SWEET SUCCESS Matthew Sweet

The Prince
of Power Pop masters
Modern
Art.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

Few other artists rank as high on the power pop
plateau as Matthew Sweet. His lengthy resume may have something to do with it –
after all, he’s been plying his talents for the better part of the past 30
years. While tenure alone isn’t cause to put a performer on a pedestal, Sweet’s
stature was elevated early on thanks to the critical kudos awarded albums like Girlfriend, Altered Beast and 100% Fun.
His fortunes have ebbed and flowed ever since, thanks in no small time part to
the game of musical chairs that’s found him darting between record company
affiliations, but to his credit, he’s never bowed to commercial considerations.
Consequently, his new album, Modern Art is sometimes abstract in its execution, thanks in large part to the psychedelic
sheen that inundates this effort. Sweet’s sound obsession with the Byrds
remains intact, with the hushed harmonies that waft through “Oh, Oldendaze,”
“She Walks the Night” and “Baltimore”
recalling the iconic Fifth Dimension and Notorious Byrd Brothers albums in
particular. That shouldn’t be surprising to anyone familiar with Sweet’s
trajectory, but the odder offerings – “Ivory Tower,” with its angry entreaties
(“Come down, come down from you Ivory Tower…”), the rocking “Ladyfingers” and
the ever-shifting “Late Nights with the Power Pop” – reflect a raucous side as
well. Whether or not Modern Art will
reap the same critical acclaim as his earlier masterpieces remains to be seen.
However, it remains a formidable representation of Sweet’s more sublime
sentiments.

 

Sweet’s musical journey began while he was still
in high school in Lincoln Nebraska
and then kicked into high gear when he enrolled in University
of Georgia in Athens. It was there he joined his first
professional group, Oh-Ok (which also included Michael Stipe’s sister Lynda),
and later its offshoot, Buzz of Delight. A series of solo demos helped him land
his first major label deal, with Columbia Records, and later, an ongoing stint
as a guitarist in Lloyd Cole’s backing band. But with Girlfriend and the albums that followed, Sweet became one of power
pop’s biggest success stories, one whose every album is eagerly anticipated by
his burgeoning fan following.

 

Naturally then, BLURT was all too eager to speak with Mr. Sweet about both his past
and present.

 

***

 


BLURT: How do you keep the quality so consistent? Do you ever worry that you’re going
to repeat yourself?

MATTHEW SWEET: (laughs) Oh, all the time! I feel like I can’t
get away from what I’m like! So I do get that feeling, but I guess it’s
different enough that I can get away with it.

 

The new
album was recorded in April, 2010. So what took so long to release it?

That’s correct. It took us a long time to figure
out where — and how – to put it out.

 

The song
“Ivory Tower” seems so pointed and accusatory. Is that aimed at anyone or
anything in particular?

No, not really. It’s more like an arch type I
guess.

 

How about
“Late Nights with the Power Pop?” That certainly has a tongue-in-cheek ring to
it.

Our former bass player Tony, played with me a
lot over the years, and he played in the Cruzados when they backed up Bob Dylan
on David Letterman. And there was a lot of interest about this performance and
so they made this kind of fanzine thing called “Late Nights with Bob Dylan.” So
when we were touring, our drummer Ric Menck always joked to Tony that he was
going to do his own book called “Late Nights with the Power Pop.” With the
accent on The power pop. It’s kind of
funnier, ya know? So I kept that in my head and wanted to use that title for a
song. The song has a little bit of these moments, a little nostalgia about when
we were younger and playing shows.

 

And there
are some interesting elements in the song, because it starts out one way and
then shifts, and then shifts again.

Yeah, it’s an interesting example of the weirder
structural nature of modern art.

 

Hearing
those lush harmonies sounds so Byrds-like. You really have it down. The album Notorious Byrd Brothers comes to mind in
hearing that.

(Laughs) Oh that’s awesome! I love hearing that!

 

You’ve
heard that said before though, right?

I’ve heard it some. I love that stuff. On Modern
Art
, “She Walks the Night” is sort of a Byrdsy kind of song, and the
harmonies are kind of Byrdsy on it. It’s something I’ve always done, ever since
I was singing on a cassette four track… I’ve always done those harmonies myself
and my voice doubles really easily, but that doesn’t always work so well for
some voices. But my voice works well when it’s doubled. Between doubles and
other notes, it’s really easy to get like six of me, and have a certain sound
to it.

 

Have you
ever met Roger McGuinn? He might adopt you as his long lost baby brother.

I have not. Paul and Ric got to back him up a
few years back. But I’ve never gotten to meet McGuinn, but I sure would like
to.

 

It would
be interesting to hear what he thinks of your work.

I’d be curious too, actually.

 

Is Missing
Piece a new label that you’re with now? Or your own label?

Kind of both. It’s actually a company that can
act as a label, although they’re also a promotions company. It’s run by an old
friend of mine, a guy named Michael Krumper, who worked at A&M records when
I was with A&M several years ago, and he’s been at a lot of labels.

 

You’ve
actually become quite a veteran of the music business over the course of your
career. You’ve worked with any number of labels – Columbia, A&M, RCA, not to mention
smaller companies like Zoo… How have those experiences shaped your view of the
music industry?

The whole thing has changed since I was really
tight with the industry. It’s really shrunk quite a bit since then… I’d say
it’s maybe 80% smaller, which is kind of mindboggling. On the other hand, it
allows for a lot of freedom for artists like me. There’s a lot of great music
being made, although I can’t imagine how people become known and really spread
it around these days. So from that perspective, I feel lucky to have come from
another era, the pre-internet era when we didn’t know everything about
everything and it was still a little bit more mysterious.

 

You’ve
been at it awhile, although I don’t want to age us here…

That’s okay…

 

Being that
you’ve been pursuing your career since at least the early ‘80s, how have things
changed as far as you’re concerned? You had tremendous success early on,
especially with the album Girlfriend and the discs that followed immediately after, and in the process, you set a
high bar for yourself. So does it ever feel kind of daunting when you think
about trying to match that standard?

I think most people to some degree have their
hits, and then they’re slave to that. Girlfriend was the first record of mine that became really known, but it also had a lot of
very direct relationship things, both from a positive and a negative view. And
I think a lot of people in couples got into it, and people that had broken up
got into it and they had a personal thing about it. So I don’t know, I never
thought about how would I achieve that again exactly. I’ve gone on and done
what I felt like at the time, and sometimes it’s more like Girlfriend and sometimes it’s less like Girlfriend. I try not to lose that direct, personal feeling of
things, and I find that more of a common denominator.

 

Now you’re
revisiting the album in concert, right?

That’s right. We’re doing the whole album and in
fact, we’re leaving for Spain
tomorrow and playing at a couple of festivals there, which will be the first
electric shows that we’ve done. It’s kind of horrifying and kind of exciting
(laughs). I’m hoping I get it all right and all that. Because we never played
all the songs back in the day, because some of them are a little more difficult
to do. So now we’re at the point where it’s all pretty easy, and I think we’ll
be able to pull it off.

 

Are you
doing the original album, or will you do the expanded album with the bonus
tracks?

The bonus tracks too. I think people kind of
expect those, so for now we’ve been including them. I guess when we’re out on
tour, we’ll see how the time goes with it. But for now, we’re doing all 15
songs.

 

Who is in
your touring band?

It’s just actually four of us. It’s me and Ric
Menck playing drums, and Paul Chastain is playing bass he’s my old buddy from
Velvet Crush — and then there’s a new guy named Dennis Taylor…

 

He’s on
the new album…

Yeah, he played lead on the album. So it’s just
the four of us and it’s stripped down, so I can’t be four singers and do all
the extra parts and stuff. But we all do what we can, and we’re not trying to
reinvent it. We’re just trying to recreate it, so I think it will go over well.

 

You’ve
always been so self-reliant, playing and singing most of the parts yourself
when you’re in the studio. So when you go out on the road, does it feel like a
drastic transition to have other musicians around and divvying up the parts?

No, not really. When I’m out playing live, I’m
thinking about me and getting my vocals right, so I’m just trying to get
through it (laughs), so I guess I don’t worry about it as much. It’s a
different situation. It’s louder and more visceral live, so it’s a different
thing I go after in a live setting than maybe what you’d go after on a record.

 

So then
the obvious question is – why in the studio do you choose to record everything
yourself rather than employ a band?

And bring other people in? Well, I think it’s
easier for me. It was what I was always doing when I made demos for the records
that I made. So now I don’t really make demos, I make recordings, and then pick
which ones I want to put on something. So now I’ve lost my train of thought…

 

We’re
talking about why you choose to do it yourself…

Oh yeah – It’s not consciously that I don’t want
other people. In fact, I do like other people. I can try to play guitar myself
on a record really easily, but it’s fun to get someone else who might discover
something that I wouldn’t do. And I always did miss having other people, so I
do try to get them involved when I can. But I guess playing live helps me have
that family feeling. It’s kind of lonely being a solo guy.

 

When
you’re in the studio, do you do all your parts first and then bring in Ric and
Dennis to do the overdubs?

Well, it depends. Usually I have the drums play
first, and then maybe I play guitar along with it while we’re tracking.
Sometimes I will make up an idea to a click track, but it will be really
sketchy, so I’ll have Ric play along. Mostly, it’s pretty simple… put some
drums down, play guitar, put some bass on it, do some singing. I like to put
the vocals on right away. Early in my career, I would put the vocals off until
the last thing, because the singing is the most dramatic element sort of. But
now, I like to dive in right away and get it pretty decent early on so that I
know kind of what I’m building around. So I’ve changed a little bit over time.

 

You said
that the drums get laid down first and that’s interesting because on “Ivory
Tower” it sounds like you let Fred Armisen just go nuts on drums on that song.

He played two or three things on the drums and
sent them to me after he had recorded them into a reorder. Not like in a real
studio, just really simple. And I just sort of had this song that I grafted
right into it, using the exact structure of what he sent me, which was kind of
funny.

 

Is he a buddy
of yours?

We’re acquaintances. We haven’t gotten to hang
out a whole lot, but we’re texting buddies. A couple of times over the last
couple of years Susanna Hoffs and I have appeared with him at a couple of shows
he did in Los Angeles, where we came out and played a couple of songs. We’re
big fans of his. We met him on the “Mad Men” set… we’re “mad Men” freaks and we
met the show’s creator, Matt Weiner, so we got to go visit the set, and while
we were there we met Fred, who at the time was about to get married to
Elizabeth Moss. They already broken up actually – they broke up instantly – but
at the time he was there visiting the set and that’s how we met him.

 

So you
were on the set just hanging out?

We went and watched them film a scene and it was pretty awesome because John
Ham, who plays Don Draper… well, Sue had met him at parties before I met him,
but it turned out he had seen me play live at – I want to say Columbia Missouri
– its between Kansas City and St. Louis – and we had crazy shows there back in the day, and he was at this one show that
I remember fairly well, and he remembered it too. So it was kind of cool
because he was like my young fan. So I’ve been a big supporter of “Mad Men” and
I get to go to screenings and things. The last two episodes they had an actual
screening in a theater and I got to go…

 

You live
in L.A., right?

That’s right, yeah.

 

So how
immersed are you in the music scene there?

Not much really. I know people, but I tend to
keep to myself. I’m much more outgoing when I do my stuff with Sue. She’s much
more social. I do special things with her, and it’s nice to have a friend that
I can do it with (laughs). But it doesn’t come naturally to me. I know a few
musicians.

 

You’ve
been cited as one of the forebears of Power Pop, so one would think other
musicians are just drawn to you. You must be viewed as this sort of icon, being
that so many people are doing now what you started doing back in the day.

I don’t know. I don’t meet that many people, but
I feel lucky that some people remember and care and that we can do interviews
like this, so it’s still sort of going on. As far as the Power pop thing, it
really is kind of flattering. There’s so many of those bands like Cheap Trick
and the Raspberries, and I think they were much more sort of genuine Power Pop
than me (chuckles), but having said that, it’s really nice to have a place
where I’m supposed to belong.

 

With your
sense of melody, and your ability to craft these songs and arrange them as well
as you do, it seems like at one time, you were really on the brink of a mass
appeal commercial success, and that if you had deliberately gone in that
direction, you’d be a radio staple by now. It might have been very easy for you
to cross over from your cult status and become a big star.

That would be great. I think that with people
right now who are really big, it’s such a drive to become famous and to get
everybody’s attention so intensely. But I think that’s not me, and that’s why
I’m not in that place. But then I also think that the times change, and you’re
part of a time and you can’t get away from that. There are very few people who
just span every decade and stay totally relevant the whole time. It seems like
things have become such a free-for-all that due to the Internet, what we knew
ten years ago as rock history has been greatly disturbed. It all kind of blows
my mind. I remember when I first got into Beatles records — it was such
ancient history. But it had only been ten years — or not even that long — so
it’s kind of amazing to me that so much time has passed in my life that it’s
been 20 years since Girlfriend came
out. So I’m happy to still be talking about it.

 

Who are
some of the artists that you’re keeping up with these days? Are there any who
have especially struck your fancy?

God, I don’t even know. Honestly, I don’t keep
track of anything new. I mean, if you threw out some names I might be able to
say, oh, they’re okay or I’ve never heard of them. I just really don’t keep up
with modern music. I know a little bit about people who have become really big,
so I’ll ask, “What are they like?” but generally I’m not super informed.

 

You
continue to pay homage to the past, though. The two albums with Susanna Hoffs
were certainly revealing. Is there going to be a third?

There is and it should be out sometime next year. We’re going to do an ‘80s
one.

 

So you’re
going decade by decade?

Yeah, we did ‘60s and ‘70s and we’ll do ‘80s,
but I don’t know if we’ll go beyond that. But we’ll see how it goes (chuckles).

 

Well, if
you do go any farther, you better start getting familiar with some current
bands.

Exactly. I’ll have to learn a little bit of
music to keep up.

 

So what’s
the plan now? Are you focusing on touring?

We’re going to tour this fall, all of October
into November, and play Girlfriend at
those shows mainly. We’ll probably play two or three songs off Modern Art, but we won’t have a whole
lot of time because the volume of Girlfriend takes quite awhile.

 

Which
songs will you play from the new album?

I know we’re playing “She Walks the Night.” I
think we’re going to play “Baltimore.”
We rehearsed it. As a third one, I’m not quite sure yet.

 

The song
we talked about before – “Ivory Tower”…

Yeah, “Ivory Tower.” That would be fun.

 

Final
question. Any chance we’ll ever see an Oh OK reunion? Or for that matter, a
recently said reconvening by Buzz of Delight?

(Laughs) I don’t know. I’d love to reconvene Buzz of Delight. David Pierce and
I recently said hello through a writer that wrote a big article about him, the Creative Loafing magazine in Atlanta, and so I know
we’re positive with each other (chuckles). We’ll have to find out what’s up
with Linda Hopper and Lynda Stipe for Oh OK, but I think it would be awesome to
do that kind of stuff.

 

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