Darnielle has churned out at least 600 songs over the past fifteen years. “People shout requests at shows for songs I barely remember writing,” he says. He puts in 40 hours a week or more on merchandising, publicity, and other business duties. He has posted 962 times over the past two years on Mountain-Goats.com, where his messages have become increasingly edgy. He corrects fans’ lyrical interpretations (“ ‘Satanic Messiah’ has nothing to do with Senator Obama ... nor with Senator McCain”) and scolds readers for trying to capitalize on his work (“the deal is you can make one tour poster for yourself, but no making them for more people, profit or no”).
Going forward, Darnielle has come up with hard-and-fast tour rules, like no day-of-show interviews. And he found himself asking promoters about things he had never dreamed of before. “I started asking them how I can get from backstage to the bus without people seeing me.”
Stephen Wesley sits in the basement of the Empire State Building. Six-foot-three and impossibly skinny, Wesley is hunched over a desk in his western-civ class at King’s College, a Christian school in midtown.
Wesley pretends to take notes on his laptop, but he’s really pressing the refresh button furiously at Mountain-Goats.com. At any minute, John Darnielle’s official site will announce when and where copies of Satanic Messiah will be available, and Wesley, along with the rest of Mountain Goats Nation, is desperate for the information. Darnielle actually set up the EP for digital download last week on his website; fans could purchase the record via PayPal, and pay what they want. Wesley paid $20 and has already listened to all four songs over twenty times each, but you can’t hold digital in your hands. “I have to own the ephemera, the tangible thing, too,” he says.
Class ends, but there’s still no news. Darnielle is selling limited copies of Satanic Messiah on vinyl; some will be available via mail order, the rest at upcoming concerts. But the Mountain Goats don’t come through New York until the tour’s end, and Wesley knows the records will be all gone.
It’s now 2:10 p.m. There are only twenty minutes before Wesley must take the elevator up seventeen floors for a meeting with the university provost. He’s panicked. “I won’t be able to go on the Internet up there,” he says.
Finally, at 2:19, a note goes up at Mountain-Goats.com. Satanic Messiah will be available for online ordering from Beggars Group, 4AD’s parent label, and Tim Adams, an indie-record seller. Wesley’s fingers fly over his laptop, a credit card balanced on his knee. In six minutes, he orders a copy from both sites (“You can’t be too careful, one might lose my order”), paying $17 each, bringing his investment in Darnielle’s four new songs to $54.
There’s one more small problem. Wesley doesn’t own a record player. No matter. “I just found one online for $114.93,” he says. “It’s refurbished and used to cost $450.”
Now $170 lighter, Wesley lopes toward the elevator, five minutes late for the provost. He then returns to the Herald Square apartment he shares with three other students. A Mountain Goats poster hangs in the kitchen. Wesley plugs in his laptop and begins typing. One of the songs on the Satanic Messiah EP is called “Gojam Province 1968.” Wesley is an aspiring writer—he started reading Didion after finding out she was Darnielle’s favorite writer—and he quickly composes a 700-word analysis of the song’s lyrics and posts it on the Mountain-Goats.com. He correctly pegs the song’s subject as disaffected Ethiopians in the last years of Haile Selassie’s reign.
Gojam Province 1968
Like many Mountain Goats fans, Wesley grew up bright, shy, and disaffected. He was born in Trenton, New Jersey, but his family moved south, first to Atlanta and then to an affluent suburb of Orlando, Florida, where his father works as an industrial psychologist. Like Darnielle, Wesley began composing elaborate stories when he was a child, dictating them to his mother after Montessori school. When he was 7, Wesley was evaluated for gifted classes and a school psychiatrist told his parents, “He’s very smart, but he can be easily suggestible.”
In high school, Wesley rarely drank, didn’t get high, and was consumed with the Bible. His friends had pool houses and were interested in skate-punk music. Wesley joined in yet never fully belonged; he was a “straight-edge,” a nondrinking, non-drug-taking member of the punk scene, and his family had less money than many of the other kids’ in town. He tried to straddle different worlds: playing tuba in the marching band while sporting a mohawk, owning a pistol, and memorizing Scripture.