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Private Dancer  

"My fans think of me in an asexual, professorial way," says John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, the low-fi rock band with the nasal vocals and hyper-smart lyrics he founded and has fronted in various incarnations (frequently solo) for the past fourteen years. Darnielle is extremely intelligent, but on this score he's utterly deluded.
    In fact, Darnielle's crush-worthiness has been evident from the potent hiss of his earliest cassette tapes, recorded in 1991 when he was a psychiatric nurse in California. Whether he's singing about the tumultuous fictional couple he spent years creating an entire dysfunctional world around ("I hope you die / I hope we both die"), the end of a relationship on mix-tape-ready singles like 1995's "Cubs in Five" ("The Chicago Cubs will beat every team in the league / And the Tampa Bay Bucs will take it all the way to January /And I will love you again / Like I used to"), or his life as a teenager living with an abusive stepfather on his latest and most successful album to date, The Sunset Tree, Darnielle's work has an undeniable sexual undercurrent.
    Hanging out with him for a couple of deliriously fun hours in New York's Chinatown on a blustery May afternoon, we learned that thirty-eight-year-old Darnielle dotes on his wife of seven years, admires Andrea Dworkin in spite of his affection for pornography, and doesn't mind a bit when visitors have sex in the guest room of his Durham, North Carolina, home. — Ada Calhoun

During your stage banter at the Knitting Factory show last night, you mentioned you were staying at the Embassy Suites. Did anyone follow you back?
No. My fans think of me like a professor. You enjoy your time with a professor, but you don't follow him home. I just go back to the hotel and sleep, anyway. Anyone who followed me back would be disappointed.

Does your wife come on tour with you?
No, she did once, but only once. Tour is no place for human beings. We just had our anniversary. We've been married for seven years, together since '95. She's a scientist, she does plant genetics at the cellular level. I can show you a picture of what she looks like. She won't like this picture; she'll be mad I showed it.

Oh, she's so pretty! [She really is.]
You're married?

Yes. It's great.
Isn't it rad? Nobody tells you how hot it's going to be. It totally rules.
The culture took this weird turn where I think it's easier to crack jokes about marriage problems.

Are you thinking about kids?
It could happen. I'm really good with children. But it should be up to the wife. My wife's a number of years younger than I am, so we have some time. It's funny. When I was twenty-four, I wanted a baby so bad it was eating me alive. Seriously, I was ready, and I was dating a Mexican girl, who offered to give me nine babies in nine years. The first time I ever talked with her about this subject, she said, "How many babies do you want?" I said, "I think two, how about you?" She didn't flinch: six. Her mother gave me the explanation: "If you have one child" — she told me this in Spanish — "then if you lose that baby, you have no more children. If you have nine, and you lose one, you still have eight."

But you decided not to.
For me, you shouldn't have a baby until you are nailed down in what you're doing. The way I live now is no way to be a father. It's hard enough to be a husband. Touring makes a narcissist of you, especially if you're the lead singer. Being a parent is about not being centered on yourself, but instead quietly observing your own reactions while focusing all your energy and love on this little creature. It's a sacred trust.

So you would give up music to be a father?
I would definitely give up touring.

Speaking of parenting, The Sunset Tree is about your stepfather, who was abusive. Turning autobiographical like that seems like it'd be such a bad idea, but the result is amazing.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I felt the same way writing it. We got the idea and wrote the first four songs, and Peter [Hughes; Darnielle's bassist and most constant collaborator] said we should keep going that way, but we were both like, "We take one step in the wrong direction and it's going to sound self-pitying, whiny and bad." I don't want people to feel bad for me because I'm fine, and I don't think of my stepfather as this monstrous figure. A lot of the reviews describe him as drunken, which really annoys me because he didn't drink, really. Anyway, I'm just as surprised as you are about the confessional stuff working, because I think most confessional stuff blows.

Like Oprah.
The thing about those people on Oprah is, I wouldn't blame them. It's the way you have to frame stuff for an audience as broad as a daytime-TV audience. You really have to spell the story out in the simplest, most black-and-white terms possible. There's no room for nuance in best-selling self-help books. I mean, yes, the abuser is wrong to abuse and yes, the abusee deserves better than to be abused, but after that the dynamics get real sticky. If you are in that dynamic you learn to sort of play the role. I think art would be the better place to investigate these sorts of things. You don't work out problems in your marriage on TV; you do them in the house in really complicated ways.

But most sociopolitical art is lousy, too.
I think the best arena for addressing politics and person stuff is dance, but dance is a terribly underappreciated genre.

In the song "Dance Music" on the new CD, pop music provides a kind of salvation from the violence of your childhood ["So this is what the volume knob's for"]. As an underground figure, you don't seem like the most likely advocate for pop music.
I think anyone who is into subcultural music goes through a period of hating on more popular stuff. But I do think everyone always resolves into the more sensible position, that it doesn't really matter if something's popular or not. A lot of things that are extraordinarily popular got that way because they are easy to like. I always wonder about applying that same snobbish attitude to other broader human needs categories, like foods or sexuality. Like, I'm not going to have good sex because everyone already has good sex, so I'm going to have boring sex. Or, I'm never drinking water because everyone drinks water. But I don't think people cling to that attitude much longer once they turn twenty-one.

I can tell you right now that line about boring sex is going in.
[Laughs.] The thing is, I'm on tour, I'm away from my wife, I'm thinking about sex twenty-four hours a day. I was on tour when you wrote, and I was like, "Oh yes, I'll interview with Hooksexup! I'm looking at Hooksexup every day."

Can we use that? "The official magazine for musicians on tour." What's the rest of your band like on the road? Are there Mountain Goats groupies?
Peter has a long-term girlfriend. And, as prurient as my mind is, I don't think I'd want to tour with somebody who was doing one-night stands and stuff. My take on sexuality is kind of transcendent, transcendental. I don't even know how to describe it. I did my period of hooking up for one-night things. It lasted for about three months, and then I moved the fuck out of town.

So how did your family react to this album about your stepfather?
Not so well. My mom got mad when she found out I was making it. It's a very long story and really hard to explain, but my mother doesn't really hold what he did in the '70s and '80s against him. As soon as my stepfather died, she and my sister sort of forgot about anything bad he did. It's a very American impulse not to speak any ill of the dead and really not to feel any ill of the dead. Our culture is at least as fucked up about death as it is about sex. But my whole shtick is honesty, so I feel like you should speak the truth about the dead. I hope if I die before Peter that he talks at the funeral about all the times I pissed him the fuck off in the tour van.

My stepfather was a passionate, political man. He talked a good game about not lying about the world as you see it. To do honor to that part of him that made me who I am, I felt like I needed to tell the truth. I sent my mother the record when I finished it and told her to skip to the last track ["Pale Green Things," a memory of visiting the racetrack with his stepfather; "A racing form beneath your arm / Casting your gaze way out to no man's land"]. My sister sent me an angry email and said my mother had called her crying, that the song had reduced her to a wreck. And as an artist first, son second, I was like, Yeah! It works! I called my mom and she thought it was great. Things with my sister are still complex.

You're a vegetarian — are you also a feminist?
Absolutely. People who say they don't like feminism don't know anything about it. All they know is that they read some selected Andrea Dworkin quotes that they didn't like. None of them have ever read any Andrea Dworkin books, much less done the really intense mind-fucking work you have to do to understand what's going on in an Andrea Dworkin book. I would rant for Andrea Dworkin all day. She was really messed up in a lot of ways, but also brave enough to say, "Is it possible that the bedrock of our sexuality is essentially violent?" The simple answer is, "Of course not, because I enjoy myself. What's not to like there?" Well it takes a big person to go, "Maybe we enjoy ourselves because we're damaged." I got so mad when I saw this outpouring of scorn for her when she died. People weren't allowed to do that to Reagan, and he was an evil villain who rots in hell as we speak.

So do you agree with Andrea Dworkin that pornography is evil?
No . . . and this is the thing. [Laughs.] I really like pornography. A lot. The problem is, while I don't agree, I'm not like most of the critics who say, "Look, I like pornography and I'm not a misogynist so fuck you, you fat cow." The fact that it manages to get me off and I'm not a bad person doesn't mean there's not something weird and possibly unhealthy on a broad scale going on there.

This goes beyond sexuality, into the realm of emotions. Culturally, we are completely incapable of talking about feelings, and sexual feelings are the knottiest, weirdest ones. People who have designs on another person and who just want to share a feeling with them aren't comfortable saying, "Wow, I'm feeling really sexually attracted to you today." When someone says that, it feels like there's some consequence. So when people who already are neurotic start talking about their sexual feelings, they wind up going through this triple mirror flip. I think in order to cure ourselves of our neuroses, feminism is the way forward.

So what would this fantasy world look like? Everyone would be comfortable talking about sex?
I think, yeah. If you were to listen to the conservative conversation, they say, "So you think we should wander around naked in the street?!" In fact, things would probably look a lot like the way things look now, except that there would be no Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, because that plays on this bizarre construction of masculinity. I think the world would look much as it does, but the exploitation that goes around women's bodies would be gone. People will always say, "But women will stop shaving their legs!" No, people will shave wherever they like.

But isn't suppression what makes things hot?
Well, open discussion doesn't mean lack of discretion. It doesn't mean we wander around sharing what we thought all day, it's just that when it came time to do so we'd be able to do so in a direct way instead of by having to peer into the swimsuit issue. In a healthy marriage a married couple shares their attractions outside of the marriage with each other. It's really hot and it works. [Sighs.] "Hot." This is the sort of vocabulary I have to use in order to not sound like a Nancy Friday book.

We just banned the word "lover" for the same reason.
Do you still use "partner"?

Not much. We're actually running out of words.
You should use "fuck-buddy, full-time." Seriously, I want to say people should be able to share their fantasies, but there's an icky sort of resonance to the word "fantasy." It makes you feel sick and uncomfortable. And I have the same reaction when I use it, but what else am I supposed to say? It sounds all touchy and feely and New-Agey, and then the other way is strictly pornographic. How is it that I can have a million ways to describe eating a sandwich, but I'm really restricted in how I'm able to describe the pedestrian fact of husbands and wives talking about being attracted to other people with each other, and the fact that that's exciting?

So how does that manifest itself?
My particular perversion — my shameful fetish — is I love hearing people have sex in the next room. As long as you don't need the sleep, it's wonderful. At hotels is good, but it's better when it's houseguests.

Then you can have breakfast with them the next morning.
Right, and you can think, "I know why you're hungry!" This is so much fun! I never get asked about sex in interviews. No one thinks of me that way.

That's not true. You are definitely a sex symbol for the low-fi set.
Well, you've made my day. I'm self-conscious because I'm not the wiry twenty-year-old I once was. I was 120 pounds for years and years. You really should take everyone to Chinatown for interviews, just so you can walk by these places to our left: Big Wing Wong Restaurant and Vigorous Hair Stylist. And you can make everyone drink this hot bubble tea we're having. It's warm and flesh-like. It feels like you're getting away with something.


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© 2005 Ada Calhoun and

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