John Darnielle has become acutely aware of his mortality.
The man behind the band The Mountain Goats -- sometimes the only member of the band -- says he has become "more aware of time" and although you might think mortality is something he has always dwelled on based upon his song's lyrics, it was fatherhood that allowed it to loom large.
"It's made me more aware that I'll die ... this, I think, is Goth Dad's destiny, to think about how, when you become a parent, that means that some day you will no longer be around to be a parent any more. It makes me want to fill my days with good work," Darnielle says while on tour in an email interview with The Eagle.
Now 47, Darnielle's musical career began in the early 1990s when he was mostly recording himself and his guitar on a boom box. He said back then "spontaneous expression was a huge value for me," but even so he often reworked lyrics to make them sound "tossed-off." Since then his musicianship has improved and his "aesthetic priorities" have changed a lot, he says.
"I'm a better musician now than I used to be, and with that comes a feeling of awe for how melody and lyric sort of elevate one another into this one-of-a-kind style of expression -- but I still write pretty quickly, I've just gotten better at it," says Darnielle.
He doesn't try to "interrogate" his inspirations for his songs, which often include images of animals, ghosts, cold water or weather, but rather lets them "work it out for themselves." In 2004 and 2005, with the albums "We Shall All Be Healed" and "The Sunset Tree," he moved into autobiographical material, but with trepidation. "The Sunset Tree," especially so because, he says it was "raw." The album included a number of songs dealing with his relationship with his abusive stepfather. He says it was a huge surprise how fans responded to this material and it opened up new avenues of writing for him.
"[I]t made the story songs I make up more personal, put me in touch with something in myself. It was like a system reboot for me as a songwriter, really -- I think of the stuff before that as stuff from a different age," he says. "[W]hen I'm telling a story, I feel like it's also necessarily somehow about me, somewhere -- if not directly, then in spirit, you know?"
These days when writing music he says he sometimes sketches out other instrumental ideas in his demos -- a second guitar line or a keyboard ideas -- and once he has the songs together he begins "thinking about what other textures might complement the songs -- woodwinds, strings and so on."
From there he and his bandmates -- Peter Hughes on bass and Jon Wurster on drums -- usually flesh out the basics in rehearsal, although Hughes sometimes overdubs bass ideas onto the original demo, which is then passed back and forth between the two for feedback.
While Darnielle is currently touring solo under The Mountain Goats moniker, Hughes is set to join him on the West Coast in June. Darnielle says when playing alone, as he will be doing tonight at Helsinki Hudson, the songs "take on such different ... not moods, but aspects I can get looser with tempo, and be more improvisatory with dynamics (which sounds very high-minded but what I mean is I can get real quiet if it feels like the right move and I won't be acting unilaterally in a group context)."
He says it's "really fun and interesting to see how a song feels" when he takes away "everything but the chords and the words and the vocal melody," especially in contrast to songs that have gotten played "in the trio format." Some songs, he says, are more challenging than others when played solo, but "meeting that challenge solo is really fun and rewarding."
Darnielle says he still enjoys playing his older material, although it "takes some work sometimes, some diligence" to make sure he's connecting with the song. "But when that happens, we all know it, and we talk about it, and then we give the song a rest for a tour or two."
"The Dead benched ‘Dark Star' for a number of years, I consider them the model of how to keep the set fresh even if it means nobody gets to hear ‘St. Stephen' for a while," he says.
But not to worry, he knows there are a few songs that his fans really want to hear and he doesn't mind gratifying those desires. He says it's an "honor."
"I saw Lou Reed in 1986 and he gave a spiel about how he never got sick of playing ‘Walk on the Wild Side' because he loved knowing that there was a song everybody in the room wanted to hear, and that stuck with me," he says. "I can legitimately say that I enjoy ‘This Year' every time we play it. Although I don't feel like it works as well solo and of the three or four Mountain Goats standards, it's the one I usually bench in solo sets ... Peter's bass line is a huge huge part of that song."
One of challenges of touring these days is being away from his son Roman, who is outrageously cute if his photos are any indication, and makes it harder to leave for the tours. Darnielle says he flies home a few times during tours. On fatherhood in general, he says he tries not to be too philosophical.
"I've only been a dad for two years, I don't figure that short amount of time is enough to really say what's changed about how I look at life generally."
That is of course, barring the whole facing mortality thing.