Matt Sharp

From Weezer to Quiet Troubador

Music Features Matt Sharp
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The first two albums by the band Weezer are about as close to perfect as pop-rock can get, and I’ll happily fight anyone who wants to challenge this assertion. Every squawking guitar solo, falsetto backing vocal, and drum fill is in its right place. After the band faded into late-’90s obscurity and its 1996 album Pinkerton became a cult classic, the band’s fans didn’t seem to show any signs of wavering, snatching up every limited-edition single or unreleased demo they could get their hands on. And these same fans were giddy with enthusiasm when it was announced that Weezer would be releasing a new record in 2001.

The album, which came to be known as “the Green album,” was a self-titled, 10-song pop gem similar in many ways to Weezer’s debut (“the Blue album”), except for two conspicuous changes: 1) the picture of the band on the record’s cover revealed that original bassist Matt Sharp had been replaced by Mikey Welsh and 2) the personality and passion of the band seemed to have gone missing.

It is impossible to say whether Sharp’s departure from Weezer is responsible for the disparity between pre- and post-comeback Weezer, but one thing is clear: while his former bandmates have gravitated further toward chunky arena rock and pyrotechnic stage shows, Sharp has been quietly marching in the opposite direction, touring the country in an RV and playing to sleepy crowds of young people sprawled across floors on pillows and blankets.

The question, of course, is simply “why?” This isn’t so much a question of Sharp’s leaving Weezer as it is his abandonment of his own accomplished rock project, the underrated Rentals, who released two brilliant albums in the ’90s. The Rentals had catchy songs, great harmonies, creative instrumentation, and best of all, heartfelt, meaningful songs—1999’s Seven More Minutes was an intense chronicle of Sharp’s relationship with a woman he met in Spain. While the record was not a commercial success, it was a triumph of modern rock music. Sharp’s new approach, however, has more in common with Nick Drake and Bob Dylan than his previous bands.

“When I started Weezer with the fellas, and started the Rentals, at that point I was asking myself, and we were asking ourselves, a lot of questions,” Sharp says. “It was a constant thing of self-examination…I feel like we were doing the kinds of music that meant a lot to us, and that we would want to hear from other people. We did what we were trying to do as good as we could do it.”

At some point, though, Sharp noticed a widening chasm between the type of music he was playing and the music that he loved. During his rock years, Sharp says, “the kind of music that I was playing was the kind of music that was in my record collection. Over time, that started to separate a little bit—the kind of music that you’re listening to starts to not be the same thing that you’re performing, and then there starts to become a real gap.”

Sharp saw many of his musical peers go through similar phases—maturing in their musical tastes, but still bashing out the same rock songs. “I just looked at the record collections of my friends who were continuing to do the same kind of music, and the music they were listening to had nothing to do with the music that they were performing,” he says.

“That idea really started to flip me out a little bit,” Sharp admits. “The thought was to make another Rentals record right after Seven More Minutes, and Seven More Minutes was an incredibly taxing experience. It was beautiful, but also really very chaotic … that wasn’t what I was listening to, or what I was turned on by or moved by.”

Sharp decided to take a hiatus from the music business, abandoning the Rentals and his former record label to move to the rural town of Leipers Fork, Tenn. Rentals devotees scratched their heads and wondered whether Sharp would ever resurface. When he finally did, playing a handful of acoustic shows in Mexican restaurants and mattress stores, it was a little surprising to find that the man behind the Moog-saturated rockers of the Rentals was being—well, quiet.

Sharp began touring with his new musical partners, including pedal steel/guitarist Josh Hager and another alterna-rock dropout, Greg Brown, formerly a guitarist in the band Cake. Sharp recorded an album’s worth of material with this team, some of which was just released on the EP Puckett’s Versus the Country Boy, Sharp’s first release in four years.

“The record is quite a departure, sonically, and mood-wise in some sense,” says Sharp. “The songs are very long, and slow, and patient. They definitely don’t go for the throat, and are not trying to keep your attention by shaking your head off or anything by going ‘LISTEN TO ME!’”

Ultimately, this is the difference between the Matt Sharp of the Rentals (whose music he once described as “a tower of song, monuments of sound, with very dense arrangements, a billion tracks of synthesizers, a zillion layers of female harmonies”) and the kinder, gentler version: he’s not here to shout at anyone.

Sharp just wants to share his music with people who are doing their dishes or about to go to sleep. He sums it up by stating that his new material is “something you put on in the background and just live with it. It’s not a pop record in that sense.” But it is a pop record in the sense that Sharp has not abandoned any of the passion and craft he devoted to rock music. He’s just turned down a little.