Go-to guitar hero: An interview with Matt Sweeney

Go-to guitar hero: An interview with Matt Sweeney

A wolf among wolves — What do Johnny Cash, Adele, Cat Power and Run the Jewels have in common? They've all relied on guitarist Matt Sweeney - a nomadic talent who knows how to get the most out of life.

Matt Sweeney is one of those rare musicians who can make any song better. It’s why he’s worked with everyone from Jake Bugg to Adele, Billy Corgan to Neil Diamond, Eagles of Death Metal to Julian Casablancas.

Maybe there’s something in his sound that can slide into any situation, maybe there’s something in his personality that just lends itself to collaboration. Whatever it is, you can get a sense of it in Sweeney’s web series Guitar Power (formerly Guitar Moves) which sees him getting iconic guitarists to reveal the secrets behind their work.

Yet as much as Sweeney’s career has been built on lasting connections, his own material has had a slow-burning impact of its own. Chavez, the angular rock outfit he once steered, will release its first material since 1996 later this year on Matador: an EP called Cockfighters that Sweeney hopes will be the first in a series. He’s also working on the follow-up to Superwolf, his acclaimed 2005 collaboration with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.

When we meet, it’s at the stage door of London’s Royal Albert Hall. Wearing a leather jacket over a Betty Boop t-shirt, Sweeney has just finished soundchecking for tonight’s show with Iggy Pop and Josh Homme.

A maze of corridors littered with amps leads us to the backstage bar – one so dated that it resembles the set in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Despite feeling a little hungover and sad that tour is coming to an end, Sweeney – who’s originally from New Jersey – gladly shares some of the stories that have shaped a unique career.

Chavez now has a cult following and is highly regarded. Did it feel like you were appreciated at the time?

In certain spots, people liked us. But in general we weren’t hugely regarded. We did well in New York, meaning we could pack a small club. We took a year out – fucked off our day jobs – to go touring and do whatever the label wanted us to do. At the end of the year, we realised we were not going to make a living, that we were not that kind of band – not in a bitter way. We felt we were realists about our prospects. Some people have said, ‘You should have pushed it for another year’ but I don’t think so. I’m really happy the way we did it…

What can you tell me about forming Zwan [with the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin as well as Slint’s David Pajo]?

It was really fun before anyone knew we were doing it. We worked on it for a year without telling anybody. We recorded 100 songs and none of those were on the record. Then, from one day to the next, everything changed. I don’t think anyone had a great time in the last year of it, but I look back fondly to when we were just writing all the time. We would go to weird cities like Key West or Utah or just hang out in LA and record, record, record. I had a great time writing with Corgan. We’d make up stuff together all the time. Then we just stopped. I think this was an experiment to him, to see how collaborative he could be… and ultimately I don’t think he really liked working that way.

When did you first meet Will Oldham?

We met in New York when I ran into him on the street. We had a mutual friend who wasn’t doing too well and I stopped him to talk about that. Then we started hanging out because he was staying in New York – we clicked and, pretty quickly, he asked me to play with him.

How did the Superwolf album come about?

He sent an email with the subject line ‘challenge’. The message was, ‘How about I send you some lyrics and you make the music? Then you turn over the songs and we’ll do them at shows.’ We got into this rhythm, trying out the songs live, tweaking them a little bit and then recording them at his brother’s [Paul Oldham] house in Kentucky. We’re starting work on another record. It’s funny ’cause you can never recreate stuff but the way we went about it is a good way to start. We’re just in the writing phase right now. Got a couple bangers.

How did you get to become one of Rick Rubin’s studio musicians?

Rick asked if he could go to a show Will and I were playing. A while later, when we’d almost finished the Superwolf record, I sent Rick a couple of songs and he loved them. A few months later he cold-called me and asked if I could start working on stuff, which ended up being kinda life-changing for me. It was like a weird dream: to get a call saying, ‘Mr. Cash has 20 songs that he wanted to be finished after his death.’ From the jump, Rick was really sweet to me. He said, ‘Just do what you do. Pick out any part and try it out. Worst case, we can just isolate and hit erase.’

So you’re in this luxury studio with legendary players and Rick Rubin as a producer. How soon before you felt comfortable enough to put forward ideas?
I was freaking out but I guess Rick had told all these players that I was good, so they thought I knew what I was doing. [laughs] There was no, ‘Who is this guy?’ type of thing – though there should have been! I just jumped right in.

Through all the things I’ve done with Rick, there are so few stories of people acting like dicks, so few it doesn’t even matter. He really sets up a good environment to make records in. He tells the artists he’s working with that they can trust the band and they just do. It’s funny: I never used to like recording. I never thought it was something I’d do.

No offence – I think you’re an incredible player – but when you’re going into sessions, are you ever worried that they’re going to lay out some crazy technical guitar part that you can’t even wrap your head around?

Rick has guitar gods like Mike Campbell and Smokey Hormel who are very restrained players, so there was never any sense of ‘guitar battle shit’ – like, ‘Jesus this guy is smoking me!’ …except for Blake Mills. I’m friends with him and brought him into the Rick world and he is just so singular that you can’t help notice how great he sounds. I was like, ‘Fuck! Did I just fuck myself out of a job?’ But Rick gets people to play because they have their own sound and an approach – something specific they can add to the song. I think Rick said I play ‘sad guitar’.

And so after that you worked with Neil Diamond on Home Before Dark?

Yeah. I love Neil Diamond. I can’t fucking believe I know this guy and I can’t believe how cool he is. After that album, me and Smokey [Hormel] have gone to his place and recorded demos with him, just to hang. Unreal.

What’s the story of him giving you this guitar you always wanted?

I used to have this stoner fantasy that maybe one day some rich guy would give me a Martin ’cause their ain’t no way I’m ever gonna be able to buy one. Then it happened: Diamond’s son was getting rid of all these guitars and I guess Neil was helping him to unload them. Me and Smokey happened to drop by his studio one day to say hi and there were all these guitars sitting ’round. Neil said, ‘There’s one I think you’re gonna like.’ It was this beat-up old Martin and I said, ‘This is fucking sick’. He said, ‘Take it.’ And I did. It’s one of the favourite things I own. Neil Diamond is the coolest.

How was your experience working on Adele’s 21 album?

It was a blast. She is wickedly funny and has great taste in songs. I didn’t know anything about her when I took the gig. That was a fun part of the Rick Rubin game. If he asked me to jump on a recording and I wasn’t familiar with the artist, I’d just ask a couple of people and not do any more research than that. So I’d only heard that she was a soul singer from England. I was floored when I heard her sing.

She was so sweet that when we were done tracking, she had a couple more days of vocals to do and she said, ‘Do you mind hanging out? I like singing when you’re around.’ She was fucking rad. At the time, she was maybe a little depressed but she was so funny about it. We stayed in touch for a while… I think she changed numbers and then it all super exploded. I have no idea how to get a hold of her. I miss her; she made a real impression on me.

Did you ever get shit from the indie music nerds for appearing on all these commercial records by Adele, Jake Bugg and The Dixie Chicks?

Nah, ’cause I don’t hang out with people who live with their parents and don’t work. [laughs] People who find out what I do are like, ‘Oh, you get to play on that stuff? That must be cool.’ I get to play music in my weird style of playing and I feel beyond lucky. I love to collaborate since I don’t really have a steady band.

Do you miss that?

Fuck, yes! The solo stuff isn’t the same as working in a band. I like being a part of something. Even in Chavez, I wasn’t the leader and I was pushed to do stuff. Unfortunately for my career, ‘I’m terribly obedient’ – as Sebastian Horsley [artist/writer] described himself. I need someone to tell me to do stuff. I’ll only write a song when I get asked to write a song.

So you like the nomadic life?

Yeah, I do. I love summer camp: a little world that lasts two months. But it is killing me that this Iggy tour is almost over.

I don’t want to get too personal but I’m guessing when you’re moving from project to project you’ve gotta keep playing, recording and touring to stay earning.

Absolutely. There were years, even after I got going, that were completely fallow. I was working on really big stuff, earning more money than I ever thought I would make; I worked and worked and worked then all of a sudden: nothing.

This is important for people to know if they are gonna choose the path of doing your own thing: things do stack up but it’s a merit-based stacking. Financially speaking, though… not so much. I went from making a lot of money to almost no money within a year; then making some money, then no money, then a lot – it drove me fucking crazy. And this is after doing all the Rubin stuff. I got really bummed until a movie director who I admire said, ‘Dude, that’s just how it works.’

It’s good just to stay busy and not expect anything to happen because of something you did in the past. Things happen because of the stuff you do now. That was the big fucking lesson. When you’re bummed and nothing is happening, break the pattern of doing nothing. Take up running or do something you haven’t done before. Action begets action, inertia begets inertia.

Matt Sweeney at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Photo by Steven T. Hanley.

Matt Sweeney at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Photo by Steven T. Hanley.

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Feature image by Jason Presse, licensed under Creative Commons.