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The Mountain Goats celebrate deep cuts with Wichita duo show

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Lalitree Darnielle
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The Mountain Goats will perform at Wave on Sunday, July 17.

Ordinarily, The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle would be joined by drummer Jon Wurster, bassist Peter Hughes and multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas. But for the current run of shows, which began recently, Darnielle is accompanied by Douglas only.

He will reunite with the full band later this summer when the group releases its new album, “Bleed Out,” a series of songs inspired by a variety of (often) lesser-known action films.

A celebrated author, Darnielle’s third novel is “Devil House.” A promotional tour for the book saw him arrive in Wichita for an event at the Wichita Public Library earlier in 2022. The Peerless Princess of the Plains, he said, is one of his favorite places to visit, whether on tour or enjoying a day off from the road.

“I seriously can’t wait,” he said, speaking with KMUW earlier this week. “For real. My desire to spend time in Wichita is so strong. I always spend extra days when I come through, and I'm really excited to finally play a show there.”

Interview Highlights

You’re coming back to Wichita. I know you were here earlier this year for a reading and you mentioned then, on Instagram, that you like the city.

I’m a huge fan. I had a really good run there. It was really cold but I do distance running and had a great run along the river. I’ve had a crush on Kansas since I drove to South by Southewest in 2003. I lived in Iowa at the time so I went all the way down 35. It’s like a day-and-a-half drive; I just enjoyed it. You sort of have an affinity for a place when you drive through it. Sometimes maybe it’s just the music you’re listening to or whatever, but I’ve always liked it. I’d never got to go to Wichita because touring bands go to Lawrence, so if you see Kansas at all it’s Lawrence. Wichita has all these really cool old buildings; it sort of speaks to a Kansas of a long time ago.

I had a really good reading there the first time I went through with the book “Universal Harvester” at Watermark books. I spent a couple of days walking around. I got all crushed out. I get crushed out on a number of American cities. I’m a big Pittsburgh fan and Cincinnati fan, too.

I’m coming up on 24 years of living in Wichita and, when I moved here, people would say, “Why did you do that?”

I lived in Iowa for a long time and people would say, “Oh, poor you.” But the rent was low and you can make the most of it. There’s good people everywhere. That’s the bedrock stuff to me. I grew up in Claremont, California, which is inland 35 miles from L.A. We get an inferiority complex about how you have to describe your town in terms of its proximity to the big one. I have always had a sympathy for places that are out of the way like that.

You’re performing as a duo on this current tour. What inspired that?

Back in 2019, in the before times, you know… everybody in the band has multiple gigs and our drummer, Jon Wurster, is often out with Bob Mould. Me and Matt had a musical affinity. So we booked a European tour to go play some shows for people there. They were incredibly rewarding, musically, and we really enjoyed them.

We played London and Oslo, Stockholm, all over the place and, and really just enjoyed the shows. I called my manager and said we should do some more of these; we should do this in the U.S. … People really enjoyed it, then 2020 happened. [Laughs].

So, we stayed home for, gosh, almost an entire year. The communication Matt and I have between each other on stage is really kind of magic. It goes to some really fun places that you can't always do with a full band.

I would imagine when you've got the full band, you've got production concerns and you've only rehearsed with these four people on these certain tunes and so forth. So does this open up possibilities? If Matt looks at you and says, “What about this song tonight?”

Absolutely. Nightly. And the thing with this band is that we have more leeway than most bands. We have a big general catalog so we’re not performing the same setlist every night. That’s an article of faith. But with Matt there’s only two people. I can say, “Well, he’s never heard this one; I did that last night.” But he can sit in right away. It’s not like I’m playing prog rock or something and I’m suddenly going to go into a section of 13/8 or something like. So, yeah, I can pull out anything I want to play. And he’s game. We had two songs last night that he’d never heard before soundcheck, so it can go all kinds of places.

One of the things we should mention about the new album is that it was inspired by action films.

During the first long phase of the pandemic when everybody was talking about how much they were binge watching television, I was not doing that. I’m father of two; it’s a busy household and, by eight o’ clock, I’m out of steam. But everybody else was watching movies and talking about that so I figured I should watch something. I figured it would be a good way to decompress at the end of the day.

Normally, I’ll watch foreign films but if it’s 10 o’clock and you put on some movie that requires a lot of mental attention, I’m probably just going to fall asleep. So I just started watching Netflix and just went to action movies. You know, brainless, violent, exciting stuff that piqued my attention.

Then I remembered the way that I used to write early Mountain Goats tunes. I’d be watching horror movies or whatever on VHS with a guitar on my lap. Then, if I got an idea, I would hit pause and start writing a song.

I remember a writing professor of mine telling me that Arthur C. Clarke would go see a bad movie when he felt blocked. He’d fine basically the worst thing he could but would usually walk out with one or two story ideas.

Inspiration comes from anywhere. There are no limits. You could be inspired by watching commercials. The material takes your mind somewhere different. But it’s fun to curate it, to say, “Well, I’m watching some of the worst things I’ve ever seen in my life.” It’s just the sort of direct-to-Netflix things where you can tell that the major star was never actually on set with any of the other actors. That in itself is really inspiring to me. That’s a story: Here’s a guy who is more successful than anybody else in the film, and he's still accepting these gigs.

I was super interested in that stuff. There are so many other things to think about other than the story. How much did it get made for? Who is it made for? What’s the message? Does this movie focus as heavily on revenge as a lot of action movies do? But, yeah, anything can be a jumping off point. For Romantic poets, it might be nature. For me, it’s more often getting stimulated by currents in the culture.

I think action movies, like horror movies, are, in some ways the province of the young. There’s something awesome about them when you’re young. I saw pretty much every Chuck Norris movie made in the early ’80s, when I was about 10, and I thought he was the best actor in the universe.

[Laughs.] I love that. I’ll have to use that.

There’s something about that exaggerated sense of masculinity in those films that hits different in childhood.

A lot of that stuff is in the songs on the album. There’s a lot of wish fulfillment related things. The notion that the hero can go through all kinds of bloody stuff and not be scarred. “Walker, Texas Ranger” is a good example of that. I’ve watched episodes of that show and seen people go through horrible trauma in a single episode. Your house burned down with your kids inside but you’re working through it. You’re getting better now. There’s a very childlike desire for a very simple version of righteousness. It’s childlike in that sense, but it’s not childlike when it comes to the violence that’s extraordinary, stylized, graphic and extreme.

You also look at some of these stories and they’re informed by the classics and they’re actually pretty good. I think “First Blood” is fine. I thought Sylvester Stallone was good in that first picture. And it’s Homeric: The soldier returns from war and doesn’t recognize the world he left.

I totally agree with you. These are old stories. They don’t feel like it sometimes because they’re movies. So you sort of have to tell someone upfront and say, “Well, this movie is doing an old-type story or it’s hard to locate.” But, yeah, hero coming back from war and it’s not the same. 100 percent. That’s Homer and Virgil.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.