Now Here We Are Thirty Years Later: A Memoir in Mountain Goats Songs

By Richard O'Brien

An experimental music memoir inspired by cult band The Mountain Goats.

Friday, 29 July 2022

Alpha Link Gatherer

Hi all,

I’ve been planning out my research trip next month to Portland (and Norwalk, where John Darnielle first started recording as the Mountain Goats), setting up interviews, and scouring the scattered archive of Mountain Goats ephemera online to piece together a local itinerary. I’ll tell you about some of what I’ll be doing nearer the time, and if we can make it to 100 backers for the book of NOW HERE WE ARE THIRTY YEARS LATER (we're currently at 94), I’ll also be putting together a Portland playlist: consider the video above a preview, which I've written some more about further down this update.

We’re currently at 13% funded, and we have until October 29th to make the full target, so I'm really grateful to those of you have already backed the project, helping to make this book a reality. Anything you can do to help make more Mountain Goats fans, or fans of creative non-fiction more broadly, aware of what I'm working on would also be really greatly appreciated, so if you feel like telling others about the project on social media, there are lots of links and summaries you can share, like this one from me and this from John himself. Or you could even share this low-grade Tiktok explainer made by a 32-year-old! 

If there's someone in your life who might be tempted, we currently have a new featured reward tier: 'A roll of 32 exposures,' featuring a one-off disposable camera photograph from my Portland trip as part of the package. All details here

Outside of Portland planning, I’ve mostly been trying to get some new poems written - ostensibly unrelatedly, but of course, John Darnielle’s words have a way of fixing themselves in your memory. Here’s a few lines from one of them, about a snowy owl on the abandoned island of St. Kilda which would never have been written without a phrase from ‘Song for the Julian Calendar’ - ‘Darkness climbing up the ladders to the sky / Rung by agonising rung’:

High above the bones of Hirta, 
    hemmed by gannet, puffin, fulmar, 
where the sheep have slipped their tethers, 
    where the trackers flinch, 

she observes defence contractors 
    scaling down the human factor, 
unbuilding the past before her, 
    inch by blustery inch. 

But although the premise of the book is one fan’s story, you might well feel you’ve heard quite enough from me for a while, and I thought it might be nice instead to do a round up of some of the other great Mountain Goats content I’ve come across online in the last few weeks, particularly for those of you have come to the project from other angles and would like to know a little more about the subject. From live recordings to fan-led projects, together they give a sense of the powerful feeling of community this band has given rise to, and I hope you’ll find something to enjoy in there too.

John Darnielle interviewed by Craig Finn.

It’s a fair bet a few of you are Finn fans too, but if you don’t know his work with Lifter Puller, the Hold Steady, or the rueful Americana of his solo albums, you might nonetheless perk up your ears at Darnielle’s description of his songwriting: ‘Craig Finn is the perfect mixture of Damon Runyon and William Butler Yeats: he has an ear for the dialect, but he keeps his eye on some grand apocalyptic vision of the end times.’ Sharing many fans since they were paired in a 2005 New Yorker profile, it’s a treat to hear these two writers who have had a profound mutual influence discussing their work for an hour on Finn’s new podcast from Talkhouse.

As you might expect from the title, the discussion pivots on a theme that’s central to this project: memory and what we do with it. ‘I’ve been thinking about memory as a subject since the earliest days of the Mountain Goats … it was an obsessive topic for me,’ Darnielle tells Finn. ‘All my characters were always obsessing about what they would or would not remember, and using their memory as a weapon sometime.’ The conversation also delves into trauma, empathy, and action movies, with a discussion towards the end about Catholicism, form and boundaries which, as you might imagine, will be finding its way into the 30YL book manuscript (see the 2004 chapter on the Substack newsletter for my own take on those subjects in ‘Against Pollution’).

Daily John Darnielle Exclamations on Instagram

If you’re in a ‘less talking, more yelling’ kind of mood, you’ll probably get a kick out of my current favourite Mountain Goats-related account on Instagram. Daily John Darnielle Exclamations posts what it says on the tin, drawing on the vast online archive of live shows as well as studio recordings to excerpt and celebrate some of the whoops, yells and howls that are a hallmark of those moments in Mountain Goats performances where Darnielle’s carefully-crafted language seems to give way to a force beyond the verbal. After all, as I discussed in the 1996 chapter, it’s his belief that ‘if people come out to see you play, you oughta be willing to bleed a little.’' In the words of this 2013 performance of ‘You Were Cool’: Yeah, yeah!

Live duo show at Wooly’s, Des Moines, IA on 2022-07-16

John and Matt Douglas have recently been touring the southeastern and midwestern U.S. with a duo show that’s been throwing up some interesting setlists. Matt’s background in improvisation allows for on-the-fly arrangements of deeper cuts, like the ‘Going to Kansas’ (first recorded on a boombox in 1992) heard in this recent Iowa show, and a fairly free approach to the setlist. The recording is by Liz Hamilton, and captures some of the best live renditions I’ve ever heard of ‘Heretic Pride,’ ‘Steal Smoked Fish,’ and ‘Liza Forever Minnelli.’ Most of the rest of the tour seems to be now be available on archive.org, so there are doubtless a few similar surprises to explore.

The Mountain Goats Listener's Almanac Flowchart (2022)

The Mountain Goats discography can be intimidating to navigate, but has also maintained a remarkable level of thematic unity. One of the tasks I’ve set myself with this project is identifying connections between songs, however far apart in time they were recorded, to bring out some of those artistic through-lines. Artist Megan Rojek has been drawing paths through the catalogue in visual form, and I love the results: cleanly navigable and highly aesthetically pleasing. You can see Megan’s ‘Pale Green Things’ image below, with two other designs on Imgur, and contact her on her website if you’d like your own copy.

Shriekback’s ‘Nemesis’

There’s a lot of writing on John Darnielle’s old music blog, Last Plane to Jakarta, that offers oblique insights into the kinds of things his own work is doing, and where some of its animating impulses come from. I opened, at random, a 2001 essay on LPTJ this morning about the launch of the iTunes music store, and found tucked within it this incredible summary of an amazing song I’d never heard of that, and which sounds to me like ‘Lucrezia My Reflection’ with a joyful glint in its eye:

The first time I danced to Shriekback’s “Nemesis” still burns freshly in my brain despite the facts that it happened almost twenty years ago and I was probably on a lot of drugs at the time. […] And when the DJ at the City Niteclub in Portland played it for my young permanently jaded secretly-ecstatic and highly-at-risk self, something inside my brain went technicolor. Because the song is joy and dread coming at you in the same moment: that huge beat, the sneering, knowing, soothing, dangerous singing voice, the Jon Hassel-style treated guitars, and that chorus: 

Priests and cannibals! Prehistoric animals!
Everybody happy as the dead come home!
Big black nemesis! Parthenogenesis!
No-one move a muscle as the dead come home!

And if those lyrics sound like the kind of thing that might have got a hold on to young Darnielle’s imagination, ‘We are no monsters, we're moral people / And yet we have the strength to do this’ and ‘How bad it gets, you can't imagine / The burning wax, the breath of reptiles’ are just around the corner and would also like a word.

I’ll leave it there for now - if you’ve come across any good tMG content online, I’d love to hear from you, and if you enjoyed this round-up, do consider telling a friend about the project or sharing a post on social media. Thanks so much,

All best,

Richard

Back to project page
Share on social

Top rewards