There’s a scene in Animal House where a sensitive singer-songwriter strums an acoustic guitar. John Belushi swaggers by, snaps up the guitar, and smashes it to bits.
“That’s the guy I didn’t want to be,” John Darnielle says with a chuckle, “[the guitarist] imposing his music on people.”
As guitarist, songwriter, and founder of the veteran indie band the Mountain Goats, Darnielle has never forced his vision on listeners. Instead, he embraces the redemptive power of often-derided “junk culture”—professional wrestling receives a sympathetic treatment on the Mountain Goats’ 2015 album, Beat the Champ, and darkly romantic death rockers get some love on the band’s latest, Goths (Merge Records).
Darnielle overcame his initial aversion to acoustic guitars in the 1990s. Ever since his earliest recordings, the Mountain Goats’ sound has been defined by Darnielle’s propulsive, furiously strummed acoustic guitar. Goths is a departure, because Darnielle mostly swaps his acoustic to play piano, but you should still expect to hear a lot of guitar at his shows across the USA and in select European cities in 2017. In between touring, Darnielle shares how his approach to acoustic guitar has evolved over time.
Growing up, you didn’t want to be a confessional singer-songwriter. How did you come around to strumming an acoustic guitar?
I had a predilection for hard-rocking stuff, and acoustic guitars felt soft. As you grow, you realize that those categories are meaningless. Music is a much bigger conversation than hard vs. soft.
‘With a Hawaiian guitar and a steel slide, you can make a lot of noise. I realized that an acoustic guitar is whatever you want to make of it.’
I had a good job, and there was a guitar store four blocks away. I saw an old Hawaiian guitar up on the wall. I had $70 to spare, so I bought it. After a week alone in a room with it, all my preconceptions about acoustic guitar fell away. With a Hawaiian guitar and a steel slide, you can make a lot of noise. I realized that an acoustic guitar is whatever you want to make of it.
What guitars will you be playing on tour?
I play a Larrivée right now. My soundman says it’s the perfect guitar for me, but I’m always curious about trying new stuff. Now I have a new Ovation Legend Plus, which is a gorgeous guitar. I’ve already written a song on it, so that’s a good sign. I can be an artistic player on it, but I can also hammer out rock ’n’ roll tunes. It’s pretty flexible.
The Larrivée is amazing, but it weighs a ton. [Onstage] I’m not sitting in a chair. I’m running back and forth, and jumping up and down. The lighter the guitar, the freer I am to be in my body. So I’m excited about the Ovation.
Can you tell me about writing the Goths’ track ‘Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds’?
After wanting one for ages, I finally got a Guild, and it became the home guitar—for playing bedtime songs to my older son. I took it with me on vacation. Late one night, I looked in a notebook and saw a title, “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds.” I started playing this Johnny Cash figure in E. I wrote a verse and the chorus, and then I put it away. When I came back to it, I was sitting at the keyboard, so that’s how the song went from guitar to piano. It had some moves that I can’t do on guitar. So I thought, “Maybe I’ll write the rest of the album on piano.”
Recently, I’ve been taking my writing experience on piano and applying it to my guitar playing. I wrote a song with a hard modulation on guitar. I’ve been a limited acoustic player, so I’m enjoying learning how to modulate. I’m taking information from one instrument to another.
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.