Matt Sweeney (Chavez) and Mike Bones Want To Keep Dumbness in Rock

The friends talk Judas Priest, Lungfish, and much more.

Mike Bones, aka Mike Strallow, is a New York-based guitarist and songwriter who’s played with Soldiers of Fortune, Cass McCombs, and, currently, with his band Weak Signal; Matt Sweeney is the guitarist of the legendary New York math rock band Chavez. The two are longtime friends and, to celebrate the upcoming release of Weak Signal’s BIANCA — out Friday via Colonel Records — the two sat down to catch up. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Mike Bones: When I first heard Chavez — I forget what it was, I got a 7” when I was in high school — and there was something about it. I wasn’t totally well-versed in indie, but [indie music] had this impression that there was this mediocrity built into it, this way of not really being a player, of not dedicating yourself to [the craft]. The thing that hit me about Chavez was that it was smart music, but it had that boneheaded quality that the best kind of rock music has. 

Matt Sweeney: Yeah, we were going for rock!

Mike: On that 7” there was this really high part, two guitars with a half-step difference between the two notes, and then James Lo with the double kick drum — it just sets it off. 

Matt: I’m glad that it landed that way, because in every way, you were our audience. Literally for me, it was like, Oh, yeah, this is [for] some smart kid in Jersey who’s hip to shit. 

Me and Clay [Tarver], were into how rock could be cool, and how come people don’t do this or that with this rock format. The thing that Chavez thought we could maybe try doing — and this is after playing guitar with each other for, like, a year and a half, just as two guitar players coming up with parts and sounds that we thought were interesting — you know “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” that break down, or like the “Dream Police” break down?

Mike: Yeah.

Matt: It was like that, and then conversations about the mid- to late-‘70s — the sweet spot. Like ‘75 to ‘78 arena rock, especially in Texas, where Clay was from. And not so much on the East Coast, but still Madison Square Garden — the idea that you’d go to this rock show [and] you wouldn’t know what the fuck was going to happen. The lights would go down, and all of a sudden people start throwing fireworks, like super violent, and then these fucking weirdos plays fucking scary music.

I was in the Cub Scouts — it was Troop 60, which was this epic delinquent Boy Scout troop. There was this camping trip, and it was raining and fucking gray out, and I didn’t want to be there at all. I think I just escaped from whatever task I was supposed to be doing and took a walk in the woods, and then I heard some fucking sound, some music — and the music sounded like somebody screaming in agony. It sounded like these sheets of metal being turned into cathedrals or something, while somebody was definitely being tortured. [Laughs.] And so I remember following the sound, and then it’s these really cool, badass stoner kids — this is, like, 1980. I was like, [high-pitched voice] “What are you guys listening to?” And they go, “Judas Priest.” I had never heard of Judas Priest before. 

We would have conversations about that, just these feelings that that rock, for me, [was] dark and scary and lawless. So that was the Chavez goal — we could do something that’s like that and it could be appreciated in the way that cool, smart rock music can be. But we weren’t trying to be obvious; I think it was also tempered by the fact that everybody knew what serious art was or whatever, so we were playing with that too.

Mike: For sure. The easy thing to do to try to capture that rock spirit is to be retro, like try to on the surface look [that way], but it misses the thing—

Matt: Yeah, thing is supposed to totally blow your mind. It’s just supposed to hit you. But it has to be satisfying. That was Clay’s whole thing — he was like, “Let’s figure out a way to do an interesting setup that’s compelling, and then the payoff is going to be a fucking rocking ass payoff.” And how can we do that in a way that hasn’t been super obviously done? And then of course, we were listening to Krautrock-y shit, but just getting into it. But again, we were always trying not to be too influenced by anything other than ourselves.

But that James Lo wanted to rock was also a thing, even though James is the most un-rock in everything — except for the fact that he is exactly the kind of rock that I’m talking about.

Mike: He is!

Matt: But none of the trappings. Like stylistically, he didn’t play a single lick.

Mike: Yeah, totally. And he did some kind of drum moves that I feel like are James Lo drum moves, that I didn’t hear before him.

Matt: And not since either! He’s such a fucking dick — that he just doesn’t want to do it anymore, it’s just mind blowing. He’s like, “I already did it. We did it. I thought we agreed that we weren’t going to talk about this.”

Mike: That’s admirable. 

Matt: No, it’s cruel! At first, I was totally in agreement with it. And then as the years roll on, and the fact that we did this EP thinking that James would be into it, because we had a great time doing it, and then James is like, “No, I said I’d only record an EP! I told you.” James is just so hardcore. He’s so brutal.

We got our first sync — it’s so weird, we’ve never been synced. Nobody ever wants to use our music. So Clay directs a movie for Hulu, and like a good guy, he puts a Chavez song in there. And so we got, you know, less than $10,000, and we’re like, “Well, how should we split it up?” Because it’s just sort of gravy. And I was like, “Well, shit, James did cover practice space and he really went above and beyond. Why don’t we give him, like, three grand?”

So Clay sends him an email, and this is where he fucks up, because he says, “Hey, me and Matt were talking — we’re going to kick you this much money because of practice space stuff from back in the day.” And James writes back — I don’t want to take this out of context, but it’s so fucking amazing and funny. James Lo works his ass off and he’s been working all his life, and so he’s retired, you know? And he goes, “You know, I think I’m part of the three percent now. So something like $3,000 really doesn’t make a difference to me one way or the other, and it’s certainly not going to make me play more music with you.” [Laughs.] It was so fucking savage! I’m totally blowing up his spot, but it’s too good, because I love all these guys and I totally respect everybody’s position. 

Mike: [Laughs.] It’s amazing. What a fucking real ass dude!

When you were talking about hearing Judas Priest for the first time, it made me think about when I was that age, and there was this dude that that I was in junior high with who was the best guitar player in our junior high. He was kind of a bad kid, getting kicked out of school all the time — you know, graffiti writer. 

Matt: All the credentials.

Mike: And also kind of hip hop — it was ’92 or something, ’91.

Matt: I knew Italian graffiti writer hip hop kids in Jersey.

Mike: His father was a guitar player — his dad taught him how to play, he could play his ass off but was kind of like embarrassed about it, like he didn’t want anyone to know. So he’s always stayed in my mind, because he had none of the none of the trappings of a rock guitar player. You would look at him and be like, This dude has nothing to do with the fucking guitar. And he was really amazing back then, so much better than I was. And so I think as I grew up, I always had this reaction against the trappings, or the look, because it is very see-through. I want a realness to the music.

Matt: Right, which is a tall order. I go lots of different ways — I do too, but I can be soft on something that is costume rock or whatever. But generally not. I’m sure there could be some exceptions, but the whole point is to be great. But then as I get older, show biz stuff, I don’t mind.

Mike: No, totally

Matt: Showbiz is great and stagecraft is great and reputation is great, and there are certain tropes that are always going to work. A suit is a suit, and stuff like that.

Mike: Yeah. My position isn’t anti-style — style is so important for a band,

Matt: I’m talking to Mike Bones, we’re in agreement. [Laughs.]

Rock music is an incredible form because if a martian was to just listen like, “OK, what does disco music sound like? What does this kind of music sound like? What does rock music sound like?” And they just got the aggregate of all rock music ever played, it’s the sound of people not listening to each other. It’s the most un-musical music. At its broadest state, it is anti-music.

I saw this band the other day in Tompkins Square Park — every guy was high on heroin and

they were playing “American Woman” and nobody was listening to each other. It was the most rock shit — it was so rock, I couldn’t believe it. You could do almost anything within this form and call it rock. It needs to have a guitar, and I guess drums or something. But as long as it’s poorly played and ill-defined, you can really just go. 

Mike: Like writing a riff or something — there’s this elegance of not putting your own shit on it. Like you play this bonehead thing when you’re not thinking, [and] that’s it. Don’t make music do something for you. I think you can’t use it to to show what you know. 

Matt: [Laughs.] Like why  would you debase it? 

Mike: I feel really lucky in my, whatever, navigation through music, that I’ve met people like you who think — because, I mean, you end up in rock, which is not a thinking person’s [genre], you know? But it’s made me a better musician thinking about it. You could play rock music your whole life and never think about this, like, bassline just [being] bad. It’s bad music! [Laughs.] It’s supposed to be bad.

Matt: [Laughs.] It doesn’t breathe, the instruments don’t dance around each other. 

Mike: Everything does the same thing. It’s just dumb. It’s really dumb. And you have to keep some element of that. 

Matt: That’s the chessboard that we’re working on. I had questions to ask — first of all, how’s band practice going?

Mike: It’s very easy. I mean, this band Weak Signal is the easiest fuckin’ band in the world. I wish I had started this band a decade ago. Sasha [Vine] and I met playing music years ago — she’s a musician, but not a songwriter. And Tran [Huynh] is very new to making music, but they were psyched.

Matt: Jim White had told me, because he gave Tran guitar lessons, that by the end of the second lesson, he was like, “OK, I’m done. This person knows what they’re doing.” 

Mike: She fully knows, it’s wild.

Matt: That’s one of the joys of the band, how Tran plays, and the fact that everybody’s paying attention to every single thing, taking nothing for granted and keeping it rocking.

Mike: We wanted the band to work in every live circumstance — you know, no monitors, a shitty PA. We didn’t want to have stuff like, “If this pedal didn’t work, we couldn’t…” We kept it very simple on purpose. Sometimes I do manage to play beyond my ability, but if I’m playing a song and I’m not improvising, I don’t want to fail at some slick move that I’m trying to do, you know? So I just try to keep it very simple. And there’s a power to it. 

I mean, I’m a huge Lungfish fan — they were such an instructive band to me for, again, just playing the fucking riff. 

Matt: I remember turning Andrew W.K. onto Lungfish, and and he put it best — and this is the thing that rock can do, which is when a band is good, you go, “Oh, my god. Wait, is this all it’s gonna be?”

Mike: [Laughs.] Yeah! Usually, you want abundance, you want a bunch of different things.

Matt: You’re like, “Oh my, god, this is it?” And that’s so exciting. Lungfish — it’s easy to say they’re among the last bands to flip the rock vocabulary around and bring out the qualities that somehow everybody else missed, playing repetitive rock. It’s the most genius.

Mike: I don’t know if you ever happen to look at YouTube comments underneath Lungfish live videos —

Matt: Oh, talking about, like, levitating.

Mike: They have this thing that people attached to them, people who have had these real experiences — I mean, a close friend of ours swears that he saw Dan Higgs levitate. [Laughs.] That kind of magical, charismatic shit, like church shit.

Matt: Absolutely. And they did it in such a — you know, there’s a cool gospel comp called The Last Shall Be the First. I think it recently came out from a Memphis label, and it’s gospel from the early ‘70s. And these these gospel tunes, they’re slamming. They’re just fuckin slamming. All of them sound like the Velvet Underground. 

I really like it. I was just having this huge moment with it. Sort of like with Lungfish, the way that these turnarounds work, it’s all about being hypnotizing, and it’s definitively repetitive. Lou Reed was into Black rock & roll, you know, ‘50s stuff, which was gospel.

Mike: It’s all entrancing music. The music that I love, where the power comes from most of the time is like this deep, intense belief in god, right? Like there’s some kind of connection to the other world, whatever the fuck it is.

I can’t see any other way how Mavis Staples sings that way, or how Albert Ayler or John Coltrane play this way. Or like Hildegard von Bingen, some ancient church composer — there’s a reason why that music hits so hard. There’s something else there, something happening that you might not get what’s happening. 

Matt: There’s a selflessness to all the greats, and that’s got to be what it is. 

Mike: I mean, even the idea of rock as devil music or something — it implies that there is the opposite. It’s all caught up in it.

Matt: Talking about the rock thing, the idea is like, “OK, this is a shitty form of music. How do you make this hypnotic?” And then you go from there, and that’s where the learning is and where the cool shit happens. But again, the baseline badness of rock — no rock musician would ever [think], I want to make something that’s hypnotizing. Hypnotic is, like, [mocking voice] “Oh, you like The Doors?” And it’s like, “No, stop with that.” All the really awesome rock obviously has a hypnotic quality, and that’s because they’re stealing from gospel. [Laughs.]

Mike: I just want to make clear that I’m not talking about the lyrics, like singing about god. The message is separate from it. But it’s just the kind of internal approach. If it has that, somehow that type of music hits me a lot harder than if it doesn’t. 

Then there’s, when does it become psychotic? Where’s the line? In rock—

Matt: It’s really close.

Mike: For a couple of years, I did psychoanalysis, and the analyst was like, “You know, a lot of musicians, if you think about it, they’re psychotic. They qualify. You hear things that aren’t happening.” If you write songs, sometimes they just pop into my [head] done. I don’t have any agency or authorship. That stuff fucks with you — you’re like, Where am I on this spectrum? [Laughs.] You have to leave yourself open to it, I guess. Leave the door open to whatever is going to come.

Mike Bones has solo albums as a singer and guitarist, and with ad hoc supergroup Soldiers of Fortune. Weak Signal — the band he’s put together with Sasha Vine (bass) and Tran (drums) — will release their album BIANCA via Colonel Records October 2021.