SURVIVAL OF THE SWEETEST: Matthew Sweet

With a long-awaited new album, the power pop auteur is back in his groove.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

Granted, Matthew Sweet didn’t invent power pop. That distinction is best left to earlier auteurs like the Raspberries, the Shoes, Cheap Trick and others that followed the Beatles and Badfinger to carve out a genre all its own. Still, one would be hard pressed to think of anyone who’s done more to advance the cause than Matthew Sweet. Indeed, Sweet’s series of essential early albums — Inside, Earth, Girlfriend, Altered Beast, 100% Fun and Blue Sky on Mars, chief among them — helped assure the power pop trajectory would remain prosperous and plentiful well into the new millennium.

Beginning a decade or so ago, Sweet further affirmed his affinity for all things pop by initiating a series of releases with Bangle Susanna Hoffs which the duo aptly dubbed Under the Covers. There have been three volumes so far (not counting a fourth included on a box set that banded the first three). To date, they’ve covered some of the most indelible songs in the pop canon decade by decade, from the ‘60s through the ‘80s, giving listeners a sample of the pair’s earliest influences and a nostalgic trip down memory lane as well.

Still, it’s been six years since Sweet’s offered up an album of all original material, which made the wait for his new effort, Tomorrow Forever cause for great anticipation. All of its songs boast the same ready refrains and instantly engaging melodies that marked earlier Sweet’s earlier triumphs and with all-star array of special guests — Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, added Bangle Debbi Peterson, the Zombies’ Rod Argent and members of the Velvet Crush and the Orange Peels as well, ample attention is well deserved. A move back to his home state of Nebraska and his mother’s passing might have impeded its progress, but clearly Tomorrow Forever can be considered yet another Sweet success.

Blurt recently spoke with Sweet who offered us the opportunity to catch up us on his recent activities…

BLURT: Please give us an idea of how the new album came about.

SWEET: Before I moved from Los Angeles, I had talked about doing some sort of Kickstarter campaign. I always wanted to try it. So once I got back here, after eight or nine months or so, I actually started the campaign while I was out doing shows. It was a lot of fun to try to whip up the excitement about it. The only hitch was that very shortly afterwards, my mother passed away and instead of jumping right into making the record, several months passed before I felt like I could approach it.

Once you did get back into it, how did the writing progress?

Originally the plan was that I would do tons of demos and then pull from those demos to make the full album. I started so late that I felt like it was going to take even longer to approach it that way, so instead I started recording everything I wrote during that time. And one of the ways that I made sure to get a lot of different things was to make multiple batches of recordings. There was an initial batch of like 15 songs, and then after that, I did two more sets, making a total of 38 tracks I recorded for the record. So we had to get it down to 17 songs from 38. a demos download that was sold with the album as part of the Kickstarter campaign and that became a whole satellite album to the main album. I called Tomorrow’s Daughter. It’s kind of a throwback to the bonus release we did to accompany Altered Beast. So that’s another twelve songs that didn’t make the album, but were things that we all kind of liked. I had a group of friends around me and we listened a lot to all the music. We all had to make our favorites list. What made it easy was that everyone more or less picked the same 15 songs. But nobody really wanted to stop there. Everybody wanted to have a list that went up to 20 or 23, and so there were these extra songs that were close to making the cut, and that made it a relief for me to make the Daughter record because I felt those songs could see the light of day. I imagine that we’ll package those properly at some point, but right now the Kickstarter people will be the first to hear them.

Will they come out simultaneously with the release of the album?

Yes. It’s coming soon. I just had a request from the office to send the files so I know we’re getting close to make those downloads available. It’s been a little bit tricky. The record was received really well from my publishing company and they got very excited and got other people involved. So I made a deal where I have my own label called Honeycomb Hideout which comes out through Sony Red distribution. As a result, we wanted to closely align the Kickstarter campaign with the actual release of the record so there wasn’t a big gap where all the Kickstarter people had it and it could float around and get copied before it was available.

What prompted your move from L.A. back to Nebraska?

When the real estate market came back, we had it in our minds that we wanted to cash in on this nest egg that we had built over twenty years because it had tripled in value. So we wanted to move somewhere. We looked all around but it was my wife who suggested we look around in Nebraska.

But with all due respect, isn’t Omaha a bit out of the way in terms of the hotspots of musical activity?

I felt like I could go anywhere. It didn’t really matter. So we happened upon this house in Omaha that caught our fancy. It’s an interesting place that was built in 1937. The front of it looks almost like a Disney kind of take on a French chateau house. The back of it and the interior are more like a craftsman/art deco kind of era, and so it’s just really different and unique. Some of the rooms are built in a kind of honeycomb shape and so that’s where we came up with the name of the label, Honeycomb Hideout. There’s also a room here that was perfect for me to use as a studio room. I’ve always thought to have serious recording studios in my houses but I really always had a set up in a room that was not meant to be a studio necessarily. However there was a space in this house that made sense. It has this wood panelling. It’s almost like an old ship and so I decided to call it Black Squirrel Submarine.

It’s funny to hear you refer to all these island and nautical themes being that you’re in the middle of the country and pretty much landlocked as a result.

(Laughs) It’s a little bit strange. This room that I use is kind of in the bowels of the house, so it’s got that vibe. It came from that. When we first moved in we saw some black squirrels running around. They aren’t super common, but you see them every now and then. So Black Squirrel Submarine became this kind of name that just ended up sticking. It’s funny. There are a lot of businesses around here called Black Squirrel. They’ll be Black Squirrel Industries or Black Squirrel Tattoo Parlour. So there are other industries, but I don’t think there’s another Black Squirrel Recording.

How long had you been gone before you came back?

A really long time. I left when I got out of high school, and then I went to Athens Georgia where I went to school briefly. I mostly skipped school and started doing independent recording and did my first stuff down there. When I got my first record deal, which was sort of a development deal with Columbia Records in New York, they moved me up to New York City and I was introduced to Jules Shear. I wrote some songs with him and spent several months just writing. They gave me money to buy gear and get an apartment up there. So I lived in New York most of the time after I got out of high school which was 1983 until 1993, which is when we moved to Los Angeles. I lived back here a couple of very brief periods in the late ‘80s, but for the most part, I was on the East Coast. I then went right into recording Altered Beast in Los Angeles and kind of got turned on to L.A. by Richard Dashed, the Fleetwood Mac producer who was working on Altered Beast with me. He took me around L.A. and showed me all the cool places. I was pretty into it, and my soon-to-be wife came out when I was finishing up that record in 1993. I was excited about living there, the label, Zoo Entertainment, was based there, and so it all kind of made sense. They were really kind of like a family. I wasn’t with a big label, but Zoo Entertainment was distributed through BMG Entertainment. So we moved there from Princeton where I was living at the time. I like Princeton. We had a great house because I could play drums and make noise all day since it wasn’t near all the other houses. I kind of feel like I’ve lived all over the place.

I interviewed Conor Oberst not too long ago and I was noting the fact that he lives in Nebraska, and with all due respect, it’s not exactly a hub of the music business. What was it like to be back after having lived in the places that were close to the entertainment industry? And we ask that question without trying to put it down.

I understand that. For one thing, Conor and the whole Saddle Creek guy had created a whole music scene here where by the time I moved here, it was known somewhat as a hotbed of music. You were seeing a lot of bands coming out of here.

The new album has some wonderful special guests. Were these all people you had worked with before?

Yes, but not everybody. John Moremen, who played guitar, is from San Francisco. I met him on a tour where his band, the Orange Peels, were opening for us. I heard him play lead and I told him I’d love to have him play lead on one of my records some time. Jason Victor was recommended by my then guitar player, Dennis Taylor, who had been touring with me, but had to take a break due to some personal issues. Dennis saw Jason playing with Dream Syndicate and got it in his head that Jason would be a good fit for playing with me. Jason will be on the road with us this summer. It was very funny and cryptic. I would send him a track and tell him to play whatever he wanted and he would send it back and I loved it.  Val McCallum, who played slide guitar and some other novelty sounds on the record, I had known on and off from Los Angeles, but we had never really worked together. Greg Leisz, who’s a good friend of mine, was playing with Jackson Browne and they were in Sioux City Iowa, which is about 100 miles north of Omaha. So we drove up there and kind of cornered them and asked them to do some stuff on my record. In the end, Greg was too busy. He was out on the road the whole time, but Val was able to cover for both of them. He came through and brought some special stuff to the record. So we got to know each other from working together over the internet.

Out of curiosity, has there ever been any talk about reconvening your great supergroup of sorts, the Thorns? That was a great combination — you, Shawn Mullins and Pete Yorn.

There hasn’t been a lot of talk about doing it, but I do think it would be fun to do. That record happened when the business was still together enough to allow us to sell 175,000 records. It would just be incredible now. It wasn’t quite enough to be a big hit for the record company. We toured for a couple of years and opened some shows for the Dixie Chicks and worked very hard on it, but financially we weren’t really provided for. We wanted to share the advance so we could produce the record ourselves, but the label didn’t agree to do it and then the label option ran out. We still wanted to do a record and we were free, but we also wanted to do our solo stuff. It really came together very quickly without us planning to have a group exactly. I think we did something special and I think we could do that again now, but it would take someone coming along and saying, “Hey guys, make a Thorns record” and we’d need the financial backing to make it happen.

So how would you sum up your progress and your trajectory up until this point?

To some extent, I’m a person who never looks back. Still, I feel really lucky to be able to hang in here and still put out my music.

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