Post-hardcore veterans Chavez never broke up, but it’s a common misconception that they did. It’s an understandable error: The last album they released was 1996’s nervy, angular Ride the Fader (that’s not including 2006’s compilation, Better Days Will Haunt You), and they’ve only hit the stage sporadically since. But guitarist/vocalist Matt Sweeney, guitarist Clay Tarver, drummer James Lo and bassist Scott Marshall promise that they never officially parted ways. “Life sort of took over and we all started saying yes to other projects here and there,” Tarver tells Paste over the phone. “I started screenwriting, Matt and James each had their own things and Scotty had a film career to pursue. But we never quit playing and we always got along.”
In the ‘90s, Tarver, who also co-executive produces HBO’s hit satire Silicon Valley, was only interested in performing when he and the rest of the band felt like it, as opposed to touring constantly like so many other acts do. “We’d all been in bands that had toured their asses off, and it sort of made a difference,” he says. “But not really. We made this decision [to play less] without even really talking about it that much. At a certain point, we couldn’t control anything, so we were like, ‘Let’s just do the things we want to do.’ It was almost like the less we played, the more people liked us.”
Now, two decades and a handful of benefit shows later, Chavez is getting ready to release their first EP in two decades, a three-song set called Cockfighter, which drops on January 13 via Matador and comprises material written in different rehearsal spaces over the years. “Obviously we’re insanely slow,” laughs Matt Sweeney, who Paste reached out to in a separate phone call. “We write together in this kind of committee. The drummer has to like what I do, and I have to like what the drummer does. The band is meant to be a band that comes up with material together. So when we’re not together, everything takes a long time.”
Tarver and Sweeney delve further into Chavez’s non-reunion below, where they touch on balancing different projects (Tarver’s ongoing involvement with Silicon Valley; Sweeney’s collaboration schedule — he’s performed and recorded with Josh Homme and Iggy Pop, Eagles of Death Metal and Run the Jewels, among many others), their relationship to nostalgia and whether or not they’ll record a full-length.
Paste: What did you initially set out to do as Chavez?
Matt Sweeney: I think we wanted to make interesting rock music. Clay’s good with metaphors, and he would always talk about turning corners in interesting ways, having set ups and payoffs that are interesting—things get revealed in a way that’s sort earned. We definitely had a lot of things that we wanted to do. We were talking about how a lot of ‘70s rock had a grand, dark, evil mystery we were tapped to. For example, in [Blue Öyster Cult’s] “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” there’s that big dramatic fucking thing in the middle of it, like in that Cheap Trick song “Dream Police.” These are all influences that were very untrendy at the time and still are. The best thing about making rock music with some kind of intention, as opposed to being weird for the sake of being weird, like, why make a rock song? Let’s try to figure that out, which is why it takes for fucking ever for us to come up with something that we all can concur is an interesting thing.
Clay Tarver: I’ll give you the long answer, which is: When we started the band and were really active, we weren’t naïve. We’d all been in bands before. In fact, we were sort of the opposite—we were all like, “Okay, we want to do this the right way, and we don’t want to cheat, and either people are going to like us or they’re not. But the main thing is we do what we want to do.” And to be honest, I think we really felt like, “Oh, this is exactly the music we wanted to make.” We really, really did it. Some people responded, but for the most part it was, like, a lot of head-scratching, which was weird and a little bit frustrating, but also that’s what you get, I think, when you take a risk. I mean, everyone wants, when they go on their creative projects, to get standing ovations and people giving you warm cookies and saying how great you are and giving you a medal, and stuff. But it was weird. It all made perfect sense to us and was very emotional music, and grounded, and sometimes it was hard to get that some people just didn’t quite see it that way.
Paste: So what led to that decision to record as Chavez again?
Tarver: A friend of ours had cancer, so we played a benefit show and that was really rewarding, and then the manager begged us to play this thing in Las Vegas, which went really, really well, and we had a blast. We’d had all of these songs that we never recorded, and we kept playing, and we kept writing songs over the years, and we were like, “Why don’t we just record ‘em?” We played ATP in London, and then Asbury Park and Primavera and stuff, and then at a certain point, we were like, “Let’s not play a show until we have new music out,” and that’s sort of where we left off.
I’m sure it seems like we’re reuniting and trying to recapture the magic, but the honest truth is, it was one of those things where we had all this music—and we have a bunch of other songs, too—but we just decided to do three songs at a time for now, and just follow our own path.
Sweeney: We never did a third record and just needed time and space. Clay especially had been pushing for something to happen for years and years. Then every time some block of time was available, it would [become] unavailable, often due to Clay’s work schedule. He’d be like, “Okay let’s block out this time and I’ll come out and write a bunch of songs,” and he’d be like, “Agh, I just got asked to work on Silicon Valley” or insert whatever job you’d be crazy not to do. Finally, Clay wrote this very impassioned email and was like, “I would die unhappy if we don’t do a third record.” So then we started working on stuff and once again our time got decimated to the point that we’re like, “Why don’t we just go in and record three songs, then we’ll do more if we can?”
Paste: Why did you decide to name the EP Cockfighters?
Tarver: It was Matt’s idea. I guess I think of it as sort of something that’s not quite open to street traffic. Like, you have to know about it and come to the back room and be a part of it. I feel like we did this thing on our own in the back room that nobody knew about, and now you find out about it and you can come check it out if you want. And I love the cover because it’s the girl behind bulletproof glass with the heart stickers on it, and to me it just felt like there’s something back there that I want to go check out, that’s not for everyday amusement.
Sweeney: When Clay was out West and James and I would still play together all the time, I wanted to just do an EP thing called Cockfighters. I have a really hard time writing shit, but we had eight million cool, half-baked ideas, and when people would ask me what I’m working on, “I’m doing this thing called Cockfighters.” So that name was just on the back of my mind as a good name.
Paste: What do you make of the cult following Chavez has amassed over the years?
Sweeney: It’s weird. I was looking at an interview with Iggy Pop, who everyone is obsessed with, but it only made me more interested in him. I’ve been obsessed since I was 15. He was talking about how he wants to make music that will be listened to. The interview is from, like, 1982—he said, “It would be cool if I made records that still mattered in 1995,” or something like that. Our goal with Chavez [was], it would be cool if 20 years from now those records still mean something. I think any good record is like a house: You can go in there and it has its own rules and you can enjoy and live in it. In light of that Iggy quote, I was like, “Well, shit, we kind of did that.” For some reason 20 years later, people still think the records are interesting. Have you heard of the band Speedy Ortiz? [Lead singer Sadie Dupuis] really likes our band. So it’s like, “Oh, that’s fucking awesome!”
Paste: I can’t speak for everyone, but I think that a majority of fans will think of the EP as a lead-in to a full length. Do you see that happening in the future?
Tarver: I hope so. I mean, I think we’re just going to kinda take it step by step, and if we can all get together and play, we’d love to do that. I think we’re all a little bit curious as to how it would turn out. It’s really fun to work with the people you love. And to be a little older, the decisions get made quicker, and you’ve all lived a lot more life. I love working on Silicon Valley, but it’s also a big endeavor with a lot of people. It’s a gigantic collaboration, and it’s really fun to do something commercial and popular and successful with good people that I can hold up my head up high about. But it’s also really fun to do something that’s art that you believe in, and that’s sort of what’s really gratifying about these three songs.
Paste: Clay, to what extent do you have to change mindsets when you’re moving between music and screenwriting?
Tarver: The funny thing is, one kind of helps the other. [Silicon Valley creator] Mike Judge is a really, really sick musician. I’ve worked with him for 18 years off and on, and he’s a blues and rockabilly stand-up bassist. Like, a very, very accomplished dude. And I think we always connected because of that. We were sort of double agents in the music world and this other film/TV thing. And so, yeah, it’s interesting, in a weird way, I feel like working on Silicon Valley has made me a better collaborator. Matt and James and I and Scott, we have this thing where when we play together, it’s different than playing with anyone else. There’s a real comfort to it. And it’s also nice that we haven’t relied on [Chavez] for money, and we haven’t burned each other’s whole relationship up, cause that’s usually what happens with a band that’s been doing it for as long as we have.
Paste: Chavez remains best known for the material you put out 20 years ago. To what extent are you comfortable with being marketed as a vehicle for nostalgia?
Sweeney: I mean, of course nobody wants to be on the nostalgia wagon. Especially our drummer James just loathes [it], which is why, like, who knows what we’re going to do? Because it really just depends whatever the band is feeling. But I know James is like, “Well, we did that and it was really good, so why would we fuck with it?” Which again, goes back to the EP idea.
I even felt a little bit of [discomfort]: We played some shows in 2010, or something like that. There were a couple of shows where I was like, “Oooh, I wish we didn’t play this show.” We were the old band no one has really heard of. We played Pitchfork fest and maybe Ty Segall played before us. I was like, “There is a young, vibrant act that everyone can relate to!” This was the same kind of collective question mark that rises above the heads of the audience when we first started. Now it’s like, 50,000 people looking at their phones while we play, and you’re like, “I don’t want to play!”
Paste: True, if you’ve been playing shows that long, there’s bound to be a real difference with how the audience engages with the music at the end of 20 years.
Sweeney: Oh it’s funny, yeah. At one point with these bands that have been doing it for a long time, is that you end up being a better band and it’s easier to do, which gives you more space to see how the music is landing on the audience. You’re not wound up and just trying to perform it. There’s this thought that ran through my mind when we were playing, ‘oh it’s easier to do now, I get it!’ Again, bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement, they were fucking way better as a rock act just because they could play better, it’s not as difficult. Shellac is the most interesting example. I don’t know, they have an hour-and-a-half songs, and yet it’s still relevant. The way they play is interesting, it’s legitimate somehow, even though they’re not doing anything new, they’re still somehow challenging themselves. For me, it has very little to do with nostalgia. It’s just “Fuck, they’re really good.”