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'Something Being Born': On Making A Classic Album With A Boombox

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'Something Being Born': On Making A Classic Album With A Boombox

Music Articles

'Something Being Born': On Making A Classic Album With A Boombox

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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)...


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.

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