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Mountain Goats' John Darnielle on coming of age in LA sprawl

The Mountain Goats. Left to right: Jon Wurster, John Darnielle and Peter Hughes.
The Mountain Goats. Left to right: Jon Wurster, John Darnielle and Peter Hughes. .
Steven Dewall/Courtesy Shore Fire PR

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John Darnielle fronts the Mountain Goats, a literate folk band that operates out of North Carolina. But Darnielle — who has been called one of the best living lyricists-made a name for himself in Southern California, where he released dozens of home-recorded tapes and CDs in the 90s. He was in town recently to promote the new Mountain Goats album, "All Eternals Deck," and talked with Off-Ramp producer Kevin Ferguson.

Darnielle was born in San Luis Obispo, Calif. but grew up the suburb Claremont, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles. An alumnus of Pitzer College, Darnielle spent his teens and 20s all over suburban Southern California: Santa Fe Springs, Upland, Garden Grove, and Riverside, just to name a few. He even worked at a state-run psychiatric hospital in Norwalk.

Darnielle formed the Mountain Goats in 1991 when he was 24. And for the majority of the 1990s, Darnielle wrote and recorded Mountain Goats songs almost exclusively at home, usually singing and playing his guitar directly into his boombox. It was there that Darnielle developed his penchant for writing songs with the TV going: "You can always tell the sound of a writer that has decided he knows what he's going to say and now he's going to say it," Darnielle said. "The whole idea with what I do is to not be performing, to be — in some way, and this is a cagey word — authentic."

Unlike many musicians that grew up in L.A.'s sprawling suburbs (the Beach Boys, Black Flag, the Minutemen) Darnielle made it a point of celebrate his old stomping grounds, like on "Going to Chino" from The Hound Chronicles, and early cassette release. He wrote the song just a week before meeting Peter Hughes, his current bassist and a Chino native. "I thought it was really funny to have a song celebrating place that is not a destination. People don't say 'I believe I will take my vacation in Chino!'" said Darnielle.

Darnielle's recorded in a studio for the last few albums, and on "All Eternals Deck" geography doesn't play as big of a role as it did in his early work. There are songs about Portland, Los Angeles, but there are also songs like "Beautiful Gas Masks" which Darnielle says takes place in a "spectral, cosmic, interior landscape."

"It was one of the first songs when my wife and I moved across town. I go to our new house, our stuff isn't moved in yet, but my guitar is. So I'm playing in an empty room and I start hearing the natural reverb. It sounds spooky, it sounds ghostly. And I just started ad-libbing lyrics," he said.

The Mountain Goats' new album All Eternals Deck is out now on Merge Records.