Matt Sweeney Makes Unlikely Neil Diamond Sideman

Neil Diamond has worked with a wide range of musicians throughout his legendary career, but perhaps none with as much of an indie rock pedigree as Matt Sweeney.

Neil Diamond has worked with a wide range of musicians throughout his legendary career, but perhaps none with as much of an indie rock pedigree as Matt Sweeney.

The Chavez frontman wound up playing a major role on Diamond's new Columbia album, "Home Before Dark," and performed with him last Thursday during a surprise MySpace-sponsored club show at New York's Bitter End.

Sweeney, who was brought onto the project by producer Rick Rubin, spoke to about the experience and what else is new and exciting in his musical universe.

How much were you involved in the recording? Just a few songs, or the majority?

I played guitar on all the songs, I think. We did them live in the studio, with no drums. Neil played a Martin guitar from the 1800's, Smokey Hormel played guitar and/or bass, Mike Campbell played guitar and Benmont Tench [was] on piano and organ. Mike, Benmont and Smokey are so great to play with -- such cool people. And Rick Rubin is an incredibly sensitive and attentive listener who makes great suggestions for musical moves. I then threw on some electric and acoustic overdubs by myself, but I'm not sure if they made it on the final mixes.

On the first album Neil made with Rick [2005's "12 Songs"], there was a lot of talk about Rick forcing Neil to play guitar on the songs. Did this happen this time? Do you feel like this made a difference with the material?

We would all push to have Neil lead us with his guitar to set the tempos. He's very self-effacing about his guitar playing, which is funny because he is one of my all-time favorite guitar guys. He was also completely open for suggestions about how the song should feel.

You are playing with Neil on the video for "Pretty Amazing Grace" that's up on and you played the Biter End show. Do you have any plans to play with him beyond this?

No plans, but I would play with him in a heartbeat. I really was sad when the record was done; it was a summer camp-like experience.

In general, I'd love to have your thoughts on the experience. Were you a fan of his music before you started working on the album?

I've been a fan of Neil Diamond since before I could talk; my mom still always plays his music. In high school my friends and I would freak out to [Diamond's famed 1973 live album] "Hot August Night" -- my friend Lee Hetfield could lip-synch the entire album. I am a giant fan.

Here's the mindblower: Neil Diamond is so funny, low key and open. He sees every song as a chance to, in his words, "make a great record." He'd encourage all of us to come up with cool parts and feed us delicious food. He was so encouraging and excited about making music. Every day was awesome.

He simultaneously maintains a mystique and gives himself completely over to the song. He totally exposes himself to such a degree that he becomes almost invisible. His words and music come from such a private place, and still become songs that so many people can relate to.

I never imagined I'd play music with him, so the experience was really wild. It felt like jumping off a cliff. I'd tell myself, "OK, just pretend you are doing this." -- like a dream.

What else are you working on? Any guest appearances on other albums? Are you working on any of your own stuff? And I'd be remiss if I didn't see if there was anything percolating in the Chavez world...

Thanks for asking. I [was] on tour in Europe playing guitar with Baby Dee and Current 93. We just played in Moscow. Within the last year I've produced, co-wrote songs and/or played on records by Endless Boogie, Baby Dee, Sightings, Dax Riggs, Cat Power, Mike Bones and other stuff that I'm sure is good but am too fried to remember at the moment.

I'm also working on new Superwolf (that's Bonnie "Prince" Billy's and my collaboration team) songs to follow up the album Drag City put out in 2005. We'll have a song on a Kenneth Anger tribute album that's coming out on Dutro Records. I think maybe another new song of ours is gonna be in a movie. I hope to do Chavez stuff as well.

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