Interview date: 08/22/2008
Run date: 08/27/2008
If you consider yourself to be someone who worships at the altar of power pop, then you’ve probably been genuflecting in Matthew Sweet’s direction for quite some time. Since beginning his music career in the mid-1980s, Sweet has released several albums which are considered to be classic of the genre, most notably 1991’s Girlfriend and 1995’s 100% Fun. Sweet has maintained a relatively steady pace of recording and touring over the years, including a covers album with Susanna Hoffs (a pairing he always refers to as “Sid ‘n’ Susie”), but 2008 brings us his first new solo record in four years: Sunshine Lies. Bullz-Eye spoke with Sweet about the new album and his work with Hoffs, provided an answer to our query about the possibility of another Thorns album, and let loose about the inclusion of “Girlfriend” on “Guitar Hero 2.” First, though, we had to actually get him on the phone, which took a bit of doing, since his previous interview was running a bit long, necessitating a callback or two.
Matthew Sweet: Sorry! You just had to call twice, didn’t you? The guy I was doing the interview with was from my hometown, and he’s my friend, so it was hard to get off the phone with him, but…well, anyway, hi!
Bullz-Eye: Hi! (Laughs) And it’s good to talk with you again. The last time we chatted, Susanna Hoffs was on the line with us…
MS: Ah, okay!
BE: …and I felt like you and I really bonded over our appreciation of her work in “The Allnighter.”
MS: (Laughs) You know, I’ve never seen “The Allnighter” in, like, the modern era of working with her, and she’s always saying, “You can’t watch it!” I’d really love to see it, because I can’t remember…I don’t remember it being very racy, exactly.
BE: Well, it was racy when I was 16, and if I view it with those rose-colored glasses, then I guess it still holds up on that level.
MS: Oh, so you’ve seen it again since then?
BE: Oh, yeah: I’ve got it on DVD.
MS: Wow. I’ve gotta check it out. As soon as it shows up on iTunes…
BE: I’m sure it’ll be up there sooner than later. So, anyway, it’s been some time since you’ve actually had a new studio album of your own…just your own…coming out.
MS: It has, for sure. It’s been quite awhile, and it’s been really cool, because, y’know, that experience with the Sid ‘n’ Susie record was really great for us with Shout Factory, so I’m happy to be able to put my record out on Shout Factory as well. And it works out perfect, timing-wise, for us, because we’re going to be putting out a ‘70s Sid ‘n’ Susie record next year, so we’re able to just kind of keep doing things all the way through. It’s been a lot of fun.
BE: So if I’ve got this right, your last record, Living Things, came out in 2004, but it was actually recorded in 2002. So how long was it between solo sessions for you?
MS: Well, you know, I’m always recording and doing demos and stuff, but I started working on what became this album right after…let’s see, we came back from The Thorns, and I put out Living Things and the Japanese record (Kimi Ga Suki Raifu) here, which I then had rights for worldwide, because a number of years had passed. So I guess we toured for that, and then we went to Spain in early the next year, which was 2005, so it was probably late 2005 when I started this. I did a first batch of a bunch of songs, and they were all kind of really rock. It was kind of my reaction to just wanting to go electric after The Thorns. (Laughs) So I did a big batch of stuff, and Richard Lloyd and Ivan Julian played on that stuff, and I was kind of working on that when the whole Sid ‘n’ Susie thing came together. So I worked on both during the time we were making that record, and then we promoted Sid ‘n’ Susie, and then I worked on it some more, and then I ended up producing this group called The Bridges right here in my house, and then we started doing the second Sid ‘n’ Susie record… (Laughs) …but all along I’ve been working on it by doing new little batches, adding new songs in, changing things around. So it’s not like I’ve labored over it for two and a half years or anything. It’s just that I sporadically worked on it. (Laughs)
BE: You made the comment about some of the songs being really rock. I’ve always felt that your stuff teeter-totters between brash rock and polished pop. This record definitely leans more toward the former, though, I think.
MS: Yeah, well, y’know, it took so many shapes. It’s, like, when it was super only rock, I liked it, but I kinda felt it was just one-sided. I always like for there to be a variety. I like really poppy, melodic stuff, but I also like edgy rock stuff. It’s harder for me to do rock songs that feel as important as more melodic songs do, like ballads and things, so that’s another reason. I really like to feel like there’s some music there that you really feel something from beyond just kick-ass. (Laughs) But I do like both things, though.
BE: Some of the songs remind me favorably of Altered Beast.
MS: Oh, that’s cool!
BE: And I guess it’s probably no coincidence, given that you’ve gotten back together with Ivan Julian.
MS: Yeah, well, Ivan and I have been friends all through the years, and he actually toured with me quite a bit during the ‘90s.
BE: Oh, yeah, I saw you at the Boathouse in Norfolk, VA, with him a couple of times.
MS: Oh, yeah, the Boathouse! That was awesome. Those were great gigs. We had a lot of fun there. That was a fun place. Is it still open?
BE: No, it suffered through a lot of hurricane damage a few years back. It’s still there, but whoever owns it isn’t willing to foot the bill.
MS: I think you told me that last time, actually. That’s too bad. It was so fun. During some of our heyday, the crowds were so much fun there, and they had a “beer garden,” and…I’ve lost my train of thought now. (Laughs) What were we talking about?
BE: You were touring with Ivan.
MS: Oh, right, and you saw us at the Boathouse. Yeah, so I go way back with him, and the same with Richard Lloyd, and although I don’t see them that much, because they live in New York, I like to do stuff with them when I can. So that was a treat to have them out, and that gave me plenty of ammo for whatever rock thing I was planning to put on the album that I wasn’t going to do myself.
BE: And Susanna, obviously, does a guest vocal on there.
MS: Yes, she does a spot singing as the sun in the title track, “Sunshine Lies.” It’s actually my wife and her both singing a little bit of background vocals. It was kind of an off-the-cuff thing. I had this song, and I thought, “I’ll have a girl voice do this part!” And Sue loves to sing on stuff, so she was really excited. “I sang on your album!”
BE: The album has a very casual feel to it, which I guess comes from doing it gradually over the course of time.
MS: Well, I think also that…it’s funny, because I was just talking about this with my friend, but the more the music business has gone down the tubes, the less it occupies a place as this disturbing thing somewhere in the back of mind. (Laughs) And more and more, I’ve just had a great time doing music, and I’ve been feeling that I can be more spontaneous. That’s one thing I like about this record: it feels healthy and free to me. And that’s a good feeling when you’re making music, and that’s why I wanted to make music in the beginning. But it’s a weird kind of dichotomy, because the business is getting so that it’s just impossible to make money doing it, but at the same time, I feel great about doing music. So I don’t exactly feel pessimistic…but I don’t know how we’ll live!
BE: Yeah, it seems like a weird catch-22: you’re excited because you can do whatever you want, even as you’re simultaneously thinking, “I have no idea how many copies this will sell.”
MS: It’s hard, but the other great thing about our situation with Shout Factory is that everything is set up so that modest sales are a success. Unless something just does terribly, it ought to at least break even, if not make some money. I like being on that model, because the success is based on something realistic…and it’s obviously unrealistic expectations that have contributed greatly to problems in the music industry. But, really, it’s all beyond everyone’s control, because with the internet, it’s the changing of an era, and it’s just so…new. It’s only been a few years. I just think there’ll be some whole other way we’ll make money in the future…or that’s what I’d guess, anyway.
BE: Rather than ask the obvious “what are your favorite songs” questions, I’ll try to put a twist on them, if that’s cool.
BE: Which song on the record ended up turning out the most different from the way you wrote it?
MS: Wow, that’s interesting, because in my home process – I record everything at home – I’ll often be still creating the song as I record it as just a basic thing. I’m trying to think. There are a few things on this record…like, I’m thinking of “Feel Fear,” which is one of the ballads. That was really just a simple little ballad-y song, and it became more exotic, with tom-toms, and it sort of has this rambling thing that was totally not there when I wrote it. So that one kind of took shape that way. (Hesitates) Boy, that’s kind of a hard one for me to answer…and I’m being distracted because the other line is ringing, and it’s Ric Menck, my drummer. (Goes offline for a moment) Hey, Ric? I’m giving you to Paul; I’m on an interview. (Comes back on) What was I saying…? Oh, right, you were asking me about songs that changed a lot. Well, “Time Machine” became a real psychedelic thing. I approached it in a very weird way. I had the song, but I built it in almost a collage way. It’s all based on a Mellotron loop…a Mellotron is this tape-based keyboard that you hear on “Strawberry Fields Forever” and things…and on one of my Mellotron tapes, I have this snippet of an orchestra doing this thing where they’re… (Does a brief impression of the snippet) …and it’s this weird English romantic television music or something. It’s just a snippet. And that snippet just repeats through the whole thing, and I built it from that, which is an unusual way for me to do it.
BE: Was “Byrdgirl” always called “Byrdgirl,” or did it end up with that title because of how it ended up sounding?
MS: (Laughs) No, it was always called “Byrdgirl” because I love the Byrds, and I guess it’s also a kind of nod to Alex Chilton, who would always change the spelling of words, like “September Gurls” or on a couple of other songs. I just kind of thought it was so Byrds-y, and I liked the idea that “Byrdgirl” almost made it sound like the girl was into the Byrds or something. That’s not what the song was about, but that’s something I thought about when I gave it its title.
BE: Is there a quote emphasis track unquote for the album?
MS: It’s “Byrdgirl,” actually! I didn’t think there was going to be, but then I discovered that there was a quote single unquote… (Laughs) …of “Byrdgirl,” so I guess that’s an emphasis track, although my guess is that radio will sort of choose different things. I just get that feeling, especially with this record, which has a number of diverse things on it. I know there’s a San Diego station that’s playing it, and they’re a modern rock station, which, nowadays, I would more be played on triple-A! A modern rock station might be able to play the more rock stuff, but for triple-A radio, probably “Byrdgirl” makes more sense.
BE: I’ve asked this to a few other artists, so I’m curious about your thoughts: do you live in fear of the possibility that someone might pitch your stuff to Adult Contemporary stations?
MS: No, not at all! Whoever wants to hear my music, I’m great with that, however they might happen to hear it. I guess I’m lucky enough that I have some recurrent play with my stuff from the ‘90s, so it’s not impossible that you might be somewhere in the country and hear “Girlfriend,” “Sick of Myself,” and some of those songs. I feel like there’s a little bit of my stuff out there in space already… (Laughs) …so that kind of helps.
BE: So how do you feel about the dreaded tag of “power pop” after all these years?
MS: You know what? I don’t really dread it.
BE: Really? Because I know Ric does. (Laughs)
MS: Well, I mean, most groups that are grouped in as power pop that are kind of the classics, I really love, so it’s awesome to be included in that. I always used to say, even in the ‘90s, that what I did kind of got outside of the boundaries of power pop a little bit. I don’t think of myself as a pure power pop guy exactly…but I guess I kind of am, in a way. The stuff that I loved as a kid and as a teenager that made me want to write songs and inspired me to write, a lot of it was that kind of stuff. Nowadays, if someone says it, I’m just, like, “That’s great!” It used to be a thing early in my career where you dreaded being called power pop because it meant that you were really great…and didn’t sell! (Laughs) That was one of the things that really helped cement power pop as a thing to describe me, though: I was something like it, and then I actually sold some records, so I felt like I actually helped make power pop kind of important. And that’s a cool thing, to be a part of that.
BE: How do you feel about “Girlfriend” being on “Guitar Hero II”?
MS: I feel like I want to sue them and get lots of money. (Laughs)
BE: Awesome! (Laughs)
MS: You know, they got cursory publishing rights – that’s all you have to do to do a cover, y’know, is to get some sort of sign-off on publishing – and I guess that when the game was being made, it wasn’t known that it was going to be as huge as it was. It was the biggest-selling video game of all time; I don’t know if it still is, but it was as of a year or two ago. I was at a party, and…I don’t have it, which is funny, since I love video games, but I guess I just didn’t feel like I needed a guitar video game. (Laughs) But I went to a friend of mine’s party – kind of an Oscar party held by a screenwriter friend of mine – and all these people were there, and his son came out and played “Girlfriend” on “Guitar Hero” for all of us, because he wanted to do it while I was there. And it came on, and at first, I was, like, “Wow, that’s really neat!” But then I started going, “I wonder if they just covered it.” I was always asking people when they told me about it, but as I’m listening to it, I’m going, “That’s me singing it! They have my real recording!” And everybody’s looking at me, and they’re, like, “No, it’s not!” And I was starting to feel sort of crazy. “Yeah, it is!” And, I swear, I left there not knowing if it was me or not! And I kind of mentioned it to my manager, but we never thought about it too much. But, then, about a year ago, I was reading on CNN.com where the Romantics had filed a lawsuit against Activision 2 because the version sounded so much like them that you couldn’t tell the difference, so it infringed on their rights. So I called my manager and I said, “Call the lawyer for the Romantics and let’s see what’s going on!” It turned out that, slowly, they were finding out that everybody felt this way, and they researched it, and it was one band that did everything on there. Now, how they imitated the vocals, I just don’t even know. But by the time we called them, they already had Lynyrd Skynyrd, .38 Special, and some of the other groups whose songs were on there, waiting in the wings to see what happened with the first judgment on the Romantics thing. And our statute of limitations runs out this fall, I think, so, it’s kind of been getting heated, because they’re still waiting for the Romantics thing to go to trial. I’ve actually done a lot of talking lately, going, “We can’t let the Activision thing slip away!” Because, y’know, it made so much money that you’d think that they would just want to settle and get everyone happy from it. They did the right thing on the new version; they went to artists and got the rights so they could put Slash’s photo on the box and do all that stuff and whatever, but… (Trails off)
BE: I gotta tell ya, that’s a much better answer than I was expecting! (Laughs)
MS: Sorry about that! (Laughs) You struck a nerve! I’ve never been litigious in my life…I don’t think I’ve ever sued anyone or been sued in my life, ever…but I just feel like they really should give me some royalties, you know?
BE: Absolutely. Okay, so, moving on, is there a chance that there’ll ever be another Thorns album?
MS: You know, I feel like there is. I don’t know how much the other guys would like to do it or not. I think the hardest part right now would be when we would do it. We’ve all been kind of doing our own things. But I think we could make another Thorns record, especially if somebody wanted us to do it…like, if there was a label that would give us a little money to do it.
BE: There’s always Shout Factory.
MS: Yeah, maybe Shout Factory would be a good place to do a Thorns record. It would just depend, really, how Pete (Droge) and Shawn (Mullins) feel about it, but I feel that there was something there. As frustrating as it was for us at the time, if we did that well now with a record, it would be, like, one of the biggest records of the year or something! (Laughs) But we still did something, and we have some fans, so…yeah, I would do it, because I just like to do music. I’ll do any kind of thing as long as I can get my head around it and feel comfortable doing it.
BE: Okay, just a few more, so I can at least try to keep you on track. What are your favorite co-writes that you’ve done where the song didn’t appear on your own album?
MS: Let me think. I haven’t done a whole lot of co-writes that’ve ended up on someone else’s thing, but…well, there was Jules Shear, which was incredible. He taught me how to co-write, sort of, although I still tend to be too shy to do very well at it. But we wrote a song called “Everything’s Different Now” that ‘Til Tuesday recorded, and that was exciting for me, because I think it was the first time I ever had a co-write on someone else’s record who was a real artist. Or not, actually. I think that was the first one I ever had! I’m trying to think. What other co-writes did I do? I did a co-write with the kids from Hanson, who were so nice, and that was a fun experience. I wrote a song with them called “Underneath” that they really helped a lot on. They wrote all the words and stuff. And that was kind of fun because, again, it was one of the first ones that was successful. Like, I’ve co-written with quite a few people, but a lot of it never actually went anywhere, but these were times where it actually got used. I wrote with the Bangles a couple of times, and that was fun, but I don’t think any of that’s ever been used. So, y’know, it doesn’t always make it, but it’s something now that I’m much, much more able to do than I used to be able to do.
BE: I’m a big fan of “Stumbling Through the Dark,” the song you co-wrote with the Jayhawks.
MS: Oh, that’s right! I…wait, did I have a co-write on that?
BE: Well, Wikipedia is so trustworthy that I have to presume that you did. (Laughs) No, but, seriously, it’s listed that way in the CD booklet, too.
MS: Oh, God, I’m the most proud of that, then! No, I remember singing on it, but I’d forgotten that I actually have a co-write! I co-wrote a song on a Jayhawks record! That would’ve been my first pick. I was just spacing out.
BE: Now that I’ve brought up Wikipedia, there’s one thing in your entry that’s so bizarre that I feel like it has to be either confirmed or denied.
MS: Okay, sure!
BE: It says that you appear briefly as an extra walking by the camera in “Terms of Endearment.”
MS: That is true.
BE: It is true? Okay, then, you’ve gotta tell me how that came to pass.
MS: It’s true, and…God, I can’t believe I forgot that Jayhawks song. It’s such a great one! (Laughs) But, sorry, yeah, “Terms of Endearment.” I actually was just talking about this the other day. Where was I? Oh ,yeah, I was at a radio station, and one of the higher-ups, the marketing director or something, was from Nebraska, and we were rapping about “Terms of Endearment” because he was in Lincoln at the time. He was a writer, and he was reminding me about it, because I was a teenager at the time, but Debra Winger was dating the Governor, and she was riding around in the Governor’s limo, and this whole thing. But I told him, “You know, I have a photo of myself lying on the ground with Debra Winger, with our heads lying next to each other.” Because I was an extra, and I hung around for, like, two days. It was really boring for everybody, including her. She would just stand around and curse, smoke, and tell funny stories and stuff. But it was an exciting experience around that world, because I was always a big movie fan, and I was lucky because I was taking a film course at the university. Even though I was still in high school at the time, I’d gotten them to let me go and do some course auditing at the time. I was just really over going to high school… (Laughs) …and the guidance counselor helped me get into these classes or whatever. Jim Brooks, who was the producer of that movie, came to speak to my class…and there were only, like, 20 people in this class! I mean, what an amazing thing, with this classic movie producer. And I was just a kid, but after our class, a few of us hung around, and he was still talking, and he said, “Hey, if anybody wants to be an extra, come on over to the stadium at about 2:30!” And it was especially super great for me because I was able to miss two or three days of school and it was more or less officially sanctioned! I was, like, “I’m gonna be an extra!” (Laughs) So that was awesome. It was awesome to be around them. Jeff Daniels was really kind of new at the time, but he really went on to have a career after that.
BE: And the last question: can you offer a few teases about what to expect on the ‘70s Sid ‘n’ Susie album?
MS: It’s really wide-ranging, as they say. It’s full of things that you wouldn’t have thought we would ever cover. I mean, there are a lot of things that we loved from that era that we immediately thought of. We’re gonna do some Fleetwood Mac / Lindsey and Stevie stuff, and we’re gonna do something by Todd Rundgren and Big Star…you know, all the pop groups that you’d think we would like. But, then, there were so many things from different realms…like prog-rock. We ended up covering “I’ve Seen All Good People,” by Yes.
BE: Oh, wow.
MS: It’s just so awesome. We’re so excited. And we got Steve Howe to play lead guitar on it, so that was a completely exciting time for us. We’ve got a lot of things that we’re trying. We’ve got, like, 40 songs in the works. It goes from singer-songwriter James-Taylor-type people to Warren Zevon. We did “Werewolves in London,” which is really fun and kind of cool. But, y’know, it’s things that we remembered hearing on the radio when we were teens and…well, I guess she’s a few years older than me, so she was just going into college when I was a teenager, but there were still a lot of things where we would both go, “Oh, God, I remember that song when I was going there or when I had that boyfriend or girlfriend,” or whatever. But it’s very wide-ranging, and I think people will be surprised and excited.
BE: Actually, I did have one final question. When you and I and Susanna were talking, she announced that she had gotten an E-mail from Mike Nesmith, who’d really enjoyed your cover of “Different Drum.”
MS: Oh, yeah. Sue’s husband, Jay (Roach), is a very well-known director, and he’s been friend with Nesmith for a long time. I think Nesmith’s kind of been…I think his work lately has been partly with a film company or some sort of production company? But I know they went up there not all that long ago to visit, because Nesmith got a bunch of artists together to just kind of have an artistic pow-wow or whatever, which sounds kind of cool. But, yeah, he was very nice and supportive about it. We love his songwriting, so it was cool to be able to do it and for him to know about it.
BE: Did you hear from anyone else whose songs you covered?
MS: Good question. You know, we did a cover of “Go All the Way,” by the Raspberries, for the last record, but then we realized that we couldn’t put it on there because it was from the ‘70s. We recently met them. I’m not 100% sure, but we might try to put it on the ‘70s album. I’m trying to remember what songs were on the ‘60s record, but I know we met people from the Marmalade. One of the guys lives in New York and was at our show. That’s such a great obscure gem, “I See The Rain.” I’m trying to remember what else was on there, and who we’ve heard from!
BE: I don’t suppose Michael Brown came out of seclusion to thank you for covering “She May Call You Up Tonight”?
MS: Nope, we didn’t hear from Michael Brown…well, not that I know of, anyway! (Laughs) Sorry, I don’t have the track listing in front of me, but the Marmalade is the one that really comes to mind.
BE: Well, thanks for the interview, and it was good talking to you again.
MS: Good to speak to you, too! Take care, and thanks!