We were excited to interview folk/rock singer John Darnielle, from The Mountain Goats, because his songs had always seemed like the perfect alternative science fiction soundtrack to us. Maybe it's the way they wrap otherworldly tropes, including alien invasions, in with their alienated ballads. Their latest album includes a song about H.P. Lovecraft, and Darnielle's first book is an exploration of Black Sabbath's Master of Reality, space travel ode and all. Darnielle explains his science fiction influences, and whether he's a dystopian songwriter.
A lot of your songs take place in a bleak semi-destroyed world and focus on collapsing/decaying structures and corrupt systems. Do you think of yourself as a dystopian songwriter? Are you influenced by any particular dystopian works, like Brazil or other post-apocalyptic films?
You know, I hadn't thought of myself like that, mainly because I try to avoid saying "I am thus-and-such a kind of songwriter" — I think you have to be careful not to compartmentalize yourself, or at least that's true for me. But I was a young comics & SF books reader and it's true that much of my favorite stuff involved post-apocalyptic scenarios: Logan's Run was a big movie for me when I was a kid, and there was a James Sallis story in Again, Dangerous Visions that left a huge impression even though I'm not sure I was even reading it right. I barely remember it except that it felt kinda scorched-earth, you know? But always in those movies the best part was when they see, like, the Forbidden Zone in Planet of the Apes, or the overgrown places outside the city where Logan finds Peter Ustinov with his cats. Am I even remembering that right?
One of my favorite songs of yours is "The Day The Aliens Came," the one about waiting eagerly for the genocidal alien invaders to arrive, which was left off the Sunset Tree album. Was there some reason this song was omitted? Could this song inadvertently have given away crucial info on the coming alien invasion?
Yeah we recorded that one in the studio and we sort of went nuts with it — it had this huge treated surf-y electric guitar and jaunty rhythm section and emotionally it just didn't fit into the album at all any more. After a recording session, when you're putting an album together, some songs sort of raise their hands and quietly say "I don't really play well with the others here." And that was true with that song; I dug the song, everybody liked it, it had a great feel. But it was out of place there.
Your new album includes a song about H.P. Lovecraft, "Lovecraft In Brooklyn." Why should we identify with H.P. Lovecraft's feelings of alienation and xenophobia during his exile in Red Hook? What about that image appeals to you? In Lovecraft's case, that alienation leads to all his best speculative horror... do you think xenophobia creates better speculative fiction than xenophilia?
Well the song is not really about Lovecraft — it's sung by a guy who's identifying with Lovecraft at his most xenophobic and terrified. Why does that appeal? I think I'm just attracted to hermits in general — to people who don't feel like they're part of the world, who have a hard time feeling like they're really present in the same space as everybody else.
Second part of your question is self-evidently true, the classic trope is Alien Invasion, right, not Aliens Who Are Swell Folks!
Are there particular science fiction authors you're influenced by? Or other works of science fiction that have had an impact on your writing process?
When I was a kid I pretty much worshiped Harlan Ellison and I still think he's a good writer. Through his interviews & his introductions in the Dangerous Visions books I got into James Sallis & Carol Emshwiller, and I'm still a big Emshwiller fan to this day — she writes such hard good sentences. I think I checked out of the science fiction hotel early in high school and never really looked back, lit-wise — the stuff that was getting popular was Piers Anthony and Anne McCaffrey stuff, and more power to anybody who's into that sort of thing, but I liked much much darker stuff and I started reading Faulkner instead. I think I'm more interested in horror than science fiction ever since — it's more of a constricted niche but it seems to attract writers whose visions are more demented. Not that there isn't plenty of awful horror too of course. If I gotta see one more well-dressed ambiguously sexual vampire whose manners are 19th-century impeccable, I'm gonna fall asleep and never wake up again.
Your new book, Master Of Reality, is about a teenager in an adolescent psychiatric care facility explaining his need for his confiscated copy of the Black Sabbath album the way you'd explain "love to an android," according to the 33 1/3 blog. I'm dying to read it. How far do you pursue this metaphor? Is adult sanity like being an android? Also, the album ends with "Into The Void," about leaving a doomed Earth for outer space. Do you think people still write songs about this type of escapism from a ruined world? (I can't think of any recent "we're leaving Earth" songs, but maybe I'm missing something.)
I think the narrator of the book is saying something that all teenagers know instinctively: that there is something wrong with adults. That, somewhere along the way, the adults lost the plot. Maybe it's just that they got stressed out by having to pay bills, or maybe it's just the nature of aging, but from a teenager's perspective, it looks like aging just strips you of your ability to be reasonable, to be cool, to understand other people. So in that sense, teenagers are living as captives in some colony where the androids have all taken over, and where they've made it clear that they intend to turn their captives into androids, too.
I think people prefer to soak in dystopianism more than write about escape the way Ozzy did — and, to be honest, I think it's posing to focus real hard on "the world is screwed!" tropes. It's like, every emo and metalcore band thinks they're the first people to notice that the world is harsh. Good job dudes! Give yourselves a gold star! Meanwhile Ozzy has the courage to dream, to talk about leaving the world and going someplace where everything's cool, and he sneaks in "the world is screwed" tropes while he's at it - that's what makes for a good lyric, I think — that little bit of extra effort.