South Pole Discharge: John Darnielle’s Metal Covers Set Is Nigh

John Darnielle has delighted readers of Decibel since the magazine’s inception with his South Pole Dispatch backpage column, and we are certainly grateful to have his humorous, provocative and thoughtful commentary gracing our pages every month. But Darnielle has a long, colorful history of writing about metal, both as the mastermind behind the long-running Last Plane to Jakarta webzine, as well as the voice of indie-rock mainstays the Mountain Goats. Anyone responsible for “Marduk T-Shirt Mens Room Incident” and “Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” has to have a little hesh in him.
Darnielle’s metal fandom is so well-known that when word leaked that the Mountain Goats were going to record with Erik Rutan, rumors spread that 2011’s All Eternals Deck was going to be a full-on death metal album. Alas, that was pure horseshit/wishful thinking, but Darnielle will be flying the death metal flag proudly this weekend at the Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh, NC with a one-time-only all-metal covers set. That’s right: 20 years of Darnielle writing about Darkthrone has reached its next logical step with Darnielle performing the music of Darkthrone. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get Darnielle to give up the goods on the planned set list, but he took a little time out of his hectic schedule to talk about Cannibal Corpse, writing about metal and adapting some of his favorite songs to a Mountain Goats-style performance.

Your webzine Last Plane to Jakarta hasn’t been updated since November of last year – what gives?
I’m just too busy. I’ve sort of stopped doing it at the moment. Even going to the poetry model was sort of a reflection of that. All magazines are facing this problem right now. When I used to read record reviews, I wanted to find out what records sounded like and to hear what people thought about them. The general availability of high-speed internet has rendered my descriptions of music fairly useless. If they’re entertaining, that’s good. But what created my passion for writing about music is sort of gone, because everybody can just listen to whatever they want at any time. The nature of reviewing music has changed so much that I have to think about it more before I really want to do it. If I wasn’t busy doing the Mountain Goats and writing other stuff, I’d be updating the site at least once a week. I don’t have the time to do it in any way that would be fulfilling. I could probably churn something out regularly, but that’s not my style. We did that for a period of, like, four years – I’d write a 1,000 or 2,000 word piece every Sunday night. When it started to feel like a grind, I had to stop. The whole point of Last Plane to Jakarta was that it was a passion project.

Is it true that you were once planning on putting together a ‘zine where you’d review the entire output of an artist in a single issue?
My friend Joel had an idea called “365,” where you picked a song that you’d listen to exclusively for a year. You’d live with that song you picked out, you’d write about nothing but that song for an entire year and you’d publish one ‘zine at the end of the year documenting the experience. I thought that was a brilliant idea. I’ve had a lot of ideas for discography-type ‘zines. That kind of intense focus is something that I really miss about the ‘zine culture. It used to be, “I have a ‘zine about cookies. That’s it. I review them wherever I go.” Do you remember those big rock ‘n’ roll family trees? They were extremely ornate and really well-researched. They were these giant pages that traced everybody who was ever in a band. Something like that with a single band per issue – I thought that’d be really cool. But it goes back to your earlier question: When would I ever have time to do that?

Between Last Plane to Jakarta, South Pole Dispatch and your book on Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, is there anyone who left who is surprised to discover that you are so enthusiastic about metal and extreme music?
I don’t mean to dis the good people who interview me, but that question comes up in literally every interview I do: “So: You play acoustic music and you listen to heavy metal?” I was really stoked when the Mountain Goats went to work with Erik Rutan, because he listens to a broad range of music. Genre partisanship is something you generally outgrow by the time you’re 18. Everybody who loves music listens to all kinds of music, but there has always been this weird thing with extreme music where people assume that maybe if you like something that’s outlying, that’s all you like. It’s a really entertaining idea to consider. Maybe there is someone out there that’s like, “Nope, I only listen to thrash.” But the possibility seems really remote. Music is a continuum of sound and personal expression, not team sports.

Did you gush like a fanboy when you met Erik Rutan?
Are you kidding? I wrote to Erik Rutan when we were in the studio and he wrote right back. I was like, “Guys! Erik Rutan just responded and he’s totally into it!” We were all freaking out. Have you seen the Cannibal Corpse Centuries of Torment DVD? When this interview is over, I need you to go watch it. No matter how you feel about Cannibal Corpse, you will love them by the end of the documentary. They documented their first drive from Buffalo down to Tampa to record with Scott Burns at Morrisound back in ’87. They had one of those big ol’ bulky VHS cameras and they filmed themselves going south to record an album for Metal Blade. We became obsessed with this documentary and we recreated the Cannibal Corpse drive down south on I-95 when we went to go work with Rutan. Generally speaking, Erik records death metal. And death metal is recorded discreetly, in parts. You don’t track multiple instruments at once when you’re recording a death metal record. You track the drums. Then you track the guitars. And so on. It’s half math, and half music – a whole different discipline. When we play live, we have three sets of cans in isolation and we play all together. Nobody has ever gone down to Erik Rutan’s studio to do that. So there was a lot of time spent figuring out how to do this thing that they don’t usually do. Erik has an amazing work ethic, too. That guy can go laaaaaate. [Laughs] It was totally fun. Really great.

You will be playing an all-metal cover set at Hopscotch this weekend. How did that idea come about?
When we were invited to play Hopscotch, I just wanted to do something different that would justify showing up at the festival. I play some music festivals, but I don’t really go to them. And if I did, I expect that I would just see a bunch of bands playing their usual sets and that would be really boring. So I wanted to do something that would be entertaining for me. I’ve also learned by working on a couple of projects over the years that if you announce you’re going to do something and book it, you can kick-start your creativity. Otherwise, you get these weird ideas and short of actually making an arrangement to do them, you’re busy enough with other distractions that they never really materialize. But if you get the idea to hire a lap steel guitarist to play on your record and you write to him and ask when he’s available, then you’re locked into doing it. And then Bob Barrone shows up and puts down three amazing lap steel parts on your record, which is actually what happened with All Eternals Deck. So the all-metal covers set was an entertaining idea that I had that I decided to pitch. Of course, there’s a week to prepare for this performance and I still have four songs to learn. [Laughs]

What challenges have you encountered scaling these covers for a Mountain Goats-style performance?
Well, with most of the songs I picked, they’re deeply anchored in the rhythm section. I’m playing all of them on piano. If I played Stride piano or a boogie-woogie style, I could probably anchor them pretty easily with my left hand, but that’s not normally what I do. If you listen to anything that’s in a D-beat style, that’s really hard to compensate for on piano and keep the song moving forward. I have some people helping me out with this set, though. Figuring out how to make the stuff with a more galloping rhythm work without cheating the tempo down is tricky. I’m radically transforming some of the songs. I’m doing a Summoning song, and Summoning is big, big drum sounds and giant riffs. I’m playing the same notes, but the vibe is completely different. The funny thing about this set is that if you book yourself a show, you’re basically saying, “I have this great thing that I want to show you.” That’s what it means, right? This is more of an experiment in front of people. I will be shocked if there’s more than two people in the crowd who can identify more than two of the nine songs I’ve worked up. There’s a Summoning track and a Darkthrone song – that’s all I’m going to say. It would be no fun if people knew what was coming.

This is very important: Will there be any Prostitute Disfigurement songs in the set?
No. I’m a death metal partisan – I like a lot of black metal and I love a lot of NWOBHM acts, when genres were getting really blurry and no one knew what was coming next. Like Venom. Or Mercyful Fate – that’s one of my Top 5 favorite bands. Death metal is what I listen to more than anything else. If you try and put those riffs on piano, there’s so much going on with the drums and everything else, that you almost have to rework it. What I’ve done with the one pure death metal song in my set is write my own chords – it’s a totally different song now. Prostitute Disfigurement is your classic meat-and-potatoes death metal. I have this compilation called Brutally Sickness from Indonesia that has 50 bands like that. They all sound a little different, but they’re all playing the exact same style of metal. I don’t know what I can really do with that. I do feel a little guilty that I didn’t pick a Heinous Killings song, because that guy is really sick. And he’s married! If you ever read the liner notes on Heinous Killings albums, he always thanks his wife “for being understanding,” which I think is the best thing ever.

When word erroneously circulated that the last Mountain Goats full-length All Eternals Deck was going to be a “death metal album,” you responded by tweeting “tMG can’t play DM until I master guttural death growl i.e. ca 2015.” Have you moved the timetable up on this?
People are constantly asking me, “Why don’t you make a death metal record?” You could only actually want to hear that if you didn’t like death metal. Death metal is a lifelong discipline. Hanging out with Erik Rutan, I really got a sense of how much it takes to play that style of music. You can’t be a jazz pianist and think, “What the fuck, I’ll play some death metal!” It’s not like that. Death metal is a lifetime commitment. You decide that you want to play a style of music that speaks to your spirit and you dedicate yourself to that pursuit. I was joking when I said “2015.” I would have to change my life to play that kind of music. I would have to become a real guitarist first, then learn the death metal style. I play folk guitar. I play chunky rhythm chords and I can sit in with anybody and do that. But to do what those guys do? It’s hard and very earnest work. Not to mention that the people who think they want to hear me play death metal are generally not death metal fans. By the time I got halfway through the first song, they’d all be like, “You know, I do not like this kind of music.”