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Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle Shares Draft of “Dance Music”
Over at The Atlantic, John Darnielle, the mind and voice behind Mountain Goats, who we’ve reported on not once but twice, shares a draft of “Dance Music” while discussing the process and personal details involved in the writing of the song. From the transcript, as told to Alex Hoyt:
The record I listened to when I was five—the first time the abuse broke out in our little apartment—was not in fact a dance music record. It was a colored flexi disk of one of the moon landings on a stereo that only existed to play those records. It was a little stereo with a rocket attached to it, and you put the little flexi disk on and the needle on and you heard the sounds of the moon landing, and I remember going up to listen to that stuff to distract myself.
But I also remember the scene from the second verse, the one I wrote first, of being in the car listening to the radio when the police pulled up behind us, to arrest me for possession of heroin. It was the ’80s, and I remember the very new sounds of sterilized synthesizers making these chunky sounds and connecting anything you’re doing in your head with that escape hatch you try to open with a form of dancing, with a form of being immersed in the music that makes you dance.
Here’s the challenge of song-writing: when you write lyrics you’re writing poetry. And people tend to read poetry as though it all has the same rhythm and the same vibe. But in fact, every poem has its own rhythm. Sometimes it’s frantic and up-tempo and other times it’s jumpy and swinging and other times it’s slow and somber. And it’s the songwriter’s job to pick the right rhythm that sets the lyrics in their home, or contrasts them in some way. “I’m seventeen years old”—you want that to come out a certain way, you don’t want to put that to a slow IV. I mean, you can. We actually have done this song slow, but for the platonic, initial look at the song I wanted something that conveyed the actual, in-the-moment speech rhythms.
The trick with songs, and with good poetry, is to make it sound like you’re just saying what came to mind just then. Not that you’re writing, but that you’re just expressing. That’s the magic of it, and I use magic in the sleight-of-hand sense. You’re trying to pull off the illusion that this thing came out just like that, like you were conjuring a spirit. So I wrote this little note, on reading it back, that we’ll put this to music that jumps like that, we’ll put this to music that conveys that dance-like rhythm.
The entire transcript, along with the song itself and a facsimile of the notebook lyrics, is here.