John Darnielle Goes Back To The Boombox
John Darnielle thought he had a solid plan for the first half of 2020. In January, he and the members of the Mountain Goats, his band of almost 30 years, would convene at a studio not far from his home in Durham, N.C., to run through songs he'd written for their next album. A month or so later, they'd bounce between two famed studios in the Deep South, recording the meat of that album. And finally, a month or so after that, they'd reconvene for a three-week spring tour of large rock clubs and theaters, stretching from the Blue Ridge Mountains west to the Rockies.
But from the start of their sessions, the headlines had Darnielle worried. A psychiatric nurse through much of the '90s, and a songwriter and award-winning novelist who had summoned images of apocalypse, plague and upheaval for his entire career, he saw in the news the warning signs of a major problem: bickering governments, bungled science, bad communication. The rest of the band wasn't convinced. When Darnielle scrapped a whip-smart album opener that once felt like a hit because it now felt morbid and crass, some members scoffed.
By the time Darnielle began a long drive from the recording studio back to North Carolina on Sunday, March 15, one day before his 53rd birthday, the encroaching crisis was clear. Donald Trump had declared a national emergency. The NBA had suspended its season. The United States was on the cusp of 3,000 confirmed cases. Darnielle was supposed to fly home, but, for fear of exposure, canceled his flight. The band's tour looked to be next on the chopping block — for Darnielle, a crisis all its own.
For its first decade, the Mountain Goats was essentially Darnielle's home recording project. When he spotted a line in a book or a scene in a film that moved him, he'd write a song and record it on the spot, howling into a cheap boombox he lugged from California to Chicago, then from Iowa to North Carolina. Over the last 20 years, the Mountain Goats has grown into a full rock band — adding first bass, then drums, then keyboards and horns — that seems to be perpetually touring or recording. But with large gatherings effectively banned, touring was now off the table, and perhaps that would even affect the release of album they'd just finished.
"Everyone in the Mountain Goats has a side hustle, but our touring is our gig — that's how we make rent," says Darnielle, who typically splits recording revenues evenly among the band members who play on a specific album. "And I feel a profound responsibility to my band. They work their asses off every year on this stuff."
So, as he explained in a series of phone calls earlier this week, Darnielle hatched a plan. Safe at home in Durham, he would write and release an entirely new album all on his own, and shuttle the money earned directly to his collaborators and crew. As was the case with workers worldwide, the coronavirus pandemic was about to cost the Mountain Goats a lot of income. This would help, at least for a month or so.
To record the new songs, he cajoled the earliest Mountain Goats member out of retirement for the first time in at least a decade: the Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox that he'd used to make the strings of cassettes, CDs and seven-inch singles that first earned him cult allegiance. He wrote 10 songs in 10 consecutive days, yowling or cooing them into the boombox one by one as soon as the words were on paper.
Songs for Pierre Chuvin — a breathless burst of a record, inspired by reading the French historian's overview of paganism's collapse at the hands of Christianity — is out Friday via Merge Records in an edition of 1,000 hand-numbered cassettes. Full of images fit for these dismal times and slogans suited to surviving them, Pierre Chuvin is an inspiring reminder of how much each of us has left to learn.
Darnielle's boombox is one of indie rock's most fabled totems, part of an origin story that ranks somewhere between Steve Albini's Electrical Audio empire and Bon Iver's snowbound cabin. In his early 20s, he lived and played with noisy, careening rock bands in Montclair, Calif. When their four-track hit the fritz, he browsed Circuit City's aisles in search of a cheap substitute, looking for something more versatile and simple. As best as he remembers, he paid $89 for the Panasonic in 1989. It never actually replaced the four-track for the bands, but when he started writing songs to sing or scream alone in his adenoidal, barely pitched tenor, it was perfect.
"When you're making music, you have to be honest about what sounds good," says Darnielle. He speaks like he sings, in bursts so excitable they feel contagious. "If I wasn't thinking about how stuff was supposed to sound, then this boombox sounded cool as hell."
The RX-FT500 was not designed to launch a career, of course. Rather than some hulking brick you might see hoisted by a b-boy or John Cusack, it is short, slim and sleek, like a little black torpedo. At a glance, you might not even notice it has a microphone — just wide speakers and a long radio dial.
Its sonic idiosyncrasies are side effects of its imperfect design. The tape decks and the condenser microphone are squeezed together, so the microphone picks up the assorted whirs and clicks of the gears and wheels as they move — meaning that while recording his songs, Darnielle was accidentally recording the act of recording them, too. It's a palimpsest and timestamp that, more than a quarter-century later, still makes you feel like you're sitting in the room with him as he roars into the cheap little machine. Enhancing that visceral sense of proximity, its microphone has never worked correctly either — failing to adjust to changes in volume, so that loud vocals crackle and hard guitar strums suggest slashes to the face.
"With the studio, you are trying to construct a thing that eventually reflects your vision," Darnielle says. "With the Panasonic, what you're hearing is what I am feeling. The Panasonic is my fellow musician."
The decade of Mountain Goats songs recorded predominantly on the Panasonic offered unapologetic lessons about empathy for outsiders and brilliant case studies of longing and despair. Darnielle bound together love and hate, tenderness and antipathy, mercy and persecution, and he interlaced references to exotic locales and esoteric facts with élan, like a poetic proto-Wikipedia. He sang and strummed and shouted so hard that it sometimes seemed as if the musician and the machine might merge, their circuits bound inside an analog chimera.
At the turn of the millennium, Darnielle used the boombox to record the bulk of his landmark All Hail West Texas, a magnetic document of emotions so raw and images so specific they conjure the electric sensations of grainy home movies rescued from an attic. On "Jenny," he sings of climbing onto the back of a girlfriend's new Kawasaki motorcycle; it's a love song not just for her but for the possibilities of youth and freedom. "Hi-diddle-dee-dee, goddamn, the pirate's life for me," Darnielle shouts at the end of the final chorus, the tape's buzz redoubling the sense of adolescent joy.
After All Hail West Texas, he largely shelved the boombox to try and find that feeling in a studio. Not only had the machine become temperamental, its gears peppering tracks with arrhythmic clicks that no amount of editing could fix, but he'd also signed to 4AD, the legendary indie label responsible for the careers of Cocteau Twins, the Pixies and Bauhaus. On a steady series of popular breakthroughs that began with 2002's Tallahassee, he started recording in increasingly lavish settings, from the sprawling Sonic Ranch compound in West Texas to modern country rooms in Nashville. String sections and horns, choirs and marquee producers: Darnielle was trying to discover the new forms his songs might take, to uncover sounds that might better animate his words.
"I started getting much more interested in the world of music — extensions, bridges, orchestrations, instrumental passages. I hadn't exactly exhausted this expressive singer-songwriter thing, but I'd spent a lot of time on it, right? You only live once, and you only get to explore as much music as you can," says Darnielle. "My priorities changed."
The Mountain Goats' earliest adherents, though, haven't always followed. Mountain Goats fandom can be obsessive to the point of infamy — there are online warrens devoted to detailed analyses of Darnielle's every lyric or quip, offering the sort of attention and speculation typically reserved for Dylanologists or bootleg-trading jam-band devotees. Diehards have pined publicly for the off-the-cuff, unmitigated essence of his early releases, versus the last decade's sophisticated productions and ambitious arrangements.
Darnielle gets that, he admits — and says he found it satisfying to slip temporarily into the old mode of fast-and-furious production for the past three weeks. He would spot an evocative line in Chuvin's A Chronicle of the Last Pagans, make a note to himself, and start working. He mined the book's images of antiquity — woodsmen with axes, Carthage rising, ruins of falling empires — and bound them together with calls for perseverance amid moments of rampant uncertainty. Then, he would record the song the moment it was finished.
"You are hearing a song as close to the moment of its birth as you can get it," Darnielle says, noting that a few of these recordings are first takes. "That's when the lyrics are still funnier to me than to anyone else and when the excitement that you might feel listening is equivalent to the excitement I feel noticing it's going to work. You do not get that with the studio."
In the '90s, Darnielle remembers coming home from his nursing shifts, brewing a pot of coffee and writing and recording alone late into the night. He had all the time he could want to find the sharpest line or the best take. But he and his wife, Lalitree, now have two sons, Roman and Moses. To render these new songs, Darnielle would steal away for 90 minutes at a time to his and Lalitree's bedroom, the Panasonic in tow. (Listen closely, and you can occasionally hear the family on the other side of the door, their muffled voices drifting through the hum).
At first, the machine didn't quite work. Those nuisance clicks — the sound of gears bumping into one another — were back. He ordered a replacement boombox online, but it lacked the warmth and character he'd expected for 30 years. Instead, turned the original Panasonic on its end, so it looked like a tower. The gears fell into place, and the clicking graciously stopped.
These logistical hurdles are a reminder of the ones many of us face working from home right now. But they also testify to how our lives and circumstances advance, whether or not we're ready. As much as Songs for Pierre Chuvin mines Darnielle's old techniques for source material and surface hiss, these 10 songs are a pointed reminder of the possibilities of the future — how much one person can evolve inside the mold they've made for themselves, or step out of it altogether.
"Old dudes will tell you when you're in your 20s that you have the world by the short hairs because you have so much time. You go, 'Whatever, old man, I'm busy, too,' " Darnielle says, as Moses and Roman play in the background. "But you weren't. I don't have the leisure I used to have."
By design and practice, Darnielle's a better musician and singer than he was on those atavistic tapes. Hearing him now in this bygone context reinforces that growth. During the tender and muted "Exegetic Chains," he answers one of his past anthems, "This Year," to remind us we've all encountered hard times before: "Make it through this year / If it kills you outright." At one point, he tucks into a gentle falsetto and carries the note, simultaneously vulnerable and strong.
Likewise, "Aulon Raid" boasts one of Darnielle's trademark taunts: "We will deal with you / Me and my pagan crew." Now, though, he finesses the chorus, bending it like a finger that dares you to come closer. For an instant, it's hard to believe it's the same guy who once bellowed "Hail Satan" again and again, capping a song that has since become his primitive standard. That '90s vigor flashes out undiminished a few times, like when he yells his way through "Until Olympius Returns" or intersperses impromptu exclamations throughout "January 31, 438."
"My pitch is better than it used to be, but I proved to myself that, if I have to sing like the old Mountain Goats, I can do that. And I'd wondered," Darnielle says, giddy with the admission. "Now I'm confident I could go back to that way, just releasing two tapes a year."
But the Mountain Goats have grown into an extended family, of course, as Darnielle's raised a family of his own. These are blessings and commitments he might not have imagined while chugging coffee and recording with his boombox two decades ago.
With those increased responsibilities come better resources. After Darnielle told his manager, Ryan Matteson, about the idea for the tape, they put the production process in fast-forward. As soon as the music was finished, Darnielle drove it to the studio of the mastering engineer who had worked on a deluxe 2013 reissue of All Hail West Texas, dropping it outside the door to maintain social distance. His label, Merge, then shipped the files to a tape-duplication company. They will start mailing the cassettes in June.
That's fast for a physical product, but Darnielle says he loves that listeners will hear the cassette online starting April 10, just two weeks since the boombox captured the tunes in his bedroom. "I wish to f*** I could have gotten them out on the eleventh day, dubbed the tapes myself," he says, laughing. "But we live in a digital world, and it had to be mastered and all that stuff."
In the end, hearing Songs for Pierre Chuvin is like having lunch with a friend you haven't seen much since your shared salad days — perhaps when you were both partying too much, barely able to pay rent, looking for love in all the wrong places. You reconnect with them in new ways you would have never imagined. That old spark coexists with a feeling of indelible kinship — but the topics of conversation have grown, and the insights into life more hard-won and lived-in. There's the frisson of the good old days, and the realization that you've both become something better than you would have dared to imagine back when ends rarely met or age seemed only like a rumor.
With Songs for Pierre Chuvin done, the Panasonic is back on the shelf. Darnielle's got no immediate plans to use it, or to have that pesky problem fixed by a technician he's not sure even exists. As he sees it, the machine has done more than its part: Decades ago, it helped him start a long career. And at least this month, it's helped him make rent for everyone he employs.
"If the machine stops working, that's my message it's time to find a new machine or just stop doing something. It's my style to be a California hippie about this stuff," Darnielle says. "What else can I do?"
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