John Darnielle confides that he wants to lie to me. We’re at the end of our interview discussing the Mountain Goats’ new wrestling-themed album Beat the Champ and he explains that whenever the publicist interjects to wrap things up, he feels like fibbing his answer to that final question. “When I get to the ‘one last question’, that’s when I always want to lie,” Darnielle answers mischievously. “So your question was do I ever slow down, and I really want to [say], ‘Oh, I have slowed down, I wrote all this stuff seven years ago!’ It would be so great if I could say that. But point of fact, no, I write every day.”
There may be some little white lies that someone with the knack for blurring fiction and reality like Darnielle has can get away with, but he’s left too much of a paper trail to sell the story that he can just turn off his creative impulses. The prolific Mountain Goats songwriter and now acclaimed novelist details how he works whenever the spirit moves him, whether it’s playing out an idea on the guitar or opening up a word processing file on his laptop to jot down notes for a story. These days, Darnielle might even squeeze in some studio time to flesh out his thoughts, which seems like a far cry from when he started out over two decades ago recording straight into a boombox. Still, no matter what form it takes, the creative process for Darnielle is a spontaneous one. An opening line or a possible title might be the spark for him, and themes don’t start out earmarked for a song or for prose. As he puts it, “There’s no hard and fast rule.”
That Darnielle works this way is hardly surprising, considering the vast discography credited to him, not to mention the “reserve squad” of songs and unreleased material he’s archived. Without those elements of spontaneity and performance, Darnielle explains, there likely would have been no Mountain Goats. “Recording directly into the condenser mic with no possibility for multi-tracking, that was very inspiring to me. I could get a lot of work done very quickly and I was beginning to really value as an aesthetic the quick writing and recording of songs. If I had been looking at a ProTools screen and had been able to just tinker forever, I would probably still be working on my first song.”
“All the Human Emotions”
According to form, Beat the Champ started out as a stream-of-consciousness project like much of what Darnielle creates seemingly does. He wrote one song about wrestling while working on other things, then another song about wrestling, then a few more, when he started recognizing a pattern. Inspired by watching old footage as well as his young son’s interest in wrestlers, the idea “stuck in my mind,” Darnielle notes.
But Beat the Champ is also testament to the idea that the best brainstorms really take shape when some organizing principles get involved in the process. It’s not simply that Beat the Champ required some elements of structure and continuity to round out a complete concept album, but that the necessary level of execution to make it what is demanded more prep work and greater technical proficiency from Darnielle and company. The result is a work that might be the Mountain Goats’ most musically complex and diverse collection yet, an effort challenging enough that it required Darnielle and drummer Jon Wurster “to do a practice recording session to see how it would work.”
In terms of both storytelling and musical composition, Beat the Champ is intricate enough to match, in Darnielle’s mind, the nuance and depth of wrestling as a thematic. Despite the way it’s caricatured as over-the-top sports entertainment, wrestling, to Darnielle, is a topic that is especially conducive to a broad range of tones and moods, musical styles and narrative treatments.
“There are moments of quiet, there are moments of pathos, there are moments of tragedy,” Darnielle says. “When somebody is about to lose his title, and you know it’s going to happen, even if you don’t like him, you have this moment where you go there is something is about to end here, melancholy. All the human emotions that are present are there in the sport, in some exaggerated, Technicolor form. You don’t want to focus too much on just the fists flying, you also want to focus on a defeated person leaving the ring.”
Beat the Champ is about all those human emotions and the kinds of drama they evoke. There are the gory, action-packed songs that you might expect from an album inspired by wrestling’s no-holds-barred ’70s promotions, represented on Beat the Champ by the gleefully violent “Foreign Object” and the blood pumping “Werewolf Gimmick”. Darnielle also brings the stories of famed wrestlers to life, like the jubilant biography of his own childhood hero on “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” on one of the spectrum and the recounting of Bruiser Brody’s murder on the chilling “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan” on the other. More revelatory are the character sketches that have long been Darnielle’s specialty, as he creates complex, reflective inner lives that dwell behind the muscular frames and flamboyant personas. That’s what stands out when the album starts with the internal monologue of a journeyman wrestler on the melancholy “Southwest Territory”, with his mind meandering from what happened in the ring (“Climb the turnbuckle high / Take two falls out of three”) to more existential musings (“I try to remember what life was like long ago / But it’s gone, you know?”) as he drives home on the freeway. It signals that Beat the Champ is, on the balance, more concerned by wrestling’s code of honor (“Heel Turn 2” and “Animal Mask”) and its spirit of camaraderie (“Unmasked!” and “The Ballad of Bull Ramos”) than it is with pure spectacle.
Darnielle’s intimate knowledge of these many facets of wrestling comes from his youth growing up in southern California. When he was in fifth and sixth grade, he would watch English and Spanish-language wrestling broadcasts, in the pre-cable era, on local TV for two-and-a-half hours a week. It was a time when he yearned for idols to look up to that his everyday life couldn’t provide. “So I drew on that experience of having heroes,” Darnielle says. “I think when you’re growing up you often don’t have real heroes, because nobody’s actually a hero. I just remember how important they were when we’re children. The stories of wrestling are so cool and exciting and sort of under-examined.”
But wrestling wasn’t just about hero worship for Darnielle, because he also learned his fair share about what goes on behind the scenes in staging matches: He had family in the wrestling industry, so when, say, he walks through the tricks of the trade on “Hair Match”, his knowledge comes from an inside source. “We would go to the matches when we could, and it was this totally captivating world for me. I knew about what’s called kayfabe [the suspension of disbelief in staging wrestling as ‘real’]. I knew about it because my stepfather’s father had been a wrestling promoter, and so he would point at things. ‘See that red bulb on the end of the turnbuckle that’s too high to really look at? I bet you that thing’s gone by the end of the night.’
“But I don’t know if that really mattered to me. Knowing that the outcome was predetermined didn’t really change the drama, cause when you’re watching The Tempest, the outcome of that is also predetermined. And yet, it’s quite compelling. For me, it’s about characters and contests between right and wrong, the heat of it and the excitement.”
The storytelling dimension to wrestling is obviously right up Darnielle’s alley, considering that few songwriters go into such depth in crafting characters and scenes as he does. The fine-grained detail and emotional reality can feel so true to life on Beat the Champ that it begs the question of how much of his wrestling stories are based on actual events and life stories, and how much comes from his imagination. According to Darnielle, there’s no formula as to how he balances fact and fiction in what he writes, as he “can move in and out” between real life and the worlds he creates. This is as much the case with his renderings of well-known figures like Luna Vachon and Bull Ramos as it is with the situations and composite characters he conjures up in his mind on Beat the Champ.
“You have a sort of infinite space for play, where you can favor what you want to favor,” Darnielle replies, when asked if he has to prioritize historical background or fictional construction. “You decide what story you’re telling and you can switch gears, in mid-song, if you like. It gives you a lot of space for play and it makes you realize that’s what you’re doing all the time anyway. Character as a concept, a fictional concept — we all have characters that they are pretty much too complex to talk about as pure villains or action or long action.
“For the most part, people are complicated, their motivations are very hard to understand at all times, unclear to them at all times or at many times. These stories have people trying to have clarity on some big questions.”
Take “Animal Mask” as a prime example of how Darnielle works on multiple levels of meaning, using wrestling as a vehicle to get at the bigger picture. Literally speaking, he’s describing an “18-man steel-cage free-for-all” and how the protagonist is trying to free himself to rescue a masked competitor about to have his cover blown in the scrum (“Through the noise I hear you call for help / You can’t protect yourself”). On another level, the moral of the story on “Animal Mask” is about the sense of camaraderie and kinship that comes from subscribing to a shared code, the principle in this case being not to reveal someone’s hidden identity against his will. And there’s yet another layer of analogy beyond that, Darnielle points out. “That song is also about birth, so some of them are metaphorical, but I try to remain true to the storyline. That’s the thing, when you have this conceit to plan things around, instead of being limiting, it opens up a lot of doors.
“If you want to write a song about Luna Vachon, what’s it about? Is it about her character? Is it about her life? Is it about her legacy? Is it about her death? It reminds you how many stories there are to tell about anybody.”
“Punching Way Above My Weight Class”
That infinite space for play doesn’t just come through thematically in the various tales inside and outside the ring that are portrayed on Beat the Champ. Rather, it’s in the music that Darnielle really expands his horizons and gives his imagination free rein to go where it wants to on the new album. While no one’s surprised that Darnielle tells rich, detailed stories in his lyrics, it’s a little less expected how subtle and complicated the arrangements on Beat the Champ are, especially considering the subject matter he’s dealing with — in fact, the musical dimension of the album is something that has generally been overlooked, as Darnielle says that no one has asked him about it in a week’s worth of interviews.
But for Darnielle, the music is inextricable from the stories he’s trying to tell on Beat the Champ and how he wants to tell them. “One guy who has designed a character who’s so total that everyone hates him, he literally has no one who thinks he’s popular,” Darnielle explains, by way of example. “But he’s actually a good guy outside the ring and everyone thinks he’s cool. There’s something very jazzy and complex. You want to use various musical moods to tell the whole scope of stories, so hopefully there’s plenty of that.”
Indeed, the music plays a crucial part in reflecting all the different kinds of themes that wrestling opens up to on Beat the Champ. Through the music as much as his lyrics, Darnielle conveys how wrestling is not just about violence and camp, and the visceral reactions they elicit, but it’s also about the pregnant pauses that come in the midst of the action, about the ebb and flow of storylines as they build up drama then come down off an adrenaline rush. Just as the stories of wrestling have more going on behind the scenes than you’re consciously aware of, so too does the way music sets the scene, as Darnielle explains.
“Four to the floor, stomp-stomp-stomp,” Darnielle says, describing what people might expect of wrestling-inspired music. “But the thing is, no, when you think that wrestlers have been using ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ for their entrance music forever. It was something symphonic and grand, especially once the Wrestlemanias became a thing. Let’s get — what was that piece of music? — Orff, ‘Carmina Burana’. And when they do those — even though they don’t overdo it, so you don’t get used to it — that is better than your arena rock default.
“Except it wasn’t a default where I grew up: One of the local villains was a guy named Bad Boy Leroy Brown. Three guesses what his entrance music was…He was an evil villain and he would enter to a really jaunty song by Jim Croce. It would really just start and you would hear the music, here comes the bad guy. And that tells you a little something about music, and how it’s not really about the major key or the minor key. It’s a little theme.”
Along with bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster (also of Superchunk), not to mention guests on strings and woodwinds, Darnielle pushes himself as far as he’s gone on what he calls the Mountain Goats’ “most musically interesting record by a country mile.” It’s a progression that has been some time in coming if you’ve heard his recent albums, especially 2012’s Transcendental Youth, which featured horn arrangements from Matthew E. White that, in Darnielle’s words, “made us start asking questions about where else we might want to go.”
Where they go from there on Beat the Champ is new ground for the Mountain Goats, as they create more carefully crafted songs that include more parts and experimental forays. It’s a tone that is set right from the start with “Southwestern Territory”, as it matches the thoughts running through a wrestler’s head to contemplative touches of woodwinds and piano. In contrast to his typical drafting approach, Darnielle consciously strove to work at a higher level of difficulty on “Southwestern Territory”, painstakingly writing four bars at a time and incorporating numerous chord movements.
“It was a much different style of writing than the sort of instinctive way I usually go,” Darnielle says. “[Typically] I just follow a song, I know the basics of writing a pop song, I just follow through the changes and sometimes we’ll find a curveball in there. The rules are in place and I know most of them.
“Whereas with this, I was punching way above my weight class. And it was really, really a pleasure to do. You look forward to sitting down and writing the song. It took two weeks to write or more — most songs take me a morning. Most songs, I sit there and write and finish up in a couple hours. Maybe I go in and revise a little bit, but it’s not rocket science. But then, a couple of songs on this record are rocket science!”
Darnielle points to “Fire Editorial”, with its jazz piano vibe, and the closer “Hair Match” as tracks that took a little more time and deliberation than is the norm for him. Of “Hair Match”, in particular, Darnielle says that “doing something that long and that slow was pretty fun, because I don’t normally write things that are that slow — it doesn’t take that long to get where they’re going. So it took me a lot of discipline not to build up a head of steam and go some place.”
The exploratory nature of Beat the Champ might be felt more strongly at the end of “Heel Turn 2” than anywhere else on the album, as Darnielle lingers around and plays out a piano line for a few minutes after the main action of the song has completed. It’s something that Darnielle says he’s never done on a Mountain Goats song, which usually wrap up soon after the vocals are over. That coda, Darnielle explains, came from a dream about playing major sevens on the piano, after he and the band were getting frustrated in the studio trying to get a complicated rhythm to come together with the other components on the piece. The effect is a quiet, meditative tone that draws out a sense of poignancy, as the protagonist ponders over the ethics of transforming himself from a fan favorite to villain.
“So when I finish tracking it, I just keep playing, that’s what you do — it’s piano, why not, I’m kind of in a zone?,” he says. “And I just followed my bliss. So it’s a three-and-a-half-minute improv and you’ll hear the last note of it isn’t quite in the scale I was in, so I’m done. And I came in and everyone said we’ve got to keep this, that was cool. It’s funny, it sounds so studied, but it’s probably the most spontaneous thing you’ll ever hear on one of our albums. It’s directly from the heart, it’s my response to what we had just done.”
“Anything’s a Good Theme for Anything”
Part of following his bliss for Darnielle is not getting hung up on arbitrary rules or constraints when it comes to how he expresses himself. This is all the clearer when you consider how Darnielle has crossed over from being a cult-favorite musician to a National Book Award-nominated author in the past half-year. About a mutilated teen who seeks an escape through a mail-in role-playing fantasy game of his own creation, Wolf in White Van received widespread critical acclaim, garnering Darnielle as much — if not more — praise and attention from being a novelist as he has from being a musician.
Despite the different kinds of projects he constantly has going on, Darnielle doesn’t compartmentalize or box in his imagination by actively deciding what ideas are better for songs and what are better for fiction. “I really don’t believe in lines between things like that,” Darnielle says. “Anything’s a good theme for anything. With these songs, the fact that wrestling relies on character so much is nice. You have some extant character types you can put into play. You don’t have to spend so much time building them, you don’t have to spend so much time explaining to the listener what you’re talking about. So that’s nice thematically for this. But I think a song can be about anything, so can a book, so can a dance…The mode of expression is the main point, making contact, whichever you’re most comfortable with at the time you’re writing, that’s what makes it work.”
The making of Beat the Champ bears out how proficient Darnielle is at multi-tasking. Created over the course of a few years, Beat the Champ was written while Darnielle was working on other songs, in the process of writing and completing Wolf in White Van, while also on tour some of the time. As Darnielle explains, “I wrote ‘Werewolf Gimmick’ in a tour van during the writing of the book. But I was on tour, I wasn’t getting whole lot book work done, and I had this idea for a song, so I wrote the lyrics in the backseat. Everyone got to the hotel, and I came in and got a guitar. So I wrote them at the same time, they ran concurrently.
“But these aren’t the only songs I wrote at that time, they just happened to go together. Because it would be weird to go, here’s one album, here’s four songs about wrestling, three about Ozzy Osbourne, and so forth. So I happened to write these other songs, most of which are about Ozzy Osbourne.”
Even though Darnielle does acknowledge that there are obviously differences between expressing himself through music and through literature, he still feels that there are commonalities between the visceral experiences that both can bring about. Darnielle stresses the physicality of music, and it’s something he wants to bring out in his writing too. The idea that there’s a reciprocal relationship between music and literature make a lot of sense, in Darnielle’s case at least: Just as he has been known for bringing a literary dimension to songwriting, so he wants to bring the element of performance from his music into his prose.
“So what’s different about it is that you’re not as in your body when you’re doing books,” Darnielle explains. “I still try to be more in my body…to be physical. A physical thing that lands on your ear through a physical process.
“Literature can be sensuous, but it is not a sensuous world in the way music is. People do — me, everybody — you read something that moves you, you start to shake, you experience it with your body. But music, you inherently experience with your body, that’s what it is. So this is a big difference for me. To get to where I want to go with art and literature, I have to work a little harder with fiction to get where we’re sitting there in our bodies and feeling pure dread or wonder or whatever.”
The way he composed Wolf in White Van bears this idea out; Darnielle tells how he read every single word of his manuscript out loud multiple times. Pointing out that literature was originally a “spoken art”, Darnielle emphasizes the sounds and rhythms of writing and reading: “Words exist in the air, and they are given weight and rhythm in the way we read them. This is sort of an eccentric position and most people are in the totally opposite place, that words are not supposed to be read out loud and something that happens between the eyes and the page. But to me, it’s about the tongue, the air, and the ear. So that’s where poetry and literature live for me.”
It’s apt that Darnielle draws attention to how he tries to make literature a more active artform, because it’s something he has been so successful doing as a musician who prizes spontaneity and performance. Whether Darnielle is writing a novel about a character dealing with physical and metaphorical scars or making an album about wrestling and the bigger life lessons it represents — or even just conversing in an interview — there’s a restless energy that comes through in whatever he does that’s uncommonly visceral. And what sets it all in motion for John Darnielle is the spark of habit, the basic routine of always keeping himself busy.
“I don’t write a song every day, but I’m working on something at all times. I sort of have this natural, enjoyable process for me — it’s not a burden. It’s something I really enjoy. It can be a lot of work, but when you get into it, when you’re in the middle of it, there’s nothing else like it in the world. It’s just so fun.”