“I assume they’re into it, I didn’t really ask,” John Darnielle said in a recent phone conversation with Xpress when asked how his label, Merge, initially responded to his decision to perform material that his band, the Mountain Goats, has not yet recorded. That’s a freedom that most artists arguably couldn’t get away with, but if anyone has earned the right to treat their career however they’d like, it’s Darnielle. After all, the man has recorded and released over 500 songs and toured relentlessly for the last 15 years, steadily gathering devoted admirers in the process.
The Mountain Goats originated with Darnielle writing songs on his guitar and recording them on a cheap boombox, an arrangement that sometimes represents the act still — just him, his guitar and his lyrics. It is, admittedly, a pretty simple formula, one you can find somewhere on a street corner in just about every city in the country (and on more than a few street corners in our little city). Darnielle transcends the sum of this simple equation, in both style and substance. The songs he has recorded and disseminated to the public exceed 500, and yet there isn’t the dilution of quality one might expect from someone so prolific.
Despite his output, Darnielle doesn’t consider himself to be prolific. “People say a songwriter is prolific if they put out a 12-song album each year, but, really, that’s only one song per month — if you think about it, that isn’t all that much,” he said.” I know I write more than other people do, but it seems very natural to me. If what I do, my job, but not just my job, my passion, is songwriting, and I only write one song a month, is that really a passion, or is that a hobby? I feel like, if I can’t grind out 20-plus songs a year, am I a songwriter or a hobbyist?”
He admits that he cares less about the established record-industry release cycle as for putting out music as he sees fit. “I don’t think it’s fair to restrict myself artistically because of an established norm for the industry,” he said. “If instead of putting out a record every 14 months like you’re ‘supposed to,’ I put out two albums in a year, and some of my fans decide they don’t have the cash to buy both, and end up downloading one, so what.”
Darnielle’s nonchalance aside, adoration of the Mountain Goats by fans and critics alike has continued to grow over his nearly two-decade career. Darnielle and the band (which now usually performs as a three piece with bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster) was featured on the cover of Spin this past year. The Goats also made several television appearances, including a performance on The Late Show with David Letterman.
Unlike many bands that seem to alienate as many fans as they gain when their fame starts to burgeon, Mountain Goats fans are notoriously fervent (take a look at some of the online discussion forums devoted to the band if you need any convincing). Most seem to feel a deep personal connection with Darnielle’s music. His songwriting often takes on an effortless generality that, even when he is writing about personal topics, is so easy to connect with that, before you know it, you’ve suddenly fallen upon the soundtrack to different parts of your own life.
As Darnielle has matured as a writer, so has the band’s sound. “Awhile back, when we were in the studio and anyone would pitch a different instrument for an overdub, I would automatically say ‘No, no, no,’ but now I’m much more open to different sounds and styles on the records,” Darnielle said. “I think of the song’s core as a list of suggestions. There will be even more of that on the next album, when we make it.”
Along with the passel of new songs he will be debuting on this tour, the setlist will also focus heavily on Tallahassee, which was released a decade ago. “We get together before the tour and basically just try to put together a setlist that we think the fans will like,” he said when asked if they had a specific goal in mind when organizing each tour.
Darnielle’s obvious joy at playing shows comes across so clearly, and with such infectious enthusiasm that it’s hard not to leave a Mountain Goats show happy and excited. Feb. 2 will most likely find hundreds of happy and excited people exiting the Grey Eagle after their show. And if you want to be one of them, get tickets now — the last two times the Mountain Goats stopped in Asheville (both at the Grey Eagle) sold out in advance.
The Mountain Goats perform at the Grey Eagle on Thursday, Feb. 2. 9 p.m. $16 advance / $18 day of show. Nurses opens.