The Weeping Elvis Interview: Matthew Sweet

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Matthew Sweet’s prolific career has spanned three decades and his critically acclaimed solo work has been supplemented by collaborations with R.E.M.‘s Michael Stipe, The Bangles’ Susanna Hoff and many others.  He is perhaps best known for his landmark 1991 power pop album, Girlfriend, as well as for celebrated albums like 100% Fun and Altered Beast, amongst many others. On the eve of the second leg of a tour that marks 20 years since Girlfriend‘s release, we spoke with him about the spirit of 1991, an upcoming 80s cover album with Susanna Hoffs, changes in the music business, and those hard-partying staffers in the Clinton White House.


Weeping Elvis:  In 1991, SPIN Magazine picked Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque as their album of the year in a ridiculously good year for music that unquestionably shifted the pop landscape.Girlfriend took a little longer to build momentum, but would many would put it on that list in retrospect.  Do you have any particular favorites from that year and how much attention do artists like yourself pay to those sorts of arbitrary lists?

Matthew Sweet: Haha, you know, I can’t say I pay much attention to those things – especially then, I was just so busy – and you know SPIN was never really that into me. Even later on, I think I did a few things for them, but for some reason SPIN was never on board. I say that and I probably could go back and refresh my memory, but as I remember it, that magazine was maybe a little snottier than the others at the time. But, if they picked Teenage Fanclub, then that’s awesome. So no, I didn’t really pay too much attention to that kind of thing but it’s nice that there are people who remember and care aboutGirlfriend still and that makes it fun for us to tour with it.

WE: U2’s Achtung Baby and Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory didn’t make their initial cut either, so it’s clearly not worth worrying about too much!

MS: Ha, thanks!  What I really remember being dominant at the time was Nirvana’s Nevermind, that came out right around then, right? I was traveling a lot, playing radio stations as we were in the car and I just remember that I heard a lot of Nirvana, and occasionally myself (chuckles).

WE: Is there anything else you recall listening to at the time that connected with you?

MS: R.E.M…that was on a ton, of course. Wow, that’s a strange time, you know, when Girlfriend was taking off. I’d made records before but I’d never really had a successful record, so, it was kind of overwhelming. Now that I’m talking about it, I knew what was happening because I would do interviews and they would say, “Wow, your record is really taking off,” and I would say “I guess my record actuallyis taking off.” It was a kind overwhelming time for me.  I don’t think I listened to a lot of music, although on an acoustic I covered a Nirvana song once, so there are those things.  The Pixies…I remember liking a couple of their records around then. What was really different about that time is that there was now a radio format that was commercial that would play this stuff. Up until a few years prior, the college charts were the place where you’d find any of these groups or groups like them. And then the college charts started to cross over into mainstream radio for a lot of acts.

WE: And that was now 20 years ago. So how do you, particularly as an artist whose songs are so emotive, keep creating something fresh and vibrant on stage when you’ve been playing a particular song for years? Is keeping in touch with feelings from a specific time and place realistic or do you have to tap into something else to approximate that emotional space?

MS: Well, yeah, totally it is [an issue].  The songs were personal then and they still feel kind of the same to me.  I was the one who decided that I should do something for the 20th anniversary, maybe that we should play the whole album. And then once we were learning it I asked myself “What was I thinking?” because I had to really go back into it and get into the songs and there are things that I hadn’t learned before. What I found was that once I went back and learned them again and got through a few shows, it felt really normal. It doesn’t feel like the songs were from a long time ago, but they don’t feel like songs I would write now, necessarily. I think that’s just a benefit to an album that had real “me and you” kind of feelings.

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WE: The “album as concert” motif has gained popularity in recent years with bands like yours, The Lemonheads and The Wedding Present, amongst others.  Your decision to put together a tour playingGirlfriend in its entirety was initially related to the 20th anniversary of the album’s release, correct?

MS: Yeah, I knew that people had done it before, mostly older groups. I knew that Cheap Trick had done this on an album.  It’s funny, because I’ve heard this a lot on interviews, and I guess I wasn’t really that aware of it. It doesn’t really surprise me, because there were a lot of good albums and in a weird way it was sort of the last great era of albums.

WE: The set lists I’ve seen from last fall indicate that you’re playing the album chronologically?

MS: Yes, that’s right, we play it from start to finish, straight-off. So it’s almost like what we used to do as encores…“Divine Intervention,” “I’ve Been Waiting” and “Girlfriend.” It works really well, and I think it’s fun for people to hear some of those songs they haven’t heard in a long time. It’s sort of long, you know, the songs…so it dominates what we play. We play a handful more songs, at least one off of Modern Art, but Girlfriend just takes a lot out of me.

WE:  It’s 60 minutes long on the record.

MS:  It’s so long; I remember that it was long at the time, but when I’ve gone back and I’ve learned about how long records used to be, it was still really long (laughs).

WE: That must make sense to the audience’s ears; I mentally expect to hear “I’ve Been Waiting” after “Divine Intervention.”

MS: Sure, to me if you’re going to do a whole album it has to be that way or it wouldn’t be the same, I think.

WE: Is there anything in particular you remember about why the tracks on Girlfriend were ordered the way they were?

MS: No, that’s always a thing you just do by feel. Somehow, everything just felt right. When we play through it now, it seems pretty natural how everything flows. There’s no moment where I’m thinking, “Wow, why did I put this song here?”  But that’s just kind of an instinct. With any album you have a feeling about how you’d like it to go, and I’ve been lucky in that I don’t think anyone has ever really argued that with me. Especially back then when they might have done that….when (labels] had that power.

WEGirlfriend was inspired by actual events in your life. Did that intersection of life and art ever prompt conversations with those referenced by your lyrics?

MS: One of the things is that the lore of the album has kind of made as if every song was super autobiographical, and that’s not exactly true. But no, it’s funny you ask that because other than my wife, Lisa, who I wrote “I’ve Been Waiting” for, I guess I never really have talked with my ex-wife about it. I saw her in that time, once the record kind of took off, but I don’t think we ever really had a conversation [about it].

WE: It seems that a lot of history’s best art has emerged from painful places. Do you think it’s possible to write great songs when you’re content/happy?

MS: Well, I think it is a possibility. But it’s funny, Brian Wilson just popped into my head because I wanted to say, “He has positive stuff that’s really great,” but the undertow is really strong with him. So I guess I would say that it must be possible, but for me, if it were more melancholy or sad it always felt more important, whereas the throwaway rockers felt a little less  important even though those things are singles or what’s remembered. But I think it’s probably possible for someone to write good songs in all kinds of states. But, I do like that more melancholy, reflective-ness stuff.

WE: There’s a sort of dynamism inherent in turmoil, perhaps.

MS: I agree.

WE: Has something been lost in the iPod era, where albums have seemingly lost their primacy to the single? One doesn’t experience music the same way. It almost makes this tour seem more relevant to me because it’s a sort of document of the way things were.

MS: Yeah. The thing now is that by necessity, that having the Internet leaves things wide open. An album doesn’t have the importance it had then, because that was one of our lifelines to the world as teenagers. Teenagers now have so much more that they can get from the Internet. Music is just a part of it for them and their friends. We used to get an album, go into our room, and it was our escape from our parents, our escape from the world, from school. But I was always into technology, without the Walkman I don’t know how I would have done it because I would have had to play something out loud, which I would have been nervous to do, but I could have someone listen to it on my Walkman. When they first invented the DAT machine, it was so exciting because you could mix down a demo and it would stay the same, instead of getting out of sorts. And that was an amazing thing. As we madeGirlfriend, it was actually assembled in a brand new program at the time, Pro Tools, which became the way everyone in the world makes records. Although at that time it only had one stereo sync you could record with. So, we used it to turn pieces backwards and stuff like that.

To expect someone now to give that much of what they care about to music is just not fair.  Something like 85% fewer records sell now.  So, even what’s huge now is 15% of what huge used to be.  It’s just different.  You’d think it would make everything bigger as the world opens up, but instead everything is more specialized.  In a way it’s great for older artists like us because we can find fans and they can find us now.  They wouldn’t know what was going on when we came to town 25 years ago.

WE: Beyond Girlfriend, is there a particular album (or song) that you’re proud of, or is it hard to distance yourself from your own songwriting?

MS: It’s pretty hard, and I just don’t look back that much because I’m a “look forward” type of person. When I get done with a record I don’t really go back and listen to it…unless I just have to because I’m somewhere that’s playing it. But then again, I really like “Sick of Myself” because it’s such an unusual topic to have made it as a single, talking about self-doubt, so I’m proud that it was a radio hit.  It kind of proved for me the notion that something could have depth and still be a single. All my albums, on all of them there are things I remember really liking, at the time I made them I did the best I can – whatever that means – and hoped for the best.

WE: You’ve covered some pretty amazing songs in your career, solo and with others…any favorites that might make an appearance on this tour?

MS: No, we probably won’t be doing any covers. I never really was a huge covers person but then Susanna and I wanted to make a record together and Shout! Factory said, “Please do a covers record,” so that kind of got us into it and we did one and it became another one and now we’re actually doing an 80s record. It’s interesting because it’s the first one where there’s actually some stuff from when I was a teenager, stuff that I knew at THAT time.

WE: Songs that were on your Walkman?

MS: Possibly, yeah, although I tended to use the Walkman for stuff of my own and I would use the car stereo and home stereo for other stuff. On the upcoming record, there are songs from indie groups, The dBs, The Bongos (who I was a big fan of), R.E.M., (who were friends of mine right after I got out of high school), and XTC, England…you get the idea. It’s interesting for me to go learn the stuff and understanding what they really sounded like, how they put it together, how the drumming was…all those things.  Learning what made that song stand out like it did. We’re still working on it; it will probably be out either very late this year or early next year. We’ll probably be doing some touring on that, I’d imagine.  We did these acoustic tours on the East Coast for the 70s one that went really well.

WE: As one’s career advances, their perspective obviously changes. How has your songwriting changed over the years as you accumulated experience and shifted between places like Nebraska, Athens, New York City and Los Angeles?

MS: Well, at the time I always felt like it didn’t matter where I was. Way more important for me was what’s inside myself.  It’s funny, I was doing an interview with somebody who lives in Princeton, where I was when I did Girlfriend. It was interesting to talk to him and relive those memories, things like riding my bike in the forest areas there. I did have a bit of that “you can never go back” feeling when I was talking about it.

Anyplace I’ve lived has been great because of the people I’ve met there, and everywhere has its own things to offer. It was awesome when I lived in Athens; it was somewhere I’d never been, in the Deep South and experiencing that whole culture. Athens was really small then and still had a real air of mystery. It’s really grown since then. And then New York City was amazing; it’s like nowhere on earth and it was a very exciting time for me there in the mid 80s.  California…I was lucky enough to be turned on to it by Richard Dashut, who was Fleetwood Mac’s co-producer on Rumours and Tusk. He brought that magic of L.A., and taught me the history of it and everything.  So we moved out here because Zoo Entertainment, my label for Girlfriend, was here. We’ve come to really love living here over the years. Just like everywhere, it’s got its pluses and minuses. I’ve been really happy here; I like being in California, but you never know, we could go somewhere else.

WE: As someone who has been recording for about 30 years, you’ve seen the business change a lot…how have you had to adapt to the changing landscape and how does that change your plans going forward?

MS: It’s difficult, when I think of those that had success in that [Girlfriend] era, there’s no one I can think of from back then that does the big-commercial-thing in the eye of the world. I think about it back then, and I think of when it was 1980…stuff from ten years before was…ancient. In a weird way, due to the Internet, technology has extended our lifespan in a weird way. Even though the commerciality of selling records isn’t there, I think that thing we’ve been talking about, that sort of nostalgia for what an album was then, gives us a strong audience that may be a little bit older but wouldn’t be there if things weren’t the way they now are, or at least wouldn’t be as easy to find if things hadn’t changed. I think that, like you said, the fact that so many people are doing tours on whole albums kind of proves that viewpoint.

WE: That’s great. I know that I’m looking forward to seeing the show in DC.

MS: You know, it’s been a long time since we played the 9:30 Club. We used to play it a lot, even into the 2000s, but on recent tours we’ve been across the river in Arlington at the Birchmere. I guess with our older crowd some of them like to sit down.

We used to have wild shows in DC…DC people are ragers, all those political people! We had friends in the Clinton White House that allowed us to visit there a lot and we always had a great time and have very fond memories of DC. There were these writers for the president that we knew that could just party out of their mind backstage at our shows. They really knew how to have some fun. In general DC has always been great. The original 9:30 Club, way back, was a teeny, teeny club. I would go in there and play one or two shows and it would be crazy because it was so jammed and so small. And then it all kind of blew up with radio and those groups in the 90s…and then the 9:30 Club became big.

WE: One of our Weeping Elvis editors was the Program Manager at WHFS.

MS: WHFS was like NO other station. It was so super great, it was hard to believe. It just played a really wide range of stuff, they would often be first on things, and were always incredibly supportive of me. I once played a huge outdoor stadium show for them, and I remember that it was CRAZY hot out with a crowd that was huge and a million bands playing…and we went out and played “Divine Intervention” and it rained right when we played it and everybody went crazy because it was so hot outside, and they were very happy to see that rain come down. It’s one of our most memorable moments, for sure.

FRI 6/8/12 World Cafe Philadelphia, PA Buy Tickets
SAT 6/9/12 9:30 Club Washington, DC Buy Tickets
MON 6/11/12 City Winery New York City Buy Tickets
TUE 6/12/12 City Winery New York City Buy Tickets
WED 6/13/12 The Boulton Center Bay Shore, NY Buy Tickets
FRI 6/15/12 Two River Theater Red Bank, NJ Buy Tickets
SAT 6/16/12 Infinity Hall Norfolk, CT Buy Tickets
SUN 6/17/12 Iron Horse Northampton, MA Buy Tickets
TUE 6/19/12 Paradise Rock Club Boston, MA Buy Tickets
WED 6/20/12 The Haunt Ithaca, NY Venue Website
FRI 6/22/12 The Egg Albany, NY Buy Tickets
SAT 6/23/12 Tarrytown Music Hall Tarrytown, NY Buy Tickets

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Behrnsie has a love for music that dare not speak its name. He attends many shows and can often be found counting out the beats for no discernible reason. He played alto saxophone in his middle school jazz band, where he was best known for infuriating his instructor when it was revealed that he played everything by ear, and could not in fact read music. He takes great pride that this is the same talent/affliction that got Tori Amos kicked out of the Peabody Academy. He does not live in his parents’ basement….except during the holidays.