Copyright ©2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

John Darnielle was a little lonely when he wrote this song for the "All Hail West Texas" album, and that's reflected in both the lyrics and the open chords of the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

JOHN DARNIELLE: (Singing) All (unintelligible) use a Sunset magazine, to read, sleep for 12 hours, dream about home.

HEADLEE: Darnielle would come home from the long, dragging hours of his corporate job, all alone in his house. He'd sit down on his couch with his guitar and hit record on his Panasonic boombox.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DARNIELLE: (Singing) I have no place to go but right up to New Mexico.

HEADLEE: This was Darnielle's preferred recording style in the 1990s and early 2000s. And "All Hail West Texas," released in 2002, was the last so-called cassette tape album. For years, you couldn't get a copy of this album, but it's now been issued on CD. We talked the other day with John Darnielle, who works under the band name The Mountain Goats. We wanted to understand what drew him to this incredibly lo-fi method of composing.

DARNIELLE: The way that I write the music to fit with the lyrics is I go back and forth between the guitar and do it out loud, and you can hear what sounds natural and alive and real versus what sounds mannered.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BEST EVER DEATH METAL BAND IN DENTON")

DARNIELLE: (Singing) The best-ever death metal band out of Denton was couple of guys who been friends since grade school. One was named Cyrus, the other was Jeff...

You know, the first song of the record is an extremely spontaneous song. I think that...

HEADLEE: You're talking about the best death metal band song.

DARNIELLE: "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton," yeah. It was about a draft and a half. It was a first draft and then a couple of strikethroughs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BEST EVER DEATH METAL BAND IN DENTON")

DARNIELLE: (Singing) The best ever death metal band out of Denton, (unintelligible) outlive you...

And then it's including hail Satan, that was an ad lib.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BEST EVER DEATH METAL BAND IN DENTON")

DARNIELLE: (Singing) Hail Satan, tonight hail Satan.

HEADLEE: What are the pros and cons of recording this way? I mean, you know artists who spend months, sometimes years, editing and re-recording and separating out tracks. What's the benefits of sitting there with your guitar and a boombox, and hitting record?

DARNIELLE: Well, it sounds great.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DARNIELLE: That's the thing. It's like, when people talk about fidelity, I think they're imagining that there's some way of recording that will aspire to this condition of total clarity. But I don't look at it that way. I look at it more like food. You know, it's like you can't say there's a best food because foods taste different, and some of them taste really good to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DARNIELLE: The other advantage is, like, these songs. Most of them are about a minute old when you hear them. You know, they're just now, they're finished and they hit record. To me, you can hear that, that these are new things in the world when you hear them.

HEADLEE: But, you know, the nature of improvisation is that it's often hit or miss, right? Where did this wrong here? What were some of the songs that you listened back to and said, oh, I probably could have done another take?

DARNIELLE: Oh, man. There was one about a guy in a laboratory, making hybrid mustard greens. This song didn't see the light of day, 'cause it wasn't any good. It just, you know, and there's whole songs. Except the one thing is just one of the bonus tracks is one where it has this line about an air conditioner that when I first heard it, I was like, oh, that is a terrible line. Don't, no, that's not any good, you know. And then I listened to...

HEADLEE: What's the line?

DARNIELLE: I can't, I don't, I only listened...

HEADLEE: Well, let me pull up the lyrics for you and we'll find it. What's the name of the song?

DARNIELLE: Which song is it? I think it's in "Midland," I think, I think.

HEADLEE: Let me read these lyrics to you.

DARNIELLE: Let me read the bad lyrics to you.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: (Reading) Stay tell, you feel your legs underneath you again. I've got room in my house for you.

DARNIELLE: I like that one.

HEADLEE: I've got a Kenmore single (unintelligible)...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DARNIELLE: (Singing) Got a Kenmore single room window air conditioner. Cools down the place in the flow in a vent...

It's just the identification of the Kenmore. To me, that's a relative of a different style of lyric writing that I'd be doing, like, two years previously where I was kind of more interested in little specific physical detail. And I sort of can hear myself realizing as I deliver that line that I have outgrown that style, you know. And it's sort of like I hear my enthusiasm lags. But then I think the song sort of, it resolves nicely from there. You sort of have a freedom if you're not worrying about anyone ever hearing it, you know, where you can let things go to a different, almost more interesting place than the place where you're trying to knock everybody over here.

HEADLEE: Before I let you go, John, there is one question I have to ask you, and that is do you still have the Panasonic boombox?

DARNIELLE: So, this is a terrible answer: I don't know. It's either in the basement or it's God knows where.

HEADLEE: John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats. He joined us from member station WUNC in Durham, North Carolina. John, thank you so much.

DARNIELLE: Oh, you're so welcome. Thanks for having me.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.