It can boggle the mind to consider just how far The Mountain Goats have come.

In the project’s earliest days, John Darnielle recorded (now famously) to cassettes using a boom-box and little more, accompanied by a motley crew of collaborators, gradually moving on from homegrown favorite (but not before offering eternal fan favorite All Hail West Texas) to true indie hero, expanding his, and his band’s, musical palette from release to release, eventually arriving on the emotional landmark that is The Sunset Tree.

In more recent years, Darnielle and co. have been fond of exploring creative whims, focusing on different thematic interests for each new album. We’ve been treated to the wrestlers of Beat the Champ, the goths of, well, Goths, but The Mountain Goats have never taken on a grander, goofier concept than on their latest record: In League with Dragons.

Drawing inspirations tabletop games, Dungeons and Dragons, high fantasy, and more, The Mountain Goats linked up with none other than Owen Pallett to help helm their grand vision. We linked up with John Darnielle himself to discuss the album, the inspiration behind it, and how Pallett helped bring them to an altogether new sonic realm.

****

So with your recent projects, whether regarding wrestling, goth culture, dragons and D&D, you name it, they feel like explorations of things that are enjoyable to you, now that you've reached a place in your career where you're perhaps less pressured. How do you go about choosing what to focus on, is it a deliberate process, or do you land on passion projects by whim?

It's whatever comes to mind. It is whatever I happen to be thinking about. The thing is, I never even, even with The Sunset Tree or whatever, I don't sit down and say, 'and now I shall write about this,' the sort of feels kind of, I don't know, it's not my style. [Laughs] I explore. I look around for stuff and I just follow my instincts. Whatever happens to be in my mind.

Is there anything in particular that made you look to D&D, fantasy, and dragons this time? Is there a story behind that?

Well, yes, beyond the title track having a dragon in it, some of the other tracks are remnants of a rock opera that I was working on about a seaside community headed by an aging wizard that faced invasion by sea, uh, as the magic of the kingdom is declining. But not much of that is really left on the record, that storyline kind of haunts the record like a ghost, but, I wrote, like, 7 or 8 songs for that, and I was really into at the time, and, actually, one of them is on the bonus 7" that comes with the deluxe edition of the record, but, yeah, the album...that was one thing that I was thinking about, but I'm also always thinking about figures in decline, like Ozzy Osbourne, who's on the third track, and Doc Gooden, who's on side two. I was sort contrasting types. When you meet wizards in fiction, they're often declining. Their powers are often fading, their influence over the court is often waning. And popular figures, I mean, you can be into them when they're famous but, to me, it's always the stuff the artists do when they're running of time that is actually very interesting to me, and I consider athletes artists in this sense. That, like, you know, older boxers, looking for the last perfect fight before they collapse, these are exciting fights. You think of the magic in the world, and how time seems limited. That was the kind of thought I was having when I was working.

What made you leave behind the wizard concept project? I'd love to hear that.

It was cool, but what happens when you're writing a straight concept album, for me, it starts to feel really corny that you have to move the action across the stage. You know, you have your storyline, and it's like...you have songs where the action has to move somewhere, and you have to let people know what's going on, and it starts to feel like your characters have to walk up to the front of the stage and go, 'Well, that was us retreating through the forest." [Laughs] Whatever! That's...my songs, I think one of their strengths, is they feel natural, they feel unforced. When I'm writing, even if I'm using big words, I think it doesn't sound like I'm trying to impress you with my vocabulary. It just sounds like a person talking. Those songs seemed stagey at a level that I sort of wasn't comfortable with. I could grow into that at some point, but it wasn't where I was at. I reserve the right to do a science fiction concept album at some point. [Laughs]

I would certainly love that. I remember you had Moon Colony something back when, drawing tad of a blank.

Moon Colony Bloodbath, yeah. That was an EP. That was about the limits of telling a story for me. [Chuckles]

For me the theme of warfare runs through this new record, which I guess goes without saying for a project related to D&D, personally I even got post-apocalyptic vibes at times. You have lines such as, "supplies sent past the Northern border," "maps and coordinates," "send out scouts by day", where were those things coming from?

There's perhaps not quite a warfare theme, but there's a resistance theme. A resistance to the decline of power. A resistance to waning and having less strength than you had before. In regards to the Northern Border, the speaker is a poisoner, so he's trying to get supplies that he can't get domestically. I mean, but, the thing is, if you are at any point trafficking swords and sorcery themes, there's going to be battles involved. But I wouldn't say war. War and battles are different things, right?

How did you select Owen [Pallett] as a producer, how did that come about?

So we were sitting in a dressing room in Pittsburgh, and it was the end of the tour, and I said, "Hey guys, I got a bunch of new songs, we should probably start thinking about next year, and what we're gonna do.' And we started kicking ideas around about how we'd been doing things for the last several years, and wanting to do something fresh, wanting to do something in a different way. And my usual style with a record, even if I have a producer, is I am the final authority on what we play, how they play it, and whether what they play stays or not. I'm really pretty...not dictatorial but I'm...I exercise a heavy editorial hand. For many, many, many people, the experience of being produced is, 'Look, we wrote the songs, now you tell us what we're gonna do with them.' The Beatles worked this way. George Martin made a lot of decisions like that. The Stones are more the example of the self-produced band, with Keith and Mick making most of the sonic decisions about what's gonna happen. We had never done the thing where we completely cede control to somebody, and lets somebody else decided not only how the songs are going to be played, and what instruments will be on them, but actually do song selection. Owen had been to...one reason the album is not the collection of songs I had anticipated, is I sent him a link to a dropbox, and he said, 'So I like this one, this one, and this one,' and I said, 'Oh no those are from the other thing I was working on.' And he said, 'No, no, no, 'Prosaic' has gotta be in there.' So I said, 'Oh. Oh, ok.' [laughs] It was kind of an experiment to see what would happen if I let somebody else take the reins. And it was immensely satisfying. It's what I hope to do some more of.

Was it difficult at first to let go of your my way approach, or did you find it freeing right away?

Well, the thing is that I know Owen. We've been friends for a long time. If I had been doing it the way a lot of young bands do it, where you meet a guy, and you shake hands, and then you try a session or two and then go in, I think it would have been pretty hard. Actually, we were looking at producer names, like, 'What about this guy, what about this guy?' But Peter pointed out, 'If you don't know him, you're not gonna trust him, and you're gonna wind up telling him no on a lot of stuff.' Whereas with Owen I trust him to not try to make me make a record that I don't want to make. Or to try and force a vision on me. We had a lot of discussions that we never usually do before we make a record. Like, what records... touchstone records, I was not trying to make our album sound like that, but records to keep in mind as we were working. And themes. And images, and approaches. We had a lot of pre-production where we went to the studio and practiced playing the songs. We did all these kind of things that were really cool, and then we met Matt Ross-Spang, who was the engineer. If you look up his name, he's kind of a giant, and...so he engineered and we got on famously, and I hope to some more work with him. And Shani Gandhi mixed, and I've never given the leeway that I gave her to just do her thing, and she's kind of a genius, and a total pro. So it was immensely satisfying. At the same time, I'm like most people who've been listening to The Mountain Goats for 20 years, when I hear my voice with reverb on it, I go, '*Wait*, John doesn't sound like that.' It takes me a moment to warm up to it. But when you're listening to the full track, and not just focused on me, then you really are able to sort of surrender, and it's really immensely satisfying.

Did Owen's input ever change your approach to the songs, or your writing, or were they all essentially fully conceived coming in?

Well, nobody gets any say on the words except me. [Laughs] That's the one thing that's famous within the band's story. That's the thing...hoping not to sound arrogant, but that's the thing that I'm better at than any of the people in the session. Most of the people in the session, well, *all* of the people in the session are better musicians than me, and all of them are probably more rational people than me, but the one thing I'm good at is the lyrics. You can't really pitch a lyric change to me. [Laughs] So that didn't happen. That's my area, that's my workshop. [Laughing] I just do that by myself. I don't even show it to somebody until I'm certain it's done. *But* as far as the approach to singing and playing and orchestration: all this Owen. Stuff we agreed with, but if you hear the demos, some of them were pretty close to what we wind up doing, but some of them are completely, radically different. The original demo for 'Younger': totally different song. The original 'Doc Gooden', it's the same chords, it's the same melody, the same modulation on the bridge, but it was Owen's idea to sort of turn into a Krautrock song, to make the groove this relentless, locked down thing. The important thing about that song is the drums and the bass. [Laughs] It's not that you're doing something massively impressive, but it's such a groove that it gives everything else room to find space. Owen was thinking about everyone playing what was on the plan, rather than improvising. It was considerably more tactical than what we usually do.

You have kind of led to this for me: I think this is clearly, if you will, the "prettiest" album ever released under The Mountain Goats name -

Certainly the fanciest, right? [Laughs]

That's a way to put it. [Laughs] Is there a reason you sought that style out for *these* songs, or anything about this particular story that fit being, as you say, 'fancy'?

You just gotta keep it fresh, be doing new stuff. You know? You have to do that. If you wanna be an interesting artist, you wanna be proud, you know, when you're dying, you have to keep it fresh. You gotta say, 'I didn't just do the same thing, so that I could make all the same people happy with it.' I mean, you hope that people will like what you do, and you know, actually, from experience, if you're me, when we stopped doing records on boomboxes, I felt like, 'Aww, these people who love the boombox are never going to be able to get into this,' and that wasn't true. Most music fans are open to listening to music in a lot of ways. So, yeah. But there's that fear the people will say, 'Oh, that's not what I want from you.' Right? But that's a toxic sort of relationship. If you're an artist, you have to be faithful, first and foremost, to the thing you're doing. Right? You have to say, 'Well, is this interesting to me? Is my heart in this?' And, so, yeah, that's the thing, the paradox of this is, in surrendering control I wind up with something that better articulates what I would hope to do that I could never have done by myself. So, yeah, it was incredibly exciting and opened up a bunch of new avenues for me. [Laughs] It feels like you want it to be these songs in particular, but it was not. It was that I had written some songs, because I'm always doing that, and once I have enough to make an album, I start asking myself questions about, 'What do I want to do with that? Where do I want to do it?'

With Beat the Champ, it was important to me to stay home, I didn't wanna go some place anymore, that was my feeling then. I didn't want to load up the van or get on an airplane and go away for a week or a week and a half. I wanted to stay home. So we recorded it in town, I was driving there to record, and coming home at night. But then with Goths, it was, 'You know, I want to do another "go away" album', I want to do one where we set up camp, you know? These are not, these decisions don't proceed from the content of the songs, but more from the shape of the songs as a group. You say, 'Well, how do we want to do this?' Do we want to dig in and do them all at once? With All Eternals Deck, we end with...'Life of the World to Come', we did multiple studios, in two and three day shots, go in for two days, record a couple songs, and leave. Then do it again 3 months later. That's a different feeling. For this bunch of songs, the thing that felt right to do was get everybody together in a room and live together, basically, for 9 days.

I hear a lot change in this record -

Yes. [Chuckles]

Do these songs come more from a place of incoming change, or the acceptance after it?

Well, are you talking content or the music?

Probably more the lyrics.

Well, yeah, the lyrical content is a separate subject. It's the one I'm sort of least qualified to talk on. Everybody wants me, often, to say, 'This is what I mean by this.' Right? When I'm writing, I'm telling a story. That's what I'm doing, I have a story, and I tell it. Then I'm on the same page as the reader after that, figuring out what I was telling. I'm more focused on the details of the story, I'm not sitting there and saying, 'Here's a message I hope to convey with my story.' That's not my...style, at all. I just say, 'What if there's a wizard, and he's being held captive, and these people who are from the forest who are not by any means qualified to break in, show up to say, 'You have to let him go,' and they take on strength purely by the strength of their convictions.' Now, once I've told that story, you and I can knock around what it might mean, but I don't say, 'Here's what that story means.' Because I don't...know. [Laughing] I can probably give a good reading of it, but I'm really resistant to saying, 'Well, now that you've heard the song, let me tell you what I was talkin' about.' Because that's not how it works. I am a little more qualified to tell you what it's about, insofar as if you say, 'Well, I picture this wizard as a big burly guy,' I can say, 'Oh, no, no, no, he's old and has a beard.' I can tell you that. I can clarify the images. But as far as what it's about, I always feel the reader is better qualified to tell me than the other way around.

Well, then to briefly insert myself into it [relates personal nonsense]

No shit?! That's fuckin' awesome. It's a lot of work, right? I can't even imagine. What sucks, I would imagine, it's a lot of work that keeps you late at night, and then you need to be well rested. Heavy. It's the same in nursing, where, like, I can do paper tests all day. Then you put me literally with a patient in a room, and say, 'Ok, now change this patient's dressing,' and you’re changing a dressing on an open wound, and then the rubber hits the road. It's like, 'Ok, this is make or break’, and it doesn't matter how smart you are.

The point is, I was going through this risk of potential massive, seismic change, a 'What am I going to do with my life?' moment, and there's a sense I get from the record, which I first received my copy of around that time, this line between the experience of change when it's fresh and real and it's just panic, but then there's the sense of calm that comes after, of, 'Ok, now I can do anything, and go forward and figure things out.' To me the record exists more in the latter place, rather than panic.

That seems like a very good reading to me. That's...that seems sound. Most of the figures, who are speaking, are not in the moment. With the exception of the two hard fantasy songs, 'Younger' and 'Clemency', which are both very much in the moment, but 'Doc Gooden' is not, 'Persaaic' is not, 'Done Bleeding' is not, these are all songs that are reflecting on some past situation from the perspective of understanding it better than the narrator did when he was in it. You know? Which is, I was talking, I bought a bagel this morning, and I was talking with the guy who sold it to me about this. It was like, the perspective on the opinion you had of yourself when you were younger becomes so much richer when you're older. You could not have persuaded the younger version to understand it, because it was that person's job to not understand that. But the vision you get of...the decisions you made, even a month ago sometimes, is so much broader from the later perspective. This is what Greek tragedy is about, how you can't perceive the structure you're inhabiting until you've already exited that structure. This the lesson you learn over time. You can't beat yourself up over it, because that's the nature of the beast, the nature of experience. You have to go through the fire to be able to describe the fire. The fire is not pleasant while you're in it. But if gives you some marks you couldn't have gotten without it.

There's also a sense of aging throughout the record.

So, I think some of them are about aging, but I didn't, again, to sit down and go, 'Now I shall write about aging. I will have some insight others have not had.' [Both laugh] That'd feel so arrogant and terrible. But, I mean, I'm always writing. I don't need...[laughs] I don't wanna say that, 'I don't need inspiration,' that's not true. But I kind of don't believe in it. I think of writing as work, so I sit down to write, and you get some sort of idea, whether it comes from what you're reading, or what happens to be on TV, or a phrase you heard, or a notebook that you wrote a few months ago, or a title, like 'Clemency of the Wizard King', which had been sitting in a notebook for a couple years. I thought of it, and went, 'Oh, that's a pretty cool title.' I wonder if I could write about that. Grabbed a guitar and strummed an A chord, and I was, 'Aw, yeah, 'Clemency of the Wizard King', how does this go,' and I sang, "We who train in the way of the blade,' it was an ad lib line, and I thought, 'That's pretty cool sounding!' So that's the nature of inspiration, it's so unprogrammed. It's not so much contemplating a theme and then addressing it, it has to do with images that I carry with me. That occur to me, or I run across, and how they resonate with me, and then sort of teasing them out. The image's primary thing - the image of the character is primary. This is a sense that I'm less intelligent in than these big picture, giant novel writers, I am focused on the fact on the actual bare facts of the story, and the people in it. I trust their motivations and the meaning of their motivations to emerge from the story I tell. So...I just say, that's my whole focus. The inspiration comes from...whatever. From saying, 'I'm gonna tell a story about a wizard.' Where is he? Yeah, he's in a glade. What kinda glade? A cursed glade. Cool. What's going on with him? He's being held captive. Oh, we gotta break him outta there. It's really very in vivo for me. The visions are pretty real when I'm having them. [Laughs]

Naturally there's going to be flight on an album named for dragons, but what brought about the references to actual aviation: from 'grim faced pilots back from a bombing run', to something about a landing -

What is there? Let's see here. That's an interesting one. In 'Done Bleeding', it's a simile, I'm comparing, I'm saying what the neighbours look like when they see him leave, people who have just seen a disaster. What else? I think, um...where's the other one with the airplane?

I should have picked exactly where it was, but there was something about a landing or a descent.

I have the sleeve here, let me see. [Lists off songs not including airplanes] Oh, 'Doc Gooden'! It's "wheels down in Seattle." Right? Yeah. So, I can tell you, actually, where that phrase 'wheels down', where I got that from. So I had Doc Gooden as a figure in my mind to write about for years. The original title I had in a notebook was 'The Tears of Doc Gooden' or something like that [laughs] and, uh, I had a bunch of ideas for Doc Gooden in a number of writings. Do you know who Doc Gooden was?

I did not, but I looked him up after my first listen.

Cool. It's a pair, those songs are kind of related to each other. So, yes, Doc Gooden was this young phenom pitcher for the Mets, and like many young phenom pitchers, he burned out quick. And so I had this title, and I was writing songs, because it was December, and I tend to write a lot of songs in December, that's just sort of how it happens. And I had this little groove down [hums the tune out] I had that down, and I thought that was pretty cool, and had to stop, 'Ok, what are you writing about? You're writing about Doc Gooden.' You're gonna do the Doc Gooden song, finally. 'Where is he? How old is he?' Of course he's late in his career because that's what I like to write about. [laughs] So I go, and I had been playing a game, a tabletop game, called Night Witches, do you know who the Night Witches are?

I do not.

The Night Witches were Soviet, uh, pilots in the second World War. They were all women, and they flew a plane called the PO2, have you ever heard of this? The PO2 is trash. It's covered with canvas. It's a cropduster. But they were flying these night runs, they only flew at night, to run interference, and fuck with the advancing German line until more army could arrive to push the Germans back. So, it's a pretty amazing story, the Night Witches, these women flying at night, and flying these planes that if you get hit, you're probably going down, these planes cannot take a lot of fire. And they're flying *into* fire, into German camps to hold the line, to keep the German line from advancing. Well, I'm playing this game that my friend Jason Morningstar wrote, called Night Witches, where every player is a woman from these units. There's a move you do, at the end of every flight, called a wheel down. Didn't know the phrase until I played the game, but now I had it. I'd been doing this move every week. When I go to write the song, I thought, 'Ok, where's Doc Gooden?' He's gonna go pitch in Seattle, where he once pitched a really great game, and now he's not gonna pitch a really great game. I got the phrase of 'wheels down in Seattle' for that, that was the process.

What inspires you to write of warriors? Wrestlers are modern warriors in a sense, as well. Do you find it romantic, or what brings you to that place?

Well, this is a very 80's, sort of men's spirituality thing to say, but there is a sense in which everybody is their own warrior. You tend to think through your own life as having had struggled, whether it's even people who've had lives of great privilege, are still thinking about the hard times they didn't think they would survive. And how they fought to sort of maintain presence and their sense of self. War is real, but the warrior is a metaphor for who you are in relation to your own life. That's what warriors are. They are also people who fight in wars, but when we're talking about sword and scoercy warriors, fantasy warriors, or even sports figures, when you layer them with a lot of iconic, metaphorical baggage, which I like, which I think is useful. So, that's where...the thing is, everybody is his own warrior, to some extent. There's a corniness to that that I always hope to not lose sight of. When we talk about our trials in life - there's people in prison, man. The worst day of my life is not as bad as an average day for a person locked up, and that's real. But that doesn't mean that your own travails don't feel like real travails. So, yeah. I think that's the appeal, it's a universal archetype, the warrior. We all relate in some way.

Are you a Wire fan? Have you heard Nocturnal Koreans?

No, I haven't heard that one. I remember when they came back, and their stuff was amazing, but I lost track.

I hear some thematic similarities between this record and that record, it might interest you, just as an aside.

That's a good aside, I'm always looking for new stuff to listen to.

You already hinted at a strong yes for this, but would you be more likely to seek out another strong guiding producer? Or will you return to your self-controlled method?

Oh, no, I want to do more of this. I wanna go deeper. I want to see what else is possible. It's...so much room was discovered. There's a lot I want to do. A number of different ideas that grew out of doing this. It's just finding the time to make it happen. Shani, who mixed it, boy do I want to do a session with Shani. She is so amazing, and she produces. She doesn't just mix, she's also a producer. I'm really hoping to work more with Shani. And with Matt, who engineered, gold almighty, he was completely incredible, and we got along so famously. You know, I get ideas about...listening to, what's his name, the tuba player from Richmond, Theon Cross, this morning. And thinking, 'Man, let's get something going with Theon and his dudes, if that's possible.' So, I have a lot of big ideas. [chuckles]

What keeps you going so far into an, if I may, beloved career? The need to write, to create? What keeps you chugging on?

I mean, I enjoy what I do. This is corny, but, like, dads tell their sons, 'Do something you enjoy, do it, and you'll never work a day in your life.' Well, I don't look at it that way, because I do think of what I do as work, but I like to work. I think the Amish phrase, 'Hands to work, hearts to God,' is something that I sort of internalized pretty intensely when I was a nurse and I was working a lot of double shifts, and I discovered, 'You know what? I like to work.' You don't love working for a bad boss, or bad pay, but, the work I'm doing? I just love it. I could do it all the time. The harder it is, the greater the reward is for getting something done. By the time we get done...'Doc Gooden', that was a hard song to record, because the modulation of the bridge is *really* hard to sing. Try singing along with it some time. You'll see, when it changes, the key is so far from the original, it's hard to hit that note. I don't know *how* we're gonna do it live. When I wrote it, I did it sort of, when you write a modulation, you can do it on purpose, like, 'I'm going to wherever, and see what happens', and I did, and I went,' Ohh, what if you do that? What if you modulate that's the beauty? And I thought the melody would go like this, and I had to punch myself in on the vocal, without hearing the note before it, because if I heard the note before it, my mind would want to stay in that key. And it was impossible to make the bridge for me. So I had to keep on punching, to modulate it twice, because [sings the bit], it changes key twice there, so, that...those sorts of challenges, if you keep looking for them, it's a blast. The only problem is finding the time to dedicate to it. I've slowed down a little. I no longer write at night. By 8 o'clock I don't have [laughs] I don't have much left to say. But I wake up wanting to work. Stay busy is a good slogan, a good motto.

You kind of brought this up, talking about viewing a younger moment from a current perspective, does that feeling every make you want to revisit any of your earliest songs from your current mind state? Not so much to re-write anything, but perhaps a wizened re-telling?

I mean, I don't go listen to that stuff. I don't listen to The Mountain Goats for pleasure. [Laughing] I like it if I hear it, usually. But that's not...I only revisit it if I'm going to learn it to play live. That happens. These days what happens, actually, is I'll usually be pleasantly surprised. Because my assumption is I'll hate it and think, 'You're so much better now,' but I hear it, and I hear what people like in that stuff. I connect to it sometimes. I hear the immediacy of it, especially, can be very exciting. But it's also...the fun of that is trying to sort of say, if you're going to play something that's old, we're learning to play the title track of The Coroner's Gambit for this upcoming tour, and, learning how to express that song through where we're at, musically, now, it's exciting. That's the, you know, music whether in your personal life or generally speaking, it's not static, it's dynamic. Constantly in flux, and nothing really sounds exactly the same twice, even if it's the exact same recording, you're a different person 5 years later than you are when you make it. So, yes. When I do that, I'm looking at it from a different angle. If you listen to something old of mine, then something new of mine, or things from two different eras, your relationship to it is...not passive, but it's as a listener. As the guy who's making it, it's a different sort of relationship. It's sort of like the relationship of an architect to a house he designed a few years ago. You drive past and go, 'Wow, people live in there!' The one I'm designing right now, no one even lives there at all, but people live in there, and it works! I wonder if they want more space. I wonder if it's warm enough in all the rooms, and so forth. You look at things from the perspective of what you might do differently. Yet, at the same time, you like that you have this record of where you were at at that time.

Ok, we're down to the silly stuff: do you play D&D yourself?

We don't actually play D&D that much, but we play tabletop games. We play Night Witches, we play Tunnels and Trolls, which is kind of a version of D&D, we play Monster Hearts, we play Apocalypse World, and a bunch of other narrative, story-telling games, on the table once a week. When I say we, I mean me and some friends who do this, not the band.

What was the last great thing you read?

I'm re-reading Zone by Mathias Énard. I almost never read something twice, but in this case, for Énard I will make the exception. Because he's one of the best alive, so I'm re-reading Zone right now. It's one of the greatest books of the last 30 years. It's incredible.

I'll have to read it! Well, it was great talking with you.

Cool! You too, man, take care!