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It's a Bi-Fi World 

Notes on the American Mountain Goat

Wednesday, Sep 18 1996
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This week's music feature takes us into the animal kingdom with a special guest, Gene Schoonveld, regional biologist for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. The featured animal is the Rocky Mountain goat. Schoonveld reports that the white and fuzzy 300-pound mammal's most remarkable feature is its hooves: sharp, hard coverings that surround a spongy inner core. These hooves make the animals marvelous climbers that can scale near vertical walls to dizzying heights. A little-known fact: Mountain goats have been known to approach highway rest areas for the opportunity to lap up human pee, apparently attracted by its saltiness.

That's kinda like the band the Mountain Goats (who hail from the flatlands of Southern California, not the craggy Rocky Mountains). John Darnielle, who more or less is the Mountain Goats, writes love songs capable of altitude. His unique characteristic: songs belted out with a sharp, hard voice that masks his spongy inner core of sensitive songwriting. No word whether or not he licks pee.

Darnielle keeps mum about mountain goat behavior; he makes people dig for information themselves and place odd phone calls to regional biologists. "If I had a pithy answer, it leaves no room for people to figure it out for themselves. Which is an important part of the way that people relate to records," he says.

Darnielle makes records, lots of records, with the same attitude: He expects his listeners to do the work. Since 1991, the singer has taped eight full-length efforts infused with frantic guitar strumming and smart, clever lyrics that allude to classic literature, pop culture, and weather patterns.

Early on, liner notes listed four band members along with Darnielle. But few could tell that the Mountain Goats were more than the singer and his furious acoustic guitar. Later, with 1995's Sweden, the Mountain Goats were whittled down to only Darnielle and a woman, Rachel Ware, who played bass and sung some sweet, off-key background vocals.

Musically, comparisons to Sebadoh are apt. Like Lou Barlow's, Darnielle's recording technique is lo-fi rudimentary -- he records almost everything on a boombox. Another nod is Darnielle's prodigious catalog of 7-inches and hasty tapes.

Though he's wary of the comparison, Darnielle accepts one similarity. "The one thing that we're very alike on is that we both believe in the saving power of love songs. Short of that, I don't see many similarities," he says. "I yell and he mikes his vocals well, so he's quiet. I'm more immediate and I don't use a drummer. And I also think that I'm not afraid to be called pretentious."

Oh yeah, the pretension. Darnielle was a double major in college, with emphasis on both English literature and classical studies. And while it's obvious to anyone who looks at the liner notes for the recent CD Nothing for Juice, which quotes Roman biographer Suetonius at length, that Darnielle has more than a passing familiarity with Latin, the Mountain Goats' songs are not laden with clunky references. Instead, Darnielle talks about emperors in zine interviews (Tiberius -- who reigned from 14 to 37 A.D. -- is a personal favorite), or writes academic manifestoes calling for a new approach to songwriting.

One essay, which appeared in the on-line zine Ultra, puts to the American songwriting community Whitman's and Emerson's demand for a uniquely American style. It's a decent idea at least. Modern songwriting could stand to be infused with something, and Darnielle's equation for the process -- "(Intellect + Emotion + Physical Body) x (Influence)" -- is as good a place as any to start. But what's askew about Darnielle's invocation is that he asks the new work be created under the rubric of something he calls "Bi-Fi."

But what the hell is Bi-Fi? When pressed, Darnielle plays the deflection game again and refuses to explain the meaning of the word, only why he felt he had to coin it. It seems that a Mountain Goats European tour coincided with the rise of the alleged Lo-Fi Nation of Sebadoh, Guided by Voices, Beck, and others. "[The press] kept asking at every stop, 'You are part of this lo-fi movement, yes?' " says Darnielle. "Bi-Fi was intended to sidetrack."

His only hint is an elliptical reference to Germany. So you make another odd phone call and ask a German fella about the mysterious Bi-Fi. You brace yourself for intellectual obscurity and new revelations of human understanding. A Bi-Fi is a shrink-wrapped sausage, roughly equivalent to the ol' American Slim Jim. Ha! If you're going to be pretentious, you ought to have a sense of humor about it.

Yet in this seemingly offhand remark there are other overtones Darnielle may or may not have intended. In Southern Germany the phrase Es ist mir wurst, which translates to "It's sausage to me," is a common idiomatic phrase that the insolent use to say, "I don't care." Bi-Fi: "It means nothing to me."

And why should it? Calling music lo-fi reduces songs to the way in which they are recorded. And that irritates Darnielle. "You don't ask [authors] if they are part of a 20-pound bond movement," he says.

Darnielle's songwriting, recording technique aside, relies on expressive imagery and subtle metaphor. For example, on 1994's Zopilote Machine, there's a song called "Alpha Incipiens," about a fading relationship:

We lean back and we clink our glasses
Raise the drinks to our thirsty mouths
And thick as molasses ice cold vodka
eases in as
The low pressure system brings the
breezes in

Darnielle's songwriting has vision, too. Over several records he's included two song series. One, the "Alpha" series just mentioned, tracks a couple headed inexorably toward divorce. In the end, she runs away. The other is a recurring series of songs ("Going to Kansas," "Going to Lebanon," and so on) that Darnielle says began as a reaction to suburban friends who always talked about but never acted on travel plans. Somewhere along the way, the songs took a more serious look at the move to move. "Gradually, as my own urge to go away sorta took over, I found some interesting things in the urge to flee. I think it's one of the basic American urges. Americans won't sit still," he says.

And Rocky Mountain goats, too. According to our regional biologist, once an area is saturated with the species, mountain goats begin pioneering into adjacent habitats. Which probably means something to Darnielle and his theories about songwriting, but he'll want you to figure it out for yourself.

The Mountain Goats play Thursday, Sept. 19, at the Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St.; call 621-4455. Also Friday, Sept. 20, at Aquarius Records, 1055 Valencia; call 647-2272.

About The Author

Jeff Stark

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