LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Since 1991, The Mountain Goats have recorded more than 400 songs. Their early albums were created on a boombox and released on cassette. They have since graduated to studio recording and have just released a truly beautiful CD called "The Sunset Tree," with lead singer and songwriter John Darnielle telling provocative, pared-down stories. Some are soft and gentle and scary at the same time. Others are faster and darker, sometimes even a little funny. John Darnielle has spent much of his career denying that his songs are autobiographical--but now, on this recording, they really are.
(Soundbite of unidentified song by The Mountain Goats):
Mr. JOHN DARNIELLE (Lead Singer and Songwriter, The Mountain Goats): (Singing) And then Candy shut up and we hung out, trading swigs from the bottle all bitter and clean, locking eyes, holding hands, twin high-maintenance machines. I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.
WERTHEIMER: John Darnielle joins us in Studio 4A along with bass player Peter Hughes, cellist Erik Friedlander and producer John Vanderslice, who also plays guitar.
So welcome to everybody.
Mr. DARNIELLE: Hi. Thanks so much.
WERTHEIMER: The songs on this CD are autobiographical.
Mr. DARNIELLE: That's true.
WERTHEIMER: You've fessed up to that. Let's just start with one of them, which is called "Dance Music." Since you all are in the studio, you can play it, sing it and what not. But it begins with you singing about being a little kid.
Mr. DARNIELLE: Yeah. I'm five years old...
Mr. DARNIELLE: ...living in San Luis Obispo, which is where I born in Indiana. And my father followed work to San Francisco. He was an English professor. And then he and my mother divorced, and we moved in with my stepfather in an apartment on Johnson Avenue.
WERTHEIMER: OK, let's hear the song.
Mr. DARNIELLE: All right.
(Soundbite of "Dance Music")
Unidentified Band Member: Two, three, four.
Mr. DARNIELLE: (Singing) All right. I'm on Johnson Avenue in San Luis Obispo, and I'm five years old, or six maybe, and indications that there's something wrong with our new house. Trip down the wire twice daily. I'm in the living room watching the Watergate hearings, while my stepfather yells at my mother, launches a glass across the room straight at her head. And I dash upstairs to take cover, leaning close to my little record player on the floor. So this is what the volume knob's for. I listen to...
Mr. DARNIELLE and Unidentified Band Member: (Singing in unison) ...dance music.
Mr. DARNIELLE: (Singing) OK, so look, I'm 17 years old and you're the last best thing I've got going. But then the special secret sickness starts to eat through who you are. What am I supposed to do? No way of knowing so I follow you down your twisting alleyways, find a few cul-de-sacs of my own. There's only one place this road ever ends up...
Mr. DARNIELLE and Unidentified Band Member: (Singing in unison) ...and I don't want to die alone.
Mr. DARNIELLE: (Singing) Let me down, let me down, let me down gently. When the police come to get me I'm listening to dance music. Dance...
Mr. DARNIELLE and Unidentified Band Member: (Singing in unison) ...music.
Mr. DARNIELLE: (Singing) Oh.
WERTHEIMER: That's how it was?
Mr. DARNIELLE: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, not every day, and this is the thing that's funny about writing a record like this: There are a few extremely pleasant childhood memories that you remember, but the daily pleasantness of being a child, even in a hard house to grow up in, is not what you remember if there are these flash moments. And it's why the--in the line I say that there's indications that something wrong. We moved in, and my sister and I loved my stepfather. He was fun. He's the fun dad. And Watergate was on all day in those days. You know, it was just high volume all the time. And I'll never forget this gray glass--it was an NFL glass, I think--flying across the room--it was full of milk--and breaking on the wall. And it was like this sudden intrusion of violence, and I was like, `I'm going upstairs to listen to my little NASA seven-inch.' It was a recording of the moon launch.
WERTHEIMER: You come back to this image in other songs. In one of the darkest songs on the whole recording, you talk about being afraid that they were going to break your stereo.
Mr. DARNIELLE: Yeah. When I was 14, I was living and dying with the records I was listening to. I mean, that was--it was my whole existence for 13 and 14. I was an awkward 13-year-old. And, yeah, when my stepfather would get out of sorts and come in, it's like I didn't much care what you break--the typewriter's kind of invincible and so I wasn't too worried about that--but the stereo was fragile. And I had no way of buying another, so it would be my first fear.
WERTHEIMER: Peter Hughes, John Vanderslice, you've worked with John Darnielle for a number of years. What about singing about these kinds of things? How's this for you?
Mr. JOHN VANDERSLICE (Producer and Guitarist, The Mountain Goats): Peter, you want to take this first?
Mr. PETER HUGHES (Bassist, The Mountain Goats): You want me to jump in?
WERTHEIMER: Yeah. Peter, start.
Mr. HUGHES: Well, I kind of--I felt a little bit of concern for him because I was, you know, in the same hotel room; I'd come out of the shower and he would be sitting on the floor in tears. And whether or not we share the precise experiences or not, I mean there's a lot of this that is very universal, I think, and, you know.
WERTHEIMER: What were you going to say, John?
Mr. VANDERSLICE: Well, for me, when I first started getting the demos from John and Peter, I was very excited to bring this stuff into the studio, but I knew that it would be difficult for John to do that. I mean, he's totally opened himself out, so.
WERTHEIMER: You end the recording with two very sweet, sort of tender songs. One is called "Love, Love, Love," and the other is called "Pale Green Things." They both seem to me to sort of come in a circle...
Mr. DARNIELLE: Yeah.
WERTHEIMER: ...about how children love their parents even when they have awful parents.
Mr. DARNIELLE: Of course, yeah. I mean, of course you do. I love my stepfather, you know. Abusive people are not monsters. They're people who have problems, terrible problems. And so I wanted to bring it around to that.
WERTHEIMER: In "Love, Love, Love," you bring up Brass Calnikov(ph) and then Curt Cobain. Want to 'splain it all to me?
Mr. DARNIELLE: "Questions That I Fear," chapter one. The point of the song is, you know, that we are fairly well damaged by the legacy of the Romantic poets--that we think of love as this, you know, thing that is accompanied by strings and it's a force for good, and if something bad happens then that's not love. And the therapeutic tradition that I come from--I used to work in therapy--you know, also says that it's not love if it feels bad. I don't know so much about that. I don't know that the Greeks weren't right. I think they were--that love can eat a path through everything--that it will destroy a lot of things on the way to its own objective, which is just its expression of itself, you know. I mean, my stepfather loved his family, right? Now he mistreated us terribly quite often, but he loved us. And, you know, well, that to me is something worth commenting on in the hopes of undoing a lot of what I perceive as terrible damage in the way people talk about this--love is this benign, comfortable force. It's not that. It's wild, you know?
WERTHEIMER: Well, let's hear it.
Mr. DARNIELLE: All right.
(Soundbite of "Love, Love, Love")
Mr. DARNIELLE: (Singing) King Saul fell on his sword when it all went wrong, and Joseph's brothers sold him down the river for a song. And Sonny Liston rubbed some tiger balm into his glove. Some things you do for money, some you do for love.
Brass Calnikov felt sick, but he couldn't say why, when he saw his face reflected in his victim's twinkling eye. Some things you'll do for money, some you'll do for fun. But the things you do for love are gonna come back to you one by one.
Mr. DARNIELLE and Unidentified Band Member: (Singing in unison) Love, love is gonna lead you by the hand into a wide and silent space. Now we see things...
Mr. DARNIELLE: (Singing) ...as in a mirror dimly. Then we shall see each other face-to-face.
And way out in Seattle young Curt Cobain snuck out to the greenhouse, put a bullet in his brain. Snakes in the grass beneath our feet, rain in the clouds above. Some moments last forever, but some flare out with love, love, love.
WERTHEIMER: Thank you all very much.
Mr. VANDERSLICE: Well, thank you.
Mr. DARNIELLE: Thank you, Linda.
Mr. HUGHES: Thanks for having us.
WERTHEIMER: John Darnielle, Peter Hughes, Erik Friedlander and John Vanderslice speaking from our Studio 4A. The new Mountain Goats album is called "The Sunset Tree." To hear them play another song, come to our Web site, npr.org.
And this is WEEKEND EDITION.
WERTHEIMER: Scott Simon is back next week. I'm Linda Wertheimer.