Q&A: Matthew Sweet On His ’90s Power-Pop Trilogy & Crowdfunding A New Album
By Stephen Deusner
During the early 1990s Matthew Sweet released three albums that, in retrospect, form a loose trilogy of guitar-driven, big-hearted, coming-of-age power pop. It began with his 1991 breakthrough Girlfriend, whose exacting songcraft, punchy hooks, and references to Winona Ryder and Tuesday Weld (via that glorious cover) conjure the romantic wistfulness that defines adolescence. It’s an album about intense and desperate yearning, but it’s also about hope: that you’ll find true love, that a beneficent god will intervene, that you might actually connect with someone someday.
Released two years later, Altered Beast scoffs bitterly at such optimism. The sound is heavier, harsher, and gnarlier, full of self-eviscerating guitars, strident drums, dissonant harmonies, rough edges: the sound of messy introspection. As the title suggests, these are songs about mutation and alienation, with first single in particular, “The Ugly Truth,” suggesting that the world will never live up to your teenage dreams. Even during a pop era defined by introspection and self-loathing, it was a relative flop, although it has become a fan favorite over the years.
That makes 100% Fun Sweet’s most adult album: the one with the most measured outlook, but also the one with the direst implications. At the time critics bemoaned its constant boy-meets-then-loses-girl subject matter, but that interpretation seems tenuous so many years later. Songs like “We’re The Same” and “Not When I Need It” ponder tough moments in tumultuous relationships, as though Sweet is trying to figure himself and someone else out. “I’m afraid, but I don’t need to tell you that,” he admits on closer, “Smog Moon,” as though his outlook is neither as bright-eyed as Girlfriend nor as bleak as Altered Beast.
Those three albums constitute one of the strongest runs in the early 1990s, arguing for pop music as both a salve and a cause for heartache, as a vehicle for self-exploration and self-expression. It’s also a palette for relentless experimentation, thanks to the work of his supergroup backing band, which included Lloyd Cole (of … & the Commotions fame), Fred Maher (Scritti Politti, Lou Reed), Richard Lloyd (Television, Rocket From The Tombs), and Robert Quine (Richard Hell, Tom Waits, Brian Eno). Together they crafted a rough-edged palette for Sweet’s soft-edged pop songs, which ranged from distressed country (“Someone To Pull The Trigger”) to jittery power pop (“I’ve Been Waiting”) to wistful updates on ’60s rock (“We’re The Same”).
Over the last two decades, the albums have only grown thornier and more complex even as Sweet’s hooks continue to wedge themselves in your head for days. Sweet recently spoke to Stereogum about the past and the future — the albums he made in the 1990s and the album he’s making right now.
STEREOGUM: Do you ever go back and listen to these albums again? Or any of your older music?
SWEET: Not unless I’m forced to for one reason or another. I used to be unable to be anywhere where my music was playing, unless I was alone. Maybe now I wouldn’t be as bad about it, because I’m more used to it. Having said that, I don’t go and listen to myself. It seems like it would be so much work to feel really good about it. So I don’t go there. That’s in the past. Somebody might like and that’s great. But I might start thinking about it too much. It’s already such a personal thing to do, and the worst thing about the time when technically I had the most success, the me-ness of it was killing me. Now I feel like I’m able to separate it a little more. I don’t have to talk about myself nearly as much, which is really helpful.
STEREOGUM: You definitely seemed to be putting yourself out there. I think what strikes me about these albums is that the songcraft is so tight and precise, yet the emotions are raw and messy and complicated.
SWEET: That’s an interesting thing to hear. And it’s cool. At the time, there was this thing with Altered Beast, where it wasn’t as good as Girlfriend. It was a weird record. I made it with no break, went straight into the studio and was out of control in a lot of ways. I hit a wall. I had a really bad fear of flying. So 100% Fun came after all that. I thought I wanted to make something much more straightforward — not that I really wanted to change based on what I thought other people thought of me, but I wanted to do something simple and straightforward and strong. That’s when I hooked up with Brendan O’Brien. We hit it off really well in that we both like to work very quickly. We get bored easily, so to get something really soon is cool to us. It’s just how we both were about things. It was helpful to me to be with somebody who could just move real quickly and keep me from getting bogged down in the recoding of the thing. I was a little weird and unhinged. But Brendan is an amazing musician, and he played some on that record. It was the first one we did together, and I can see how it might be more polished because he was making really big mainstream records at that time. I saw recently that Scott Weiland died, and it made me think of that time so much, when the Stone Temple Pilots were huge. Brendan worked with them. He was a guy who had his own stardom as a producer. He knows every song in the world and can play anything. That’s not like me at all, but we shared a similar geekiness about instruments and music.
STEREOGUM: What do you remember about the sessions for 100% Fun?
SWEET: The first thing I remember is that Nick [DiDia, who engineered 100% Fun] and Brendan and those guys were all jocks. They would play basketball between sessions. We’d take a break and they’d hit the court. I think they did that with Pearl Jam and the Stone Temple Pilots. But I’m the complete opposite. I was never around sports as a kid, so being around that much testosterone was sort of scary or something. It was weird. They were nice and I think they knew I was out of my element. And it was actually helpful being with some people who were healthy and fresh every day. They had that kind of energy in the studio and it helped me relax a bit.
STEREOGUM: How did you end up working with O’Brien?
SWEET: We had known about each other for a long time. I’m trying to remember… One big connection was that my manager Russell [Carter] knew Brendan really well. For a long time he had thought that we should hook up. He thought there was something about us that was very similar. It wasn’t a thing he pushed on me or anything like that. He just thought it would be good. So we had him do a remix of a track from Altered Beast, maybe “Devil With The Green Eyes.” He did it blind with no instructions from us, and I really liked some of his choices. So we started talking about doing a record together.
It’s amazing to think how expensive it was to make a record with a guy who was successful at that time. It’s just insane how much money I paid. It’s crazy to think how much was spent on studio time and recording when now I can record for free at my studio, mix it and everything. It was a great experience at that time, though. The studio, Southern Tracks in Atlanta, was family owned, and we had it all to ourselves. It’s no longer, there, unbelievably. It was a cool studio with a lot of room, and Brendan could have all his gear with him — lots of old amps and keyboards — and I could bring a lot of my stuff. We had a bunch of rooms to choose from, and it was really just a great spot to record.
STEREOGUM: I read an old L.A. Times piece where you said you were listening to the Byrds at the time. What else were you obsessed with at the time?
SWEET: What was I into at that time? It’s a good question. That’s probably right around the time I was getting interested in collecting art. I got these Steve Keene prints at a thrift store, and my wife and I would look at them and think, What is this? Where are the artists who made this kind of thing? We saw that there was a sort of genre to it. It was a fun hobby we had together. I remember so many thing, but it’s hard for me to place them. At one point I got a telescope and was into astronomy for a little while. Musical instruments and keyboards were also really big for me at that time. I had a big collection of vintage gear — lots of guitars and amps and keyboards and stuff. But now I’m not like that. I don’t like the feeling of having that much stuff. I’m much more pared down, and I tend not to by that much stuff.
I do remember that there was a TV in the studio, up high in the control room, and it was on all the time, generally with the sound off. A lot of studios have them. Mostly it would have CNN running, but I remember for some reason there was this ridiculous TV show on called Models Inc. We started watching it and I got really into that show. And the greatest thing is, years later my wife was at the veterinarian with our cat in Los Angeles, and Carrie Ann Moss was there. Of course everybody knows here from the Matrix movies, but she’s been in a million things. But I knew her from Models Inc., so my wife got her autograph for me. So I have an autograph from Carrie Ann Moss because of Models Inc., which is funny to think about.
But as far as the Byrds… I guess I’d been into the Byrds since around the time of Girlfriend, but I wonder if I mentioned them in the context of “We’re The Same,” which is a real 12-string song. That might be where that came from, but I don’t remember if there are a lot of 12-strings on that record.
STEREOGUM: I don’t recall right off. But I think of some of the guitar on Girlfriend being very similar to “Eight Miles High.”
SWEET: Totally! And that’s because Robert Quine was a huge Byrds fan. When we were making Girlfriend, I was like, “Check out these Beatles things that are really stereo.” And he was like, “Check out this Byrds thing that’s really different, with the drums on each side.” Not just one side, but both sides. I remember him playing me some Byrds records, and I liked them and got into them more over the years, especially the later records with Clarence White. So that’s totally Bob. People think of him as only an angular kind of guitar player — really experimental and raw. But he loved jangly Byrds stuff as well. I only knew him from Richard Hell, which I love. But the Byrds thing is a whole other dimension to Bob, which was great. He tried to be innovative even though a lot of the time it might not have worked. He was always looking for something interesting and different.
STEREOGUM: I first heard him on your records, so it blew my mind when I realized he was playing on those old ’70s punk records. He definitely had more range than I think most people realize.
SWEET: Definitely. He wasn’t a guy who knew the technically correct ways to play guitar. He made up his own thing, and it was really creative and interesting. Lloyd Cole [who also played on Sweet’s ’90s albums] spent a lot time with Bob trying to figure out what he was doing. Lloyd has a good brain for chord positions and inversions and arpeggios, so he was always fascinated by Bob, and I think that knowledge has been absorbed by the Cole family. I know Lloyd’s son can play a lot like Bob.
100% Fun was the record that made Bob hate me. He’d gotten so much free reign on Altered Beast, but I wanted the next one to be a simpler, more direct kind of record — a little less in your face, a little less unhinged. So we didn’t have as much lead stuff going on at the time, and I think Bob really hated that. He was a very complex guy who had a love-hate relationship with the world. I watched him turn on lots of people. It was something he knew he did. And he would say, One day it will be you. I watched him turn on Fred [Maher, drummer], and I watched him turn on Lloyd. Everybody made up with him at some point. He got crazy and abusive with me after I made 100% Fun. He left some really mean voice messages, even attacking my wife. He was out of control. I told him I wasn’t going to come groveling back to him like everyone else. I think he thought that was funny. I can see why he was angry. He went from being on the record a lot to not being on it very much at all, and when he came down to Atlanta, he was very awkward in that world of Brendan’s people. He drank heavily. He didn’t have a lot of great stuff that worked very well with what I was doing. It certainly wasn’t a conscious decision to not have him on the record that much. But I became his enemy.
STEREOGUM: Did you ever reconcile before he died in 2004?
SWEET: It’s funny, I never really did talk to Bob much after that, but we did make up through Lloyd Cole. Lloyd eventually got back with him, and he told Bob that I forgave him. And Lloyd told me that Bob forgave me. But we never really did talk about it. He was such a complex guy. The stuff he really loved was ’50s rockabilly and those incredible Atlantic sessions players. Guys like Mickey Baker, who was one half of Mickey & Sylvia. You probably know their song “Love Is Strange” from Dirty Dancing and hundreds of commercials. Bob turned me on to him and those early Sun Records and even those records Ricky Nelson made with James Burton. Anything James Burton played on Bob just loved. To me that whole era of music might have been Happy Days or something. I just didn’t see how it was relevant to me, but Bob really turned me on to that raw rock and roll. We really bonded over it.
STEREOGUM: Was he responsible for some of the country elements on some of these records?
SWEET: That’s Greg Leisz, who plays pedal steel. He was on Girlfiend and all those records. We bonded over Gram Parsons. I fell in love with his two solo records when I was really young, maybe 18 or 19 years old. So when I met Greg and learned that he played pedal steel, I asked if he could play like Sneaky Pete [Kleinow], from the Flying Burrito Brothers. He said he loved that stuff. We’re still really good friends. I just saw him on Jackson Browne’s tour, and he’s going to be on my new record.
STEREOGUM: What can you tell me about that?
SWEET: I can give you the quick rundown — or not-that-quick rundown, actually. I sold this album on Kickstarter last summer, so I’m about 15 months into it. I had originally hoped to be finishing it last spring, but right after the Kickstarter, my mother passed away. That blew a hole in my life. So I didn’t get started on it until this year, and it’s already become this monster mega record for me. The idea was that I would make demos, like I used to do before I recorded. I was able to do that a little bit, but what’s happened now is that it’s become this massive amount of work. I’m trying to be sure it’s a super great record. I did fifteen songs at first, and I’ve gone through them to find the best five or ten. And then I did another nine songs, and some of those are seeping into that top level of stuff.
And I’m going to do a third big batch of songs, and that’s the batch that Greg Leisz is going to play on, along with this other guy, Val McCallum. His father was David McCallum, who starred in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. He was raised by Charles Bronson. It’s weird. But he’s an amazing guitar player in Los Angeles. He and Greg have played a lot with Lucinda Williams. I went and saw them in Sioux City, Iowa, recently, and I also saw the Zombies in Denver because I’m trying to get Rod Argent to play on some stuff. I’ve got some of those cool people, too, like Gary Louris from the Jayhawks. I think Darien [Sahanaja] from Brian Wilson’s band and Al Jardine from the Beach Boys are going to do some background vocals. Al’s the one from the Beach Boys who has the most intact voice. He can still do the banks of vocals, so that should be pretty cool.
STEREOGUM: I can see why it’s become a big project. Just corralling so many people seems like an immense undertaking.
SWEET: It’s really the mother of all records. I have 24 songs already and there will be more than 30 to choose from when I’m done, which I hope will be in late spring for a summer release. It should get a wide distribution. The Kickstarter was funded by 700 or 800 people, and it’s been this inspiration for me to try really hard. I don’t mean that in the sense of overwrought songwriting. I still write songs the same way, which is still very mysterious — they just pop out of me. Btu I ended up writing more to up the quality and variety of the final record. I think it’s going to be really cool. I’m so excited about it, but on the other hand, I don’t want to tell everybody it kicks ass. God knows that other people don’t always hear what you hear. But for me it sounds very strong. It’s a healthy record, very upbeat. I’m not saying it’s not moody or doesn’t have depth, but there’s a good cross section of things.
STEREOGUM: You said that the Kickstarter process is making you try harder, which is interesting. I always wonder what sort of responsibility artists feel when their fans have funded the project from the start.
SWEET: It definitely gives me this weird extra sort of thing, where I really want to please them. It’s definitely different from the label experience. You never know who really truly likes you at the label. But the people on Kickstarter actually like you. So that just added a little mental thing to the process, where I’m constantly telling myself, I’m going to make a record so good. Of course, you can’t really decide that sort of thing. You can just decide it’s great. It will be what it is no matter what you think or wish. In that sense I still understand how to leave it alone and let it become what it is.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned that you’re making demos again. Was that part of your process earlier in your career?
SWEET: I would have made demos for those songs, but I didn’t have a demo for “Sick Of Myself.” I came up with the idea right before I traveled to Atlanta. There was a night when Brendan had to go out and do something with his family, and I asked if I could stay behind and do a little bit of record. I wanted to try that song out and make a demo of it. So Nick and I worked on it, and Brendan came back and gave it a listen. He really liked it and said I should sing on it. So it became this thing that we did pretty quickly, and amazingly it got some traction on radio. One of the things that makes me happy about that experience is that “Sick of Myself” was the single, the song that people knew. It got on the radio, yet it’s a really crazy sentiment for a radio single. It has a real internal weirdness, and I remember being pleased that a song like that could be so successful. That song helped 100% Fun be a gold record. Now it’s probably platinum. There’s really now way to certify stuff because they label doesn’t exist anymore. I think 100% Fun and Girlfriend are both platinum. Last we knew, Altered Beast had sold about 400,000 copies, which in unbelievable. These days you have a really successful record if it sells 20,000 copies. It’s super crazy.
STEREOGUM: Of this trilogy, Altered Beast always seems like the odd one out. It gets a bad rap, but it holds up.
SWEET: Most fans really like that record. And I certainly don’t want to poo-poo it. That’s not what I mean. It’s more that people were weird about it then. I didn’t even know what it was at the time. I was just running wild. Completely out of control. I look back at it now and wonder why I didn’t get [producer] Richard Dashut to show me how to make a Fleetwood Mac record. He made Rumors and Tusk. He was a real cheerleader in the studio and brought this energy to everything. He was the focal point that kept the band members going. That’s what he ended up doing for me, but he could have done a lot more if I hadn’t been so sure about where I wanted to go. But with all of these records, I was just working out my feelings. So the best thing is when someone else feels something from a song. If that happens, it’s great. I’d rather people buy a record because they feel something. That’s a lot better than if they bought it because they heard a song a thousand times.