“Music and running, it’s something anyone can do”
Photography and interview by Ben Rayner
Words by Andy Waterman
There was a time when the music and popular press liked to cultivate an image of rock musicians as pure hedonists - sex, drugs and rock & roll. But look at the Rolling Stones or Iggy Pop: you don’t create careers like theirs without incredible discipline and physical fitness. How many 77 year olds do you know who could do what Mick Jagger does on stage? Not many, right?
Matt Sweeney knows the truth behind the myth first hand: the New York based guitarist plays with Iggy Pop on tour - two hour shows, night after night, city after city - and he recognizes in Iggy a man who, like him, enjoys the mental liberation that often accompanies physical activity.
Sweeney didn’t start running till his forties, but he’s adopted it with a passion and runs most days. He came to our attention through an essay he wrote in support of the campaign to save East River Park, his local running route when he’s home, which is currently under threat from developers.
“East River is where I started,” he told Tracksmith during our interview. “There’s something about running next to water which is great. I don’t know if I’d have picked up running if that park wasn’t there - it’s so inviting. There’s nothing daunting about it, there’s every kind of person running there.”
In a city as densely populated as New York, space to play and exercise and escape the traffic is at a premium, and East River Park is prime real estate.
“It’s truly beautiful beyond words,” says Sweeney. “It’s essential to so many people’s well-being - it’s essential to my well-being - and it’s under threat right now from developers. They’re claiming it’s for flood protection, but it’s completely not for flood protection. They want to destroy the park and build condos there in 10 years.”
Being a touring musician, prior to Covid, Sweeney often had the opportunity to run in a new city every day so he knows what makes a good city park. We met with him at the East River Park amphitheatre to discuss running, creativity, mental well-being, music and everything else in between. It’s a long and fascinating conversation - one that would be accompanied nicely by Sweeney’s latest album, Superwolves, a collaboration with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy. But more of him later. First, how did Sweeney start running?
"You know, it’s humiliating. You feel like you can’t do it, you feel kinda stupid, and you’re worried what people are going to say. And then pretty quickly you realize, no one gives a shit about you and you can just run."
A great member of my family died and I didn’t know what to do about it, and I went for a run in East River Park. I don’t know what prompted me to do it but I’m sure somebody suggested it, like, ‘have you tried running?’ I guess someone had said if you feel really depressed, go for a run, you might feel better afterwards, and that’s why I did it. And I did feel different. It was a slog but I did feel different. It was sorta profound you know? I’d done therapy before but there wasn’t… I dunno, running worked so well that I sorta started doing it just to not feel so bummed out. That’s what I tell people. I really got into running as an antidepressant and it’s still mostly for the brain stuff - it’s all for brain stuff actually - that I do it.
You’re forced to get out of the way of yourself when you start to run. You know, it’s humiliating. You feel like you can’t do it, you feel kinda stupid, and you’re worried what people are going to say. And then pretty quickly you realize, no one gives a shit about you and you can just run. I think maybe people who discover being active later in life, like I did. I can be a bit annoying when telling people how great it is, so I try to keep my runner’s profile kinda under wraps in conversation. Because you do feel so much better that you do want to tell people to try it, you know?
Did you play sports in high school?
Hell no. Skateboarding was my physical activity and then music took over. I’m lucky that I’m so high strung that for whatever reason I never had to worry about weight. I was always skinny so I never had any vanity reason to take care of myself. So yeah, I came at it in my 40s, but I really wish I did it earlier because I was such a wreck in my 20s. I was so bummed out. I see it more now, looking back over my shoulder, how bummed I was about everything. All these things that I think running could have quickly taken care of. I can’t really call it a regret, it’s more an intense curiosity as to how my life would have been if I’d had that release? It just knocks out the things that don’t matter, and when you’re done, the things that do matter sort of rise to the surface.
Hard Work vs Talent
I’m way more on the side of hard work. I mean, come on. We don’t come out of mothers talking. It takes a long time to learn! It’s all about learning. Music and running, it’s something anyone can do. And you feel sort of stupid trying at first, but without a doubt, there is some kind of link. And I don’t know what it is, but guitar players seem to love running. I was really chaotic about everything for so long and then I started running. You see the joy and you start to realize that maybe your life isn't so chaotic, and you start to see these parallels, and then in general, you really kinda get into the routine aspect. Because that is a lot like music: if there’s a song that you write or a song that you like to play, you end up playing it a lot and it’s a little different every time, but when you’re in the world of that song, or in the world of the run, it’s this really cool space. It takes you out of normal life. And it messes with your sense of time, which is really cool - 45 minutes can feel like four hours or a really short amount of time. It displaces time in a really compelling way and that’s definitely associated with creativity.
Training to tour
I find touring a lot less exhausting when you run every day. And that’s another massive bonus if you are lucky enough to get to travel for a living: there is no better way to see a city or feeling like you’re in a city than going for a stupid run. There just isn’t. I think about this run I did in Leeds (UK) all the time. We were in this weird zone where it wasn’t easy to get out of our hotel - there were all these highway things - and somehow I was running somewhere where I shouldn’t be running, and all of a sudden I’m running in this incredible graveyard and I found all this great stuff. There’s something about being lost and running in a city, it really sticks in your memory. I certainly remember the runs more than the shows - or at least, they’re as memorable. That’s a really big bonus. And obviously it forces you to get up a little earlier which is good. With the Iggy Pop thing, those are two hour shows, they’re gnarly. By then I was running every day and I had been for a couple of years, and there’s no way I’d have been able to do that before.
Does Iggy still work out?
He definitely does. I think a lot of it has to do with swimming. I don’t know when he does it; when we’re on tour I still don’t know what his routine is. Since I was a kid, that cover of Raw Power, no one talks enough about how this iconic rock and roll image upends all these notions about what it is to be a musician, to be a rock musician or to be hedonistic, because on one hand that Raw Power image is like, ‘oh here’s this crazy rock and roll guy with his shirt off and he looks like he’s on drugs,’ but on the other hand, you cannot have a body like that unless you are rigorous. Just by looking at him, this is a person who is physically active every day and has a routine. That always stuck in my head. Like why is Iggy always referred to as this junkie icon, or this icon of excess, when clearly he is a rigorous human being?
By the time I got around to playing with him, I was physically active and had some understanding of just how cool it is to do something over and over again. It’s something I think should be more front of mind for artsy-minded people.
There’s not a lot of arguing that Iggy is one of the great artists of the 20th and 21st century, and being physical is a huge part of his art. That solo, physical, whatever-the-fuck-he-does thing, that affects EVERYTHING that he does. One of the inherent ironies is that everyone had that Raw Power image on their wall, and we used to joke about Iggy’s body, like, ‘he’s just skinny because he’s on drugs,’ but you know that’s not true. Hell no. Once you know that, it changes the whole lens, and with hedonism. Once you’re in shape, you can rock harder for sure.
You know Cronos from Venom? He’s also a big proponent of the 'work out to rock harder.' He was an aerobics instructor forever.
Some young, crazy musicians I know who really like to party also happen to be hella runners and very serious about it. Not to get too deep in this party thing, it is a fact that you can incorporate running into your life and it tends to enhance other aspects of your life. I feel like anything running does take away, are things you don’t really need anyway.
Music on the run?
I used to. It’s great if you’re getting ready for a tour. When I toured with Cat Stevens, I did it a lot, just because you have to listen to the music again and again.
For fun? I think it’s a great way to get into running. I keep going back to Iggy but there are some of his records, like 'Kill City,' which is unbelievable for running. I don’t know why it is. I got particularly caught on that record years before I played with him. Or Merle Haggard, because all his songs are two and half minutes long. Or George Jones. A lot of people will be like, ‘get into a groove,’ but if you’re starting, going for 15 minutes is hard, but if you can listen to five songs, that’s a lot. And those country songs have those little mini narratives and you can kinda follow them. Then I got into podcasts, particularly Marc Marron’s, that’s a great running podcast. I guess because his whole formula is about a struggle, so it lends itself well to running. But yeah, in general, if you’re starting out, music makes it really fun, and you also get to appreciate music in a different way. A great one, that’s a little on the nose is 'The Race is On' by George Jones. I have that on repeat.
The post-tour depression is super real. With the Iggy tour for sure, that was the most depressing thing-- being done with the tour. The whole thing was called Post-Pop Depression because the idea was that we were going to be bummed out when it was over. Running really helps: it grounds you, it humbles you, it certainly gives you energy and it gives you confidence.
You know, when you’re done with a run, what else is gonna fuck with you? What’s cooler than that? Like you go and do something and then you’re excited about living! Jeez. I just discovered what people are talking about with coffee being so nice in the morning, and that feeling - that five minutes of hope - running provides the same thing and maybe it lasts for 15 minutes!
On being corona-grounded
It’s been pretty weird. I’m curious what it’s going to feel like on an emotional level with this Superwolf stuff, just because the songs are very close to us anyway. It occurred to me that I’m going to have to practice to have it down to muscle memory so that I don’t get choked up. It should be cool. It was lucky being in New York: there’s a jazz band that plays in Tompkins Square Park and they started playing really early into Covid. So the idea of seeing live sound coming out of people’s bodies has been something I’ve been able to see a fair amount. And then I lived in St Marks Place and all these brass bands started happening.
This is personal, but I’m a rock musician in his fifties, and I’ve seen so many shows, so a year out for me was ok. But that’s just for me. King Coffey from Butthole Surfers said it best, ‘The Butthole Surfers in our first year we toured the whole time, and if we couldn’t have toured we wouldn’t have been in a band. The band wouldn’t have happened.’ So just imagine how many bands aren’t happening.
These ships that aren’t setting sail - it’s really sad. I’m lucky enough to know some young people and it’s a heartbreaker to talk to them. Can you imagine? I think for anyone over 40 who’s lived somewhat of a life, it’s been ok to take a break and reflect. Especially for me, I’m lucky that putting the brake on. It was an ok pause.
Do you run with other musicians?
Marc from Endless Boogie, Marc Razo, who’s an incredible athlete but not a runner, he ran with me in Melbourne. I was like 'come on, let’s do it.' I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but if you’re a regular runner, people sort of respect you? Which is funny, because I’m totally doing this for myself and any ding-dong can do it. So I found that when I’m on tour and people realize you’re a runner, they sort of respect you more in your little touring group. I don’t know why that is.
So Marc came for a run with me, and I got Matt Helders from Arctic Monkeys… Well, there were a few situations where I couldn’t run outside and I’d have to use a treadmill, and he’d come down and use the treadmill with me. But he never ran outside with me.
Oh yeah, JR, the person I’m closest to, my partner, duh! Yeah, getting my partner to run, it felt so great. I didn’t even try, she’s athletic and a way better athlete than I could ever be, but seeing her get into it, and seeing all the stuff we were talking about take hold with her was killer.
I’ve run with Will! Will (Oldham, aka Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, collaborator on Superwolves) is a really physical guy and as long as I’ve known him he’s doing stuff. Have you seen that video where he has these crazy long arms? He got really messed up because for two days he had these prosthetic arms and he forgot to drink water. He goes hard and he’s been like, sure, I’ll go for a run with you. Talking of cities that are fun, Walla Walla in Washington is an incredible city to run through, and I ran through there with Will. Then also we’ve run in Louisville which also an incredible city to run in. When you’re on tour, it’s really fun to have a buddy to run with.