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".
The Mountain Goats
Beat the Champ

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.”

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.”