An Interview with Matthew Sweet

Matthew Sweet
Matthew Sweet
Update (12/2/13): A more recent interview with Matthew Sweet can be found here.

It's been 20 years since Matthew Sweet released his seminal album 'Girlfriend' and he's returning to the Bay Area to play the Independent on April 21st. To celebrate the anniversary of the album, Sweet will play through the album and feature a few other fan favorites.

He recently took some time to speak with us about the impact that 'Girlfriend' had on his career, the upcoming tour, and his memories of the Bay Area.

Get your tickets here before they sell out!

SFBAC: Matthew, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. First off, I wanted to understand how, or if, your writing and recording process has changed over your prolific career that's spanned over the past 25 years?

Matthew Sweet: Wow, that’s a good question! I’ve always tried various ways you know, so… it probably has changed around, or maybe gotten wider on how I approach things. But you know in a certain way it’s the same. Generally, because I play a lot of instruments myself, usually drums are first for instance. Although now having said that, I think there was some stuff on 'Modern Art' [Sweet's most recent release - Ed.] where we kind of grafted the drums on. But you know, 'Modern Art' was different because the thinking was sort of different about it, but I’m not sure if the approach was that different or not. I mean it was very 'one takey', we didn’t change much stuff, as we put stuff on it, they kind of stayed there. But that’s always been sort of how I've worked. I think I’ve always worked a little faster and more haphazardly then maybe people think that I do, you know? Especially, I remember, way back with 'Girlfriend' where people would say “Oh! It’s so carefully crafted” and everything, and I was like “I’m not really that way exactly”, you know?

SFBAC: You mentioned your album 'Girlfriend', arguably that’s been your biggest breakthrough hit, both critically and commercially. Wouldn’t you agree?

Matthew Sweet: Yes.

SFBAC: So how did that album impact your career? Not only at the time, but since its release back in ’91.

Matthew Sweet: Well, it just sort of changed everything. I mean I made a couple of records before it, so I knew a little bit of, you know, recording and studios, and all that. But, I’d really never had any amount of people knowing who I was or touring very much, and so it changed things a lot for me in terms of just, not only to have some success, but just the amount of work that entailed -- which sort of hit me off guard even, and I think in some way you can sort of see that in 'Altered Beast' [Sweet's follow-up album to 'Girlfriend' - Ed.] which is kind of like the reaction to 'Girlfriend'. Everything that was happening during that time... But you know, it’s awesome, people ask me often, "are you sick of it?" Or "do you hate that people always bring up Girlfriend?", and I really never felt that way about it, because I was always just glad I had something people like.

SFBAC: Looking back at that album, are there things that you would change about it?

Matthew Sweet: I don’t think so, no, I’d leave it just the same. I mean we really got it how we liked it at the time. I’m the kind of person that never looks back, once I've gotten through making a record. For instance, I rarely listen to it, it’s like I have that thing, if someone is playing my record I just freeze and wish it wasn’t on. But now, when I go back, and I had to do a little bit to learn a couple of the songs that I just didn’t remember very well off 'Girlfriend', I was pleasantly surprised at how cool it sounded, you know?

SFBAC: So on this tour, is it mainly going to focus on 'Girlfriend'? How much of the rest of your catalog is going to be incorporated into the show?

Matthew Sweet: Not very much. I mean 'Girlfriend' is kind of big, it’s 15 songs, so it takes up a lot of time, and in some ways it kind of takes a lot of me. I don’t know why. Just revisiting that whole album is a slight challenge you know, so there’s not a lot more we play, a handful of other well known songs for encores. We’ll play at least ‘She Walks the Night’ off 'Modern Art', maybe another song from it, but mostly it’s just 'Girlfriend'. We did it a lot on the east coast last fall, and we played a couple of shows in San Francisco at the end of December. Amazingly we're coming back and playing it again, so it’s kind of the west coast 'Girlfriend' I guess, we’re going to Portland and Seattle and everything after...

SFBAC: How receptive have the fans been?

Matthew Sweet: They’ve been awesome, it’s just sort of sweet how much it meant to them when you see people reliving it. We're quite a bit older, but in a weird way it takes everybody back and it’s funny to have a thing that’s nostalgic. It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years, I don’t feel that old! I know the people that come don’t feel that old. But it’s been awesome, the crowd has been great, there’s been a really good turnout for it, and they are very into it.

SFBAC: So specific to San Francisco, do you have a favorite venue where you like to play?

Matthew Sweet: You know I’ve played a whole lot of different places there, it’s kind of hard for me to pick one favorite, I know we’re playing...this time I think we’re playing somewhere I’ve never played if I’m not mistaken.

SFBAC: It’s going to be the Independent, on 21st.

Matthew Sweet: Yeah, what’s the Independent, I don’t think I’ve ever played there?

SFBAC: It’s a good sized space, kind of an open rectangular room that's primarily standing-room only.

Matthew Sweet: So that is probably more for a rock’n’roll type of vibe, when we played at the end of December we played at a place called Yoshi’s, which is I guess sort of known as a jazz place, but it was great, the sound was great, the people were awesome, and we play more in those kind of places. There’s a place in New York called City Winery... I think they are opening one in Chicago, that’s a place where people sit down, but they still have legacy rock-outs and stuff, but it’s always a little different when it’s more like everybody standing, it gets a little bit more riled-up.

SFBAC: So of the times you’ve played in San Francisco, do you have any interesting stories you can share?

Matthew Sweet: I’m trying to think... it was awesome when I played a few times at the Fillmore, but one time they actually made a beautiful poster and so that’s a great memory of getting a Fillmore poster for one of my shows, but there’s so many things... going to visit friends of mine who are into Japanese animation and comic books that were from there, this guy Torrance Smith is a friend of mine there, the Keane Eyes gallery where I learned about Keane paintings which I collected a whole bunch of originals over the years, and so there’s a lot of San Francisco things I like.

SFBAC: And besides San Francisco, do you have any other favorites of places you've played in the world?

Matthew Sweet: Places I’ve played around the world, wow, well I really loved Japan, so I’m always happy when I go and play there. It’s hard because the jet lag is perfect so you’re playing kind of in the middle of night time when you go there, but I really like Japan. I’m trying to think, when I was in the Thorns we were opening for the Dixie Chicks in England in Europe, and we played 2 nights in a row in the Royal Albert Hall which was unbelievable, it’s a really really cool place. And I had to do this one song where I was the only one that played anything, I played like a baritone ukelele, and the rest was just the 3 of us singing, and it was just and unbelievable vibe and sound, it was extremely scary. But you know I’ve been in so many places, I love...Spain has always been great, we’ve had some good ones in England, but...nowhere is as good as here you know.

SFBAC: I would agree. And of your influences, would you say your influences have changed over the years?

Matthew Sweet: Well, I think they did probably more when I was younger, like when I was in high school I was into a lot of current sort of things that were probably more English stuff, groups like XTC, or Nick Low and the Buzzcocks and all that kind of stuff, from that invasion. And as I got into my twenties, I went further and further back, and got into things like the Beatles and the Beach Boys, much much better than I did as a teenager. So, in that sense, I think a lot of things that are very influential to me may have come a little bit later, but I don’t know. I still think I like kind of the same sorts of things, I love when there’s some sort of melody, I love when things aren’t just super slick and produced, kind of mindless you know, I like when there’s some feeling of humanity to it or whatever. That’s lost in a lot of modern pop music, I guess it’s almost like being a jazz guy or something...not that I don’t like jazz you know, I love Bill Evans.

SFBAC: Do you think that the change of influences over the years have impacted your records at all?

Matthew Sweet: I think they probably have...whatever I’m kind of into probably gets kinda reflected. I don’t know how much things pop-up, but other things that have influenced me besides music, it’s the kind of mood I am in, how desperate I feel at the time...making pottery influenced me a lot in the making of 'Modern Art' where I was kind of thinking... what if just there’s no rules and it just kind of is like an abstract in some way. So things do influence, but to some degree I think I’m always me, you can only make yourself sort of so different.

SFBAC: Well, looking at your catalog, I don’t want to kind of bait you into Girlfriend, but do you have a favorite album of yours? Or maybe one that didn’t necessarily do commercially as well as you thought it would?

Matthew Sweet:’s hard cause I like them all you know? I don’t like to just pick one and I’ve never had expectations of how much something would sell. Just selling any makes me happy. I mean the music business has changed so so much during the time of me getting older. As an artist it’s like the whole thing’s been exploded or something, there’s so many records that are sold in smaller quantities that it just sort of changed everything. But all of us are still around and want to make music, and we do have the internet to find those few people that care. I don’t know how I got into that or if that kind of answers your question?

SFBAC: Basically, it's too hard to pick a favorite, all your albums are your favorite?

Matthew Sweet: Yeah, I mean, sure, Girlfriend, I guess it’s Girlfriend, I don’t know, I really like the record I made for Japan, Kimi Ga Suki Raifu right around 2001. I know some fans that are really into that too, but I like all of them when I make them, and I really don’t go back to decide I don’t like them later, cause I don’t want to know.

SFBAC: Do you think that emerging artists of today have the staying power and the longevity of artists who might have emerged prior to the Napster and iTunes?

Matthew Sweet: You know, I often wonder about that. I like to think I’m really lucky that I came before the Internet. Cause now there’s just so much. It just isn’t the same as the mystery of it when we didn’t have the Internet. I don’t know, it’s kind of hard today, I mean I guess they might. Although, I think a lot of people that are super famous aren’t necessarily super sticking power artists. So I guess it’s hard to say, I mean, I know we’ve seen a lot of famous acts in the last 10 years, and I guess I don’t pay enough attention, to know which one stayed relevant or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s a lot harder to stick around for a long time...however, no matter how small you are, the Internet can insure that you stick around and people that want to find out about you can, which I would guess would probably result in some people getting attention long after they did their thing.

SFBAC: You mentioned the changes in the music industry, everything from the distribution of music to the recording of there one change that has affected you the most?

Matthew Sweet: That’s a good question. It’s hard to say cause as I said, I’m on the curve of being an artist that had my most famous record 20 years ago. So I’m on that curve, and then also hitting what happened to the music industry, it’s a little hard for me to ascertain what would be different, had the industry not caved in. I mean certainly everyone would be selling more records, which would probably really help all the artists still be viable for things like labels. On the other hand it’s awesome that it's become so independent, and I can make a record at home, because of the technology. I've always wanted that, I remember people doing interviews in 1986, where they were like, "what’s your dream of the future?", and I would be like, "one little box, that can do multi-track and sound great, and you can just use it at home." And that did come true. So you know it’s a double edge sword, I think it’s not going to be just the music business, you can see it happening in film, television, so many things, obviously newspapers and magazines, we just all have to adapt to find out what it means.

SFBAC: As far as internet exposure goes, your website, fan sites... are you involved in any of the social networks? Do you engage your fans at all and how active are you?

Matthew Sweet: I don’t really, I’ve been bad about that. Although I did get on twitter and on occasion I send a twitter. And I have a Facebook page but I don’t really administer it. Missing Piece [Sweet's record label - ed.] has really been instrumental in helping me get set up for the new web, and Michael Krumper [CEO of Missing Piece - ed.] and I go way back and it’s been awesome to do a record with him...But how social I am? Some days I want to do it, but like so many days, I don’t want to do it, and I never seem to get a foothold into engaging.

SFBAC: So, on your typical day when you’re not on tour, and when you are not in the studio, what  interesting stuff do you do?

Matthew Sweet: Well, sometimes I make pottery, I do an incredible amount of reading on my iPad, I have hobby topics that I am really into, like physics, cosmology...I am kind of a science nerd...but usually I am either making music, or making pottery, or doing things related to music.

SFBAC: How much do you enjoy touring? Is it more of a challenge for you, do you enjoy it?

Matthew Sweet: You know what? I like it! It was the thing that I was the most afraid of in the beginning. I used to just be so nervous and now I just don’t feel anything like that. And it’s fun to play, and it’s fun to see people that care about it, so I really enjoy playing. It can be just physically a challenge being out on the road and not getting enough sleep and driving all the time or whatever, but it’s always great once we play a show.

SFBAC: So last question I’ve got is a generic one, what are you currently listening to?

Matthew Sweet: What am I currently listening to...let’s see, I’ve been listening to some old stuff, girl groups like the Shangri-La’s, which I’ve got a big compilation of, and I’ve always loved them, but I’ve been kind of back into them. And funny, weirdly related there’s a label in Orange County, Burger Records, that my friend Rick who plays drums with me, he’s in a band called the Tide down here [Los Angeles, CA - ed.], that I guess he’s friends with them, and they are just like a little indie label that mostly puts out cassettes and vinyl. But they have a young group called the Summer Twins, that’s 2 sisters, one of them plays the drums and then the other one plays guitar and sings. And there are couple guys playing bass and guitar and they made this album that’s kind of really cool and it’s in a weirdly Shangri-La’s music vibe, it’s kind of girl groupey. For kids that are 20 or whatever, so you can check that out, the Summer Twins, I really like their album. And it’s rare for me to say I like anything new, but Rick and I were surfing around and we heard their record and got into it together.

SFBAC: Thanks again for making the time to speak with us and we're looking forward to your show at the Independent on April 21st!

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