16 years and one pandemic later, Will Oldham and Matt Sweeney follow up a cult classic
Ask musicians Will Oldham and Matt Sweeney if, given the relative uncertainty of post-pandemic life, they had any hesitations in the spring about booking a June tour along the California coast to play music from their new collaborative album, “Superwolves,” and they reply in unison.
“The opposite,” says guitarist Sweeney during a Zoom call from his home near Tompkins Square Park in New York. He first drew acclaim through his New York indie-rock band Chavez and Billy Corgan’s project Zwan, but he is better known for his session work with, among others, Adele, the Chicks and Run the Jewels.
“Hesitant about what? I guess I’m frightened now that I realize how truly cowardly most people are,” singer-lyricist Oldham replies with a certain terseness. Wearing a baseball cap in a poorly lit room of the Louisville home he shares with his wife, the textile artist Elsa Hansen, and their 2-year-old daughter, Oldham is sitting low in an easy chair. It’s hard to see much of his face except his bushy mustache.
Last year, Oldham released “Coward’s Song,” which opened with a grimly narcissistic line: “Conscience is a term used by cowards to keep the great in check / My greatness grows dimmer by the hour / With their teeth sunk in my neck.”
“We’re going to have people sitting far apart from each other wearing masks and being civil,” Oldham says of the tour, which began last week in Big Sur at the Henry Miller Library, traveled to Sonoma on Thursday and to Dry Gulch Ranch in Malibu for two shows on Sunday, and concludes in Pioneertown on Wednesday.
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Their Dry Gulch Ranch sets Sunday occurred two days before California’s full reopening date: Starting Tuesday, capacity limitations at indoor businesses will be lifted, as will social distancing requirements; those who are fully vaccinated will be allowed, in most situations, to ditch their masks.
“Why couldn’t that have happened two months ago? Because people are weak, perhaps? I don’t understand,” Oldham, a lifelong Kentucky resident, says.
It’s a bold strategy, calling a nervous population cowardly, but Oldham, 51, has never been known to muzzle himself.
He got his earliest critical attention as an actor at 17 playing a Baptist preacher alongside James Earl Jones and Chris Cooper in John Sayles’ 1987 coal-miner drama “Matewan.” (Cinephiles might also recognize him for his work with director Kelly Reichardt in “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy.”)
In 1993, as the Palace Brothers, he released his acclaimed debut album, “There is No-One What Will Take Care of You.” He started performing under the stage name Bonnie “Prince” Billy in 1999, and under that moniker or others, either by himself or with a range of collaborators, he has issued more than 50 studio EPs and albums. Johnny Cash recorded Oldham’s “I See a Darkness” for the Rick Rubin-produced “American III: Solitary Man.”
Rubin, in fact, during a recent episode of his podcast, “Broken Record,” offered a high compliment to Sweeney and Oldham’s work together.
“The music you guys make — I could literally listen to it forever,” Rubin told them. “It’s unbelievable. I might like listening to your music more than any other music.”
Oldham’s response? “If the plague takes us, I feel OK about this being the record we ended things with.” He went further in a GQ article, wondering whether it would resonate with an audience while calling it “the most substantial group of songs on record that I feel like I’ve been involved with in years, in terms of original compositions. And I am very curious if there’s a place for a record of substance.”
“Superwolves” is kind of a sequel to the pair’s 2005 album, “Superwolf,” which came out via Oldham’s 30-year collaboration with Drag City, the Chicago independent label that has also helped launch the careers of Joanna Newsom, Pavement and the late singer-songwriter David Berman.
That first Sweeney-Oldham album was released with little fanfare, but in the 16 years since its release, it has become a secret handshake among fans of esoteric country folk music and of Oldham’s way with Old Testament lyrical themes. As that album’s reputation grew, the two friends eased into writing “Superwolves” about five years ago.
“We didn’t have to reconnect. It just began to materialize. I think it wanted itself,” Sweeney, also 51, says.
“I have so many musical limitations,” says Oldham. “When I’m putting a song together it can be really frustrating. Matt has a much larger, more powerful set of skills to create something out of lyrics than I do.”
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Oldham’s evocative lines stand up on the printed page. He writes of “Boxes, bags and bowls of breath” and “bales of joy and raw elation” on “My Body Is My Own,” of “giant squids and honey bears, moles in the ground / Killer whales, pocket wolves, rhinoceros and hound” in “Shorty’s Ark.”
“Hall of Death” features masterful Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar and his band igniting a propulsive West African rhythm that supports Oldham’s harrowing words on passing through the hallway that led to his mother’s room at an assisted living facility. Before her death in January, she endured an extended bout with Alzheimer’s.
“She doesn’t look over, she can’t even see / She’s been there forever, forever to me” sings Oldham in a tenor with the easy delivery of a Nashville lifer. “Can’t even remember she used to be / Oh, I’m gonna walk down / The hall of death again.”
“Good to My Girls” was inspired by an image in “Falkland Road,” photographer Mary Ellen Mark’s 1981 book about the red-light district in Mumbai, India. As is often the case, Oldham sings, in part, from someone else’s perspective: in this case, the madam of a bordello: “I fear the fact that after life, complete emptiness whirls / And we only have our share of life, so I am good to my girls.”
For their West Coast tour, Oldham and Sweeney have been joined by musician Emmett Kelly (Cairo Gang, the Double) and an audience that has been starved for live music. At Dry Gulch Ranch on Sunday, the trio stood onstage beneath a patio umbrella and delivered both “Superwolf” and “Superwolves” songs. (“Superwolves” was released digitally in the spring and will arrive on LP and CD in early July.)
“I’m going to be trying to steel myself to be able to perform the songs, because I’m really not sure what the emotional energy is going to be,” Sweeney had said earlier, adding that both he and Oldham would “rather play to an interesting audience and a cool place versus, say, a festival or a rock club.”
Oldham hopes to continue performing “Superwolves” songs as long as the pandemic remains in check — and the cowards stay home. “We’re just seeing if people can behave themselves.”
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