Matt Sweeney on Chavez, Working With David Blaine and John Legend
Indie from the late '80s until the early 2000s was an entirely different beast. Free of label / sales-related constraints, legions of bands created music that resonated well into the following decades — bands with names like Pavement, Polvo, Archers of Loaf, Guided by Voices and, of course, Chavez.
Chavez were a supernova in the world of indie, a band that burned with a fiery intensity from 1993-'96, calming down and sporadically appearing in the years that followed. The band's two LPs and lone EP — Gone Glimmering, Ride the Fader and Pentagram Ring, respectively — were all uniquely crafted to touch on everything from hard rock to post-rock, metal and beyond, keeping a foot in post-hardcore as a primary pivot point. Chavez were unique, adventurous and, most importantly, singularly Chavez during their initial run. Chavez's material was banded together as Better Days Will Haunt You in 2006; the band played scattered shows in support, and also returned in 2012 for a select set of dates.
Now, 21 years later, Chavez are back. The Cockfighters EP, out now via Matador, is a three-song effort of wholly new tracks, their first since 1996's Ride the Fader. With the EP finally out in the wild, we asked guitarist Matt Sweeney about the new effort, his current projects outside of the band, and life as a musician collaborating with everyone from Run the Jewels and John Legend to David Blaine. That discussion is below.
Chavez were very much a bright flash: short-lived and revered. You did a victory lap in 2011-'12, and now there's a new EP in Cockfighters. Can you give me a genesis of the EP? Is there a future for the band, or are you just tying up loose ends?
I hope to do more stuff. It came together because we had a bunch of songs, and have songs, and it sort of tends to happen when we’re in the same room. Clay [Tarver, guitarist] wrote this heavy email about feeling like a total asshole unless we did this record. That was his pitch; he was the driver behind it all. James [Lo, drummer] thought it was a good idea to break up an entire record into little blasts, and I liked that idea. So, we decided to do this EP. I’m never excited by an album from anybody. That was the genesis of that. Clay and the label wanted to do a full record. I’d love to do, like, two more EPs.
In this singles culture, sometimes those things pop off more.
For me, it’s been a rarity where I want to sit down and listen to a whole album. A tight and short blast of music is stronger. That was the idea. And from a practical standpoint, we just didn’t have time to put an entire LP together. I would really like to put out the other stuff that we have, but we shall see.
Do you think you’ll play again?
I hope so. If it’s right. It’s a pain in the ass for all of us to be in the same room. So, with all of that in mind, I kind of think that if we were going to get together again, it would be more about recording than playing a show, but if it makes sense. But the guys have kids, and it's all boring stuff that no one wants to know about.
Life in general.
Life is a series of things being taken away from you. I’ll take whatever Chavez I can scrounge.
You’ve done a lot of collaboration with many artists, like Iggy Pop, Current 93, El-P / Run the Jewels and Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Do you enjoy an intense “band environment” or something more along the lines of collaboration with artists to achieve a goal they have in mind?
There is a very distinct thing about Chavez that I really love, where all of us agree that it isn’t done until it’s done. It’s intense, and I think that only the four of us could do music like this. It takes forever to make a Chavez track, and whenever I collaborate with someone, it’s a completely different thing. I like to collaborate, but it’s really two different things.
The personnel and the chemistry and all of that come into play.
I think I play best with other people, and I am not the type to sit around and make home recordings. I write songs when someone tells me to write a song, not because I have some burning desire to tell people how to feel. Self-expression is horrifically overrated. And when you get with people, you aren’t telling your story; you’re telling an agreed-upon story between all of you.
That’s what is most interesting about Chavez — everything is sort of made up in the room. And then is ripped apart and reassembled. I really don’t know why we do Chavez, because it’s definitely hard, but I am really glad we do it. There’s something really awesome about when we work together and actually finish something. I’m proud that it took 20 years to make nine more minutes of music.
I’d imagine that releasing the EP now is an exercise in restraint as well — making sure that it lives up to the legacy.
James is really big on that. The last thing he wants to do — and we want to do, ultimately — is make an album because we are “supposed to,” or people want it. Quality control is a huge thing for us.
One thing I have always been curious about is Endless Boogie. In a lot of ways, it feels like that band is less about practice and more about the ebb and flow of the performance. Is Endless Boogie, at its core, a “jam band” (if we can ignore any negative connotations surrounding that)?
It was a band that only practiced and didn’t play a show for many years. We would play a few times a week. At this point, it’s literally plug and play, so it's strictly improv live. It’s hard for me to make it to a practice. Chavez is obviously a lot more calculated, whereas Endless Boogie is more “this is happening now, and will only happen this once, this way.” Boogie started in the Chavez rehearsal space in the '90s. I’ve kind of dipped in and out, and I’m around about half the time.
What else are you working on?
I recently did some songs with Bonnie “Prince” Billy for David Blaine.
David Blaine? That’s interesting. What did you write? Soundtracking?
Well, we wrote this song about being David Blaine, and he liked it and ended up using it for something coming up.
I have a bunch of songs that I am working on with Will [Oldham], where he sends me a bunch of lyrics. He’s one of my favorite lyricists. And sometimes I’ll send him words and he’ll make music to it as well. We actually wrote a few songs together on the John Legend record.
What was it like working with John Legend?
I just collaborated and wrote some lyrics. The first song on the album is actually Will’s. Blake Mills was a producer on the record. I’ve known him since he was 19 or something, and he turned into this huge record producer, working with absolute giants. John Legend was great. Super cool, great to collaborate with. Really on it, focused and funny.
So, clearly, you have a style of songwriting, but when you're writing for someone else, you have to shoehorn your style into his.
Yeah, in the case of this, I was asked to contribute ideas so he would take these ideas and use them in his own way. I can only bring what I can bring to the table, and I think that I would put in my two cents toward collaboration.
It's really hard for me to create when given a specific idea. “Hey, make me a bummer song about daycare!” is pretty much not going to happen. That’s not how I work.
What do you you think was your first call-home-to-mom moment? When you were proud of your accomplishments as a musician and called your mother.
Nothing that I can think of? But I’m sure that I called my mom when I did the stuff with Neil Diamond. I’m sure I did. We grew up loving Neil Diamond. That made my mom pretty psyched. I’m from a generation of Neil Diamond-loving moms.
(Disclosure: The author worked with Matt Sweeney on a web series for Noisey, Guitar Moves.)