John Darnielle was captivated by professional wrestling while growing up in southern California, so much so that he turned his love for the denizens of the squared circle into an album.
That record is “Beat the Champ,” released April 2015 by Darnielle’s folk-rock band, The Mountain Goats.
So what made Darnielle think that wrestling would not only be a good subject for one song but a whole song cycle?
“Well, first I had to write that first song — I didn’t say ‘I’ll write a song cycle about wrestling,’ and then set out to do it,” he said in an email interview. “I just wrote ‘Southwestern Territory,’ and I really liked it — it had a sad, reflective mood with a lot of head space, if you know what I mean — plenty of room for other stories between the main story.
“I don’t remember which song followed that one, but it was just kind of funny, you know; now there’s two songs about wrestling.
“That’d be weird in an album unless it was maybe a ‘70s art-rock album with a ‘suite’ in the middle, which is not my style, so I wrote down a bunch of names — Luna Vachon, Bull Ramos, Ed Farhat — and I thought, hey, there’s a lot of stories with a lot of moods in this stuff. The same would be true of any job, really, you could write about any place where people work together and get a lot of human stories. But these stories were the ones that had captivated me when I was 12. They have the resonance of years on them for me.”
Those stories, whether on “Beat the Champ” or the band’s previous 14 albums, feel like they come from a mix of personal experience and observation, imagination and reportage by Darnielle, who is considered one of indie rock’s top songwriters.
“That seems right, I’ve never really thought of it like that — I guess it usually starts with something that holds my attention, that doesn’t obsess me exactly but something that gives me a little charge when I think of it,” Darnielle said.
“Usually that’ll be something from outside my own experience, so I try to relate to it from my own experience, because that’s generally how we understand things, right — by saying ‘how would I feel in this situation,’ by imagining ourselves into a situation. But I also ... really enjoy researching something and learning little details about things that experts in the field know all about, but that seem really exotic to novices. That feeling of newness in researching something can really inspire.”
Darnielle isn’t just a songwriter. He’s a novelist who received a National Book Award nomination for 2014’s “Wolf in White Van.” So how much different is it to write prose at length rather than lyrics?
“Prose is just so different — people ask this a lot, but it’s like asking how fixing an engine is different from reattaching a muffler — they do not really compare,’” he said. “They are both done with words, but the similarities end there.”
Darnielle now lives in North Carolina, but founded The Mountain Goats in California in 1991, when he was recording his songs onto cassette tapes using a boom box.
Back then, Darnielle was the only member of The Mountain Goats. The band is now a trio with Peter Hughes on bass and Superchunk’s Jon Wurster on drums. But Darnielle continues to play shows by himself as The Mountain Goats (solo) as well as with the group.
“There’s a lot of room to roam in a solo show, because, theoretically, I don’t have to have rehearsed a song to play it by myself; I just have to remember how it goes,” he said. “That’s not true with the band. We have to practice any songs we plan on playing. There’s also, this seems obvious but maybe not, an intimate quality to solo sets — they feel pretty distinctive, they’re unpredictable, and they involve a lot of focus.
“I can play whatever I want solo,” Darniele said. “The only limitation is if I can remember the words and chords. On a band tour, we rehearse a master set list and vary the set from night to night within the confines of that list; I usually play a mini solo set in the middle, and that’s when I can play whatever feels occasional to me.”
Darnielle also writes in another forum — Twitter.
Both he and Wurster are active and often entertaining on Twitter.
“Twitter is fun, right, that’s really all there is to say about that,” Darnielle said. “It’s like being in a workplace and running schtick to make the afternoon pass a little more quickly.”
WHAT: The Mountain Goats
WHEN: 7 p.m. Sunday (9/26)
WHERE: The Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City
TICKETS: $22 advance, $25 day of the show