Though he has been cited by some as one of America's best lyricists, Mountain Goats frontman/songwriter John Darnielle is also a journalist, novelist, hockey aficionado and rabid metal fan.
He recently recorded a video of himself playing "There Is Power in a Union" in support of Wisconsin's state workers, and is a favorite on Twitter (@mountain_goats) who frequently communicates with fans. The Mountain Goats, which also features bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster (Superchunk), will release their 18th studio album, "All Eternals Deck," on Merge Records on March 29. Darnielle talked to Billboard about his prolific writing, the indie ethos and his childlike proclivities.
Billboard: Many artists who have a March release make a point to play at South by Southwest. Why did you decide not to go this year?
John Darnielle: I love the people at South by Southwest and I love Austin, but playing giant festivals like that is really... I like to be able to focus on my show. And I care about my career, but South by Southwest is really for people who really like to think a lot about their careers; whereas I feel that the whole reason I've been doing this so long is that I just think about my songs and the people who listen to them. And the records, I think about the actual physical thing and how it's going to look. I don't think, "Oh, boy! I'm going to meet a lot of important people." That's really not my style at all.
For South by Southwest you definitely have to be motivated to do that.
Yeah. I mean, I'm a '90s indie kid. I feel embarrassed by that aspect of it. In the indie [world] that I came from, thinking about who you are going to meet that's going to help you, it's something to be ashamed of.
I think the ambivalence toward success is one of the good suggestions that indie had. It's great to be successful, but to have some skepticism about the whole machine... I mean, look at Joni Mitchell: extraordinarily famous, but always very ambivalent toward the whole makings of it. And I think that the excellence of her art, in some way, benefits from the fact that she has a faint allergy to that.
This is the Mountain Goats' 18th album in 20 years, not counting many other side projects and releases. What drives you to write so consistently?
This is a line I've repeated so many times throughout my career: I don't think I am special. I think other people are not taking their job seriously. My job is songwriter. That's what I'm supposed to be doing with my life, right? So how many months are there in a year? Is it really asking too much of me to write one a month? If I were a brick layer and I laid one brick a month, I'd be fired by the end of my first week on the job. So I think asking a songwriter to write two songs a month... at that point you should have 24 songs a year, and 10 of them should be good. I am productive, but I think everybody should be as productive as me if they really cherish the ability to do it.
Do you wait for the inspiration to hit you, or do you sit down every day and say, "I need to write a song right now"?
Not that I need to. I mean, I don't know how to say this... everything inspires me all the time. It's not like I'm so inspired all the time that I'm like [Lou Reed's character] Auden in [the 1983 film] "Get Crazy." I wake up, make a pot of coffee, have a bowl of cereal and then maybe I read something and then I'll flip open a notebook and say, "Oh, that's pretty good." But I don't write every day. Sometimes I put myself into resting mode because I think that's how you grow. Then when you come back you have to relearn, and every time you learn things change.
On the business side, last year's Extra Lens record [Darnielle's project with songwriter Franklin Bruno] was on Merge Records, but this is your first Mountain Goats record on Merge. Other than the Jon Wurster connection [Superchunk members founded the label], were there other reasons that Merge was the best home for this album?
Merge is literally in my town [Durham, N.C.]. I keep an office and their office is two blocks from my office. [Label head] Mac [McCaughan] and I are friends and Mac is a huge Carolina Hurricanes fan. We talk hockey a lot. They're a great label and they're right in my town, and it just seems like such a natural feel.
It seems as though Merge has the taste in music that everyone wishes they had.
The part of indie rock that Merge represents is really making music that you like whether it suits any particular stylistic need of the marketplace or not. Which is why a lot of people that hear Arcade Fire, they don't know what to make of it. But I think anybody who thinks Merge heard the Arcade Fire and went, "Oh, we can sell a lot of records," does not know anything about Merge. What Merge is about is putting out records we like. That's sort of what the whole indie project was about: starting labels to make the records that you would buy if they were out there. And Merge has remained faithful to that concept forever. It takes a lot longer to get to the Grammys if you ride with that concept but it's pretty satisfying.
You released a limited-edition cassette with the LP preorder, and you're very accessible to fans. Why is it important to you to incorporate those DIY elements?
It's really just for fun. You have to enjoy yourself. I know for some people it's like, to do any extra thing would be super stressful-and it is stressful. People get upset if they don't get an unlimited something, and I understand that. But look, I'm a kid in a lot of ways. So I go: "Oh, what if I did a tape? Yeah, yeah, yeah! Tape, tape, tape, tape, tape!" Right? And that's basically how that worked.
You've mentioned that when you play live, you want to have a connection with everyone in the room, and the fan-friendly items seem to support that.
That's what playing live is about for me. You can't actually go out there and grab everybody's hair because there are too many at some point. So you sort of have to make it up in the air, which is how music works anyway, but you have to make it in such a way that when you all touch that point of contact, it really does feel like everybody just unbuttoned their shirt one button. And I notice that onstage. It's actually partly why I really enjoy playing barefoot, which I do in tribute to [frequently barefoot performer] Amy Grant, but I learned that it really does make you feel grounded. You feel yourself.