Catching Up With... Matthew Sweet

Music Features Matthew Sweet
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Since the release of his third album, Girlfriend, in 1991, Matthew Sweet has remained one of the beacons of power pop, stretching the boundaries of the genre without sacrificing big guitars and ringing melodies. In 2006 he took a detour in teaming with Bangles star Susanna Hoffs to record Under the Covers, an album of '60s classics, but now he’s back with a proper solo outing, Sunshine Lies.

Paste : On Under the Covers, you and Susanna Hoffs are referred to as “Sid ‘n’ Susie.” What was the origin of that?
Sweet: It was a joke inspired by the fictional Austin Powers band [Ming Tea] I played bass for. Sidney is my actual first name; Matthew is my middle name. So my Austin Powers name was “Sid Belvedere”-- Mike Myers used to say, “Not the Mr. Belvedere.” Anyway, when we started recording Under the Covers, we referred to ourselves as “Sid 'n Susie,” and it caught on within the record company. Once we did the ‘60s covers, we started thinking we could do the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s just a fun and easy thing to do. People think of me as a person who’s learned every old song, but I’m not. This is a new thing for me. I hear things differently now than I did in the past. I’m looking for things that can make a song cool, instead of just ruining it! So now we’ve recorded about 40 songs for a ‘70s album that I think will come out next year. It’s hard to say what will go on it, but I can tell you that “All Good People” by Yes will be on the album, and Steve Howe plays guitar on the track! That’s one of our exciting tidbits. When I first started buying records I loved Yes. The kids who were three years older than me were really into them.  I liked Fragile, and then I got the others. What’s interesting to me now is the way their music works in a cool psychedelic way, which is how I like music to be today. That free-form melodic stuff with a lot of weird sounds was a big part of my early listening. Then I went straight to New Wave, which was the opposite of that. That was my teenage-years music.

Paste: Were you an obsessive music student?
Sweet: When I started having success with Girlfriend, I honestly didn’t know much older music.  I didn’t have a good sense of rock history until I was in my 20s. When we started touring, I covered things I liked-- “Pretend We’re Dead” by L7, something with a dirty title by Ween, [the Beatles'] “She Said She Said,” [Neil Young's] “Cortez the Killer.” And over the years I’ve been asked to be on tribute albums or do covers for movies. I only started getting into the Beatles and Stones around the time I was recording Girlfriend, and that’s also when ["Girlfriend" guitar collaborator Robert] Quine introduced me to the Byrds. I’m sure you can tell that the guy who made Girlfriend didn’t know much about the Stones, but the guy who made Altered Beast had discovered them. It took me a long time to get into the Byrds, because I didn’t see a personal songwriter I could identify with. Later I got into Gene Clark as a solo artist. I always liked stuff that was really personal, because what I did was really personal for me, and still is. I’ve opened up a lot, but when I started out I was timid and shy. That made doing records and going on tour kind of excruciating-- I was ill-prepared to stick myself out there.

Paste: What originally inspired you to be a performer?
Sweet: I wasn’t a performer who performed throughout my youth because I wanted attention.  Music was just something that made me feel good. As I got further into writing in high school, the four-track recorder and the Walkman were really important to me, because they gave me a personal way to record and a personal way to listen. If I knew someone, I’d let them listen to my music on my Walkman, but I would never play it out loud for them while I was in the room.

Paste: Girlfriend was your third album, but it seems like your first album in some ways.
Sweet: It was the first album where I felt like I knew who I was. Before I recorded it, I’d reached a point where I didn’t feel any pressure to have anything happen with my career. I just wanted to record and some of those songs popped out. For me I think that’s the best way to work. A song needs to be conjured like a bolt of lightning. If I let go and wait til the moment strikes me, it’s never hard.

Paste: Is that still the way you work?
Sweet: I think it is. If I’m in the mood and alone with a guitar and start playing, I’ll come up with something. What I tend to do these days- and back then, too- is record little snippets of things, little brainstorms. Later, I’ll go back and look at what I did. Sometimes it’s even more instant than that, because I have super-great recording equipment in my home. Recording is pretty second nature for me. I always dreamed of having a multi-track way of recording at home that sounded good. Things started heading in that direction in the late ‘90s, but it wasn’t until around 2002, 2003, that it really started to sound good. I’ve done a lot more serious work recording on my own at home the last two or three years, with the Sid 'n Susie project, and my album, and I also produced an album for The Bridges last fall.

Paste: How much of Sunshine Lies was recorded at your home studio?
Sweet: The whole thing. It just took me a couple of years to get it together and finish it up, because Under the Covers happened right after I’d started it. So it would have been done sooner, but it would have sounded different because I wouldn’t have had as much time to play with it. Originally the album was a little one-sided, with a lot of snotty rock stuff. I’d just been working with The Thorns, which was a lot of poised acoustic stuff. After that, I just wanted to turn up the guitar and not care! Now I’m excited about the idea of doing another record quickly.

Paste: When you overdub a lot of parts on a song yourself, are you a fast worker?
Sweet: Oh yeah! While I might take two years to put out an album, I’ll only spend three or four hours on each song. I don’t belabor recording. I spend a lot of time listening to playbacks in a daze, but I don’t spend a lot of time recording. One of the things I tried to do this time especially was not perfect things. The drum tracks came from the first couple of takes. If the bass parts were a little too crazy, I’d just leave them in. I could think about things a lot more and make them better, quote unquote, but I’m afraid I’d end up sounding like everything else that’s modern and no fun.

Paste: Because you have a gift for melody, do you worry about your music being too nice?
Sweet: I thought about that more in the early days of my career because everything sounded softer and nicer than I wanted, but at this point I like those kinds of songs too. If they’re missing, I worry about that. That’s why John Lennon was my hero. He could do something sweet like “Julia” and then do something cool and psychedelic like “I Am the Walrus.” That’s the pinnacle of self-expression to me- if you’re gonna be a songwriter you should reflect all parts of your life.

Paste: As usual, you feature outstanding guitar players on your new album- Greg Leisz, as well as old friends Ivan Julian and Richard Lloyd. You must be easy to work with.
Sweet: I have a friendly approach to guitarists: I don’t ask them to do anything I thought of! If you bring in a guitarist for a session and have something in mind for them to do, that can be pretty restrictive. So I let them go crazy, because that’s what I want, and usually the result is something I love.

Paste: You mentioned producing the Bridges' album. Have you done much production in the past?
Sweet: I’ve had some big bands want to work with me over the years, like Matchbox 20, but I turned them down. I should have done that- today I’d have my own label with ten bands!

Paste: What appealed to you about the Bridges?
Sweet: I’d heard this basement recording they’d made, which had amazing piano-based songs with harmonies, and they reminded me of Fleetwood Mac. My mission was not to destroy them.  They wanted to be a little more rock, so I helped them get a louder sound. Now they face the modern-day record business, which is horrifying, but they’re so confident and so good that over time I think they’ll succeed.

Paste: Speaking of the contemporary record business, have you developed a workable business model for your own career?
Sweet: No, not really. Right now I’m hoping I can make another record with Shout! Factory.  They’re good people-- they’re the original Rhino team, and they like music. They’re also extremely conservative about spending money, which I’m extremely happy about. I want to come up with a model so I can get by, be creative and do my thing. Recording at home helps a lot, because I can basically make a record for free. But how, then, to make money? Whenever I can make money from doing something else, like having a song in a movie, something for TV, that will allow me to keep going and do my own thing in a pure way.

Paste: What about touring as a source of income?
Sweet: The sense I get about live performing now, especially for people from my era, is that it’s probably tight, due to the economy. But I am gonna tour, and I think we’ll be able to make it work. Whether I can make a living doing it, I’m not so sure. But I’m going to be trying anything I can, like I always have.

Paste: So you’re basically self-employed today. Is that better than being on a label?
Sweet: I used to feel this weird pressure when I was on a big label. I always got this bad feeling of “You’re never good enough.” Even when I had a gold record, it should have been double platinum. Now I just do my thing on my own. It’s like having a show in an art gallery- the question is: How well did the show go? You hope to make money from the show so that you can do more art. I think that model popped into my head because in the last few years I’ve learned to throw pottery on a wheel in my home and fire it on my own. That got me thinking about music as a personal object again.

Paste: Would you say you’re basically optimistic about the future?
Sweet: Music has been freed because of the Internet. As much as it might be the ruin of the record industry, I can’t help feeling a lot of great music will come out of the ashes. We’ve gotta figure out a way to make things work, and I think we will. I think things will change faster and faster. I’m a real tech head myself, and I’ve stayed current in technology, but I feel some other people are gonna come along and really make use of it.

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