The first time indie rock icons the Mountain Goats played in Texas, the band’s founder and singer-songwriter, John Darnielle, didn’t really know what to expect. Darnielle was born in Indiana and raised in California, and the band’s first Texas show, in Austin in 1996, wasn’t a great fit for a then-unknown two-piece group. “We played a show in a gigantic, cavernous room, that we could not fill at all. We were pretty small potatoes at the time,” Darnielle said from his home in Durham, North Carolina, the day after returning from a rather more successful string of Texas shows. “I think maybe thirty to fifty people, maximum, were in a big old concrete room in the Austin of the nineties, which was a very different place from the Austin of today.”
Things didn’t get much better as the band headed north on Interstate 35 to Denton. It was booked to play the Argo, a short-lived venue, alongside a band that Darnielle was excited to meet. But that group had a show in Atlanta the next night, and its members opted to get on the road instead of sticking around to see Darnielle play. With a date in New Mexico next on the Mountain Goats’ own tour itinerary, he decided to call the night a wash after the set and began the long drive across Texas. That, Darnielle explained, was when Texas revealed itself to him.
“It’s one or two in the morning, and I smoked at the time, so we pulled over so I could have a cigarette. And if you’re in deep West Texas and get out of the car in the middle of the night, you will see God in the sky overhead,” Darnielle said. “You can drive for hours in the middle of the night and get out and see constellations overhead, because there are no lights. This was before there were even cell towers. You might think it’s empty, but actually it’s just a different landscape. You sense the vastness of the world we inhabit localized in a place you can name.”
The idea of place is an obsession of Darnielle’s. You can see it in his four books (the second of which, Wolf in White Van, was nominated for a National Book Award), and it runs through the Mountain Goats’s music, as well—especially on the band’s 2002 breakthrough record, All Hail West Texas, which ties recurring characters to the titular state. On Jenny From Thebes, the band’s new album, Darnielle continues his exploration of Texas (both West and otherwise). What is it that draws him back to a state he’s never lived in and has taken in mostly as a visitor on tour?
“I’ve always had this instinctive desire to kick back at people who want to characterize a place based on which politicians wind up figuring out how to get in power. When people hate on, say, Alabama, I’m the first guy to go, ‘You’ve never been to Alabama. You don’t know anything about Alabama.’ And when people who haven’t been to Texas talk about Texas, they often talk about politics or ‘culture,’ in scare quotes. But Texas is also a place, and it’s beautiful, and I think the state is bigger than that,” Darnielle told me. “These are things I like to think about, and Texas is a big place I can localize these kinds of thoughts on.”
Darnielle’s philosophy of writing about a place as an outsider is that certain things are universal—“If I’m writing about a place I haven’t lived, there are still going to be people who have less; there are going to be people who are scrambling to make rent; there are going to be people who need a place to stay”—and that when you apply those universal truths to a specific place, the stories start to unfold. “The harder it is to be on the fringes in a place, the greater the need for support and comfort and safety is going to be,” he explained. “If you’re in New York City, well, it’s hard to need help there, but it’ll be easier to find people who are interested in helping you out.”
The title character on Jenny From Thebes is very much an underdog—more so than she was when she first appeared in the song “Jenny” on All Hail West Texas—appearing on what is very much a concept album about what happens when someone who’s grown attached to a place may have to leave. The first album explored underdog life in different ways—some triumphant but small, as on “Jenny,” an ode to how good life can feel when you’ve got a new motorcycle and nowhere to be; some devastating, as on “Fall of the Star High School Running Back,” about an injury that leads to an arrest; and some a mix of the two, as on “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” a song that takes seriously the way music is a life-or-death matter when you’re growing up in a place like Denton. On Jenny From Thebes, Darnielle’s underdog Texas story has a different tenor. The characters have grown up and seen more small triumphs, but they’re also finding life even more devastating, as aging takes its toll (as Darnielle sings about on “Only One Way”) and circumstances get harder (as on “Fresh Tattoo,” a song about wanting to keep building something in a place from which you’re getting evicted).
Darnielle told me he doesn’t like sequels and isn’t crazy about tours in which bands play their biggest hit albums in full twenty years later. But when he recognized that he could do a version of that himself by following up on the characters from All Hail West Texas two decades later, he got a thrill at the thought of breaking his own rule. In order to do that, though, he had to find a way to apply twenty years of perspective to characters he wrote about back in 2002. That, ultimately, is what Jenny From Thebes is about—it’s an album that looks at a setting Darnielle was fascinated by decades earlier and posits what happens when the characters he populated it with have to leave. In that way, the new album is still very much tied in with that idea of place that Darnielle first got in Texas while staring at the sky in the middle of the night.
“When you’re in your twenties, you say, ‘All right, let’s gamble it all,’ and then when you’re in your forties, you understand that to gamble all is to know what losing all would mean,” Darnielle said. “And that’s what happens on [Jenny From Thebes]—to understand that if somebody who lives in a place has to leave that place, when you’re twenty-one, you can’t say with much authority what it means to have to leave. But once you’re older, you understand that to be compelled to leave a place is heavy.”
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