On-Air Highlights

As A Lyricist And Novelist, The Mountain Goats' Lead Man Writes About Pain

Written by witf.org, | Sep 18, 2014 7:44 AM
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Photo by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Lalitree Darnielle

From NPR's Fresh Air - September 17, 2014

When The Mountain Goats' founder John Darnielle was a teenager, he went through a self-destructive phase.

"Your intelligence doesn't override your desire to destroy yourself," Darnielle tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I really, really did not want to be in my own skin. I really wanted to get high and stay high."

When you're taking a lot of drugs, you go through these periods of feeling like you're golden and nothing can touch you and the police are stupid and they can't catch you and all of that stuff. And then, of course, at the moment when one of them taps on your window — all of that just crumbles.

The singer-songwriter's parents divorced when he was 5 years old, and he was abused by his stepfather. Darnielle says he had the feeling of "being uprooted a lot and not being able to make friends and keep them."

"It was a chaotic environment that I was a child in," he says, "and it makes you angry after a while."

Darnielle writes literary lyrics for his band, often telling stories about fictional characters or stories from his life, and he has expanded beyond lyrics into novels. His new book, Wolf in White Van, is about a man who, at the age of 17, shoots himself in the face with his father's rifle, expecting to die. He survives with chronic pain and a face so disfigured he seldom ventures into public, but he always preferred to live in his head anyway.

His fantasies are inspired by heavy metal music and comic books like Conan the Barbarian. While recovering, Darnielle's protagonist, Sean, creates a fantasy game of his own that leads to serious trouble.

In addition to writing about troubled teenagers, Darnielle used to work with them as an assistant and counselor in psychiatric institutions. He says he likes helping young people find shelter through his music because music helped him as a young person.

It's an "honor so profound that I don't know how to talk about it," he says. "How often does a person get to feel like, 'Well, this was worth living for.' ... But that's how I feel about that — music was all to me, and it's incredible to me that people can use [my music] in that way."

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