Some 30 months have passed since Durham’s the Mountain Goats released Transcendental Youth in late 2012. That marks the longest stretch between albums since John Darnielle started recording on a Panasonic boom box in the early ’90s. Granted, there was Wolf in White Van, Darnielle’s debut novel that hit No. 9 on The New York Times Best Seller list last year, plus a National Book Award nomination and an All Hail West Texas vinyl reissue. There was a new baby boy, too. And eventually, there was the spate of songwriting to deal with it all, which resulted in 13 songs about professional wrestling collectively called Beat the Champ.
The idea may sound surprising, but ambitious concept albums populated by unusual characters are staples of the Mountain Goats catalogue. We followed the journey of a self-loathing couple that moves to Florida on Tallahassee, cheered for a group of tweaked-out youngsters throughout We Shall All Be Healed and heard the perspective of Bible bit players on The Life of the World to Come. Darnielle is notorious for wearing his passions on his record sleeves, and he has written songs about wrestling as early as 2006. His tales of underdogs and bullies, fear and redemption—all recurring Mountain Goats themes—inspired many fans to clamor for an entire album about the grapple. Nearly 20 years later, he’s finally delivered.
We talked to John Darnielle about his new album, wrestling and fatherhood.
INDY Week: Let’s talk about wrestlers. I’ve never been to a match but am definitely intrigued.
JOHN DARNIELLE: This dude from Stereogum came down, and we went out to Gibsonville to the matches. It was completely great. I’m going to go again. It’s right outside of Greensboro—super, super, super fun.
It’s totally different now. Back when, half the people in the building would be happy to have a discussion with you about whether it was real or not, or how much of it was real. Whereas now, everybody in the building is in on the joke. They all know it’s entertainment. More people used to know than say they did, but there were still plenty of people in the building who thought it was super real.
How do these wrestling personas play out into the real world?
Do you know the term “kayfabe?” It’s what that whole question is called. It used to be, if you let on that you were somebody other than your character, that was “breaking kayfabe.” The rule of kayfabe is that you stay in character. Most people weren’t keeping kayfabe all day and all night. They were themselves at home, but there were some people—like Ted DiBiase, The Million Dollar Man back in the ’80s—he wasn’t allowed to buy anything with any bill lower than $100. If he bought a newspaper, he had to pay with a $100 bill. He had to be keeping up his character, right?
If you were a villain, you weren’t supposed to show yourself being nice. This guy that the song “Fire Editorial” is about, he didn’t actually speak any languages other than English, but he had to pretend to not be able to speak English. He never broke kayfabe. If you’d call him, he’d answer the phone in character and keep it until he knew who you were. That’s what it was like back then. We didn’t let on that it was a game.
What was it like to have somebody like Chavo—and his son—tweet about the song you’ve written about him?
Oh, are you kidding? It’s the best. I gotta keep something under my hat, but I’ve actually talked to him on the phone now. It’s insane. What can I even say? I think I said something about it on Twitter and Facebook and I was like, “This is my childhood hero.” It says something about you. Even if you’re playing a bad guy, you’re not a bad guy. There’s something in your character that says something about you, whether it’s how consistent you are with the character or if you completely inhabit it. He’s exactly like the guy that I liked. He’s just a very positive dude who’s up for whatever.
You said you wrote these songs to re-immerse yourself in the things about wrestling that intrigued you as a child. What did you find as an adult?
What I found mainly is that I regret being in a hurry to be cool. When I was 14, there was no way I was still going to be watching wrestling. Between 13 and 14, a big leap took place where I wanted to read James Joyce and Faulkner. I wanted to be cool and know cool stuff. I didn’t know anybody who was into wrestling.
Now, if you get into something, no matter what it is, you can find people online who will tell you, “No, I’m into that, too, and it’s cool.” But when you’re in high school in the mid-’80s, and you don’t know anybody who is into the shit that you think is cool, you can either lead a very, very lonely life, or you can find other shit that you are into. It’s just more fun to be into stuff with people. But passions are worth honoring, whether or not you share them with anybody else. I missed out on a bunch of cool shit, because I didn’t have anybody else to share it with.
When you put out thematic albums, do you notice an influx of Mountain Goats fans getting into metal, or wrestling or the Bible?
Over the last 10 years, metal has kind of mainstreamed pretty heavily. But wrestling, I don’t know about people getting into it. One thing I did discover with the album is that there are a lot of people who are like “Oh my God, I already like this band, and I’m huge wrestling fan.” I had no idea.
There are a lot of people who know a lot more about the present-day state of things than I do. It’s harder to follow now. When I was watching wrestling years ago, TV was a lot easier to navigate. We don’t have cable, so the way you find stuff now is YouTube. You can look at the descriptions, but it’s a lot to keep up with. That’s one thing parenthood does: It makes it a lot harder to keep up on stuff. This is why a lot of parents and grown-ups are clueless about the Internet: If you didn’t catch it early, what are you gonna do—sit down and tutor yourself?
“Animal Mask” is about a battle royale, but at the same time, about childbirth. Do you think being a new father,has colored your songwriting?
It’s about the first time you see your little feller. If you don’t think about it enough, you just wind up writing songs about parenthood. It’s OK to write a few, but when you hear a songwriter say, “Here’s my album about parenthood,” you’re like, “Really? How long have you been a parent? You’re writing about something that has only been true for you for a year or two. How much do you really know about it? How much can you really say?”
I like to write emotional music. Parenthood softens your heart. You get more familiar with the parts of yourself that are more vulnerable, and you’re really open to feelings all day. That is where I like to live. I would like to be that way for as many of my waking hours as I can. It’s hard to do and cast it as a balanced life decision. You know, things that make me sad make me sadder when I’m closer to my parental self. It’s really beautiful to me, because it’s the kind of stuff I want to make—that raw sort of emotional activity.
People live-blog everything they do now, and parenting takes you out of that. Parents are often observing that they don’t look so good. They don’t look at themselves in the mirror quite as much. You have other stuff to focus on.
But maybe you’re posting a lot of pictures of your kid on the Internet.
Yeah, but you’re not posting pictures of yourself. You replace yourself with your kid. Parenting ideally should take you out of yourself. Parenting is not about you and your feelings. You’re taking care of something that needs your help. It’s not about filling some hole in your life. It’s about making a life for someone else, helping them find a path. But it takes a lot of time, and when you do get an hour to create, you really have to indulge the time you find.
Back to wrestling: You’ve written songs about wrestlers before, like “Ox Baker Triumphant.” Wasn’t he the big guy they’d bring around to beat down the local hero?
Ox Baker only came once while I was following wrestling. I have a theory about why he came to town. He was an East Coast wrestler. I read about him, because he wasn’t local. And one day, he’s being interviewed, and he was this big scary guy I’d only seen pictures of. My theory is that he had either lost a loser-leave-town match or wanted to visit a relative in southern California, so he was picking up work. I think that’s what you do in wrestling: “Hold on, I’ve got to go to California. My niece is getting married. I’ll be there for two weeks. Can you set me up with two weeks of work?” I was terrified of him. That story that the song is about is about actually being scared and of being dumped by the roadside.
Some of your songs are about surviving domestic abuse and physical pain. Do you think that wrestling appealed to you as a kid because there’s a sense of control and this clear delineation between good and evil?
No doubt. I like good guys. There’s one line in the Chavo Guerrero song about how I like good guys because they did what was right and they punish people. That was the immediate and direct appeal.
There’s a metal quality to it. With something evil, even if you’re outraged, it’s incredibly thrilling. The evil guys keep hitting a guy, even after he passes out in wrestling. You can’t do that in boxing or anywhere else. But this happens in wrestling all the time. And you sit there and go, “Oh my God! That is fucked up! That is fucked up!” and there is something that is so appealing about that, in the way of horror movies, that you get to watch somebody do something unspeakable.
However, it is sort of also when you realize it is kayfabe; this can’t be true, otherwise that person would be dead or never wrestle again. But you get to seriously experience this world in which horrible punishment can be doled out, and then they can get back up. They can have this miracle, and be like, “Oh, I might have passed out, but I’m outraged. And I out-rage my enemies and my body, and I get up and go back to the bad dudes.” It was so thrilling to have that.
One of your testing grounds for new songs seems to be The Pinhook. What’s it like to present new things to a tiny club in Durham?
I think the ones I played there were not ones that made the cut. I played “Heel Turn 1” at The Pinhook. I don’t get out of the house that much, so it feels nice because it’s sort of what I’m used to. Used to be, I’d show up at Munchies and play a 20-minute set, nine-tenths of which would be new stuff. Half of it would never get recorded.
For me, those were fun shows. There was always the thrill of having no idea how it was going to go over, and when there was something new and good and you could feel people connect, that was a whole different way of relating to a show than showing up, and people paying a ton of money to get in. They’ve got songs they want to hear, the songs you know work, so on and so forth.
At The Pinhook, I’m gonna play for two-and-a-half hours anyway. So, maybe I have half-an-hour to play around. It also doesn’t have the same ego payoff. There’s something realer about saying, “Well, here are some songs. We’ll see how they go.”
And you didn’t have to worry about everyone recording your every move and uploading it to YouTube, either.
You can’t do that anymore. As late as 1999, I’d go out and be excited to play new songs, but now everybody shares with everybody, whether it’s played well or not. That is one of the fun things that the Internet has taken away from us. Bands, not me, talk with their managers about whether they’re going to play a new song, which is just so sterile and gross, right?
We used to routinely go out and say, “Well, this first song is one that you’ve never heard before,” and nobody would hear it outside of that room. That was fun. You can sort of do that around here, but you can’t be sure somebody’s not going to upload the entire show.
It’s a good problem to have. There are bands who are like, “Please don’t complain that people want to record your music.” I don’t disagree with that. People tend to reduce all the discussions to are you for or against? Most things we’re talking about are more complicated than for or against.