Five Questions for John Darnielle
The Mountain Goats Frontman on Mental Health, Baking Bread, and Hockey
Transcendental Youth is a pretty dark album, but really lovely, too. I appreciate it when songwriters can approach things like depression or mental illness without sounding insincere or one-dimensional. It's strange that in 2012, there's still a huge lack of understanding when it comes to mental health. Is that something you're passionate about?
Yes—I worked in mental health for a long time, and I have demons of my own. I don't think I'm special in that or anything, though; there's more demon-plagued people than non-demon-plagued people, as I explained in my popular tract The Coming Demon Plague. I don't really think I'm possessed of any special understanding on the subject, either, so I always fret about saying, "Well, here's what I'm thinking about directly." I just remember people who lost their way, people I know or knew, and I think about some stuff I've been through, especially in the last five or six years, and then make up stories with those areas as starting grounds.
The Mountain Goats song "This Year" is the song I listen to whenever I need reminding that shit will pass. What song do you listen to when you need a reminder like that? Or maybe you need something other than music at those points?
That's not how I use music when I am suffering, when I'm in a hard place: I use it to suffer more. I listen to stuff that makes me feel worse—that is just sort of how I am. You know, the "cry it out" style of sleep training that some people use? (Not us, I want to point out.) I am still crying it out, and someday I hope to get some sleep.
I love the Mountain Goats' music, but the fact that you seem to enjoy baking and hockey as much as I do is what has really concreted my adoration. How are you coping with this NHL lockout? I can't believe they canceled the Winter Classic! I am so sad.
It sucks so bad. Boxing, my other biggest sports passion, is having a pretty good run of it right now. Lots of interesting fighters who don't really break through to mainstream recognition, but who are great to watch—Sergio Martinez, Adrien Broner, Brandon Ríos, Gabriel Rosado. So I just follow the fight game more closely.
I am also a baker, and my favorite thing to do is to bake things into other things. Mini pumpkin pies or squares of baklava into cupcakes, or pieces of candy bars into brownies. It sounds ridiculous, but I promise it's delicious. What are your favorite things to bake? You once tweeted about a ketchup cookie that sounded crazy.
Those ketchup cookies were pretty good! And they had this very lovely pink color. Classic Midwestern-kitchen-style recipe. I do more cooking—breakfasts, lunches, dinners—than I do baking. I don't feel like I really have the touch for awesome pastries, though I'll still make scones sometimes. And cookies are a constant thing as soon as the weather gets cool. I do like to bake bread; that's how I got started in the kitchen. Breads from scratch—on a stone or in a loaf pan, long-rise or standard-rise. Breads are really the best. You make this amazing thing that you want to eat all of as soon as it's cool enough to eat, and the total cost of the ingredients is usually somewhere south of two bucks. So great.
Do you have a favorite recipe you could share? Something good for the winter would be especially great. I love baking through the winter (which is long and dark and horrible here in the Pacific Northwest).
I like to cook soup. If you make a squash soup, and you roast the squash instead of sautéing it, you will get a spectacular soup for very little effort: squash, salt, pepper, olive oil, stock, maybe an herb of some kind. You can caramelize some onions or not. A simple squash soup with good bread—this is a blessing in the world. If you don't use the onions, you just throw the whole deal in a blender—or use a hand blender once the squash is done—and you are set.
The other thing about winter, as I said, is keeping the oven going: roast vegetables. Roast vegetables! You can get the best damn dinner by just making a grain of some kind on the stovetop (I like large-pearl couscous in stock) and roasting whatever vegetables you like with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast those onions till they blacken. Red onions roast as well as yellow ones, and you don't need me to tell you how good roasted garlic is. Roasted cauliflower is what God put us on this earth to eat. Roasted carrots—do not even get me started on the roasted carrots. And all these, as soup ingredients, can add this great depth to your soup, if you've done some of the soup stovetop and added something that you roasted.
And finally, and this is important, because I taught myself to cook when we were desperately poor in Iowa, all this stuff I'm describing does not cost big money or require any special ingredients. The most expensive thing is the olive oil, and although there are cooking snobs who get into olive oil terroir and stuff, and that stuff can be delicious, your standard big bottle will absolutely do the trick just as well.