Arts and Culture

Louisville singer-songwriter Will Oldham, who also makes music as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and New York-based guitarist Matt Sweeney released their first album together in 2005. 

“So weird and beautiful it’s almost hard to hear,” is how Pitchfork described the record titled “Superwolf.” The music publication also deemed it one of the “top 50 albums” that year. 

It was hailed as a cult classic, and Oldham and Sweeney have both cited it as important and rewarding work. 

But it wasn’t a given that there would be a second album from the duo, Oldham said. 

“We didn’t have a plan,” Oldham said. “You keep your senses active and alive and keep your brain active and alive. And as long as you’re aware of positive intentions, you can look forward to things coming together eventually.”

Things did come together eventually for another project.

Oldham and Sweeney released “Superwolves” through record label Drag City digitally in late April, and the album will be out in hard copy, i.e. CD, cassette and vinyl, mid-July — 16 years after their initial collaboration. 

“Superwolves” has quickly earned a lot of praise.

NPR named it one of the top seven albums out the week of April 30. 

“There is not one bad song on ‘Superwolves,’” according to an album review on the music blog Stereogum

And a Rolling Stones write-up said Oldham and Sweeney “sound even more focused, and more comfortable in their unforced eccentricity.” 

“Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 16 years for more,” the review continued.

So when was the spark point or light-bulb moment for the two to work together like this again after a notable debut?

“Five years ago, in the middle of a snowstorm, I hit Will and said, ‘If you wanted to send me some more lyrics, I probably would have time to work on them,’” Sweeney, who has played with bands like Chavez and supergroup Zwan, among others, said. “So it was more of a snowflake than a light bulb.”

That’s a hint at how these two like to work. 

“It starts with me working on lyrics,” Oldham said, adding that he’ll sometimes pull from a stockpile of musical phrases he’s been collecting in small notepads. “I know that both of us have a, not quite formalized, but a pretty dependable practice anyway of just dealing with music and creating music on the regular.”

For some tracks on the record, Oldham and Sweeney are joined by Mdou Moctar on lead electric guitar, David Ferguson on stand-up bass, Mike Coltun on electric bass, Ahmoudou Madassane on rhythm guitar, Souleyman Ibrahim, Ryan Sawyer and Peter Townsend on drums, and Mike Rojas on keyboard. 

Harmony Korine

Below are excerpts from Oldham and Sweeney’s interview with WFPL.

On what the process was like for “Superwolves”:

Oldham: “In this instance, when Matt said, send me something. I got motivated and excited to try to wrangle some of the things that were swimming in my head and put them down on paper.”

Sweeney: “My job, after Will sends me these lyrics, is to turn them into melodies and songs. Sometimes I’ll say them out loud to see what the rhythm is… On this record, a couple of songs were pre-existing melodies and progressions, like ‘Good to my Girls’ was actually something that I had been saving to use with Will.”

On what draws them to each other as collaborators:

Oldham: “We are partnering in such a way that I can remove myself from my own work for a change, you know, and still be incredibly and intimately involved with it. But then I have the privilege of being able to look at it and observe it from different perspectives that I normally do not.”

Sweeney: “And vice versa, similar to me… I find with what me and Will are doing, it’s really easy for me to step back. It’s not about self expression or about what I think it immediately becomes… we’re feeding off each other and reflecting.”

Oldham: “We share an understanding of some of the complexities of the musical experience: of making it, of listening to it, and listening to a recording, listening to a live performance, all these things are things that just, throughout the course of our lives, it’s things that we think about… The most important thing is that the song works.”

Sweeney: “The few times we’ve sort of had to, and I’m thinking of ‘God is Waiting,’ where I was having some issues with the phrasing of the verse and how fast the words should come. I was thinking they should be, in the first verse, spaced out… like ‘She’s on a long walk home,’ and then there would be some space. And Will was like, ‘No, there should be a lot of action. There should be a lot of stuff going on verbally in that moment.’ Occasionally we will break it down like that. But that’s about just making it work and making it land.”

On why, this time around, they’re talking to the press after abstaining from interviews about their first album: 

Sweeney: “I don’t love talking about myself at all in this way. And I certainly don’t love giving up the ghost about songs and stuff. But because of how Will and I work and because we never talked about it, it’s been fun… Another thing is that I happen to really enjoy interviews with Will. I mean, we’re best friends, we talk all the time. But dude gives it up really well in interviews. Like I could actually listen to a Will interview, and really kind of enjoy it and get stuff out of it.”

Oldham: “I’m not going to downplay the influence that the pandemic lifestyle has on our willingness and ability to engage in this as well.”

Sweeney: “Massively.”

Oldham: “These days, we might be out just doing something else.  As it stands, our activities are somewhat limited. And so, the silver lining is that we get to focus and have these conversations.”

Sweeney: “That’s true. The influence of the pandemic on this record has to do with how and why we’re talking about it because the material was recorded, written before the pandemic. But certainly the way that we are promoting it is 100% pandemic stylee.”

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts Reporter.