In 1994, a 7” was released by a band called Chavez, who were pretty much unknown outside New York. I picked it up because a concert promoter friend of mine advised me that A) it was right up my alley and B) the band was comprised of members of Bullet LaVolta and Live Skull, two bands that couldn’t have been less alike. Bullet LaVolta were a Boston band of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that attempted a metal/punk hybrid which, though they were good players, really never quite connected, even in the nascent days of grunge when exactly their sound was becoming dominant in both independent and mainstream music. Live Skull were contemporaries of Swans and Sonic Youth in the 80s’ storied NYC noise rock scene. I kinda had to know what that chimera would sound like, and the price of a 7” didn’t seem too much to risk.
That record is fucking glorious. It has all the elements you expect from a ‘90s underground band—loud/quiet dynamics, sandpaper vocals, dissonance and texture often standing in for melody and harmony—but Chavez applied those familiar tropes in utterly transcendent ways. Guitarists Clay Tarver (Bullet LaVolta) and Matt Sweeney trafficked in trebly riffs that perforated eardrums like hot needles, and drummer James Lo (Live Skull) and bassist Scott Marshall possessed the power to inflict blunt force trauma, but they did so organically, without ever becoming overly stylized in Shellac/Jesus Lizardy ways. Their best tracks could absolutely soar, and they were a joy to listen to because you could practically hear the band’s members taking tremendous pleasure from the creation of their music.
Chavez would go on to make the albums Gone Glimmering and Ride the Fader to more praise than sales. In the face of general disinterest, the band simply stopped recording and releasing new music, joining Hum, Failure, and Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 in my personal pantheon of underachieving ’90s bands that never got the massive love I abidingly believed—no, KNEW—that they deserved. During their lengthy period of extremely low activity (they gigged sporadically and never announced a breakup), their label, Matador, released the essential all-encompassing 2006 2XCD collection Better Days Will Haunt You. That was ten years after Ride the Fader, and recently, ten years again after that compilation, the announcement finally came that Chavez would release new music again.
It’s been 20 years since Chavez released their second and final studio album ‘Ride The Fader’ but in late 2015, Matt Sweeney, Clay Tarver, Scott Marshall and The James Lo resumed operations, once again ensconcing themselves with John Agnello at NJ’s Water Music, ignoring the label’s demands for a full-length album and instead delivering 3 knockout punches that…are as idiosyncratic, inventive and anthemic as THE LAST TIME THEY TOLD US THEY WEREN’T GOING TO TOUR. With an influence and corresponding fan devotion that far outstrips their short-but-sweet discography and limited tenure(s), the Men Of Chavez remain one of Matador’s most beloved bands and quite possibly a high water mark for 1990’s cerebral hard rock.
While those are the bought-and-paid-for words of a news release, it’s still on point. The three-song Cockfighters EP stands equal with Chavez’s best work, and it’s due out next week. The song “The Bully Boys” was released to YouTube several weeks ago, and we’ll get to sharing that with you soon enough, but first, Guitarists Tarver and Sweeney graciously took some time out of their busy lives—Tarver is a screenwriter and co-executive producer of HBO’s Silicon Valley, and Sweeney remains in-demand as a hired gun guitarist—to talk to DM about the band’s history and the circumstances of their reactivation.
CLAY TARVER: Starting out, Chavez was the most deliberate thing ever. I was in Bullet LaVolta, and believe it or not, when that band started, it was a noisy punk rock band. It was so fun to be in that band in many ways, I really felt like we were the best live band in the world, and we played with more artsy bands and punk bands. We tried breaking with the orthodoxies of hardcore and indie, and wound up becoming kind of professional and careerist. So we signed to a major label, and to some degree I’m proud of what we did, and to some degree, it was a confusing time, and when our singer had a kid, we broke up. Our roadie was Matt Sweeney, and we found, just being in the van talking about music, that we loved the same kind of stuff, so I moved to New York to start a band with him.
MATT SWEENEY: I became friends with Clay when he was in Bullet LaVolta, and I watched the kind of painful demise of that band. In the process we became really good friends, and we went out doing karaoke one night, and Chris from Matador was there with us. That night Clay said we should do a band. So Chavez started out as karaoke singers and our label boss was already there.
TARVER: We knew exactly what we wanted it to sound like, like if the Jesus Lizard had more melodies—all that tough angular stuff, but to also embrace other elements. “Repeat the Ending” was the first song we wrote that was like THAT’S IT, and it took fucking forever to get to that.
SWEENEY: We were talking a lot about why we should do a band at all, knowing what we know, and having been through what we’d been through, looking at the question of what’s interesting about a guitar, what’s interesting about trying to make a song, and Clay had a big thing about earned payoff, sort of hanging in for a long time with one riff, and if something big happens it has to be earned. So we did a fair amount of dope smoking and theorizing and playing, and it was just me and him in a room playing together, for like the first year. This was at a time when all of our contemporaries were blowing up, all of our friends were becoming huge, and yet that seemed uninteresting to us.
TARVER: Matt was playing in a band called Wider, and Wider had James Lo drumming in it, and I had been hearing for years and years that he was amazing. He was in Live Skull, and the story was that he quit Live Skull because it was becoming too heavy metal. We didn’t steal him from Wider, but as that band was kind of falling apart he started playing with us, and we really hit it off, and we kissed his ass to convince him to stay. We had tried other drummers who just thought we were idiots, but he stayed with us, and we dicked around for the longest time trying to figure out how to play together.
SWEENEY: I was a big James Lo fan, so we had to make music that would keep James interested! So we did have specific aesthetic things in mind, and we wanted to make it challenging to us but still fun to play. Which is still what’s happening.
TARVER: Matt knew a bass player in college, Scott Marshall, who was finishing his degree at AFI in L.A., and we convinced him to move to New York, probably ruining his career. The second he started playing with us, that was it. We’d recorded stuff with David Hoskins, who was the sweetest guy ever, but Scott was our guy, and that was the real birth of the band.
The first record was sort of a manifesto of everything we wanted to do, noisy rock and shimmery majestic stuff, and we were all really really psyched, and had super high hopes, and it did OK, it got good reviews. Some people cared, but it didn’t seem to be getting through, and we did our second record, and it was much looser, and it felt like a leap forward. It was funny at the time, we weren’t bitter, we weren’t naive, so we weren’t heartbroken or anything, we just thought we were more special than other people thought we were, and we said “fuck it,” we’ll keep doing what we want to do. If that means playing a bunch of shows, we’ll do that, if it means just one really interesting show, then it means that. We always took friends on tour, never had professional road managers, just tried to keep it fun.
SWEENEY: This all did well enough that we didn’t really have to pay to play and we could do whatever we wanted for a couple of years, but it started to seem like there was a ceiling—like are we going to tour all the time? Are people going to show up? That’s what slowed us down. When other career opportunities came knocking on our doors, I wasn’t going to say to Clay and Scott “Don’t make movies, we’ve still got this band to play in!” There’s always sort of been, I don’t know if they’re rules, but there’s always been a framework for what we do and why we do it.
TARVER: We never broke up, and we never hated each other, and we never stopped writing music. We’d all been in bands before, so we were like look, people are gonna like what we do or they’re not, so let’s not cheat, let’s not sign some big major label deal, we’ll do it step-by-step and if people like it, people like it, and if they don’t, they don’t. The weird thing is we, as a band, we really did what we wanted to do. I can’t say that about too many other projects I’ve been involved in. And people liked it, or I think they thought they should like it, but we also met with a lot of head-scratching, which was weird to us, because we thought we were really, really good, but people didn’t quite get it, or thought it was cold, or weird for weird’s sake, but we thought it was really emotional music. It was challenging, but it made emotional sense to us, so since we’d been around, we decided there was no point in jamming this stuff down people’s throats if they’re not into it. So if we think something’s fun or interesting we’ll do it, so we slowed down on all the sort of obligatory stuff, and eventually our lives took over. James started doing composition for modern dance pieces, Matt did Zwan, Scott did films. And it was almost like when we didn’t do much anymore, then people started to like us. When Matt went on the Zwan tour, he came back and told us “Dude, do you understand, people actually care about Chavez. I get asked about it all the time.” We were encouraged by that.
We played a cancer benefit for a friend, at it was really gratifying, and Matador pushed us really hard to play this anniversary show in Las Vegas, and that went so well, they asked us to put out a record—and that was a while ago—but we never stopped playing. We would take breaks because I moved to the west coast and had kids and became a screenwriter, but I would fly back and we would write songs over a weekend, and we did a couple of All Tomorrow’s Parties, Primavera, Pitchfork, and we decided at some point we didn’t want to just play shows without new material. So without much of a plan, we put three songs down to see how it was, and there was a little bit of concern that we’d been sitting on all this music for so long and only we’d heard it, and so maybe it wasn’t any good, and we were old farts who were completely lost and delusional. But we did it and we were really happy with it and it was really really fun, so we decided to put it out.
SWEENEY: We’d have these little moments where we could all be together to work on songs but those became fewer and farther between. We had this shot at recording stuff so we did it. We initially thought we’d have time for more recordings, three was what we had time for. I’m kind of hoping that we can just keep on doing EPs. Matador really wanted an album, and we had to talk them into an EP because apparently EPs don’t sell. But I love EPs, so maybe we can just keep squeezing those out. I’d love to keep throwing three, four songs out there. I don’t know why more people don’t do that, some of my favorite things are EPs. I’m more interested in a small amount of music from a band I like that’s been dormant than I would be in a giant statement. To me it’s a little more exciting to have something more concentrated. Doing more is completely conditional on everyone’s lives. Touring isn’t really—I mean, we’re all ancient, and I don’t think the number of people who want to see the band is so huge. Which is in line with how we’ve always been as a band, let’s only do something if there’s a reason to do it, not to knock on the doors of people who don’t give a shit about us.
TARVER: There’s an album’s worth of stuff, and we’ll see—we don’t have much of a plan, we get together when we can and we’re in the process of figuring it out. I think we’d love to get it all out and continue to do more. We all came up in the music world thinking that the minute you stop being relevant to anyone, you go away, you can’t cash in, or reunite just to make money or any of that. It was just sort of unseemly to all of us. But at the same time, playing that Matador thing, and seeing it come together, was amazing. There’s no other people that sound like us, and it didn’t feel icky, like we were trying to score points in mid-life, it was more like we’re all eventually going to die, so people who play together well should play together.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Liz Phair, Jon Spencer, Yo La Tengo and more in hilarious fake kids’ show ‘What’s Up Matador,’ 1997