Don’t Break Up Your Band: Matt Sweeney and Clay Tarver of Chavez Talk “Cockfighters”

Indie vets Chavez return after a twenty-year recorded absence with a surprising, vital set of songs.
Don’t Break Up Your Band: Matt Sweeney and Clay Tarver of Chavez Talk “Cockfighters”

Indie vets Chavez return after a twenty-year recorded absence with a surprising, vital set of songs.

Words: Jason P. Woodbury

January 17, 2017

Three years ago, guitarist Matt Sweeney found himself in Tangier, browsing a vendor’s selection of 45s, nestled among stashes of jewelry and art. Beyond some weird Rolling Stones singles, he didn’t recognize any of the artists. Curious, he picked up a stack based on little more than the cool-looking cover art.

“I started to find [that] some of my favorites had the exact same song on both sides,” Sweeney says from New York, where he’s prepping for some gigs as a sideman for Cass McCombs. “I was fascinated by that. I’d flip it over and, well, it’s the same. It weirdly delighted me.”

Last week, Sweeney’s long-running indie rock band Chavez released Cockfighters on their longtime home, Matador Records. It’s their first newly recorded material since releasing the essential Ride the Fader twenty-one years ago. Featuring three crackling, swaggering songs, its runtime is just under ten minutes. On the 12 vinyl version of the record, the same tracks are featured on both sides A and B, just like those singles Sweeney bought in Morocco.

“I totally think of it as a solid, complete musical statement,” Sweeney says. “I like the idea that it’s this nine- or ten-minute thing, meant to be listened to several times in a row… [People suggested,] ‘Oh, do an etching on one side.’ I was like, ‘Why the fuck would you do that?’ It’s meant to be flipped over. Slayer’s Reign in Blood was the one program on both sides of the cassette. I like that.”

There’s something fitting about the short, potent burst of new music from the band, which would maybe feel anticlimactic if the songs didn’t sear the way they do. Many bands would use the end of a long recording hiatus as a moment to build a case for its historical importance. And indeed, the band’s albums, 1995’s Gone Glimmering and 1996’s Ride the Fader, are classic, riff-filled records, intersecting the lines of alternative, metal, and punk. But that route doesn’t particularly suit Chavez’s style. Rather than stir hype, the band simply shows up seemingly out of nowhere, drops three heavy jams, and gets out while the getting’s good.

There are, of course, plenty of good reasons for Chavez’s scant output over the last couple decades. In that time, Sweeney’s become a go-to guitar guy for producers like Rick Rubin and Blake Mills, and has worked with artists as varied as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Kid Rock, John Legend, Cat Power, Tinariwen, Run the Jewels, Adele, Johnny Cash, and Neil Diamond, in addition to hosting the Guitar Moves web series for Noisey.

“The less we played, the more people ended up appreciating us.” — Clay Tarver

Bassist Scott Marshall, son of the late Garry Marshall, got into the family business of filmmaking. Drummer James Lo stays busy with sound design and software for theater and contemporary dance productions. And guitarist Clay Tarver works full time in the writer’s room for Mike Judge’s award-winning HBO comedy Silicon Valley. Simply put, it’s a busy group of guys, scattered across two coasts. Yet, even if Cockfighters represents a new jolt of life for the band, it’s no reunion.

“The long story is, we kind of never broke up,” Tarver says, speaking via car phone, headed in to work on the upcoming fourth season of Silicon Valley. “We kept playing shows, wrote songs together, and playing together. [But] as life became more complicated, it became harder to play. And it’s funny—the less we played, the more people ended up appreciating us.”

But the drought had gone on long enough. The group decided to commit three songs to tape “come hell or high water,” Tarver says. In Chavez terms, they span the ages. Opener “The Singer Lied,” boasting thick, fuzzy riffs and taut drums by Lo, is the most recent. The next, “Blank in the Blaze,” was written all the way back in 1997. In its surging final moments, one can imagine a word in which it was an alt-rock hit, and it offers a quick glimpse of why Billy Corgan tapped Sweeney for his post-Pumpkins outfit Zwan. The last, the charging “The Bully Boys,” dates back to 2002, and its tangled, Richard Thompson-fronts-Thin Lizzy leads are clearly the work of guys trading on decades-worth of knowhow.

Though the term “math rock” has long been applied to them, neither Sweeney or Tarver think much of it. The goal’s never been “weird for weirdness’ sake,” Sweeney says, nor to conjure up “a wank fest,” as Tarver puts it. Instead, the quartet aims to make celebratory rock music, situated in the sweet spot somewhere between influences like Cheap Trick and The Pretty Things and the more angular approach of Slint and Dinosaur Jr. The results are as scuzzy and brash as they are cerebral and challenging.

“Matt and I [came up in the] post-hardcore moment, post no-wave noise stuff,” Tarver says. “We kind of gave ourselves permission to openly admit we liked AC/DC and Thin Lizzy.”

The “math rock” tag always felt limiting, suggesting complicated calculations.

“Chavez was celebratory and emotional and affecting music,” he says. “It was always supposed to be emotional. I guess it took people a while to get used to it.”

“We didn’t want to be card-carrying rockists,” Sweeney says of the band’s formation in the mid-’90s, as grunge and indie rock bloomed. “But the bands we absolutely loved—like Guided by Voices, they were like a big brother band to us—at the time, in the mid-’90s, they were aggressively rockist [and] I was really drawn to stuff like that.”

Chavez played it less traditional, incorporating tricky time changes and knotty progressions, but retained a connection the “big rock show” feel Sweeney admired.

“In the ’90s, it wasn’t cool to do that,” Sweeney says. “There was this whole ‘I don’t want to be that guy’ vibe; I totally wanted to be that guy.”

Cockfighters is informed by the same exuberance the guys had for bombastic rock music in those early days, but it also displays growth. It’s clearly the work of the same band responsible for songs like “Break up Your Band” and “Repeat the Ending,” but the new songs are even more realized, the playing more tightly interconnected. Though they’ve only played the occasional show, the EP demonstrates that as a musical combo, Chavez has only grown more potent.

“There’s been some development in that twenty years, but it still sounds like us,” Sweeney says, citing his friend Will Oldham as an example of artist capable of both progression and a signature style.

“There are people who I can listen to and hear develop,” Sweeney says. “It just keeps moving forward. Someone like Bill Callahan—Jesus, if you look at the progression of that guy over time? It’s fucking phenomenal. Chavez is the opposite in that in terms of prolific [output], but there is a progression.”

Tarver says his attraction to keeping “the band together” goes even beyond Chavez, informing his work on Silicon Valley.

“So much of what I’ve contributed [in the writing room] is ‘band vibes,’” he says. He views the Pied Piper crew featured on the show through a similar field of vision as his own band, though he says that the improv actors on the show—Thomas Middleditch, Kumail Nanjiani, T. J. Miller, Zach Woods, and Martin Starr—always seem surprised when his rock band history comes up.

“We didn’t want to be card-carrying rockists… but the bands we absolutely loved—like Guided by Voices—were aggressively rockist.” — Matt Sweeney

“It’s a bunch of guys with a dream,” Tarver says. “A band is such a weird thing. When you become a band, it becomes your last name. It’s this really complicated relationship where you’re married to the person, you’re their brother, you’re the roommate. It’s almost too much for any relationship to stand, but there you go. I think doing a start-up or making a TV show is pretty similar to that. That group element is a lot like a band: some guy will drive you crazy, but then they also provide the thing that makes you special.”

Neither is sure exactly when the next Chavez project will happen. Tarver estimates there’s probably “a whole album of stuff” for the group to draw on, but insists “quality control” has always been a high priority. In the case of Cockfighters, the long-game approach seems to have paid off, and even if it’s another twenty years before the next album, Sweeney and Tarver are content with their occasional outings as a rock band, and especially proud that the EP feels vital.

“That’s an advantage of playing music for a long time: you actually get better,” Sweeney laughs. “Loss is the name of the game in life, it’s a steady diminishing… So that we got together to make this record, and we might play some shows, and maybe we’ll record some more, that’s fucking amazing. That’s a really fucking big deal, for me.” FL