Matt Sweeney & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy tell us about the inspirations behind ‘Superwolves’
Matt Sweeney and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy just released Superwolves, their years-in-the-making follow-up to 2005's Superwolf. The album features appearances from Mdou Moctar and a few other guests, but most of it is just Matt and Bonnie playing and singing the hell of out their great songs. Superwolves rewards spending some quality time with -- read our review here -- and you can listen to the whole thing below.
With the duo's rich history and myriad influences, we wanted to know more about Superwolves so we asked Matt and Bonnie for a list of inspirations behind the record. Like the record, their list prefers side roads to the highway, taking all sorts of twists and turns. It includes collaborators (David Ferguson, Jonah Freeman & Justin Lowe), places (Louisville, NYC's Superiority Burger), Will Oldham's old friends Slint, Baby Dee (ANOHNI, Current 93) and more. Their list also makes room for stories about Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin, and a contest they may or may not be serious about. Like the record, they wrote it together and it makes a nice side dish to the album.
Read their list below.
MATT SWEENEY & BONNIE 'PRINCE' BILLY - TOP 10 INSPIRATIONS BEHIND 'SUPERWOLVES'
1. There’s a music scene happening, and it’s got several epicenters. One of the big ones, we’ve heard, is the Jalopy Theater in Red Hook. For Will, the dwarfing star was a little building called Clovene. Clovene was rented by guitarist/archivist Nathan Salsburg. He used it as his office and hosted shows there once or twice a month. The music presented could be called ‘old time’ but not all of it strictly adheres. It’s like house show music but more formal and proper. An act that was known to play both the Jalopy and Clovene was the Downhill Strugglers, made up of Eli Smith, Walker Shepard and Jackson Lynch. Matt says he heard Walker play some original tunes somewhere in NYC a number of years ago, including a slamming jammer about fishing. The Strugglers exemplify a kind of ideal: working hard to make solid music without the unnecessary evils of the music business, taking it serious and having a ball. This is the kind of music that happened at Clovene, which had a maximum capacity of about 25.
2. Magnetic Tape is a store in Louisville that sells and repairs record players and stereo systems. Will bought the reel-to-reel tape machine onto which about half of the collaborative record Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties (Bitchin Bajas & Bonny Billy) was recorded. There’s a kind of turntable that many of you may not recall or be aware of that was pretty standard when Matt and Will were growing up, and that’s a ‘stackable’ turntable onto which you can stack more than one record; after the first side of a record plays, the needle heads back to it’s home and another record drops onto the turntable. Will’s record player at home is one of these, and on it he daily makes a two-record ‘mix’. So the shuffled musical mind is minimally scattered, and long-form ideas are given space to romp.
3. David Ferguson, who recorded two-thirds of Superwolves and sings and plays bass on a couple of songs therein, lives and works out of Goodlettsville, Tennessee at his new Butcher Shack studio. One of Will’s longtime besties is Todd Brashear (former proprietor of Wild & Wooly Video and current proprietor of Wild & Wooly Pilates, where Will is a student), and it was Ferg’s passing similarities to Todd that put Will at ease when he found himself in the otherworldly environment of Rick Rubin’s recording studio (back in 2001 or so) in the presence of Johnny Cash, who ‘needed’ Will’s guidance on how to sing “I See a Darkness.” Matt came to know Ferg through subsequent work with Rubin on Cash material. Matt and Ferg share a birthday and a borderline insanity. Over the past decade or so, the three have become thick like thieves, at times bosomier companions than Dolly’s left and right assets.
4. If you never really leave a place, and you sing what you know, then what you sing is going to have a breadth and reach that is unlikely to be challenged by transients and transplants. Will was born in Louisville, KY and lives there still, about halfway between where he grew up and where his folks are buried. Every place has history, but we aren’t talking about every place, we are talking about Louisville. Louisville has got music history (Sylvester Weaver, Bryson Tiller, Malignant Growth, Prince Philip Mitchell, Babylon Dance Band, Lionel Hampton, Fred Murphy, Auditory Clang) and it’s got, like most of the USA, a terrible history of racial inequality. The city prides itself on industries deleterious to the health and happiness of humans and boasts hypocritical leadership and your run-of-the-mill wack distribution of wealth and general fairness. It’s gorgeous in the spring and butt-ugly in the winter (except when it snows). Matt and Will have worked on a lot of music in Louisville. The earlier Superwolf record was recorded in the neighboring agricultural community of Shelbyville. Both Matt and Will love the shredded pork & lamb sandwich at Morris Deli, and Matt loves him a Hot Brown sandwich from anywhere.
5. It has been 30 years since Spiderland came out. Matt and Will met through Slint drummer/composer Britt Walford. Slint didn’t promote Spiderland (until about 20 years after its release). Matt and Will are promoting Superwolves mostly because it’s a healthy way to engage during difficult and alienated times. They didn’t promote Superwolf. Times were different, and records were records, and word-of-mouth was a valid and valuable currency until recently. The aforementioned Todd Brashear was a Slinter, on Spiderland, as was Dave Pajo, with whom both Matt and Will have worked and played extensively. Brian McMahan was the fourth of the Spiderland Slint. It’s undeniable that these people and their relationship to music and life have put a stamp on Will’s and Matt’s worldviews. Ain’t nobody heretofore mentioned in this item dead, so the influence continues.
6. Baby Dee. Harp playing tricycle rider, West Village icon, ancient music scholar, tree surgeon, circus tramp, Current 93 member, headliner on the highest dollar stages and performer on the grimiest streets, Baby Dee is now retired and chilling in the Netherlands, but she’s always an active force and influence on Superwolves songs. Baby Dee is, no question, among the greatest songwriters to ever do it. Master of words and tunes. Sweeney’s said “the feelings her harp playing and piano lines give are what I wish my guitar could do to an audience.” A long time ago we produced an album for her called “Safe Inside The Day.”
The monumental and fragile title track always awes: like her song says, “a gift that’s bigger than the box it came in.”
7. Superiority Burger. For Superwolves, Superiority Burger is a steady source of energy and inspiration on all levels. Chef Brooks Headley and the staff have been a favorite part of Sweeney’s life for the last 5 years (he lives a block away). All the NYC work on the Superwolves album was fueled by Superiority Burger feedings. A Superiority Burger menu item is name checked on one of the songs- first person who spots it gets a dessert on us.
8. Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe: This NYC based art duo’s astonishing installations, reality warping films and book titles make our brains crackle and pop and severely delight our eyeballs. A few years ago their underground bunker “A Cell In The Smile” was the site of the first significant work on the Superwolves album and it ended up being the locale for all of us get this work done last year:
9. Paul Brady. In the 90’s Will gave Sweeney a copy of Paul Brady’s 1978 album Welcome Here Kind Stranger- it’s mostly just guitar and voice doing arrangements of old Irish songs and sounding somehow modern otherworldly and intimate. Its centerpiece overwhelms Sweeney every time he hears it and he still can’t say why beyond “it’s Monumental Music.” So Will thought we should cover it for Superwolves. Learning it was intense, and Mdou Moctar’s presence on the recording session at Strange Weather Studios in Brooklyn reconfigured its meaning. We’re proud we could throw a lasso around that song and let it take us to a new country. Here’s another banger from that Brady album, played live by a young version of the god himself:
10. Cane River directed by Horace Jenkins. A banner on Criterion Channel made Sweeney check out this movie just cuz it looked cool, but he couldn’t be prepared for how cool. He turned Will on to it and Oldham concurred. Almost impossibly beautiful achievement in so many ways. Reminded us that it’s worth working to make a good world. For real. We want you to have a pure experience, so that’s it for details. Just watch it with someone you love (alone counts).