Q&A: Chavez's Matt Sweeney On How He Ended Up Working With Josh Groban
Back in the stellar, angular riffage-filled '90s indie-rock days of yore, guitar-rawk behemoths Chavez scorched downtown spots like CBGB while unleashing two now-classic mathy slabs in Gone Glimmering and Ride The Fader. Front and center in their sonic tumult was guitarist/singer Matt Sweeney, by that time already a survivor of New Jersey post-hardcore flamethrowers Skunk, whose small but rabid following has now prompted Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace label to soon issue never-released demos from two decades ago. Since Chavez's hiatus in '96, the quartet's played only a handful of shows--the most recent being the Matador at 21 Las Vegas spectacular and an impromptu warm-up gig at local dive Parkside Lounge. But for all that downtime, Sweeney's been busy: as a sideman, as the newest member of Soldiers of Fortune (with folks from Oneida), and--thanks to best bud Rick Rubin--as a guitar-for-hire for the likes of legends Neil Diamond and the late Johnny Cash. Now the Chavez front man--whose titan indie cred includes collabs with Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Baby Dee, Endless Boogie, Andrew W.K. and a stint with Billy Corgan in the defunct Zwan--finds himself not only contributing licks to Kid Rock's latest Born Free but the new album from Josh Groban (!?). Recently, we asked Sweeney about the unlikely recent turns in his surprisingly lengthy career.
"What's up, Billy Corgan?" Photo by Annabel Mehran.
What's it like working with Rick Rubin and how did you become his go-to guitarist?
Rick's fun to work with because he lets me come in and do what I want to do. He's the core of what I've been doing the last few years and gets me on these projects because he thinks I can add something to it. I have a couple things I do; it's not like I am very versatile. I don't know why Rick likes my shit. The only reason I do all this Rick Rubin stuff is that he heard that Superwolf record I did with Will [Oldham].
What's Rubin got you working on now?
Two records I played on and had fun working on are the Kid Rock record and the uhhh... Josh Groban album [laughing].
Wow...how did the improbable Matt Sweeney-Josh Groban collaboration come together?
Yeah, dude...that was insane! I never heard any of his music before. A couple years ago, I was sitting with a friend and he said 'Do you want to hear what the biggest thing is right now?' So he played me a Josh Groban song and my reaction was 'weird...really?' When I get asked to play on records, my process is if I haven't heard of the artist, I'll ask around to find out if they are nice. A couple of people who knew Groban told me he's the nicest guy. Clearly, he had been working on this thing for a year and a half. Then I got to stumble in. Sure enough, Groban was fuckin' super-awesome and the first two singles from the record I played on. I'm thrilled to play on that and in Current 93.
When you were playing in Skunk at CBGB in front of a handful of people, did you ever think you'd be working with Neil Diamond?
Fuck, no! I always thought I'd have a day job and get to do music. Chavez is really proud of itself because we didn't lose money as a band - that was our goal, if we had one, as far as a business goes. All the other stuff I've done -- especially in the last five years -- is completely, utterly 100% unimaginable. I just kind of pretend I am doing it, when I am doing it. It's weird. I'm a fucking 'professional musician.'
For lack of a better term, you're a 'sideman?'
When I was a teenager ['sideman'] sounded uncool and maybe I am reacting to that. Yeah, I am fine with it now, though. I prefer to collaborate; I've never had the drive to be 'the guy.'
Do you have a killer story or memorable moments from the Matador Vegas weekend?
The funniest thing -- which had nothing to do with music - is a buddy who happened to be at the same casino won an ungodly amount of money and the funnest thing was hanging out in his fucking crazy suite. Music-wise, Come was mind-blowing and one of the best bands ever. They were definitely the template for Chavez. It was funny seeing Ted Leo because I went to high school with him. We were never close but my stepbrother dated his sister forever and when we went to see him he did some rap about how I turned him on to H.P. Zinker. Also, I learned Clay (Tarver) from Chavez has never told his kids he's in a band. It proves he's the coolest guy ever.
Why didn't you start a new project after Chavez took a break?
I was sort of depressed when Chavez went on hiatus, without really knowing it. I was trying to keep my head above water with work and playing in friends' bands. With Chavez, we worked particularly hard and I wasn't motivated to start another thing because I will never be in band that worked the way Chavez does -- labor-intensive and democratic. Then I just kind of bumbled along. I played with Oldham and that kept me musically engaged. We're going to go record a couple of songs and talking about doing another album together. That guy is...you know...he's Will.
Chavez has been tagged math-rock. How applicable is that term to your aesthetic?
I never got that one. Most of our stuff is in full-form and you can rock out to it. I remember when people first heard us and said we were like Rush or something. I was bummed out about the names they were calling us. We didn't fit in to exactly what was going on then.
What's your take on the level of excitement Chavez generates all these years later?
Considering we sold no records at all, any type of even passing interest surprises me. The Vegas show was kind of perfect because I didn't even want to do it at first but not for any anti-Chavez reasons: it could have been potentially an unfun experience. But when we started playing the room was empty and by the time we were done, the place was full. So, it was all kinda good.
It must have been a trip being in Zwan with Billy Corgan.
That guy was super into Skunk - he was seriously our biggest fan. Back in the day, I got off on a great foot with him. I met him before he was famous then we fell out of touch. Then we did Zwan and I hate to be negative but I wish it would have turned out differently...whatever you read or hear about him, it became more like that. There was a time when Corgan was really fun to work with and open. It's not up to me...it's between him and his maker. I don't want to trash the dude although he's trashed me.
Will Skunk ever reunite?
We're all friends now but we really hated each other back then. It's just too fuckin' long ago and what I remember was I was a kid and my head was full of static. And, there is zero demand for it. The reason these bands get together is too have fun and to get paid. I don't think we'd have fun or get paid.
What's the status of Chavez now?
We have new songs that, every once in a while, somebody will get excited about. But it's up to Clay because he is the busiest guy but he'll get psyched about recording them. We were talking about (recording) after the Matador thing and maybe we will. I would like to get these songs recorded because they're pretty badass.
Would Matador release it?
If they take us... and unless someone else is offering us huge amounts of money.