For longtime Mountain Goats fans, there’s something uniquely comforting about the sound of John Darnielle’s voice as recorded and transmitted by the Panasonic RX-FT500 cassette recorder. For the first 11 years of his career, that was the method by which Darnielle got his music out into the world, and to hear the hum of the gears, the hiss of the tape, and the way the condenser mic both thins out and adds a sense of humanity to Darnielle’s voice is to be transported back 20 years to the first time you heard songs like “Cubs in Five,” “Going to Georgia,” “Alpha Incipiens,” and “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.” So when it was announced that Darnielle had dusted off the boombox for the first time in 18 years to record an album inspired by the Pierre Chuvin book A Chronicle of the Last Pagans, to offset the cost of a cancelled spring tour, the response was overwhelming: what was originally planned as a single pressing of 1,000 tapes turned into a sold-out run of three times that amount.
In the midst of colossal global uncertainty, the sound of Darnielle’s frantic strum against the Panasonic’s ambient whirr on “Aulon Raid” felt like a full-body embrace from an old friend. And since Chuvin’s book tells the story of Christianity’s conquest of Rome from the perspective of the conquered pagan cults, lyrically, Darnielle was revisiting the historical period that had informed many of those same songs. Coming from anyone else, such a naked return to the past would come off as cynical—but John Darnielle doesn’t have a cynical bone in his body. Instead, Songs for Pierre Chuvin is exactly what we’ve come to expect: big-hearted songs full of warmth and smarts, custom-built to comfort and to inspire. We caught up with Darnielle to talk about the record’s origin.
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OK, so, first off: How are you doing right now? How is your family?
Well, we have two children. So that’s the part that poses big challenges. They’re not in school, they’re doing classes through Zoom, which is just not satisfying in any way. I’m not going into my office, which is where I normally write prose… Having to make home a shared base for four people is intense. But other than that—I was talking to [Mountain Goats drummer] Jon Wurster, and the first thing we said like a week into this was, ‘This is not really that different from how I live in the first place.’ I mean, there’s a guy I play Magic the Gathering with at lunch every day, and that’s a very important part of my day, and I’m really mourning the loss of that. But short of that—I stopped going out at night 10 years ago. I go to the movies once or twice a month because there’s a revival series locally that I dearly miss right now. The isolation part is really not weighing on me at all, hardly, except that I don’t get to play Magic. Now, the fear of getting sick, and the fear of not being able to work, the need to take care of my crew—that’s real. But in terms of the daily vibe, it’s just, ‘It’s weird that I’m writing in my bedroom and not my office.’ Other than that, it’s more or less the same.
Are you the kind of person who obsessively watches the news and likes to stay on top of every development? Or do you have to ration that out?
My source of news is generally my social media feed. But my feed is curated in such a way that, like—I’m not going to CNN to see what CNN has to say. It’s more that I find some headlines through the feed. For example, I spent a lot of today arguing with a friend who believes every bonkers conspiracy theory ever floated. That’s another thing: I try to do a little bit of public health work, because I used to be a nurse. So it’s, ‘Well, you know, nobody can beam a virus at you from a 5G tower, that’s not how viruses work,’ stuff like that. I mean, it’s bad. But short of that, I don’t struggle to disengage from the feed that much. I don’t need to hear more than twice a day how things are going. I mean, I have Twitter jokes to make, you know? [laughs] There’s nothing more important than that. I also have to send mocking tweets to the president.
So, I want to talk about Songs for Pierre Chuvin. I was wondering if you could walk me through the timeline. The group convened in the studio to record what was meant to be the next Mountain Goats record, and pretty much right at that time, the entire world starts going sideways.
So, we were bunkered for two weeks [making the record]. And as we were doing it, the [Covid] story was still developing. And there were some disagreements in camp about how serious it was. But as the only nurse in camp, I was like, ‘Uh, this is bad. This is real bad.’ And I’d had a little bit of a premonition: I switched from coffee to tea a couple of years ago, and I order all of my tea from China. And starting in December, they would be emailing going, ‘Owing to the Coronavirus, your tea is going to be later than it normally would be…’ And I was like, ‘If this is delaying shipments, this is pretty serious.’ It’s the sort of sign that’s worth taking note of. So I told the rest of the guys in the band, ‘You might want to re-adjust your expectations for the year.’ And I got called a little bit of an alarmist for it… and now I get the grim satisfaction of having been right. By the time I was heading home [from the studio], people at gas stations were gloving up and stuff, and I was like, ‘Yeah this is going to be some real stuff within a few days.’ I’d had this idea to write these songs while we were recording, because when you’re recording—if you’re me—you get more ideas. So I got home, and I think I spent a day reacquainting myself with my family, and then I grabbed the boombox and went to work.
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As a longtime fan, I have to tell you: The sound of your voice, and the whirr of the Panasonic… When “Aulon Raid” started, I found that I was almost getting choked up. Was there any awareness on your part of the emotional impact this would have on fans? Or was it more, ‘This is a quick, efficient way to record’?
Well, it’s not either one of those. You’ve got to remember: My relationship to it is different, because I’m not the listener. There’s a sense in which it’s more emotional for me. That is the sound that led to me becoming who I am, right? The person I am today sort of begins in that sound. My relationship to that sound—I never stopped to think about it, because I don’t listen to the Mountain Goats. I also have this kind of pathological aversion to dwelling in the past. I really avoid thinking too much about those things because, you know, there’ll be time enough to do that later. So it started because this was what I wanted to do—I wanted to make a tape, I didn’t want to make demos on the computer. But as soon as I heard that first track, the feeling I got was one of real excitement. I popped the tape out of that machine and put it into a machine that will play tapes better, and I said to my wife, ‘Listen to this!’ And I pressed play, and we both had this moment of, ‘It sounds exactly like the old stuff.’ Sonically, texturally—it’s just the same thing. Even in terms of what happens to my voice when it goes through that mic, in terms of what happens to the sound of the guitar—it’s magic to me. It’s a similar feeling to what you’re talking about, except from the other side of that process. It’s like being granted the gift of being able to use a tool that you thought you had lost.
Tell me about the book that inspired this record, A Chronicle of the Last Pagans.
This is a book about late antiquity, but it’s also the sort of stuff that, if you’re an early Mountain Goats fan—and this is the other reason I got the tape deck for it—half of those early Mountain Goats songs were written in my Latin class. I’d sit there scribbling lyrics on my notebook and I would get out of class and go home and write a song. I have a bunch of books like this, but the longer you’re out of college, the less likely you are to reach for the more academic books. But I have this other project that I’m working on that involved reading a bunch of that stuff, and when I was getting ready to go to the studio and picking out which books to bring with me, I grabbed the Pierre Chuvin book just on a whim, because I thought, ‘Eh, you might read that, because you could read it a little bit at a time.’ So I grabbed it, and it did the exact same thing those sorts of books used to do to me in college. The interesting thing that happens when you’re reading history is you have to ask, ‘Where is this historian coming from? What’s his thesis? Where does he sit in relation to the stuff he’s talking about? What is our actual focus here?’ And the fun that I have is trying to find a different focus, which is usually the focus of making it feel present.
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I’m glad you said that, because that was something I wanted to ask you about—all of these songs, they’re all written in the present tense. It’s not, like, ‘Here is John in the 21st Century looking back on these things that happened hundreds of years ago.’ You write all of the stories as if they’re happening in real time.
That’s something that’s very real for me when I get engaged with history—and I make that connection better with antiquity than I do when I’m learning about, say, the 19th Century. I think this is probably true for most people—there are some periods of history that, when you read about them, they become more alive for you. For me, that’s antiquity and Medieval England. Those are places that, when I read about them, things come alive. And the harder you study it, the more you start to realize, ‘Oh, well, my first sense of that was really inaccurate, but that doesn’t even really matter for my purposes. What matters is whether it comes alive for me.’ And you always hope you get something that’s close to right. It’s so easy to go wrong when you’re writing about antiquity, and to say something that’s not true, or to misrepresent people who are no longer around speak for themselves.
Well, to that point—and I don’t want to crane my neck too hard here—but there are songs like “Until Olympius Returns” that feel like they’re almost metaphors or parallels to what’s happening in the present day.
Well, the thing with that is… that’s not how I write. I don’t say, ‘Well here’s what I want to say, and now here’s the vehicle I’ll say it through.’ I write to tell a story. Sometimes, the story I’m telling will have such an obvious parallel or metaphor that it’s clear. But it’s seldom clear to me until long after I’ve written it. So when I’m writing ‘Until Olympius Returns,’ I’m writing a story about some people who had a teacher named Olympius who fled into North Africa and was never seen again, and they’re all talking about how great it’s going to be when he gets back. Well, I mean, that’s kind of a metaphor for a lot of things, right? It’s a metaphor for a return to normalcy, a metaphor for hoping for a leader—all kinds of things. But when I’m telling the story, I’m just telling the story that I read in Chuvin. And, if I can say so, I think one of my strengths is that my faith in stories is so strong that I don’t need to make them be more than what they are. I trust them to do that by themselves.
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I wanted to wrap by talking about the final song on the record, “Exegetic Chains,” because that to me is where, you know, the camera pulls out a bit—you comment on the sound of the Panasonic tape recorder, you quote “This Year” in the chorus. It feels like you sort of break the fourth wall a bit and acknowledge both the record we’re listening to, as well as your own history.
So, I was near the end of the Chuvin book, and in the last chapter he used the phrase ‘exegetic chains.’ And you’ve got to remember: In many ways, what I am is a failed academic, right? My goal coming out of college was to get into grad school and teach Latin or English. Well, I didn’t get into grad school, so my consolation prize is that I became The Mountain Goats. You could do worse, right? I don’t have any complaints. But at the same time, when I read this stuff, I remember how bad I want to actually know the stuff that the people who have doctorates know. ‘Let me have what they have.’ And one of the things they have is a command of specialized language. And there’s something very appealing to me in that—they talk in this way that you know they’re so steeped in. And that happened in the book, he said something about ‘not wanting the material to be bound in exegetic chains’—’exegetic chains’ is not a phrase that you or I are going to use in our daily conversation. But you come across it and you think, ‘What a nice turn of phrase that is. What a nice way of describing how you don’t want to bind something to your own interpretation.’
So I had that, and I knew I had nine songs, and I thought 10 would be good. So I got there, and then the song came pretty naturally. I had this idea about looking back—I’d been writing about late antiquity, so I should have some kind of a summation, you know? And the thing about late antiquity is that it’s gone, right? That’s the main thing. All those people, all those places—they are museum sites, right? They’re archeological digs. And when I think about that sort of stuff I always think: ‘And that’s exactly what we are, it’s just that we’re in the present moment.’ But one thousand years from now, the house I’m in is gone, all the books I’m looking at are gone—all this has gone. And that, for me, actually makes me love the things in my life more fiercely. It makes me love the present moment more. It doesn’t make me feel hopeless—it makes me feel hopeful. If we’ll all be gone, then to cherish is kind of the imperative, right? And so, that’s what I was thinking about.