Matthew Sweet

Matthew Sweet
It is hard to talk about Matthew Sweet without mentioning his 1991 album, Girlfriend. It not only turned him into a household name, it also became the measuring stick all fuzzy guitar pop records were held up against for the remainder of the decade. Not that he stopped making music after that; some of his best work seemed to happen after he had dropped off the radar.

Even when he wasn’t making his own records, he was producing the likes of Velvet Crush, appearing in Austin Powers with Mike Myers and former Bangle Susanna Hoffs as part of Ming Tea, recording as part of the Thorns with Pete Droge and Shaun Mullins, or even writing songs for Hanson.

His latest album, Sunshine Lies, is his tenth studio album and it finds him in familiar territory, albeit in a good way. Featuring many of the same musicians as his breakthrough records of the ’90s, it has plenty of the harmony-laden power pop gems that won him so many accolades all those years ago. He took time out to talk about records past and present, and why he isn’t the biggest fan of Guitar Hero.

Tell me about your new album, Sunshine Lies.
It’s got a really wide range of stuff on it because it has really been evolving over the last couple of years. Whenever I haven’t been spending time on some other project, such as the ’60s record that I made with Susanna Hoffs where we had to do some TV and promo for that, I’ve worked on it. I also produced a group called the Bridges, so while I’ve been doing a lot during the last two years, I’ve been trying to get my record finished the whole time. And it’s been good because after the initial batch of songs which were mostly kinda edgy rock stuff. I mean, I’d just come off from doing the Thorns, which was acoustic, harmony stuff and I just wanted to make loud noise. So, it started out that way but I think that I rounded it out by doing another couple batches of things over the next year after that. I finally had a deadline in mind of this spring and had to get it together for then. I actually did a couple more songs right at the very last minute and then remixed and mastered it. So while it has been a long time coming, it is my first real solo effort in a long time and I’m lucky to be on a label like Shout Factory who have been incredibly supportive.

There are quite a few of your old friends on the new record.
That’s true, although most of them have played on things all along. I’ve kinda stuck with the same guys because they are my friends and we have that particular sound when we are together. I think of my band as Crazy Horse or something – they’re a group of people that are always around and it’s awesome when we play together so I don’t really want anything different. I can do things on my own and there are a lot of things on this record that I did – I think I played pretty much everything at some point except for the drums. I can do that when I want things to be different, so I do have choices.

Do you think that the similar roster is why there has been a real temptation to compare the new album to the likes of Girlfriend?
Honestly, I think that it comes from the fact that I’ve been in a really good space during the last two years and the more that the music business has died, the better I’ve felt about making music. But for me, one of the things that I’ve always been thinking about and been more able to follow is the concept that there is a spirit in music. When you’re in a certain mood, you try and communicate that mood so when I’ve been excited about what I’m doing then it comes across in a special way. I noticed that a lot when I was working on Under The Covers with Susanna, because the tracks were more exciting than people expected. And I suppose I was a lot younger when I made Girlfriend and was really excited about working on it while the rest of the ’90s after I’d had some success were much harder because something was expected of me. There was also this thing that whether I had gold records or whatever, it was never enough because I hadn’t sold three million records. That pressure didn’t really lead me to make different records from what I would have, but it did make it harder to let go and not worry about anything in the world. Now I feel I have connected better with my own spirit – I’m doing things at home again, something that I used to do in the beginning, so maybe that’s it. I made this record in a space where I had control of everything, even though I did use studios.

Do you think that it did hurt you to have such great success early on because of the tendency to compare everything back to the "hit” record?
I think that’s true, but I’ve never been the least bit bitter about anyone who wants to like any of my albums. I’ve been asked a lot if that bugs me and it doesn’t because it is amazing that somebody cares about something that I did. I also think I’m lucky because there were two waves of my biggest success in the ’90s – one early one is ’92/’93 and then a later one in ’96/’97. So, there is a whole other generation of people who got into me with 100% Fun. Obviously Girlfriend is the more important record of the two and some people referred to 100% Fun as a comeback record, which seems a bit weird because of the timing. Yet Altered Beast has turned out to be a record that fans really care about, so I’ve come to care about it because of that. It was always a kind of raw for me because I was in a crazy, emotional state when I made it and I suppose that’s why it turned out to be good music. It wasn’t that appealing to people at the time commercially, but it still did pretty well. Some of the other records might have sold more than a million, so Altered Beast was thought of as a failure even though it still sold 300,000 copies. It’s all relative though because these days if I sold 100,000 records then I’d be a top seller.

So you think that the music industry has changed from those early days?
The internet has really changed things in ways that nobody could really fathom. I suppose I come from that legendary time from before the internet when things were so, so different. And in the next ten years it is going to change again and it is going to be increasingly tough for people to find an audience.

Do you find yourself going back to your earlier albums often and giving them a listen?
You know, I really don’t. My excited time for a record is when I’m working on it and right when I’m finishing it because I think it’s awesome. But afterwards I’m afraid to go back in case I’m too moody or I get weirded out by it. I’m getting better at that as I get older. But really the only reason that I go back to them now is when we’re playing live. Last week we did four shows for the release of my record down in San Diego and around there so I had to revisit some. And with some of the songs, I’m impressed at how they’ve stood the test of time but sometimes I wonder just how many people know them well or how many people were there at the time. Every now and again when I’m doing an in-store, they play one of the old albums and it does make me a little nervous because while I know the mastering and mixing on the new album is good, I’m worry about the old ones. I suppose I think that going back all seems kind of trivial, partly because my view of life where I know that I couldn’t have been anything but something really small in the big picture.

When I was telling people that I was interviewing you, some people knew instantly who you were while others didn’t. So the frames of reference I used to explain was your role in the Austin Powers movies and also that your song "Girlfriend” was used in Guitar Hero II.
That’s so weird that you brought that up because an email literally just popped up on my computer about this. You know, I had never bought Guitar Hero but I knew about it. I suppose because I play real guitar, I didn’t think it was all that interesting even though I play videogames. Then I was at an Oscar party at a friend of mine’s place and at some point he said that his son wanted to show me him playing "Girlfriend” on Guitar Hero. So I’m checking it out and I was thinking that that was me on the screen and I was telling everyone, and they were looking at me as if I was crazy. And then I started to listen more closely because the guitar solo didn’t sound right – it was simpler from the way that [Robert] Quine played it. Then later on, I was talking to my manager about it and said to him that I thought it was me in the game but then we did some research and it turned out that the Romantics had a lawsuit against the publishers because the version in the song was exactly like theirs. So I started getting super paranoid about it and when we called our lawyers about it turned out that .38 Special and Lynyrd Skynyrd and all kinds of other people whose music was in the game were joining the lawsuit and it looks like the case is going to move to L.A. and even more artists are getting involved. I guess because it is one the biggest video games of all-time and that it has made so much money that nobody’s quite sure how it all works because the cover versions were approved by publishing companies. Plus, I can’t believe that I didn’t know that it wasn’t me. And here’s the amazing thing – it’s one band that did everything on it. They imitate some of the stuff so well that it’s just freaky. They must be the greatest Holiday Inn band of all-time. Everyone brings it up because of "Girlfriend” and I have to start talking about the statute of limitations and when they run out but that email I got told me that it doesn’t until November 2009 so I can stop worrying about it for now. I’m not a litigious person but it’s my song and there’s something about it being such an imitation. I mean, it’s not me singing and that’s just crazy.

You’ve been involved in quite a few collaborations and other bands over the years too. Why do you think you need to have your fingers in so many different pies?
I think that it is partially just about survival. I’ve wanted to make my own records and be in control and do it on my own terms, but it does get kind of lonely and so I do these other things. I think that the Thorns was really a turning point for me in working with others because it was something that was never really meant to be. I went down to write a song with two other guys at the urging of my manager and I had no idea what it was going to become so quickly. We wrote one song and literally the next Monday they wanted us to make a record with Columbia Records and all kinds of stuff. I was probably the most conflicted about it because I still felt that I was in the "doesn’t work well with others” category and not open-minded enough to do it. In a way though, I think it was a great experience for me because I was forced to be courteous, respect other people and take into account their feelings. So it really did help me work with others in any circumstance.

Were you happy with the album that came out of that collaboration?
The way that I originally envisaged the album was a lot less commercial and a little more exotic. At certain points, we thought about going to Hawaii to record and have a Polynesian influence and things like that really got lost along the way. When we decided to do the album with Brendan O’Brien, he called me up and said that he had no interest in doing the record I had in mind, but why don’t we go ahead and make a kick ass rock record that will be successful instead. We all thought that we’d still make a good record because Brendan is amazing and it wouldn’t be hard to make a great record with him because Pete Droge had already made a record with him. It would have probably been hard to make the record just on our own because it could have been too mercurial without someone like Brendan there. It’s tough to go back and talk about what the record should have been. Yet that record sold more than 175,000 copies and we got on CMT with our video so it was fun to think that I was breaking new ground but it still didn’t feel like my thing creatively. I really didn’t drive it because my personality tends to force people to do my thing when I’m in a creative situation like that so it was really the sum of its parts. You know, a lot of people really liked it so it is hard for me to put it down and we all worked really hard on it and toured for it a whole lot. It was frustrating because we spent a couple of years promoting it and didn’t get much from the label for it. The labels weren’t quite at the point they are now, but they still didn’t want to give the artists much of anything. They didn’t mind spending money on promotion and you were supposed to be happy that you were getting that but you still need to make a living. But then the Susanna thing came along and a couple of movie things so it makes me able to be a truly independent artist in terms of making my albums without having a cloud hanging over me from any label.

So what do you have lined up at the moment? Another album with Susanna?
Yeah – we’re deep into one and she’s coming over today and we’re going to take stock of where we’re at. We’ve recorded over 40 songs for a ’70s cover versions record. We did a whole bunch last year when I was still working on my record and so the label wants that by the end of the year to put out sometime next spring. I’m hoping we’ll make that deadline because I also have to tour through November. So that’s the next thing with a deadline and in the meantime we’ve been working on a solo record for Susanna of original stuff with an acoustic feel using interesting instruments like dulcimers. It’s the way that a lot of people have dreamed of hearing her voice in a really acoustic setting. The plan is to get that finished by the end of next year. And I want to make another record too because this one started out well enough that I’m dreaming that I can so another one on the heels of this and the Susie record. It looks like there is plenty to do and that makes me feel better after such a crazy time.

Maybe you could do a Son of Sunshine Lies...
Son of Sunshine Lies? I like that. You know, we almost made a live album with a DVD and a record back in the early 2000s – we made a deal with a DVD company but it just never happened for some reason or another. It would be cool to do something like that and Shout Factory might be up for doing it. I mean, they did a vinyl package for Sunshine Lies that is pretty cool and comes with a CD too.

Anything in the pipeline with Velvet Crush?
I love Velvet Crush too and I’ve been getting asked about it a lot because both Paul [Chastain] and Ric [Menck] are in my band currently. Paul is actually over in Japan – his wife is Japanese and they got married last fall in Illinois and are doing their Japanese wedding just now. So I just know that this would be the perfect time for him to make a crazy great Velvet Crush record and so I’m just trying to get them both to say that they’ll do it. Get Paul to promise to write songs and get Ric to promise to be enthusiastic and not be a curmudgeon, so we’re working on that one right now.