Matt Sweeney: The FRONTRUNNER Interview

Having stepped into the roles of guitarist, producer, vocalist and now a YouTube host has surely earned Matt Sweeney the distinction of a Rock Renaissance Man. Sweeney has been the lead guitarist for the bands Skunk, Chavez, and supergroup Zwan, and has actively collaborated with artists such as Adele, Neil Diamond, Iggy Pop and (posthumously) with Johnny Cash as being the go-to session guitarist for legendary producer Rick Rubin. His web series Guitar Moves are intimate chats/workshops with the likes of Keith Richards, Ace Frehley, Josh Homme, and Lemmy (of Motörhead). The 2005 collaborative album with Oldham, Superwolf, was placed on Pitchfork’s “Top 50 Albums of 2005 List”  and earned both artists a place on Spin’s “Rock’s 25 Greatest Team-Ups” list. Most recently, he continued his collaboration with Oldham in their duo, also called Superwolf, on a new single called “You’ll Get Eaten, Too”.

FRONTRUNNER gets technical with Sweeney, as he illuminates his method, his style, his career, and the dynamics behind his relationship with Oldham.

Photo credit: Mike Piscitelli

You have found yourself interviewing and playing guitar with some of the true legends of our time. How do you prepare yourself for that kind of an interview? And, you know, you’re sitting there with your guitar in hand. Do you go back to listen to the music before you meet?

Generally, no, it’d be too overwhelming and I’d have too many thoughts and get freaked out. So I prepare by just finding out who they liked to listen to when they were starting and whether they had someone they wanted to play like or be like. That part is easy. The harder work I try to do is just being aware that the person I’m spending time has  a deep relationship with music and to engage them about music in real time. To work well with someone who’s famous or like a hero I treat the situation like I’m in a dream.

You know, when you have a dream that you meet somebody- like you meet Cher in a dream it’s like, “Well cool, I guess I’m just going to go with this.” You know? I mean what else am I going to do? Freak out and go “Oh, my God, it’s Cher?” You know, in a dream you don’t do that. You just go, “Wow, I’m hanging out with Cher and let’s go see what happens with us. Wow, now we’re riding a monkey. A flying monkey!” So you go with it.

And so you carried that same zen philosophy over to the Guitar Moves show?

Yes: I’m just going to pretend that that we’re having this really cool conversation, you know? And because if I think about it more than that, I will freak out and get terrified.

With Keith Richards, you could really get a sense of how much I’m freaking out.

But when we both have a guitar in our hands, you find out unbelievable shit. And it’s not a regular interview. You’re not talking about them. You’re talking about the relationship with the guitar. I know very few artists, if they love music, who don’t know that their instrument has got them beat. You know, if that person is an artist, it’s the empty page. It’s got them beat and I think the best people know that they are nothing compared to the energy that that they are lucky enough to be able to channel make their instrument say something. That’s what I found to be the case. You know, we’re talking about a guitar. And the people who are cool can talk about that forever. You know?

Photo credit: Mike Piscitelli

Yeah, there’s a great mystery to the creative mind or creative spirit. We don’t know where it comes from, but when it hits us, it’s like a bolt of lightning. And we don’t forget that feeling and we keep wanting to go back!

Yeah, and sitting around with guitars in hand is a charming format. If a guitar player has their instrument in hand they are at ease in a way that they wouldn’t be without it. You know, I’m just saying the guitar but it could be whatever. If we were making a drawing show, if we both had pencils and a piece of paper in hand. I’m talking to somebody who’s mastered a thing to a point that their life and world revolves around it. It’s just so much more fun to have them in that head-zone and they talk better about what they’re doing and more stuff gets revealed to them and to us. I mean, how else are you going to do it? You know, it’s like I mean am I qualified? I mean, you kind of have to be in the moment just out of respect for yourself and to them.

Yeah. I haven’t thought about that. But you’re totally right. Maybe out there, the mistake is for all the interviews over the years with musicians to put them in front of a camera, not holding their guitars.

Yeah, that is the, ‘what the fuck am I doing here?’ feeling. I’ve felt it. You know, I mean, what are we talking about? Why don’t you know? God, this is so weird. But you know, there’s a great sense of security, if you’re lucky enough to be able to make money playing an instrument when you’re holding it, you’re really secure. You know what I mean? I think you know what I mean. It’s like, OK, we got this guy. He’s mastered this thing. Now, let’s put him in a room without the thing and talk about stuff, you know, abstractly. That’s not good. That’s weird.

I’d love to go back and just talk a little bit about your work, your collaborations on Chavez and Superwolf with Will Oldham, and your original songwriting work. Tell me about the songwriting process for you.

I’ve always been a group guy. You know, where I work off of other people. I kind of work on assignments. Maybe one day- it better be pretty soon- I could sort of comfortably be a singer songwriter solo guy. But it certainly hasn’t happened yet. I started in high school, I had a band. When we made records, I would kind of take the lead on the song if I’d started it, but I wasn’t good at it.

Matador is reissuing the first album by my 90’s band Chavez. Since we made it 25 f’n years ago we had to do a little thinking about what to say about it. Clay Tarver my partner in Chavez, really had smart things to say about what that band is. He said something like Chavez was about with making non-traditional music but still kind of being true to a rock form that we understood. Meaning it’s going to be guitar, bass, and drums played aggressively. But we had this rule to be true to ourselves and each other about how to make it work. Every part of the music pieces we’d make had to be justified and work together in a way we thought was dope. Like, we’re not working in an ancient tradition: the rock music Chavez members all agreed on was a bunch spooky druggy 70’s rock songs that had a certain vibe we wanted to amplify. But we didn’t want to duplicate those bands- couldn’t even if we wanted to. We were about working with sounds and ideas we are making up in this room today and playing them off of each other. Chavez was committed to each instrument having its own lane, but everybody could comment on and react to each other’s part. Like, I cannot play a single guitar part that Clay does in Chavez and he doesn’t know what I’m doing. But those two guitar parts would work together well. Then the drums and the bass had their own gravity system that would push and pull in a way that made e guitar parts sound cooler. If you want to hear a band trying to do something with the traumatic psychological and emotional aspects of mindless 70s rock, I think Chavez is a fun thing to check out.

After Chavez members stating having jobs and children and we weren’t getting together to play much anymore I finally had a good idea. I had been listening to a lot of old time and English Folk music. I was thinking about how fingerpicking guitarists like John Fahey, John Hurt, Nick Drake, and Skip James have this deeply engaging language that’s easy to understand but very difficult to speak.  I remember crossing Essex Street on Houston and being like “Oh, right.” It really was like a little zap of lightning: “Holy shit, if I just do the hard work by myself and really learn how to fingerpick, it’ll sound good to anyone listening, but nobody else will be able to do it quite like me. I can probably find a ‘voice‘ this way.”

Luckily, my friend Sam Dylan had already figured out a difficult John Hurt pattern and showed it to me – it took about a moth of being frustrated but I learned how to get a That guitar line rolling- meaning playing two different things at the same time. It’s a humiliating pain in the ass. But it’s like learning how to draw perspective or how to make colors work against each other: it takes a lot of unsexy time but the result for the audience is effortless understanding and enjoyment. So then I got really into fingerpicking- it was really humiliating and hard to learn how to do but that led to me playing in a different way, ideally a way that can sneak feelings inside a stranger’s head.

And around that time, I started playing with Will Oldham and all of a sudden now I’m getting to fuck with like ancient traditional songwriting. I think to that it requires around five years of immersion of traditional music, like say American country music or English Folk Music or a specific kind of Western African guitar music. Will grew up around traditional music forms, particularly country, and had a deep understanding it. So by the time I start playing with Will, knew how to fingerpick Enough to sound good and had a context for the forms he can work in.

Then I made the mistake of taking a two year job that was bad for me on almost every level, and I ended up in a pretty dark and broke place. And Will was sort of watching it the whole time and saw that I was in a really bad position. So he sent me an email asking if I wanted to play a show with him at a big theater in London, just the two of us. The he emailed me lyrics and asked if I could turn them into songs to play at the show. Will says things that I can’t say with his writing, you know. If you’re somebody as good as Will sends you words is I think you need to write a good song just to meet him half way. From writing those songs, I guess kind of ultimately became a professional musician because people heard that record and started hiring me. That’s sort of what’s still my favorite way to write is to get lyrics from Will. But on the other side, Rick Rubin heard the songs and started hiring me to play on records he produced and to work with artists I would never dare dream of working with..

Photo credit: Mike Piscitelli

Just to clarify, you get the lyrics from Will, then sitting down with a guitar and you’re strumming along, or do you think, ‘Oh, I came up with that thing a couple weeks ago. That sounded cool. Let me see if that works to this.’

At this point, lots of different combinations. It can be like, “I’m going to come up with some music for this lyric.” Other times a piece of music that I’ve had for years reveals itself to work with something Will just sent- that happened on a couple of my favorite songs on this next album. And I mean, it was uncanny how well the words worked, you know, but that’s not magic. That’s just fucking working and being patient and waiting for this thing to come. You know, it just happened that Will writes lyrics in perfect meter and finally this one thing happened to fit with the other thing. But it really it goes all sorts of different ways. With pre-existing lyrics, you know. 

I also found is that it’s made it a lot easier for me to write a lyric with absolutely no no musical context, just writing down words that work ok by themselves.  You know, I definitely recommend that people should try doing that more often. You’ll be surprised because something will happen that you can’t believe, you know. Write down a bunch of words and then walk away from them, work on the music separately. Or just use a poem you like written by someone else.

I can see the advantage of both directions for developing a better understanding of the mechanics of it all.

Yeah, for sure.

And again, you know, I’m feel like this lottery winner that Will would serve me up lyrics that are so good. I think, you know, that the motivation to do justice is really high. You really want to do something great for them because we want them to sing and that and that’s that’s also why it’s great to use other people’s words, because that whole thing about, oh, is this stupid? Or are my words dumb? That just goes out the window. You know what I mean? And you don’t have to worry about it. I think self-expression is often like the worst thing in the world. I think most of the time it’s just it’s a terrible way to go. You know, like saying what you think or how you feel. Fuck that. Somebody else has felt what you felt and said it much, much better. And that’s not putting you down. It’s just, don’t worry so much about saying something about you. I don’t know. If you are using someone else’s words your ego issues go out the window and it’s nice. It’s not you, it’s a song for everyone.

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