Fact and Fiction: The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle on Wrestling and the Creative Process
The prolific songwriter and now acclaimed author John Darnielle tells PopMatters how he created his wrestling-themed album Beat the Champ, what he calls the Mountain Goats' "most musically interesting record by a country mile".
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."