In 2001, Darnielle received a call from 4AD, a midsize record label with a roster of critically respected artists. Darnielle signed with the label, and 4AD gave him the money needed to record his next album in a modern studio. The result was Tallahassee, a series of songs about a married couple battling with each other, alcoholism, and, eventually, death. The record marked a turning point. Soon, Darnielle was appearing on National Public Radio. Where previous Mountain Goats records would be reviewed in alternative weeklies, now Darnielle was being written about reverentially in the New York Times. The New Yorker called him America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist.
Tallahassee sold three times more than the Mountain Goats’ previous record. Darnielle followed up with 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed, and 2005’s The Sunset Tree, an album about Darnielle’s stepfather, who had recently died. The Sunset Tree, largely considered Darnielle’s best album, made many top-ten lists, and sold 37,000 copies, several times more than his pre-4AD releases.
As Darnielle’s songs became more personal, his relationship with fans became more complex. Darnielle already had a non-band blog called Last Plane To Jakarta, but after he signed with 4AD he created Mountain-Goats.com. Fans began posting feverishly, especially when they realized Darnielle was an active participant and often responded to their messages. People began writing to Darnielle directly, asking for everything from free tickets to the next show to how to handle personal problems. Darnielle’s followers didn’t seem to want to get high with him or have sex with him so much as just talk with him. They wanted a confidant. And they were insatiable. “You started to notice that for John to just go from backstage to take a piss became an ordeal,” says Peter Hughes, the band’s bassist and longtime Darnielle friend. “He was being stopped by twenty people when all he wants to do is go to the bathroom and get ready for the show. He’s a good guy, but he’s not Mother Teresa.”
“I know superfandom went out with the restraining order. But I can’t help it with John.”
Darnielle was always uneasy with the worship. He didn’t understand why people wanted to meet him or share their problems with him. “I mean, I love Joan Didion, but I love her writing,” he says. “I don’t think meeting her could solve my problems or make me understand the world better.” Still, Darnielle felt he owed something to people who had invested so much time and energy into his work, and so he accommodated fans.
In 2006, Darnielle released a follow-up to The Sunset Tree called Get Lonely. Darnielle put out another album, Heretic Pride, last February, and hit the road again. The Mountain Goats never sounded better and were never more popular, and Darnielle was finally making a decent living. But the more money he made; the more he had to be away from Lalitree; the more fans demanded of him, the worse he felt.
In April of 2007, Darnielle found himself doubled over with chest pain in a Swedish emergency room. What he thought was a heart attack turned out to be a stomach problem. He pushed through another year touring but knew there was no way he could do a scheduled Australian tour last spring. He put off telling Hughes and 4AD for two days, hiding out at a friend’s New York apartment, playing the KT Tunstall song “Hopeless” over and over again. He finally broke the news to his label and band mates and headed back to Durham.
“Touring is just not normal for me,” Darnielle told me during my visit to his home. “My personality is to never ever talk to people if I can help it. I feel a dedication to the people who listen to what I do, and in exchange I will give the best I have when I play, but I just don’t have the physical energy anymore to talk with them. There’s always that one guy who is standing to the side, waiting everyone out. He’s the one with the really sad stories, and he wants to have your undivided attention. I just can’t do that anymore. It leaves me spent for days.”
After he canceled his tour last year, Darnielle sat at home and contemplated quitting music and returning to nursing. But he ran the numbers and they didn’t work. “I’m now successful enough that I can’t afford to quit,” he told me with a wan smile. Instead, Darnielle has been forced to take on a second job: president of Mountain Goat Enterprises. Music fans are a fickle bunch, and there’s a feeling of having to feed the beast or be forgotten. “I don’t feel like I can step away for a year,” Darnielle says. “I feel like I have to keep the momentum going.”