The Mountain Goats

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The Mountain Goats

Pop group

The Mountain Goats is not so much a band as the musical alter ego of John Darnielle, who records and performs behind the name both alone and with others. His approach is akin to home recording, for the process often involves simply him, an acoustic guitar, and a recorder. He also, however, is an extremely prolific songwriter and frequently tours, but still keeps a day job.

According to his record label biography, Darnielle spent many of his formative years "buying Gun Club albums and weird Hawaiian guitars from a couple of blind brothers who ran a music store in a strip mall in Norwalk. This sounds like it must be a lie, but, surprisingly, it isn't."

Darnielle founded the Mountain Goats in California in 1991. At the time, he was working as a psychiatric nurse. His cassette-only output for the independent Shrimper label started getting attention. He "continued to release songs in cassette form only for many years, using the tape hiss as a kind of additional instrument," noted All Music Guide.

"I didn't start doing stuff as the Mountain Goats with any intention of doing anything but killing time and spending money that'd been burning a hole in my pocket when I worked for the state of California," he told the San Francisco Bay Guardian in a 1999 interview. "I had a moderately successful career as a psychiatric nurse and little ambition outside of my desire to write good poems about people who wanted desperately to love one another but didn't know how, because, I think, fear of that very situation looms over my rather narcissistic generation like fear of the plague over medieval England."

The first full length albums—Nine Black Poppies and Zopilote Machine—were released in 1995 on two different labels. "The Mountain Goats' approach has changed very little since 1995," wrote Aaron Belz in his Paste review of We Shall All Be Healed. "That's to say, singer-songwriter John Darnielle's approach has changed very little. In twelve release—three 12-inches, three singles compilations, an EP, and five full-length albums–the songs have remained doggedly simple. The voice is still nasal, the lyrics sardonically humorous, and the accompaniment still basically four-chord, guitar-strummed pop with sampled voices and noises. Overall the band's style still sounds like a four-track demo, hastily recorded, giving the ever-important impression of having been discovered by you alone, somewhere in the back of a used cassette bin at a college-town record store."

After the first albums, Darnielle told the Bay Guardian he "felt like [he] made real connections, especially with people who had in some way been touched by divorce, a theme greatly neglected from the '80s onward." His exploration of this topic and its effects on the people involved in divorce has led him to a niche in music he considers more emotional than aesthetic. "I root around in the small joys available in real emotional pain, and generally people want their pain romanticized and glamorized a la Nine Inch Nails instead of confronted directly. In doing so I meet up with a few people who tell me that what I do really moves them, which is the most satisfying thing I could ever have hoped for in life."

As much attention as was paid for his one-man-band approach to music-making, some words were spent lauding his songwriting and his lyricism in particular. Darnielle told Seattle Weekly that lyrics are of the utmost importance in his process "I want to make sure...that if you did print them out, they would read well and you wouldn't have to say to somebody, 'Oh you have to hear the way he says this.'"

Notably, within his body of work there are three "song cycles"—these include the "alpha" songs, in which the main protagonists are a hopelessly dysfunctional couple. There's nothing particularly sentimental about these worlds. Witness these lyrics from We Shall All Be Healed: "We are what we are / Get in the goddamn car / Smiling faces flawlessly rehearsed / We are sleek and beautiful / We are cursed."

His work has appeared on a wide variety of independent labels including Ajax, Emperor Jones, and 3 Beads of Sweat. In 2002, he signed to the 4AD label and released Tallahassee. The album, according to Paste's Belz, "marked a sharp departure from the lo-fi idealism of previous Mountain Goats music, and We Shall All Be Healed." It was also the first of Darnielle's albums to be entirely devoted to his "alpha" characters.

Darnielle takes exception to the way his music is presented in most articles and reviews. Much of the early Mountain Goats press included not only factually dubious information, but also, as Darnielle told the Philadelphia City Paper, "Lots of comparisons to Palace and Smog and anybody else who does a one-man band, only with lots of smarmy remarks about how 'Goats' is plural but it's really just one guy." He continued: "I am really ornery about the way that a lot of critics just look up a review written in 1993 and then crib their data from that, and ornery people should be given some tasty gin and told to calm down."

That Darnielle would pay this much attention to words he writes and those written about him seems a given after learning that he also writes for his own online publication as well as for Magnet and Riverfront Times. He also has yet to quit his day job working with troubled children. He was described by Village Voice writer Laura Sinagra as "an icon of DIY productivity, maintaining deep ties with little folk nationwide while working as a classics student, ILM poster, Magnet contributor, special ed counselor, zine publisher, metal scholar, loving husband, proselytizing vegetarian, and, increasingly, touring singer-songwriter. His bedroom recordings challenged Barlow burble and four-tracker twee with aggro pique, rivet-head strum, flash-fiction narration, and lyrics that spiked recrimination with mythological allusion."

Darnielle—with help from musicians including Peter Hughes, Franklin Bruno, John Vanderslice, and Christopher McGuire—released We Shall All Be Healed in 2004. Like his previous release, "the album exudes generosity," wrote the Village Voice's Sinagra.

In a 2004 concert review, critic Richard Cromelin of the Los Angeles Times noted that Darnielle "evokes such artists as Jonathan Richman, Frank Black and David Byrne, wrapping them up into a sort of anti-Dashboard Confessional persona—with the same sort of intimate intensity, but often dark and mordant rather than relentlessly encouraging."

Although the move to a larger label had helped his profile, it remained uncertain what effect the greater exposure might have on Darnielle's music, if any. "It's hard to say whether the Mountain Goats' popularity is increasing or not," wrote Paste's Belz. "True, they've developed a severely loyal cult following; one of their out-of-print recordings is available on for $79. But their style can be alienating. It's hard to find a band today that matches the Mountain Goats' level of literary and moral intensity. To me, they are a version of R.E.M. in which there's less self-consciousness and the lyrics actually make sense. There's no mincing words with Darnielle, no art for art's sake. He expresses purpose again and again."

For the Record …

BFounder John Darnielle born c. 1970s in Bloomington, IN; married; wife's name Lalitree Chavanothai Darnielle.

Group founded in California by John Darnielle, 1991; began releasing cassette-only recordings, 1991; two full length albums released, 1995; signed to the 4AD label and released Tallahassee, 2002; We Shall All Be Healed released, 2004.

Addresses: Record company—4AD, 17-19 Alma Rd., London SW18 1AA, England, website: Website—The Mountain Goats Official Website:

Selected discography

Taboo VI: The Homecoming, cassette only, Shrimper, 1991.

The Hound Chronicles, cassette only, Shrimper, 1992.

Transmissions to Horace, cassette only, Sonic Enemy, 1993.

Hot Garden Stomp, cassette only, Shrimper, 1993.

Yam, the King of Crops, cassette only, Oska, 1994.

Nine Black Poppies, Emperor Jones, 1995.

Zopilote Machine, Ajax, 1995.

Nothing for Juice, Ajax, 1996.

Full Force Galesburg, Emperor Jones, 1997.

New Asian Cinema, Yo Yo, 2000.

Sweden, Shrimper, 2000.

The Coroner's Gambit, Absolutely Kosher, 2000.

All Hail West Texas, Emperor Jones, 2002.

Bitter Melon Farm, 3 Beads of Sweat, 2002.

Protein Source of the Future...Now! , 3 Beads of Sweat, 2002.

Tallahassee, 4AD, 2002

We Shall All Be Healed, 4AD, 2004.



Los Angeles Times, May 31, 2004.

Philadelphia City Paper, July 25, 2002.

Seattle Weekly, October 1, 2003.

Village Voice, March 30, 2004.


"Biography," 4AD Website, (September 16, 2004).

"The Mountain Goats," All Music Guide, (August 25, 2004).

"The Mountain Goats: Discography," 3 Beads of Sweat web-site, (September 16, 2004).

"The Mountain Goats–We Shall All Be Healed," Paste, Issue 8, (August 25, 2004).

"Sermon on the Mount: The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle composes himself," San Francisco Bay Guardian, (September 16, 2004).

—Linda Dailey Paulson