You know when you hear a guitar riff so good it knocks the wind out of you? Those are the only kinds of riffs we get from Chavez, a four-piece rock group best known for the two brainy, brawny records they released in the midst of Matador's 90s heyday. The band has been in near-hibernation since its last impeccable full-length, 1996's Ride the Fader, and apart from sporadic appearances at festivals (and secret shows at Manhattan dive bars), we haven't heard much new from Chavez in two decades. It's more than about time, then, for the recent release of the band's new EP, Cockfighters. "Is Brooklyn fun to play in at this point?" asks guitarist and singer Matt Sweeney, adding, "Shows are hard for us due to life."
"Life" means different things for the four men of Chavez. Sweeney is prolific as a session player and producer, working with a vast and sometimes unlikely assortment of artists including Run the Jewels, Neil Diamond, and the Dixie Chicks, as well as hosting Noisey's own Guitar Moves. One of the few guitarists who can match him in Chavez, Clay Tarver, who's become best known as a screenwriter and, most recently, co-executive producer for HBO's Silicon Valley (the pilot episode of which featured the Chavez song "New Room"). Bassist Scott Marshall is a film and television director, too; he's currently working on a documentary about his dad, Garry Marshall (yes, that one), with whom he worked on a number of projects. And drummer James Lo—whose bombastic, cerebral playing style may have been the inspiration for the term math rock itself—has continued to work as a New York-based sound designer and composer for modern dance pieces.
Is it already obvious that I'm a Chavez superfan? I'm certainly not alone. Based on mutual fandom for their music, I've formed friendships, booked entire tours, and met bandmates (some of whom have even formed Chavez cover bands). In my band Speedy Ortiz, we've used moments in Chavez songs as mixing references. And at one of those aforementioned secret Chavez shows in 2010, I'm 90 percent sure I wrangled their setlist out of the hands of Gerard Cosloy himself.
Somehow in my years of incessant fandom, I've convinced Clay and Matt that my nerdy-ass questions are worth entertaining. So here are some of them.
Sadie Dupuis: You're colloquially known as as "the Men of Chavez." This new EP is called Cockfighters . Your press release invokes the terms "penis" and "big flaccid schlong draped across us all." As Males of Rock, tell me about how gender and feminism influence you.
Matt Sweeney: A key component to Chavez is an awareness of man-folly. Our video for "Break Up Your Band" is a study in that. Clay has brought that over to his writing on Silicon Valley.
I was raised around women in the 1970s—my mom was a lawyer and later a judge, my aunt was an engineer, and my grandmother, a self-made Ukrainian immigrant, raised all of us. My father, an ex-Jesuit priest, wore a kilt and didn't know how to throw a baseball. So the gender roles and expectations I was raised with were maybe not the typical American ones, and this upbringing certainly still effects my daily life. To be fair I don't think I was particularly enlightened by their examples until I'd had my dick knocked in the dirt by living a little after dropping out of college, which coincided with starting Chavez. Clay and James also had the benefit of being raised by remarkable women who were outstanding in the fields of art and medicine respectively, and they were feminist big brother-men for me.
Clay Tarver: Look, we all have daddy issues. Matt mentioned his. James's died the night of the moon landing. Scottie's dad directed Beaches. Mine was from Temple, Texas, and was a male cheerleader in high school, is a lifelong wearer of bowties and a lover of jazz. But he's also STILL a subscriber to Car & Driver and somehow pulls the whole thing off. So, yeah, we're all half-sissies. And we're all open about that fact. We're double agents. We all like art (except Scott), and fine food (except Scott), wit and articulation in detail. And also Van Halen (except James). So the rock tour was always more than rock dude stuff. We didn't tour in a state of irony. We loved it straight up. But we also made sure to go to that one really real diner in Oxford, Mississippi, or religiously eat at that rib place in the Southside of Chicago. And that was kind of before foodie-ism was a concept. And yet, here's the weirdest part: we always enjoyed the hang between the four of us as much as anything else on the trip. We didn't really talk about schlongs much. So maybe it was just time to do it now.
One time I spotted James Lo at a bar and made him divulge as many Chavez secrets as I could pry out of him. He told me one of your songs had the working title of "James Loathes"—but I had too much beer and forget which one it was. What song is "James Loathes"?!
Sweeney: I think "The Guard Attacks" is one of the songs James thinks is lame. That's probably what we called James Loathes.
Tarver: Goddamn it. I really like that one. James felt like it hung on the root chord wayyyy too much. And he's right. But that's why I like it. You should get him drunk and ask him more. He's amazing when he's drunk. He's amazing, period.
Like your other record covers, Cockfighters features the classic Chavez font. The internet is dying to know where we can download that font.
Sweeney: Ask The Killers. Just kidding. Not really. The one on the new EP is hand done. Mark Ohe, founding member of Naked Raygun, came up with the logo. Unless John Kelsey, of Reena Spaulings Gallery fame, did. John would give us artwork and Mark Ohe would lay it out and make big decisions. So ask Mark Ohe!
Tarver: It makes for a very, very plain T-shirt, too.
Who made the album artwork, and what's the narrative behind it?
Sweeney: The photo is by Emmy™ award winning screenwriter D.V. DeVincentis. He has a beautiful print of the picture at his house and I always liked it. I have my own narrative when I looked at it, as I hope everyone does who sees it. If you are asking about the actual narrative behind the photo, D.V. took it at a narcocorridos nightclub and barely escaped with his life that night. Not kidding about any of those facts.
Tarver: So DV's clearly not a half-sissy. Fuck, and he actually won an Emmy, too. [ Ed. note: For 'American Crime Story.'] The back cover is the three of us in the spot of maximum communal Chavez hang: the front table at Max Fish on NYC's Lower East Side. Matt wanted to capture Big Star vibes and I think he did. Only problem was Scottie wasn't in the picture. So Scott superimposed his face on the iconic "Elvis janitor" sculpture that's always been in the window. It makes us laugh.
Has your working dynamic with producer John Agnello, who's worked on every Chavez record in some capacity, changed much since Ride the Fader ?
Sweeney: Not a lot except we pay him more and give him producer credit now, and are very happy to do so.
Tarver: He was always an excellent cheerleader and showed incredible patience, and not just the time when he waited twenty years between sessions. Way back on Ride the Fader, whenever we would get into an incredibly involved deliberations about literally one chord change -- it was basically like arguing a supreme court case, with precedents and exceptions and really ridiculous -- John would calmly open a paper and start reading it. I'm also very grateful he wasn't recording the live mics during said deliberations. We first thought about recording out here [in California]. James was completely disgusted by the thought of coming to LA for anything whatsoever. And it's really hard for Scott to get all the way to the east side. So we went where the drums were.
Sweeney: When we thought about doing it on the west coast we thought about using indigenous engineers and producers but since we did it in Hoboken we figured we'd be ding dongs not to use Agnello.
You've said that previous records were culled together from a series of short recording sessions—knocking out four, five songs at a time—and you've also said recently that you prefer the prospect of releasing EPs at this point. Did writing and recording specifically for an EP rather than album change your approach this time?
Sweeney: Not really, although I like how an EP can have three songs that go together as a piece. In this regard a lot of time an album is like three or four EP's stitched together, right?
Tarver: The dream would be to put out a couple more EPs and see how they sound together. At least that's my dream. It was sort of James's dream first. Then Matt liked it. Now I'm taking it.
What's on your respective pedalboards nowadays?
Sweeney: I never regularly used any pedals, just a distortion pedal for solos if there was a cool one around. On the EP I used a 5:00 Shadow [fuzz pedal] made by Matt Wells, but it's broken now. Clay only uses the one pedal he got in high school; it's a distortion pedal.
Tarver: It was from junior high, actually. An MXR Distortion Plus I got in Austin in 1979. Something's wrong with it, because no other pedal sounds like that. The bottom end is really vulgar. I love it. I guess, for me, I like settling on a set-up and making the most out of it. Those are sort of my creative restrictions. Matt is a more open individual than me. I have a Les Paul and a Marshall and that one pedal.
As far as tunings go, I was in a band before Chavez called Bullet LaVolta, which I loved. We took a much straighter approach and when we started Chavez I knew I wanted it to be more experimental. Then when I tried to be, I noticed that it was almost impossible for me at one point to NOT play straight. So I decided to tune my lowest string to something I'd never played before. I mean, sure, I'd dropped to D before. But I what about a low B? And everything opened up for me from that point. I was playing intervals and didn't even know what they were. The minute I did that, we wrote the first song we actually thought didn't suck, which was "Repeat the Ending." Then Matt had the idea of dropping to a low A, which is really heavy. But then I got into a drop C. Almost everything I play is in that. "Unreal Is Here" is all about that tuning.
Is there any typical process by which you compose these songs? I can't tell whether you're intentionally writing the most fucked up possible guitar parts under these very pop vocal melodies or if it comes the other way around. Sometimes James seems to be playing in an alternate universe with a different concept of time signatures from the rest of y'all.
Sweeney: The music usually comes first, from a Clay riff, or a James beat or something I do on guitar. Bass would come later; we generally wrote without bass and then, yeah, we'd try to make the bass line matter and be kind of a payoff. Every once in a while I'd have a vocal idea at the same time as we were making up the music, but most of the time I'd sit at home with a tape of the jamz and figure out how the fuck to put a vocal that fits in and sounds right to us. Usually it got figured the night before recording. And a bunch of times the vocal would get hammered into a whole new shape in the studio.
Tarver: Yeah, when we first started, Matt and I would figure our parts out first. Maybe even write the meat of the song. But then once we really got in it deep with James, the songs almost always came from a jam between the three of us. We were really, really, really good—according to us, anyway—at the jam at one point. It actually got hard to edit and make decisions. But somehow we do. I love it when I have no idea what Matt is playing. But it's essential to what I'm playing. In fact, most songs I don't know what he's playing. And James is not only one of our national treasures as a drummer, he's always not corny. So it always starts with the three of us. Then we put in a shitload of time to make the parts move forward to a fresh place, never overstay their welcome, take a pleasing turn, and resolve in hopefully a both surprising and inevitable way. We love the editing part of all that. The craft part.
And while Scott's bass parts are so weird and triumphant, he's also great at cutting out intermittently and letting the chaos of the rest of the song stand alone
Tarver: And Scottie being sort of bi-coastal ended up being this good thing for that. Because of our drop tunings, in a way both Matt and I are already carrying part of the bass part. And rather than doubling up what was there, we thought it'd be more interesting if the bass had a proper intro, or answered the rest of us with an interesting callback. Shit like that. Basically have the bass say something in a specific and defined way, ya know? That's secretly my favorite thing about our songs. The bass stuff.
Matt, you hosted the Guitar Moves series for Noisey, in which you asked other guitarists about their technique and playing styles. Have you incorporated anyone else's guitar tricks into your repertoire? Has it changed your playing style on this EP?
Sweeney: Hmmm. I hope I've gotten better since the 90s. Guitar Moves came out of the process of getting better by slowing down and really figuring out what I loved about other people's guitar playing. Meaning, I learned fingerpicking, which is a humiliating process especially after getting away with playing "rock" guitar since I was a teenager. With lame rock guitar you can be half assed, especially about rhythm. After getting the unsexy process of learning exactly what notes fall where, I started noticing and asking about "moves" with that same "either you are really doing it or you are not" mindset. The result of the unsexy process is sexy if you get it right, which also involves making it seem like you didn't practice. I probably had Dean Ween's "swing big/miss big" in my head when I recorded that solo on "The Singer Lied." I did that live when we recorded the song.
Tarver: I was there. It's true. I was yet again humiliated by his skills.
Beavis and Butthead once watched the "Break Up Your Band" video and said, "the music is horrible, but it rules." Clay, you now work with Mike Judge for your day job as a producer and writer on Silicon Valley. Did you know each other when Beavis and Butthead were debating whether or not your music was horrible?
Tarver: I worked at MTV at that time but didn't know Mike. We actually worked with the exact same people when I did those Jimmy the Cabdriver things. So when I saw we were on B & B, I assumed someone had pulled a favor. But then a couple years later, I met Mike through feature writing. I'd written a movie and the executive did Office Space, which Mike was just finishing. And Mike told me no one had put thumbs on the scale. He just saw the video and dug it. In fact, his favorite part was the MC, which is played by Mark Ohe, at the time the art director of Matador. He even wrote down his name. Mike always had respect for the Chavez, which is cool because he's a SICK musician. Very, very accomplished stand up bassist. He played in all these very real rockabilly and country bands. He can kind of play anything. Including pedal steel.
Clay, you wrote a Times Magazine op-ed a few years ago called "The Secret Life of a Rock Dad" about how your kids didn't know you were in a band. Have they formed a Chavez cover band yet?
Tarver: You know? Call it a parenting philosophy or call it neglect, but I haven't stuffed music down their throats. I mean, I make them each learn an instrument. My son, Augie, plays drums. Lewis plays piano. And my youngest, Charlie, just started guitar. But I want them to find their own way. I would love to play music with them at some point before I die alone and friendless. I've envisioned us playing our first song in the garage. That will happen and it will make me so happy. But I don't think it's good parenting to rob them of future rebellion by normalizing rock with their dad. Scottie, on the other hand, actually has a band with his kids. Don't tell James that.
My friend made up this idea for a Chavez-themed brewery. Some beers would include: "Brew Room," "Wakeman's Ale," "Our Bud With Lime Tonight," "IPAeeled Out Too Late," "You Must Be Hopped," "Ever Overskunked," et al. Can you contribute in any way to this joke?
Sweeney: Those are awesome. "Better Brews Will Haunt You?"
Tarver: This is the kind of shit I do 12 hours a day with a room full of writers. Goddamn you. Don't make me. Please.
"Lite Around the Jaws."
Sadie Dupuis is a Philadelphia-based writer, artist, and musician, most frequently as the frontdemon of pop project Sad13 and Chavez rip-off band Speedy Ortiz. She was recently awarded a full-on mouth kiss from her pitbull puppy Buster. Follow that Twitter (but not if you're a Garfield gender truther).