John Darnielle has made his creative mark by exploring obsessions, extremities, intense emotional moments, and their aftermaths. Over nearly a quarter-century, his band the Mountain Goats have moved from solo-guitar-and-voice home tapes to elegant full-band albums featuring long-established cohorts Peter Hughes on bass and Jon Wurster on drums. (That's John with his fists raised above.)
Meanwhile, his astonishing lyrical talent for capturing those moments has created an increasing, perhaps no less obsessed fan base across the world—including Stephen Colbert, who not only had the band on his show in 2009, but joined them in a (sadly unbroadcast) performance of "No Children," a gripping standout from their 2003 Tallahassee album. As an essayist and writer, Darnielle mines many of the same themes: Last year, his debut novel Wolf in White Van became a New York Times bestseller.
Earlier this week, the Mountain Goats released Beat the Champ, the band's third album for the famed Merge label and first in three years. The songs are mostly sports-themed, with a focus on pro wrestling in particular; Darnielle's particular interest in the subject isn't a complete surprise—he's always been a vocal fan thanks to his Southern California upbringing—but this is his clearest expression of that fandom yet.
With strong guest appearances throughout from backing singers, cellists, and saxophone players, Beat the Champ ranges from piano ballads ("Southwestern Territory" and "Hair Match" open and close the record beautifully) and contemplative mood studies ("Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan" and "Unmasked") to Danielle's long-established territory of briskly strummed and sung anthems like "Choked Out." All the while, he tells tales of TV-wrestling fandom, workaday stiffs gearing themselves up for a night in the ring far away from their families, and the power of stagecraft and personae with more quotable and suddenly affecting lines in one record than most bands can manage in a career.
We spoke to Darnielle by phone soon after the release of the first song from the album, "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero," a celebration of the famed '70s icon. Here's a lightly edited transcript.
A couple of friends of mine who are pro wrestling fans said once that what often isn't understood about wrestling is that it's a soap opera for men, and that quote stuck with me. Is there something to that, or do you see things in a different light?
I don't know about the "for men" part. When I was going to matches when I was a kid, it was more men than women, but I think some of that was socioeconomic: The women are expected, or were expected, to stay at home and stuff and take care of the house. But there were plenty of women in the audience who enjoyed it back in the day, as with any sport.
I think the soap opera aspect is true, that it is drama, drama that's enjoyable. I would almost say it's sort of like a socially acceptable theater, because theater—in America especially, generally speaking, theater doesn't present itself as something you might go to for working-class entertainment. It presents itself as something that's for schooled people. I think it's a shame, because theater is actually a very public and democratic institution, and it used to be much more like, "What are you going to do on your night off?" "Go to the theater," in Rome, or in England. People that were going to the Globe were not people raising their pinkies in the air with a drink; they were the people of the town.
I think wrestling is the one that presents theater for people who want to see some theater but don't necessarily have to dress up, or be quiet while they're watching. All these things about how quiet you're supposed to be in the theater, those are all fairly recent developments in theater. The Shakespearean crowds were not quiet crowds [laughs]. But in wrestling, you get to interact with theater in a way that I think is actually a lot more fitting than sitting there in a dark room, staring at people onstage. So I think it's soap opera for people, rather than for people who have certain class limitations on, "How educated are you?" It's a democratic theater.
And the idea of theater, or you could even call it ritual obviously, seems to me at least to play throughout the album from start to finish. There's the building anticipation of going onstage and the viewpoint from it, and then there are other songs, I'm thinking of "Foreign Object" and "Werewolf Gimmick," as representations of a dramatic pose, for lack of a better term.
I was just really hoping that the question was going to be like, "Do you have other songs like 'Foreign Object,' in which a person gets stabbed in the eye?"
Well, I could mention that, too!
Wrestling is like any form of drama or pretty much any form of entertainment—some people understand this about forms of entertainment really intuitively when they're younger, and others would have to be really not very intelligent for a long time until we realize that every human mood is an art. Any art is good for any form of human mood. Metal isn't necessarily aggressive. There's metal that's contemplative, there's metal that's sad, and there's metal that's exuberant. No genre is limited in what it can express. And wrestling's the same. It's a form of self-expression, of human expression, and so it contains this whole range. It's not limited—you can't constrain any form of expression to a given range and say, "Oh, well, this is played on a synthesizer, so it's necessarily upbeat." That's not true, right?
Wrestling's a form of expression, and it expresses vastness. But it gets to be a little discordant about that, because you wouldn't immediately think—here's this sport that is largely dudes wearing very few clothes, grappling with each other in a ring. Where is the tragedy in that? Where's the deep, reflective sadness in there? You sort of do assign moods, assign specific situations to certain emotions, and wrestling kind of confounds that by saying, "No, we can express all the things in here."
When the news of the album came out, I did some thinking: "When did I first hear about pro wrestling, and where?" It wasn't until I was maybe 11, and I was living in upstate New York—very much different from any other context that I had grown up in [in coastal California], because my Navy dad has been assigned there. That was the first time I was very consciously aware that schoolmates around me were wrestling fans: They talked about these names that I had never known or never encountered before. And it was interesting plunging into that milieu and getting to know these people, these figures, and learning about moves, just from them talking about it. For you, was it something that was introduced like that, or just part of your context from a very young age?
I was like nine or 10 when I ran across wrestling broadcasts on KDOC, Channel 56 and also on KMEX, Channel 34. And it was solitary for me. There was nobody else I knew who was into it. My first two years of watching it, it was just me. And my stepfather would tell me about it, because his father had watched it with him in Indiana in the '40s and '50s, I think. But I didn't know anybody who was into it, and I wasn't trying to get people into it, because it sort of seemed hard to explain if you didn't just naturally feel drawn to it. But there was a friend, Joaquin Spengemann—he's a drummer now—who was very interested. He'd never seen the matches; his family didn't own a TV. But he thought the magazines looked really super-interesting. He would borrow my wrestling magazines, and he would pick favorites based on who had the better storyline. We went together to the [Grand] Olympic [Auditorium, but for me, it was something I got drawn to on late-night TV, or early-Saturday-morning TV.
I feel like the KMEX broadcast was 90 minutes, which was a lot of wrestling. It was in Spanish. But I had taken, at this point in the seventh grade, a year of Spanish, so I could catch some bits. The Spanish announcers were just fantastic. It was amazing. You'd get to see the undercard matches. You'd get to see the whole thing, whereas the English broadcast was an edited thing.
But it was a solitary pursuit for me, for the most part. It was also a family thing. We went as a family several times, and then I sort of grew out of it. I guess there was no environment. Not only that, the L.A. territory was in heavy decline when I was into it, and if I remember correctly, one of the broadcasts just stopped happening, like the English one. But by the time I was a freshman in high school, I'd found a crowd with whom I could start developing some cool. Wrestling wasn't going to be part of that picture. There was no way. These were Bowie fans, Lou Reed fans. It would have been culturally difficult for me to go, "And another thing I'm into is wrestling" [laughs]. We were the kinds of tiresome dudes who hated sports, at that time.
And that's interesting, because part of the other context for me in learning about wrestling was that there was a bit of a music crossover. I mean, Captain Lou Albano and Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" video—
There was a rock and wrestling connection, yes.
So you're separating out right at the same time that I'm becoming conscious of it, through music more than the wrestling itself as a way in—just because I've heard of these people.
But the thing is, if the music you were into was cool at all, that would look transparent—it looked like the wrestling business going, "Man, there's a lot of money in music," which there was at that time. Those days were, "If you can make a record, you can make money off this," back then. "All you have to do is put the goddamn thing on the shelves, and people will buy it." We were heading into the CD age, where that was totally true for several years. I don't know how much it was really connected to music so much as business, like, "How can we grow the business? What other spheres can we go into?" Well, music is one where fans will buy the records, if you can just make something happen. I'm not saying wrestlers don't have legit love of music, but I think much of the connection there was there for the mutual interest of the performers. Though I must say, Hulk Hogan's song "Real American" is an acknowledged masterpiece.
Can't wait for the video embed for that.
You haven't seen that one?
No, I have not. Clearly I must.
Oh my god. "Real American"—my friend Allison memorably called it the most aggressive act of Dadaism she had ever seen. You have to just go look it up; the Hulk Hogan "Real American" video is an astonishing piece of American art.
Do you still follow the sport?
I mean, I read about it. I can't really say I follow it. I follow in the distracted way of the Internet Age, and of having two jobs and children. We don't have cable, and so I don't watch any broadcasts, but I do look stuff up online, and I try not to just be watching stuff from when I was a fan, because that's a relation to the past that I try not to be cultivating, where you only want the stuff that you liked back when.
When I talked to Bob Mould when we were on a bill together two weeks ago, he keeps up, because he was a wrestling writer for a while. He was like the third person to tell me, "You've got to look at New Japan Pro Wrestling. The stuff that's going on in Japan is incredible." And I did, and it's really cool. They're starting an American subscription. It's hard to navigate their site right now. But it's a much more stripped-down presentation. There's a lot more quiet in the arena during the intros, and the character development seems to be taking place much more in the ring than in telegraphed storylines, and it's really pretty hot stuff. I would like to try and keep up, but the thing is, the thing that happens with adult life is, I have a lot of other stuff I have to keep up with. The amount of time necessary to actually keep up, I'm not sure quite where to find it. But if I were to, New Japan Pro Wrestling is hot as a pistol right now, and I would like to get into that.
For the album, was it just a simple matter of a song, then, "Hey, maybe an album from this?" Or maybe something just started to suggest itself?
What happens is, I start writing songs, and then I notice that two or three of them are about the same thing—not necessarily in a row. At the beginning of this, I had one song about wrestling. I said, "Well, there's a song about wrestling." I think it was "Hair Match" or "Southwestern Territory"; I forget which one came first. But then the next one I wrote was the other of those two. Well, now you have two songs about wrestling. And the next time I'd sit down and write a song, the same thing, and at some point you have to admit to yourself, "Look, I'm pursuing this." I try not to sit down and go, "Well, now I will write about this theme." It feels kind of 19th-century Romantic poet, it just feels wrong to me. It feels like how lyricists I don't like do their stuff, where I can see them going, "And now, I must write my album about the sea" or whatever
The thing is, even though I read books that are naval and I go, "I want to write a thing about the sea," every songwriter has done that at some point—sing about the ships and everything. Writers addressing the sea, to me, is a cliché. Men writers, especially. They just want to write something about the sea and ships. So I try not to be the guy going, "It's time for me to write about ships." But after two or more songs, you go, "Well, let's be honest, you're writing about wrestling." Then I started eBaying cheap ephemera from old wrestling magazines for a couple bucks, to look at and re-immerse myself in the stuff that was so inspiring to me when I was 12 and 13.
Any particular guests of note this time? I was taken by the various orchestrations and arrangements throughout.
Erik Friedlander, who hasn't been on a record with us for a while, did a couple of pretty amazing cello turns. The noises that he does at the end, toward the end of "Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan," I'll never forget hearing his demo of it. I just get chills from that; it's so good. So he did that, and he did some strings on "Luna." Matt Douglas did these horns, these woodwinds arrangements that I really like. But I think my favorite thing is Phil and Brad Cook doing the backing vocals on "Luna." They hit an incredibly sweet harmony. They're brothers. They're from Megafaun. And when they harmonize, it's so gorgeous. They both had the file, but they don't live together. So they showed up, and I spent about five minutes finding their range.
Vocal harmony, to me, is the greatest thing in the world. In another lifetime, I would love to pursue just that. It reaches me at very, very deep levels. And the harmonies they hit on "Luna," we didn't throw them way up in the mix, because it's just not how it works, but they fleshed out the chords so beautifully.
This album feels like both a next step and a synthesis of a variety of things before, without feeling like you're needing to repeat anything.
The thing I think you're saying, but you don't want to say because it would disparage the older stuff—which, I totally like the older stuff!—but this album, musically, is just better than my other albums. I'm writing better music. I've been doing it for a long time, so I'm getting gradually better at it. I started playing the piano on records in 2005. I've come a little bit of a ways. My left hand is still kind of a club; I'm still not a good pianist. But I know more about the piano, and I know more about songwriting. And this time, I was able to push myself in directions that I could not even have thought about two albums ago. "Fire Editorial" is the big one. It's like, "I wrote that." The me of two years ago could not have written that.
I mean, I don't sit around with textbooks and stuff, but I listen to Duke Ellington, and I play some Gershwin, and I try and figure out what they're up to. I can't write like they write, but I can take some of the things I've learned from playing their stuff and try to weasel little bits of it in. And also the fact that we've been playing together as a band so long means that we've gotten better at making music together. We sort of know better how to occupy our own space and complement one another's playing in what to me is a really satisfying way.
The cover font—is that the Forced Exposure font?
I don't know. I remember Rob Carmichael, who designed it, chose it, but I don't think so. I think it bears a resemblance, but if you look at the O in "Mountain," I don't think that's the same. I was so happy when he found it, because when you do cover design, this is stuff that nobody ever sees, and I should actually save all of them in a folder, because every cover design gets multiple, multiple iterations. That whole process is maybe the most obscure layer of making a record. You hear people's demos and you see their notebooks, but the early looks the designer sends you, those things are not generally preserved. This painting—Leela (Corman) made this—we started from, and Rob had various looks with the font. It was on the mat at one point, and the font was in the crowd at one point. This was a rodeo font that I kind of liked, and then we put this one just like that as a single sentence, and I was like, "That's perfect."
But the actual painting itself was pretty much right there and then from the start.
That's the thing. Figuring out what to do with the text was an issue, because the painting was where we started. I asked Leela, who's an amazing artist, to make this painting and to draw these pictures of the wrestlers that on the LP will be on the back, but in the CD they'll be in the booklet. I really enjoy letting an artist be the second voice to contribute after we finish our stuff. So do that, then marry an image to it, and then hand everything over to the designer and say, "Okay, now you present this in a way that really brings it all together."
So you've obviously been coming off quite a few full months — the success of Wolf in White Van, now this coming up here, too, and much more besides. With that in mind, and knowing what I know of your work ethic and also that space you carve out for yourself and your family, would you call yourself in a good place?
I guess. I mean, I really enjoy working more and more, if that's a thing, partly because I don't have as much time for it. I have more stuff to do. Now, when I find time to work, it's such a pleasure that it makes me want to work more. Sometimes I wonder whether it's a personal failing, that I can't be satisfied with work I've done. I have to keep doing more; I have to keep trying to make it better. Peter always points this out. He goes, "You realize how many records we've made in the last 10 years?" I go, "Oh, probably about 10." He goes, "Yeah, that's right." And this is the longest gap between records in forever, and it's because I put out a novel in the interim. So I think I'm in a good place, but I think I am a busy person, and I really enjoy working, and I feel like if I get to be 85 and I had very little to show, workwise, I wouldn't be satisfied no matter how good it was. I can't just make one thing and say, "Well, I hope a few people like this." I need to make stuff that I think might be useful.
Ned Raggett has written for Pitchfork, the Quietus, Rolling Stone, FACT, The 405, Noisey, Red Bull Music Academy and more besides. He otherwise ponders things in California and tweets at @nedraggett.
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