Episode 072: John Darnielle
“Once a bugle stood in the window of a store that sold brass goods.” That’s the first line of The Magical Bugle, a short story written by a young John Darnielle after acquiring an old Royal typewriter for his seventh birthday. It was a line so good his father taught it to his Freshman composition students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Darnielle has, it turns out, been a writer his whole life, and if that first sentence is any indication, he’s been always been a pretty good one. Since the mid-90s, he's been best recognized as the frontman and sometime sole member of The Mountain Goats, a southern California indie rock outfit defined by the musician’s intensely emotive vocals and narrative song structures that play out like two to three minute short stories. His early career was also marked by lo-fi recording techniques, with songs often taped directly to a cassette boombox. In 2002, Darnielle released Tallahassee, a concept album relating the story of a embittered Florida couple perpetually near divorce. The singer’s second LP that year, the record also marked the first Mountain Goats record to be performed by a full band. An arguable disappointment to some of his hardcore fanbase, the record was a perfect manifestation of Darnielle’s desire to pursue new challenges, having taken home recording to its logical conclusion with the equally brilliant All Hail West Texas. Wolf in White Van marks is a similar pursuit in some sense, the novel serving as a manifestation of his desire to perpetually challenge himself, though Darnielle’s decision to pen a novel likely didn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone familiar with his songwriting abilities — or any mid-70s Cal Poly composition students. Darnielle and I sat down in the Manhattan offices of his publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a veritable shrine to the written word, to discuss the novel, his life long science fiction and the importance of being able to throw things away.