John Darnielle: Master Of Reality

Dec 30, 2015

John Darnielle is the core, and sometimes only, member of the band the Mountain Goats. Thought by many to be "America's best non-hip-hop lyricist," he crafts songs that read like stories, and sound like they were recorded in his basement on a rickety tape deck. (Many of them were.) One of the band's most popular songs is the brutally humorous "No Children"--despite (or, perhaps, because of) its sing-along-able quality, the narrator's ode to their toxic marriage feels almost cathartic.

Perhaps it's this bittersweet-yet-vital quality of the Mountain Goats' music that translates into Darnielle's love of death metal. Attending a death metal concert, he says, is simultaneously "awesome and rewarding and painful and great." He appreciates how death metal is "creative expression that can genuinely say that it's not interested in what the world at large thinks of it."

He continued: "Whether it's a song, or a book, or a conversation you have at dinner, the creative thing is what happens in the process--not the relic of it."

Given Darnielle's philosophy behind his creative process, it's no wonder that his artistry spans from music to novels. His novel Wolf In White Van, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2014, feels like an extension of the characters in his songs. The main character, Sean, even shares Darnielle's love for professional wrestling and heavy metal.

Following his Ask Me Another Challenge about death metal, which found Jonathan Coulton crooning tender, acoustic covers of Pig Destroyer and analyzing Cannibal Corpse lyrics, Darnielle treated the audience at the Carolina Theater in Durham, N.C., to a rousing rendition of the Mountain Goats' "The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton." Only Darnielle could make a chorus of "Hail Satan" sound so sweet.

This segment originally aired on January 23, 2015.

Interview Highlights

On the heart in death metal

When we say something comes from the heart we have all these romantic associations that it has to be emotional in a certain way, it has to be somehow sad or plaintive. But death metal really does come from the heart, in that it comes from inside somebody and it's a mode of self-expression that is put out there at risk of ridicule, and with the near certainty of no monetary reward at all. It costs a lot of money to make a death metal album, and it takes considerably more musical expertise than I'm ever going to have. They're incredible musicians. It's a very passionate music. It's also really dark and gory--and I like that stuff.

On writing books vs. writing music

I can't imagine having to choose. It would be weird for me to go well this is the only thing I do. I don't really understand that. I respect it because zealots always attract me. Like "I only make this kind of music, that's all I do." I'm interested by that. But for me, I just like to make stuff. The thing you make and the form it takes is only the after-effect of the creative thing you did. Whether it's a song, or a book, or a conversation you have at dinner, the creative thing is what happens in the process--not the relic of it.

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Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR and WNYC's hour of trivia, puzzles and word games. I'm Ophira Eisenberg, and with me is our one-man house band, Jonathan Coulton, and our puzzle guru, Art Chung. And we are coming to you live from the Carolina Theatre in Durham, North Carolina.


EISENBERG: Now, please welcome our very important puzzler. You know him from his band, The Mountain Goats, and he's got a new novel out, "Wolf In White Van" - John Darnielle.



EISENBERG: Now, if for whatever reason, you've never listened to The Mountain Goats, I would describe your music as a melodic, soulful. The lyrics are beautiful. They're like poetry. They tell stories, some autobiographical, some fictional. And when you're hanging out, you're not listening to singer-songwriter music, per se, to relax.

DARNIELLE: No, no. I mean, I do listen to some singer-songwriters. But to relax, I mean, lately I'm listening to vocal music, like the Anonymous 4, and baroque stuff - a record that my 3-year-old likes to say, la perla barroca. So...


EISENBERG: That is - that's a scary 3-year-old you're raising, by the way. That's...

DARNIELLE: Yeah, he - no, he just finds it amusing (laughter).

EISENBERG: That's amazing. But you're also a death metal fan?


EISENBERG: What attracts you to listening to it?

DARNIELLE: There's two things. The aggression, you know, is really great. It's really, you know, if you get in the pit at a death metal show, it's the best. It's, like, really just awesome and rewarding and painful and great. And...


DARNIELLE: But beyond that, it's like - it's creative expression that can genuinely say that it's not interested in what the world at large thinks of it, right? It's a creative expression that really, in a sense - when we say something comes from the heart, we have all these romantic associations. Well, it has to be emotional in a certain way. It has to be somehow sad or plaintive. But death metal really does come from the heart in that it comes from inside somebody. And it's a mode of self-expression that is put out there, you know, at risk of ridicule and with the near-certainty of no monetary reward at all, right?


DARNIELLE: It costs a lot of money to make a death metal album. And it takes considerably greater musical expertise than I'm ever going to have. Any of these guys can play rings around me. I've worked with some of them. They're incredible musicians, and they do it out of real love of their stuff. And, to me, that's audible in what they do. It is a very passionate music. And it's also really dark and gory, and I like that stuff, so...


EISENBERG: You just wrote a new novel


EISENBERG: "Wolf In White Van," and then you're also doing more albums. That's a lot of work. If you had to choose - I mean, I wouldn't want you to choose, but these things take a huge amount of time. Would you go, all right, I'm just going to take the next few years and only write or...

DARNIELLE: I mean, I can't imagine having to choose. I mean 'cause there's other stuff I do that isn't, you know - I do creative stuff all day long, you know, and so I - it would be weird for me to go, well, this is the only thing I do. I sort of don't understand that. And I respect it because, like, zealots always attract me, you know?

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah, totally.

DARNIELLE: Like, people who, like, I only make this kind of music. I never change. This is all I do. It's like - I'm interested by that. But for me, I just like to make stuff. And there's a sense in which the thing you make, the form it takes, is really only the after effect of the creative thing you did, whether it's a song or a book or, you know, a conversation you have at dinner, you know? It's all that's - the creative thing is what happened in the process, not the relic of it. That's the event, you know?

EISENBERG: The journey.



DARNIELLE: Yeah, I mean, it's a corny way of putting it, but it's true.

EISENBERG: Well, I hope that you're going to enjoy your ASK ME ANOTHER challenge. Are you ready for it?


EISENBERG: You have to say that. Good 'cause our house musician, Jonathan Coulton, has prepared some death metal songs for you...

DARNIELLE: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: ...In a way only Jonathan Coulton could.

DARNIELLE: I just want to say I'm going to get 100 percent of these wrong.


JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: Well, it's going to be challenging for you and for me. This is - as you know, death metal is not really my milieu.


COULTON: You know, I very much enjoyed the life-affirming metal.


DARNIELLE: Right. There was a thing called life metal. I'll tell you about it sometime.

COULTON: Was there a thing called life metal?

DARNIELLE: Yeah. Yes, there was.


COULTON: That's insane.

DARNIELLE: It's Christian death metal.


EISENBERG: (Singing) Baby Jesus loves you.


COULTON: So I'm going to play some death metal songs completely wrong - and not in the way that anybody has ever heard them - on this tiny, little acoustic guitar...


COULTON: ...With my meager skills. And I will be asking for sometimes the title and sometimes the band.

DARNIELLE: So you...

COULTON: No, it's going to be great.


DARNIELLE: I just want to point out to the audience, like, so this is going to presume familiarity with the lyrics, right?

COULTON: That's right.

DARNIELLE: But the way most of these lyrics originally will have sounded - (imitating death metal singing) - which is how I know them.


COULTON: I'm not going to sing them that way.

EISENBERG: That was amazing.

DARNIELLE: Thank you.

COULTON: If you get enough questions right - a number that we're not going to name right now.


DARNIELLE: Right. Is it a number greater than zero?

COULTON: We don't know. We don't know yet. But if you get enough right, Ben Carro (ph) of Los Angeles, California, will win an ASK ME ANOTHER anagram T-shirt. So there's a lot riding on this.

DARNIELLE: Ben, I want to say, I'm sorry.


COULTON: Here's the first one. All you have to do is name the band. The title of the song is "Death Tripper."

(Singing) Your legs look so sexy out of context, out of context.

DARNIELLE: I want to say Cannibal Corpse, but that context line is a little too clever, meaning no disrespect to Cannibal Corpse.

COULTON: No, of course not.


DARNIELLE: But I'm going to go with Cannibal Corpse.

COULTON: What if I tell you that this is off a 2007 album called "Phantom Limb"?

DARNIELLE: Oh, it's Pig Destroyer.

COULTON: Oh, yeah, it's Pig Destroyer. That's correct.


DARNIELLE: That's right. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Pig Destroyer is actually a very clever band.

COULTON: OK, correct the lyrics in this song by "Merciful Fate."


COULTON: Oh, OK, easy.

(Singing) Copulation in the night, two shadows upon a grave. Screams of pleasure, screams of pain. Young lovers, you must be insane. It's an infestation of moles in their holy lair. So I say, again, stay away. It's an infestation of moles.

DARNIELLE: It's a desecration of souls.

COULTON: Yeah, that's right. That's right.


DARNIELLE: Jonathan, do you or do you not know that I have a Merciful Fate tattoo?


COULTON: No, I did not know that.

DARNIELLE: Yeah, no, actually, my face is a Merciful Fate tattoo. I used to look quite different.


COULTON: OK. Identify this song by Cannibal Corpse, which was, perhaps surprisingly, featured in the film "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective."

DARNIELLE: Oh, what was the one from the (inaudible). It was a big moment for Cannibal Corpse.


COULTON: I can only imagine, yeah. Now, this one is particularly challenging 'cause I can't tell what's going on in the recording at all.


DARNIELLE: Yeah, yeah.

COULTON: So I'm going to do this more like a tone poem.


COULTON: (Singing) Through my anatomy dwells another being, rooted in my cortex, a servant to its bidding. Brutality now becomes my appetite. Violence is now a way of life. The sledge is my tool to torture, as it pounds down on your forehead.

DARNIELLE: Is it "Hammer-Smashed Face"?

COULTON: It sure is.


COULTON: My favorite thing about the title of that song is that it's the passive voice.

DARNIELLE: Well, I don't know about that.

COULTON: It just happens to be a hammer-smashed face. Nobody's saying...

DARNIELLE: Or is it just lacking the definite article the at the top?

COULTON: Could be.

DARNIELLE: I don't know. We have to ask George "Corpse Grinder" Fisher what is the case.


COULTON: He's our - he's the VIP on a future show. He's the best.

DARNIELLE: I will personally pay for his plane ticket if you get George on the show - greatest thing I ever did.


COULTON: It would be fun. It would be fun. This is your last clue. Correct the lyrics in this Black Sabbath song off their album "Master Of Reality."

(Singing) Your world was made for you by someone above. But you choose evil ways instead of love. You may be a master of the world where you exist. The soul I took from you was not even missed. Walt Disney World - evil possessor. Walt Disney World - he's your confessor now.

DARNIELLE: That's "Lord Of This World."

COULTON: Yes. Much better lyric.


DARNIELLE: A sort of a proto-life metal song.

COULTON: Yeah, yeah.

EISENBERG: Clearly, this was way too easy. You got them all correct, John.

DARNIELLE: Thank you. I had a little help on the Pig Destroyer one, though.

EISENBERG: Congratulations, John. You and Ben in Los Angeles both get an ASK ME ANOTHER anagram T-shirt. And I know we just put you through this huge challenge. And so to reward us even more, you're going to play a song for us.


COULTON: Can I just say - I'm very excited that you're going to play this song that you're going to play because it feels like a perfect wrapping up of our discussion of death metal.

DARNIELLE: (Singing) The best-ever death metal band out of Denton was a couple of guys who had been friends since grade school. Once was named Cyrus and the other was Jeff. They would practice twice a week in Jeff's bedroom - practice really hard. The best-ever death metal band out of Denton never settled on a name. But the top three contenders, after weeks of debate, were Corpulent Pestilence and The Killers and The Hospital Bombers.

Jeff and Cyrus believed in their hearts that they were headed for stage lights and Learjets, fortune and fame. So in script that made prominent use of a pentagram, they would stencil their drum heads, their guitars with their names. And his was how Cyrus got sent off 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 sweet prince of all flesh. Hail, hail, hail, hail.


EISENBERG: John Darnielle.


EISENBERG: Hail Satan.

COULTON: Hail Satan, everybody. This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.