Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle talks playing a washed-up metal guitarist on great new series ‘Poker Face’

Mild spoilers for ‘Poker Face’ and episode “Rest in Metal” ahead:

Mountain Goats leader and vocal metal fan John Darnielle has now gotten to live out some rock n’ roll fantasies — and add “actor” to his extensive C.V. — via new Peacock murder mystery series Poker Face. In the series’ fourth episode, “Rest in Metal,” he plays the guitarist in Doxxxology, a washed up metal band still coasting on the fumes of its one 20-year-old hit, “Staple Head.” On a weekend tour playing pubs to a handful of fans singer Ruby Ruin (Chloë Sevigny), says to her bandmates, “Remember that feeling of playing to crowds? We were metal gods! What would you do to get that feeling back?” Her bandmates, Al (Darnielle) and Eskie (G.K. Umeh), both answer, “Anything.”

Series creator Rian Johnson (Knives Out, Looper) is a longtime Mountain Goats fan and reached out to Darnielle for help on this episode. Darnielle not only co-stars, but also co-wrote “Staple Head” and another song in the episode, “Merch Girl,” enlisting Hatebreed‘s Jamey Jasta to give the song a real early-2000s metal flavor.

Darnielle talked to Pitchfork about how it all happened, saying that he wanted to make sure the series wasn’t making fun of metal before signing on. “There’s laughing with and there’s laughing at, and I’m not usually going to be into the latter,” he told Pitchfork. “So I was a little concerned, but I love the way that it played out, because it seemed really believable: a small club band consisting of people for whom going on tour is a vacation. It’s also something they’re trying to do, but they have lousy jobs.”

As for trying to write a song that was actually a hit, Darnielle says their model was groups like Lacuna Coil and Avenged Sevenfold. “So we thought about that kind of stuff—metallic, very hard,” Darnielle says. “They had a punk sheen, but a metal attitude. So Jamey wrote the music, and all we know about this [from the script] is the chorus is supposed to go, ‘Staple head!’ I had a conversation with my wife about it, because I always try to throw a bunch of extra words into my choruses. My wife said, “No, a chorus for a song like that just goes,  ‘Staple head! Staple head!’” [laughs] So I worked the rest of it around that. Jamey hired a local singer from a Judas Priest cover band, a young woman who tracks the vocals that Chloë lip syncs on the show. I wrote the lyrics and the vocal melodies and determined the structure, and Jamey wrote the music and laid down everything else.”

Unfortunately “Staple Head” is not on streaming services (yet?) but here’s Doxxxology performing it in the show:

As for his performance, Darnielle does a great job in what is easily the best episode so far of this very entertaining series. Poker Face stars Natasha Lyonne as Charlie, a down-on-her-luck woman who has the gift/curse of being able to tell when anyone is lying. While working as a cocktail waitress at a low-rent casino on the Nevada/Arizona border a friend and coworker turns up dead. She figures out who did it which, unfortunately, also puts her on the run.

Poker Face takes a few different ’70s/’80s TV shows and mashes them together in a very modern way. It’s part Columbo (right down to the font and color of the opening titles) and part The Incredible Hulk (or The Fugitive) with a little Murder She Wrote and Veronica Mars in there too. Every episode is a new town, and a new dead body, with Charlie somehow involved every time. Big Name Guest Stars show up in every episode, and like Columbo you see the murder happen first so it’s not “whodunnit” but “how does she the catch ’em.” While there’s a case of the week structure that is beholden to the past, there is a continuing storyline that is very current Peak TV. It’s also very funny and directed with tons of style.

As with his Knives Out movies, Johnson and his team of writers and directors cleverly plot the episodes, though some of the murderers are not so smart. “Rest in Metal,” the last of the four episodes that went up immediately, is the most satisfying of the bunch, with the many perfect little details that all pay off at the conclusion. It’s even better if you’re music and metal fan (and a Mountain Goats fan).

So far the machinations of the show, requiring Charlie to happen upon all these murders (“I’m kinda a death magnet” she says), works but with the fourth episode’s finale you can feel that Poker Face might start tweaking how it works from here. In any case, it’s is a lot of fun. Watch the series trailer here:

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