John Darnielle on the Mountain Goats' All Eternals Deck

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The following is an excerpt from an interview between Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle and Bandbox's Erik Thompson about All Eternals Deck, taken from the exclusive zine that comes with each Mountain Goats order through Bandbox.
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ET: All Eternals Deck is celebrating its 10th anniversary this spring. Do you allow yourself the creative luxury of looking back and assessing your work? Or do you typically avoid nostalgia and focus instead on what you are currently working on?

JD: I almost never look back. I don’t listen to my old stuff, hardly ever. When I do that is when we’re touring. We don’t have a standard tour setlist, so I make up the setlist every night. There’s a lot of crossover from night to night, but what I do is look at old albums and look at old setlists from tours past and I put them together. I want to have a broad representation of what we do. I want stuff from each era, when I can. So I look back at old albums for material, like a geologist mining for ore.

You think about how the album version is like a snapshot of where you were with the song at the time. Most people think that the album version is the definitive version of the song. But actually, if you are a band who largely lives in the live arena, it’s both. It is that version you present to the world, but it is also the beginnings of the song. The song is going to grow as you play it with other people.

ET: You reference the tempting lure of nostalgia in “Age of Kings,” touching on all the pain and loss nostalgia can inflict on a person if they aren’t careful.

JD: I'm very fond of that song, both for its content which I like, but also the recording of it. The album was recorded at four different studios, and that one was recorded at Mission Sound in New York, a really great sounding room. It was recorded by Scott Solter. The sound that Scott got out of us on that track, the balance, the sound of the big Larrivee Slope Dread SD-60 that I’m playing, in the center Jon Wurster’s drums, Yuval Semo’s string arrangement, there’s something about the way that it all hangs together in a really lovely sound. That’s a big part of that song, I think. That’s what brought out the lyric and brought out that somber mood. It’s sort of a bitter song. It’s a memory of a good thing and considering how distant it is. Nostalgia is typically focusing on sweetness, and that’s never really been my thing. If I’m talking about my past, it’s usually to figure out what hurts, and what scars ran deepest.
 
The Mountain Goats in 2011

ET: Do you remember what your creative mindset was like when you were writing and recording the songs on All Eternals Deck?

JD: That was the first album after The Life of the World to Come. It was the first Merge album. Changing labels is a big event. We had gone through a lot of changes on 4AD, and now we were at a new home. From album to album, you always take what you learned on the last one forward. On the previous record, The Life of the World to Come, I had recorded at a bunch of different studios and I had discovered that I liked that.

Often, the way people make a record is to go to a studio and stay there until they’ve made a record. And that’s largely an economic decision, because that way everybody doesn’t have to travel twice, everybody doesn’t have to be housed twice, and so forth. But the other thing that happens is, anything that goes on in the space of that week or ten days -- any span of your life is filled with peaks and valleys -- and if things go weird then that’s how your record goes. I had discovered that just by popping into studios on tour that there’s no time for any drama over the course of one, or two, or three days. You just dig in, do your work, and leave. And it helps you think of the work in that way. We’re only here for a couple days, so let’s get this stuff done and then go. It makes you work really fast and efficiently, and stop second guessing yourself or being too luxurious. You get things done.

So we had done The Life of the World to Come at four different studios, and we did that again on All Eternals Deck. I had other people I had wanted to work with. John Congleton had been asking me if we could get into a studio together, so he did four tracks on the record. And of course I did some with Scott Solter, who I had a longstanding working relationship with. And then we did four with Erik Rutan down in Florida. Erik’s a death metal producer and member of Hate Eternal and he’s got a studio down there. So we drove down to Tampa and spent 3 ½ days at Mana Recording Studios with Erik, and it was a total blast.

When I’m writing the album, I’m thinking less about what I’m going to make this album into because I’m trying not to second guess myself. I’m just focusing on the songs. But the writing happened all over the place. I wrote “Birth of Serpents” in a hotel room in Portland. I wrote “Never Quite Free” in multiple stabs at the piano in my living room. It took a long time, and it was a bunch of different songs on the way to what the song became. Each one has its own center in that way.

ET: You went from the New Testament-inspired The Life of the World to Come to examining a different type of spirituality on All Eternals Deck, which is centered around tarot cards. Do you see a correlation between the faith people put in the Bible and what people read into tarot cards?

JD: In All Eternals Deck, it’s what I call a framing conceit. Which means to say, it’s a collection of songs and I’m trying, by titling the album, to identify what groups them together. And I thought of the songs in a way that you might think of tarot cards, a number of very rich symbols. Whereas The Life of the World to Come, these were all songs rooted in Bible verses, songs with that as a springboard. I think tarot is different from the Bible in a bunch of ways, but obviously there are crossing points for all faiths. But there is no god of the tarot. Tarot is a spiritual area, but the Bible is a system of beliefs.
 
Bandbox is excited to offer the 10th anniversary edition of All Eternals Deck on red/black swirl vinyl! It's limited to 500 copies and comes with a 16-page, full-color zine, featuring John Darnielle's track-by-track guide to the album and much more.