed his obsessive creative drives. And as he feeds each individual obsession, each feeds into the other.

Take, for instance, the announcement for The Mountain Goats’ new album, In League with Dragons: In January, the band participated in a live-stream Facebook and Twitch.tv event to spill the beans on the record’s release, hosted by the good magicians at Wizards of the Coast. It’d be easy to connect-the-dots regarding Darnielle’s source of inspiration and conclude the album is simply a reaction to his hitherto unknown fondness for Magic and Dungeons & Dragons.

Of course, the truth is knottier than that, and Darnielle isn’t too keen on casting In League with Dragons’ conception in concrete. “That’s for the reader to judge!” he says of how his current geek fixations tie into the album’s origins; frankly, to hear him gush about Magic, and RPGs, and his music is to understand that the influences comprising the Mountain Goats’ latest are woven together on a molecular level. They’re no more easily delineated from one another as each new edition of Magic’s Gideon Jura.

“When you’re thinking about what you’re gonna do next, as far as making records go, you have a couple options.,” says Darnielle, “I write songs and I wait for them to tell me what the idea is.

But for In League with Dragons, he went the other way, starting out with designs to write an entire rock opera called Riversend, about “a seaside community governed by a benevolent, but aging of course, wizard,” whose powers, which protect him as well as the community from invasion by sea, are on the decline. Enter a gang of raiders, who assault the wizard’s peaceful hamlet by sea.

If that’s not a classic setup for a D&D campaign, nothing is. But In League with Dragons isn’t Riversend. It’s its own thing. Getting from point A to point B in this instance sounds like a massive creative leap, but Darnielle has a secret weapon at his disposal for making long-distance jumps: Distraction. “The best work I do,” professes Darnielle, tongue somewhat in cheek, “is the stuff I distract myself with from the other work I’m trying to do.”

This, at face value, is a bemusingly contradictory philosophy for getting anything done, whether building Magic decks or composing rock operas, but Darnielle isn’t exactly kidding. For him, this works. Proof: All Hail West Texas. He wrote the lyrics during employee orientation at Beloit, where he used to work, in the mid ’9os. “Distraction,” he proclaims, “is a potent muse.” Debating the hypothesis with a dude whose discography runs 17 albums deep feels like a fool’s errand.

As Darnielle worked more and more on Riversend, he heard a false note in his efforts, realizing that he was writing songs just to set the stage and introduce characters. Enter Sicilian crime novelist Leonardo Sciascia. It so happens that Darnielle was reading one of Sciascia’s books at the time, and, inspired by the sprawling scope, inconclusive outcomes, and amorality of crime and noir literature, Darnielle abandoned himself, as he puts it, to “the mystery of evil,” allowing the details of Riversend to mingle unexpectedly with the details of Sciascia’s writing; neither genre fit together well with one another at first blush, and yet the fruits of their union work.

That alchemical approach probably won’t work for most folks, which might explain why nobody’s ever asked him to direct a productivity workshop. “When people ask me how I do what I do, I’d say, ‘Well, don’t sit down and stare at a piece of paper. Go for a walk, or play video games!” he says with a chuckle.

Darnielle recalls that he used to write songs while watching movies on VHS; listeners can hear them on early tapes because he includes samples of them at the top. Everything about how he creates sounds practically designed to prevent him from actually creating anything. But this is where his personality-specific advice takes the shape of universal sage wisdom. Creators, no matter what they create, are vulnerable to distraction, and according to Darnielle, “the distracted mind comes up with all kinds of interesting stuff.” The trick is recording that “stuff” and saving it for later.

“That’s where it helps to be kind of obsessive,” Darnielle points out. “What happens is, I get distracted, and then I get focused. Right now, playing Magic is a lot of that for me. I had breakfast late! I meant to wake up, have breakfast, and get ready . . . but I grabbed some cards after the kids went to school, and there was a deck I was working on last night—black/white with a splash of red.”

The questions raise themselves from there: What’s he trying to accomplish with this deck? How many cards are in it, and how many copies of each card does he have? Forty-five minutes later, he’s still cracking away at solving the problem of deck balance. So it goes with all of his interests, from cooking to songwriting. Once an interest gets its hooks in him, everything snowballs from there, and that’s how he comes up with country tunes prominently featuring dragons.

The album name has humble origins as a scribble in Darnielle’s notebook, something he noticed staring at him from the page during a songwriting session. “‘What if there was a real dragon in the song’?” he asked himself at the time; obsession kicked in, and In League with Dragons was born, what Darnielle qualifies as “a scattered collection of songs loosely orbiting dragons and outlaws.”

But there may be a secondary aspect to Darnielle’s work beyond personal creative obsession. “I’ve always wanted to understand what gives people pleasure,” he says. “I always want to know what people see in stuff that I haven’t already gravitated to. I want to be inside of the things that people like.”

If that applies to In League with Dragons, it’s not for Darnielle to say; his aesthetic puts him squarely in his own metaphors, such that his collaborators have to explain his metaphors to him. “I’m inside the metaphor,” he says. “I live and die with the characters that I’m writing, and the voices I’m writing in. I’m never thinking about what I’m trying to do or what my goal is supposed to be any further than telling the story.”

What he does think about: The future. “I do try to think of the listener who sees this record 50 years from now,” he confesses, acknowledging that this thought is innately ambitious. No album has guaranteed future listenership, after all. But settled next to the fantasy of In League with Dragons is Darnielle’s own fantasy: “I like the idea of somebody running across a physical copy, and being able to play it, and then not going to Google to find out more about it—there are a lot of things you have to allow me for this fantasy,” he adds with a laugh. “But I’d like to imagine somebody seeing it, and having to do all the work themselves with no supplementary material: Just the liner notes, just the font, just the image, just the songs, and asking how these fit together and what story they’re circling.”

That’s fitting for an album informed by the fantasy genre, and in keeping with a narrative shaped by Darnielle’s endless, wondrous obsession.

Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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