I chatted with Sweet by phone recently about one of his most popular records and recreating it on this tour. In the process we discussed recording, the music business and his favorite artist to cover.
Scott Allen: What made you choose to release your new album "Modern Art" at the same time as the twentieth anniversary of "Girlfriend?" A coincidence or a conscious decision?
Matthew Sweet: Really, a coincidence. Although it's been kind of cool to be able to promote the two at the same time. I finished "Modern Art" last summer so I'm just on the normal schedule that takes a few months to figure out how we're putting out a record. During that time I realized that it's 20 years in 2011 for "Girlfriend." So I really suggested should we be doing shows or something. Then once we were really doing them I thought, "What was I thinking?" It was really daunting to learn it all. But now that we know it -- we played the "Girlfriend" show a couple times in Spain early this month so we know we can get through it.
I was wondering if anyone at the record label was trying to talk you out of this or if it was a welcome opportunity.
I think it was a welcome opportunity. I think that the label liked that they could make packages that included "Girlfriend" as well.
Obviously a strong album in your catalog and one that got a little bit of a boost a few years ago with the expanded edition.
And that edition is still available so I know they did some packages for our website where you get "Modern Art" vinyl and the "Girlfriend" special edition and t-shirts and signed stuff. It's very modern, they've worked hard -- our label -- to help us update the site and make it like a modern site. I guess that's how you do it.
I have noticed that more artists are going to that same format and the record labels must have caught on to that or pushed it in that direction. So, how much involvement do you have with the marketing after the record is done and the process starts to release the album?
I have quite a bit of the involvement because a lot of the process involves me doing something. Already on the West Coast we've done a ton of little acoustic things for promo, various online things and acoustic things for interviews. So, doing all that stuff is really the involvement with the process. I'd say it's pretty hands on, although, they come up with some ideas for little promotions from the publicity department.
Is that something they have to pitch you with and you have to sign off on it?
What do you think about ... we want to do this big contest thing and whoever wins gets a piece of your pottery or whatever. You know that kind of thing. We got one this morning that was, we want to get a backing track without melody or lyrics and then a company lets the people who join to have a contest writing music and words over my backing track. But I get some cut of the fee they have to pay to do it. There are all kinds of odd opportunities out there these days.
Ahhh, the modern music business.
The people taking advantage of the Internet have realized there are a lot of opportunities there.
Your new single "She Walks the Night" certainly has that chiming Roger McGuinn style 12-string or maybe a Tom Petty as produced by Jeff Lynne sound if you will. Obviously your music is influenced a lot by '60s and '70s pop/rock and more obscure bands like Big Star. What part of that sound draws you in? What's made that your signature over the years?
Well, I really love 12-string guitars and once you start jangling on a 12-string it really gets into that Byrds territory right away. Maybe that's the initial impetus, just liking the sound of a 12-string. I like the sound of a chime with those high octaves on a bunch of the strings. It just makes a sound that I really dig. Even when I play acoustic I tend to use a lot of 12-strings.
The bio on your website describes your new album as "not a one listen album" but one that deepens in scope over time. Do you find it hard to make a statement of an album in this era of singles and digital downloads?
I don't. It's up to people who listen how easy it is for them or not. I don't think I feel weird about it. I feel more comfortable making an album kind of statement than if I was only thinking about singles. To me, one song is never enough. I always like there to be more. Even if there is really a great song in my mind it needs to be with other songs. To me I think it's still pretty comfortable.
You're about ten years older than me. So you're in your mid 40s and still writing songs about relationships. Are those songs harder as you get older as relationships become more complicated over time rather than the early 20s relationships?
Yes, I'm 46 almost 47. (Laughs) There is something simple about the young "falling-in-love" vibe. Although, I get that feeling again, now and again, and if I'm writing songs then I might write a song like that. I think you have other feelings. I think about time a lot, but then I've been wrestling with that on records for a long time. In terms of this record it's a little more stream of consciousness. It's got some oddball things like the ghost on "She Walks the Night." But, no, I wouldn't say it's harder to write music exactly.
Do you draw inspiration from your songwriting from your personal life or from friends and family or is it more obtuse than that?
I think it's a little bit more obtuse. It's more feelings, general deep-down feelings that influence my writing more than anything. I tend to not have preconceived ideas about what I'm doing, but try to get in a mode where I'm expressing myself and not thinking about it. So, I think most of the feelings are pretty primal.
Your backing band for this tour is Paul Chastain and Rick Menck and Dennis Taylor. While Chastain and Menck made appearances on "Girlfriend," Taylor is a little new to the fold. What does his guitar playing bring to your work?
He has a wide stylistic ability. We connect for some reason. The way he plays it's extremely musical, but he will do a lot of experimenting and going after things. He will go for it in a moment of recording and doesn't play the same thing every time. He has a very creative side coupled with this massive ability. I don't know where he gets it from -- playing for a long time I guess. In a way he's constantly surprising me with things he does. In terms of playing the "Girlfriend" album, which is what we're doing on this tour, he is very good at learning the things that were on that album. He adds some authenticity in what he's playing because it's closer to what the album was than most of the time I've had.
I don't know how old he is.
Dennis is younger than me, but he's probably about 40 or so.
Those guitar parts were done by guys, Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine, that were older at the time than you by 10 or 15 years or so. So, I would imagine it has to take some dexterity to play those parts being those guys were experienced players.
Yeah, and they also have very specific styles. I know with the Quine stuff Dennis is like, "This is crazy, what he played." He can really do either of their kind of thing really well. I think the Quine side he really excels at the jangly moody kind of line and making noise sort of emotion. Dennis is really good at copying that and also the Richard Lloyd sort of blues/rock guitar playing. I think he spans the styles really well. He has a global ability that fits for me.
You were in your mid-20s when "Girlfriend" was originally released. An early time in a career for an artist to release a divorce record. Then it became a break-through record with airplay and career defining songs. Do those songs continue to create an emotional response for you?
I think they do and that's been one of the surprises about playing the whole album. I guess I would have worried or thought that it would have been this weird old thing that I have to get into. (Laughs) Instead it just feels like yesterday. I feel comfortable doing the things that are on it. I still like them. There's not anything I hate on it that I wish I didn't have to play. For that extent it works really well.
That leads me into a recording question. There was a bit published in Tapeop magazine a few years back that the album was recorded without reverb or guitar effect pedals.
I don't think we used any reverb. I think that's correct. Guitar pedals, I can't say. I think we probably would have used some pedals, but maybe not. You know who would remember is [Girlfriend co-producer] Fred Maher.
Was the lack reverb to lessen the decisions during recording and mixing process or an intentional decision to not date the recording?
No, I think it was intentional like, "Let's make something really dry." So we'll work the reverb [level] from [there]. That was the attitude, I think, at the time. I mean I like reverb and have used it quite a bit since, but it was sort of one of the guidelines on that one that we weren't going to use it.
Additionally, that was something in Richard Lloyd's heritage as well with his work in Television, because those albums certainly seem sort of dry at times.
I know what you're saying. That does make sense. Well, Richard and I really hit it off when we met. I met him when I was playing with the Golden Palominos. We both like really melodic, poppy stuff so it really worked well to work together. I love his guitar playing. I think he may join us some in New York when we're playing "Girlfriend" there.
The new album was recorded at your home studio while "Girlfriend" was recorded at Axis in New York. With all the solo albums under your belt at this point what's you're preferred working style? Do you like using a big studio or home studio?
I like both. Big studios we get into less and less. A lot of them are closing down. I just heard about the big studio we used in Atlanta with Brendan O'Brien when we made "100% Fun" -- Southern Tracks which was a happening studio. The business has changed so much. I think it's hard for studios to survive. For that matter, it would be hard for artists like me to get records out if I had to spend a huge amount of money making them. Instead I make my records for free at home and then sell them and do what I can to sell a few copies. I like working at home, and I kind of prefer it at this point because I'm really used to it and it's a casual approach for me.
Do you work analog or digitally these days?
Totally digital. I work in a Pro Tools HD system.
That figures when you work from home. Tape limits yourself to one decision or another.
Yeah, I have given up on tape as have many.
Especially with the expense of it these days.
Yeah, it's just too easy to do editing and other things. The multi-tracking of vocals is really easy in Pro Tools.
With the two albums of covers with Susanna Hoffs under your belt you enjoy playing other people's songs. What's your favorite song or two that you like to cover?
Oh, wow. When Susanna and I are going out and having to do an acoustic thing, anything small, we often do Neil Young songs. They're really fun to sing together because a lot of them work really well with two parts. Like "Cinnamon Girl" and "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" those are kind of our favorite ones to sing live.
Neil Young seems to be someone you've liked to cover for a while. You've covered "Don't Cry No Tears" or "Cortez The Killer." Neil just hits a really nice spot for you?
That's right! I've covered him a few times. I think so, I really like his whole thing of cranking up a guitar and his songwriting. To me, he's like my favorite guys: John Lennon, Brian Wilson and Alex Chilton. I think of him as a guy like that. So, I'm a big Neil fan.
Can we expect any surprises on the tour? You already mentioned one with Richard Lloyd. Is the set list full with album cuts and the "Girlfriend" portion?
We play the whole "Girlfriend" album as the main set. That takes about an hour and that's without the bonus tracks. We're still kind of up in the air whether we're playing the bonus tracks or not because we want to play some songs off "Modern Art," as well as a few of the other songs like "We're The Same" and maybe "The Ugly Truth." So, it's mainly we're playing "Girlfriend" -- here we are we're doing the album.
That's surprising that you say that because I was thinking about the show before the interview and how you would mix these two things together. When I saw Springsteen a few years ago he played full albums on that last E Street tour. What he would do is come out and play four or five songs and then play a whole album and then go back to the set list at that point. So, I assumed that might be the case, but what you're saying is we're playing "Girlfriend" and whatever we can fit in on the end.
Well, it's sort of like that, but we'll give attention to everything.
Personally, I would like to hear the new material live as well.
I know it's hard and I'm not like Springsteen. I'm not the two-hour show guy either. I'm more comfortable playing an hour and twenty minutes or hour and a half. (Laughs)
Matthew Sweet performs a sold-out show at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room on October 15.