Matt Sweeney on the New ‘Desert Sessions’ and Mystical Sound Baths

After a 16-year hiatus, Josh Homme has revived his infamous Desert Sessions and is set to release Volumes 11 and 12 of the curated collaborations later this week.

First assembled back in 1997, the project, once defined by its prolific regularity, went on to release the first ten sessions in just six years before taking an extended break. Based around Homme’s invite-only, impromptu songwriting and recording retreats at Rancho de la Luna in Joshua Tree, California, the desert destination has gone on to host an ever-changing, all-star cast of famous friends and industry luminaries, all gathering in the spirit of song.

While past contributors include PJ Harvey, Dean Ween, Mark Lanegan, members of Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss, The Dwarves, and Eagles of Death Metal, these new installments may be the most diverse iterations yet. Featuring Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), Stella Mozgawa (Warpaint), Jake Shears (Scissor Sisters), Mike Kerr (Royal Blood), Carla Azar (Autolux, Jack White), Les Claypool (Primus), Matt Berry (What We Do in the Shadows), Matt Sweeney and Libby Grace, each track is constructed as its own autonomous entity. From the leadoff track, ‘Move Together’, in which Gibbons’ wispy vocals culminate into a chaotic cacophony, to the lush and exotic instrumental, ‘Far East For The Trees’ and the Bowie-esque vocal honing of ‘Easier Said Than Done’, each song maintains it’s own unique identity and remains mutually exclusive from the tracks that come before and after.

We caught up with Matt Sweeney to discuss the vibe, the mission, the atmosphere, and the structure of the latest Desert Sessions. A guitarist, vocalist and producer, Sweeney is no stranger to musical collaborations. He has performed and recorded with Skunk, Chavez, Zwan, Superwolf (with Bonnie Prince Billy), Cat Power, Johnny Cash, El-P, Dave Grohl, The Dixie Chicks, Neil Diamond, and Iggy Pop. When we reached him over the phone, he was at a recording studio in upstate New York, adding guitars to an upcoming Run the Jewels record. Ladies and gents, Matt Sweeney.

You’ve been involved in so many projects over the years, and many of them, like this one, seem like one-offs. How did you become involved? 

I don’t know, just lucky. People just ask me to collaborate. It’s cool. I suppose it’s partly because I’ve never proclaimed to be a bandleader. I don’t know; I’m just glad people call on me to do shit.

Is this your first time as part of the Desert Sessions crew? How were you chosen? 

Yes. I’ve been friends with Josh for like 25 years, but somehow our schedules didn’t line up for the previous Desert Sessions. We had been friends for like ten years without even playing music together. Then, sometime around September 11, 2001, we ended up jamming and it was really super fun. Since then we have been open to doing stuff, but it didn’t line up until we started doing things with Iggy [Pop].

The first ten sessions happened in just six years, but it’s been 16 years since the last one. Any idea why? 

Life, families, etcetera. Josh puts the party together. Families take up time.

Take us through the collaborative songwriting processfrom the ideas stage to the input of others. Do people come in with ideas? Is it all off the cuff? 

No rules is the rule. It’s always good to have song ideas to bring in, but a lot of this album came out of like, a riff, or a line that someone there offered. Then someone else goes ‘Yeah, and then…’ and it’s on. It kind of depends on the song and who was around. Josh is usually a thru-line, but he wasn’t even a thru-line some of the times. The whole thing is that we have to get a bunch of songs done. Once we get the song done, it’s like ‘Who’s got an idea for another song?’ It’s that. It’s liquid. I want to say it was all done in five days. Then there was some time to tweak things, but the main body and writing gets done on-site.

You’ve recorded with so many different characters and personalities over your career. How does this situation compare?

This was fun because we had to make something out of nothing, in a little house in the desert, with Homme like the head camp counselor who doesn’t wanna be in charge. But at the same time, he arranged for everyone to come here, he paid for our travel, we’re being taken care of by him. He’s our host and he has done this before. To that degree, he has control, but then his game is to exert as little control as possible.

Did you find this project was somewhat easy because everyone comes from a different recording background, or was it harder for that same reason? Does it get overwhelming because there are so many people in a room?

Everyone involved was used to working and recording and finding their lane, so it was easy. Also, Josh had it planned so there were never too many people there at once.

How did you guys know a song was done? Was there a structure as far as timeframe? Were there start and stop times?

When it’s got words, melodies and they are arranged, then it’s recorded. Then you move on to a new one. It was structured for sure. Breakfast, then start at around 11 am, break to watch the sunset, go up to another house on the property for dinner, then go back to play and work until you’re cooked.

Are there any specific magical moments that stand out when you look back at the whole process?

The legendary Queens of the Stone Age soundman Hutch, and his partner, Amanda, cooked us incredible meals that we all ate together. So much fun. Driving at sunset to a ‘soundbath’ at the Integratron while listening to Beefheart’s ‘Clear Spot’, being consistently floored by Stella and Carla’s contributions to the songs, getting to hang with my hero Billy Gibbons. I also watched a roadrunner eat a hotdog.

Tell me more about the Integratron.

Josh is friends with the women who run the place. They are super fucking cool. I first went there in like, 2003. It’s amazing how popular it has gotten. The women who are running it now really have it together and I think it’s booked up a few months in advance. You lie on your back and listen to a tone, and because of the structure of the place, it is so resonant that you can feel it throughout your entire body. Then there’s the whole mythology behind it. An eccentric guy built the structure, it’s located on this peculiar geographic spot, but there is also this element of fun and ‘who knows’ to the whole thing because of how mysterious it is. When the guy who built it died, all his papers mysteriously disappeared. There’s really something to it. I cannot recommend going there enough.

What is the weirdest addition someone added to a track? Who was the most surprising person in the projecteither due to their contributions or just as a person?

For me, the weirdest addition to the tracks was me. I’ve worked with Josh and Gibbons, but I had never worked with any of the others before, so that was cool. Stella and Carla are really great to work with. They’re really, really great at making up music, and they’re good at making up drum parts that aren’t cliché and are specific to the song. That was great. I really get stoked when I work with drum people who are really good… and they are incredible.

What did you guys do when you weren’t recording?

Slept, had meals together, took little desert head-clearing trips to the flea market or an art installation in the middle of nowhere. I went on morning runs in the desert. But it was pretty non-stop making music.

Describe the scene, both at the studio and what lay outside. 

Rancho de la Luna is a property and the studio itself is inside this little homesteader house—a really small place with one bedroom. Then there are different houses on the property, so everyone stayed in different spots and then we would meet for breakfast. We would have breakfast and dinner and then go to the studio house and work all day. It was work all day, eat, then work some more until we pass out. It was super fun.

Did the mystical desert setting of Joshua Tree have a direct effect on the mood or the outcome of the music?

It’s impossible to describe the mix of the profound and the profane that Rancho de la Luna offers. Sounds of coyotes and vast silences punctuated by distant yelling of drug-addled human husks fighting on the highway. Sunrises and sunsets that look like the sky is pouring on you. Checking inside your boots for spiders or these horrific scorpion looking bugs. I think anyone who has ever been to the desert would know, once you’re there, it affects you. It just feels cool to be there. It’s nice, you take walks, sit around an open campfire and come up with ideas. So, yes, it definitely affects everything a lot, for sure. It’s a lot of fun. That’s why people like to go out into the desert to make records.

In the credits, you are listed as Matt ‘The Matterhorn’ Sweeney. Do tell.

No one has ever called me that until Josh wrote that credit.

These are sessions #11 & 12? Was it distinctly two, and what defines the start of one and the end of another?

There were two overlapping groups of people for the sessions.  I think Josh and I were the only ones who were there the whole time. But I wasn’t around when ‘Chic Tweets’ happened, I’d passed out.

Tell me about the alternate titles Arrivederci Despair and Tightwads & Nitwits & Critics & Heels.

[Those are] lines from the songs. I think both are Hommes’.

Has Desert Sessions ever been a touring band? Could it be?

I don’t think it has been or will be. Dez sesh’s are about making stuff up together out there and recording it.

What else do you think people should know about these recordings?

I would say the people who worked the hardest on these things are definitely the engineers. Mark [Rankin] and Justin [Smith] were working the whole fucking time. Stuff is happening very quickly and they have to get it. You are writing and recording, but then you write the song and play it with each other and record it quickly. There is a LOT going on. The thing I became most aware of and impressed with was how these guys could keep up and keep all of these threads going. And again, the house is TINY. When I heard the record mixed, I was like, ‘Goddamn this sounds amazing.’ People who are audioheads, I think that’s who this record is really for. You’re supposed to get stoned and listen to it.

Matt Sweeney is an extremely active collaborative musician who is currently working on a follow up to Superwolf (his collaboration with Bonnie Prince Billy), producing a ‘hard-assed rock album’ for Country Westerns, and making music for a video game that he can’t talk about right now.

Desert Sessions 11 & 12 will be released via Matador Records this Friday, 25th October.

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