John Darnielle on The Mountain Goats, Muscle Shoals and Magic: The Gathering

Dean Budnick on June 7, 2021
John Darnielle on The Mountain Goats, Muscle Shoals and Magic: The Gathering

“Our goal isn’t to be the best; it’s to stand alone. There is no best or worst, there’s just what you do,” offers The Mountain Goats principal John Darnielle as he looks back at the sweep of his group’s three-decade career. “You want to be your own thing. That, to me, is a more productive way of thinking about art of all kinds. The Mountain Goats aren’t for everybody but, if you’re interested in what we do, you’re going to find something in it that you will not find elsewhere.”

The band’s recent work certainly supports his assessment. Darnielle originally envisioned the group’s 2019 album In League With Dragons as a rock opera inspired by tabletop games, such as Dungeons & Dragons. For 2020’s Songs for Pierre Chuvin, the jumping-off point was Chuvin’s A Chronicle of the Last Pagans, an academic tome on Christianity and Greco– Roman culture. Harkening back to his late ‘90s and early ‘00s Mountain Goats releases, which utilized a similar process, Darnielle recorded all 10 of the songs by himself direct to a Panasonic RX FT500 boombox. By contrast, Getting Into Knives, issued in fall 2020, was tracked with the full band—Peter Hughes, Matt Douglas, and Jon Wurster—and producer Matt Ross-Spang, during a six-day stint the preceding March at Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis, TN. Next up is a companion piece, Dark in Here, which was captured a week later, from March 9-14, at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals. A number of celebrated guest musicians long associated with the facility lent their services to the sessions, including Spooner Oldham and Will McFarlane.

Darnielle is a man of many interests and enthusiasms. In 2014, he fulfilled a goal that he’d had since age five with the publication of his novel Wolf in White Van—a nuanced tale of a reclusive game designer that received a National Book Award nomination. Universal Harvester followed in 2017 to equal acclaim, including a rave review by Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro. Meanwhile, visitors to The Mountain Goats’ Twitter page are greeted by the pinned Tweet: “I want to play Magic: The Gathering,” and Danielle regularly expounds on the game, while also musing about books, records and culture.

I’ll open with a nod to the first question that Magic head designer Mark Rosewater asks guests on his podcast. How long have you been playing Magic and what led you to start?

I was a big science fiction/ fantasy guy when I was a kid and then, as often happens, I threw that away. When I was 12 or 13, I wrote short stories and sent them off to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog. I was also getting into horror, and the most life-changing stuff of that era for me was the zine called Whispers that introduced me to Dennis Etchison, Robert Aickman, Ramsey Campbell, Karl Edward Wagner and all these great horror writers of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Then during high school, I got more into Faulkner, Joan Didion and capital “L” literature type stuff. When I moved into that, I brushed the other stuff behind me and stopped following at all.

Many years later, when I heard about Magic, it seemed like something the younger me would’ve loved. I thought, “Oh, man, if this had come out when I was in junior high I would have been all over it.” It still sort of interested me but I had no idea how to play and I didn’t look into it.

Then about eight years ago, I started playing tabletop games with friends. I had written Wolf in White Van and, after it was published, I met this guy named Clinton, who was a new parent at the same time as I was. He said, “We have a tabletop group.” I’d kind of wanted to get back into those types of games anyway, so I decided to join them.

When I had played my one D&D session in the eighth grade, I died almost immediately. We met a ghost right away, and I said, “I’m gonna attack him.” Even though I was told, “You can’t do that, you’ll probably die,” my position was that everybody has a fighting chance. Back then I wasn’t interested in strictly mathematical outcomes and that’s still true for me. I love dice mechanics, but I need my games to have enough narrative movement that, if I attack a ghost and die, I could become a ghost. I’m in the party for the rest of the game— maybe my absence haunts the party or whatever.

I look at it this way: There are two ways to play video games. One is to try and make the video game last and another is just to finish the game. Making the game last is more interesting to me. And that was not the vibe of the one D&D thing I attended when I was 12. So I didn’t play it again for another 35 years.

I wound up playing games at Jason Morningstar’s table. He lives here in Durham, N.C. and we’ll play a number of games that Jason has written, as well as Night Witches and a lot of the classics. Over the years, we’ve spent a lot of time in Dungeon World and other things using the Dungeon World engine, like Apocalypse World. We’ve played variants of that one, along with a number of one-shots and board games.

As I got more and more immersed in this, I became curious about Magic. So one day, while I was on tour in Austin, I took a Lyft to a game store and asked for one of the free starter decks. I wasn’t sure which color I wanted so they gave me all of them. But when I took them back to the bus I realized that there was no rules booklet. It was Clinton who said, “I used to play, I’ll teach you.” So we went out to dinner and I remember I played a blue deck which I did not understand at all. I got completely owned.

Then, after we’d been playing tabletop games for about three years, one day when I was buying comics I found out that they were doing a pre-release for the new Magic set, Ravnica Allegiance, at midnight. I asked Clinton if he wanted to go. Again, I got decimated but I thought it was kind of fun.

A month later, I announced the new Mountain Goats album [In League With Dragons] from Wizards of the Coast because it was fantasy-themed. [Wizards of the Coast publishes both Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering.] They learned I was interested in Magic and, on the way out the door, they loaded me up with cardboard.

When I came home, I said, “Hey, Clinton, they gave me all these cards. Let’s figure it out.” So we started playing at lunch. From that day, until the pandemic took it away, we would meet several times a week and play lunchtime Magic for an hour.

Is there a particular format that you enjoy or are you more of a kitchen-table player? [Magic formats such as Standard, Modern and Commander place limits on deck-building, while kitchen-table refers to an informal approach.]

When we started, they’d given me a bunch of cards from various sets and it wasn’t important for me to know the formats. But at some point, he explained those to me and I got really into it. The formats are interesting. I love that sort of delineation. My goal was to make a standard deck and play it at my local game store. But Standard never fires there, so I ended up drafting instead. And that’s fine because drafting is how you learn and it’s also how you get addicted.

These days, I’ll play Standard on Arena [the official MTG online platform]. My thing is building jank decks. I like to build outside the meta and win. I often judge people who are playing the same deck that they saw somebody else playing. That’s not me. I’ll build a deck in two minutes just because I have four of something. I take specific pleasure in building decks against the meta. Do I really need to see another Orzhov Clerics deck? So I’ll build against that and, when you splash your Hallowed Priest, you’re never gonna see him again. You can play all four of them and I’ll deal with him four times. I also take a lot of pleasure in wrecking Ruin Crab decks.

When I hit on netdecks, people go, “Well, what about people who aren’t good at deck-building? They just want to have fun and they want to win sometimes.” I’ve come to accept that’s actually cool. If deck-building is not your thing or you don’t have the time, there are models out there to help you make a fun working deck. So, I suppose, hating on netdecking is sort of like hating on the easy availability of music software. It’s good that more people can make music. The notion of paying your dues is a silly exclusionary notion. You should use whatever is quick and useful and whatever allows you to have fun. But for me, my deck is an expression of what’s interesting and cool.

Do you think Magic has impacted your music now that you’ve become more immersed?

Absolutely. Magic, and game-playing in general, can teach you a lot about storytelling, some of which is mechanical. Ever since childhood, I had a real resistance to seeing the mechanics of things. I want to preserve the mystery and that resistance has served me well at times, but sometimes it means that you can’t resolve your story.

I remember, when I was a kid, people would tell me, “You have to outline your story.” I was like, “I don’t want to put a knife through its heart. I don’t want to find out where it’s going.” And then in recent years, since I’ve started writing books, I’ve learned that outlining doesn’t remove all the mystery, there’s stuff you see along the way. But I had a pretty rigid vision.

With deck-building, you learn your limitations and, within those limitations, there’s a vast world of expression and experience. It’s something I should have known as a Catholic anyway— within limitation is how you delineate the space of infinity.

Playing Magic and other games has taught me to look at structures. When I was learning to deck-build, this guy who was teaching me would say, “I see that you want to play that card but it doesn’t belong in this deck.” He would ask me: “What are you trying to do with this deck?” Learning to explain what a win condition is in one sentence is really useful.

Whether it’s a section of a book or a song, it’s helpful to ask yourself: “What is this song trying to do? Does every line serve that purpose?” Maybe the reason I don’t like the song I’m working on is because this verse over here actually belongs to a different song. That sort of mechanical way of looking at things—through playing games—really helps cultivate that tendency.

John Darnielle at Wizards of the Coast, Renton, WA, 1/29/19

Is there any interrelation between Wolf in White Van—in particular the narrative structure—and your songwriting?

Writing a book is so different. It’s vast. Whereas with a song, I sit down to write and often, by the time I stand up, I have a song. With a book, you have to live with it for a long time and it goes so many different places. Very few songs go through the kinds of changes that books go through. When you write a book, you learn more and more about which images and plot lines are actually part of your story.

With a song, I don’t learn what I was writing about until I tour the song. I take it on tour and sing it a bunch of times, see how the audience reacts and feel that. I’ll go, “Oh, that’s what this song is about.” With a book, you learn along the way. And, after all the revisions—by the time you finish it—you know it really well.

Songs get treated a lot more lovingly than books. Songs come into being and then they exist and they get to stay who they are. They grow in their musical expression. But, with a book, you absolutely have to put it through the wringer a million times before it sees print. So it’s a different thing.

What led you back to the boombox for Songs for Pierre Chuvin?

We were in Muscle Shoals, recording Dark in Here, when I was reading A Chronicle of the Last Pagans. We’d been recording for a week and a half at this point because we recorded Getting Into Knives and Dark in Here in two consecutive weeks. When I’ve been in the studio for that long, my ideas are firing. The harder I’m working, the more ideas I’m going to have. So while I was reading this book, I had an idea for a song and I wrote it down in my notebook.

While we were at Muscle Shoals, everything was getting heavy due to COVID-19. [The sessions took place from March 9-14]. And, shortly after I came home, they closed down the schools around here.

I realized that we wouldn’t be touring at all in the spring, even though we had already planned out our whole year. I feel a profound responsibility to my band to keep them paid—this is their job as well as mine. And I had the idea that maybe if I made a tape, then we could split the proceeds six ways. That might sound unromantic to certain people, but I consider creative work as labor. One doesn’t diminish the other in any way.

So I wrote a song every day for 10 days and it was really a fun project. I hadn’t done anything like that since ‘92 when I did the Transmissions to Horace tape. I thought, “That was 10 songs; this will be 10 songs. I started feeling these fun connections.” So I locked myself in the bedroom for an hour and a half every day and wrote a song. The more I work, the more it’s like a feedback loop. I had been reading this book so I took every idea I had and ran with it.

You were inspired by an academic monograph on religion and Greco-Roman society. Do you often read on this subject?

I was a double major in college: English and Classics. So it’s a topic I’ll return to on occasion. A lot of early Mountain Goats stuff was about the Greco-Roman world. There used to be Latin quotes on like every record. It was a big part of The Mountain Goats presentation in the mid-‘90s, but then I started telling different stories and the classical references started to fade from my work. But that was a big part of the Mountain Goats early on and, since I was going to be recording on a boombox, I decided to lean into that and make it old-school. I graduated in ‘95, so I hadn’t really engaged that part of myself in a long time. It was a great joy.

Most of the time, the boombox sits on a shelf in the room where I play Magic, and there was a real romance to going back to that style of strictly focusing on getting the songs done and tracked in their final form. I decided early on that there wasn’t going to be any mixing, and I sequenced the songs in the order in which I wrote them. The album documents 10 days I spent writing about the same subject.

What prompted the decision to record two albums back-to-back in Memphis and Muscle Shoals?

 I wanted to do one at Sam Phillips because we had met Matt Ross-Spang on the In League With Dragons session and we really wanted to work with him as a producer. That was a studio he had the keys to and I’ve always wanted to spend more time in Memphis. Although, as it turned out, I didn’t go out any farther than on my runs. We were working from the time I woke up to the time I went to sleep.

It was Matt who said, “I’ve worked at FAME in Muscle Shoals and I love it down there.” In picking a place, you also think about the musicians who live in the area, who might be able to join you in the studio. With Muscle Shoals, that means legendary musicians like Spooner Oldham and Will McFarland. So we had the chance to work with them in a beautiful-sounding room that has tracked timeless sides. At Sam Phillips, not only is there the Elvis connection, but The Cramps also recorded their first album there and that was a huge band for me. And in terms of Muscle Shoals, Aretha Franklin has stood in that room. It’s a small room that probably looks the same as it did when she was there. There’s sort of a mystical thinking around the auras of studios and some studios do trade on that—“Hey, don’t you want to come to the place where Led Zeppelin played?”

Does that feel tangible in the room when you’re there?

Yes, because what you’re actually feeling is much more concrete. The studio owners might ask if you want to stand in the same spot where most of the singers on the records you’ve listened to stood. Then you’ll stand in a few different places yourself and you’ll go, “There’s something about this vortex right here that’s really amazing.” It’s literally a physical acoustic phenomenon. It’s science. Studio design is a science. Of course, these days studio designers have a hundred years of tradition to draw on.

If you record in Electrical Room A in Chicago, Steve Albini’s place, the drums sound a certain way. You can affect that sound in a number of ways, in terms of the choices you make as an engineer, but the resonance of that room has a particular character. In the case of Electrical Room A, it’s a completely awesome and overwhelming character. The room is designed for drums.

In Muscle Shoals, the room has a certain sound that you have heard on a lot of giant records. And when you hear your own music in that resonance, you go, “Man, this track kind of sounds like ‘When a Man Loves a Woman.’”

It doesn’t really sound like that song, but it was recorded in the same room and you can totally hear that drum sound. So it’s less magical than technical, but the feeling is magical, for sure.

As you were dividing up the songs between the studios, was there a particular theme or trait that marked a composition for one or the other?

Originally, I thought I’d cherry[1]pick a bunch of them, record one album and save the others. But once we got the two album idea, I thought about which ones played well together. The ones on Dark in Here are much more brooding, alienated and violent in a bloodier way. I think violence is inherent to a lot of Mountain Goats songs. There’s always very splashy imagery but, with the ones on Dark in Here, the blood’s on the walls. Those are the ones I shuttled over there, like “The Destruction of the Kola Superdeep Borehole Tower” and “Before I Got There.” They seemed more brooding, more solitarily reflective, and I sort of leaned in on that feeling.

What did Spooner Oldham and Will McFarlane bring out of the material in Muscle Shoals?

Part of the fun of making albums is working with outside musicians. So I talked to Matt Ross-Spang, who adores these older musicians who have been doing it for years. It’s beautiful and contagious. With people like Spooner Oldman and Will McFarland, you’re not just getting an infusion of energy from some new guys. These are guys who will play something great every single time. Spooner doesn’t play a bad note. He might play different ones but they’re all good. When you’re picking between the takes you go, “Well, I like that and I also like that.” The same with Will’s guitar. Listen to that opening figure at the top of “Mobile”—he is just an absolute wizard.

We didn’t just call them in and have them overdub. We wanted the feeling of having played with these titans. So when you listen to a song like “Mobile,” everybody’s playing live. It’s a big honor. I’m proud of what we do, but we’re just The Mountain Goats. You want to try to acquit yourself so that when they leave, they’ll go, “Those guys were all right.”

You mentioned that your songs reveal themselves to you in front of an audience. Do they feel inchoate or in stasis due to COVID?

When I write a song, I’m already imagining how it’s going to land in the air of a club. So there’s certainly a wistful quality these days. We talk about that feeling of stepping on a stage in front of our people again. I dream about it. But I also trust that it will happen soon. Maybe it’s my training in Classics but my feeling is that this is an interruption in what I do, it’s not a seismic change. There’s a line on a song called “Until Olympius Returns” on the Chuvin tape: “This is just a momentary ripple in the stream.” It feels hard for those of us right now who are in it, but it’s a blip. Even so, I can’t wait to go out there. We’re a live band. That is what we do.