A Conversation with Matthew Sweet

Paul Caparotta
Matthew Sweet
Matthew Sweet
Matthew Sweet will be playing Slim's on December 28th and we recently had a chance to catch-up and talk about the upcoming tour, learning to collaborate and much, much more. We last spoke with Matthew in March of 2012 -- you can find that interview here. In the meantime, be sure to get your tickets to the upcoming Slim's show before they sell out!

SFBayAreaConcerts: You know, I was thinking about the first time I saw you play. It was actually in 1997 at the Y100 Festival in Camden and it was just when Blue Sky just came out and you tore through some amazing tracks there. It was really electric, it was really crazy, and it was great seeing you in a big space like that. How do you feel about playing in a smaller, more intimate place like Slim’s versus something big like that?

Matthew Sweet: Well you know, we used to play Slim’s a lot back in the day. Sometimes we’d do a couple of nights there. And to me even though there’s a cool energy to be in a really big place, I still like being in smaller rooms because you can feel the people more and if it gets exciting it’s really contained in there so you feel like it’s all connected. It’s interesting though because in recent years, like the last couple of years we spent a lot of time playing the whole Girlfriend album because it was the 20th anniversary a couple of years ago and during that time we ended up playing a lot of places that are a little more adult kind of like sit downs. I think we did a couple of nights at, I think the place is Yoshi’s? Do you know that place?

SFBAC: I saw you at the first night there.

Matthew Sweet: Oh great, cool. We had awesome shows there and we do a lot of those kind of shows and there’s a place called City Winery in New York and now in Chicago. In fact they’re going to put one in Napa so we’ll probably come up and play that at some point. It’s a place like that where they make a stage and people come and sit at tables and drink wine and it’s sort of civilized, even though they can get excited and have fun. But when I decided to do these dates, San Francisco at Slim’s is one of three dates we’re doing right after Christmas and I just said to management, you know let’s do some dates around LA and just play rock places where it’s just like a noisy, small room. Kind of because we thought it would be fun to just play, relive the moment a little bit where we used to play a lot you know? I don’t know what to expect, who will come, it’s kind of a weird date but we've been having a lot of fun in San Francisco so I’m hoping it will be fun.

SFBAC: I think when we saw you at Yoshi’s a year and a half ago it was right around this time too and that show completely sold out so –

Matthew Sweet: Yeah, we were really surprised and it’s a really cool place. And you know, I would want to sit down at that age so I do understand the appeal of all that and I don’t bash it at all cause it’s totally cool with me however someone wants to hear my music you know? I think there’s a little bit of back tour youngster days thinking that when we play Slim’s it’ll be, we’ll remember kind of wild times there. Drank way too much and played way too loud and you know, we never play way too loud anymore although I can’t promise – It’s more controlled but I think we’re also better at it now so you know, I think we’ll have a lot of fun.

SFBAC: I was going to say that. The inside of Girlfriend has the liner notes which says “Don’t be afraid to play it loud”. And you were saying for the Yoshi’s show that it was a little more civilized but I feel that you guys really cranked it up. You know there’s something about –

Matthew Sweet: It was weird. That show I remember really specifically. A couple of friends of mine were there who I've known since high school and there was some connection just personally those nights where it seemed like it went amazing. But you never know why or when that will exactly happen but everything was sort of in sync and I just remember my friends being so happy and we felt like we did really well but that’s cause we got a great response there. That’s another thing with playing the whole Girlfriend album it’s like a, you know, it’s sort of a whole thing to get through and in a way a little more nerve-wracking for me than doing a little more normal show. And we started nipping back in and working in some Altered Beast and up to a more modern era but we still play quite a bit from Girlfriend but it’s been nice to start playing only it all the time.

SFBAC: No, definitely, that makes sense. You know, you brought up Altered Beast so I’m sorry, I’m going to have to go there. Altered Beast is my favorite album of yours. It just changed things for me. The guitars were really loud and it really felt for me ahead of its time. And you've mentioned before a little of what you did on Altered Beast was a reaction to what happened in the aftermath of Girlfriend. Could you just maybe take a minute and talk about that?

Matthew Sweet: Sure, I mean I think for me, you know, I wanted to make music, I wanted to make records but I never saw myself as someone who would get famous or have big success. When I made records it’s all about that creative effort and about it being a record that I made, you know? I just couldn't conceive anything else. In a way I wasn't that kind of person that goes on stage and have everybody watch, you know I was more like ‘Don’t look at me’ you know? So when that all started happening and people started saying to me ‘How does it feel? You’re really having success’ and stuff, it really for me mostly meant that I’d worked all the time and I had to talk about me just all the time. And, you know, partly I tried to just focus on things I thought were cool to get out of talking about me because I never wanted to be the guy with the guitar on the cover of an album or something. I never really saw myself early on as a solo artist but it’s just how my record career moved along. I got signed as one when I made my first record. So anyway –

SFBAC: You know, it’s funny talking about yourself as a solo artist, you've done so many different collaborations with so many different people, you know, there’s The Thorns, obviously we’ll talk a little bit about the work you were doing with Susanna Hoffs. Even though Matthew Sweet is a solo artist I feel like what you've done, you do so many different collaborations.

Matthew Sweet: Well if that’s not a way that I think I've gotten out of my shell a little bit as I got older, but just to finish the Altered Beast thing, I never took time off at the end of touring for Girlfriend. I was super excited to go in the studio, I was writing songs but I was also kind of, you know, drinking a ton and I was a little crazy and you know, I know now that I have bipolar disorder to some degree and things going on with me but at that time I’d never been diagnosed or anything so I think during Altered Beast I was wildly swinging. I felt almost like two people and I kind of talked about even in interviews because that album to me had things that the 'monsters' sang and wrote and it was very split personality feeling, and I just think that no one told me what to do and I was just doing anything I thought of and it was pretty crazy but I had some great experiences during that time; getting to work with Mick Fleetwood and Pete Thomas was amazing and hung out and you know, Nicky Hopkins. He and Greg Leisz spent time just jamming. We played a couple of songs for that record all three of us together and it was just amazing and I have DATs of that stuff somewhere. And sometime I’ll get that out but it was a time when I could just try anything. I moved to California and sort of got doctrinated by Richard Dashut who knew the heights of the California dream with Fleetwood Mac so it was a special time. It could never be quite recreated where I was at right then.

SFBAC: That’s amazing.

Matthew Sweet: I think one of the things about being a solo artist and when you play live instruments and stuff, in a way there’s not that many people to share it with. I always wished I had more people to hang out with and share the burden of being me kind of, you know? My band over the years has become that and we’re all like family and stuff but I think behind collaborating which you’re asking about, I think it was an effort and sometimes I was drawn into it like with The Thorns. With Sue I always wanted to record her voice and Shout Factory said “you guys should do covers together” and we were like okay. The Thorns was probably the really, I don’t know if I could have done the Susie thing as well, but The Thorns was really... you know, I learned a lot about working with others and how crazy I was and a lot of things and work well with others. I think I was a does not work well with others person in a sense, you know? And it was hard with Thorn’s because we were all solo artists but the thing with did is when it was good we were magically cool. So in that way it was satisfying because we toured a lot. We opened in Europe for the Dixie Chicks, we played like the Royal Albert Hall and I’d play the ukulele with all three of us harmonizing. It just sounded immense. So it was a good experience in terms of – And then nothing was on just me, you know, it was the three of us so that was kind of a cool thing about it. The reason we didn't make another record had more to do with the label and everybody else’s feelings but it’s interesting because that record, it did sell a ton of records in today’s standards. Like, I want to say 175,000 or something. We had a video on CMT, you know? So I guess sometimes that album will be remembered as something, you know?

SFBAC: Well that’s the beauty of these types of collaborations, you know? Working with The Thorns, working with Susanna Hoffs it gives you the chance to be exposed to a different kind of audience and I think the CMT connection, that completely makes sense especially because, you know I Can’t Remember, it’s a song that spans so many different genres and so many of the other songs on there –

Matthew Sweet: That was the song man. We wrote that song and the guy came over from the label and we sat there and played it for him, I mean like an hour after we wrote it and it was like, they offered us a deal on Monday. That song was just everything with The Thorn’s. It kind of made it happen.

SFBAC: That’s awesome. You were talking about Pete Thomas before and obviously you know, you’ve got Volume Three coming out right now – it must be really amazing to revisit the 80’s. Is there any chance we might be seeing some Echo and the Bunnymen or some Elvis Costello being rolled out for this leg of the tour?

Matthew Sweet: Not from me right now but I’m sure, I can almost say 100% that Sue and I will tour next year and we’ll probably have a band and actually, you know, play a lot of the stuff and we can pull from all three albums. We’ve done it before but we’ve done it in a more acoustic format most of the time and I just have a feeling this time we’ll have, maybe we’ll combine and play some of our own music and bands and share, I don’t know exactly but we’re definitely going to go and do shows and I can’t imagine we won’t come up there.

SFBAC: That’s fantastic. Very cool. You know, thinking back to Volume Three again, the first song you have on there is R.E.M.’s Sitting Still and considering you have this deep history with Mitch Easter and Michael Stipe, it must have been really amazing to revisit that song. Could you maybe talk through the process of that or talk through some of the other songs and some of the high notes that you felt you brought in Volume Three?

Matthew Sweet: Well you know, with the R.E.M. song I still feel such teenage kind of reverence for them. It was a humble approach you know? It would be different or cool only because it was different to have Sue and I both singing on it, you know? It was one of the simpler things and I certainly didn’t want to gussy it up or anything because it so was about that simple sound that R.E.M. had in the beginning that made them so kind of exotic you know and so in that case it was pretty pretty easy. Ric Menck knew the song really well because he’s a humongous fan so he played the track instantly perfect and I don’t know if maybe I went back to try and critique it, maybe it's not. But to me it was good. And then it's just a few guitars. I felt like Susanna was the one to add the 'newestness' to it because she put in these harmonies and just kind of out of the blue she sent me the files saying “check out this stuff, what do you think?” and it had all these cool, weird harmonies that made it extra interesting you know and both of us loved R.E.M. R.E.M. was really really important to me when I was starting out. They were people I looked up to, who I got to meet and eventually became friendly with. So it felt really cool to do a song of theirs. And I want to say that Sue in a way sequenced the record more than I did. She kind of came up with sequencing before I did and she thought ‘Let’s put that first’ and I was like ‘Okay’. R.E.M., why not, you know?

SFBAC: Fantastic. Were there any other songs –

Matthew Sweet: It was really fun to do the keyboards and then hear Sue singing it.

SFBAC: Excellent.

Matthew Sweet: What else? XTC. That song, Towers of London – the making of it is so cool. And we were really lucky because if you haven’t seen it there’s a BBC documentary about an hour long maybe and I think you can find it in sections on YouTube and it’s Steve Lillywhite with XTC recording Towers of London with like a BBC crew filming them and they’re eating and they’re at this place, a manor at Richard Branson’s place, like no shirt, standing on the roof. Like he’s in the middle of the lake with water up his chest and he’s fishing and doing these crazy things and I’m not sure if they’re remaking the song in order to show the process of making a song or whether it’s the actual recording of it but it’s just amazing. And Steve Lillywhite is like a child. He’s the producer and it seems like he’s seventeen or something. It’s really crazy but if you like XTC, you know that was a fun time too. We actually got to see them making the track.

SFBAC: That’s awesome, I’ll definitely check it out for sure. You know, it’s funny because you've mentioned before that you were influenced early on by bands like Buzzcocks and XTC and even those early angular punk/post-punk bands they still had that harmonies thing going on –

Matthew Sweet: They were poppy. They were poppy and they were melodic you know? And I always dug the things that had the most melody and XTC they were mind-blowing because they were so experimental and yet they were fresh and futuristic kind of, you know? The first record I bought by them was Go 2 which had all the words all over it and it was so weird, like slowed down tracks and all these things and the songs were so weird but I loved it and I remember I played in a band in real late seventh grade time and I took this record to the guys I was playing with and we were playing normal radio FM music from that time. I started playing with them because I could play Carry On My Wayward Son on the bass you know, so I took my XTC record down and I played it and they just thought it was the worst shit they had ever heard. Couldn't even open – they just thought I was crazy. And then after that it was like we never played together again and I went off in a whole different direction but you know, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, I think they’re the total solo songwriter guys I really loved at that time and then the bands were like XTC, Buzzcocks. I eventually got to meet Pete Shelley once when I was in London at a studio which was awesome for me because I was such a fan of them.

SFBAC: Oh yeah, definitely. So you mentioned that this tour is going to be a little bit more about the Matthew Sweet experience than Volume three. You mention Ric Menck before and I know that he’s worked with you on Modern Art. I have a really random question which I just have to throw out there. I happened to be listening to Ballad of Ric Menck a little while ago, Are We Gonna Be Alright?, you wrote that song, right?

Matthew Sweet: I did, yes.

SFBAC: Did you ever end up actually recording it or just have you – it’s such an amazing song...

Matthew Sweet: I have a demo of it and, God, somewhere is that demo, I don’t know where. Maybe it's in my DATs... I'm trying to remember when I got my DAT machine... I probably transferred a lot of stuff. But yeah, there’s a demo of mine of it that I imagine is pretty cool that they used to do that from. Ric might have it. I don’t really know, I’ll ask him about it.

SFBAC: Well it just made me think about it because you were saying he was going to be involved. Knowing the history you guys have together it’s definitely – you talked about being a solo artist but obviously the relationship you guys have, there are people you've collaborated with for quite a while so it must feel like, as much as you play so many of the instruments on your own you do have a group of people especially when touring that you’re able to work with and recapture the energy of a band.

Matthew Sweet: Absolutely. Everybody understands what it is, you know what I mean. There’s nobody who, it’s from the realm and we all love and understand kind of power-pop from sort of the Beatles through to the Raspberries to Velvet Crush Ric and Paul’s group, or whatever. So that’s been great. The band is really great and fun for us to play because it’s non-stressful. It’s just like expressing ourselves and that’s what we do you know?

SFBAC: That’s amazing, that’s definitely amazing. So is there something in particular that we can be expecting with the upcoming tour? Are you going to be focusing on Modern Art? Is it going to be a little bit of your older catalog? –

Matthew Sweet: No. No we never really learned hardly any of Modern Art because we were doing Girlfriend the whole time and there was never room or time to do more. We might only do a song or two from Modern Art. It’s going to be our greatest hits but not with just Girlfriend, it adds in all the other albums and it’s mixed up a little differently. It’s the first time we've been up there playing a more random set in a while I think.

SFBAC: Excellent. It’s going to be great. It’s definitely going to be a good time for people to revisit your catalog in the midst of everything.

Matthew Sweet: Holiday party time we hope. You will have already recovered from the 25th and, I don’t know, I’m just saying stuff.

SFBAC: No, that’s awesome for sure. You know, if you have time I have one more question for you if that’s alright?

Matthew Sweet: Sure.

SFBAC: Excellent. Good. You know, I was just revisiting the entire Matthew Sweet catalog lately and I was just thinking about Kimi Ga Suki and now it’s not so difficult to get your hands on especially with the advance of iTunes and stuff. But in early 2000 it was pretty darn difficult. How do you create an album like that? How do you put something out there that’s just so amazing and then limit the distribution to one country?

Matthew Sweet: Well, I wanted to make a record just for Japan. I did this little side-deal record deal where they gave me some money and I made an album for there. And then after it was exclusive for this company in Japan and then after that it became... we could put it out after, I want to say three or four years, I can’t remember when it was. So we did eventually put it out here and then it was easy to get. But it was only available in Japan when it came out and it was very compact how it was made. I made it very quickly. It was one of the first records really made all at home like I make demos, you know? So it was kind of the opening to the more modern era where it was record everything myself. I have very fond feelings about it and it has some fun songs that are kind of hard to play and sing but we have played them before and I’m sure we will again. We were back in Japan recently for some shows doing Girlfriend, we played a couple of nights, a couple of shows and I was there with Susie as well before that and we have a lot of friends from Japan as well. Paul Chastain who’s in the band is married to a Japanese girl and they have two kids. We go back and forth and Paul comes over and does these tours with us. So we have a lot of good connections to Japan and they’re real special people and their culture has a lot of really cool stuff about it.

SFBAC: I feel like amazing artists which have been embraced by Japan. Sloan recently, I don’t know if you know, they released an album that they did a few years back and they pressed it on white vinyl and they did a limited pressing and it sold out almost immediately. It feels like the Japanese audience just has a real great appreciation for music and it completely made sense that Kimi Ga Suki would create for those fans out there.

Matthew Sweet: Yeah and I mean, the cover, this guy Yoshitomo Nara who did the cover is seen as a museum artist. It’s amazing that he did that cover. And it was awesome, I went there at one point. I met him and he gave us a painting like in 2001. Fans hooked me up with him and after that we had the label contact him and get him to do that cover. And I was back in Japan a later time, maybe 2004 or something and my fans took me to a museum exhibit of Nara and way in the depths of the exhibit was a smaller room and his studio and desk recreated exactly in this room. And pinned up above the desk was the painting of the cover of Kimi Ga Suki.

SFBAC: Oh wow.

Matthew Sweet: It was so cool and we had to work with several levels of the museum staff to get them to let us take a photo of it. We were like ‘It’s my album. Let us take a photo’. And eventually I think they did let us grab a photo but that was a cool thing to see it there like he had it.

SFBAC: That’s amazing. It’s great to have that element too because Nara has such a distinct style because when you see that cover the connection is immediately there as if the name wasn't enough.

Matthew Sweet: Not only that but I had a horrible fear of flying and the year that I met Nara was the first time that I’d flown in eight years.

SFBAC: Oh wow, okay.

Matthew Sweet: So I don’t know if he meant to 'coganize' that but there’s someone in a plane going through the clouds, you know and it’s like just interesting and I asked him to make it a cat instead of a dog which was very unusual for him.

SFBAC: Okay. Oh nice, that’s a great touch too for sure. Matthew, I could ask you questions literally the rest of the day but you've already answered so much –

Matthew Sweet: You had so many good ones that no one in the world would know or care about.

SFBAC: Well, I have so many more. Even though, like you, I’m a Californian, I’m originally from New Jersey and I just have all these questions about Princeton and I was just thinking I know –

Matthew Sweet: Loved Princeton. Loved it.

SFBAC: Oh man. You know, I know you recorded Girlfriend in New York but New Jersey I think you said before that so much of the song writing took place there.

Matthew Sweet: Yeah, right on out by the battlefield.

SFBAC: Oh wow.

Matthew Sweet: Another part of the battlefield, if you’re driving out of Princeton past the battlefield and the giant tree, I don’t know if it’s still there which is on your left – Do you know Princeton?

SFBAC: I’m from two towns outside of Princeton.

Matthew Sweet: Okay, so not too far. Well outside the battlefield there’s this little red house and it and I hoped it would be on the historic register by now but it was built in 1780 and that’s the house I rented and did all that writing in at that time.

SFBAC: Yeah it’s amazing that a place can have an imprint on the work that you've done. I have to, being that this is San Francisco Bay Area Concerts, I have to bring it back to California. California has been a base for you for so long and 100% Fun for me feels like a big blast of California sun. Do you feel that kind of impacted your music and the way that you've created albums since you moved here?

Matthew Sweet: I’m sure it has. How could it not, you know? I mean to some degree I always thought that it didn't matter where I was cause music is just so internal......but I know everything effects you so yeah, it’s had a huge effect. I mean one of the great things about being in California for me was that I got to connect to everything I loved in some way. I got to connect with movies and I got to connect with, you know, the Beach Boys, group of friends and John Lynx from the records you know. And the groups I loved when I was a teenager and so for that it made me feel part of something and I've kind of always been such a loner and it’s cool to be here and feel kind of  part of something.

SFBAC: That’s awesome, very cool. Good. Matthew, thank you so much. We really appreciate it and we’re really looking forward to your show. I think the timing is perfect. You said how the time of year you weren't sure of but it’s great timing.

Matthew Sweet: Are you going to come?

SFBAC: I absolutely will be there for sure.

Matthew Sweet: Oh great, well hopefully we’ll see you there then.

SFBAC: Fantastic. Well thanks again Matthew, you have a great day.

Matthew Sweet: Thanks, take care.

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