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Ahead of Tivoli residency, Matt Sweeney and Will Oldham discuss the lost art of heckling, the genius of Phil Lynott and more

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Jonah Freeman & Justin Lowe
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Drag City
Will Oldham and Matt Sweeney.

In 2005, musicians Matt Sweeney and Will Oldham released a critically acclaimed collaborative record called “Superwolf.”

Sweeney is known for his stints in bands like Chavez and Zwan, as well as his prolific session work that includes contributions to records by Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, the band then known as The Dixie Chicks, and Current 93.

Oldham, known onstage as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, is both a celebrated singer-songwriter and actor, appearing in films like “Old Joy,” “Julien Donkey-Boy,” and “Jackass 3D.”

16 years later, the two have come together again to release another well-received album — this one titled, appropriately enough, “Superwolves.” This month, they’re in Tivoli, New York for a residency at the Kaatsbaan Cultural Park Theatre from December 17th to 19th. Calling in from Portland, Oregon and Louisville, Kentucky, Sweeney and Oldham caught up with WAMC before the shows to answer the hard-hitting questions, starting with how prepared they are to be heckled when they open up for legendary stoner metal band Sleep next spring.

OLDHAM: I've long lamented the lack of quality heckling in my musical career. And as somebody who loves to heckle, the more well-known I am, the more repressed I feel because I know that I can't go to a show and heckle anymore. Because people will be like, Oh, that's Will Oldham. He's an asshole. Where I think, I think heckling is a valid creative exchange. But most people are afraid to do it- But most people are afraid to do everything. You know, that's why everyone during lockdown was completely locked down, just because everybody's afraid of doing anything. I was on a plane the other day, and there was a guy who came on the plane, he was totally wasted and was smoking. Everybody, literally everybody on the plane had a story about a negative encounter with this guy prior to getting onto the plane, and everybody was kind of looking at each other, like – and it was a packed flight – what do we do, what do we do? And finally, I just turned to a stewardess, and was just like, come here. That guy's messed up, and he's going to cause trouble for everybody on this plane once this takes off if you let him and that led to him being expelled from the plane. But, you know, I didn't even have the worst experiences with him. But everybody was telling me about their terrible experiences with this guy, and they're just too meek to do anything. So yeah, hopefully these hecklers will have some have some cojones and tell us what’s what.

WAMC: I wanted to just ask while we're on the topic – and Matt, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this as well – but Will, given your spirited defense of the virtues of hackling, what is the Will Oldham artistic guide to being a good heckler?

SWEENEY: Good question.

OLDHAM: A good heckler hopes for an equal and opposite reaction to the action of the heckle, and is listening and paying attention and the heckle is driven by the desire to fully get one's time and money's worth out of the experience.

SWEENEY: Yeah, I agree with that. It's meant to move everything forward. It's not an end. It's supposed to- A heckle should start something.

OLDHAM: Yeah, it's not just a loud insult that draws attention to the heckler. It's something that is meant to wake up the performer to the potentialities that that performer is evidently ignorant of.

SWEENEY: Yeah.

When's the last time you guys were each heckled?

SWEENEY: That's such a good question.

OLDHAM: It’s been too long.

SWEENEY: It used to just be a part of it. You know what I mean? Like, the heckle, especially kind of on the indie rock scene- Not indie, the punky do it DIY shows, it's just like that would happen a lot more. Just going back to Portland, I remember, there was a guy who kept on important kept on telling us that we needed to have more bat wing. And this is one of the weirdest hecklers. The guy would stand up in front. And he'd say something, and I’d be like, what? And he'd be say it, and I’d be like, what? And I’d have to lean down and he’d be like, You need to get more bat wing in your sound. And it just kept on going on. And the guy was really weirdly dressed, and I think maybe the punchline was just maybe at the end he had bats drawn all over his jacket or something like that, he was just some guy obsessed with bats. But that was one of the weirder ones where it wasn't a- He was very publicly letting me know something but he wasn't letting the rest of the audience know, you know?

OLDHAM: Yeah.

SWEENEY: Yeah. More bat wing. [laughs]

Will, obviously, has made a big part of his career interpreting the works of iconic singer-songwriters and delving into the body of work of the Everly Brothers- The list is quite long at this point. If you were ever to agree on one songwriter to work on a whole exploration of, who would that be?

SWEENEY: Gee, good question.

OLDHAM: Potentially Phil Lynott?

SWEENEY: Yeah, that's a great call, actually. That was what was in the back of my mind, but it couldn't think of it.

OLDHAM: Just in terms of somebody that we have spent hours and hours listening to and talking about and, you know, that would be fun for both Matt and I to dig into because he was an exceptional lyricist, vocalist and songwriter, musical songwriter.

SWEENEY: Yeah, I just watched a Phil Lynott doc that was – I'll find out what it is, Will and I’ll send it to you, I can’t remember the name of it – but it was like a BBC thing. And it was middling on some level as far as a piece of film, but again, I couldn't stop watching it because it's so incredible. It is incredible. There's lots of amazing performances that I hadn't seen before. I found myself just completely in awe of Phil Lynott. He would easily be guy who- That would that would be a great one, I'd say. There's no end to the lyrics, there's no end to how he sings.

OLDHAM: The Irish tour to support the record would be insanely fun.

SWEENEY: That would be fuckin’ amazing.

OLDHAM: Like every show would be so much fun.

SWEENEY: Oh my god. And then all these Irish people showing up all like, just, they would know every single song.

OLDHAM: They would know everyone know song, every word.

SWEENEY: They know exactly how we're fucking with it.

OLDHAM: Yeah.

SWEENEY: That’d be so cool. Oh my god. It's funny, because so many really great artists are like, you know, some of them are untouchable. Like, me and Will were talking about Michael Hurley the other day or somebody that had suggested doing a Michael Hurley cover, and for me, I would rather cover Phil Lynott than Michael Hurley. I don't know why that is.

OLDHAM: Hurley would be hard. I mean, another person that comes to mind that might be, that we might be too close to, but I think if we, you know, in a few years wrapped our head around the idea it could be kind of insane, would be a Chan Marshall record.

SWEENEY: Of her songs?

OLDHAM: Of her songs. Where you and I do her songs.

SWEENEY: [Stephen] Malkmus just brought up the other day about how he feels like there's Chan Marshall records that haven't been made yet that would be great.

OLDHAM: Yeah, we might have to make them. I don't know if she's going to.

SWEENEY: Yeah, yeah. I know. [laughs]

I wanted to ask you about the naming convention of the two records. I'm a big fan of long, sloppy movie franchises where naming conventions get stranger or cleverer over time. I'm delighted by “Superwolf” to “Superwolves”- walk me through that, how much thought went into that?

OLDHAM: The word or phrase, however you want to look at it, “Superwolf,” came from dead center of one of the songs from the first record. And in looking at this, we thought, should we should we dig into the lyrics, should we get outside of the lyrics, and then we throw around ideas of- I think another idea was that we would call it “Superwolfing,” which is usually the verb that we use to describe what we do when we're together. But it came down finally to, as you say, sort of a tribute to the “Alien” franchise specifically, because that was “Alien” and then “Aliens,” right?

Yeah, exactly. And there's that story of James Cameron walking into the- whatever studio produced it, and writing “Alien” with a dollar sign after it.

OLDHAM: Ha! I didn't know that story.

Yeah, he nailed that one. So you're a fan of the “Alien” movies?

OLDHAM: Yeah, I am a fan of the “Alien” movies. I can't remember if “Alien” or a revival screening of “M*A*S*H” was my first R rated movie, but it was one of those two movies. I remember seeing it as a kid, of course, getting a big crush on Sigourney Weaver. And when I was 13, I used to do a lot of acting in my childhood and teens. And there's a theater here called Actors Theatre of Louisville that has, every year, a new play festival, a festival of new American plays. And I was in one back in 1983 called “Food From Trash” by a playwright named Gary Leon Hill. And it used to be a festival that drew luminaries from the film and theater world, kind of from all over the world. Critics and writers and directors and actors. And I remember in ‘83 when I was in “Food From Trash” that Sigourney Weaver came and my mind was, of course, absolutely blown just to be standing in the same room as Sigourney Weaver here in Louisville, Kentucky.

It's such a story of isolation and fear, and your work deals with a lot of those themes, it sounds like. So I mean, how deep does the “Alien” thing go?

OLDHAM: Well, and similarly, it deals with isolation and fear, and as I got older and could pick apart the cast of especially the original “Alien” and see Harry Dean Stanton and Ian Holm and John Hurt and Yaphet Kotto and learn something about the power of ensemble acting and the power of bringing a group of insanely inspired and talented individuals together to make something greater so that it wasn't. I think that's one of the things that made that such a rewarding and wonderful movie is, because these people brought such depth and complexity and humanity to the situation that it wasn't, it definitely was not a simple story.

If there was to be a “Superwolves” jersey, would it be a football jersey?

SWEENY: That's a good question.

OLDHAM: That's a great question.

SWEENEY: Maybe- I don't know, maybe not.

OLDHAM: We should make one. Do football players still wear those, like, perforated jerseys? Is that still a standard jersey? I remember those from when we were kids. They were kind of nylon with holes all over them.

I believe so, yeah.

SWEENEY: I think so.

OLDHAM: Yeah, we should totally make one of those.

SWEENEY: That'd be good. I'd also be into wearing – just because I like and I know that Will also can rock a sleeveless – I thought, I don't follow basketball, but I thought of basketball jerseys, or with your question, it makes me think of the basketball jersey could be nice as well. Something sleeveless for the summer with little holes in it. Could be good. A football and a basketball jersey. I'm in.

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