In the first part of our interview with The Mountain Goats creative force John Darnielle, the singer talks about his love of Thai curries, Philadelphia restaurant Zahav and why a relatively inconsequential film screening in 1996 sent him on his path towards vegetarianism. In part two, conducted over crispy dosas at a southern Indian restaurant in NYC, we learn about Darnielle’s love of Southern sides (the vegetarian ones of course), eating goat tacos as an 8-year-old and why the world’s current coffee culture (obsession) is, well, curious. “If it takes you 10 minutes to prepare my coffee then I hate you,” he jokes.
Do you ever share meals with your fans?
I don’t have meals with my friends [laughs]. I’m pretty solitary. I basically dine with my family. I am enjoying myself right now, don’t get me wrong, but generally speaking my drummer would be shocked that I am here without something to read. I read when I eat. It’s such a joke that he’ll pose a situation: “You get honored by the White House for your lyrics, and you get a special meal just for you. The meal is served. Do you pull out a newspaper?” Yes, I do. I want to read and eat, that’s what I do!
Did you have any food rituals in the studio while you were recording your new album?
I appoint myself the person who can order food most of the time. We recorded in Durham, where I live, so I know where all the stuff is. Often when you record someplace far from home, you are usually at the mercy of the studio and they will show you a door full of menus. If you’re at Prairie Sun, you have to send somebody out because you are semi-rural. For this record, I live two miles away from where we record, so I would run out and take orders: I would go to Chubby’s and get burritos and we once tried a Turkish place down the street.
How many people are your ordering for?
Me, John, Peter and Brandon. There are at least four of us, but it’s usually between four and eight. At the same time, you can’t really determine how long given parts are going to take. Burritos are the best studio food. They are a work of genius. They are the perfect meal: it’s usually completely balanced, you can afford it if you are poor, it’s portable and retains its heat very well even after you take a few bites.
Not so for a quesadilla or taco. I think those are the worst delivery foods.
I question the quesadilla, like nachos. I question where it comes from.
Have you played in Mexico?
We haven’t been down there. We’d love to go, but there have been no invitations! Our tour manager went to Argentina and Brazil and said they were the best places he went to in his life.
Mexico City is crazy right now, food wise. All these Michelin chefs from around the world got together and are there right now. Have you been there at all?
I grew up in California, so Mexican cuisine doesn’t seem all that foreign or exotic to me, it’s just something that you eat. When I was a little kid, I was having goat tacos – they didn’t really hit the mainstream for many, many years. But I discovered them at age eight in El Monte! Growing up in California, Mexican is part of your normal cuisine palette by the time you are five.
Did your parents take you on eating adventures?
No, we ate at Vince’s Spaghetti a lot, which is well loved.
Is that still there?
Oh, yeah. Vince’s will still be standing after a tsunami [laughs].
This Indian food we’re eating isn’t striking you as particularly spicy, is it?
No, it’s not. People who don’t normally eat it, though, find it extremely spicy.
What do you think about Greek yogurt?
Are you aware that it’s this crazily popular thing now?
Yeah, yeah. It’s really good.
Do you eat breakfast?
I eat grits in the morning.
No, either with a local egg and salt and pepper or maybe some tomatoes or a salsa. “Grits bowl” is a template: you start with grits, but there are a lot of ways that you can go. We buy local grits, which are so good. I really think they are the best food.
And Carolina is really where they come from, right?
Yeah, South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina.
What about regional Southern cuisine. Do you get to experience that a lot by living in Durham?
I do the side dishes only. Southern cuisine is largely about barbecue and pork, which I don’t eat. But I eat collard greens, turnip greens, okra. Collard greens are an interesting thing to cook because they take forever. You need to give them a fair bit of attention for a long, long time. It’s soothing and awesome, and they get so soft and silky. They are popular in India, too. The Madhur Jaffrey cookbook is great at taking an ingredient and showing you different ways of preparing it. There’s the “great war” also between Northern and Southern cornbread [laughs]. Northern cornbread is sweet.
I think it would be a unique perspective from a vegetarian, writing about Southern sides. Do you like to write about your dinner?
This is the thing, though. I have a major attitude problem: if it takes you 10 minutes to prepare my coffee then I hate you. Serve me a cup of coffee! I’m very New York in the ’70s about that kind of shit.
This shocks me slightly, because you are very clear about your passion of food. But not for coffee?
Yeah, but I’m also a working man [laughs]. I believe in work and I also have a big appetite – I don’t taste and take my time. I eat a lot of hot chili peppers! When I drink strong black coffee – and I drink 2-3 cups each morning – I don’t assess it for notes of honeysuckle or fig [laughs]. They do this with wine every single year – they get some case of the cheapest white wine, put it in different bottles and taking it to the tasting, and people say that they taste jammy notes of whatever [laughs]. And I love good wine, but anything that smacks of high culture, I’m very suspicious of. I could buy that coffee from Café du Monde in New Orleans and I have a cup that rivals anything that took 10 minutes to make and costs $12.
Where does your coffee come from?
Local stuff from Joe Van Gogh in Durham and Larry’s Beans in Raleigh. Joe Van Gogh is more in the “drink a cup slowly and taste it” category, which is fine, but I am a drinker of a lot of coffee… I do like Larry’s Beans a lot, though.
What about Poole’s Diner? Have you ever been there?
Yeah, that’s in Raleigh. Ashley Christensen has her main one, Poole’s, and now also has a family of restaurants. Her grits are spectacular. And her collard greens are really, really, really good.
Do you know her at all?
One of my friends is really close with her, so we know each other somewhat. And she was on Iron Chef.
Do you watch that show?
On occasion. The only thing I watch with regularity is Breaking Bad.
What about the other food shows? Bourdain?
No, not really. The thing is, if they are preparing meat, I’m not really going to enjoy it. Iron Chef I can always turn on, but something like Bourdain, he’s going to be making some point about meat eating, and I have no interest in what he has to say. He’s welcome to his opinion, but I don’t care to hear it.
You performed at animal rescue farm benefits in 2008 and 2009? Do you plan to continue this support?
Well, it’s for Farm Sanctuary. They rescue animals – whenever you hear about animals escaping from slaughterhouses and such. Farm Sanctuary tries to help them live out the rest of their lives in peace.
Are you still involved in that organization?
Yeah, I am. I haven’t done a benefit in awhile, but they are amazing. Farm Sanctuary was started when Jane Bauer, who was a Deadhead following the Dead around, rescued a sheep named Hilda from a top of a pile of discarded sheep. Hilda had been thrown away as useless because she was injured, and was lying there dying without food or water under the sun with a bunch of dead animals. Jane Bauer found her, got a hold of some land, and the sheep lived another 20 years. I’ve been to her grave – it’s a very emotional thing to go to Hilda’s grave. She lived a lovely life. Every animal up there has a story like that.
What kind of animals do they rescue?
It’s awesome: chickens, turkeys, goats, sheep, ducks, cows. You’ve never seen anything like the cows, because most cows are not allowed to get any older than two before they are slaughtered. Even if they are dairy cattle, they’re being kept in a state of constant lactation. Much less, being pumped with chemicals and being forced to lactate more than you ever would naturally. These giant cows live to be 10 to 20 years old with these long tails and as big as buses! The cows that you have seen are just kids, and their tails are docked in captivity because they go crazy in the pens and start biting each other’s tails. It’s a pretty eye-opening place to visit.
The Mountain Goats’ new album Transcendental Youth is available on October 2 on Merge Records.