Bill Gates will single-handedly spearhead the Heaven 17 revival.
Here at Des Noise, I don't really do interviews. I already have a bunch of writing I'm assigned to do, some of which I ostensibly do mainly because it's fun, so when I'm writing for this completely unprofessional blog (hmm, that doesn't sound right, does it?) I like to stay as far away from news cycles and PR ridiculousness as possible. Jonathan Richman once said the day being a musician started to feel like work, he'd quit-- he never has-- and I hope I can be that way about music writing, too.
But I made an exception when I heard the Mountain Goats were coming to Iowa City and main man John Darnielle would be available for interviews. If you're not familiar with the longtime singer and songwriter's many albums, some great discoveries await you; from his early days recording with just a boombox, to his increasingly orchestrated recent work, Darnielle excels at highly literary (not in that boring wanna-be-Bob-Dylan way) and emotionally complex songs that will stick with you a lifetime-- or at least about seven years, which is how long they've lasted me since I first got into his music. Darnielle used to live in Ames, and he once described his recording style in those days as not lo-fi but "bi-fi"-- I wonder if that's where Poison Control Center's Patrick Tape Fleming, also of Ames, got the name for his now-defunct record label? (Patrick, let me know in the comments...)
Sounds kind of dumb when I say it but it's true.
Anyway, the Mountain Goats play the Blue Moose Taphouse in Iowa City with New York fuzz-poppers the Beets on June 12. Their 2009 album, The Life of the World to Come, titles its songs after Bible verses, and includes some of my favorite entries in the (by now sprawling) MGs catalogue; also check out John's book on Black Sabbath's Master of Reality for the 33 1/3 series. And his Last Plane to Jakarta blog. Oh, and his message board comments on R. Kelly's "Ignition (Remix)" are legendary, too. So I decided to revive my previously short-lived Five Questions With... feature, and John was kind enough to e-mail me his responses on Iowa, the Beets, CocoRosie, health insurance, and cultivating a strong local music scene. (I asked one extra question just in case, so-- bonus!)
1. I understand you used to live in Ames for a while. What are your strongest memories about Iowa? (Good or bad.)
JD: Tough question - I lived in Iowa from 1995 until 2004, and that's a lot of time to pick strongest memories from. Many of them are of two years we spent just trying to get established (we being my wife and I) - being really poor, living in the tiny town of Colo and stretching the food budget as far as it would go. And I worked with kids the whole time I was there, so many of my most vivid memories are of the workplace - of the nurses I was lucky enough to answer to, and the kids I was lucky enough to work for. Bad memories are of course the winters. It took one Christmas in NC to remember that I was bred for temperate weather.
2. You're touring with the Beets, who recently put on a good show in a quirky little venue here, the basement of a bar called the Beechwood Lounge in Des Moines' East Village. What appeals to you about that band?
JD: That they're good! I saw a clip of theirs playing acoustic, which I guess is not actually their deal, but they did something with their song that really grabbed me - a lot of people, if you hand 'em an acoustic guitar, seem to think that their options for how to play a song or what kind of song to play suddenly become limited. It frustrates me because the acoustic guitar is actually a really versatile and awesome instrument. So to see, what, six dudes saying "the set-up for this jam is all of us singing and one guy playing acoustic guitar," I loved that. Plus, the lyrics to the song were really, really good.
3. The first time we spoke, a few years ago, some blog had suggested we were in a fight because you liked the latest CocoRosie album and I had written mean things about it. (Ed's note: We weren't in a fight.) I'm curious: What's your take on their new one, Dead Oceans [sic]?
JD: Well, I love it. I think it's maybe their second legit masterpiece in a row. My career take on CocoRosie is this: first album, not real great with two pretty great songs; second album, pretty good with a couple of pretty great songs and a couple of real clunkers; third album, meteroric rise in quality, almost every song really good and a couple of all-timers; new one, right about the level of the last one. So it doesn't shock like Ghosthorse & Stillborn did - there was no way of really being able to expect that they'd make an album whose songs were that good, whose lyrics had risen out of Genet-lite stuff like "Beautiful Boys" into stuff like "Rainbowarriors," whose lyric fires on all cylinders & is just gorgeous and emotional and fun and light but poignant and really moving to me. Grey Oceans is more in the Ghosthorse & Stillborn vein - the music has a cinematic quality, really specifically a Tim Burton or strange-animation style of cinema - dusty breeze-blow feel, echo on the drums - but they've also had a crush on auto-tune & chopping up vocal takes for a couple of years, so there's a little of that, which is kind of vertigo-inducing - these music-box sounds holding up an autotuned voice. I am developing a take on what it is they do, I think it's pretty complicated which is also I think part of why people react so strongly to them - people say things like "they're trying to sound like so-and-so, but it 'doesn't work'" but I don't think they're actually trying to sound like anybody; I think they are a stitched-together tapestry of associations and that the whole thing, tonally you know, in terms of mood, and also in terms of "why's it all these disparate elements that fit together uncomfortably" has something to do with having survived some personal calamity. Or with feeling like one has survived such a calamity. There's just all this hope-over-damage stuff in the lyrics, all this childhood-imagery-experienced-through-adult-eyes stuff, these glued-together feelings & sounds - this desperate knowing desire for a fantasy world, for innocence of some kind, but smart enough to know that innocence is nonsense and you couldn't be you if you still had your innocence. Which at the same time is yours forever no matter what. And the songs are catchy and singable and full of vivid images. Quick correction, it's "Grey Oceans," Dead Oceans is an excellent record label out of Bloomington.
4. I've been really interested lately in musicians' experiences with health insurance, particularly now that at least a limited form of universal health care legislation has been passed. Ted Leo, for instance, was telling me about an experience that could've bankrupted him. If you don't mind my asking, how have you dealt with that issue over the years?
JD: Well, I'm married, and my wife works a "normal" job, so I have insurance through her. As a singer, I have some unique health problems that aren't usually covered by my insurance, so a percentage of tour proceeds usually goes directly to the doctor. But I'm lucky in that when I was a nurse, I spent a fair amount of time dealing with patients who had no insurance, and I learned how to sort of get the most for the least. It's kind of a dream of mine for the Mountain Goats to get big enough to provide a group insurance plan to everybody in the band & crew, which I know is kind of a funny ambition to have, but it's true.
5. What can you tell me about your band lineup and potential setlists for your upcoming tour-- any new twists, new songs, or anything else like that people should look out for?
JD: Well - I write the setlist about two hours before showtime every night, so it varies. It's harder to play new songs live now since they will immediately be shared with the entire world - less fun to only get to ever say to one audience "there's no way any of you have ever heard this one, so here's one just for you." I was thinking about a new song that I really like that will probably end up getting dropped from the next bunch of songs we might an album out of - it just kind of doesn't fit in - so I could maybe throw that one into the solo section of the set. There's a bunch of songs I keep meaning to learn how to cover - an Ani Difranco song, for one, and some old disco songs I think I could actually sing the hell out of - but it seems like the time's always too short to learn a cover song. I think if we all three of us lived in the same town, it'd be easier, probably.
6. (Just in case one of these other questions is too lame.) You've been calling Durham, North Carolina, home for a while now. Is there much good live music around, and if so, how do you think smaller cities can go about nurturing a creative environment for musicians?
JD: The whole triangle area is full of amazing music - it's kind of a huge culture shock moving from Ames, which has the M-Shop no doubt but here it's just a ridiculous wealth of music to see literally every night. Here in Durham there's a new bar called the Pinhook that's awesome & has been bringing in shows, and that's really exciting, plus the Durham Performing Arts Center which brought in both Morrissey and Leonard Cohen (not on the same night tho) over the past year. Big acts play down the road at the RBC where the Hurricanes play. So, yeah, there's good live music everywhere, but your other question, that is the hard question. Here we have a longstanding tradition of great clubs & people putting on shows even if they can't make money out of it - it's culturally just something people do, go out to shows, you know? The whole time I lived in Iowa, when I'd go see a touring band, I'd think, man, if people had come out to see this, they'd really be enjoying themselves. It seemed like for a minute there ZZZ records had something going, but I think it's especially hard to keep something going when for a certain part of the year, the roads are going to be hard to drive on. That didn't stop Columbus from getting a real happening scene in the mid-nineties, but then again, they had a really centralized downtown, which is also helpful - boring civic-planning stuff can really make a difference in fostering a good local scene. If everybody has to drive in from points far afield to the hub, then fewer are going to make the drive, but if you have loft housing near a park and near places where people can work and there's a club or two nearby, then people are more likely to get off work, go home & shower & maybe eat, and then go out for the evening. Right? It seems like any successful scene begins with the scene itself being readily accessible.