Ledger - Vol. 04

Listening to Things I’ve Never Heard

A podcast called I Only Listen to The Mountain Goats wasn’t something I cared about, at all. I did not listen to The Mountain Goats.

The chances this was going to be a podcast hosted by someone who legitimately and very literally only listened to The Mountain Goats was pretty slim. I guess because I didn’t listen to that band, I felt excluded. A silly thing to feel, really, but also I kind of still understand why. And yet, the only person who could exclude me here was me.

I had heard one song by The Mountain Goats, one called This Year, and liked it. I had heard another song or two and did not. That was kind of it for me and the band. I knew John Green loved them, I knew Matt Fraction loved them, and I knew a whole lot of people consider[ed] John Darnielle one of the best writers currently working in music. Which means before I ever started listening to his band, in any kind of like, “official” way, I read his novel Wolf In White Van because that’s a form of writing I understand better than songwriting.

I fucking L O V E D it.

That undoubtedly led to what happened to me last week, when I started listening to I Only Listen to The Mountain Goats. Not like, immediately though. I read his novel when it came out in 2014. It had a big effect on me.

There’s one other thing which led me to this podcast. That’s Start With This by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. Even if you don’t know their names, you probably know their podcast called Welcome To Night Vale. And I’ve recently written about Start With This, their newest podcast, which is a big celebration of art and inspiration, mostly focused on writing but a lot of it is universal for many kinds of artists as well. Because I fell in love with that show, I naturally got curious about the other podcasts on the Night Vale network.

Rather than start listening immediately, I read the description of I Only Listen to The Mountain Goats. I ended up thinking Well shit, that sounds a lot like what Start With This does, only with Joseph Fink and John Darnielle, a novelist (because, you see, for me he was only thus at that point) whom I liked. I bought his second novel Universal Harvester the second I could, so hey, why not dive in here to his music, the thing he’s more known for.

I wasn’t sold right away. I enjoyed the banter between Fink and Darnielle, but was worried I wouldn’t get into the discussion about how Darnielle recorded his album All Hail West Texas (literally using the microphone built into a boombox, by the way; yeah, the songs don’t have great aural fidelity, but…well, read on).

I was also worried I wouldn’t like the music, so any discussion of it wouldn’t matter. That went away pretty quickly in episode one, where they discuss The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton. The podcast features the entire original recording of a song by Darnielle, one per episode, and then a cover by different bands or solo acts. There is this part in this particular song where John Darnielle sings “Hail Satan!” and it is…I mean, it’s fucking awesome is what it is.

I don’t say that as someone who regularly says “Hail Satan” or who is in any way dedicated to any form of Satanic worship, pretend or otherwise. I’m also not a Christian, but you know who is? John Darnielle. The song needed to have “Hail Satan!” where it does, and my experience of it crackling along the recording he made with his boombox finally clicked The Mountain Goats into the place I expect their many fans would understand.

I instantly felt like I understood the characters of this song, I related to them somehow - again, I’m not a “Satanist” or anything even close to a Death Metal musician or super fan - and, most importantly, I got a charge out of these two characters’ living their dream, however they could. He was telling this story as truly and honestly as he could. And man is that shit intoxicating.

The rest of the episodes have been packed with insight; witty banter; quibbling over musical opinions; art in general; and just so much I love. Oddly, in one episode they managed to describe almost the exact feelings I didn’t know I had about The Mountain Goats, before I found them via this podcast. Joseph Fink is talking about how The Clash was at one point this band he was supposed to like, and based on my pop-culture obsessions and opinions, I felt as if The Mountain Goats were t h a t band, one I freaking should like because I liked all that other stuff. Our humanity unites us in a lot of ways, and one of them, I think, is when we rebel against things that people shame us for disliking. Or it can, anyway. That’s a generalization, but I’ve witnessed it in myself and others many times.

Here though, I ended up becoming a fan of The Mountain Goats, and in a way I would have never ever guessed would be possible. Two people diving into a song - both writers, one of them in fact the writer of the songs they are going to play and discuss - and then another person or persons playing that song again. It’s way too early at this point, but I think maybe I adore All Hail West Texas in a way that no other album by The Mountain Goats will ever be able to replicate. That’s fine. Darnielle seems like he would understand how that’s a good thing, but also slightly melancholy, because the happiness it brings me is both massive and unique. He doesn’t record albums like this any more, and if he did again, they wouldn’t come out like this.

It’s a great podcast if you like listening to artists talk about process, and sometimes being like “I don’t really know why I did that. But I did.” That might be frustrating sometimes, although in an honest way. I prefer that every time to bullshit. Maybe you’ll fall in love with an album, or a song, or maybe you’ll turn the podcast off and make something of your own. There really isn’t a downside here.