I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats, the folk-rock podcast created by Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle and writer Joseph Fink, epitomises how ‘fan’ and ‘artist’ can now exist as equals, writes Janet Lalla-Hamblin.
I began writing this article by looking up the receipt email from the first time I purchased music by folk-rock band the Mountain Goats. On 8th July 2011, I ordered the album Tallahassee online. Seven years on, the band is still one of the most important in my life, so my discovery of a podcast show with a title that neatly summarises one of my more well-worn personas – I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats – in late January this year, felt practically miraculous.
Series One of I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats debuted on iTunes on the 28th September 2017. The show is hosted by two writers, John Darnielle (lead singer and songwriter for folk-rock band the Mountain Goats) and Joseph Fink (co-creator of podcast fiction Welcome to Nightvale). In the project’s own words, this “is a podcast about what it means to be an artist, to be a fan, and as many people are, both at once”.
The series works its way through the Mountain Goats’ album All Hail West Texas (2002), exploring each track one episode at a time. The core strength of the show is the discussion between its hosts. Fink’s questioning of Darnielle is never interview-esque; there is a much more comfortable tone to the recordings, many of which were produced in Darnielle’s own basement.
I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats gives listeners that which a fan always hopes for when searching through interviews: unaffected insight into an artist’s approach to life and work. The hosts’ valuable rapport is evidently a product of the empathy Fink and Darnielle have for each other’s experiences with fame and fandom. The openness between them, which the listener is given access to, allows those such as myself to build a para-relationship with their artistic heroes.
I wonder if a show like this, that generates that sensation of connection, would be possible in a world hindered by more restrictive production and distribution channels. Both hosts made use of a modern technology or format that allows unestablished artists to make their work available to wide audiences with relative ease. The series’ featured album, All Hail West Texas, was recorded exclusively using an old boombox’s record function, bypassing studio costs. And Fink’s use of the podcast format means he can release his audio-based work direct online, rather than pitching to radio stations.
Music video for The Mountain Goats’ ‘Cry for Judas’, from their 2012 album Transcendental Youth
The podcast’s conversational content is a study in modern artists’ identities as fans able to create and release their own art with fewer barriers than in the past. This refers to Darnielle and Fink themselves, but also to listeners who relate to the emotional and physical experiences the hosts describe.
For example when Darnielle describes his character Jenny (from the All Hail West Texas track ‘Jenny’) in more detail, as someone who, “…when you say their name, your memory floods with a whole bunch of feelings you may have worked really hard to move past, or that you miss and would like to recall… someone who is gone, and whose absence continues to assert itself,” I am not listening in humility to a concept beyond my knowledge, but relating on a deep level to a story I myself could also create and release art about if I chose to.
In this world, those in the roles of ‘fan’ and ‘artist’ can exist as equals, becoming two people connected by a shared experience, instead of the fan admiring, from below, the artist’s expression of that experience. The key word in all of this is ‘conversation’. There is a strong case to be made that art nowadays is subject to wider dialogue than ever before: with social media, and free online publishing (like here), practically anyone is able to enter into discourse and share their perspective. No man is an island, and no project or artwork need ever be a monologue.
Listen to All Hail West Texas below, or check out the podcast on iTunes here.