John Darnielle: From Self-Destruction To Self-Construction
John Darnielle has excelled as a front-man, songwriter, and author by overcoming an innately self-destructive personality.
John Darnielle is a singer, songwriter, and author, known for his career as frontman and core member of indie rock band the Mountain Goats.
Darnielle began recording as the Mountain Goats in 1991, while studying English at Pitzer College in Claremont, CA, where he was raised. His early albums were marked by a lo-fi sound, with many recorded on Darnielle’s cassette deck boombox. Zopilote Machine (1994) included the song “Going to Georgia,” part of a song cycle of travel and escape. Darnielle’s linked storytelling and lo-fi sound culminated in the landmark albums All Hail West Texas (2002) and Tallahassee (2003). The acclaimed The Sunset Tree (2005) continued the move to a more polished sound and autobiographical songwriting. Subsequent recordings have explored professional wrestling, Goth music, and dungeons & dragons, retaining the band’s simple instrumentation and dark, candid lyrics.
Darnielle is also a successful fiction writer. His first novel, Wolf in White Van (2014), was nominated for a National Book Award.
John Darnielle is an indie rock star and a novelist. His band, The Mountain Goats, have been going strong for nearly three decades.
(The Mountain Goats performing “No Children”)
I hope that our few remaining friends
Give up on trying to save us
I hope we come up with a fail-safe plot
To piss off the dumb few that forgave us
I hope the fences we mended
Fall down beneath their own weight
And I hope we hang on past the last exit
I hope it’s already too late
Fans flocked to his candor, his darkness, his depth. A Christian throughout his adult life, biblical references pepper Darnielle’s lyrics. But he isn’t trying to convert anyone to his way of thinking, he’s just turning his imagination to the philosophical possibilities of the universe and doing his best to call it like he sees it.
Darnielle: On most days, because I’m a child of the 20th century, it seems obvious to me that the universe is mechanistic and that any meaning we give to it, we put there to keep ourselves from going mad and from doing monstrous things. We invent a whole framework within which to be our better selves, which is awesome, but I call that God and on the days that I like best, I think it’s just the sky God who pre-exists, who exists before the universe exists, and again, in terms of Jesus’ life, I wanna put scare quotes around it, “sends his son”, okay, but who makes a great sacrifice, who takes on human, I’m gonna get excited about it—
Darnielle: Frailty, who puts on flesh to dwell with us. Sorry. That to me is a beautiful idea ’cause it enables us to imagine ourselves as better than what we know we are on our worst days.
And the 52-year-old Darnielle has seen his own share of bad days. Growing up with his mom and an abusive stepdad in San Luis Obispo, California, the young Darnielle was eager to escape his reality in any way he could. Looking back, he says, his high school years were far from the best of his life.
Darnielle: So, a weird thing about Americans is that they wanna say that being a teenager was the greatest thing in the world, but it is great to say, well, I’m gonna rise or fall on my own merits and nobody really gets to make my decisions for me. Adulthood, that’s huge and people, they tend to miss that.
At age 16, Darnielle landed in the hospital for a nearly fatal dose of prescription meds. Soon after, his birth father helped him move to Portland, Oregon to recover. Instead, the teenager started doing heroin and meth. At 19 he overdosed again. A few months into his recovery, Darnielle’s therapist asked him what exactly he planned to do with his life.
Darnielle: I hadn’t thought about this question and so I said, “I wanna do what you do.” And he said, “Well, when will you do that, ‘cause you can go into a psychiatric nursing program.” And so I did. It was something to do. A lot of my decisions have been accidental.
Darnielle worked as a psychiatric nurse technician for several years, picking up a cocaine habit along the way. During day-long binges, he entertained himself by writing songs and poems, and gradually making art took over from taking drugs.
Darnielle: It’s primal for me almost, something I very much enjoy doing that gives me pleasure all by itself, that I feel like I was made to do, that when I am doing it, I feel useful and I want to feel useful.
(The Mountain Goats performing “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton”)
Jeff and Cyrus believed in their hearts
That they were headed for stage lights and lear jets and fortune and fame
So in script that made prominent use of a pentagram
They stenciled their drumheads and their guitars with their names
And this was how Cyrus got sent off to the school
Where they told him he would never be famous
And this was why Jeff, in the letters he would write to his friend
Helped develop a plan to get even
When you punish a person for dreaming his dream
Don’t expect him to thank or forgive you
The best ever death metal band out of Denton
Will in time both outpace and outlive you
Hail Satan, tonight
Hail sweet prince of all flesh
Hail, hail, hail
In real life, John Darnielle isn’t rooting for the antichrist, though he admits that part of him does live in everything he writes. But he’s also really good at making stuff up.
Darnielle: You should question who the speaker is in all my songs. I’m always hoping people will come in with the assumption that it’s not a person just sharing their experience, but a fictive narrator who probably has their own baggage attached. There are very few, probably no songs that’s just unmediated me saying here’s how I live because one, I don’t know how to live. I’m not an authority on that at all. And two, what’s interesting to me is characters who give advice, or spin out their philosophies, or describe the world. What’s interesting to me is the difference between the things that they think and some more imaginarily objective reality that exists somewhere on the other side of their own motivations for telling these stories. A part of me comes out no matter what, but it’s not me giving advice.
In 2014, the seasoned front man turned his hand to fiction, debuting with Wolf in White Van. It’s the story of a reclusive, manipulative game designer named Sean who as a teenager survived an incident that left his face mangled.
(Excerpt from Wolf in White Van)
I understand a little the social dictate to not stare at misshapen people. You wanna spare their feelings. You don’t want them to feel ugly. At the same time though, even before I became what I am, I used to wonder, isn’t it okay to stare if something seems to stand out? Why not stare? My own perspective is probably tainted by having spent long hours before mirrors after the accident. It would be pretty hard to make me feel ugly. Words like pretty and ugly exist in a different vocabulary from the one you might invent to describe a face that had to be put back together by a team of surgeons. My face is strange and terrible. It merits a little staring.
Wolf in White Van was nominated for a National Book Award just days after it was published. Three years later came the horror story Universal Harvester about an Iowa video store clerk who discovers mysterious clips recorded over the store’s VHS tapes. And though he still leans towards dark subject matter, today the 52-year-old Darnielle is healthy in body and mind, but his recovery hasn’t meant total sobriety. For five years he was part of Alcoholics Anonymous, the abstinence-only support group that sustains millions of members worldwide with its 12 steps and commitment to a higher power. Darnielle says the program did help him, but, ultimately, he couldn’t accept the doctrine that addiction is for life.
Darnielle: I view most of my addictive behaviors of my teens and early, early 20s as responses to where I was at then.
AJC: So can you, I mean, tell me to mind my own business, can you safely drink now?
Darnielle: Yeah, I mean, but not all the time. Every once in a while, I will overdo it, and I imagine it’s true of a lot of people. I mean the five years I did in the program were incredibly valuable to me, I’d probably be dead without them, but I gave it a shot while I was out on tour after five years away with my original bassist, we had literally a shot after a show, and to my great surprise I didn’t then drink five more and then go find out where the cocaine was at.
AJC: Mazel tov.
Darnielle: Well, this was my old pattern, as I would get real drunk and as soon as I got drunk enough, I’d go, “You know, there’s way better stuff like five miles from here.” That’s no longer in my nature. Whatever happened to it, it went away. I don’t ever want anybody to say, “Well, if John can do it, I can do it.” I’m not a good example.
AJC: No, no, no, no. But also, did you have a higher power all the way through? Were you always a believer, were you always a Christian?
Darnielle: Yeah, yeah.
AJC: And was God always present in your life? ‘Cause normally a lot of the time people go into AA and they’re like, get yourself a higher power, I don’t believe in God, I can’t do that.
Darnielle: Yeah, yeah, no, that wasn’t my problem.
AJC: Do you feel that God is watching over you now as you navigate this—
Darnielle: Well, what do you mean by watching over?
AJC: Like making sure that you don’t go looking for the cocaine.
Darnielle: No, that’s not God’s job. That’s my job. God is there to love you whether you’re making good decisions or bad decisions, but it’s not God’s job to make your decisions for you. Let’s take God as a father and you have children, right? You truly love your children when you let them make their own decisions, no matter what they are.
AJC: But as it turns out it could be that Jack or Johnny Walker could be making your decisions for you, right?
Darnielle: But in the case of God I don’t think of God as staying my hand or turning the wheel, I think of God as the person to whom I can cry in need and who’ll be present in whichever way will be useful to me then, but I don’t have the semi-invisible Jesus who stands between me and the car wreck. God doesn’t mind the car wreck; God’s investment is not in this body.
(The Mountain Goats performing “Jaipur”)
My brothers picked me up out of the rushes
Traded me into the company of evil men
Well I have inched my way down the eastern seaboard
I am coming to Atlanta again
Yes I came to the gates of the fabled pink city
Hungry and tired, mad as all hell
Swing low sweet jewel-encrusted chariot
Make me young again
Make me well
John Darnielle is a seeker, a survivor, a storyteller, who uses his platform to encourage earnest, honest reflection on himself and in others.
(The Mountain Goats performing “Jaipur”)
I am the killer dressed in pilgrim’s clothing
I am the hard to get stations on the AM band
I am the white sky high over Tripoli
I am the land mine hidden in the sand
And I came to the gates of the fabled pink city
Hungry and tired, alone
Swing low, swing low sweet chariot
Coming forth to carry me home