Do you still get pegged as "lo-fi" even though it's been years and albums since the Mountain Goats recorded to cassette? If so, does that bother you?
Let me answer this question with a question: Have you ever dreamt of getting your dishes done and lawn mowed by a singer-songwriter dude? Because I will do it. Because I love this question just that much. Because yes, people persist in calling our records "lo-fi." I spent all my home-recording years pointing out that "lo-fi" was a really stupid term, and then we went into a studio and recorded Tallahassee with Tony Doogan (Belle & Sebastian, Mogwai), and we thought, "Wow, this sounds quite different." But still, I could show you reviews that called that album "lower than lo-fi." I can guarantee you that people will ask me questions about the lo-fi sound of Heretic Pride before the day is over. It happens every album, and it's been eight years since I released anything recorded into a boom box.
You write music, and you write about music. Does being engaged with music criticism inform your music making (beyond the odd Marduk reference)?
I can't really imagine how writing music criticism would inform one's writing of music. I guess if you were the sort of person who spent a lot of time analyzing Lennon/McCartney stuff, you might end up saying, "There's a right way, and there's a wrong way," and trying to follow that template. I've always avoided listening to canonical stuff when I'm writing for that very reason. I hate it when you can tell what a songwriter was listening to while he was writing.
Satanist black-metal bands, occasional Old Testament references, the title Heretic Pride—there's a lot of religion around the edges of your work. Is that something that plays a role in your life or is it just fertile lyrical material?
I consider myself religious—I'm Catholic, both by blood and by tendency, and I mean "religious" in the sense of the word that occasionally makes Protestants uncomfortable: I like ritual and repetitive prayers, and I think a communal relationship with God is many orders of magnitude more important than "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ." I prefer being told what to do and how to pray. I don't think I'm smart enough or eloquent enough to write prayers that are worth God's time.
At the same time, though, I'm in the same boat that everybody else is in: In my heart, I doubt there's a God at all. Most of what most religions teach is utterly ridiculous, and besides, I'm a pro-choice feminist, so the Church that I love and which I'll never fully be able to leave is also my enemy.
I stopped going to church years ago and hardly ever go these days, and I won't take Communion when I do, because those are the rules. I'm as likely to pray the Hare Krishna mahamantra as I am the rosary. But I do pray, as devoutly as I can, even though I suspect we're just animals crawling on the surface of a godless earth. I do it because it gives me comfort and peace, even if that's illusory, and because I think that a prayerful mood is a powerful thing in the world and can be a real force for good.
A lot of your songs, "Sax Rohmer #1" as a recent example, seem to explore themes of collapse—of relationships, of systems, of individuals. What makes entropy so appealing to you as a lyricist?
I think the answer to this question is an old comic book called Man-Thing, which was where I first learned the word "entropy." One summer, when I was 11 or 12 years old, it seemed like the whole Marvel universe was on a big entropy jag—Man-Thing, Warlock, the Hulk, too, for a few issues—and my inner metal dude was like, "Okay, entropy totally shreds." I guess the other thing is that a big part of the whole Catholic deal is this embracing of divine order, of design and pattern and repetition and structure and the sort of inherent poetry in structures and orders and in obedience. So like most Catholic writers, I take an interest in sowing discord under that whole idea, in being the quietly rotten kid in class.
Do you ever get tired of discussing certain songs or lyrics?
A few years back I got annoyed when people would ask, "What will you do if Tampa Bay wins the Super Bowl?" But, really, I bring that shit on myself by writing songs, so I got no complaints. There are worse problems to have than having total strangers ask me questions about my lyrics. I could be digging ditches for a living, you know.
What music are you digging right now?
I've been listening to heavy metal all day, a Colombian black- metal band called Utuk Xul. Then I listened to the new one by Epoch of Unlight, which I have mixed feelings about, because the whole thrash revival is kind of weird, but every album you hear from it has at least one or two really solid jams. I don't know, though, I think retro is always a bad move for any genre. I saw High on Fire the other night—totally great, as usual. The only two albums on my best of 2008 so far are the new American Music Club and the new Kaki King, though. I'll probably end up listening to Peste Noire's Lorraine Rehearsal again today. That thing is tremendous.
The Mountain Goats play Sat Feb 23 at Neumo's, 8 pm, $16 adv, 21+. Their new album, Heretic Pride, is out now on 4AD. John Darnielle blogs at lastplanetojakarta.com.