John Darnielle, much-beloved singer-songwriter of the Mountain Goats, recently saw the release of his latest effort — not the new album, but rather a novel inspired by Black Sabbath’s seminal release, Master of Reality. The book is part of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, which invites writers of all stripes to interpret a favorite album however they see fit. Darnielle’s story investigates and pulls together the nature of passion, resentment, heavy metal and Roger Painter, a teenager trapped in a youth psychiatric ward in 1985. We recently emailed John Darnielle to talk about the book and what it means to take adolescent experiences seriously.
The L: First off, can you give us the story of how you got involved with the 33 1/3 series?
John Darnielle: I think somebody at some point asked me if I was going to pitch something — I hadn’t really thought about it much until then. I mean, during pitching season, if your friends are music geeks it seems like everybody’s gearing up to pitch, and I’m not really cut out for trying to write the most bleeding-edge pitch or anything. But I did have a little chip on my shoulder about how most of the albums were pretty safe — no metal, little really that belonged to, you know, outsiders. I don’t know how much Sabbath really belongs to outsiders anymore — they’ve sort of aged into respect — but I wanted to write from the perspective of somebody other than a guy who knows all about all the cool music and so forth.
The L: Your devotion to metal — and pretty diehard metal at that — is well-documented. How did you choose Black Sabbath as your subject for this project? Were there any other albums or bands that you considered before landing on Master of Reality?
JD: Trying to think, but I don’t remember anybody who really stands out — I mean, Sabbath seemed like a glaring omission to me. Easily one of the best bands of all time. I think maybe ...and Justice for All should get a volume, but I’m not the man to write that one. As far as actual death metal goes, there aren’t so many records that’re properly canonical as to merit a 33 1/3 volume — maybe Napalm Death, probably Carcass, but I’d want to leave those to people like Albert Mudrian or Anthony Bartkiewicz or Adrian Begrand — dudes who’ve got the history of this stuff tattooed on the insides of their eyelids. Me, my favorite stuff is too footnotey and small to merit whole books — offbeat death metal like Nocturnus or Aeternus or straight-up, get-you-called-a-poseur-for-loving-it, woman-fronted power metal like Epica or Nightwish.
The L: Your lyrics, as it’s often been noted, brim with story-like qualities, but how was the switch to working on straight fiction? While you were working on the book, did it affect your songwriting in any way?
JD: I don’t think the songs really communicated much with the book, no. What songs on the new album were written while I was working on the book? About half of them. I do think maybe that when the narrator would say what he thought was cool about a song, I’d maybe cock an ear in that direction and think a little while writing a song: “How would your narrator feel about this?” Because that kid has a pretty good bullshit detector. But then again, you know, I like stuff a little romantic, so I can’t really just let a dude who’s all aggro call the shots for me.
The L: I can’t help bringing up your song, ‘The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton’. Any relation between Roger, from Master of Reality, and the two kids whose heavy metal dreams fall under fire in that song? Is Roger an outgrowth of an earlier conceived character?
JD: No, no. Those two kids are sketches, really — I mean, it’s clear from the end of the song that they don’t deserve to have been hospitalized. Roger complains a lot about having been sent to the hospital, but it’s also clear he has real problems — he didn’t just scrawl a logo on a notebook and encounter overreacting authority figures, and he’s also not the kind of guy to really act out the way Jeff & Cyrus do.
The L: Before becoming a full-time musician, you spent some time as a psychiatric nurse in a state facility in California. How much, if any, of the book was informed by that experience?
JD: Well, the technical aspects of how stuff works is the main thing: how a patient’s first day, if he’s on a locked unit, is often spent in a robe so he can’t run from the facility. Rules, regulations, protocol. The physical layout of the unit, the workings of the daily routine. The way a young patient will usually trust the doctor more than the floor staff. Stuff like that.
The L: In a lot of ways, your take on Master of Reality is universally relatable. While it’s about Black Sabbath specifically, it also seems highly concerned with the intersection of nostalgia, self-identification and the loss of youth. That’s a tough area to broach without losing the story in a sentimental bog of teenage memories, especially since most of Roger’s story is driven by thought rather than action. Was that at all on your mind as you were writing?
JD: Yeah, I mean, I am downright allergic to adults romanticizing adolescence. I get really angry when I think about it — how an adult will tell an adolescent, “You’re going to remember these as the best years of your life.” Inside I am still an adolescent when I imagine an adult having the gall to tell a teenager something like that, you know? I worked with children and young adolescents a lot in the late nineties and early 00’s and my experience of them is that they’re rather smarter than adults — maybe adults have an edge in the sort of wisdom that comes with experience, but kids are quicker and sharper and generally haven’t yet decided that holding back your emotions is the best way to live your life. And, I mean, the way I feel about young men and women is that sentimentalizing their position is destructive — and, really, kind of rude, you know? So, as much as I could, I wanted to try to honestly articulate what it’s like in a young man’s head when it seems to him like adults are, one, pretty stupid, and, two, maybe kinda evil.
The L: You mentioned in a recent interview that your book is “criticism masquerading as a novel.” That’s an interesting statement — can you expand on it?
JD: It’s a story, but there’s a critique of Black Sabbath and maybe of pre-death/black metal running through it: something about how that music has an emotional value that gets discounted because the feelings are a little knottier or less traditionally musical. Like, sad songs tend to be about great romantic sadness. But what about when a person is bummed out because maybe there’s no God? Those feelings are valid too, and metal addresses it and gets called “cheesy” — I think that’s a little weird, and so does my narrator.
The L: In a different interview, one from 2004 with The Believer, you said, “listening to music and making music are two almost totally discrete activities.” Do you think, though, that listening to, identifying with, or just really getting into music leads to the need or want to create music?
JD: Don’t really know — maybe, I guess — not really for me. I started making music as a way of setting words down somewhere where they might maybe get heard — if poetry weren’t such an insular and weirdly academic scene, I’d probably be writing poems instead of songs.
The L: And finally, have you been reading anything good while on tour?
JD: Last tour I read, of all things, a biography of Black Sabbath. Go figure!