Howl Like a Superwolf: Matt Sweeney and Will Oldham on Following Up a Cult Classic

Howl Like a Superwolf: Matt Sweeney and Will Oldham on Following Up a Cult Classic

Except…except if you think that Will Oldham, for all his firm ways and principled strictures, is the kind of unapproachable stuck-up alternative musician who would crumple up that note on his windshield and head back to what he was doing, then you might not understand what’s going on here.

“It’s funny, because I feel like maybe we’ll never get to the bottom of how Will sees music,” says Sweeney. “How Will exists with music, it’s way more of a full-contact real thing, you know what I mean?” Sweeney wonders if he would have had the same reaction. “Will wasn’t upset at all, whereas I think maybe I would be like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of corny, that it came out that way.’ But for Will it was like, a whole new world opens up.”


When the instructors gathered at the Jazzercise Louisville East Fitness Center, located in the Holiday Manor shopping center—there used to be a movie theater here that Oldham would come to when he was a kid, though it later turned into a Chinese restaurant—Oldham went down there as requested. Emmett Kelly, was in town at the time, and the two of them played “Devoted to You.”

“It was so much fun,” Oldham says. “They were just super positive. It was wonderful. They’d never had an experience like that. And that’s always really thrilling—when someone invites you to play music for a captive audience and they don’t know what to expect and you don’t know what to expect and you get to sort of test the power of music and come away thinking, ‘Wow, we kind of know what we’re doing, and music is this uniting thing that we all imagine that it is.’ And we just don’t have the opportunity to show it that often. Because everybody thinks ‘this song goes here,’ and they put it there, and that’s the end of the story.”

Chris Heath is a GQ correspondent.

A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2021 issue with the title “Howl Like a Superwolf.”


PRODUCTION CREDITS:
Additional photographs of Will Oldham by Joe Madeline
Additional photographs of Matt Sweeney by JR Reynolds
Styled by Mobolaji Dawodu

FASHION CREDITS:

Opener: Clockwise from top left: On Oldham: Overalls, $238, by Carhartt WIP. Turtleneck, $1,340, by Louis Vuitton Men’s. / On Oldham: Jacket, $410, and pants, $280, by Needles. Shirt, $1,015, by Undercover. Boots, $1,395, by Christian Louboutin. Hat, his own. / On Sweeney: Coat. $2,429, by Gucci. Shirt, $830, by Rick Owens. His own shoes by Broadland. His own hat by Supreme. His own necklace (throughout) by Popular Jewelry. / On Sweeney: Overalls $40, by Dickies. Sweater, $1,490, by Louis Vuitton Men’s. Shoes, $190, by Clarks Originals. His own socks and sunglasses (throughout) by Supreme. Watch, $30,800, by Hublot. / On Oldham: Jacket (price upon request) by Lanvin. Sweater, $500, by Canali. Pants, $895, by S.R. Studio. LA. CA. Hat, his own. / On Oldham: Sweater, $765, by AGR. / On Sweeney: Jumpsuit (price upon request) by Études. His own guitar, by Wanderilp. / On Sweeney: Shirt, $635, by Dries Van Noten. Pants, $428, by Stan. His own boots by Lucchese. His own watch by Rolex. <back>

Second collage: Clockwise from top left: On Sweeney: Overalls $40, by Dickies. Sweater, $1,490, by Louis Vuitton Men’s. His own sunglasses (throughout) by Supreme. Watch, $30,800, by Hublot. / On Oldham: Suit, $6,900, by Ermenegildo Zegna XXX. His own sunglasses by Ray-Ban. His own necklace, By Lefty. / On Oldham: Sweater, $765, by AGR. Pants (price upon request) by Palomo Spain. Boots, $690, by Alexander McQueen. / On Sweeney: Coat, $2,429, by Gucci. Shirt, $635, by Dries Van Noten. Pants, $428, by Stan. His own boots by Lucchese. His own watch by Rolex. / On Oldham: Overalls, $238, by Carhartt WIP. Turtleneck, $1,340, by Louis Vuitton Men’s. / On Sweeney: Coat, $1,795, by Bode. Vest, $1,825, by The Elder Statesman. Sweater, $520, by Rick Owens. Pants (price upon request) by Casablanca. Shoes, $415, by Grenson. His own hat by Ditch Witch. / On Sweeney: Shirt, $1,090, by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello. Pants, $1,525, by The Elder Statesman. Shoes, $265, by Clarks Originals x Aimé Leon Dore. Watch, $30,800, by Hublot. His own guitar, by Wanderilp. / On Oldham: Jacket, $2,025, and pants, $1,185, by Moschino Couture. Shirt, $935, by Louis Vuitton Men’s. Bolo tie and hat, his own. Shoes, $650, by Jimmy Choo. <back>

Third collage: Clockwise from top left: On Oldham: Suit, $6,900, by Ermenegildo Zegna XXX. Shoes, $190, by Clarks Originals. His own necklace, By Lefty. / On Oldham: Blazer (price upon request), shirt, $935, and pants, $1,070, by Louis Vuitton Men’s. Hat and sunglasses, his own. / On Sweeney: Coat, $4,090, jacket, $2,690, shirt, $580, and pants, $920, by Alexander McQueen. His own shoes by Broadland. / On Sweeney: Jacket, $3,295, by Dunhill. Shirt, $1,090, by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello. Pants, $1,525, by The Elder Statesman. Shoes, $265, by Clarks Originals x Aimé Leon Dore. Watch, $30,800, by Hublot.  / On Oldham: His own vest by Oscar Parsons. Shirt, $935, and pants, $935, by Louis Vuitton Men’s. Hat, his own. / On Oldham: Robe, $1,240, by Wales Bonner. Pants, $850, by Lanvin. Shoes, $1,245, by Marsèll. / On Sweeney: Coat, $2,429, by Gucci. Jumpsuit (price upon request) by Études. His own boots by Lucchese. His own hat by Ditch Witch. / On Sweeney: Coat, $2,429, by Gucci. Shirt, $830, by Rick Owens. Pants, $850, by Bode. His own shoes by Broadland. His own hat by Ditch Witch. <back>


Footnotes:

1 Sweeney liked both the 1974 film Cockfighter and the 1962 novel of the same name, by Charles Willeford, on which the film is based. Oldham has also often expressed his enthusiasm for Willeford’s books. “In the book the narrator who’s taken a vow of silence is also a guitar player and there’s great passages describing his thoughts while he plays,” says Sweeney. “Also the name implies lots of things good and bad.” (Much later, Sweeney would finally use the name for an EP by the briefly reconvened Chavez.) <back>

2 “Because it’s a movie that we liked,” Sweeney explains. <back> 

3“The Mel Gibson movie was out at the time,” says Sweeney, “and so everybody was talking about it. Will said, ‘Have you seen it?’ I go, ‘No.’ He said, ‘As a comedy, it’s amazing.’ And I’m not kidding—if you ever have the chance to watch it, just watch it like: This is a comedy, and they knew it was a comedy.”  <back>

4Sweeney worked for the still-thriving company Nasty Little Man. Among the clients he worked with: the Beastie Boys, Dinosaur Jr., the Smashing Pumpkins, Kyuss, Sleep, Atari Teenage Riot, Guided by Voices, and the New Bomb Turks. <back>

5Keen students of Will Oldham lore will notice a weird synchronicity here. Some years after this, in 2005, the songwriter Jeffrey Lewis released a song called “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror,” a long, surreal narrative centered around seeing Oldham on the L train. In Lewis’s telling, or fantasizing, Oldham is wearing onstage dark glasses and is slumming it with the common people of his kingdom; the song culminates in a violent confrontation. Sweeney is also aware of this strange coincidence: “It’s funny, because I had had the opposite experience.” <back>

6With the possible exception, that is, of when Sweeney was in Billy Corgan’s ill-fated post–Smashing Pumpkins supergroup Zwan. “Probably the only other time,” Sweeney wryly reflects, “where I was sort of in a similar sort of lockdown.” <back>

7 Sweeney remembers that during the recording of Adele’s 21 album, Rubin said something like “This song needs Sweeney sad guitar.” While it’s clear that Sweeney wouldn’t like to be defined or limited by this—“sure, sadness, along with all the other emotions,” he interjects—he evidently heard it as a kind of compliment. “Sad guitar is def a more on point description than, like, ‘shredding,’ ” Sweeney writes to me. “Ideally if my guitar playing is working it’s, like, felt more than heard.” <back>

8Thankfully, Young laughed; his and Sweeney’s relationship has persisted. Plans to play together have, so far, always fallen through—Sweeney was nearly deputized as a member of Crazy Horse for one tour—but Sweeney mentions, with what feels like a certain awe, “killer hangs with Neil…heavy music talks.” <back>

9 There is not room here—it may not even be possible in an article-size format—to even begin to summarize everything Oldham does on record. Aside from what might be called his major album projects—and these come with a dizzying combination of collaborators—there is a constant, fertile flow of other releases, so many, in so many different forms and places, that even keen fans, judging from their conversations online, are often discovering things they didn’t know about or haven’t heard. For instance, I eavesdrop on one recent Twitter conversation among some British music writers about a 1970 Everly Brothers live recording of a little-known song called “Lord of the Manor.” During the exchange, Oldham interjects to point out that he and his collaborator Dawn McCarthy used to perform the song on tour, and includes a link to the details of a seven-inch EP he released, It Takes Blood to Make Blood, that includes the song. One of the British writers subsequently tweets, “How did I miss this?” and then, having discovered the answer, prints the relevant product details: “Edition of 75.” This is not an entirely atypical example. A Dutch fan site attempts to list every release involving Oldham, year by year—these are their counts from some recent years: 2015 – 17; 2016 – 23; 2017 – 13; 2018 – 14; 2019 – 15. <back>

10If this might inadvertently give the impression that Sweeney has been otherwise inactive, that’s very far from the truth. Aside from his various works with Oldham and his many Rick Rubin projects, Sweeney has also hosted the video interview series Guitar Moves; played guitar on swaths of atmospheric in-game soundtrack for Red Dead Redemption 2; toured as part of Iggy Pop’s Post Pop Depression band with Josh Homme; played in various forms with Soldiers of Fortune, Endless Boogie, Cat Power, Tinariwen, and Stephen Malkmus, and on every Run the Jewels album; worked as a producer, most recently for Songhoy Blues, Viagra Boys, Garcia Peoples, and Country Westerns; and recorded a Velvet Underground cover with Iggy Pop, just the two of them together, that will accompany a forthcoming Todd Haynes film project. <back>

11Oldham has been fascinated by Richman since his early teens. Three days after he first saw Richman play, in Los Angeles in 1989, he wrote his friend Darren a letter, describing the show and how Richman, just five feet away, would “smile and flinch and laugh and ask us how we were and say, ‘I’m good, too’ and would sing whole verses looking right into my eyes.” Oldham explains that he had agreed to this 2020 tour largely to spend time around Richman, and says that the highlights were “the backstage hangs.” One time, he says, he realized that Richman was playing Stooges songs on his classical guitar as they talked: “My mind was blown.” <back>

12On March 11—the same day that Oldham was refused entry to the rare-books library at Yale, a further sign of the deteriorating health situation—they performed in New Haven. The final couplet Oldham sang that night, from a song on his most recent album, I Made a Place, was almost too apposite: Cause this particular assemblage of molecules and memories some day soon may just run out of gas / So, look backwards on your future and look forward to your past. The next day, Richman came back to Louisville, where he stayed with Oldham, and they performed a final show on the local radio station ARTxFM. <back>

13There may be no explanation more Oldham-esque than this one, revealing that he joined Instagram after a tour with the group Bitchin Bajas, when he was traveling on tour with a fellow musician, Oscar Parsons, who liked the platform: “I asked random folks along the road if they used it. Lots of toll-collectors on the highways (I drive most of the time on tour). Toll collectors, to a person, didn’t use it. Still, at the end of the trip, I decided to try.” <back>

14Oldham was first inspired to do so by the daily cover versions posted by his friend Heather Summers. Some of Oldham’s subsequent Instagram covers would be as part of a challenge series with another friend, Nathan Bowles—particularly highly recommended is Oldham’s April 12, 2020, version of the little-feted Van Morrison song “Thanks for the Information”—but there was also, for instance, a sweetly sincere version of Christopher Cross’s “Arthur’s Theme,” posted for the birthday of Rachel Korine, wife of Harmony. <back>

15Oldham’s contributions are credited, as is generally the case these days, to Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Or, as Callahan refers to him in an October tweet, “millie ‘prince’ vanilli.” <back>

16For those curious what else might be on an Oldham-curated bedtime playlist: “Big hits are ‘Jumpin’ Jive,’ as performed by Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers; ‘Pierre,’ by Carole King and Maurice Sendak; ‘I Love the Hippo,’ from the movie Hugo the Hippo; ‘When We Grow Up,’ as performed by Roberta Flack and Michael Jackson; multiple renditions of ‘Froggie Went a Courtin’,’ especially the version by Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower; Cat Stevens’s animated short of ‘Moonshadow’; a 1952 animation of the children’s book Madeline, by Bemelmans; ‘Do-Re-Mi,’ from The Sound of Music.” <back>

17One of these cover versions is a 1960s country-gospel song, “There Must Be a Someone,” with one line of its lyric slightly adapted by Oldham to “Why can’t a man be accepted for what she has to be?” When I ask Oldham whether there is a particular reason for this genderfluid moment, he replies, “Yes. The reason is that gender is fluid.” <back>

18A strange synchronicity: On the day of what would be the first Superwolf show, in London in 2003, Oldham and Sweeney went to see where Blaine was being suspended in a box over the River Thames for 44 days. <back>

19Oldham saw Blaine’s show in Louisville: “The song sounded killer. But no attention was drawn to it, and I can’t imagine that many people, if any, even took notice of it.” <back>

20As should already be clear, Oldham engages fully and thoughtfully with the process of this article. “Matt really wants to do publicity—I love Matt, and this is our record, and so we’re doing this together,” he’ll tell me. Nonetheless, Oldham does have long-standing reservations about such activity’s benefits for the artist. In short: “I know how draining it is, and it’s going to weaken the artist, so an artist that does publicity for every record ends up being a weaker and less interesting artist after five or 10 years.” Or, at greater length, in which Oldham gives a much clearer and more vivid insight into how he thinks about several aspects of the world he is in, or near: “I found that in doing press junkets or whatever in the ’90s, I would be asked some questions again and again and again, and I didn’t have the answer. And it’s just like, Well, what do you do? Do you bullshit? Do you make it up? And then when you’re asked the same question again and again and again, do you just write a script? And then is that part of your job? And then you start to think, Well, how am I going to do it better next time? Really? Like, that’s how you’re going to spend some of your time—trying to think how you’re going to give a better presentation of your work, and how you’re going to answer questions about yourself and your approach and the origins of certain songs? Thinking: I want to see if I can do it without that stuff. Again, I’m looking at Merle [Haggard], you know. I’m looking at who can still make records 30, 40 years later. And there’s not a lot. And it’s because most successful artists put up with a lot of bullshit. And they gave up their music, I believe, in exchange for the bullshit that [someone] said, ‘Oh, it’s just something that you have to do…’ Have to do in order to what? In order to play an arena? I guess. Who wants to play an arena? Who wants to be the cover of a magazine? I mean, fuck that.” <back>

21This bunker is actually an artwork called “A Cell in the Smile,” created under private land somewhere near Chagrin Falls, Ohio, by the artists Justin Lowe and Jonah Freeman. They are friends of Sweeney’s, though, by coincidence, Oldham’s wife’s sister’s husband also works for them, executing their ideas. Oldham and Sweeney played at the artwork’s opening, in a nearby field, in the summer of 2018, the first time any of these new Superwolves songs were performed. “Justin and Jonah and my family were the only people who paid any attention to the fact that we were even there, much less playing music,” notes Oldham. For the video, the bunker seemed “a nice symbolic space, considering everything that was going on”; in the written material accompanying the video’s release, a narrative was floated implying that they’d been down here for months or years, working on these songs. In the real world, while they were underground filming, a windstorm knocked out the power in their hotel, leaving it freezing cold. Sweeney hunkered down with some of the team in one of the rooms with a fireplace; Oldham drove home through the night. <back>

22This, by contrast, is how Oldham listens to music each day right now: In his house, there are perhaps a hundred records on a shelf in active rotation. Each morning, he will take the two on the far-left of the shelf, place them, side A up, on the stackable turntable, and let them play “while whatever morning goings-on go on.” If there’s time, he’ll flip them and play side B. If not, that happens the following day. When both sides have been played, the records are replaced on the far-right side of the shelf. Unless a record falls out of favor, that is, in which case it either goes on the pile to be sold or is taken to Oldham’s nearby work house. Or, if he wants to reencounter the record sooner, particularly if the record is newer, he places it somewhere in the middle of the shelf. There is also a second shelf below, where Hawaiian records, children’s records, and Lou Reed’s Transformer are kept. “The bigger shelf,” Oldham explains, “is primarily language-free music. Lou Reed, the Hawaiians, the children’s records, some gospel music…those are about singing and dancing.” <back>

23Other examples: an album of songs by the British cult band the Mekons; a wholesale cover of a single album by the Norwegian singer Susanna; a re-creation, in performance with Angel Olsen, of the obscure 1979 album “Babble,” by Kevin Coyne and Dagmar Krause; an album of less-known Merle Haggard songs. Oldham frequently references Haggard—less for what he created, though Oldham clearly holds much of that in the highest regard, and more as a touchstone for how one might go about things: “Not at all putting myself on a level with Haggard; I find strong kinship with him in attitude and process. I feel like he’s consistently met the requirements of his job description, while always being careful to not do something that would hamper his ability to continue to find fulfillment in his work.” Furthermore: “I feel like Merle was such a great example of somebody who didn’t do things the way anybody else did. He didn’t have scorn—he wasn’t saying, like, ‘Fuck the rest of the world.’ He was saying, ‘Well, what’s the best way for me to live the most satisfying, wildly complete musical life, and work within the system that I’m being presented with?’ And he did an incredible job until the day he died. It’s so strange that there aren’t more artists like him who get into their 50s, 60s, and 70s, who aren’t blowing our minds. I find that curious.” <back>

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