When the guitarist Matt Sweeney and the singer and songwriter Will Oldham, who most usually performs under the alias Bonnie “Prince” Billy, first started working on songs together back in 2003, they realized that they might need a name, whether for the album they were producing or for themselves as a duo or both. Sweeney floated an idea he’d had for a while: Cockfighters(1). They briefly entertained Cabin Boy(2). Oldham proposed Music Inspired by the Passion of the Christ(3). Sweeney put forward the Bully Boys, which Oldham liked until they ruminated on its associations with a skinhead gang in the South.
Meanwhile, Sweeney played some of the songs to a friend, Marc Razo. One, “Lift Us Up,” contained the lines “And the creature, form of superwolf / Will meet you eye to eye.”
“That superwolf song is killer,” Razo told him.
Hearing the phrase “superwolf song” out of his friend’s mouth, Sweeney realized that the word just fit. He told Oldham, who agreed. These songs would all be Superwolf songs. When their album was released, in January 2005, it was titled Superwolf, and although the artist name was formally given as Matt Sweeney and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Superwolf also became the de facto name of the whole project. That first album would come to be considered a revered semisecret classic. After a gap of 16 years, a second will be released on April 30. This belated sequel is called Superwolves. “Implying,” Oldham clarifies, “that we have gone forth and multiplied.”
Oldham and Sweeney have previously described their first proper meeting, one day in New York City in about 1997, when they ran into each other by chance on Houston Street. Oldham already had quite a reputation for the catalog he had released under a shifting series of artist names, rootsy but otherworldly songs that set him apart from most of what was going on in music at the time. Sweeney had made records with his high school band, Skunk, and the New York band Chavez but was then working as a music publicist(4). In those first moments on Houston Street, they spoke about a mutual friend who was having a tough time, but soon found plentiful common ground.
“We decided to carry on talking, right then and there,” Oldham says. “And we haven’t stopped talking since then.”
Sweeney has never mentioned to Oldham that this actually wasn’t the first time that they’d been in such close proximity. One evening a couple of years earlier, Sweeney was taking the L train across Manhattan when he looked up and saw someone he recognized. Naturally, he knew who Oldham was. The year before, Sweeney had been at Lollapalooza in Chicago, where he had media obligations to oversee with the Beastie Boys and the Smashing Pumpkins, and he’d been impressed by the spectacle of Palace Songs, Oldham’s group at that moment—in particular the way they treated, Sweeney says, “their big 1994 Lollapalooza slot as nothing more than a chance to enjoy playing music with each other in front of a bunch of ding-dongs in the sun.”
Now here was Oldham, in the same subway car. If Oldham had a public image, it was one of an almost disconcerting intensity and seriousness; Sweeney was well aware of, as he puts it, “the haunted Appalachian persona presented by the press and word of mouth.” But that wasn’t what Sweeney could see with his own eyes, here, in this moment, on the L train(5). This guy was having a blast: “He was with a woman, clowning around making her laugh. I was struck by how much genuine fun they were having. I remember thinking this guy seems funny and capable of making a good time anywhere.”
As the world gets ever more spangled and splintered, in ways both good and bad, there might seem something curiously old-fashioned—oh, perhaps “timeless” would be more tender—about the tale of Matt Sweeney and Will Oldham. Would it sound dull if I said that this was a story about nothing much more than how and why two middle-aged men have occasionally decided to make music together? Would it sound forbiddingly stuffy if I described them as making that music out of a sense of community and kinship, doing so out of a stubborn, almost reckless conviction that if you create songs with sufficiently distinct beauty or texture or sinew or strangeness, maybe laced with truths simple and hard, then set them loose out into the world, somehow they will find the ears that deserve them and the ears that they deserve?
Perhaps. And all of the above is broadly true. Yet this is also as contemporary a story as there can be: about how to find a space in a world that may not easily open up to fit you within it; about adversity and what comes after; about cooperation and commitment; about how to find a path for yourself that’s worth following; and, in the end, about how, if you always assume you know how someone else is thinking, it’s only a matter of time before you discover how wrong you were.
In this troubled time, ironies have become a cheapened currency. One such is that though Sweeney and Oldham have been in constant communion, creatively and personally, since that first face-to-face meeting—“he’s one of my very closest friends,” Oldham will tell me—and although they are about to unveil this shared new project, the two collaborators have never spent more time apart than they have recently(6). In ten months, they have seen each other just once, each driving from his home (Sweeney’s in lower Manhattan, Oldham’s in Louisville, Kentucky) to meet in an underground bunker in Ohio in November 2020 to shoot a video.
When the first Superwolf album appeared, in 2005, they didn’t do too much to let the world know: five shows in shops across New York in a single day, some touring, a beguiling video shot in an hour for the song “I Gave You” in which the viewer comes to understand that Oldham has murdered Sweeney, lying dead on the ground. No interviews. “I really don’t know if Will just didn’t feel like going through the whole thing of having to explain what the fuck this thing was,” says Sweeney.
This time around, they had decided to launch a Superwolf record into the world by actually talking about it on the occasion of its release, and still intend to do so, though current circumstances temper the possible ways in which that can be done. Inevitably, Zoom looms—and eventually that is how we will also speak. But before, it’s suggested to me that Sweeney and Oldham would like to begin our conversations via email.
To be honest, I agree to this more in a nothing-to-lose spirit than out of any great expectation. In my experience, interviews by email are a fairly reliable way of learning less of what you want to know, more of what you don’t, and too little of either. For one thing, most people speak better than they write, even those who believe otherwise. For another, writing something down gives you time to express what you really think, but it also gives you time not to, and it is this second opportunity that is too often taken. Deservedly or not, Oldham in particular has a reputation as a both reluctant and reticent interviewee, and my concern is that this process might offer him a ready-made hiding place.
But from the moment I send through a few open-ended questions, I am taken aback. This is how Oldham’s first reply—among other things, I had asked him to describe where he was, and tell me something of his state of mind—begins:
I see white walls and blue sky. I hear roosters. I am in Mexico.
It has been a hell of a year. My mother died in January. Matt sang at her funeral, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” which was a favorite of my mother. She had Alzheimers, diagnosed shortly after the death of my dad in 2006. I was on the road, co-headlining shows with Jonathan Richman in the northeastern USA, when the COVID craze struck. We’ve got a two-year-old daughter. There have been many challenges, so many that my wife and I figured it was worth the risk to try and escape for a couple of weeks here in December, to attempt an unburdening….
After a series of hard years (I’m not bitching, just sharing), 2020 really was a whopper. A large part of me looked ahead, over recent years, to the day when Mom would not be around. She hadn’t spoken a discernible sentence in years. She died, and immediately my godmother, who has been a proxy mom to me in recent times, had a severe stroke on the same day. It was a sign, things were not going to get any easier any time soon. So my state of mind is: attempting to let go and find strength.
And after that beginning, all we do for several weeks is exchange emails.
Their bond grew incrementally. In the years after Sweeney and Oldham first met—but before they began to write music together—Sweeney and his guitar would regularly accompany Oldham onstage and on record. Sweeney also continued working as a music publicist and had started managing Andrew W.K., whom Sweeney had got a big record deal as a party-rock wunderkind. Then a very different opportunity came Sweeney’s way, one that threw everything up in the air. After he had handled publicity for the Smashing Pumpkins’ breakthrough album, Siamese Dream, Sweeney had fallen out with Billy Corgan, but now they ran into each other at a party and rekindled a friendship. The Smashing Pumpkins had recently disintegrated, and Corgan, who had been a fan of Sweeney’s first band, Skunk, invited Sweeney to work together on what would become a new band, Zwan.
Things started well enough. But shortly after Zwan’s sole album came out, the band came apart messily and acrimoniously. Spat back out into the world, Sweeney struggled to find his footing. He was traumatized by what had happened, and it would also slowly dawn on him that he had more practical problems: that the money he had assumed would be coming his way would not be coming. As Sweeney succinctly described it to Marc Maron: “I was so fucked it was incredible, you know? And I didn’t have a day job and, like, I just didn’t know what to do.”
It was then that Oldham suggested that Sweeney join him, just the two of them, for an important show he was playing in London, also sending Sweeney some lyrics and challenging him to turn them into songs to perform at that show. In other words, the primary spur toward what would become their Superwolf collaboration was an act of friendship. “It was painful watching the trajectory of that project,” Oldham says to me, about observing Sweeney’s time in Zwan. “A big part of the challenge to Matt was the seizing of the opportunity to address and alleviate that pain.”
“Will gave me a chance to make music when he could see I’d been shut down,” Sweeney concurs. “That kindness really saved my physical and spiritual ass.”
The 2005 Superwolf album that resulted was more than just the culmination of Oldham’s gesture to pull Sweeney back on track. It also set Sweeney on a new career course. The album may not have sold in huge numbers, but some of the ears it bent were influential ones—most famously, producer Rick Rubin’s. Because of Rubin’s appreciation of the record, and of what Sweeney did on it, Rubin first asked Sweeney to contribute to two posthumous Johnny Cash albums, and then called him up to play guitar on Rubin’s productions for a diverse and sometimes unlikely cast, including Kid Rock, Josh Groban, Neil Diamond, the Dixie Chicks, Jake Bugg, and Adele(7).
Sweeney tells me about another Superwolf enthusiast. One day, Rubin texted to say that he’d just played the album for Neil Young and that Young had “freaked out.” Soon after, Young’s manager, Elliot Roberts, who had managed Zwan, took Sweeney to lunch in New York, and also gifted him “a joint of extremely powerful brain-busting weed.”
Believing himself free for the rest of the day, Sweeney went for a stroll and smoked the joint. That evening Roberts called to say that Sweeney should come right now to join him at an Italian restaurant uptown for dinner with Neil Young. “I was so fucking high,” Sweeney remembers. “I figured, ‘This is a funny situation, and I guess I just gotta go with it.’ Neil Young’s been in my head since I heard ‘Cinnamon Girl’ at age five. I can’t articulate how much his music means to me.”
So he went. “Got in a cab uptown and walked through the door of the restaurant. High as shit. As soon as I sat down at the table, Neil Young’s in my face about the Superwolf album. Turns out Neil Young is a large dude with a booming speaking voice and very passionate opinions. Neil almost angrily blasted me with compliments about the album, with deep observations about how the music worked, and lots of questions.… It felt beyond great to hear my work appreciated by the person whose work taught me how to play and how to listen. Mind was utterly blown. Still is, really.”
Nevertheless, Young was not just full of praise. He was also wound up about why so few people knew about this great Superwolf record. How could it possibly be that he had seen no press about it? What kind of fecklessness was at work here? When Sweeney protested that they had made a video, Young said that he certainly hadn’t seen it and that maybe he should make one for them.
Eventually, as this haranguing continued, it struck Sweeney, through his haze, just how absurd it was to be on the receiving end of this particular message from this particular messenger: “He gave me such a hard time about us not promoting the album properly, finally my high ass said, ‘You’re telling me we’re being difficult and willfully obscure? You should fuckin’ talk!’ ”(8)
In the years that followed the Superwolf album, Sweeney and Oldham periodically collaborated onstage and on some of Oldham’s other records, and there have been occasional stray recordings credited to the two of them—a 10-inch single here, a cover version there. The one thing that they didn’t do was the most obvious: make another album together. Though they both talk as though they always assumed that they someday would, Sweeney concedes that it may be his heels that dragged the most. “I am really fucking slow, obviously,” he says. “I move slow, and Will has got an incredible work ethic(9) and a real sense of deadlines and timelines. And I suck at them.”(10)
Creating the new album, Superwolves, was a gradual process. The first songs—typically Oldham sends Sweeney a lyric; then Sweeney writes the music and melody, and records a version that he texts or emails back to Oldham—were written in 2015, and at times Oldham was unsure he and Sweeney would ever complete a whole album. Eventually, they stepped up the pace; enough songs were completed, the album was recorded. They planned to meet up to mix in the spring of 2020, release the album later that year, most likely play some shows.
Then the world changed. On March 9, Oldham arrived in New York, to play a show with another regular collaborator, Emmett Kelly as part of a shared tour with Jonathan Richman. Sweeney was in the audience with his girlfriend, J.R. (By chance, I was there too: the last crowded room I would be in during 2020.) “It was an indescribably weird feeling,” Sweeney recalls. “The news of the virus made it impossible not to wonder whether any of us should be there. Looking back, it feels like a scene from a horror movie. I remember thinking that Jonathan Richman and Will and Emmett was a great last concert to see. That particular mix of good fortune and dread is a feeling I look forward to never experiencing again.”
Oldham’s tour with Richman(11) continued for only one more date before being cut short(12). Oldham headed home to Louisville. Plans changed, carried on changing. But he didn’t retreat into inactivity, and he seems disappointed—let down, even—by the many artists whose reaction to this new world seemed to be a setting down of their tools. Instead, Oldham set a fearsome example of what could be done. One sense of his lockdown trajectory can be traced through the online trail it has left, particularly on his Instagram feed. Oldham is equivocal about Instagram’s merits—he says that he intends to leave the platform after the Superwolves album has been launched into the world(13)—but it played its part in his pandemic. That was where he started posting a series of stripped-down cover versions—“something,” he acknowledges, “I never would have considered pre-COVID”(14)—which eventually led to an extraordinarily ambitious project, one that set into action mostly in the first part of the year but that was released, week by week, beginning in late September. In conjunction with Bill Callahan(15), his labelmate on Drag City records, Oldham recorded an extended series of songs—nearly all of them cover versions, from wildly disparate sources—with a wide range of virtual collaborators (including Sweeney): Oldham’s heartfelt and defiant response to a world locking down. “It’s all about revealing, creating, and/or nurturing connections,” he notes. “And when we are discouraged in our efforts to be unified, it’s necessary to say a gleeful ‘fuck you’ and then say it again and again and again, week after week. This project means so much to me, I don’t know where to begin and where to end in discussing it…. The musical family that I’ve built over the past four decades is my family, and it’s represented in this series better than anywhere else.”
Though not announced as such as the songs were rolled out, Oldham says the project is called Blind Date Party. Its final installment, a cover of a John Prine song, “She Is My Everything,” was released in the first week of March, 2021, but long before that Oldham told me that he had been watching the video—a joyous, defiant portrait of the people of New York City living through a pandemic—with his two-year-old daughter almost every night for several weeks, sometimes two or three times a night, part of a parent-child bedtime ritual of watching a few curated songs(16).
Meanwhile, Superwolves also took on its final shape. Sweeney and Oldham split mixing duties—Sweeney mixed some in Brooklyn, Oldham drove to Goodlettsville, Tennessee, to mix the others—and then Sweeney put together a provisional running order. It began with the last song they’d completed, “Make Worry for Me,” an extraordinarily unusual, viscous, and sinister statement of intent, then nine other new songs and two cover versions(17), before ending with the elegant but bleakly frank “You Can Regret What You Have Done.” As Sweeney saw it, the record started off with “this all-knowing, all-powerful musical spirit, and then at the end, that spirit is telling you that you’re going to regret everything. To me, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting—that there’s a parity between the two things.’” But Oldham disagreed. “Will was like, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of a bummer ending,’ ” says Sweeney. That was when they remembered another song, one they’d originally created for a very different purpose.
Oldham has known David Blaine since the late ’90s(18), and says that Blaine has always been a vocal enthusiast for what Oldham does. In 2017, Blaine approached him with a request. He was to film his very last TV special, and he wanted a song to be played in the final moments. Oldham and Sweeney applied themselves to the commission. “This is the end,” the song went. “I’ve shown you what I can do / And when I say I can walk away, I’m not fooling you.” Then retirement plans were moderated, and Blaine instead used the song at the end of his live shows(19). Now Oldham asked for Blaine’s permission to reclaim the song.
As with the 2005 album, both Superwolves’ music and its lyrics manage to feel both deceptively simple and simultaneously mysterious. If you care to look, you can glimpse echoes of Oldham’s life—his mother’s long decline, for instance, in “God Is Waiting” (“definitely a stab at imposing or projecting, optimistically, an internal life onto someone who can no longer communicate”); becoming a parent in “My Popsicle” (his daughter is called Poppy). But maybe it’ll give you some hint of the kind of richness and strangeness swirling around if I tell you that perhaps the most beautiful song, “Good to My Girls,” is written from the point of view of a whorehouse madam reflecting on her responsibility for those under her charge.
Following several weeks of email exchanges, we finally all speak together on Zoom.(20) It’s strange at first, saying hello to people you don’t know, but with whom you’ve been having such an intimate back-and-forth. Oldham’s now been back in Louisville for some time; Sweeney’s in New York.
After we introduce ourselves a little, they talk about what it is to release a record in present circumstances. Oldham’s disquiet with the realities of streaming and online dissemination has been well-documented; he felt strongly enough about it that for much of the past decade, he chose not to make albums of new Oldham compositions. “I mean,” he says, “it’s been harder and harder each year for me to understand what releasing a record is anyway.” The pandemic has only heightened the uncertainty that surrounds the dissemination of new music. The first song to be heard, “Make Worry for Me,” was released as a single some time ago—to me, it seems quite a remarkable and noteworthy song, and it was accompanied by a compelling video in which Oldham and Sweeney were filmed in an extensive, intriguing underground complex(21). But it’s hard to see much evidence yet that any of it has caused much of a ripple.
“I feel like: zero,” Sweeney concedes. “Honestly, nothing. It sucks.”
Oldham worries that people aren’t listening deeply to anything much right now. In an email, he referred to the Superwolves record as “a powerful example of an out-moded medium: the full-length record……. One of the best records I’ve participated in, ever.” He echoes this now: “I think it’s 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.”
One of his concerns is that in the modern era, an artist may need to make the choice between reaching people and truly engaging with them. “I think it’s true, the idea that streaming music is more passive listening than other forms of listening to music,” Oldham says. “And so do you want to have a million passive listeners, or do you want to have a thousand engaged listeners? And I prefer to have a thousand engaged listeners. A thousand engaged listeners won’t necessarily pay the bills, but it’s more satisfying to make the next song for the thousand engaged listeners than for a million passive listeners.”
We talk on. A three-way call can be awkward, but Sweeney and Oldham go back and forth very naturally. Oldham seems particularly comfortable in conferring praise on his partner. “The huge joy and satisfaction and success of my work with Matt has to do with knowing how deep his reserves are and how deep his experiences are and how much he cares and thinks about music and how passionate he is about music, and that we find meeting points,” he says. “It’s like he owns, you know, a national park and he’s my private tour-guide ranger who can just be like, ‘Now, over here in this cave—shhh, don’t wake them—there’s a family of mammals that have never been actually cataloged or discovered.’ And I’m like, ‘Wow, Matt, thank you so much for showing me this shit—this is blowing my fucking mind.’ ”
Toward the end of the call, Sweeney refers to Oldham’s constant curiosity about people. Sweeney clearly means this as a compliment, but Oldham describes it in a way that makes it sound like both blessing and curse.
“One of the most exhausting things about going to a place like New York,” Oldham says, “is walking down the street, and just the amount of people who are obviously right in my proximity—and I want to know what everybody’s doing and what everybody’s thinking. And that’s exhausting.… When I go visit Matt, we walk up the stairs, I’m always bothered by: What are the people in each of the apartments doing? You see them come out. Why? What do they have in their hands? Where are they going? You know, do they have children? When was the last time they had sex with somebody? I don’t know. What do they listen to? I mean, I’ve always wanted to know—like, people who don’t listen to a lot of music, what are the five CDs or 10 cassettes or 11 LPs, or now what’s on their playlists? What is it? What’s sitting on their shelf? What do they listen to and why? And how do they choose to put it on, and how do they choose to spend their money on it?”
“That’s the Will brain,” Sweeney observes.
Oldham suggests that this is just how he finds himself wired to think: We live in a world of mysteries that, if one applies oneself with sufficient care and persistence, can be solved. “There are clues everywhere,” he says. “Maybe there’s not a final one way of solving things. But you do find enough, like, victorious moments of ‘I understand this now—I understand now why people act this way. I understand why this music that doesn’t move me in the slightest is popular among a certain group of people.’ And rather than being frustrated—you know, ‘Why do people listen to this garbage?’—go spend time with them while they’re listening to it(22) and then you might understand it. And those little aha moments make life more bearable every day.”
One possible response to the challenges of being someone who wants to release a record in 2021 is to try less hard, to care less. There is no sign that Sweeney and Oldham have any interest in this path. Occasionally, a certain resignation does leak through—at one point, when Oldham and I are having a detailed back-and-forth about the precise resonance of the quote by the Moroccan author Mohamed Mrabet that is used in the Superwolves artwork, he implies that there may be a certain folly in debating it: “At present, most people who listen to this record will likely never even see a physical copy, much less own one.”
But there’s no concession to that in the overall artwork, which also offers circumstantial evidence that Sweeney and Oldham are not the only ones who think this way about what they are doing. The other image in the artwork—the one that isn’t the front cover—was created for them by the Scottish painter Peter Doig, someone who enjoys art-world acclaim and success of staggering proportions. (In 2017, for instance, one of his paintings sold at auction for $28.8 million.) Sweeney explains that he and Doig initially became friends through Sweeney’s cousin Spencer (whose artwork appeared on the Superwolf sleeve), to whom Doig has been a mentor. Doig was sent the music; he, Oldham, and Sweeney communicated back and forth; and then Doig sent through this image: a painting of a figure playing a guitar, some kind of tree or plant behind it, the word SUPERWOLVES painted below. “We were just floored,” says Sweeney. “Generally, musicians look pretty dumb in how they’re represented in paintings, I think. I was really, really incredibly moved by what Peter did. It’s more somebody reaching for something through music—reaching, and maybe getting whatever it is that they’re looking for.”
The cover image, which shows two strange figures in what appears to be space, was also painted by somebody they’ve both known a long time, Harmony Korine. “We’ve been close for decades now,” Oldham says. “Harm is important to me. His family and my family are close. Likely there’s a hybrid persona makeup that is a common bond, of severe perversion braided into full-hearted love of life and people.”
An extra contour to this relationship recently became clear. Perhaps Oldham’s most famous composition is “I See a Darkness,” the song that created a rupture in the world within which Johnny Cash came to sing the lines: “Well, I hope that someday, buddy / We have peace in our lives / Together or apart / Alone or with our wives / And we can stop our whoring / And pull the smiles inside.” Many, many times over the years, Oldham has explained how the song was an imagined conversation with a friend, someone, as he once put it, “who was in a somewhat confusing point in his life, wrestling with ideas of creativity as well as addiction.” But only in a PBS American Masters podcast a couple of years ago—one that doesn’t seem to have been much noticed—did Oldham clarify that the friend in question was Korine, noting how awesome it had been knowing that Johnny Cash was singing about Korine.
I ask Oldham whether Korine has always known this.
“I’m not a hundred percent sure he knows it now, honestly,” Oldham replies. “I’ve never said it to him.”
Do you think he’d find it strange that it’s about him?
“I think he would maybe appreciate the effect that it might have on his brand. I don’t know,” Oldham says. “You know, our lifestyles are incredibly different. But there is some strange reason why we love each other, and he’s one of the people that I would absolutely trust with my life, and I don’t know why. I just know that he’s there for me, and he knows that I’m there for him. It’s just a nice thing.”
Is it possible to articulate what you think the common thread is?
“In terms of what we do, there’s something about addressing how preposterous everything is in order to avoid being crushed by the weight of everything.”
As for whether Korine knows, it turns out that Sweeney can answer that.
“I told Harmony within the last year that it was about him,” Sweeney says. “It was just a text exchange. Harmony was like: Holy shit, I had no idea.”
I find myself thinking a lot about one incidental moment in an earlier exchange that I’d had with Oldham, when we were discussing Sweeney’s difficult time with Billy Corgan and Zwan. As Oldham’s telling me that he’d always felt that the project wouldn’t have a happy outcome, he notes that though he was never a fan of, nor trusted, Corgan, when the two of them interacted—they played together at a charity show in this period—Corgan was always very sweet to him. But the detail that sticks with me, that seems particularly revealing of Oldham’s worldview, is this: “Immediately, there were managers and guitar techs, where before (and since) such jobs could more or less be handled by ourselves. I remember rehearsing for a set with Zwan, and a guy (a very nice guy) plugged my guitar in for me as if it was his job…because it was his job. Crazy.”
I can imagine a wide range of possible reactions to someone like Will Oldham saying a sentence like this, from adoration for his humility to derision for his judgmental and narrow-minded pomposity and envy. But I wonder whether, at its center, there might be an important signpost here to something more interesting than either. In trying to unpick the sometimes befuddling creative life and times of Will Oldham and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, one commonplace lens has been to see it as someone’s deliberate and determined mission to be perverse and obscure. But what if a much better way to understand and interpret each thing that Oldham does—however strange it might also seem—is to see it as the action of a man with a very particular set of values, who is looking only to see the very simplest and most straightforward way of expressing them, however well or poorly those might fit with the rest of the world. The kind of man, that is to say, who might simply believe, deep down, that the maximum number of people required to plug in a guitar is one—and that, as it happens, he’s got it covered.
Toward the end of January, Oldham and I have our final conversation. In it he will tell me, about Sweeney, “I think Matt has an amazing mind and an amazing heart, and I think he’s, you know, wildly curious and loves to be involved with people, and he loves to be involved with people who, if you cut them, they bleed the same color that you would think that they’d bleed.” And he will tell me, about himself, “I know that I’ve spent a lot of time in my life and a lot of energy in my life turning aspects of an innate introversion into something that resembles extroversion.” And he will tell me this, an extended thought that I take to be about music and ambition and growing older: “You know, there is something to be said for the greatness of the Ramones, there’s something to be said for the greatness of Led Zeppelin, there’s something to be said for the greatness of AC/DC. There’s also something to be said for how infantile all that is. You know, when you sit down and you listen, if you can even understand Mick Jagger or Robert Plant and what they’re saying—which on some level they’ve got to be intentionally distorting the lyrics, because they know that they’re not that interesting—you think, like, ‘Well, how much time have I, and other people that I know and respect, given to these vocalizations and called it something that resembles something that’s great?’ Because it is great on some levels, but on another level, when you get to be—I mean, I would say when you get to be 25 years old, or 30 or 35 or 40 or 45, what about having music in which the lyrics bring up different kinds of thoughts or feelings or reflections, or you push your thinking or your aesthetic sense in a slightly different direction? Even if it’s only for the two and a half minutes or four minutes that the song is on…. You don’t want people to just sit back and hear it and say, ‘That’s awesome,’ you want people to sit with it for, you know…if you’ve done your job right, sit with it for days or weeks or months or years.”
Then the conversation takes what seems to me a strange turn, when Oldham declares that neither Sweeney nor his other principal collaborator, Emmett Kelly, wants to be the lead person onstage.
“And I don’t either,” Oldham says. “But I don’t have the musical capability, and since my thing is singing, people just look to a singer as the personality or the act…. Matt loves to be an absolutely crucial and integral supportive player. And I want to do that also. And just since nobody was hiring, I’ve made something that looks like a solo career when it’s really just me looking for ways to play with other people.”
Taken aback, I tell Oldham that I think people will struggle to equate that with what they know and see.
“I am fully aware of that,” he says. And he adds this: “When I was a kid, there was a comic-book superhero whose name was Pariah. And his super ability was that he could tell people the truth, but his curse was that nobody would believe him. And I’ve long identified with this character. Because I can only say so many times and people would be like, ‘I don’t believe you.’ Well, then, we’re just all fucked, I don’t know what to tell you.”
I say to Oldham that he doesn’t even look like the guy who’s the other guy.
“What does that mean?” he says sharply.
I say to him that he’s got an incredibly powerful, iconic visual presence that he shows every sign of having been aware of, and has used in very effective ways, over a long career.
“I mean, like, I’m scrawny and bald, with crooked kind of buck teeth,” Oldham protests. “I think that’s sort of a projection.”
To which I would make three further observations. First, that I think Oldham is being sincere in his reaction here, in this moment. (He proceeds to discuss, in quite reflective detail, certain moments in the evolution of his image on record sleeves.) Second, that when I had earlier raised this general subject of Oldham’s iconic look and its effect to Sweeney, he had known what I was talking about. “Will has the look of someone from another time or dimension, and it clearly works to his advantage,” Sweeney said. “Since he’s trained in theater, I’m certain he’s aware of the particular and unique effects of his looks and voice.” Third, that the man I am speaking with is wearing rust-colored corduroy Carhartt dungarees over a gray sweatshirt, and most of his head is covered by some kind of fairly tight-fitting black hood or balaclava. I don’t ask him about either of those; I do ask him about the red fingernails he has on his right hand.
He explains, as though this is a fairly sensible question, that he did them after his wife asked what he was planning to do with his nails for the GQ shoot: “It was just to add color to the pictures that we had to take. It’s just one hand. I don’t know why. She did this hand, and then we didn’t do the other hand. I have no idea why we didn’t do both hands.” Oldham holds them closer so that I can see the tiny flowers on them. “Oftentimes, like when I’m going on tour, I’ll usually think about it and I’ll go to the nail salon and have the ladies do me up for the tour. I used to just buy nail polish and put it on and then change it throughout the tour. But I usually like to do my nails. If it’s summertime, I’ll do my toes as well, because I oftentimes won’t have shoes or socks onstage, or I’ll have open-toed shoes or something.”
Talking with Sweeney and me, Oldham tells a story. It is a story that pivots off these discussions about the puzzlements and frustrations surrounding the existence of music in the modern world; like many things that Oldham says and does, it is not, ultimately, a story that goes quite where you expect it to.
There is a recurrent subgenre in Oldham’s work where he revisits and reinterprets a catalog of music, usually music that is fairly obscure. An example is the album he released in 2013, along with singer Dawn McCarthy, of lesser-known Everly Brothers songs, What the Brothers Sang(23). A while after it came out, his record company let him know something odd—that one song, “Devoted to You,” was doing hugely better online than any other song on the album. Better, in fact, than pretty much anything on the label. And they couldn’t figure out why.
Oldham decided to try some experiments. Theorizing that maybe it was because “Devoted to You” was somewhat of an outlier in that it actually was a hit for the Everly Brothers, he decided to test out some other cover versions. He recorded and released his takes on modern country hits by Luke Bryan and Tim McGraw, hoping to repeat the success. Nothing. Now he was in full swing, so he turned his hand to contemporary modern pop and R&B hits by Drake, Ne-Yo, Kesha. Still no response. On the off chance that the success of “Devoted to You” might be down to a confusion with Olivia Newton-John’s Grease hit “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” he recorded “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” another song from the Grease soundtrack. No. “Just wanted to see if folks loved buying big songs,” he says. “It was a lot of fun doing all those, but nothing worked.” And the mystery of why one song had done so well in the first place remained unsolved.
A year or two later, a neighbor in Louisville put a note on Oldham’s windshield. What she wrote was this: She was a keen practitioner of Jazzercise, and a song of his, “Devoted to You,” was part of their official warm-up routine. She was leaving the note because there was an upcoming event for Jazzercise instructors in town, and she wondered if he was available to come and play the song.
When Oldham tells me this, I must confess that I harbor some suspicions that I am being spun some kind of yarn here. But I check into it, and I am shamed for my doubts: “Devoted to You” is indeed the final song on the Jazzercise playlist R3–13. It comes directly after Britney Spears’s song “Ooh La La,” from the movie The Smurfs 2. Its appearance on this playlist is, it seems, why the song had become mysteriously popular. And that, one might assume, is where this story should end: a weird tale about where music does and doesn’t find a home in this strange modern world.
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.”
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Additional photographs of Will Oldham by Joe Madeline
Additional photographs of Matt Sweeney by JR Reynolds
Styled by Mobolaji Dawodu
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.”
4 Sweeney 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.
5 Keen 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.”
6 With 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.”
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.”
8 Thankfully, 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.”
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.
10 If 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.
11 Oldham 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.”
12 On 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.
13 There 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.”
14 Oldham 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.
16 For 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.”
17 One 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.”
18 A 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.
20 As 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.”
21 This 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.
22 This, 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.”
23 Other 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.”