On paper, Beat the Champ might seem a little too high-concept: it’s hard for an indie folk-rock album about professional wrestling to not sound painfully affected or precious. But then the muted orchestration of opening track “Southwestern Territory” glimmers into view, accompanied by lyrics, written from the perspective of a touring pro wrestler, of on-the-road loneliness. As with most of the Mountain Goats’ music, it’s introspective, emotional and painfully well-observed.
“The songs are about wrestling, ostensibly, but they’re also about all these other things,” says bassist Peter Hughes. “They’re metaphors for a bunch of things. It’s wrestling as a metaphor for what we do, for being touring musicians. And the difference between being a guy on the independent wrestling circuit in the 1970s and being in a touring indie band, especially when we were starting out 10 or 15 years ago — the difference isn’t that big, you know. Those guys were getting hit a little bit harder, but in terms of atmosphere, it’s pretty similar.”
Like the Mountain Goats’ 14 previous studio albums, the songs and lyrics were written almost entirely by frontman John Darnielle. It’s the first since Darnielle’s debut as a novelist with last year’s Wolf in White Van, which was nominated for the National Book Award and appeared on many year-end best-of lists. Like that novel, and like earlier Mountain Goats albums such as 2005’s The Sunset Tree, there’s a focus on youthful escapism that permeates the album. On the upbeat track “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” — a celebration of the wrestler of the same name — Darnielle touches on pro wrestling’s autobiographical significance: “Before a black-and-white TV in the middle of the night / I’m lying on the floor, I’m bathed in the light / The telecast’s in Spanish, and I can understand some / But I need justice in my life / Here it comes.”
“It touches on themes going back to The Sunset Tree and growing up in a dysfunctional family and being an abuse survivor and the role that wrestling played for John in that sense,” says Hughes. “It was a source of escape but also strength and justice.”
Hughes, who has been a member of the Mountain Goats since 2002’s Tallahassee (the first Mountain Goats record not to be a Darnielle solo effort), has been close friends with Darnielle for much longer than that. (A 1995 Mountain Goats EP titled Songs for Peter Hughes was named as such after Hughes agreed to, then reneged on, lending Darnielle $300 to pay off a particularly hefty phone bill.) Prior to joining the Mountain Goats, Hughes had completed a similarly sports-related project with The Football Albums, a double-LP that featured a song about each NFL team. “[John told me], ‘If it were me, I’d say I would write songs about football, and then they’d actually be about people getting a divorce! But because it’s you, I know they’re actually going to be about football!’” Hughes laughs. “Which is what they ended up mostly being, though I also tipped my hat to John with the Chiefs song, which ended up being about two people getting a divorce going to a Chiefs game.”
The comfortable rapport between Hughes and Darnielle is reflected in the progression of the Mountain Goats’ releases, which have consistently sounded more confident in terms of production — a far cry Darnielle’s lo-fi early releases under the name. “Every record, we get more comfortable working as a unit,” says Hughes, who also credits drummer John Wurster and producer/tour manager Brandon Eggleston. “There’s a level of intimacy and familiarity and trust that we all have each other. Going back to Tallahassee, that was the first time John and I had worked in the studio together. John had never made a proper studio album before. There was a lot of push-and-pull navigating what worked and what we could do in the studio without compromising the vision he has for the Mountain Goats. [That vision] has always been — not rigid, but there are some things the Mountain Goats do and some things the Mountain Goats don’t, and that’s kept a consistency to the identity of the band over the years. I think gradually that’s opened up as John has gotten more comfortable working in the studio and more comfortable working with other people after basically making records by himself for 10 years. We’ve kept it consistent but also kept it continuously developing and changing and broadening the scope of what we do.”
That consistency has garnered the band an extremely loyal fan base, which includes Stephen Colbert and young adult fiction author John Green. “It’s always been that way,” Hughes says. “It’s just the nature of what John does, that from the start people that get into the Mountain Goats tend to get really, really into the Mountain Goats. It’s not just people coming out and saying, ‘Oh, cool, man. I like this band. I’ll go check them out.’ For them, it’s kind of like church. When we play a show, there’s almost a communion, there’s something that happens that very cathartic and emotional and powerful.”
It’s not too much of a stretch to connect that catharsis and fans’ emotional resonance with the band’s music to the image of a young John Darnielle sprawled on the floor in front of his television, waiting for Chavo Guerrero to deliver justice to those who need it. Perhaps the analogy between being touring as a pro wrestler and touring with the Mountain Goats is even more apt than Hughes realizes.
“I’ve seen a lot of shows and I’ve seen a lot of great bands,” Hughes says, “but there’s not a lot of shows that have that component to them, where it really is just this cathartic thing, where everyone’s involved, where it’s just as much about the audience as it is about us. It’s pretty special.”
The Mountain Goats will perform at Saturn on Sunday, Oct. 4. Blank Range will open. Doors open at 7 p.m.; the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.