As A Lyricist And Novelist, The Mountain Goats' Lead Man Writes About Pain
When The Mountain Goats' founder John Darnielle was a teenager, he went through a self-destructive phase.
"Your intelligence doesn't override your desire to destroy yourself," Darnielle tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I really, really did not want to be in my own skin. I really wanted to get high and stay high."
The singer-songwriter's parents divorced when he was 5 years old, and he was abused by his stepfather. Darnielle says he had the feeling of "being uprooted a lot and not being able to make friends and keep them."
"It was a chaotic environment that I was a child in," he says, "and it makes you angry after a while."
Darnielle writes literary lyrics for his band, often telling stories about fictional characters or stories from his life, and he has expanded beyond lyrics into novels. His new book, Wolf in White Van, is about a man who, at the age of 17, shoots himself in the face with his father's rifle, expecting to die. He survives with chronic pain and a face so disfigured he seldom ventures into public, but he always preferred to live in his head anyway.
His fantasies are inspired by heavy metal music and comic books like Conan the Barbarian. While recovering, Darnielle's protagonist, Sean, creates a fantasy game of his own that leads to serious trouble.
In addition to writing about troubled teenagers, Darnielle used to work with them as an assistant and counselor in psychiatric institutions. He says he likes helping young people find shelter through his music because music helped him as a young person.
It's an "honor so profound that I don't know how to talk about it," he says. "How often does a person get to feel like, 'Well, this was worth living for.' ... But that's how I feel about that — music was all to me, and it's incredible to me that people can use [my music] in that way."
On his writing process for Wolf in White Van
I started just writing a scene with a bunch of teenagers in high school smoking cigarettes. ... And it wasn't going anywhere in particular. I was just trying to write a scene that was familiar to me, because I used to go across the parking lot at Claremont High and smoke cigarettes with the metal kids. ... I had no sense of where I was going, no outline. I had the title already, because I really liked that title, but I wasn't sure what I was going to do. ...
I started asking myself questions like improvisational comedians do [about the protagonist], like what does he do for a living? What does he wear? Who are his friends? How does he make any money? What does he wish he was? All those sorts of things. That performative element is how I wrote the book, by asking myself questions about what happens then? What if this happens, then what?
On his love of comic books and the Incredible Hulk
I was a huge comic book fan. It's weird because the era of Marvel I was into turns out to be very important in the long run, but it's not the one that anybody romanticizes. It was right when X-Men was becoming the thing that all serious comics people were into.
My dude was the Incredible Hulk — that was my hero. I get emotional when I think about it, because the Incredible Hulk was fiercely loyal to people who treated him well. It was the one major value in his life. ... He valued and treasured his friends and ... anyone who mistreated them, he wanted to destroy, utterly — not just to punish, but to pulverize. When he was angry or upset in any other way, when his emotions were too strong, he was transformed into this creature who destroyed.
And that was beautiful because it's how you feel when you have a very strong feeling of resentment or anger and you can't do anything with it. You wish you could make people see just how powerful it feels. You feel like if it were unleashed it would break things — and the Incredible Hulk is that, just made flesh.
On his early interest in heavy metal music
It wasn't the demonic stuff that attracted me then, because by then I was reading poetry that [talked] about the devil. But the thing about metal that attracted me then was the energy and the total lack of guile. Metal has its own code of cool, but it's not really trying to be cool. And that was very refreshing to me, that metal is very much about expressing something that seems awesome to you, even if at the time, much of the world was going to mock and reject it.
On getting arrested for heroin possession, an incident that in part inspired the Mountain Goats song "Dance Music"
My girlfriend and I had gotten into really hard drugs, heroin, and we were doing it a lot and enjoying it. And we pulled up to her house one evening after an evening out, pretty high, I think, and she said ... "What's [the] police doing at my house?" Her mom had discovered our stuff and called the police, which is the right thing to do, I want to say, in retrospect. But at the time we were pretty angry. ...
When you're taking a lot of drugs, you go through these periods of feeling like you're golden and nothing can touch you and the police are stupid and they can't catch you and all of that stuff. And then, of course, at the moment when one of them taps on your window — all of that just crumbles.
On his desire to be in control as a teenager, and the self-destructive behavior that resulted from it
My suspicion is that it's different for everybody. You can't speak monolithically about why people do that. I think this is one major problem in the treatment of younger people is that there's this assumption that there's a model on which you can treat everybody. ...
For me, [cutting] hurt bad and that felt good, in part because it's about controlling pain. It's about remaining in control. I get to do this. I say where my limits are. ...
My friends knew. They didn't like it, but I think that's part of the appeal if you're 16 and your friends don't like it and you say, "Yes, but it's my body and I'll do what I like with it." And I think that's what it's about — or at least what it was for me — is stating that my body belongs to me and I will do what I like with it, whether anyone likes it or not.
On writing music that inspires fans to share their stories
I hang out and sign records for an hour or two hours every night, and I like to hear as many people's stories as I can, because if somebody wants to share their story with me, I want to honor that. ... But if you're hearing a bunch of [stories], it gets very intense. It's a lot.
I feel a duty. ... I really think there's a lot of music you can use to heal and save yourself. It's not like I have some magic power and I reached inside somebody and said, "Oh, you didn't know this about yourself until I wrote this song." That's not true. What I did is I made a thing, and somebody who needed to find something found mine and chose to meet me out on that ground.
It's this area of communication that is unique to music, I think. That's a choice that the listener makes, to share that part of themselves with the artist who hopefully shared part of himself. ... It's very intense to have those sorts of conversations, have people sharing stuff that may be a secret, but I try to be worthy of it. It's an honor. I've worked a lot of jobs — this is the best one.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, John Darnielle, is the founder, songwriter and singer of The Mountain Goats. His lyrics are literary, often telling stories about fictional characters or stories straight from his life. In SPIN magazine, Joe Gross, no relation, described Darnielle as one of rock's most prolific and devoutly worshipped songwriters. Darnielle's expanded beyond lyrics into novels. His first was about a teenage boy in a psychiatric institution who is obsessed with heavy metal, particularly the Black Sabbath album, "Master Of Reality."
The new novel, "Wolf In White Van," is about a man who, at the age of 17, intentionally shot himself in the face with his father's rifle. He survives with chronic pain and a face so disfigured, he seldom ventures into public. But he always preferred to live in his head and in his fantasies - fantasies inspired by games, heavy metal music and comic books, like "Conan The Barbarian." While recovering, he creates a fantasy game of his own that leads to serious trouble.
Darnielle not only writes about troubled teenagers; he used to work with them as an assistant nurse and counselor in psychiatric institutions. And he had his own share of trouble when he was a teenager, as we'll hear. John Darnielle, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me ask you to start from a reading from "Wolf In White Van." This is the adult version of the character talking about people's reaction to his disfigured face.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Nobody ever asks me if they can look at my face - except doctors and nurses I mean. People do look at it quite often, but usually only if they can convince themselves that I won't notice they're looking. They try not to let their eyes stop wandering when they look over in my direction. They pose as if they were surveying some broader scene. I understand a little, the social dictate to not stare at misshapen people. You want to 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 OK 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.
GROSS: That's John Darnielle reading from his new novel, "Wolf In White Van." Thanks for reading that. Why did you want to make your main character someone who, as a teenager, survived a self-inflicted gunshot in the face and has to live with the physical and psychological consequences, including pain and a face so disfigured he rarely ventures out in public?
DARNIELLE: Well, I started - I started without that idea. I started just writing a scene with a bunch of teenagers in high school smoking cigarettes - the ones - the one in the last chapter. And it wasn't going anywhere in particular. I was just sort of trying to write a scene that was familiar to me - 'cause I used to go across the parking lot at Claremont High and smoke cigarettes with the metal kids. And when I sat down to write the morning I started it, I was writing that chapter, the last one. And I had no sense of where I was going, no outline. I had the title already 'cause I really liked that title. But I wasn't sure what I was going to do. And then, as it ramped up towards this ending scene, it was sort of getting away from me. And then, the thing that happens happened. And I thought, well, as a short story, that's not very good, right? That's, like, sort of a very beginners move in a short story, to have it end with somebody dying. So I thought, well, he shouldn't be dead then. What should happen? And that's when I got the idea to trace backwards to that moment. And then I started asking myself questions in the way that improvisational comedians do, you know? OK, what does he do for a living? What does he wear? Who are his friends? How does he make any money? What does he wish he was? - and all those sorts of things. And that performative element is sort of how I wrote the book, by asking myself questions about, well then, what happens then? You know, what if this happens - then what?
GROSS: Your character has survived a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
GROSS: He says it was an accident. It would be hard to do that to your face with a rifle (laughter)...
DARNIELLE: Well, he...
GROSS: As an accident.
DARNIELLE: Well, he calls it the accident.
DARNIELLE: It is an accident. I'll defend his choice of that term. But I did do that - I picked that one intentionally. It's an accident insofar as he sort of got caught in a sequence of movement that sort of ran ahead of him. So it's not - he didn't have a premeditated plan until that evening, right? So it's an accident. And also, I think there's a moment where he talks about he and his parents settling on the word, the accident, in order to refer to it.
GROSS: Did you know people who had survived a suicide attempt but were left in a physically compromised or disfigured state afterwards?
DARNIELLE: No. I know a lot of people who survived suicide attempts, but nobody who - who's attempt is sort of advertised to the world. But there were, of course, James Vance and Ray Belknap, the two teenagers who shot themselves after listening to Judas Priest a lot. And then their parents sued Judas Priest. Do you remember this story?
DARNIELLE: So that was the jumping off part because one of them survived the pact. And his parents - or if - there wasn't a real pact, as far as I know. But his parents sued Judas Priest, who had to come to Reno to appear to defend their music. And backwards masking was the main trope in this trial. And I thought about all that, about things moving backwards and trying to extract sense from things by running them backwards. And that was sort of an inspiring point.
GROSS: Right, the backwards trope you're talking about...
DARNIELLE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: Is the Christians who maintain that if you play heavy metal records backwards, you hear the messages that Satan has embedded in them because he...
DARNIELLE: Or that the artist has embedded, yeah.
GROSS: Well, the artist is sometimes a messenger of Satan, aren't they?
DARNIELLE: Yes, yes, yes - on behalf of Satan. (Laughter).
GROSS: So your character in this novel has had a lot of trouble functioning in the world. As a teenager, he's lived in the fantasies created by others, like "Conan The Barbarian" comics.
GROSS: And when he is slowly recovering from his self-inflicted gunshot wound, he creates a game of his own. And it's - this is in the pre-Internet era. So this is, like, a mail - by-mail game, where people mail in their next move, and he mails in what they're supposed to do next. And this scenario, it's a kind of desolate future in a radiated world. And they have to go from one place to another through these ordeals, seeking shelter. And the people who play it are people who, like the main character, don't feel comfortable in the world as it is. And they need to retreat to a fantasy world, whether that's heavy metal, or videogames, or the game that this character creates. And I'm wondering if that was your case when you were a teenager, that you needed - you seriously needed a world to retreat to.
DARNIELLE: Sure, it was music for me. I mean, it was - and I think it's true for so many. I mean, I think when you first start to discover which music is yours and what speaks to you, you know, I think whatever your life is like, you experience that very, very deeply. You know, everyone remembers the music of their teenage years, I think, with a special fondness. And I think part of that's because you're just discovering the power of this amazing art form. And yeah, I mean, I had a pair of Nova 30 headphones that were my life raft. I would put them on, and you could disappear into, you know - Lou Reed's "Rock 'n' Roll Animal" was a big one I would I go under, or early Genesis records, I confess with a little chagrin. (Laughter).
GROSS: And did you have comic books too?
DARNIELLE: Oh, I was a huge comic book fan. My dude was The Incredible Hulk. That was my - that was my hero.
DARNIELLE: I get - (laughter) - I get emotional when I think about it because The Incredible Hulk was fiercely loyal to people who had treated him well. It was - the one major value in life was that he valued and treasured his friends. And then, anyone who mistreated them he wanted to destroy - utterly - not just to punish, but to pulverize. And when his - when he was angry, then he - or upset in any other way - but when he was - when his emotions were too strong, he was transformed into this creature who destroyed. And that was beautiful. I mean, it's like - because that's how you feel. When you have a very strong feeling of resentment or anger and you can't do anything with it, you wish you could make people see, you know, just how powerful it feels. You feel like if it were unleashed, it would break things, right? And then The Incredible Hulk is that just made flesh. And he spoke in the third person about himself in a very charming way to me. I thought he was the best. And actually, when they took that away from him, I think that was when I became very disenfranchised with comics. (Laughter). It's like they had him start speaking more like General Thunderbolt Ross, you know, kind of like an army guy. And I was like, no, no, no. I need my Hulk to be talking about himself in the third person and to be of below average intelligence. That's important to me.
GROSS: (Laughter). So did you want that power to punish - to punish people who mistreated you or mistreated those close to you?
DARNIELLE: I don't know that I wanted to wield the power so much as I wanted them to see what it felt like to want that. You know, it's like in your better moments, obviously you don't want to hurt anybody, you know? But you have this point of rage and powerlessness where you think, I wish you could see what it feels like this anger could do to a person, you know? And you have those moment of contact with it, where it feels - and this is illusory, of course. If you share - William Blake talks about this. If you just let it go, if you say, this is how I feel, it dissipates, you know? But when - if you don't have a way of doing that, if doing that will have consequences that you can't shoulder, then it sits there and festers and starts to sort of glow, you know? (Laughter). And yeah, that was the - that was the feeling. It was like, you know, if this comes out, it will level cities, you know?
GROSS: Yeah. And you have characters in two novels who have that kind of rage.
DARNIELLE: Yes. It was a very heavy feeling for me that I carried for a long time.
GROSS: And I presume that that was in part because you had a stepfather who abused you and your mother.
DARNIELLE: It was. I think - I mean, I think the more I dig, the more I think that's, like - that's important, but so is the fact that, you know, that my parents divorced when I was five, which is, like, you know, there's a lot bigger problems to have. But at the same time, it's my life, right? And I think there was - having to leave a home that I was perfectly happy in, I think, you know, I was carrying - and I did give this to Sean in that first chapter, where he asks, why did we ever have to leave Mont Clare in the first place, right? That this feeling of having been uprooted a lot and not being able to make friends and keep them, and then landing in a social situation in fourth grade where I had missed a bunch of social cues by missing one summer, you know, with a bunch of kids that I knew and being translated into an environment where I didn't know people. So a lot of that stuff, the having to move around a lot, feeling uprooted when stability is so important for children - I mean, I think some of that is also - maybe weighs just as heavily. I mean, but obviously it was a chaotic environment that I was a child in. And that - yeah, makes you angry after a while.
GROSS: My guest is John Darnielle, the founder of the band The Mountain Goats. He's written a new novel called "Wolf In White Van." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: So I want to play one of your songs.
GROSS: And this is a song - this is one of your better-known songs. It's called "The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton." And it's a song about, you know, teenagers who are in a like garage heavy-metal band -
GROSS: - And want to be stars. You want to say anything about writing this?
DARNIELLE: I'm trying to remember. That was the summer that my wife went up to hockey camp in Banff, Canada. And so I was by myself. And I was starting a new job. And if you're in any job in the healthcare professions, it's mandatory to go through some orientation where they tell you all of the rules and the OSHA stuff.
So you know, I've been through that about a million times. And I always take notes in the margins of stuff. Well, I'm going through that. And I was writing song lyrics as we went. You know, these were eight-hour days in classrooms. And everybody's heard all of the material before.
And I forget whether I got the idea at the orientation or when I came home to an empty house - because my wife was up at hockey camp - but I hadn't really - I hadn't thought about that stuff in a while. But I used to work at a short-term adolescent facility in the '80s, during the time when parents were often blaming music for their adolescents' troubles. And I felt very deeply for these kids because I think that that contact with music is sacred. And it's what, you know - it's what can carry you through the hard times. So yeah, I mean, it's a song that has a funny - a funny set-up. But I mean it a lot.
GROSS: OK, so let's hear it. So this is the Mountain Goats. This is John Darnielle (laughing) performing "The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BEST EVER DEATH METAL BAND IN DENTON")
THE MOUNTAIN GOATS: (Singing) The best ever death metal band out of Denton were a couple of guys who'd been friends since grade school. One was named Cyrus and the other was Jeff. And they practiced twice a week in Jeff's bedroom.
The best ever death metal band out of Denton never settled on a name. But the top three contenders, after weeks of debate were "Satan's Fingers," and "The Killers," and "The Hospital Bombers."
Jeff and Cyrus believed in their hearts 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 guitars with their names.
This was how Cyrus got sent to the school where they told him he'd never be famous.
And this was why Jeff in the letters he'd 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. Hail Satan tonight. Hail Satan. Hail, hail.
GROSS: So that's the Mountain Goats. My guest is John Darnielle, who's the singer-songwriter of the band, founder of the band, sometimes the solo member of the band. (Laughter) And that was the song "The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton." Lots of satanic imagery in heavy metal...
GROSS: Were you ever into that? Like, what did Satanic imagery mean to you? What did religion mean to you? Because in order for Satan to have power, religion has to have power, you know?
DARNIELLE: Right. Sure. No, you have to - you have to - if you believe in Satan, then you believe in God.
GROSS: And you believe in a Christian God.
DARNIELLE: Sure. Well, I think there's devils in other...
DARNIELLE: But the idea of this single, malevolent, radical, personified force of Satan, right? That's - I think that's uniquely Christian. If not uniquely Christian, that's the one we usually think of, right, as the king of all the personified evil gods.
So - but when I was a kid, I went to Catholic school before the divorce. And I was just really attracted to this religious thing. But there's always that - it's so pretentious to quote Baudelaire - but the shimmer of evil, right? You hear about the evil things. They don't want to instruct you in them because there no (laughter), you know, no benefit in that.
But at the same time - so there are these forbidden things that sort of call to you from the distance. And those are the ones, you know, you want to have a harder look at.
And that was something that as a child I was really curious about to an almost morbid point. You know, like the idea that you could - that there was a world behind the world. That like - that this was only the part you could see.
And the idea that the other one might be harmful was terrifying to me and at the same time, irresistibly attractive. And so when I was 13, I became one of the most tiresome atheists on the planet. And I was carrying Nietzsche around my junior high.
But prior to that, I used to think about the devil a lot. You know, I was like - when you'd hear about devil worshippers, right, how could somebody want to align themselves with somebody whose entire nature compels him to do you harm, right? The devil can't do right by anybody. It's not his nature. He can't, right? And yet people are said to worship him. And that was the sort of idea, that as a young man, I couldn't get my head entirely around.
You know - or understand the concept of the devil as a principle rather than a being. And so - so yeah, it was infinitely appealing to me. At the same time, I was afraid to approach it too much.
GROSS: Since Satan is a kind of prominent figure in some heavy metal music -
DARNIELLE: You see it a lot. Yeah.
GROSS: - Certainly interpreted as being a prominent figure in heavy metal music by Christian groups -
GROSS: - Who have opposed it over the years, did your interest in this like other possible world and in the devil play in at all to your interest in metal or in extreme music?
DARNIELLE: I think, actually, my interest in metal comes from a different place insofar as I wasn't into it when - it was another thing when I first heard the term and I heard it. Well, this is a very loud music. It's much louder than other music. I wanted to know about this extreme music.
But it wasn't what I naturally gravitated to. So when I'd meet metal kids, I was really curious what is it about the music you like that makes it work for you, right? And that was around the time of "The Number Of The Beast" by Iron Maiden and "Piece Of Mind," right? And after the - you know, I mean AC/DC still sort of counted as heavy metal at that time.
And it wasn't - it wasn't the demonic stuff that attracted me then. Because by then I was reading - you know, I was reading poetry that liked to talk about the devil. But the thing about metal that attracted me then was the energy and the total lack of guile. Metal sort of - it has its own code of cool. But it's not really trying to be cool, you know? And that was very refreshing to me. That metal is very much about expressing something that seems awesome to you even if at the time, you know, much of the world was going to mock and reject it, you know? Bands like Iron Maiden said no, this is the music we like that we want to make.
GROSS: So you have - your first novel is on that series of short books called "33 1/3," in which somebody writes a tribute to their favorite album. But you did yours as fiction.
GROSS: And so yours is through the voice of a teenager who's in a mental health facility and is obsessed with the Black Sabbath album "Master Of Reality."
GROSS: So the book is all about his obsession with that. And he gives a kind of track by track disquisition (laughter) about -
DARNIELLE: Right, right.
GROSS: - What each track means and what Ozzy Osbourne symbolizes and so on. And so like the Satanic imagery really means something to him. And I know since you worked at a mental health facility and worked with teenagers there, did you find that in some of the teenagers that Satanic imagery really connected to them for whatever reason?
DARNIELLE: No. Most of the teenagers who wanted to do Satan stuff that I knew were doing it specifically to make the adults jump, right? That was the main thing. It's like if you find an adult who really believes that a Satan exists who wants to steal your soul, right, and you say Satan to that adult with a look - a particular look on your face, you can get a giant rise out of that adult, right? If you - I mean, Satan is an awesome weapon in that case. Because, you know, these people who really strongly believe that, if they see you talking about how you want to worship Satan or whatever, it's sort of like if you're working with two-year-olds, right? And a two-year-old finds out what really bothers you, well he's extraordinarily excited to have this power now. You know, and he'll just keep doing the thing that bothers you because it's nice to be able to have that kind of control, right?
And for most of the teenagers who were into that stuff that I knew it was about 100 percent watch how people react when I do this.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with John Darnielle, the founder, singer and songwriter of the band The Mountain Goats. He's also a novelist. His first novel was about a teenager in a psychiatric institution who's obsessed with the Black Sabbath album "Master Of Reality." His new novel, "Wolf In White Van," is about a man who as a teenager lived in fantasies inspired by metal, comic books and games, and shot himself in the face. He survived but has to live with chronic pain and a disfigured face. Darnielle used to work with teenagers in psychiatric institutions. He had plenty of his own difficulties as a teenager. I'd like to play another song.
GROSS: And this is from an album that is pretty autobiographical, and a lot of the songs on this album relate to the abuse that your father meted out.
DARNIELLE: My stepfather.
GROSS: Stepfather, thank you for correcting me. And so the song I want to play is called "Dance Music." Would you introduce it for us?
DARNIELLE: This is a song called "Dance Music" that takes place during two desperate points of my life, and the first one I'm five. And we've - the divorce is fresh and we've just moved across town. And it was when I first started to notice sort of cracks in the etiphus (ph) of the new home. And the next one - the second half of the song - I'm a teenager, and I'm sort of exploring my own, my own ways of wrecking myself.
GROSS: And your anger at your stepfather for doing things like throwing glasses at your mother's head.
DARNIELLE: Yeah and there's - but there's, like I said, I don't want to sort of localize it entirely there. It's like there's also - I'm becoming a person who owing to the last 10 years or so of experience has really learned to internalize stuff and is taking stuff out on himself.
GROSS: OK. So let's hear "Dance Music." This is The Mountain Goats, which is the band led by my guest John Darnielle.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCE MUSIC")
THE MOUNTAIN GOATS: (Singing) All right. I'm on Johnson Avenue in San Luis, Obispo, and I'm 5 years old or 6 maybe. And indications that there's something wrong with our new house trip down the wire twice daily. I'm in the living room watching the Watergate hearings while my stepfather yells at my mother, launches a glass across the room straight at her head. And I dash upstairs to take cover, lean in close to my little record player on the floor. So this is what the volume knob's for. I listen to dance music. Dance music. OK. So look I'm 17 years old, and you're the last best thing I got going. But then the special secret sickness starts to eat through you. What am I supposed to do? No way of knowing. So I follow you down your twisting alleyways. Find a few cul-de-sacs of my own. There's only one place this road ever ends up, and I don't want to die alone. Let me down, let me down, let me down gently. When the police come to get me I'm listening to dance music - dance music.
GROSS: So that's "Dance Music" by my guest John Darnielle. He wrote the song and sings it, and his band is called The Mountain Goats. And this is from a pretty autobiographical album.
GROSS: That was released in - what? - 2005.
DARNIELLE: 2005, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. So this was, like, the year - it was released the year after your stepfather died. Would you had written the song when he was still alive?
DARNIELLE: No, no, I didn't write any of them until after he died. When he died, stuffed cracked open in me that had been sitting sort of waiting.
GROSS: So what happens in the song is, like, you retreat and go upstairs and put on your headphones, which you told us before is what you used to do.
GROSS: There's also a scene within the song - and I say a scene because your songs kind of are like little stories - there's a scene where you or your character at age 17 is in his room when the police come to get him and...
DARNIELLE: I'm actually in a car.
GROSS: You're in a car. I'm sorry. Yeah.
DARNIELLE: I don't know if I specify it in the song. It's a real scene, so I'm actually I'm in a car.
GROSS: Well, that's what I was wondering. Were you, like, doing drugs? Was that the issue?
DARNIELLE: So without naming any names, my girlfriend and I had gotten into really hard drugs and heroine, and we were doing it a lot and enjoying it. And we pulled up to her house one evening after an evening out, pretty high, I think, and she said - I remember the phrasing because it was unusual - what's the police doing at my house? Right? And her mom had discovered our stuff and called the police, which is the right thing to do, I want to say in retrospect. But at the time we were pretty angry, and, yeah, we listened at the time to The Sisters Of Mercy and other dancey-goth stuff. So that's what was going on is sort of there's this moment after - I mean, you get - when you're taking a lot of drugs, you go through these periods of feeling like you're golden and nothing can touch you, and the police are stupid and they can't catch you and all this kind of stuff. And then of course at the moment when one of them taps on your window all of that just crumbles, right? And so that's that moment.
GROSS: OK. At the risk of sounding stupid here, how does a 17-year-old like you, who is, you know, deeply into literature and music and really smart, though really unhappy at home - how does someone like you and up doing heroin? I mean, because you're smart enough to know how dangerous it is.
DARNIELLE: Oh, but no. I mean, your intelligence doesn't override your desire to destroy yourself. It's, like, a really, really - I did not want to be in my own skin. I really wanted to get high and stay high. You know? And I also had this fear of going too far every time. It's, like, I know people who got way, way closer to the edge than I did. But yeah - any opportunity to check out of daily consciousness was welcome for me then.
GROSS: But you say it was also an instinct to destroy yourself?
DARNIELLE: Oh, sure yeah, yeah, yeah. No, it's kind of plainly what it is, especially if you're using needles. It's like every single time you do it, you're jabbing something into your vein, you know. It's like visually you can see this is - you are attacking your own body. But I was into all that kind of stuff, you know, self-mutilation and...
GROSS: I have to ask you about self-mutilation. You know, it's something I guess I've really wanted to understand, and I think I don't quite get it. I'm so pain averse...
GROSS: I'm very, very pain averse. So I don't really understand the urge to inflict pain on yourself.
DARNIELLE: Well, I want to say that I - I mean, and I'm not a doctor, so I can't really speak authoritatively about this. My suspicion is that it's different for everybody, that you can't speak monolithically about why people do that. And I think actually this is one major problem in the treatment of younger people is there's this assumption that there's a model on which you can treat everybody. And everybody's different, you know? I mean, and everybody's different is such a facile truism that I think we say, well, of course everybody's different. Now here's - where's the generality that I can apply to everybody? But there isn't one. But for me, I mean, this is hard to explain if you're pain averse; it hurt bad, and that felt good, in part because it's about controlling pain, right? It's about remaining in control; I get to do this. I say where my limits are, you know.
GROSS: What is it that you did to yourself?
DARNIELLE: Oh - I feel really weird - it's interesting. I can't believe I never talk about this. I carried a razor around in my wallet. A sharp razor and when things would get really rough in my head, I would just go cut my arms or legs.
GROSS: And did people know you were doing that?
DARNIELLE: My girlfriend did. Yeah, (laughter). There's - I think I was in a lot of denial about who knew what back then, but, yeah, my friends knew. They didn't like it, but I think that's part of the appeal. If you're 16, it's like, you know, your friends don't like it. And you say, yes, but it's my body, and I'll do what I like with it, right? And I think that's what it's about or at least what it's for me is stating that my body belongs to me, and I will do what I like with it whether anyone likes it or not.
GROSS: You had said before that your girlfriend's parents did the right thing when they found your needles.
GROSS: And called the police. So what was the outcome of the police showing up and finding you?
DARNIELLE: We didn't have anything in the car, so they couldn't do anything; they had to leave. They yelled at us and called us names and were really unpleasant, and they had to leave.
GROSS: And then?
DARNIELLE: Then we kept right on at it. I overdosed later that summer; I woke up handcuffed to the bed.
GROSS: Handcuffed by who?
DARNIELLE: The police. Well, the police or the staff, I'm not sure. I think I had become violent under the influence of the opiate antagonist they put in me - which I think was Narcan, but I'm not sure. And then also they put activated charcoal in my lungs, and so I guess when some combination of whatever they were trying to do to resuscitate me kicked in, I got really violent, and so they handcuffed me to the bed. And that's how I woke up; I don't know how many days later, but I tried to move my wrist, and I did decided it was sort of time for me to - I didn't want to die, you know? There was, like - I thought that I did until I was close enough, and then I knew I needed to change things a little bit. I mean, I didn't want to stop using drugs, and I didn't stop using drugs. But I wanted to stop using heroine daily and I did.
GROSS: So you say you decided you didn't want to die.
DARNIELLE: I think so...
GROSS: Before that you weren't so sure?
DARNIELLE: I think if you'd have asked me at either point, I would've said I wanted to die, but not right then. So it's like I wanted to destroy myself - it's hard. I mean, this time in the book, it's like I really wanted to destroy myself, but I wasn't ready. Either I was afraid, you know, or the thought of how angry it would make my friends who were always counseling me against doing it - because I talked about it constantly. It was like I never shut up about suicide back then, and my friends would, you know - I had some who were saying, you know, no - it's - you can't do that. So whatever combination of things, you know, and whatever enjoyment I was also bringing in from life because it was a busy - it was a, you know, I don't want - I don't like to say this, but it was an exciting time, you know? It's like I was - I was doing the things that were dangerous and tasting that sort of that rare air of doing dangerous things.
GROSS: I read and - I don't know if this is true or not - that you once considered jumping onto train tracks.
DARNIELLE: Yeah. I had two - there were two methods that I was obsessed with, and one was putting my head on the tracks. Which is actually, yeah - it feels funny to say that now because it's - that person is very far from where I sit now.
GROSS: So when you were working at a mental health facility, working with teenagers there, I'm sure some of them must have been suicide survivors...
GROSS: ...Or teenagers who had flirted with the idea of suicide. Was it therapeutic for you to be with them and to be the older person and to be, you know, more of the authority figure, more of the adult, more of the person who was there to help and guide them as the person - as opposed to the person who was in danger of giving in to that kind of urge themselves?
DARNIELLE: I mean, possibly sometimes, but you want to be careful not to be using your work as a caregiver as something therapeutic for you, right? I go to a therapist for that.
GROSS: That's such a good point.
DARNIELLE: Right? As a caregiver I'm not there to take care of myself, and it is not a patient's responsibility to take care of any of my stuff, right? And so...
DARNIELLE: So I'd always try to keep myself out of it. You would occasionally meet a patient very, I mean, you know, once in seven years who you'd want to go - I'm going to disclose something here because I want you to know that I see a little something of my younger self in you. But generally speaking, you know, the parameters of working involve checking yourself at the door. You still bring you, the self, as a giant thing. Right? But the self who needs help and the self who needs to be healed and needs to be repaired, that's the guy you need to leave in the car when you pull in the parking lot of the facility because those patients have their own problems; they don't need to be helping you.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Darnielle. He's the singer and songwriter behind the band The Mountain Goats. He's also a novelist, and he's just published his second novel, which is called "Wolf In White Van." Let's take a short break and we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is John Darnielle. He's the singer and songwriter who founded the band The Mountain Goats. And he's also a novelist. He's just published his second novel, which is called "Wolf In White Van." Let's hear more music. The song I want to play is called "No Children." This is about a fictional couple that you wrote many songs about.
GROSS: They do not have a good relationship.
GROSS: The refrain in...
DARNIELLE: Define good.
GROSS: The refrain in this song is, I hope you die, I hope we both die.
GROSS: So tell me a little bit about this couple and about the point their relationship is in at the point of this song.
DARNIELLE: So this may take a minute. I want to do the genesis of where I got to these people and then tell you about them. So I was reading a lot of poetry when I was 21. I was really into John Berryman and so impressed by the idea of making some project where you had the same character that you did 400 poems about. You know, you really live with this person and become and house this person. And I got this idea to write about a divorcing couple because I grew up in Southern California, and it really seemed like the defining fact of so many of my friends' lives was the divorce of their parents. It was like this was a thing that wasn't strange for us, that I think, you know, in other parts of the country, might have been stranger and certainly a generation or two before it was a big deal. But for us, it was par for the course. Your parents, if they're not divorced now, they're going to get divorced a little later.
And I thought about divorce a lot and what it meant, you know, what it had meant to our house, what it meant to other friends. You have friends whose parents are divorcing when they're teenagers and, you know, that's sort of like a wrecking ball just coming into the world that seemed stable for them. So I wanted to write about divorce. And I wanted to write from the point of view of an alcoholic couple. And I had this vision of them just fleeing toward - at the time I was in recovery - and there's a thing that they talk about, doing a geographical, right? Moving someplace to get away from your problems, right? But you can't run away from yourself, so you'll still be there. And it's sort of the lesson they continue not learning as they flee across the bottom of the country and wind up in Tallahassee. When they get to Tallahassee, that's when they run out of road, and so they live in the same decaying house. And that's when all their problems start to collapse on them. By the time we get to "No Children," they're just fighting all the time. And they're fairly honest with each other, which is their one saving grace.
GROSS: So this is a pretty angry song.
DARNIELLE: It is. It was written on an airplane (laughter) for the most part. And it was, in part, a joke. I had heard this song - I always forget who it's by - I cannot remember the name of the artist. "I Hope You Dance" it was called. And I was driving to the airport and I think I was late. And the chorus of "I Hope You Dance" came on. And I said, I hope you die. And it struck me as funny. And so I wrote it down. And then I wrote some more lyrics on the airplane, and we landed in Athens, Georgia. I wrote the rest of the lyrics in the hotel room, including a number of verses that didn't make it. There were originally four or five pages to this thing.
GROSS: OK. So this is a song written and sung by my guest, John Darnielle, from Mountain Goats album "Tallahassee." It's called "No Children."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO CHILDREN")
THE MOUNTAIN GOATS: (Singing) I hope I cut myself shaving tomorrow. I hope it bleeds all day long. Our friends say it's darkest before the sun rises. We're pretty sure they're all wrong. I hope the worst isn't over. And I hope you blink before I do. I hope I never get sober. And I hope when you think of me years down the line, you can't find one good thing to say. And I'd hope that if I found the strength to walk out, you'd stay the hell out of my way. I am drowning. There is no sign of land. You are coming down with me, hand in unlovable hand. And I hope you die. I hope we both die.
GROSS: That's "No Children" from The Mountain Goats' album "Tallahassee." My guest is John Darnielle, who's the founder, songwriter and singer of The Mountain Goats. He's also a novelist. And his new novel "Wolf In White Van" has just been published. So we've talked a lot about how you - how important listening to music was to you. How did you start writing music?
DARNIELLE: I took piano lessons when I was a child. And I didn't have any gift for melody at all. I still remember the exact melody of the one piece that I tried to write for a song-writing competition that my piano teacher wanted me to enter. But then I stopped playing. I think my first act of rebellion was at 12 to just stop going to piano lessons. Skill diminished very quickly - your left hand sort of becomes a brick. But I was really into rock 'n' roll. And I really wanted to - I mean, I think - I guess this isn't true, but it felt to me like, who wouldn't want to be the singer? You know? I couldn't really sing. Friends had always told me I couldn't sing for anything but this did not stop me from singing all the time. But I just felt like I wanted to be - to have a microphone in my hand and to be singing, you know? I didn't have any vision - excuse me - I didn't have any vision beyond that. And so I was in bands from the sixth grade on. My friend John Edmonds and I had a band with the extremely threatening and very metal name of Blossom...
DARNIELLE: And, oh, yeah.
GROSS: That's hysterical.
DARNIELLE: You better look out. You should look out for Blossom when they come to your town. They'll burn everything to the ground. And I mean, I think we had some songs (laughter) (unintelligible). But I think most of my songs were for my friend Lisa, who I really had a big crush on. And junior high, I was pretty much alone in junior high. I didn't have close friends at all. It was a hard and threatening place for me, junior high.
But then in high school I started meeting up with people who seemed cool to me. And at first I was in a Stooges-style - well, not actually in the same universe as The Stooges but that was who we liked, right? Style band called Straw Dogs - not the same as the Chicago Straw Dogs, who were a punk band. But there was room for two at the time 'cause we weren't going anywhere.
And then I finally, I mean, I think real songwriting started with my friend Mark. I had a band called The Congress, where we'd write everything in a single session. He would give me a title, and I would write down lyrics. And then I'd write a baseline. We recorded it right away. And it was sort of this exercise in fast writing and in sort of trying to get to a song before you could have too many thoughts about it, I think. I mean, that's sort of what it was about for me. It was a really great exercise 'cause we would record five or six songs a session, whether it's of much quality...
GROSS: Do you remember the songs?
DARNIELLE: Oh, yes (Laughter). I think I could probably do a set of them if I had to.
GROSS: Can you tell us the lyrics to one of those songs?
DARNIELLE: Oh, man (Laughter). Yeah, I mean, there is several. Do I remember my mask. I'm immediately going to damage control - this is something I wrote when I was 16. You spent champagne Saturday on your knees, with your hands on the clock and your head through the wall. And your head through the wall was a line specified by Mark that I had to include in the lyric when he gave me the title "My Mask." So you spent champagne Saturday on your knees with your eyes on the clock and your head through the wall. The sun came through the window, sickly, and you didn't look up. You didn't flinch. Buy you a chainsaw for your birthday. All the wine you could ever drink. Oh, man - oh, I'm blanking. Oh, I was so close 'cause it has this big, triumphant moment where I suddenly yell, hey, John Barleycorn, ho, John Barleycorn. Old and young thy praises sung, John Barleycorn. It was one of our better numbers.
GROSS: So it sounds like it was almost a game where your collaborator gave you a line you had to put in.
DARNIELLE: Well, it was - yeah, I mean, that was just that one song. He actually almost never did that. "My Mask" turned out to be one of the bigger ones, though. I mean, it was also a drinking game. We would drink as we recorded. And invariably the last couple songs of a session would just be this unlistenable dirge, right? And I mean, there's very exciting time when you're young, and you start to realize that you don't have to follow any particular rules to make music, like, that this is the big revolutionary reveal of post John Cage music. You can do what you like. Music is this organized, or even unorganized, sound that one listens to rather than just having it in the air. And even that's music, you know? The idea that there aren't actual parameters for what counts as music. And these were ideas that were very fresh to us. And so there's a feeling of absolute freedom that was super - I mean, for me and my personal life - it was a very welcome feeling at the time. You know, you make music for three hours and you are - even more than when you're listening to it - you are utterly absorbed. And so, yeah. Mark and I would do a lot of Congress stuff (laughter). Many Congress sessions.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Darnielle, who's best known as the man behind the band The Mountain Goats. He writes the songs, does the singing. He is also a novelist, and he has a second novel that's just been published. It's called "Wolf In White Van." Let's take a short break, and we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Darnielle. And he is the singer and songwriter and founder of the band The Mountain Goats. And he has a new novel which is called "Wolf In White Van." So the kind of shelter that you found in music when you were young and very unhappy, do you have fans who find that kind of shelter in your music now?
DARNIELLE: They - yes. I mean, it feels presumptuous to say yes. It's like - but I know because they tell me that what I do is useful to them, and this is an honor so profound that I don't know how to talk about it. It's - I mean, how often does a person get to feel like, well, this was worth living for? This was worth coming this way for, you know? But that's how I feel about that is like music was all to me. And it's incredible to me that I can make things that people can use in that way.
GROSS: I imagine that people who really relate to the music want to share their story. They feel probably like they've heard yours, they get yours; and it relates to theirs, and they want to tell you theirs. What's that like for you, hearing a lot of people's very difficult, maybe sometimes even tragic stories?
DARNIELLE: Well, it's an honor, you know? It's like - it can be very heavy, you know? I mean, it's like - it's a funny thing to say since I'm doing interviews to promote a book and stuff, but it makes me glad I'm not really famous, you know what I mean? It's like - 'cause I think I'm not the only person who writes music that's so useful to people and that people are able to use in times of severe trial. And I think at some point, you know, people must reach a point where they say, well, I've heard so many - I've had so many stories shared with me that it - like, it's very intense. It's very - 'cause I hang out and sign records for an hour or two hours every night. And I like to hear as many peoples' stories as I can because if somebody wants to share their story with me, I want to honor that, you know? But you do reach a point where it's like, well, one person for them; they're sharing their story, and then they are going to go home. But if you are hearing a bunch of them, it gets very intense. It's a lot, you know? But - I mean, I want to - for one thing, I kind of have this feeling like, I can handle this, you know? And the other thing is I feel a duty, you know? It's like there's - people choose to engage my music because when I say - if I make something people can use; I really think there's a lot of music that you can use to heal and save yourself. It's not like I have some magic power. And I reached inside somebody and said, oh, you didn't know this about yourself until I wrote this song. That's not true, right? What I did was I made a thing and somebody who needed to find something found mine and chose to meet me out on that ground. It's this sort of area of communication that's unique to music, I think. There's a lot of it that has nothing to do with me, you know? The person who chooses to use that attaches it to their own life as they see fit. I mean, you can hear from this - like, it's very intense to have those sorts of conversations, to have people sharing stuff that may be a secret. But, I mean, I try to be worthy of it, you know? It's an honor. And I've worked a lot of jobs; this is the best one.
GROSS: John Darnielle, thank you so much for talking with us.
DARNIELLE: Of course, thank you.
GROSS: John Darnielle is the founder singer and songwriter of the band the Mountain Goats. His new novel is called "Wolf In White Van." We've got something special for you on our website - a chapter from the audiobook with John Darnielle doing the reading. That's at freshair.npr.org. We'll close with a song from the latest Mountain Goats album. The album's called "Transcendental Youth." The song is called "Cry For Judas."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRY FOR JUDAS")
THE MOUNTAIN GOATS: (Singing) Some things you do just to see how bad they'll make you feel. Sometimes you try to freeze time 'til the slots are a blur of spinning wheels. But I am just a broken machine, and I do things that I don't really mean. Long, black night, morning frost; I'm still here, but all is lost. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.