A diligent viewer can map the local music connections in the big screen adaptation of John Green's bestselling YA novel Paper Towns just like main character Q maps possible-love-of-his-life Margo's solo sojourn in one of the film's critical scenes. Mark it with mental push pins while you watch: Yes, that's Son Lux – who studied at Indiana University and released music on local label Joyful Noise – scoring the film. Yes, that Son Lux song playing during a late night drive features Lily and Madeleine – Indy sister singer success story that you definitely know by now, right? And yes, yes, a thousand times yes, that's a Mountain Goats poster hanging in Q's room (and one of their songs playing during the film's end credits), because the Mountain Goats are, of course, Q's favorite band.
They also happen to be author John Green's favorite band. Coincidence? Nah.
Green has taken it upon himself to spread the gospel of theMountain Goats for years at this point. The band at its core is the writing project of John Darnielle, who wound himself from self-released low-fi boombox recordings to hi-fi full band releases on Merge and 4AD over the course of 25 years and 15 or so albums. (Another local connection? Darnielle was born in beautiful Bloomington.) And Green is as devoted a fan of those 15 albums as they come. The author kicked off the book Paper Towns with a quote from Mountain Goats' song “Game Shows Touch Our Lives.” For the last month or so on his (extremely popular) Tumblr, Green published a series called 42 Days of the Mountain Goats, linking his favorite songs for his legion of Nerdfighters.
At last week's Paper Towns fan event, I chatted a bit with Green about his favorite band. And before the film's release on Friday, Darnielle answered a few of my questions about the connections between their work, plus shared a bit about what he listening to at Q's age.
NUVO: What were you listening to when you were in your last week of high school, like Q? I think it's a super crucial time when your brain is wide open and ready to absorb all kinds of stuff, that then sticks to you like glue for the rest of your life.
John Darnielle: Well, I graduated via the California High School State Proficiency Exam, because I wasn't going to have sufficient credits to graduate with my class, so I wasn't really in school during the last few weeks of senior year. But in spring of that year I would have been listening to the Sisters of Mercy, the first Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds album, and the lone Stockholm Monsters album — and then, on the radio, that Kool and the Gang album that was everywhere that year, the one with "Misled" and "Fresh" and "Cherish" — Emergency. And Billy Ocean, who was also in his hit-after-hit phase. Unstoppable time for pop radio.
NUVO: John Green says when he's playing someone tMG for the first time, he usually picks "Love, Love, Love" and "Up the Wolves," as a tMG entry point. What (and this assumes you've read multiple pieces of JG's work) book would you recommend as a JG entry point? And how do you respond to his "Love, Love, Love" and "Up the Wolves" choices as a gateway to your catalogue?
Darnielle: I feel like the answer's gotta be Paper Towns — but that was the first one I read, and I think one's own entry-point is sort of the natural default recommendation for anything. For my stuff, I usually tell people, "The Sunset Tree is the record we'll be remembered for, if we're remembered" — but as the guy making the records I kinda want to point to the stuff we as a band feel proudest of, the stuff where we came as close to the ideal of what we were trying to do as we could. So, like "Age of Kings" from All Eternals Deck and "Fire Editorial" from Beat the Champ - because the latter's a live instrumental studio take of an unusually-complex-for-us song, which I'm super-proud of, and the former is a Scott Solter production that finds Scott at peak powers and the drums sound so great and my guitar is in a very subtle cool pocket. It just sounds so sad and mildly eerie, which is kind of a very beloved combo for me.
NUVO: If you were building a soundtrack for a super huge studio movie that's an adaptation of a super huge YA novel, what would be some essential songs to include that capture that fleeting "I'm 18 and invincible and also nothing makes sense at all" feeling? And what would the YA novel be?
Darnielle: Well, my experience of being 18 was — certainly not unique to me, but...I didn't feel invincible, I felt like I had maybe a year left on earth. I don't know that it really counts as YA but the movie I'd watch about the struggle to transition from high school to the outer world would be of Douglas Coupland's short story 1,000 Years, which is about the desperation of needing meaning, of needing God. There's nobody quite like Rich Mullins for that so I think the soundtrack would be a combination of good ambient music — Steve Roach, say — and some of the best interpretations of Rich Mullins: Chris Rice's "Calling Out Your Name," Amy Grant's "Nothing Is Beyond You," Carolyn Arends's "Jacob and Two Women." Maybe some darker instrumental stuff in the leadup, like mid-period Cabaret Voltaire — "Eddie's Out" or the 2x45 album.
NUVO: What's been the general impact of Green's deep love of your music on your fan base?
Darnielle: Oh it kind of can't be overstated — he has pointed a whole whole lot of people toward our music. We're deeply grateful! It's always been the kind of thing I've wanted to do — to make music about which people feel compelled to tell their friends this is the music I love, because that's how I am with the music I love — since I was a kid running around asking people Have you heard the second Heart album? You have to hear the second Heart album!
NUVO: Green mentioned that he puts a lot of pride/work into the specificity of his character's names — including main character Margo Roth Spiegelman (Spiegelman means mirror maker/man in German, characters in Paper Towns project their own images on Margo, only seeing what they want to see, etc.; Q stands for "questioning, because he's currently questioning everything in his life, etc.). I see a through-line of specificity in a lot your work as well — what's a hidden meaning/coded name or place that may not reveal itself at first listen in one of your songs that you're willing to divulge/elaborate on?
Darnielle: I generally don't encode like that — my interest is in really evoking place, proceeding from there. So when I write about, say, a video store in southern California in the early '90s, I call the place Cinema Video — because I knew a Cinema Video in my town and that was the style in naming these mom-and-pop video stores — nothing really fancy, something sort of placeholdery. Which was different in different parts of the country, which is interesting and evocative to me! I specify in the hopes of drawing people into a vision, so I look at street names and native flora and fauna and so on, trying to make everything vivid and visible.
NUVO: What's new with you? What's next? What are you reading?
Darnielle: I'm working on another book; I'm in the middle section right now, it's really exciting. I have to make something really terrible happen within the next few chapters, like I know what the terrible thing is so what I'm doing is making the place to which the terrible thing has to happen as lifelike as I can and then I'm going to send the tornado through. (Not a literal tornado.) We're doing some touring in the fall, nothing hugely major — my main focus is on the book, it's daily work, I'm really absorbed by it — you ask about names: this one takes place in various stations around the Midwest and I've been digging through old phone books trying to get names that ring just right, splitting them apart and putting them back together. I'm reading Naiyer Masud's Snake Catcher. It's taking me ages, because 1) kids and 2) work.