Matthew Sweet at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. Photo copyright 2012 by Jim Rinaldi
Matthew Sweet – 20 Years With His Girlfriend
by Jay S. Jacobs http://www.popentertainment.com/matthewsweet.htm
Pop singer Matthew Sweet’s album Girlfriend is pretty widely considered one of the definitive albums of the Nineties. The record, a wonderfully eclectic mix of rock, pop and country, still feels amazingly fresh today.
Therefore, it’s rather shocking to hear that Sweet is currently touring to celebrate the album’s twentieth anniversary. Ever since last fall, Sweet has been doing a series of gigs around the country where he plays the album in full, then adds in a few other hits like his 1996 smash “Sick of Myself.”
Even Sweet is a little surprised by the excitement about the anniversary. He was planning to spend this year touring for last year’s album Modern Art when the Girlfriend requests to do anniversary shows came pouring in. Therefore, he makes sure to do one song each show from the new album, to show audiences that the new music is just as strong as the classics.
Right before he opened the latest leg of the Girlfriend tour in Philadelphia, we gave Sweet a call to discuss his career and his influences.
What are some of your first musical memories?
That’s an interesting question. First musical memory. I must have been asked that before, but I think it’s been a long time. Let me think a sec on that. What popped in my head was just beating on some kind of drums or something. (laughs) But, I don’t know where that comes from. It’s hard for me, I guess I just don’t know that I can pinpoint the first. I can remember things I did really young. I had to take piano lessons when I was pretty young. I really hated taking lessons, so when I was in kind of a funky mood – maybe I was home sick or whatever and my mom was either gone doing something or not around – I’d go to the piano and do little mood pieces, hitting chords and bass clefs a little bit. (laughs again) That’s one early thing I did. I played the violin in a junior youth orchestra when I was in fifth grade, maybe… I started playing electric bass in sixth grade, no that was actually in fifth grade, too, while I still played the violin. I thought they looked really cool. I wanted to play electric guitar, but the bass seemed like it would be easier, sort of. So I became a bass player and could play with the stage band at my grade school, which is amazing they even had one. Then I continued to play bass and started to play in bands when I was in seventh grade and eighth grade. I was a bass player up until then.
Obviously, your music shows you are a fan of many different artists and styles. What were some of your earliest influences musically?
That’s a good question, too. It would have been stuff that was around the house. Either my older brother, who was five years older, had things. My parents… I remember like the What’s New, Pussycat? soundtrack. One of the first things I remember was the Help! soundtrack. Some of the first Beatles I knew was [from] that. Then I remember the Revolver cover. Revolver was somehow around, and that’s really my favorite Beatles record to today. Help! and Revolver were the Beatles I knew until I was older. Then I got into a lot of British Invasion New Wave – Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe. The Buzzcocks. The more melodic stuff, when that whole wave came in, although I guess it was pretty indie here. I knew people at the record store and we all bought the 45s.
You had actually been around for several years before Girlfriend hit, in fact, I remember seeing you opening up for I believe Toni Childs circa the Insidealbum.
That’s early. God, you know… I can’t swear to this. We did some Buzz of Delight shows in New York and some Oh OK shows [two early bands he was in]. But that was probably the only tour, the A&M one with Toni Childs. Oh, you know what? I played with Golden Palominos and we did some of my songs, so that was real early, like ’87. But [the Toni Childs tour] was the first time I really toured on my own, you know? (chuckles) That tour with Toni Childs. It’s funny, because we’re going to Philly tomorrow to start the tour on Friday….
Yeah, I’m in Philly. Looking forward to seeing you on Friday.
Oh, that’s great. The thing is, I have this memory of Philly. For some reason I was thinking that Toni bailed on the show or something.
No, she played. I remember seeing it. It was at the old Chestnut Cabaret.
Oh yeah, I remember that place.
In fact, that was where I first interviewed you on the Girlfriend tour.
Wow. That’s amazing, because that’s way back. That was probably one of my very first interviews. I didn’t do a ton of stuff in [the Inside] time. I was really given to the college radio departments. They couldn’t do too much with those records. That was just really early one. But yeah, that would have been a very early experience of me playing live.
What was it like when suddenly after years of scrapping with groups and solo, Girlfriendhit and you were suddenly getting all this acclaim and airplay?
Yeah, it got lots of airplay, and amazingly 100% Fun did as well. It was very overwhelming on a lot of levels. Also it was kind of a double kick, because after I made the record A&M merged with Polygram and all of the sudden everybody was being ousted, including my A&R guy. So, we thought, well, the record is cool, we’ll sell it to somebody else. My manager actually became my manager at that time, he was my lawyer before that, and we’re still together. He said, “We’ll sell it somewhere else.” He was convinced that Girlfriend could be on the radio. I had no concept of that. That was just like, “yeah…,” you know? He kept at it, but in the end we sold the record for pennies on the cost of it to Zoo Entertainment. So, I had especially low expectations. I was just: it was getting released. So to have it then suddenly take off was pretty amazing. Part of it was that the tapes spread around in a younger record industry over the course of that year before Zoo bought it. Nine months after I made it, we didn’t have a place to put it out. So it was especially a big deal when it became successful. I had to really tour a lot. I had to talk about myself so much and I hated myself especially at that time. (laughs) It was sort of mentally killing for me. Emotionally it was difficult for me.
I remember you telling me years ago that you didn’t consider yourself to be a great singer or guitarist or songwriter, it just happened that the three worked together. Do you still feel that way?
(laughs heartily) That’s pretty funny. I guess I was just trying to say that I wouldn’t make any claims for my musicianship, but I know when I do my thing, it will work. So, yeah, I guess I do sort of still feel that way. (laughs again) It’s kind of funny to hear myself saying that. It doesn’t immediately sound like me, so it makes me laugh.
It was actually kind of ironic, because the way that you had put it was “it’s all part of the ugly truth.” Then a year later, you released a song called “The Ugly Truth.”
(laughs) That’s amazing. That’s so funny.
You are playing the Girlfriend album in concert now. Do you do it straight through as it appeared on album, or do you fool around with it a bit? I read an interview with Lars Ulrich of Metallica recently where he said they were doing a concert version of their Black Album, but doing the song sequence backwards so that they start with the songs no one knows and end up on the big songs.
(laughs) It’s very funny you say that, because the first few times we did it, I was like it’s like we just played the encore. (laughs harder) We go from the beginning, but that’s kind of clever to go from the back end, because then you would get to the more well-known songs.
Girlfriend also had lots of non-album b-sides, like “Superdeformed” and the cover of “Cortez the Killer.” Do you play any of those songs?
No, we do all fifteen songs that includes the three [CD] bonus tracks. That’s pretty much it. Then we play a couple of other things. “Sick of Myself.” We play at least a song off of Modern Art, my record from last year. Sometimes we play “We’re the Same” or “Time Capsule.” [Songs] that go with the theme. “Sick of Myself” is great, because we just had to play the whole Girlfriend.
After playing these songs all these years, do you ever fool around with the structure of them to make them fresh or do you stick with the basic studio vibe?
I guess I always stick with the basic way. I’m sure it’s probably really different if you compared them side by side, just because the energy of playing live is different. But I don’t try to deconstruct things I did in the past. I don’t feel like I have to do anything to them to make it worth doing them. Sometimes you can have that urge where you start to get a different melody in your head for a certain part of the song. I probably do that on some of the Girlfriend stuff. I imagine there’s a few things I didn’t cop. I didn’t try to listen to every thing. But it’s pretty much as it was.
You had such a killer band back then with Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine. How does the new band compare?
I think we do really well at capturing the album. Lead guitar player Dennis Taylor, he played all the lead on my latest album Modern Art. He happens to be not only great at improvising, but so musical that he has an ear that is amazing for hearing how things were played or put together. I think he does an amazing job, because there is a lot to cover. There’s the Quine Stratocaster kind of jangly chord shapes and things. Then there’s the Richard Lloyd type, real blues rock kind of playing. Dennis can do all that stuff, but more amazingly has very well copped the melodies and the things from the album. It really helps it really seem like Girlfriend.
As I recall you telling me years ago, Tuesday Weld was on the cover of Girlfriend just because you liked the picture. Do you enjoy collecting old photography and movie memorabilia?
I went through a period where I did that. Kind of pre-Girlfriend, so a really long time ago. We still have books that we put together when Lisa was my girlfriend. We’ve been married now since 1993. I’m into that kind of thing, but I haven’t actively gotten into it since back then.
You also named a song on the album after Winona Ryder, though it wasn’t specifically written about her and the name is never used in the lyrics. Did you have a thing for actresses?
It’s funny, that song was probably called “Alone in the World” (laughs) or something like that. Lloyd Cole [the British singer who fronted Lloyd Cole & the Commotions], who I was hanging out with at the time, he said, “Why don’t you call it Winona? You love that movie.” I was into Heathers, the classic movie. I thought it’s kind of country. That sort of fits. So I just used his title. It wasn’t really a song about her. I had to do a lot of explaining about it. (chuckles) The idea of loving a girl… like if you’re collecting movie star stuff from actresses you loved. You have this ideal idea about this person that would be so amazing that it would solve all your problems, although those girls are all crazy. (laughs) Eventually I met her. Recently I saw a photo of the two of us together. (laughs again) I didn’t even know there had ever been one taken. It made me smile. It was funny.
How crazy is it that Girlfriendis over 20 years old now?
It blows my mind, but now we’ve been touring it since last fall, so I’m really comfortable with it. It’s not as crazy to me [now]. But yeah, it was mind-blowing on a lot of levels. I had to go back and really learn everything, the words. Then just to think it’s been 20 years and to see the audiences. To think 20 years back, you know, it’s so far! When I think of myself as a young person, I started getting records in probably ’77-’78-’79, or whatever. I was born in ’64, so I was probably buying them by ’75 or something. I had been five years since the Beatles broke up. That seems like ancient history. So much had happened. It was just so different.
What was the first record you ever bought?
To be honest, I’m not exactly sure. The first one I remember going to the record store to get, I bought the 45 of “Telephone Line” by ELO. Vinyl.
What was the first concert you ever saw?
First concert is ELO. (laughs) Probably that following year. With green lasers. Steve Hillage opened up. I couldn’t even breathe the air because there was so much cigarette and pot smoke. I went with my big brother and his girlfriend.
What music do you put on when you are in a bad mood to cheer you up?
Interesting. Let me think. Maybe it would be something more uppity, like the Nerves – that’s somebody I’ve listened to recently. Kind of a power pop thing that’s really upbeat, I like. The Beach Boys usually would cheer me up. They also have the anxiety and everything, which is perfect – Brian [Wilson] anyway. If I’m feeling super-agitated and I really want to cool out, I will play Bill Evans records.
What songs can automatically make you feel like you want to cry when you hear them?
God. Let me think. There’s Brian stuff. “Surf’s Up” and “‘Til I Die” and that Dennis [Wilson] song “Forever.” Those kind of songs I’m really a sucker for. Sad, meaningful songs.
What do you listen to when you are in the mood for romance?
Romantic? Wow. It’s funny, I don’t know that I’ve ever associated music and romance in that way. Maybe I’ve never really put on music and romanced it. It was always in silence, I guess. (laughs)
What record would you say you have listened to more than any other in your life?
God, that’s very interesting. In high school and right out of high school, Big Star. I liked Radio City and Sister/Third. I played those a ton. I want to say Pet Sounds, but almost as much is probably Surf’s Up. Stuff from Smile as well. I bought the Smile box set.
What record are you ashamed to have in your collection but still kind of love?
There must be. I guess I’m not ashamed about anything. (laughs) It would be like, “woo, you like that?” It would probably be the nerdier side of the Beach Boys. (laughs again) I was talking with my friend Rick about this. We went to see them play live and we’ve been on this crazy Beach Boys trip.
I can’t wait to see the new tour. I was lucky enough to see the band the last time Brian toured with them in the Eighties, when he was in the middle of the Dr. Eugene Landy days. I’ve never seen someone look so scared on stage in my life. But it was a great show.
Just weird and terrible. But to see Brian still there, he was clearly enjoying himself. He was pretty funny. Some unintentional funniness, but, you know… We were having this conversation about how we like some of even the really dorky square things. (laughs) We just accept them because we love them so much.
What song do you most wish that you wrote?
There are so many other Brian things I’m starting to think of, like “The Warmth of the Sun.” That’s pretty up there for me. Rock records: “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Gimme Shelter.” Those things are just incredible songs. The way I always feel like, even with everybody I love, it takes more than one song. It feels like there has to be more than one. One alone never seems like enough. There is a moment where that record is so cool to me. It captures something. Lightning in a bottle.
Even though even Zoo Entertainment wasn’t a huge label, your last few albums were released independently. With the very fragile state of the music business these days, what advantages and disadvantages are there to recording as an indie?
Well, the advantages are you are totally free. You can do whatever you want. Not a lot of money has to be spent. If you sell a few thousand records, you’ll make some money. For me, I just watched the industry change and change and change. It goes down and down and down, the amount of money someone will give me for a record. And the possibility of places goes down and down and down. These places that are good indie labels are really full of stuff right now. So much stuff. So in the end I think it’s best to put things out ourselves. For Modern Art we teamed with a marketing company that had done promotion and things and were sort of acting as a label for me. We’ve had different opportunities depending on certain people we know and ways we write it. I’m thinking I’ll probably go to Kickstarter for the next one and try and raise a little money, so that I can live, you know?
You have also done a couple of duet covers albums of 60s and 70s songs with Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles. I know you two had also worked together on Austin Powers and the latest Bangles album. Will there be a Volume III with 80s songs and maybe even more down the line? What’s she like to work with?
Going backwards, Volume III, yes. There’s an 80s one. We’re in the middle of working on it. We have a lot of the tracks done, but we haven’t done any singing, so we’ve got a lot to do. I think we’ll get it done this year and it will either come out late this year or early next year. Sue has a solo album she’s releasing this summer that she made with [producer] Mitchell Froom. That’s going to come out, I think, in July. I’m going to be doing these next three weeks touring and then touring the midwest again in September, doing more Girlfriend shows. Then I’ll probably start making a record of my own. So there’s enough for the next year or so.
How did you hook up with Susanna? What is she like to work with?
She’s delightful. She’s a lot of fun. Likes to have fun. We really did those records for fun. I was at a Bangles & Friends performance at McCabe’s, which is a classic acoustic guitar store/venue where 100 people come see acoustic shows. I went to sing on something in that show. I was just talking to Sue. We’ve known each other over the years, but we didn’t hang out a lot during the Austin Powers times. We hung out some. I said to her I’ve always loved your voice, I’d love to record something with you sometime. My idea was writing songs with her and doing a solo album for her, not me being on it, but Shout! Factory really wanted us to do these covers records together. She’s wonderful. We’re like two kids when we work together. What else can I say?
Power pop is such an amazing musical art form, but it never quite catches on with the public. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know, really. Sometimes I think it gets more of a bad rap than it deserves. It’s also just how you want to categorize things. To me, power pop was The Beatles and The Byrds in early rock. Then in the Seventies there were all these incredible groups like The Raspberries and Cheap Trick and a million people. Dwight Twilley. All these cool things. Of course Big Star. There was a wealth of great stuff with the people who loved that kind of melodic music those Sixties bands did. Then in New Wave, there is sort of a power pop thing about it anyway. That period was alright for it. I never wanted to categorize myself, but I never minded the name power pop, because I love to be in any group of importance of any kind. (laughs) Even if it’s the sad, neglected group. I don’t know, when I meet people that are into it, they are just so into it, still. I think there will be kids that are really into it. People that really want melody are going to stray into what is considered power pop. If they like rock & roll, but they prefer for it to be really melodic. People who maybe aren’t as into that, but maybe just like the image of a group and their sound, probably don’t care as much.
Copyright ©2012 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 15, 2012.