Interviews

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."

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