Talking Wrestling with the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle

Music Features The Mountain Goats

I was afraid my interview with John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats was starting off awkwardly. I immediately told him that I had been a wrestling fan for over 30 years. That seemed like pertinent information because the latest Mountain Goats album, Beat the Champ, is entirely about pro wrestling. It also made me feel like a giant blubbering fanboy. Thankfully Darnielle is just as into wrestling as I am, and we spent the next half-hour talking about the wrestlers and territories we grew up watching. Yeah, we found time to talk about songwriting and Beat the Champ, but mostly we just talked about the death of kayfabe, how great a heel Roddy Piper was and how Randy Savage was basically one of the greatest entertainers to ever exist in any discipline. If you’re excited about the thoughts of two grown, educated men analyzing an industry that traditionally has complete contempt for its audience, and that historically has pandered to the lowest common denominator at every turn, read on.

John Darnielle:You’ve been a wrestling fan for over 30 years? What are you from? What’s your territory?
Paste: I’m from Atlanta, so—

Darnielle: Oh, no kidding!
Paste: —so I was an NWA, Jim Crockett guy. I got into it the same time as WWF, you know, because back in ’84 that was everywhere.
Darnielle: That was when McMahon was buying up all the territories, yeah.
Paste: Yeah. Watching TBS for Braves games and you just wind up catching Ric Flair and Arn Anderson—
Darnielle: Kevin Sullivan?
Paste: Yeah, Kevin Sullivan.
Darnielle: Dude, that’s awesome!

Paste: That guy’s amazing. Watching some of those Satanic promos from Florida and stuff are just—
Darnielle: So great. I’ve been really obsessing over that stuff lately because he was very regional. He didn’t get out to the state of California, so I didn’t know about him until recently. I mean, what a great gimmick! Incredible gimmick!
Paste: He was just this weird doughy dude with bad, fake blond hair, but then he just gives these crazy, just evil promos.
Darnielle: Like King Diamond, making up these storylines about having gone over to Calcutta to get some spiritual secret. Some of the craziest, exoticizing stuff is what territories used to engage in. But as theater, it’s really incredible.

Paste: Right. So, I guess the big question that a lot of people are probably asking you: why make an entire album about wrestling?
Darnielle: The thing is, the same reasons as make an album about anything, is that I was writing songs and those are what come out. So, there’s no design in it; that’s where my heart was while I was writing these past couple years.

Paste: So these are songs you’ve written over many years and you just held onto them until you decided to release an entire album about wrestling songs?
Darnielle: You know, when Transcendental Youth—I feel like I started writing this before the Transcendental Youth tour. I could be wrong. But I remember my first son was pretty young when I wrote “Southwestern Territory” and I really liked it. And it was a song about a wrestler. I can’t remember what the next one I wrote was, like I don’t sit down and say “I’m going to write an album about whatever.” I just write a song and if I notice I have a few that are in the same vein, I go, “Okay, well that’s kind of interesting,” then follow that idea and maybe write another one. And then I begin to develop a little bit of that with malice aforethought. And this was my kind of skew and I was like, “Wow, that’s three wrestling songs. That would be pretty funny to have a record—three songs about wrestling and then just a bunch of other stuff.” So then I went, “Who else can you write about?” and it was sort of when we’ve only got five out of 12 written that were really in and so then I just thought about who else I could write about and making notes about possible ones. I didn’t get to everyone I wanted to. But the thing is, I really strongly believe that it doesn’t matter what you’re writing about. I assume people relate to the writing—the spirit—not to the theme. Admittedly, I’ve always struggled to read literature about ships at sea. I can’t ever quite connect. But I can with a good enough writer. So, it was sort of where my heart lay.

Paste: So what about wrestling makes it a good subject for an entire suite of songs?
Darnielle: I think it’s like I said: I don’t think it really matters what a person writes about. I think the theme is a conceit. It’s there as a way of framing things. But I do think there’s this: that forming a character in a song is hard because you have a very little space, but you also don’t want to sell characters short. You don’t want to have like, one cheap way to give a person character on stage is to just give him a monocle or something, something that codes. So in a song, to sketch a character you have very little space because you want to have character and you want to have action and you want to have expression and all of these things—you don’t have a lot of space to build a character. But wrestling has types. Wrestling has good guys and bad guys. Wrestling has people who have already existed, who have their own characters that they’ve built. So, you have a little something extra. You can begin with a series of assumptions, and that’s always a nice place to begin.

Paste: Do you watch any wrestling today still?
Darnielle: I don’t have cable, so rarely. I’ve been looking at the New Japan Pro Wrestling stuff that everybody says is so amazing. And it really is something else. And just now for a couple of bucks a month, get it in the U.S., but the website is not in two languages yet, so I’m still sheepish about clicking through when I’m not quite sure what I’m doing. But when you watch them on YouTube, it’s pretty old-school. The entrances are much more—you know Tyson used to go to the ring wearing a towel over his head instead of a robe, right? Just a towel with a hole punched through it and it was part of his gimmick. “I’m not here to do a big ring walk, I’m just here to box.” In Japan, it’s pretty low presentation until they get into the ring. It’s pretty old school. But I don’t keep up with the big games, although I know who’s who to some extent.

Paste: I was going to say you mentioned how there were classic wrestling character types and storylines. New Japan, they’re following that template. NXT, which is WWE’s training company—they’re really great at that, but WWE itself on Raw and Smackdown, they’ve completely forgotten how to tell a good wrestling storyline in the last several years.
Darnielle: That’s what I’ve been hearing, talking to people about it. Who’s the champion right now? Is it Brock Lesnar?

Paste: It’s Lesnar. And he’s not the only guy they book well because he shows up maybe 10 times a year.
Darnielle: The thing is, it’s one of those things—you hate to push an indie sentiment like this. But when something gets as big as that, it gets very hard to hold onto the stuff that’s important about it. Like, when a band starts filling arenas, well then the tickets start to cost $120, then there’s probably seven songs in the corpus that they absolutely must play because people will be very angry if they don’t hear the songs when they show up. So then the show becomes predictable and staged. It becomes the exact same show every night because you can’t afford to take any risks. And, I think, WWE is sort of like that. They have a thing that they do, it tends to fill arenas and then I hear rumors that they have a hard time selling tickets—
Paste: They’re not doing so well with house shows, but the big events still sell pretty well.
Darnielle: Yeah, the thing is what you’re doing though is—I don’t think they’re too anxious since they’re not building. They’re trying to maintain, right? Then you’re not going to see “Spin the Wheel, Make the Deal” or anything that might bomb, right?

Paste: You mentioned how bands change when they go from up to the arena level or whatever. I remember having a hard time accepting you with the rhythm section at first.
Darnielle: We’ve been at it since 2007 this way, so it won’t be long until this is longer than the solo era.

Paste: Right, right. What do the other guys in the band—how do they feel about a whole album full of wrestling songs?
Darnielle: This is where I wish I was a better liar because I could go, “You know, as it turns out Jon Wurster used to be a professional wrestler,” right? I’m not good at pushing stuff like that. You know what? I bet you somebody else gets sold that line later today. I mean, Peter seemed really delighted because Peter’s like me: the idea is that it doesn’t really matter what you’re writing about. That’s an interesting idea, I think, to Peter. I can’t speak for him, but I think Peter likes the—that’s the one thing. I was a rock guy in the mid-‘80s, who, as soon as I would hear too bleepy of a synthesizer, I’d be like, “Get that crap away from me.” Peter’s always been pushing the much more sane line that it’s not about the instrument, it’s about what you do with it. There is no instrument that is always out of place. There’s no such thing as a bad instrument; there’s just the way that you use them. This is clearly the much more mature way of looking at instrumentation. You shouldn’t say, “Oh, well that’s an oboe. I don’t like oboes.” You just say, “Well, what does the oboe contribute to this piece of music?” And I’m the same way with themes. Your theme is only a color palette. There aren’t any bad colors. So, I think Peter was kind of into that. He likes the fact that some of these songs are the most emotional songs that we’ve written…and they’re about professional wrestling. And that’s an interesting contrast, right? It’s kind of pyrotechnic feel to pull that off, and I think he kind of digs that.

Paste: So you grew up in California, right?
Darnielle: I did.

Paste: So were you NWA Hollywood, or what was your territory?
Darnielle: NWA Los Angeles. So I was the Olympic Auditorium, late ‘70s. Here’s the history of that territory: it’s a huge market for wrestling because wrestling was big in Mexico when it was just nothing in the U.S. Big business down in Mexico. And wrestlers would appear in movies. They would have their own line of movies. El Santo, Blue Demon, Mil Mascaras, all these guys. And the Guerrero family—Gory Guerrero had been a champion Mexican wrestler—and the Guerrero family was a big deal in California when I was following it. I came in on the tail end of what had been a huge run for Freddie Blassie—
Paste: Okay, I was going to ask if you saw the Blassie stuff—
Darnielle: So, I saw Blassie referee a match. He had already gone east. When Blassie left L.A., that was basically the beginning of the end for the L.A. territory and it was right exactly when I got into it. Because I was a kid. But Blassie had incredible heat. He and John Tolos sold out the Coliseum. That’s where the Raiders played. And imagine: this is with no TV support. This is people wanting to see these guys selling out the Coliseum and Blassie had just this profound heat, just really great. The territory went on decline after he left, but it was still good. Roddy Piper honed his gimmick there and I saw him wrestle several times and he was one of the best ever do it. Andre the Giant was super popular in the Olympic. I saw him in a battle royale. Who else was around? Black Gordman, Bull Ramos, a whole bunch of names who were just So-Cal, like Al Madril, who I mentioned, and Chavo Guerrero, who now denies that he was ever a wrestler. And so, that’s a story I didn’t get the chance to tell—that I regret not getting to that one because that’s interesting.

Paste: Yeah, I had read about Al Madril a few years ago, and he’s not a guy I’m familiar with personally, but I read about wrestling so I learned about that guy and it’s just—I wonder if it’s how raunchy it became 15 years ago or if it’s instinctively embarrassing to mention. I don’t know.
Darnielle: Who knows, you know? You can find one interview with him on YouTube from, like, a local TV news broadcast. He was not a big guy, but he was a secondary hero for me. He was a great local face. He was just fantastic.

Paste: So, you know there’s obviously a song about Chavo Guerrero—was he your favorite as a kid?
Darnielle: Yeah, that song’s a true story. He was my hero.

Paste: Have you seen any of the more recent Guerreros in action, like Eddie or Chavo Jr.?
Darnielle: Well, Eddie was wrestling back then. The Guerrero brothers wrestled in L.A. Hector and Mando and Eddie and Chavo were the guys. And often Chavo and Hector would be a tag team. Hector was super popular. Hector went on to do one of the most notorious promos in the history of the WWE, the Gobbledy Gooker. You remember this?
Paste: Yeah, when I was a kid, Hector was like that and he did Lasertron, I think, for NWA or something.
Darnielle: But the beauty of the Gobbledy Gooker is that Hector has been interviewed about this and he still defends it. He says, “No, Gobbledy Gooker was for children, you guys hated on it because it’s not cool enough for you, but that was just a fun thing for kids and it was a good gimmick.” And I just love his stance on that. I think it’s so warm and great, like, “not everything has to be for you grown-ups who have to have things being cool,” you know what I mean? It’s fantastic. But yeah, so those were my dudes. And Eddie Mansfield was a huge villain when I was following it in L.A. He never got any real heat anywhere else, except when he went on 20/20 and broke kayfabe and showed people how to blade and how to pretend to get punched and everything and he became total persona non grata in the industry forever.

Paste: Which, you know 10, 15 years after that, the industry completely exposed all of its own secrets.
Darnielle: Oh, totally. That’s thing about kayfabe is like, everybody knew. And it was this cool agreement. We’re just not going to say that because it’s less fun if you say that. The thing is I don’t know if that’s actually true. Everybody knows; there are no secrets about it. It’s still a lot of fun! You don’t actually have to, but it felt like it at the time: it was much more fun if you really believed it, if you really bought into the storyline. And that’s why CM Punk was so electric. He was really doing this blurring of storyline and actual stuff that when he does that legendary promo where he calls out Vince McMahon, and he says, you know, “hey, I’m breaking the fourth wall,” and it’s so great because you do want to believe something, you want to think you’re watching some drama unfold in a way that you could never actually watch in real life.

Paste: Yeah, he’s a big music guy. Have you heard of anything about him being into the Mountain Goats?
Darnielle: I don’t know about the Mountain Goats, but I do know he likes Against Me!, which I’m also an Against Me! fan, so I don’t know. He’s like a straight-edge dude. I think our stuff’s not exactly hard enough for him, but, you know, I have hopes that he’ll enjoy it. My son is a CM Punk fan; he’s three and he has a CM Punk and Andre the Giant figurine on his table and he says that they are friends, which makes me extremely happy.

Paste: Is your son getting into it or is he still a little too young for that?
Darnielle: Well, he’s three, you know. I mean, we play wrestle and then we have our own moves that we make up, but we don’t watch wrestling. I think that would be a little confusing for him.

Paste: Right, right. So when you were a kid, when you were watching, did you know it was fake or just assume it was scripted?
Darnielle: My stepfather’s father had been a wrestling promoter in Indiana in the ‘50s, in the ‘40s or ‘50s. I knew from the first time I started watching it in the living room, just sort of explaining to me how it worked. And it was interesting to try and reconcile that. So I knew this the whole time, but wrestling fans would always talk about back then, how much of this is real? They knew to some extent—the matches were planned—but, are they really hitting each other? And the thing is—a lot of wrestling people have always pointed out—you can’t fake being thrown onto the mat. That’s real. You are being thrown. You can maybe learn how to fall, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt when you hit the mat. These are people with a tolerance for pain, here. You cannot jump off the top rope and land on your chest on somebody without a profound sting in your sternum, and so it is real to that extent. It’s real like dance is real. The outcomes are predetermined, but there’s a lot of other people banging each other around the ring. But yeah, I knew the outcomes were predetermined back then. Although, I feel back in the days of kayfabe, they weren’t as scripted. Like, you knew who was supposed to win, but how it happened was kind of up to the wrestlers.
Paste: Yeah, I think today they still call a lot of it in the ring, but there are some guys like Randy Savage who always wanted to have everything mapped out in advance.
Darnielle: Well, guys like Randy can ask for that because he shot the greatest promo in the history of the world.

Paste: Which one specifically, because all of his are fantastic. What’s your favorite?
Darnielle: “I’m unjustifiably in a position I’d rather not be in, but the cream will rise to the top.” My 3-year-old loves the cream of the crop promo. He says, “The cream of the crop.”
Paste: Come on. That’s not Dusty’s “Hard Times,” you know? That’s—
Darnielle: “Hard Times” is great. “Hard Times” is a really great promo, but “The Cream of the Crop”—you can totally see—and I have a theory about how “The Cream of the Crop” promo happened. My theory is, he was backstage, he had crazy heat and he’s like, “I bet I can go out there with this creamer and sell this creamer,” and someone backstage went, “100 bucks says you cannot do a good promo with a creamer,” and he says, “Count your money. I’ll be right back.” This is my theory: he went out without notifying Okerlund he was going to do it, and sold this creamer, ad-libbing with no script for three minutes. “On balance, off balance, it don’t matter. I’m better than you are.”

Paste: So, you got a song about Bruiser Brody on the record. Did he come to L.A. a lot when you were watching?
Darnielle: No, he was a guy I only ever saw in the magazines. He was King Kong Brody first, I think. I remember—and this was the thing that was funny about the pre-cable era, is that you had to piece the stories together yourselves. There weren’t pieces going, “Here’s what you need to know before you read this story.” You picked it up in the middle and hoped you could make sense of it. And I remember he was King Kong Brody for a while and also Bruiser Brody. I don’t remember which he was, but he was new right then. That was the dawn of true hardcore. He was taking off from what the Sheik and Abdullah the Butcher had laid the foundations of this sort of graceless, violent wrestling. He was more technical than those guys that would just come in and start bleeding out here. But he was still that very violent style. I can’t remember which—is it him versus Abdullah the Butcher, I think, where they don’t even make it into the ring, they just run all around the arena?
Paste: Yeah, like they never have a conclusive finish. I don’t think either one ever beat the other one, they just basically—
Darnielle: Yeah, I think that’s the one. It’s so amazing. They don’t make it into the ring and that’s the story. People start following them around. I never saw him; I’d just see pictures of him. This is the thing about the era of magazines: you’d see a picture of this guy striking this crazed-looking pose. And you’d think, “Man alive! That guy looks violent and dangerous!” And it was exciting, so you start to tell yourself a story about a wrestler you’re probably never going to see, which was the case with most of these guys. Greg Valentine, I was terrified of Greg Valentine, he seemed the most evil man alive, he breaks people’s legs on purpose just for pleasure. He knows he’s going to be disqualified and yet, he does it anyway. Yeah, so I’d read about these guys and then be afraid of them.

Paste: Do you still have any of your old magazines?
Darnielle: No, no. After we left that house, most of the stuff didn’t come with me. I did buy a mid-‘70s wrestling magazine that covered the Sheik in order to write “Fire Editorial.”
Paste: Yeah, my wife gave me an issue of Pro-Wrestling Illustrated for my birthday a couple of years ago—
Darnielle: Oh, cool!
Paste: It’s like a new one, like one that was on the stands that day, and it’s nothing like what it was when I was seven, you know?
Darnielle: On eBay though, they’re not expensive. You can get one for a few bucks and it’s a worthwhile dip to see the rankings and see those weird ads for apartment wrestling cards, which, you know, it’s like the softest of core stuff that people still don’t want to admit that they want to admit they look at skin magazines, so they’ll watch apartment wrestling cards. I feel like there’s whole subcultures I don’t even know what they were that were threading through those magazines. They’re pretty interesting, worth looking into. Who was your guy?
Paste: As a kid? Well, I lived in Sarasota before we moved to Atlanta, so I was always a huge Randy Savage guy, even when he was a heel. I liked the Road Warriors a lot and NWA. I didn’t become a Flair fan until when I got to be 10, 11, I realized Flair was kind of amazing, whereas when I was seven or eight I hated him. I was more of a Dusty guy. But the peak of my fandom, it was Flair and Savage and I really liked Steamboat a lot.
Darnielle: Yeah, Steamboat was an amazing athlete. That guy was really something else.
Paste: I mean, those were the three best guys when I was a kid in terms of their in-ring stuff.
Darnielle:Those are good guys to have in your territory. That is totally the loss of innocence though, when you realize the one you hate is also great. Like, where you go, “Oh, no! I hated him, but no, my guy is nothing without him.” The first match on a card I saw one time was two scientific wrestlers and everybody clapped politely and people were sort of putting on airs about enjoying this match. Nobody wanted to see that. They wanted to see one people get cheap and get punished for it.
Paste: When I was a kid, I always hated Hulk Hogan. I don’t know why. From the very beginning—six, seven years old, I just hated that guy. I never liked him.
Darnielle: You know, it’s funny. I never really look into him until past week or two when I was watching a lot of wrestling promos. I got to say that I hadn’t really gotten into him because around the time I saw him was he was nationwide. He was the champion. He was as big as life and everything. But you got to respect that guy’s ability to work. That guy can really, really, really work.
Paste: Now that I’m an adult, his promos are great and now, when he comes out for his nostalgic promos or whatever, I love seeing him.
Darnielle: I haven’t see any recent ones. I have been watching along with “The Cream of the Crop,” [in a Randy Savage voice] ” the Mega yeah, the Mega yeah, the Mega Powers.”
Paste: Yeah, that was my peak era, so that was the thing for me.
Darnielle: He’s really on at that point. It’s pretty amazing.

Paste: You mentioned Abby earlier. Have you been to Abdullah’s restaurant here in Atlanta?
Darnielle: No. I heard about it, but I’m vegetarian so I don’t think there’s a lot at his restaurant for me.
Paste: No, there wouldn’t be. The food’s not very good, but I went there last year, and it was pretty cool because it’s completely covered in photos—autographed photos of wrestlers from the last 50 years. He was actually there that day. He doesn’t show up much anymore, but if you call ahead and tell him you want to meet him, he might show up.
Darnielle: No kidding!
Paste: He was there meeting some Japanese fans, so like a group of 10 Japanese wrestling fans who were in town for—they were doing a tour of American wrestling sites. They were here for whatever WWE show was that month, but they came to Atlanta specifically to meet Abdullah at his restaurant.
Darnielle: That is so great.
Paste: So we got to talk to him for a little bit, and it was fun. If you ever have an afternoon to kill in Atlanta, it’s totally worth trying to talk to him.
Darnielle: Yeah, I may. It’s funny about old wrestling venues. I’ve been back to both of the ones where I used to see matches, which were the Olympic Auditorium in L.A. and the Sportatorium in Portland. And neither of them are venues at all anymore. The Olympic is now a church and the Sportatorium is a hotel. To go to the Olympic is pretty hard. It was built, I think, for the ‘30 Olympics—beautiful old building. And I walked right in, like “Holy smoke! This is where I saw Andre the Giant!” and it’s just—they had carpeted it over and put seats in.
Paste: Man, Portland. That’s a territory where none of the tape survives anymore, so there’s no way for someone like me, who was the wrong age and in the wrong part of the country, to see any of the best Portland stuff now.
Darnielle: Most of the L.A. tape is gone too, though. The stations changed hands and they literally threw away all of the tapes. The guy who did it goes, “No, they told me to take out all of the tapes out, so I took them out.” It was stuff people taped off of TV. because all of the master tapes are now gone. But Portland, my father—this was actually the death of kayfabe for me even though I knew from my stepfather the deal, but I bought into it anyway, voluntarily. But in southern California, Roddy Piper—he was Chavo’s enemy and he played heel very intensely in southern California. You really hated on Piper. People would yell obscenities at him; it was very intense. And I go up to Portland to stay with my father for six weeks during the summer—child of divorce, right—and went to go and stay with my father, told him what I’m into these days, whatever, 12 years-old. He said, “Oh, I went to school with a guy named Carl Cluff. He’s a sportswriter for The Oregonian. He could probably get us into the wrestling matches up here.” “Cool. I would love to. Let’s do that.” We go and who’s on the program? Roddy Piper. “Oh, this is going to be great. We’re going to hate on him.” And he comes in and everybody starts to cheer because he was the face up there. Exact same character. No different, except but now you like it instead of hate it. He was the same dude. He was doing the same thing, but he counted as a good guy and he wrestled bad guys, put them in their place. And that was very hard to accept. Roddy Piper is a good guy? Are you kidding? This is a guy who probably could not have walked in the neighborhoods I lived in without getting attacked by people.

Paste: Okay, man. I’ll let you go. I have two more questions for you. So, do you think you’ve exhausted wrestling as a subject for your songs?
Darnielle: See, the last questions are always the ones I want to lie about. “No, I think I really found a rich vein. I’ll be doing four more albums about this.” The thing is, I don’t want to cut myself off. I had songs about wrestling before this record. I expect I will think more about wrestlers, but at the same time, I’ve been living with this theme for a couple of years now and really boring in on it and really finding what I find interesting about it. So, I don’t know that I will write more songs about it soon and if I do, I don’t know if they’ll see release. I always do like to keep moving.

Paste: Congratulations on your novel last year, by the way. So the next one’s going to be about wrestling, right?
Darnielle: I don’t know. The songs work really well. I read this book called The Wrestler’s Cruel Study. It’s a novel by Stephen Dobyns. It’s pretty good as far as that stuff goes. But it’s like, what would you do with a wrestling novel? I don’t know.
Paste: Yeah, that’d be tough. It seems like most fictional wrestling treatments, they wind up sort of repeating the Bret Hart screwjob stuff or just like the old, generic beaten-down guy who’s broke like The Wrestler movie, you know?
Darnielle: The thing to do would be to believe it. Most of the time when people write about wrestlers, they want to talk about the conflict between the actual person and this character and so on and so forth. Whereas I think Wrestler’s Cruel Study did this—had the character be the character, like believe that Kevin Sullivan is into the occult. And if you believe that stuff, then it’s more interesting than I think some human interest angle of the man behind the mask.
Paste: Yeah. You should work on that.
Darnielle: Because the mask tell you more about the man than the man ever can. That’s my Ric Flair line for today.

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