The Mountain Goats: Energy in Surplus
Musicians of all stripes visit the Soundcheck studio. Whether they're dealing with an indie-rock band who played a late show in Philadelphia the night before or an Austrian pianist stressed out about her recital debut, our producers often have to revive sleepy, sluggish artists. Coffee is a must. Granola bars help. And jokes are appreciated — usually.
When John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats visited WNYC, he needed no such prodding. A songwriter with more than 500 songs to his credit, he showed up with a surplus of energy — and two songs from The Mountain Goats' new album, Heretic Pride.
Darnielle kicked off the session with "Michael Myers Resplendent," a creepy tale that ends in flames. We were relieved to learn that this was not among his autobiographical works, like the songs on his acclaimed 2005 album, The Sunset Tree. In fact, "Michael Myers" is a tribute to the masked villain of the slasher-film franchise Halloween.
Later, Darnielle explained the origin of the album's title track. He wrote the phrase "heretic pride" in a notebook, wrote a song around it, and then did a double take. "That's too good a phrase," he said, adding: "I started combing through all my stuff to figure it out." The lifelong heavy-metal fan discovered that it was a lyric from the Norwegian group Aura Noir. (Ever the fan of metal minutiae, Darnielle dubbed the band neither black metal nor thrash metal, but "blackened thrash.")
No one would confuse The Mountain Goats with a punishing band like High on Fire, but Darnielle long ago absorbed the emotion and intensity of his pet genre. While performing "In the Craters on the Moon," his voice climbed to a shrill register for a claustrophobic story set "in the declining years of a long war."
Darnielle's guitar gave out at the end of his explosive performance. "That's a broken string, people!" he shouted.
Due to time constraints, Soundcheck left one entertaining section on the cutting-room floor. Just as host John Schaefer wound down the interview, Darnielle asked if he could read a chapter from his new book, Master of Reality. It's the latest installment in Continuum Publishing's 33 1/3 series, which explores classic albums.
Based on Black Sabbath's 1971 masterpiece, Master of Reality is neither a rock biography nor an academic essay. In it, Darnielle explores the record through the eyes of a teenager institutionalized in a psychiatric ward. The story is fiction, but in the chapter he read, Darnielle captured perfectly the voice, the frustration, and the love of music of a troubled 15-year-old. The details were obviously drawn from Darnielle's real-life experience as a psychiatric nurse and teen counselor.
After the show, as he was literally halfway out the door, Darnielle stopped to spend 10 minutes evangelizing about a bread recipe that involves steaming the bread in a casserole dish. The technique produced the best bread he'd ever tasted, he said. To Darnielle's long list of credits –- prolific songwriter, former nurse, expert on Scandinavian metal, author –- we can add a new title: baker.
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