7 questions for John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats
The last time we chatted with The Mountain Goats, it was 2012, and frontman John Darnielle and bassist/multi-instrumentalist Peter Hughes had both recently become fathers – within a month of each other, in fact. And for those looking for a soft and mushy album about becoming a parent and bringing fragile new life into the world, that year's album, "Transcendental Youth," wasn't it.
Three years later, you'd still be stuck looking for that child-softened, genteel Mountain Goats album. Childhood, however, did play a role in inspiring the band's latest effort; it just happened to be Darnielle's own boyhood days – and, namely, the beloved professional wrestlers of his youth. Those fighting, scrapping monoliths of the mat take center stage in "Rock the Champ," a concept album that combines the wrestling world of yore with Darnielle's patented honest and thoughtful storytelling abilities.
Now on the road, Darnielle and The Mountain Goats will bring some of those new tuneful tales – and surely some of the old – when they make their Pabst Theater return Tuesday night at 7 p.m. Before then, however, we chatted with the songwriting and storytelling frontman about the origins of his adventurous wrestling album, his thoughts on the sport then and now, and digging into nostalgia.
OnMilwaukee: Where did the inspiration for a concept album about professional wrestling idols from your childhood come from?
John Darnielle: I had a title in a notebook somewhere; I forget which one – just a phrase from wrestling parlance. I think it was "Hair Match." They used to have these matches where the loser got his head shaved in the middle of the ring, really primal Greek-drama kinda stuff. I wrote the song, and it was really long and slow – it seemed like an interesting direction, so I wrote another one. Once you have two songs about a theme, you can either decide to kill one or keep going. I kept going!
Who was your favorite childhood wrestler? Was it Chavo Guerrero, who's referenced on the first single, or was it somebody else at the time?
It was Chavo for sure! In southern California, you couldn't get higher than the legendary Guerrero family.
Did you have to do much research into the wrestlers' lives, or was much of the album from memory?
Research is really a pleasure when you're writing, so I'd pull from memory, compare it to stuff I'd study and thread them together. Learning about Luna Vachon was really special for me in the writing – an amazing person from a great wrestling family, someone who lost her way and couldn't find her way back to the path. These are people for whom I feel an affinity, whose stories I want to tell.
How try to create the sound and/or feel of wrestling in the songs without resorting to musical cliches and the predictable?
Well, we didn't really think a lot about that. Musically, I was focused here on growth in some technical areas: songs with tempo shifts – "Fire Editorial" – songs that lock into a mid-tempo groove – "Luna." I wanted to give a sense of the breadth of mood within the whole world of wrestling. Like any art, it's not just one thing; it's a lot of things.
How do you feel about the current state of wrestling?
I don't know much about it, but I do know there are a lot of strong independent promotions – some cool stuff out there – and everybody tells me New Japan is incredible, but I've only seen a little.
"Beat the Champ" reaches into the past – as does your book, "Wolf In White Van" – during a time when things like nostalgia have never been more popular? How do you feel about the current nostalgia craze, and how do you feel about working with it?
I don't relate to nostalgia at all, but at the same time, the past is always what you're mining as a writer. It can be the very recent past or the distant past, but it's still always going to be there at the bedrock of any story you tell. Stories are built on earlier versions of themselves; they slip in and out of new skins, and storytelling is about picking a skin and sort of tattooing it.
You've obviously been to Milwaukee before in the past, so any fond Milwaukee memories or places in town or in the state you hold dear?
We played Fuel Cafe back in the '90s, and then it took a while to get back. The first time we saw The Pabst, we couldn't believe it! Truly one of the great venues in the U.S.
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