John Darnielle made it through 1986, but it almost killed him.
At the time, the Mountain Goats singer was a teenager who had left an abusive home situation in California to pursue a life of drug and alcohol addiction with his girlfriend. Typically dressed like an undertaker, with dyed jet-black hair, sunglasses, white Oxford shoes and long black sleeves, Darnielle spent his goth phase in Portland attempting to look as "deathly" as possible—a term of praise, he says.
For Goths, his band's 16th studio album, Darnielle revisits those days he spent in Portland, haunting clubs and living as a creature of the night. Although he now lives in North Carolina playing highly literate indie rock, it was in Portland where Darnielle learned to "feast when you can and dream when there's nothing to feast on," as he sang in 2012.
Darnielle spoke with Willamette Week about writing songs on piano, the old Portland drug spots he wishes he could revisit and the psychological challenge of returning to the city where he almost died.
WW: Goths has a lot of jazz influence in it.
John Darnielle: Since Transcendental Youth, I've sort of been getting more and more in touch with jazz stuff. My father is a jazz pianist. Every time I see him, I get a little piano lesson. And I'm not a good pianist, but I've been getting better at writing and modulating and doing all kinds of stuff that's interesting to me that I can't do on guitar.
This is the first album you've written entirely on piano, right?
Right. It's been trending that way since 2008 or 2009. This one, I wrote the first half of "Andrew Eldritch" on guitar, and then I just put the guitar down.
How does it compare to writing on guitar?
On piano, because the stuff I'm writing is a little more complicated, I usually write an instrumental piece first, or a verse through a chorus. Then I figure out what kind of meter will fit that. Then usually I'll finish the lyric, but usually the focus on the music is a lot purer. There's a lot more seeing how it would work as an instrumental piece, and you can hear that on "Wear Black," which is almost blues with a big modulation.
"Wear Black" seems to have a lot of gospel influence—it's like a church song for a goth gathering.
The structure is essentially blues, except that modulation is pretty jazz. I was in the piano room here and I had written a song called "Wear Black" on, I think, the All Eternals Deck tour. It was a different song, but it was the same lyrical concept. It was in open tuning on the guitar, but nothing ever happened to it. It never went anywhere, but I liked the idea. So I started doing this little blues riff, and I thought it was pretty interesting sounding. It didn't have a concept, and that was where the "Wear Black" idea came in. So I plugged it in and it went where it went, and now it's one of the most personal songs on the album.
Your time spent living in Portland has been pretty well-documented. On WTF With Marc Maron you said you were "chasing death" while you lived here.
You mentioned "Wear Black," and that's a Portland song. "Wear Black" is partly about when I wore dark sunglasses, dark clothes and white oxfords and walked around looking like an undertaker. That's what I looked like in Portland. I remember I had a psychology professor who showed up [when I was] post-blackout, and she drove me to the hospital and dropped me off there. So "Wear Black" is kind of about the me who lived in Portland.
What goes through your mind when you come back to town?
It's intense. It's very heavy. Another thing, the album is about looking at the past through the eyes of the present. For me, I used to get anxiety attacks when we'd pull into Portland, because I almost died there. I had a heavy overdose in February of '86, and there are two or three days that are lost. I used to get serious PTSD before going to Portland because the town just hurt me.
It's not true anymore, because I have a lot of friends there, but the Portland that I lived in is almost completely gone now. Although the apartment that I lived in is still right there on Broadway. It looks exactly the same. Exactly the same. I know because I went there a few years ago and I stood at the door and somebody came out and I walked right in and walked down to the doorway of my old room, and there's still a scuff mark that I put there. And that's 20-something years later.
There's some trauma and there's some really good times. There's a dance club that I used to dance at. The City Nightclub is legendary in Portland circles. Many of the people who danced there are dead now, but the people who were there know it was a transformative place of profound personal liberation. If it hadn't been for the City, I'd be dead now. It was run by a guy named Lanny Swerdlow, and it was an amazing queer dance club where I would go four nights a week when I could and stay until 4 in the morning. It was super-important to me. There's some very good memories of the people who kept me alive, but also, I was not a great person. I was a fucking train wreck.
You mentioned that you have visited your old apartment. Are there any places in Portland that you want to visit when you come back, or anything that you're still drawn to?
The thing is, I have done all of these memory walks every time I go. I give myself a lot of time to walk everywhere. I've been to most of the places at least once, and a lot of the places I would like to go to are gone. The buildings have been knocked down, and you can't see them anymore.
There was a time we went way the hell up to Northeast to score dope. I don't remember exactly where it was, but the people in the apartment were listening to the new Peter Gabriel record at the time. I'd love to see the inside of that apartment again, but I never will because I don't know exactly where it was.
SEE IT: The Mountain Goats play Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W Burnside St., on Sunday, June 4. 8 pm. $27.50. All ages.