Indie

Will Oldham And Matt Sweeney Deepen Their Unique Bond on ‘Superwolves’

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Released in 2005, Superwolf by Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Matt Sweeney for years didn’t seem to exist outside of a few small enclaves reserved for hard-core enthusiasts. A profoundly beautiful folk-rock record populated by unreliable narrators, Superwolf at the time was supported by only a small handful of shows and a minimal press campaign. After that, it fell into a digital black hole for more than a decade, having been deliberately held back from streaming platforms until 2018.

And yet people kept on discovering Superwolf. It helped that the album had some famous fans. (Rick Rubin loved it so much that he started using Sweeney — an indie-rock veteran who played in Chavez in the 1990s and Zwan in the early aughts — as one of his regular studio musicians.) But it’s the uniquely indelible songs Sweeney wrote with Will Oldham (who has used the Bonnie “Prince” Billy name for much of his work since 1998) that has kept Superwolf alive over the years. If you knew the record, you likely heard about it from a friend, who shared it like a precious family secret.

For me, the power of Superwolf has always derived from its fascinating and frequently creepy juxtapositions. There are love songs like “What Are You,” in which Sweeney sings Oldham’s tender lyric about “sliding down grassy slopes / where we can be alone.” But a few lines before that, he also muses about taking his love over his knee, in order to “spank you mercilessly.” And then there’s Sweeney’s lonely guitar line, which evokes an uneasy menace gliding just beneath the platitudes.

Is this really a love song? If it is a love song, is it sung from the point of view of a person who, shall we say, is not well? And if that’s the case, is it actually a horror story? These enigmas at the center of Superwolf aren’t absent in Oldham’s other work, but the songs he’s written with Sweeney still feel … different. They constantly put the listener in a gray area between love and hate, peace and violence, calm and chaos. It’s an album that seems superficially soothing upon first listen, and then more and more unsettling the deeper you get into it.

“I know what you mean,” Oldham replied when I brought up this reaction to Superwolf last month. “There is a threat inherent in a lot of what Sweeney and I make together.”

Oldham had asked that we conduct our interview over email. The occasion was the forthcoming release of Superwolves, the long-delayed sequel to his original collaboration with his close bud Sweeney due this Friday. Miraculously, they’ve maintained the same singular mood of the first record, even as they’ve opened up their partnership, on three tracks, to the thrilling Tuareg guitar hero Mdou Moctar and his crack band.

This time, however, the “threat” that Oldham speaks of is occasionally more overt. For instance, on the album-opening “Make Worry For Me,” he glowers about making trouble “when I come to your street” over Sweeney’s sleazy, Crazy Horse-after-a-dozen-honey-slides guitar lick.

“It’s important to me that we build caveats into some, if not all, of the songs,” Oldham said. “We aren’t peddling unadulterated and unrealistic fantasy lovers’ rock. We live with fear, and we are white, American, culturally Christian males — we are a threat to the well-being of the world.”

Throughout our correspondence, I could sense Oldham’s unease with self-promotion. It’s not that he was rude or unresponsive, quite the opposite in fact. He dutifully explained the long, somewhat disjointed, but ultimately fruitful path to Superwolves — they originally started work about 10 years ago on an EP of originals and two covers until “wires got crossed.” (“Matt didn’t realize that his flight was a day earlier than he thought, so we were working at different paces and didn’t finish the work,” he explained.) Time passed. Then, in 2015, Sweeney mentioned that he had “a chunk of time” to work on songs, so Oldham started putting some lyrics together. More time passed. Then around late 2018 or early 2019, they met up with Mdou Moctar to record a track, which “stoked our furnace to get this machine rolling for reals.” Another session in Brooklyn with Moctar followed, along with more recording at John Prine’s legendary Nashville studio The Butcher Shoppe in February 2020. Then, well, we all know what happened shortly after that.

Compared with their first album, Superwolves has been been given a relatively robust media push, including a splashy spread in GQ. If this feels at all antithetical to the hushed, mysterious mythos of the first Superwolf, Oldham seems inclined to agree. Just as he is ambivalent about his music being on streaming platforms (“I don’t listen to streaming music,” he said flatly) you can tell he sort of wishes that he and Matt could stay a little more out of focus.

“Word-of-mouth is the best form of promotion. Word-of-mouth is in decline right now,” he said. “People don’t speak openly and freely to each other as much; conversation is relegated to corporate-mediated nearly-one-way transmissions. In order for people to learn that this record exists in a timely fashion, we go to the machine.”

Fortunately for me, Sweeney was more than willing to hop on the phone. A chatty and gregarious conversationalist, Sweeney prefaces many sentences with “dude” and frequently diverts to fun tangents about various pop-culture geek topics, including Douglas Sirk films and the underrated quality of Grant Hart songs on Husker Du albums. (He’s not kidding!) It’s no wonder that Sweeney has worked with so many different kinds of artists, ranging from Adele to Kid Rock to Neil Diamond to Six Organs Of Admittance.

But his nearly 25-year-old friendship with Oldham seems especially dear, for both personal and artistic reasons. Even though they haven’t put out a new album in 16 years, they’ve stayed in regular contact, with Oldham sending Sweeney a steady stream of lyrics for him to turn into songs.

“The level of quality is always pretty exciting. It’s like, ‘Okay, cool, I’m going to be reading something that’s as good as writing gets,'” Sweeney enthused. “That’s always a guarantee. I don’t think anybody’s ever going to argue that his lyrics are anything less than incredible every time, which is pretty fucked up. Who else can you say that about? I can’t say that about anybody else.”

Sometimes, the music comes quickly. For “Make Worry For Me,” Sweeney had a sudden flash of inspiration: “I’m going to try to write a Peter Green meets Al Green song,” he recalled. Other times, however, the slippery moral and emotional shades of Oldham’s writing was like a puzzle that Sweeney spent years trying to solve — two years, in fact, in the case of one of the album’s best tunes, “Good To My Girls.”

“What Will is great at is communicating how close horror is to love, and just how side by side really very opposing life forces are all the time,” he said. “I remember years ago, Will was like, ‘Man, I saw this documentary about this whorehouse in India that caters only to the untouchables.’ When I first saw ‘Good To My Girls,’ I assumed that it was told from the point of view of a guy talking about his kids or his girls. Then I was like, ‘Oh shit, this is the madam.’ It’s the person telling themselves that they’re a good person.”

That sort of insight can only come between friends who know each other like brothers. The intense intimacy of Superwolf and Superwolves is what’s so bracing about them, though the latter album boldly explodes the tight bond at the core with the buoyant energy of Mdou Moctar on songs like the ecstatic “Hall Of Death.” The guitarist and his band — whose own new album, Afrique Victime, drops in May — intersected with Sweeney after he learned that Chavez’s guitar-heavy albums were a reference point for Moctar’s searing 2019 LP, Ilana (The Creator). Already a fan of that album, Sweeney was thrilled by the connection, which seemed to mitigate the risk of bringing in such a joyous, infectious third party into Sweeney and Oldham’s quieter dynamic.

“It turns out that Mikey, the American in the band, lives down the street from me, and Mikey really likes the Superwolf record,” he said. “Literally, it seems like the two western things that that band likes are things that I was involved in, which is like a huge, huge deal to me.”

Just as Sweeney and Oldham welcomed outsiders into Superwolves, they are also inching more and more into the world at large. Concerts are planned for later this year. Their music is as accessible now as it has ever been. And there are more songs to be written. Maybe it won’t even take another 16 years to hear them this time.

“There’s a handful of Will lyrics that I wasn’t able to crack that are sort of staring at me from a shelf in my brain,” Sweeney said before signing off. “Staring down on me like an elf on a shelf just like, ‘When are you going to bring me to life?'”

Superwolves is out on April 30 via Drag City. Get it here.

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