Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Conversation with John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats

Beat The Champ (2015)

Earlier this week, Merge Records released The Mountain Goats new album Beat The Champ. This new release from the celebrated indie rock band features songs about professional wrestling, including figures like Chavo Guerrero, Bruiser Brody, Luna Vachon and Bull Ramos. A few weeks ago, I spoke with singer-songwriter John Darnielle about his own personal history with professional wrestling.

Eduardo Martinez: To start things off, "Ox Baker Triumpth" (in the Babylon Springs EP from 2006), was this the first wrestling song you recorded?

John Darnielle: I think that was it. I'm trying to think, I made a lot of references to wrestling stuff in other stuff but I think that was the first one.

EM: He recently passed away not too long ago. What was it that made you want to write that song, and do you have any specific memories of Baker himself?

JD: The deal with me and Ox Baker is when I was growing up watching wrestling on the West Coast, there was no internet, there was no national broadcast. It was all regional, there was no such thing as national wrestling. So you heard about these other dudes through magazines. All the magazines were from the East Coast. The magazines would write about King Kong Brody, Hulk Hogan when he was young, Bob Backlund was the champion. NWA was the South, WWF was the main Eastern territory. The magazines didn't really write about us at all.

So Ox Baker was one of the dudes that you would see. He was the hated villain. You would see pictures of this guy, you'd never see him wrestle. He was just a mean looking bald dude with a mustache. And then one day, I'm watching wrestling on Saturday morning, and there is an interview with Ox Baker because he's coming to town. So here is this wrestler I've seen pictures of, like the Boogeyman. He's going to come and beat on Chavo Guerrero. Whoever the villain was that came to town, he would set his sights on Chavo Guerrero or Al Madril. I was petrified of this dude and he was very violent in talking. He talked about how he was going to make people bleed. That was his whole shtick, him and Greg Valentine. They cared less about winning, they just wanted to hurt their opponent.

It turns out, as in a lot of the heels, they always turn out to be the nicest guys in real life. Ox Baker was a pussycat of a man, a really nice guy who loved people. So that was my one experience, I didn't even ever see him wrestle, I just saw this one interview. I was scared of this guy.

Ox Baker.

EM: Since you mentioned the magazines, these magazines back then really built these guys up as larger than life characters before you even saw them live.

JD: Oh yeah the magazines, the thing is that this is a different world that we get sentimental about now 'cause you don't remember what it was like to not actually be able to have access to information. But it really was the case that you had to use your imagination a lot. You would get a magazine,  I didn't have a subscription, I couldn't get my parents to buy me a magazine every week or anything. You'd get one magazine and you'd read every page of it. (laughs) You read all the ads, pen pal ads, look at all the lists of names, and try to figure out as much as you could. But of course what you figured out, you would have to make up half of it. To me that was really exciting, you were forced to tell stories to yourself. Wrestling magazines were kind of a big deal. They had ads for "Apartment Wrestling". Do you know what I'm talking about?

EM: Yeah I do. (laughs)

JD: That wasn't exactly wrestling, that was an excuse to look at women in bikinis. They said, "Here is this 'Apartment Wrestling' match that was really vicious. You have to see it!" It was just for guys that don't want to be honest with themselves and buy a Playboy. I didn't know that (as a kid), I was, "Oh okay, there is some underground world where people are fighting in apartments. Cool, that's kind of weird." If you were 10, 11 years old, it made adulthood seem like a very weird place, which I think is kind of good.

EM: One thing I found interesting, looking back at some of the old magazine covers, is that some of them were pretty gory, bloody.

JD: Oh yeah the blood sells, man. That's the thing you learn, when you bleed, everyone wants to see you bleed (laughs). There were some bleeders like Abdullah the Butcher, a big villain at that time, he would bleed a lot. If you were in a match with The Sheik then you were going to bleed.

The Sheik carving up one of his opponents.

I saw very little (blood). Before my time, Freddie Blassie was a big bloody guy but he moved East. The scientific matches were a little more popular in L.A. than they were elsewhere 'cause L.A. was lucha territory. Mil Mascaras was really popular and he had a very scientific style. He didn't bleed.

EM: How did you get drawn into wrestling as a child?

JD: It was on TV, it was pre-cable. Cable came to Southern California very late because the TV stations were powerful in California, so they kept cable out until, I want to say, '84. Which was late for cable, everybody else had cable a couple of years before that. We would watch UHF a lot. The UHF stations were the ones higher than 13 and they were usually local stations. They were weirder and also served more specific communities.

We had Channel 18, which (had Maharishi Mahesh) Yogi, who was this guy who did transcendental meditation. He would rent like six hours of time a day on Channel 18 and the rest would be Korean programming. And then it was Channel 34 KMEX, which was and remains the Spanish-language channel, when there weren't Spanish-language channels elsewhere in the country, (at least not) too many of them. KMEX was huge and they would show 90 minutes of wrestling every Saturday morning, and then Channel 56 KDOC would show an hour long broadcast. So I would watch the English broadcast and the full length Spanish broadcast, that would show more matches and had legendary announcers.

EM: At what point, did you think to yourself, "I guess I'm going to make a wrestling album."?

JD: I never say, "I'm gonna write this kind of album." I wrote a song, it was "Southwestern Territory" and then I wrote "Hair Match". It may have been the other way around. I was like, "Wow you have two new songs and they are both about wrestling." So when I went to go write another song, I wrote another song about wrestling. So now I have three. So eventually you start to go, "Well I seem to be writing about something." Then after four or five, (I see) these are all about wrestling so I think that's what we're doing.

It's so risky, it felt like the sort of thing people would go, "Wait really?" You always want to be taking some small risks, you always want to do something that people would go, "Huh?" I still feel inspired thinking about this stuff. When I think about my old heroes, I feel really inspired, I feel really grateful. You grow older and you go, "That was a big thing to give a child hope, that's huge." And also to scare a child. To feel fear like a horror movie but it's fake. You get your experience but it can't actually hurt you. That's fucking awesome.

EM: Your new song ("The Legend of Chavo Guerrero") is not set in the 70's, you're looking back on it now from these days, decades removed. What was it about those days in wrestling and Chavo specifically that has resonated with you to this day?

JD: When I say he was my hero, that was my hero. He really was. My step-father's father had been a wrestling promoter, I knew about kayfabe. I knew that people weren't really getting hurt, although I would sit there like, "Well how much of it is real, how much is fake?" It's a real shame, most of the footage from those days of the Southern California territory was thrown away when Channel 56 changed hands, so you can't see much of it.

But there is an interview where Chavo Guerrero talks to Java Ruuk and he gets really mad. He stood for justice, which was a big deal for me personally but also in Southern California. We observed the grape boycott. I don't know if you know about this but if you were left-wing, you weren't supposed to eat grapes in the 70's because Cesar Chavez asked everybody to stop buying grapes, to support the strike of the grape pickers. And we did that, every right thinking household was like, "Okay we won't buy grapes." Chavo Guerrero was on the side of the people, he was one of those guys. I just loved him. He was scientific, he stood for justice, he always stood up for other people. He also had a strong family, which I was jealous of. He and his brothers, his father, they all appeared together and always had each other's backs. I was pretty envious of that, it looked like a neat way to live (laughs).

He would wrestle fair, the cheater would cheat just enough that Chavo would say, "Fuck this!" (laughs) and start breaking the rules, throwing punches. That was always the most exciting moment when Chavo would fight fire with fire. It was sort of your dream as a kid to be able to say, "Well I played fair until you pushed me too far, now I gotta do what I gotta do."

EM: Did you watch wrestling with your friends or family members, or was it something you did on your own?

JD: My step-father, he was not really a great figure in my family, but at the same time, relationships are complex and one of the things that we did together was go see wrestling. His father had been a wrestling promoter in Indiana in the '50's. So we would go into the Olympic and see the matches. I didn't have any friends who were into it, I had one. This is kind of bittersweet. So growing up in Southern California in the 70's, there was a lot of parents that were concerned about the effects of television on children. My friend, he really wanted to be into wrestling. It seemed cool to him but his parents didn't have a TV. So he didn't see any, he would just look at the magazines and pick his favorite. His favorite was Mil Mascaras. He would ask me questions about it. We went to see the matches together, he went ape, it was totally cool. But yeah, he was the only friend of mine that was into it, wrestling was not cool when I was a kid. (laughs)

EM: There was this great Jerry Lawler interview I once saw from the 1980's. It was after a match with Super Destroyer, where he was talking about how once after losing a match, a fan came up to him to tell him how much it hurt to see him lose. As a child, how did it feel to you when your favorites were in trouble in the ring?

JD: This is a thing in wrestling, I don't know if they do as much of it anymore, but the good guy would get knocked out until he was out, and they'd still be kicking him. That was painful! You were watching them kill your hero. The announcer dude on KMEX, that would be when he would break into English. I was studying Spanish at the time in Jr. High, 7th and 8th grade. I was really good at it, I got straight A's. I would be watching the broadcast, trying to pick up as much as I could but I was not at that level yet. But he would break into English when he got really upset, "Someone should stop him!" I'd be, "Oh my god, he's trying to make sure the word gets out that this has to be stopped." It was always really, really exciting.

The thing is when that would happen, I feel like in the South, they would let that go on longer. I've watched old matches where you'll see the villain was just going off on the good guy and he's out cold. When it would be Chavo, his brother Hector, Mando or Eddy would always come rushing in, the brothers would all show up. Hector had this fury and long hair, he would come running to the side of the ring, like, "Whose ass do I have to kick?" Pretty exciting (laughs).

EM: Do you see some elements of dream in pro wrestling?

JD: Sure, wrestling is like theater. It's live, it takes place where things are scripted. In your day you might have a couple of dramatic things happen but your days don't follow some script where everything that happens is important. Whereas in a play and in wrestling, anything anybody says moves the action along. It's sort of dream-like in that way.

I think things became more dream-like in the '80's. In the 70's, it was kind of more boring in a good way. There was long sections where it's just guys circling each other, getting ready to wrestle. I feel like they would make you wait longer for the payoff. It was less dream-like then. It's weird, wrestling is profoundly weird. You sit watching these guys circle each other and fight for this thing that nobody even really cares about, which was kind of cool. It was very cult.

EM: In "Heel Turn 2", you go over the idea of turning heel, and being out there in front of an audience that hates you and wants to see you dead. Do you feel heels are a lot more fun and needed more to draw and make things interesting?

JD: Well you have to have both, although again the Southern California territory was a little different. There was a heel named Freddie Blassie who was such a popular heel that he became a face. He was so popular in Southern California, so his heel was John Tolos. They had one of the highest gates in the history of Southern California sports when they wrestled at the Coliseum (on 8/27/71). I feel like the wrestling I grew up with was more closely related to Mexican wrestling. The hero is celebrated — El Santo, Blue Demon. These guys are heroes. The villain is great, everyone loves a good villain and hates on him. But I feel like Mil Mascaras, all these guys, people loved the hero in Southern California. The Guerrero family, those guys were all faces, they were all extraordinarily popular. You never saw heat like Guerrero vs (Roddy) Piper. When Piper was just coming up, him and Chavo, that was the rivalry.

EM: Now when you watch Showtime boxing, and see Jimmy Lennon Jr. there, do you ever get flashbacks to seeing Jimmy Lennon Sr. when you saw him live?

JD: Oh yes, I met Jimmy Lennon Sr., he signed my program. He was the announcer at the Olympic. The other thing about the Olympic was boxing. Southern California boxing in the 70's is a giant under story. "Pipino" Cuevas, all these guys, they weren't nationwide names so much but in Southern California they were titans. You can't even imagine how popular they were. And Jimmy Lennon was the man at every one of those matches. So Jimmy Lennon Jr. sounds a lot like his dad but his dad hits this note. If you grew up listening to that stuff, it's just the stuff! It's the sound of excitement.

EM: Did you get into boxing during the same period when you were still regularly watching wrestling?

JD: I enjoyed it but I didn't watch as much of it. Wrestling was the best because boxing, it didn't have the storyline. The storyline is real so if your guy is getting pummeled he can't just all of a sudden dig deep down and rise above it. You can't do that, you're getting your ass beat. Whereas in wrestling you could watch your guy get beaten down to the floor and you go, "Oh my god Chavo is down, he can't get up." But then he can reach down to his gut and find that little extra measure and get up. In boxing you can't do that, you get knocked out. I liked boxing but it didn't have the good and evil that wrestling had. That's the thing about wrestling, especially back then, it was so clear cut. The bad guys didn't even care if they won, they just wanted to beat people up. They are wrong, they are wrong in their minds. The good guys are there to wrestle, to have fun but also to punish the bad guys for being bad. It's a very satisfying sport. When you're a kid, a heel represents everything that is wrong with the world and the face is the guy who is going to set it right.

EM: Do you think a good pro wrestler, a good babyface, probably has to display some self-destructive behavior in the ring, both the character and the real life person?

JD: Yeah, well wrestling is one of those sports like boxing. People talk about it being fake but you know what's not fake? Landing on your neck a bunch of times. You sacrifice your body to be a wrestler. In a sense it's like music. If you tour so much that you can't hold down a regular job, after a certain number of years if you go apply for a job, they say what have you been doing the last 7 years. "Well I was touring." And they go, "Okay what was your band." And you go, "The Mountain Goats." They go, "Well I never heard of you." (laughs) They say, "You don't like to work."

This is a thing that people give their entire lives to. Which is kind of beautiful. When you look at it, it's kind of cartoonish, but its a cartoon where people are sacrificing their entire bodies and lives. It's like a lot of art, it's a beautiful gift. But it's also a gift that's sort of making sure to meet you at a fun place. It's not trying to bigger than it is. It's a good time.

EM: I was pleasantly surprised to see a song ("The Ballad of Bull Ramos") about Bull Ramos, who is pretty obscure. What was it about what his career, or post-career that made you want to celebrate him?

JD: As always, it turns out it was because of Chavo. Whoever was beating on my dude is a guy I was interested in. For one thing he's a big dude, really huge. He was a terrorizing heel. Bull Ramos would do what was then called an "Indian Rope" match. He would do this rope match where the guys would be tied by the ankle. They can't get away from each other, that's a scary match. He had a look — a pony-tail and a whip! It was a wicked looking thing. He had this whip! Of course you can't actually whip a person, you can't really fake a whipping. But he would crack the whip. I would look at that thing and it's scary as hell.

He's a guy that post-kayfabe, in the age of the internet, you look it up, "Well who was the nicest guy in the world?" "Bull Ramos was." A cool dude, nothing but kind words from everybody. He also found a way out. He ran a wreck yard, he grew old, he got diabetes and lost a leg. It sounds like he made it. Making until the end is a victory. I sort of wanted to celebrate the humanity of this guy.

Bull Ramos.

EM: A lot of fans have these very personal connections to you and your songs. How did it feel to you, as a fan of Chavo Guerrero, seeing him react with so much enthusiasm to your song on Twitter?

JD: It's almost impossible to tell you what that did for my heart. I had a girlfriend from Michoacán in the 80's and one of the things we bonded about was Chavo Guerrero. In our early dates I was like, "I used to be into wrestling." "Oh who did you like?" "Chavo Guerrero." He was a huge deal in my life for a very long time. Then I sort of moved on in my life. Then I write this song, I figured it would get to him. He goes nuts. I was so ... I can't even tell you. I cried. This is my hero and he's a good dude. He is in his mid-60 and he's still a super positive guy. He still works! He's still working cards. I don't know, I cannot tell you what it felt like because it felt so amazing and great. He tweets my stuff, every time he does it it brings a huge a smile to my face.

EM: That's awesome.

JD: I wanted to call my ex, we're not in touch anymore at all. I wanted to call her and tell her, "Chavo Guerrero is writing to me!"

Mando, Gory, Chavo, Hector and Eddy.

Beat The Champ is out now and can be purchased at The Mountain Goats will hit Texas on 6/6-7 in Houston, 6/8 in Dallas, and 6/9 in Austin. For more information on these tour dates visit

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