Downtown Crowd

The Mountain Goats: An Exclusive Q&A with Frontman John Darnielle

John Darnielle is the founder and core member of the North Carolina-based indie-folk band, the Mountain Goats. While the band members have changed over the years, Darnielle has been the group’s frontman since he founded the band in the early 90s. In recent years, he has branched out from songwriting and begun writing novels.

The Mountain Goats are about to embark on a US tour, and they will be making a stop in Pensacola to play Vinyl Music Hall on December 13. This tour will highlight the band’s latest album release, Jenny from Thebes, which was released this past October.

Whether you are a seasoned Mountain Goats fan or simply enjoy the atmosphere of live folk music, this show is one you won’t want to miss. We had a chance to catch up with Darnielle to learn more about some of his latest projects and the upcoming tour before their stop in Pensacola. Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased online at To keep up with the band, follow @mountaingoatsmusic on Instagram or Facebook.

DTC: You just dropped a new album, Jenny from Thebes. Can you tell me a little bit about the process of creating and developing this body of work?

JD: Well, it’s been a long process, and it’s got a lot of moving parts. There’s the part of the process that is the writing and the winnowing of that. Then there is conceiving of where to do it, who to do it with and who to bring along. Those are the two major aspects. I was in the middle of writing a bunch of other songs when I wrote one that happened to reference an old character, which is something that I generally don’t do—it’s not on a list of forbidden things, but it’s on a list of things you generally don’t do. I thought of what it would be like to do some more of that and it was really exciting. It was like, ‘Oh, you’re pursuing this course that you normally wouldn’t.’

Writing goes pretty fast for me once I get started, although I had a lot of other stuff going on. One part of the process for me was I was really busy, so a number of the songs were originally conceived without an instrument nearby. I was on a TV set without an instrument, shooting the show called Poker Face I got an idea for a song so I had to tap out the rhythm on my chest and just sort of sing it out loud, and then go home and find out what key it was in. It was really fun and challenging to be doing things that way. Then eventually we met in Tulsa as a band to record the whole thing with Trina Shoemaker, Kathy Valentine, Matt Nathanson and Alicia [Bognanno] from Bully joining us. Making any album is a really complicated journey—kind of like asking somebody to tell me about your four years in college—there’s a lot in it.

DTC: As the years go by and you have now released your 22nd album, has your goal or your vision as an artist shifted over this time?

JD: Oh, yes. It’s entertaining to imagine an artist whose vision doesn’t shift at all—like, they have a single thing that they plan on doing and that’s all they do. That’s probably not an artist who you keep up with over time. Eventually, you say ‘Well, I’ve seen what you can do.’ But, I do have a lot of respect for it. I listen to a lot of death metal, and there are some old-school death metal bands that you know what you’re getting when you get, for example, Cannibal Corpse, one of the biggest, most successful death metal bands of all time. They do change a little over time, but you know exactly what you’re getting when they announce a new record. So there’s some charm to that, but I’m not that way. I’m very restless. I really want to be doing new things. Music that is entertaining enough to divert you while I’m telling you a story—that’s the basic format, but within that, the nature of the stories change, the nature of the instrumentation changes and the vibe shifts.

DTC: Can you tell me a little bit about the tour that you’re about to embark on?

JD: This tour starts on December 1 in Greensboro, here in North Carolina, and then we get to Pensacola 11 days later. This is part of the album tour. I’m reasonably certain that we’re coming out as a five-piece with a violinist who is great. There’s a lot of freedom in having more people on stage—it sort of gives everybody more room to find a spot and roam, it’s really nice. We don’t play the same setlist every night; we always vary it a little bit from town to town, just to stay engaged.

DTC: Your shows attract a diverse audience that ranges in age. Why do you think that the Mountain Goats shows attract such a variety of people?

JD: I don’t know. I always feel like it would be kind of presumptuous for me to comment on that. I would hope it’s because what we’re doing has a universal appeal, but that already sounds very presumptuous to say. What kind of musician would dare to say, ‘Oh, it’s because our appeal is universal?’ But I think in part, it’s because storytelling is at the heart of what we do, and stories are how we come to understand the world from a very early age. There is a Joan Didion line that I sort of live by, which is, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ We need some sort of narrative. We don’t function well without narratives. We like stories, right? So, the Mountain Goats are kind of a storytelling exercise; that’s the sort of intellectual answer. The other answer is—knock on wood, but I don’t think this is presumptuous to say—we’re a really good live band. Anybody who’s seen us knows it’s a really good time.

Even if you’re not that into the stories, even if you’re not that into what I do, I have amazing musicians and we put on a really fun show and we prioritize that. I’m really grateful that people pay to get in, and I want them to leave feeling like they got more than they paid for. There is something universal with both younger and older people who go to shows—the priority is to have a good time at the show. Also, I think that the fact that you’re never quite certain of what you’re going to get is appealing. We don’t just play all the songs you want to hear, we play new stuff, we do whatever we feel like doing. I think there’s that element of the unexpected that makes it [the show] appealing.

DTC: In addition to your musical endeavors, you’ve also started writing novels, most recently, 2022’s Devil House. Can you tell me about the similarities and differences between songwriting and writing for a novel?

JD: There is no point of comparison really. It’s sort of like building a house, and then baking a cake, which is different from building a house. Depending on the kind of cake, let’s say a wedding cake, you might take a long time to do either one, but building a house takes longer. Other than that, all the skill sets involved are different, but they’re not extraordinarily different. Writing a novel takes a long time. If I ever take three years to write a song, you can lock me up. But three years is sort of the minimum for a novel. Novels take a very long time; they undergo a lot of changes. Albums undergo changes too, but they come to me pretty quickly. Songs take about a day, less than that, really.

In December most years, I’ll get two or three songs in a day. It’s a busy month for me. I actually was looking at the calendar and going, ‘I wonder if I’m gonna get messed up by going on tour in December.’ Usually, sometime in the middle of December, I hit my stride. That’s when a fire suddenly lights under me. For one, I’ve been writing songs longer than novels so that I can do them pretty quickly. For a party trick, I could write one in front of you if I had to. I couldn’t write a novel. I can’t even really write prose when I’m not alone in a room. I can try, but with prose, you really have to focus. Songs are sort of like speech, you can do them in the middle of other stuff.