John Darnielle has a confession - he's a metal fan, writes Scott Kara

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You probably wouldn't pick it from the Mountain Goats' lively and odd folk music, but band leader John Darnielle is a devout follower, and somewhat of an expert on metal.

To be fair, he devours all sorts of music - from "instrumental acoustic music" to industrial dance - but metal holds a special place in his heart. In fact, it was Heart - not particularly metal, but outrageous 70s arena rock nonetheless - who was his first favourite band.

"I thought Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin were okay, but Heart was my favourite band," he chuckles. "When I was 16 I listened to Iron Maiden and AC/DC records and they sounded good to me. I would suspect, a love of metal begins with the love of that distorted guitar with the mid-range scooped out. The visceral basic response to that crunch.

"And," he says keenly, "metal bands put out for their audiences, and that is so important to me; that if you are on a stage you have to love the audience. That's your bread and butter. If it wasn't for them you could be washing dishes and you deserve to be if you don't love them. What inspired me especially [were] the metal bands playing clubs during the first big wave of thrash.

"They were up there [saying], 'I'm glad to be here and I'm going to show you that I'm glad to be here'. That's love and that's inspired me tremendously and I've come to associate that with the music."

His expert knowledge of the metal genre, not to mention his intriguing writing style, is highlighted in his first book Black Sabbath: Master of Reality, about the band's 1971 LP which was published this year as part of the 33 1/3 series of books about seminal albums.

Musically the heavy and slightly disturbing Lovecraft In Brooklyn, off the Mountain Goats' latest album, Heretic Pride, is probably the most metal the band has sounded since Darnielle started recording music in the early 90s.

"I'm just sad we can't bring some more musicians down to play it," he says of his shows at the Kings Arms on December 17 and the San Francisco Bath House in Wellington the day after.

The Mountain Goats, also including bass player Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster (from noisy American indie band Superchunk), were meant to come earlier this year but had to cancel because of illness.

The Lovecraft song was inspired by controversial American author Howard Lovecraft.

"The one defence people launch of Lovecraft is that he's not a racist, he just hates human beings. But of course if you hate human beings you hate the individual races also," Darnielle says.

"But he happens to be capable of writing some genuinely frightening and awesome stories."

Darnielle's songs are deep, and storytelling at its best, but like Heretic Pride's lofty opening track Sax Rohmer #1, they never feel overbearing.

Then, at the other extreme, there's the stunning peace of Tianchi Lake (which translates to Heaven Lake), about a lake on the border of China and North Korea. Although he's never been to China he loved the story of the Tianchi monster, referenced in the song with the beautiful line, "Backstroking on the surface, moonlight on its face, floats the Tianchi monster staring into space."

He says: "There's nothing better in the world than unsolved mysteries."

Darnielle was born in Indiana, moved to California at a young age where he grew up and has now settled in Durham, North Carolina, a place he describes as having "a scene that's in such a great way right now".

"I'm going to die here," he hoots.

He hasn't left the house today, apart from going out to the mail box, and "I'd have to say that is pretty much my typical day at home".

"I keep an office that I don't make nearly enough use of, with a big old 24 track recorder down there with the theory that I would use it but when I do demos I record them directly into my computer.

"So yeah, I wake up, make coffee, have breakfast, stay busy and do whatever writing I have to do and right now I'm making a point of not doing anything, because I've only got two weeks off between tours, and naturally, being American, you know, Americans always want to stay busy.

"So I've been trying to not do anything and today I have succeeded in not doing anything," he says.

Although he has been busy recently, because following the release of the Black Sabbath book he is on to his next one (of which he's not letting too many details out about).

And the difference between writing a book and a song?

"Writing a book is a relationship. A marriage. It's something that you do and it is with you every day whether you're paying attention to it or not.

"Whereas a song comes very quickly for me, and it's a rare, rare song that takes me longer than a day. The longest I tend to want to work on a song is eight hours. If I haven't got it in eight hours then I figure it's not going to come."

But whether it's writing long yarns, or short folk ditties, one thing he knows is that he wants his work to have energy and authenticity.

"With the book I'm working on now, the morning I started it I didn't think, 'I'm going to start my new book'. I just had this idea for a sentence. I wrote that sentence, and then another 2000 words. I want to feel like it has emerged from me whole."

LOWDOWN
Who: John Darnielle
What: Band leader of The Mountain Goats
Where & when: Kings Arms, Auckland, December 19; San Francisco Bath House, Wellington, December 18
Latest album: Heretic Pride, out now